The Nicholas Stone

The Anchorage site when purchased was full of rock and it took several summers of activity to get it all cleared up. The numerous vast sandstone boulders (shed by a thick layer of this rock that crosses the valley in the garden) were used to hold newly-cut terraces (originally sloping vegetable gardens for the two old cottages). The smaller stones were saved to use as facing stones on the house to be built in the future. However all of the stones were of highly irregular shape and there was not a single one that had a square or rectangular shape which would have made some fine stonework. After a few years, the lack of well shaped stones had become a problem, and there were insufficient number to complete the facing stone job. I had followed the bed west across the valley into the field of a neighbor farmer friend who was delighted when I collected up stones from an area of his field that had been too stony to plough. But the problem remained there were no nice slabby stones for good quality stone work. Today the answer is known – that there are almost none because the rocks are too old and too folded and faulted with so many fractures in them that nice slabs no longer exist.

About this time and after working many years in the Middle East, our contracts were changed so that instead of taking all our annual leave in summer in a two month block, we were able to split it up into smaller pieces used throughout the year. At the time of this story I had flown to the UK for Christmas with my family and given myself a week in Wales to work on The Anchorage plot, where there was always something that needed doing. My sister lived nearby and her son Nicholas sometimes worked with me for pocket money. As Nicholas advanced into his teens he became very interested in survival training, collecting books on the subject and going on field courses by former SAS soldiers. Young men paid to be taken out into the Welsh countryside and left to fend for themselves with no food, money or shelter. They had to live off the land and I don’t think road kill cooking was intended to be a part of it. The trainers would come out from their warm lodgings from time to time on dark rainy nights to see how the trainees were fairing in their knock-up shelters armed with rabbit snares. So Nicholas became keen on tough outdoor training. On my arrival in Wales in December he sent me a message requesting a challenging assignment. This also appealed to me as I am keen on what manpower alone can achieve in the wilderness (including sailing boats without engines).

So one cold winter’s day with the rain pouring down and a south-westerly gale raging, I called at the house of my sister and her husband to collect Nicholas for a days rugged work. I had two jobs targeted for the day. First was a problem tree. In our valley The Anchorage is very sheltered but above it in the flat fields the winds can be very strong. Trees near the top of the valley grow higher than the surrounding flat farmland. One such tree had grown up so his head rose about 25 feet above the valley. That year an early winter gale had snapped off the top 25 feet of it. This length with all its branches was lying on the canopy of other trees about 25 feet off the ground. Our first task on that rain swept day was to removed and cut up this detached tree top. The second task was to complete the search for well shaped blocks of sandstone on the headland opposite owned by my farmer friend. I had collected irregular shaped rocks from within the field and this day would complete the search along the cliff top outside the field. As rock is heavy to carry, we would take our fragile Mirror dingy with us to transport any rocks back to our beach by sea. The plan was to row the dinghy along Sandy Haven creek in the lee of the headland, where it was protected in the lee of the cliffs, and not to venture outside the creek where the sea was violent. We would land the boat and climb the sea cliff and then search along the cliff top for those elusive square or rectangular sandstone blocks.

My sister was rather apprehensive about sending her number one son out into a winter storm with her number one brother. The fear was for that miserable phenomenon of cold horizontal rain. That is rain caught by a Welsh gale so that it travels horizontally. So as she thought to help us to endure the weather, she prepared a large flask of hot brandy coffee for us. We though this a very kind gesture and happily took it along with us. This flask of coffee proved our undoing and led to the events described here as the story of The Nicholas Stone.

The first task was dispatched surprisingly quickly. Two long coils of nylon rope with chunks of wood tied to the ends were thrown over the flat-lying tree top and with a few hard pulls it soon came crashing down. After less than two hours work with two splendid Scandinavian bow saws, a tidy pile of logs was the result.

Next we addressed the second task. We carried the light-weight dingy down to the beach and launched her, to row along under the cliff for shelter. It was quite dramatic in the rain with the creek water brown with mud, the gale roaring overhead in the bare trees, a big winter surf crashing onto the beach on the opposite side of the creek and low grey-black clouds raced overhead. Near the entrance to the creek we landed on a tiny shingle beach with a tiny patch of sand, formed where a gulley rose into the 100 foot high sea cliffs of Old Red Sandstone. We carried the dinghy up onto the small beach above the waves and with our flask of coffee, climbed the gulley through a stream of brown water pouring down it. At the top of the cliff we threaded through trees and Nicholas with his survival training soon found a relatively sheltered spot near the coast path and behind some tall trees.

