The Sylnmouth Sentinel by Moselle Gilbry

I always feel that Sylnmouth gets overlooked.  It is Farynshire’s third largest city, but it is not as celebrated as Rookpot (which you could be forgiven for thinking is the only city in the county, given all the attention it receives) or the Meyrick’s Riversouth.  Arguably, Sylnmouth is more important than either Rookpot or Riversouth.  OK, I am probably the only one who argues this, but hear me out.

Sylnmouth is Farynshire’s biggest harbour, only cruise ship terminal, and crucially, its only commercial port.  It keeps the county fed and supplied, because it is the only way to get large quantities of anything in, as no lorry is going to make it over the mountains’ narrow, slippery tracks.  I suspect this is why Sylnmouth is overlooked: it is too mundane and practical.  It does not have the turbulent history of Rookpot, so entwined with the history of the whole county, nor the mystery and aloofness of Riversouth.

Not that Sylnmouth is boring.  I wouldn’t want you to think that.

It has its own fascinating local history, packed with smuggling, pirates, and tales of extraordinary adventure on its wild seas.

I could pick out many areas of interest in Sylnmouth and write about them for the My Farynshire series – the quayside with the packed fish market; the marina with its new apartments, roof gardens, sailing ships and swans; the walks around the harbour walls; Freebooter’s Cave, the best seafood restaurant on the Farynshire coast, most of which is still housed in the two hundred and fifty year old pirates’ inn.  These are all places you should visit.  But I have been allocated a limited word count, and I have used quite a lot of them to get to this point!

So the rest of my words will be used on what I think is the most special place in Sylnmouth: its lighthouse, known as the Sylnmouth Sentinel.

It is said that the vessels safely moored behind the harbour walls have crossed a graveyard of the many (possibly hundreds) that did not make it.  These wrecks are old, and mostly pre-date the building of the Sentinel in 1820.

Outside the harbour walls is Craw Island: a pile of wind-beaten, salt-soaked rocks covered in slimy bladder wrack.  Atop its craggy rockpools sits the Sylnmouth Sentry.  A grey-bricked tower with a red domed roof and a red base. 

There are tours from the west docks at least once a day, but be prepared to wait until the experienced skipper has assessed that the conditions are benign enough so that “we can probably make it”.  Don’t be too discouraged by the size or condition of the small boat – apparently it really has never sunk.  The journey from the docks to Craw Island is a good way to experience first-hand the terror that many have felt when trying to navigate the perilous waters outside the harbour.

If you make it in one piece, you will be left alone to wander up the only path on Craw Island: from the tiny jetty up to the front door of the Sentinel.

The door to the Sentinel is a made of weathered black oak taken (rumour has it) from one of Nelson’s warships[1] and embedded with rusted iron studs.  When you push it open you are in the entrance room at the base of the tower.  Ropes hang from hooks on the wall.  Fresh water was once stored in the tanks under the floor.  At the opposite end from the door is the first of two hundred and twenty steps.  These wind up and around the winch mechanism, and by the time you get to the store room you are definitely dizzy, and probably nauseous.

The Sentinel’s keepers are volunteers from Sylnmouth, and their duties these days revolve around preserving the heritage of the site more than saving lives.[2]  There’s not much in the store room, but in the kitchen and living room above it, you get a good sense of what life was like for the keepers who resided here two hundred years ago.  It is, as you would expect, pretty basic.  Along one wall is a sink, under a tank for freshwater (pumped up from the basement), a dresser with chipped plates and cups, and a supply cupboard, that contains old tins of meat, flour and biscuits[3]. The skinny lockers stand against the wall, hardly beg enough to contain a coat and a pair of boots.  The rickety table and chairs are placed close to the kitchen range, a comfort in the cold winters.  It’s all very sparse and functional.

Proceeding up the final stairs, you come to the bedroom, which has three bunks and a bookcase.  On the bookcase are the things the keepers used to alleviate their boredom.  There are weather journals here, barometers and an old thermometer.  Old examples of the radios that lived here over the years are still working: an old crystal radio, and the more recent wireless versions.  There are also piles of ancient yellow newspapers and dog-eared novels.  On the bottom shelf are puzzles, playing cards, board games and painting materials.  These may have been donated by the local museum, but I like to think that they once belonged to the original keepers.  Around the walls of the bedroom is a permanent exhibition showing off the artwork of keepers over the decades.  There are a lot of spectacular sunsets and sunrises, tame gulls, sunbathing seals, and many many boats.  There are also a few watercolours and sketches of seafolk, which at least demonstrates a healthy imagination, no doubt a result of the long periods of isolation.   

Next to the bedroom is the service room where the equipment is kept.  Old cleaning gear, and spare parts for the lamps are kept here, all lovingly polished and pristine.  Next to the service room is a wrought iron spiral stair case leading up to the lantern room.

