A taste of freedom

It was Hannah’s Instagram story that finally lured me to the ocean.

She’d snapped a contented seal, bobbing in turquoise waters, just off of the Torquay coast. My mind immediately drifted to the shelf of seal memorabilia I had as a child; a collection of cuddly toys and cheap knick-knacks. I have observed seals multiple times in captivity, but never truly wild and free. I pondered how odd it would be to see one living so freely, whilst the country lived in the relative captivity of lockdown.

We drove to a small car-park at Ansteys Cove, where the ocean is reached by descending on foot to the bottom of a steep hill. Knowing that my two children, aged six and nine, would immediately find a way to get wet, I suggested that first we take a walk along a short stretch of the South West Coast Path. We set off along a narrow path, snaking through woodland, glimpsing the ocean through trees on our left, whilst to our right was a wall of limestone cliff.

Shortly after setting off we found a set of steps cut into the muddy slope, heading down towards the ocean. Carefully we picked our way down as far as we could go, before the ground fell away too sharply to follow. The trees cleared so our view was unobstructed and for a moment my family stood in silence, appreciating the almost Mediterranean like scene on the unseasonably warm day. A lone cormorant perched on a rock out to sea, stretching its inky black wings to dry, but alas no seals were to be found.

After climbing back towards the path and continuing our journey along the coast, we stopped at a small wooden bench to graze on the picnic I’d rushed to pack that morning. How marvellous it felt to sit high above the ocean, warmed by the sunshine, listening to the voices of the paddle boarders drifting up from below, whilst enjoying a soft local Sharpham cheese. Gazing out towards the horizon, my view was a palette of blues, the sky meeting the ocean, the ocean meeting the sky, stretching towards infinity. It was this view that I had craved and that had been denied during lockdown; beautifully uncluttered, simple and quiet.

Eventually we made our way towards Ansteys Cove car-park, looping back via a small playing field. After a brief visit to the Cove, its natural beauty scarred by concrete and the twisted metal remnants of development, we set off for home. I found, however, that the small taste of freedom had triggered a mild defiance and fear of returning to captivity; it wasn’t long before we stopped again, this time hopping out onto Meadfoot Beach.

My daughter kicked off her shoes, gasping in delight at the feel of the cool sand between her toes. Other children paddled in their underwear, or with trousers rolled to their knees. My son set about using the sea wall as a climbing feature, inspired by a documentary following the free-climber Alex Honnold. A woman of Grandmotherly age stopped and commented how nice it was to see ‘boys being boys’. I smiled and nodded, despite the mild sexism. I understood the pleasure of seeing children on the beach that day; wild and happy and free.

I sat on the pebbly sand, my back against the sea wall, with the sun warming my face, imagining a summer filled with experiences like these. Hope was in the air that day, drifting on the breeze, a taste of the times to come. I ran my hands through the sand, searching for small smooth nuggets of colourful sea glass, interesting shells and fossil imprinted pebbles. When I got home, I put them into a glass jar, a memento to remind me of the day that frustration and bitterness evaporated and was replaced by optimism and promise. Perhaps one day I will release them back into the wild, where they’ll once again tumble freely under the ocean tide.

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