Having spent three days inspecting tidal movement in the Solway Firth, from Maryport to Kirkcudbright, I had taken myself off to the west side of Fleet Bay for a much needed rest.
At the other end of the beach to my van was a small encampment huddled against a small scrubby headland against the worst of the prevailing wind. There was an elderly coach built camper and a caravan cornering off an inner space where an orange Vango Force Ten tent (it looked like a mark 1) had been pitched alongside a cooking tent. There were five inhabitants: an elderly patriarch in a flat cap and a luxuriant white beard, his son and his partner and her sister and hers. The second generation seemed in their late 50s / early 60s.
What caught my eye, as someone with a more than passing interest in fires, and beach fires in particular, was the almost constant smoke drifting from two small fires just outside of their encampment. There was always at least a couple of people standing round the fires, mugs in hand, or chopping wood to feed them. Every so often they would lift a tall thin kettle from one of the fires and carefully pour the contents into another container or a thermos. Every hour or so one of them would pull a large cylindrical water carrier from the encampment along the beach and up the short track to the tap and return with a full load. At low tide two pairs would fan out from the beach, working the foreshore and headlands for wood, which they brought back in sacks. It was noticeable that whatever activity was going on there was always at least one person on fire duty – like the guardian of the tribal flame before our ancestors stumbled on making fire ourselves. The only time the fires were left unattended during the day was in the event of a deluge – which, it must be admitted was not infrequent.
I think I can claim to have as good a grasp as any of the logistics of beach fires whether for cooking on, heating an oven, defending against the sea – or just sitting round to enjoy – but I could not make sense of all this activity. I had to acknowledge it was well organised and everyone seemed motivated to do it – but what were they doing?
Eventually I contrived a conversation with the older guy on the pretext of praising the beach and the location.
‘Not been here before?’ he asked
‘Yes, but a few years back’
‘Aye it’s a grand place and,’ getting straight to the point of my interest, ‘you can have fires.’
‘I was wondering about your fires’
‘And there’s plenty of wood around … which is just as well seeing that you have to boil all the water.’
It’s true, there was a notice by the tap marked ‘drinking water’ advising that ALL WATER MUST BE BOILED.
He took me over to the fires – one was an over the counter kettle and fire basket arrangement, but the other was bespoke and truly industrial in comparison.
‘I cut the cylinder from an old campervan water boiler, it’s wedged in the rock cleft with a couple of inches clearance underneath. Then I build and maintain the fire in the bottom of the cylinder and the kettle sits on these two cross pieces just above the fire.’ He indicated two metal rods that dissected the cylinder about half way up which could be withdrawn through holes cut in the sides when the fire needed feeding. ‘Helps to concentrate all the heat beneath the kettle, means less wood and less work!’
With smoke billowing around him he put his large mug of tea down and pulled the kettle from the depths of the cylinder, it was completely blackened and water was bubbling at the spout.
‘This one’s ready’
He carefully took hold of a cork ball attached by a chain to the bottom of the kettle and tipped the contents into a thermos flask positioned on the chopping block. Putting the kettle temporarily back in the cylinder which precipitated a lot of hissing and a cloud of steam, he then twisted the stopper close on the flask before retrieving the kettle and pouring the remaining water into a large pan – ‘To cool.’
At this point mugs of steaming tea were brought out from the encampment and one was thrust into my hand.
‘You’ll have some tea’ one of the women was smiling at me – it was a statement of fact, not a question. The tea did have milk in it but it was dark and so, so strong. I set about reducing the level in the mug in a determined manner, I did not want to offend. The conversation stopped for a bit, it seemed that tea was too important for small talk, which I was grateful for. I was impressed with the technology and the activity – and had always seen the point of pointless fires on beaches – but the scale of the commitment seemed staggering.
‘But why are you boiling so much water?’
‘You have to boil all of it, it says so on the notice’
I felt a momentary panic rise within in me as I glimpsed a world of lunacy that my own experience of beach fires would not get near. Could they have misread that notice? Could they be interpreting it literally? Did they think they had to boil all the water out of the tap? Would they next be asking me how much I was contributing to this task?
‘What do you do with it all?’ I asked, wondering how to extricate myself from the conversation – and their world!
‘Well there are five of us and what with all the cooking and the washing up……’ he tailed off when he saw my continued look of incomprehension and added ‘and there’s all the tea.’
‘Well you see we all drink a lot of tea, there’s always tea on the go here.’
‘You drink a lot of tea’ I repeated somewhat inanely.
He grinned, ‘Yes tea – it’s thirsty work collecting all the wood then chopping it up and feeding to the fires. We’re on the go all the time, I’m not sure we’d manage it without a constant supply of tea’.