The magnificent lantern sits (obviously) on top of the Sentinel in a massive cage.  You can walk all the way around it on the gallery deck if a) you are brave enough, b) the wind is not too strong, and c) the seagulls are not too aggressive.  You can see over the whole harbour, and up the steep slopes of Sylnmouth, the terraces of pastel-coloured cottages, and the crooked streets and alleyways.  On the other side is the wild ocean.  It is unlikely you will see any seafolken, but there are plenty of boats swaying and bouncing on the rough seas, relying on the Sentinel to guide them into the safety of the harbour walls. 

[1] What Nelson was doing off the coast of Farynshire has been the subject of much academic debate in Rookpot University, and debate with slightly less academic rigour in the Freebooter’s Cave.

[2] The Farynshire Coastal Volunteers are based in Sylnmouth.  They have stations dotted along the coast from The Maw Cauldron up to Tropsog.  The brave volunteers carry out hundreds of rescues in the wild seas and forbidding shoreline.

[3] Which I assume are empty, otherwise two-hundred-year old meat is a serious biohazard.

Porthmey by Margot Grey

The gentle lapping of the waves on the shingle are hypnotic. The waves roll in before breaking softly on the stones, then the water draws back a foot or so before another wave forms and rolls up the beach, never the same as the preceding one.

The still bay of Porthmey is dotted with boats and dinghies, bobbing on the grey-blue water.  Closer to shore the breaking waves are brown as they roll over the shingle, whilst further out the deep water looks green. 

The Front runs just above the shoreline.  Here are a few gift shops, the old Ferry Hotel with its veranda restaurant, the even older church, seafood restaurants, and a few private houses.  Most of the inhabitants retreat to their scruffier houses in the steep hills during the summer months when tourists descend on Porthmey.  Many of the visitors stay in the Ferry Hotel or the guesthouses in the village, but most stay in Penmey Town, and come over on the regular ferry service.  The one coastal road that leads into Porthmey is often washed out, so the ferry is the most reliable and convenient way to visit the village.

The ferry docks at Porthmey’s small pier, jutting out into the sea in front of the Ferry Hotel.  The small information hut at the end of the pier handles all the ferry and boat tour bookings. 

The most popular tours are, of course, the seafolk sighters, in business for over a hundred years despite not a single seafolken encounter.  This abysmal record has not dampened the enthusiasm of the many optimistic tourists only too eager to pay for a local expert to show them the favourite caves, islands and beaches of the seafolk.  Or search for the (entirely fictitious) nesting shallows.  Or travel beyond the sheltered bay, and dive in the deeper waters hoping for a seafolk experience.

Fortunately there are things to do in Porthmey that do not involve seafolk.  In the summer months, children paddle kayaks around the pier.  Closer to shore are the swimmers, enjoying the summer sunshine.  Small yachts glide gracefully over the waves, skipping around the forested headland and out of sight. 

In the evening people sit out on The Front, under the blossom of trees whose branches have been twisted by fierce winter weather.  Then it is time to wander along the beach between the upturned rowing boats that sit above the highwater mark.  Some of these boats are for hire, and others belong to Porthmey residents who regularly cross the bay to Penmey Town to get any supplies that the local shops do not stock. 

In the winter months there are no tourists.  The calm seas of summer become grey and wild, waves rushing up the shingle onto the Front, storms battering shutters and whistling through empty streets.  The villagers can see the lights of Penmey Town across the channel, but in these months it is too dangerous to try and cross.  Porthmey is cut off and self-sufficient, relying on its resourceful people to get through the cold, dark winter.  Volunteers staff vital services like the local ambulance and lifeboats.  During the day residents gather for Book Club or Coffee and Crochet in the library, or maybe afternoon tea or soup in the church hall.  In the evening the local pub, the Lobster Trap, does good trade, and the ballroom in the Ferryman’s basement is opened up for a Buffet with contributions from anyone who attends.

As soon as the road and sea routes become safe to traverse again, Porthmey goes through a spring clean.  Boats, guest houses and signs are re-painted; flower pots are replanted, and lawns are mowed and tidied; shops are re-stocked; the pier is checked, repaired and re-opened; the gallery puts on a new exhibition.  Soon everything is ready for the new wave of vistors and tourists, and the everyday Porthmey residents retreat back into the hills to wait for next winter.

Market Square by Milford Glower

I feel hugely privileged to be the first to write for the My Farynshire section of this blog. 

I thought long and hard about the place in Farynshire that meant the most to me – there are so many!  Do I choose a natural wonder, a beautiful village, one of our most spiritual places?  In the end I chose Market Square in Rookpot, the place of protest, dissent and rebellion.

