I grew up in Newquay, a better-days seaside town on the north coast of Cornwall, with arcades and skateboarders and bright beach huts in rows. Miles of vast beaches, a resident seal, a Bronze Age chieftain under the Barrowfields, and the finest surfing in Europe.
Children call out from rockpools with news of cuttlefish, gobis, dogfish, holding up a black uterine mermaid’s purse, or the skeleton shield of a crab. It’s a place of surging dark seas, an ocean that roars You are Nothing, I am All. Pasty-fat seagulls snatch up kittens and ducklings and let them drop from the sky.
Coach trip pensioners jostle with stag parties, Aussies, nocturnal beach fire-poi ravers, dreadlocked backpackers and seasoned old lobster men. Sunburnt families trip on neon fishing nets and spades. Students celebrating the end of their exams will say to me years later ‘You come from Newquay? That’s where I did my first pill / got my first tattoo / got drunk for the first time / had my first one night stand…’
From the restaurants along the clifftop, that have had to be scaffolded into the crumbling edge, there’s the chance to spot dolphins leaping at sunset, looming shadows of basking sharks, seals nagging surfboards. Now and again, a giant wave called the Cribbar surges up, by the spot at Little Fistral where the tourists rarely go, a Poseidon’s gift of a wave that makes surfers everywhere wish they could take it on, but few rarely do, and everyone gathers to watch.
There’s the white hut on the cliff where bearded huers once cried ‘Hevva!’, and the whole town would descend in droves for the pilchard catch, bright boats and gnarled net hands shepherding the flippering silver shoals to the bustling quay.
There’s the gothic spired outline of the Headland Hotel where they filmed Road Dahl’s Witches right out on the cliffs, and the curious island in the middle of the beach with the big house nestled in tall trees on the top, where Conan Doyle would visit, and where the inventor of the spark plug resided, and an insomniac organist would play all night.
Once a year, great purple jellyfish litter the shore and the boys all jump on them to make them splat. We’d go whining into the sea on our Nipper boards, tucking all our limbs onto the safety of the board and refusing to paddle out through the jellified shallows. Children in Newquay learn early you pee in your wetsuit to keep you warm. Tie carrier bags around your ankles to wrangle the clinging neoprene off.
I moved to Newquay as a young child. It was much more ‘Cornish’ then. Our elderly neighbour called us “foreigners” although we’d only moved from Northamptonshire. Incomers were called emmets or grockles and there was certainly a stigma attached. In the past, we’d have been called ‘blow-ins’, arriving and leaving with the wind.
I remember most the smell of the town, the air of fish and sand and rope and dead crab. Falling asleep each night to the dusk echo roars of Major, the zoo's lion down the road, who later died from a lion version of mad cow disease.
I began collecting shells with holes in. They fascinate me more than anything else. Later, with a friend, we slot them onto a metal necklace ring, and we have one each like a shoreline friendship bracelet. And one of my dearest objects was created.
Later I'll learn that seashells were the symbol for Aphrodite and wearing shells around your neck is a way to invite new love. Shells were worn by pilgrims, particularly scallop shells, as they undertook great journeys. But I'll learn, more potently, that shells are a witch's token for protection. Necklaces made of shells were worn by children to keep them close to home and safe from harm.
That's what this necklace is to me: childhood, comfort and home. I have taken it everywhere with me and worn it for over 20 years. I have added to it constantly; as shells crumble and fall off, new ones are always added, from beaches in Sussex, Cornwall, Europe, Africa. I am always looking for those elusive little bits of magic on every beach I walk on. Every shell is a story.