I was blessed by a lovely winter morning today. Clear, cold – perfect for a walk to a new coffee shop that had been recommended to me. As I wandered out of my front door into the pretty morning, I turned right and within moments I was on the seafront. I paused for a moment to take stock, and reflect upon how lucky I am to be able to do this; to have such a simple pleasure at the end of my street.
I live on the edge of a small fishing village called Cullercoats. We have a harbour, a marine laboratory, lifeboat station, a decent cafe bar, an excellent independent coffee shop (as I discovered this morning) – and the beauty and wildness of the north sea on our doorstep. There’s a rich history of artists and writers living in the village. It’s tucked between two larger towns (Whitley Bay & Tynemouth). Everyone wants to live in Tynemouth but very few can afford it! Me? I’m happy where I am.
I took a few pictures this morning, I’m not a great photographer but thought I’d share them. I was musing on village life, a sense of belonging as I walked, and I realised that I am truly settled for perhaps the first time in my life. I’ve lived at the coast for 17 years, and in this particular location for 10 years this week. I always thought we’d retire to Whitby but that need is fading, as I become more and more part of the fabric of this eclectic community.
And it is a community. I help organise the book group. There’s a bustling community centre, pocket parks full of children having fun. My neighbours organise concerts at the school across the grass to raise charitable funds for orphans in Bogota. In my street we have the grand dame Joyce at no 1, the heart of the street at 94 years old. We all look in on her, and she is a fascinating lady, whip-sharp and smart. Nearby is our Japanese neighbour who is the most incredible cook and has been known to turn up with glorious food parcels, still fresh from the oven. The community association organises music days, parties and bulb planting on the green and we all sit in our front yards and sing along. We all say good morning, chat, hang over each others walls. And virtually every house has at least 1 dog!
I should clarify, we don’t impose ourselves on one another. We don’t go in and out of each other’s front doors without a clear invite. The place isn’t perfect – the dog wardens need to slap a few more fines on people for fouling, in the summer there are rather entertaining but very loud streams of young people use our front street as a shortcut to beach parties and there are a couple of hardened career alcoholics who like to hide on less visible parts of the seafront – but nowhere is perfect.
To belong means so much to me. As a child my mother walked out on my father when I was 9 years old. An utterly brave decision – and the right one – but she had 2 children and a dog and nowhere to go. We were homeless for a year, reliant on the kindness of friends. For the first few weeks we stayed in the spare box room of a very nice lady, the 3 of us crammed into a small space. Then a relative offered us his ‘spare’ flat for a time (basically his nookie hole) – this was in a very rural location, and we had to beg for lifts to school as we had no money. I was miles away from my friends and completely isolated. We also had to be out of the flat all day on a Friday, as it turned out this was where he was entertaining his other woman…!
Eventually the council offered my mum a 3 bedroom house on an estate that had previously been tithed railway worker houses (we lived in a former mining community – housing was built for the miners, and the railway staff who supported them). The estate was rough and ready – but the housing was good stock, the folk solid working class families (many still mining families) and very friendly and I made some great friends there. There were fields all around us, we could climb trees and build dens and in many respects it was a great place to grow up. One morning we woke up to find the road outside full of cows who’d escaped from a nearby farm and who were rather unfortunately peering in the butcher’s window! Our house was solid, honey coloured stone, part of a terrace. I loved it – and the ghosts! – but as I got older I felt confined by living in such a small village. I also think it’s the sea and not the country that sings in my soul, so I grabbed the first opportunity to move to the coast in my 20s. However, my family remain there and so I visit regularly.
Of the few close friends I made, we all chose to leave. Our school peers tended to stay. We are all frequently asked why we left. I can say with all honesty, I have the sea at my feet and the sense of open space, a community not crowded on top of one another and mired in the arguments of generations past. I love the salt in my hair, though I am not so keen on the strong winds that bring it!
The first story I ever had published was set here. I’d wander up what remains of the original fishermen’s cottages on Simpson Street and imagine life behind their whitewashed walls. From this came Charybdis, a story about a boy, grief and a sea monster. I love this street, and would love to retire to one of these cottages – they rarely come up for sale though.
I belong. It’s as simple as that. I want to stay here, I want my bones to be left in the churchyard that stands at the head of the sea, lit at night by the searching beam of the lighthouse. This is my place. This is my home. I never thought I could develop roots as deep as this, and I feel very blessed that I drifted here, almost by accident, all those years ago.