Although it has long gone, I used to love Rhyl’s pier, especially in winter. It all depended on the wind, however. If I was off school, I would be desperate for gales. Mere boring breezes, even a Force 6, and I would have to be content with normal pastimes like riding off into the countryside with a friend on our bikes, or going down to the sandhills to play ambush and wrestling.
Watching the boatbuilder, ankle deep in peach coloured pine-pungent shavings, slowly and lovingly crafting a wardrobe or chest of drawers in his corrugated iron hut down by the harbour with its beached old cabin cruiser, smoke curling from its pencil stove-pipe, though I never saw the old man who lived there.
On Friday nights, resplendent in my Sea Scout blue jersey and shorts, and whitetopped sailor hat on the back of my head, I would cycle down to the dusty church hall for our meetings. On Sunday mornings, I would go next door to Fred Knowles, the newsagent, and collect mounds of newspapers for sea-front hotels. But one creak of an inn sign, one strong gust of wind in the face, or a suspected Force 8 blast hurtling down the street from the prom… and away to the pier I would go.
Not that it was much of a pier as piers go, having had its seaward half amputated during the War by an errant coaster. What had survived, however, still thrust its rusting, barnacled legs into the sand, and I would run along the thick planks with an occasional glimpse of foaming breakers through the gaps, past the faded wooden cabins offering silhouettes while you wait, your fortune told, candy floss and ice cream, and, if it was winter, towards the six-foot tall, folding metal gates, padlocked securely in the middle. Not much of a barrier to a fit 14 year old, and over I’d go, and towards the target; the green and white square hut squatting at the end, right on the edge. Up the four wooden steps and knock hard on the door.
“Come on in, laddie.” And there I was, exultant, in the Coastguard hut with Tim Cotter on duty. Heaven!
I had to be alert to the wind speed because the two coastguards kept only a bad-weather watch in the hut. Tim used to drop in for a pint in our pub, the grandly named Imperial Hotel in Bodfor Street. Dad introduced me to him, and, knowing my interest in the sea, it was inevitable that Tim would offer and I would with alacrity accept.
Tim was, to me, pretty ancient, emphasised by his unruly white hair. He was fairly plump, with one of those kind and wise faces that suggest wisdom, knocking around the world and a knack of knowing when to speak and when to listen. He was a native of Howestrand, Kilbrittian, Co Cork and I think his first love had been horses, which he had trained. He then spent 24 years in the Royal Navy, seeing action in the Battle of Jutland. At the end of the last watch I stood with him, he presented me with the Manual of Seamanship 1915, Volume 1. On the inside cover is written in ink: Rhyl CG 18.9.20. I spent hours browsing, and still do from time to time. Do you want to know how to hold up a clean hammock for inspection? It is held by the two corners of one end in front of the body in line with the chin, name uppermost, and towards the inspecting officer. There are beautifully clear diagrams, for example, of the Weston Purchase, how to make a Spanish Fox, a colour cut-away of a 45 ft steam pinnace, Inglefield’s anchor stowed on bed, pictures of ensigns, pennants, how to make a cringle, how to splice a sword mat, No 1 Royal navy canvas, weighing 46 lbs per 39 yards, Lord Kelvin’s sounding machine, a full-page picture of a ship – three-masted, square sails on all, every sail labelled (I learned them… and still remember them), how to coal by the yard and stay method, and (something else Tim taught me before it became part of my compulsory studies), the Rule of the Road, Aids to memory in four verses by Thomas Gray.
Years later, even though I was learning the boringly official prose version, it was these words that often came to mind when I was alone in the wheelhouse:
But when upon your port is seen A steamer’s starboard light of Green, There’s not so much for you to do. For green to port keeps clear of you.
Another verse seems lamentably neglected too often in these electronic, under-manned, worked to exhaustion days:
Both in safety and in doubt Always keep a good look-out; In danger with no room to turn, Ease her – Stop her – go Astern.
First published 1908, revised and reprinted 1915, By authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and all for 3s 6d. Somehow, the copy I had to buy in 1960 was never quite so glamorous.
Built in 1867, the pier once gloried in a ballroom, presumably demolished after, or by, the collision with the wandering coaster. There wasn’t much room in the square coastguard hut, but that made it all the more cosy in the soft light of a dim bulb. Could we see the loom of the Bar Light vessel? I seem to remember it. Hammered and battered by the Irish Sea winds, swept by driven spray, the hut creaked and shuddered. Inside, we kept one eye on the heaving waters and horizon and, warmed by the two bar electric fire on the deck, talked and talked. Tales of his days at sea, naturally, but to me what was a gift for life was the lore, the practical things, facts, knowledge, but also a percolating attitude, something difficult to explain to someone who has not been a seaman. Yes, I was a willing learner, already thinking of going to sea, and therefore soaking it all up.