We sat down in our oilskins to enjoy the coffee and conversation for we were ahead of schedule. The spot had evidently served some coast path walkers before us, for in the thin winter grass we found an empty champagne bottle and two glasses. It was nice to be sheltered from the gusts of wind and we were warm from our exertions. The hot brandy laced coffee went down very well and we enjoyed the conversation. However upon finished the coffee and on rising we were surprised to find ourselves somewhat intoxicated. Nicholas in particular seemed to be the more unstable and appeared to stagger rather than walk. However we set off walking the cliff edge in opposite directions to look for the elusive square stones. Almost immediately I found this superb stone (it proved quite unique as we never found another one like it). We were close to the top of the gulley that we had ascended and I called Nicholas over and we admired the stone. Later study when it was back at The Anchorage showed it to be square and slab like, measuring two feet on the sides and a half foot thick and a volume of about 2 cubic feet. As a cubic foot of rock weighs approximately one hundred weight, the stone weighed around two hundred weight. Because of the strange events of that day which have caused great amusement, I now refer to this rare and hard won block of sandstone as The Nicholas Stone.

I asked Nicholas to carefully roll the stone down the gulley to the boat and to take care not to scratch it as it was to be a facing stone, and then went off in what proved to be an unsuccessful search yielding only a few shapeless stones. I returned with them to the boat via the gulley. On arrival, I was very much impressed to see that the big heavy stone that I had assigned to Nicholas was lying neatly on the tiny patch of sand right alongside the boat without any scratches. As the search had not proved very successful and we were suffering the effects of the brandy coffee, I judged we had done enough for the day. So I went back up the cliff to find Nicholas. He was there and was still staggering about in the same place. He gave me a very big rather silly smile (that I attributed to the coffee) when I said well done you did a fine job with the big rock. We descended to the boat, loaded the rock and returned to The Anchorage.

We next went to my sister’s house where my first words were to ask what on earth had she put in the brandy coffee as we had been much affected by it. She replied that she had never made brandy coffee before and so had put in a whole bottle of brandy. So the mystery was solved. We stripped off our wet cloths that went into the spin dryer, took showers and emerged to find our clothing warm and dry and hot brandy-free coffee awaiting us.

Some years later at a family BBQ gathering in The Anchorage gardens (where that dinghy was put out on the lawn as the bar), I was much amused to hear an adult Nicholas telling his version of our rugged day in the rain. Nicholas is a good story teller and greatly amuses his listeners. His story starts when we arose from drinking the brandy coffee. Nicholas reminds everyone that he was only 14 years old and out to learn from is big Uncle John. He describes the horrible weather and then reports that upon rising he was dismayed to find the world indistinct, he found that he was barely able to see or think and next discovered that his legs were not working properly. The best he could do was stagger about in the rain. Then his large Uncle John had shown him this huge stone and told him to carefully take it down to the dinghy and then he disappeared into the rain. Nicholas was struggling to stay upright, but he tried and started to roll the stone end over end (like a square wheel) down the slope which had to lead to the sea. However after only one or two turns, the slope increased and being barely in control of himself, he soon lost control of the stone. It then run away from him and had gone hurling over the edge of the cliff and disappeared into space.

In a tale often told, Nicolas pauses here then asks his listeners to consider how he felt. He had come out for a days rugged training and to help his Uncle John. Now he found himself staggering about, could not see or walk properly, had lost the stone and was certain it had landed on and smashed the dinghy. He says he was so afraid to report the disaster to his uncle John that he almost lost control of his bowels (he puts it more crudely that causes great merriment). He reports that he had no idea what to do, and being somewhat incapacitated was too afraid to go and look, so he continued to totter about trying to get his legs and vision to work properly. He was astounded, then much relieved and finally delighted when I suddenly reappeared out of the rain with a large smile and congratulated him on a job well done. He decided it was wiser not to mention what had really happened and he said not a word about it. Then he finishes his story about how he had lost control of the big square two hundredweight block of sandstone and had watched it rolling downhill away from him to hurled itself out into space over the cliff edge where it plunged and disappeared somewhere under the cliff. What must have happened was that the stone had landed on a flat face exactly on that tiny patch of sand right alongside the boat with only a few inches to spare and not a scratch on the rock. Being a lightweight plywood dinghy not much would have survived a two hundred weight block landing on it. I think I was lucky too as I arrived back at the boat shortly after it happened.

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