Caught by the River

Bardsey: Island Days

23rd June 2014

IMG_1937Photo: Ben Porter

By Jon Gower:

Dawn comes as a sliver of light, illuminating the horizon line, which switches from charcoal to quicksilver in a few minutes. The island slowly offers up the colours of its tapestry ā€“ sulphur threads of gorse, the crinkled rust of old bracken and pewter grey of ancient rock. The patterning fields are small, an acre apiece and while some are separated by stone walls, some are defined by willow groves, or withies, a carry-over from the days when fishermen grew willows to weave into lobster creels. Nowadays the withies offer welcome refuge for migrating birds. If there’s been a “fall” of birds the withies can spring alive with a range of species, mainly passerines, eager for insects at this unexpected pit stop on their testing journeys.

The lighthouse sparkles as the day unfurls. The poet Christine Evans, who lives on the island in the summer months, once stood inside the louvered panels of the pentagon-shaped lens in the lantern. From the outside it’s a clumsy apparatus, like an old fashioned diver’s helmet, with glass as cloudy as wax because of its thickness. Inside it Evans meditated on its shapes and curves, watching the reflected “world turn slowly in a kaleidoscope of blue and silver, grey green or rusty bracken red” and looking through windows where “ghostly prisms turn and wheel and the sun is stretched into points like a Christmas tree star…”

In technical speak the lenses on Bardsey are refracting or dioptric lenses. The terms derive from the great leap forward in lighthouse illumination and design which came in 1822, courtesy of a French polymath called Augustin Fresnel, who set a bull’s eye lens within concentric or dioptric rings of prismatic glass, each ring projecting a little beyond the previous one, which therefore refracted or bent the light into a single horizontal beam. They were complicated to build and expensive too, but there was enough of a market for Chance Brothers of Smethwick to set up a full-time lighthouse optical department at their glassworks. Commercially, they saw the light.

By day lighthouse lenses can be as dangerous as they are at night, as the prisms have to be covered up to stop them working in reverse, concentrating the sun’s rays and energy very much as a child might use a burning glass to set a piece of paper on fire, with the possibility of the bally lot, the entire lighthouse going up in flames. Keepers used to have to draw a curtain round the lantern at first light. Nowadays the answer is never to switch it off.

So, even in the morning the Bardsey light still winks, pitifully, outgunned by the sun. By day it is innocuous, a frail light source, the Cyclops eye rendered into so much fine engineering on a seaside-rock-coloured pedestal.

Standing on one of the island’s low west cliffs the wind is picking up and it’s one of the most dependable if changeable elements of island life. It can churn the waves, strip slates off the the houses: at times it can whip and flense the skin. Out at sea white cowlick waves are multiplying, becoming animated fields of cotton grass or whipping up into a foam.

It’s always tempting to try to guess quite where a wind such as this would sit on the Beaufort scale, the graded system for measuring wind speed. It starts at zero, when the sea is calm and glassy but builds in increments through calm and rippley, to the first appearance of wavelets thence to slight waves, then moderate ones, then churning rough water building up eventually to the phenomenal ones attendant on a hurricane, the ones that would toss me to Nefyn or beyond. I guess this is a force six, a strong breeze, though the force of the wind and the appearance of the waves don’t always tally, one being a delayed reaction to the other. This sixer is certainly strong enough to slow down kittiwakes, those dainty gulls, as they fly in curves around the island. Their flight is flickery, yet determined, their wing colours sharpened by shafts of sunlight that laser down from breaks in the cumulus cover.

The sea is changing quickly now, from what was a pewter mirror through churning green to witches’ hats in the time it takes for a seal to yawn.

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