I felt guilty wanting to experience with him an emergency, distant rockets or flares, an upturned ensign and to watch him take a bearing and then signal the lifeboat station nearby. There had been a lifeboat at Rhyl since 1850 because of “the many disastrous accidents which prevail in the locality, and the dangerous sandbanks lying along the coasts…” (as a guide-book put it).
In the meantime, it didn’t take many visits before I had mastered the Morse code. Tim’s method (and never, I still remember him warning me, try to learn it by opposites, e and t, dot and dash)! Groupings, that was how I grasped it, and little tricks. A u v: dit dah; dit dit dah; dit dit dit dah. And t m o: dah; dah dah; dah dah dah. X – thin in the middle, i.e. dah dit dit dah. And best of all was L: Tim’s voice comes back to me now, a slight tinge of Irish accent, a slow slightly quavery voice but strong – “To ell with you, to ell with you… dit dah dit dit…”
At home, I would practise by sound, using a Morse tapper wired to a battery. Then in the Sea Scout hut behind the Catholic church in Wellington Road, Bill Simpson (whose father also ran a pub and had moved there from Liverpool) gave us sight practice with an advert depicting a fishing smack in a storm and a tiny bulb poking through the wheelhouse window.
It was Bill, the chubby-faced, late 20’s Scout leader, who gave me my first sailing experience. I can’t for the life of me remember why he should choose such a stormy night, but so it was and the two of us on the Marine Lake next to the fairground, near the Foryd (‘Seaford’) Harbour. If it was deliberate, a bit of character-building, well, I enjoyed it, exhilarating yes, and indelible memories of Bill yelling through the wind, “Trim her, blast you, trim her!” as we hurtled through the gloom and fl ying spray, going about just before colliding with the concrete bank.
It wasn’t all nautical, of course. In the Sea Scouts, we of the 8th Rhyl St Mary’s won fi rst prize, a silver cup, in a fi rst aid competition – mainly thanks to Dad. His own father had been active for many years in the St John Ambulance Brigade and Dad had followed in his footsteps, eventually taking charge of the Moreton Brigade. Although he had given it up by the time we went to Rhyl, he volunteered to train the team of four and we won with no difficulty.
Midway between Chester and Bangor by rail, Rhyl came in for rather mixed opinions by the writer of the 1870 ‘Black’s Picturesque Guide to Wales’. He wrote: “The shore is fl at and uninteresting, and the adjacent country, for some miles in every direction, is a dull uninviting level.” However, almost grudgingly, he adds that Rhyl has “acquired the aspect of a cheerful, thriving, fashionable town.” Oh, and “The town is lighted with gas.” Whatever his opinions, I loved the town.
Memories of those far-off days are like quick glimpses of ghostly vessels through the swirling mist, there, half seen, and then swallowed up as though a mere vision. A scout troop all-night trek with rucksacks through Flintshire country lanes, ending with breakfast at a remote pub and back home with leaden eyes and aching leg muscles on a green, Crosville single-decker bus. Camping by a river on farmland, putting the milk bottles in the shallows by some stones before going to bed only to find the river had risen overnight after the rain, carrying off the bottles. In August of 1957, the Jubilee Indaba Camp, or World Jamboree, at Sutton Coldfi eld, with fascinating foreign flags, accents and languages and smoking camp fires among pine trees. A scout-night competition in which we had to go outside our wooden hut behind the church and measure a square yard of grass. There was a prize for whoever found the most creepy-crawlies in the space. We didn’t forget the most important things, though. Morse code and sailing as mentioned; plus clumsy fingers struggling to form knots, though only when I went to sea for a living did I realise you could tie a bowline more quickly than by imagining a rabbit and its burrow.
It is probably no more easy to explain a love of the sea and ships than it is to fathom out why your friend has fallen for the girl he has. Especially when you can’t understand what he sees in her. Or for that matter, what makes anyone suddenly, or gradually, fall in love and just ache and pine to be with that person, to hold hands, to feel her warmth, smell her perfume. But to voluntarily leave a secure home, your family, a level ground, the freedom to go to the pub or walk through a wood or over the hills for a metal box, a prison, with the added danger of being drowned, as a famous writer put it?