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Last Breath of Summer (in Mumbles, Swansea) ~ A Journal

Last updated on October 5, 2020

September 30, 2020. Gower peninsula, south Wales.


It would be an understatement to say that this summer has been an odd one. So little has happened, yet so much has changed.

My work situation has not been the best and I feel somewhat resentful of the fact that I put so many of my eggs into the travel/tourism basket. But my blog has not died, mind you, in fact it’s in better shape than ever, but business isn’t exactly booming.

Still, lockdown life hasn’t been entirely unproductive. The headline story from my littler sphere is that Sarah and I have bought a house. Yes, really, during the pandemic!

It’s a beautiful old property with quite a bit of space, but it sat vacant for at least a year or two and the more time I spend fixing it up, the more I realise needs doing to it. But I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, and at least I have time to play with. Time is money, after all. And a penny saved…

Anyhow, summer seems to have packed her bags today and made her intentions clear. The rain is coming down heavy as hale and the skies are so gloomy you’d think it was night. I knew this change was coming, so last weekend I decided to make the most of the last breaths of summer by cycling to Mumbles.

The last time I had done so was during the outset of the pandemic and I remember feeling nervous. Was I breaking the rules? Would I be arrested for being more than three miles from home?

Mumbles Pier, Swansea - Documentary Photo by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com-13

The rules are no clearer today, I might add, and I’m surely breaking some kind of law every time I step out the door. But this is “the new normal”. Not the lack of direction or leadership, not the lack of clarity, but our collective acceptance of it all.

Swansea is one of the many Welsh cities/towns to be under local lockdown. This afternoon we have a meeting with the kitchen designer in Carmarthenshire and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be arrested en route, as technically we’ll need to leave Swansea to get there. I suppose we can play ignorance if need be. It wouldn’t be difficult act to pull off. And everyone else seems to be doing it, anyway.

I wasn’t as anxious on this particular ride to Mumbles as I was on the last. You get so used to knowing the virus is there and develop a false sense of security that it hasn’t seemed to touch you. But my hands were cold and I sniffled the whole way there, hiding the occasional sneeze as I past other cyclists and buggy-pushing parents.

The sun was out and the skies were blue as I arrived in Mumbles and I watched some local fishermen cast their lines out to sea from the pier. I didn’t see them catch anything. You never do, come to think of it.

Mumbles Pier, Swansea - Documentary Photo by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com-23

The last time I was on Mumbles pier I believe they were still building the new lifeboat house. The original building stands only as a relic today and looks like something from a completely different era. I remember going in there with my father years ago. He was so proud that his name was chalked up on a huge blackboard in there, along with all the other names of local sailors who had come into trouble and been rescued by the coastguard.

It struck me as an odd thing to be so proud of, but I suppose I was somewhat impressed, as I still remember it clearly today, some 25 years later.

My father had a number of boats over the years. Faith was a tiny little sailboat with a navy blue hull. My mum remembers it being parked on their driveway, and they sometimes slept aboard it.

I never went sailing on Faith, but I do remember Saucy Lady very well, the name of which was scrawled up on the blackboard next to my dad’s name in the old lifeboat house. My sister Clare has a memory of Saucy Lady originally being named Salty Lady.

As you are probably aware, they say it’s bad luck to change a boat’s name, but it’s exactly the sort of thing I can imagine my father doing.

He’d do stupid things like that and mistake the attention he got in return for admiration.

Mumbles Pier, Swansea - Documentary Photo by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com-32

Later in life, after my parents divorced, my father replaced Saucy Lady with a much larger boat called Gwenan. I often heard him tell his mates that it is was a 30-footer, but I have a feeling it was closer to 20, or 25 at a push. I spent the majority of my weekends aboard Gwenan, being shouted at and hoisted up the mast on wire-thin cables to fix something or other at the top.

If we weren’t sailing to Langland beach or Pwlldu Bay, we’d be staining the teak decks or hanging around the yacht club for hours at a time. I’d be sat in a corner with a half-pint of orange squash – and as straw if I was lucky – and my father would linger at the bar coercing old cronies (and their wives) into conversations they didn’t really want.

He knew everyone there and seemed to be friends with them all, although looking back I’m not entirely sure that was the case.

On the weekends the yacht club organised races in Swansea Bay. It was a recreational affair and a chance for local boat owners to put their sailing skills to the test. It was supposed to be fun, but my father seemed to think of it more as a chance to prove himself. He’d scream and shout at his crew – which typically consisted of myself and a couple of his best mates – and in the end I distinctly remember asking my mother not to allow me to go racing.

To be fair, he won the majority of the races he partook in, which was in everyone’s interest really, as he was a diabolically sore loser.

On one Saturday afternoon at the yacht club in Mumbles, as I sat alone with my orange squash, I eavesdropped on a conversation my dad was having with a fellow sailor who I recognised from the marina. “How did it feel to be beaten then, David?” he jibed my father in a pseudo-mocking way.