The most famous of Rookpot’s Squares is Dameg, surrounded by the Library, the Council Chambers, The Museum and the Cathedral – it is the heart of the city.  EassenBren is its soul, and I like to think of Market Square as the city’s conscience. In many ways it is the opposite of Dameg Square.  You can see immediately see the contrast between the two when you go through St Fulk’s Cut, the high-walled alleyway that connects them.    

The most immediately obvious difference is the graffiti.  Unlike its pristine neighbour, Market Square is covered in graffiti – some of which has been dated to before 1400, and some of which is still wet from last Tuesday.  Market Square is Rookpot’s public forum, the Square of Ideas, and a lot of them are scrawled on its steps and walls.

But most ideas are conveyed via well prepared speeches, or, more often, incoherent shouting. 

Every potential Councillor has to give a few speeches here.  Before live feeds, the Council Clerk stood on the steps and recited the minutes of every full Council Meeting.  I suppose if the wifi ever goes down some poor secretary will have to do this again.  All important announcements are made here. 

But it is not just a place for the Council or for important announcements; in fact, these take up but a fraction of the calendar.  Market Square is the place in the city where anybody can say or preach anything.  It is also the place where, no matter who the speaker is, anyone can argue back.

This sounds like a perfect set up for authorised street fights, I know.  But the authorities treat violence (including throwing anything) in Market Square very seriously.  The offence is Wilful Destruction of Trust of the People, and the minimum sentence is a week in Rookpot Gaol.

There is also a Code of Conduct that must be adhered to:

  • All speakers are prohibited from using loudspeakers, megaphones, or any other public address system
  • Anyone who uses the Speaker’s Square to make speeches does so at his or her own risk
  • Rookpot Council will not be responsible for any prosecution or legal action by the Constabulary or civil proceedings

The Code is engraved on the left gate post as you walk into the Square, so everyone knows the rules even if they rock up on the day.  If you plan your protest in advance, like we did, you receive a copy of the Code via email.

The debates grouped together by classes, and written up in chalk on the blackboard by the entrance.  Our student protest was in the Rookpot class, because it focused on the proposed removal of the portrait of the Digger, Meredith Roke, from the Museum Gallery.  The title of our protest was History Needs to Celebrate and Acknowledge its Thieves, Amateurs and Adventurers.  The idea was to bring the debate surrounding the controversial Digger (which I won’t expound on here; if you want to learn more there are plenty of books in The Lilac Beech and records in the Library about the Rokes and their contributions to the Museum) out of academic circles and to the public’s attention.

This is one of the Square’s main functions: to bring grievances out into the light, and rally support for petitions and causes.  Anyone in authority is always seen as a fair target, and there have been numerous protests against the Council or Peer Families – a servant once spent five days endlessly pontificating against one of the Peers.  Because of these acts of outspoken sedition and dissent, the Square has always been seen as a safe space.  Some have tried to use it as a place of sanctuary, but only those expressing an opinion are safe from arrest – you can’t just pitch a tent in the Square.

The main speakers take turns to make their case by standing on the Speaker’s Spot – a coloured circle in the centre of Market Square.  They address the crowds gathered on the surrounding stone steps that rise above them.  It is a bit intimidating to make your case in front of all those jeering and cheering faces, but maybe that is the point: your views must be robust enough to survive the mob.    

You cannot be arrested in the Square, but anyone breaking sedition or other laws can be arrested as soon as they step back across the threshold.  There have been incidents in the past where Rookpot Costabulary have blocked all exits from the Square, waiting to make arrests when people leave.  This has led to some calling Market Square a freedom cage. 

The authorities have also tried to stop people getting into the Square at all.  The Constabulary have formed a ring to stop people from entering, but this was deemed an illegal act.  One of Rookpot’s Peer Families erected concrete slabs across the entrance, but these were torn down, leaving two stunted remains left in place as testament to how important the Square is.

And then there are those who believe that having a designated area for free speech is offensive – arguing that all of the city should be free.  And whereas everyone might agree that ideally this should be the case, history has proven the value of Market Square.  Its special status has allowed everyone space and opportunity for their voice to be heard.  And this has meant that Market Square has righted wrongs, exposed corruption, held authority to account, and sparked the occasional revolution.

History is everywhere in the Square.  In the graffiti scrawled over every surface, on plaques on the walls commemorating some of the most important and memorable altercations and announcements in the Square, and simply in the knowledge of all that has come before.  You can feel the righteous anger of all the people who have stood on the Spot before you lift your voice so that everyone can hear.

So definitely make your way through St Fulk’s Cut from Dameg Square when you visit Rookpot.  And, whilst you are here, maybe check out the Gallery in the Museum, where the portrait of Meredith Roke, a rascal, a thief, an unscrupulous seller of precious artefacts, the first Digger, still hangs.