Mumbles Pier, Swansea - Documentary Photo by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com-22

Even to me, a ten-year-old child, it was very clear that he was just joking around. But after a short parley, my father ended up with his gorilla arms around his fellow sailor’s neck, choking him from behind as his knees buckled and dropped to the ground.

I watched on in horror as everyone at the bar came to wrestle my father away from his victim, but he was too strong and was enjoying it all far too much to stop.

It was peculiar in that I felt frightened but also empowered by the experience. I’d never seen anything like it, and the fact that it was my old man made me feel strong and protected.

Needless to say, we left the yacht club before I finished my half-pint of squash. And I’m not sure my father ever lost a race again.

When there was no wind or varnishing to do on the boat, my father would treat me to something of an education in business studies.

One weekend, after paying me £5 pocket money for washing his car – a silver Volvo with black leather seats – we would go to the Pound Shop in town to buy stock. “The goal is to find something that looks like it’s worth a lot more than £1,” he explained.

I picked out and invested my £5 pocket money in five Swiss-army knives, each at £1 a pop. Of course they weren’t Swiss at all, but they looked the part. What’s more, they each came with an additional folding knife, which we carefully cut free from the packaging so that my money had now bought ten decent looking knives.

Back at the yacht club, where glass buoys hung from the ceiling by old rope nets and walrus-whiskered men sat at copper-clad tables sipping from giant tankards, my father graced me with his final lecture of the day.

“See those gentlemen over there? They’re my friends and they like fishing. They’d love a penknife. All you have to do is go over to them and introduce yourself. ‘Do you gentlemen like fishing?’ you’ll ask. And when they say yes, you’ll say, ‘Then today’s your lucky day!’. Show them the big penknife and all the gadgets on it and tell them they can have one for £5. Go on then, off you go!”

I walked across the damp, beer-sodden carpet to the table and peered up at the four giant men, noticing the foam of their beer fizzing away on the tips of their white beards and their hulking yeti hands wrapped around their pints.

Mumbles Pier, Swansea - Documentary Photo by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com-34

They entertained me and my spiel, showing great interest in the penknife, but they couldn’t quite commit to buying. I said thank you and went back to my father, feeling neither perturbed nor dejected.

I was a child with ten knives – I was already winning. But my father had another trick up his sleeve.

“Tell them that if they buy one of your penknives today, you’ll throw in an additional fish knife for free. You flick it open and let them hold it in their hands. You just see what they say!” he said, a grin taking over his face.

Sure enough, the ogres showed a great deal of interest in the appearance of a second knife, holding it up to the light and flicking it open and closed.

The oldest and hairiest of the four men, who wore a blue French beret replete with a small stalk on top, reached into his pocket and pulled out the fattest wallet I had ever seen. He produced a crisp blue and green note and passed it to me, congratulating me on my excellent sales pitch and relieving me of a fake Swiss army knife and a “free” but very blunt folding knife that I had bought for £1 just a few hours prior.

Mumbles Pier, Swansea - Documentary Photo by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com-49

I’d say I was surprised by my success, but the truth is that it seemed like the most natural and normal thing in the world. That was how all people made money, wasn’t it? I turned to walk away when another of the oil-odoured ogres reached for his wallet and presented me with another crispy note, which I took from him with two hands.

I could hear them laughing behind me as I skipped off back to my dad, the carpet squelching underfoot as I went.

Life, it seemed, was so free and easy.

He ruffled my hair and waved at the men, before ushering me outside to properly celebrate our little victory. “You’ve doubled your money, son! And you’ve still got six knives left to sell! This time next year…”

Anyway, I could go on about my father and our money making schemes, but this entry has already rattled along for far too long, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve mentioned anything that I meant to.

What was the point of all this again? Ah yes, that was it – the house.

We’re making progress and hoping to be able to move in before Christmas, but the list of things to do seems never-ending. Worse than that, it seems to expand with each item we tick off. One quick job devolves into ten small but seemingly endless jobs.

For example, it appears that some sort of mutant ivy has taken hold of the apple tree and grown from its limbs into the cracks of the shed roof, on which it has established another destructive root system. I took an electric chainsaw to the roots, but that tripped the electrics in the house. This led me to learn that there must be two fuse boards, one of which I have spent hours looking for to no avail.

So that was one day of my life: aiming to clear the roof of the shed and ending up with a 6-foot pile of freshly-cut ivy branches to clear and a house with lights but no plug sockets.

Like the Golden Gate, by the time you finish sweeping and scraping and lugging and yanking, and get back to where you began, you need to start all over again. Only on the second time round there’s even more to do as you’ve made so much more work for yourself.

Is this what adult life and homeownership is all about? Redoing things you never meant to do in the first place, over and over again, until you die?

Hopefully I’ll have worked this out for myself by the next time I write to you.

Yours most earnestly,

Ben


 

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Categories:Gower Peninsula Travel Journals Wales

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