Birds of Firle: Thoughts of Felix by Sophie Pierce

“As I wandered, I thought of Felix. He is rarely out of my thoughts, my 20-year-old son who died in 2017…Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals. Today I felt I was performing one, doing something with my grief. A quiet focus on small, natural things.”

I set off for Cornwall on a most inhospitable day, the latest in an endless stream of them. I could barely see as I drove down the dual carriageway to Plymouth, sheets of rain lashing the windscreen. Birds of Firle was in the inner pocket of my rucksack, placed in a plastic sleeve as I was worried it might get ruined in the rain. I’d taken a quick look at it before I left, flicking through the black images of the birds which appeared to me like Victorian silhouettes. They gave me echoes of mourning, something which the Victorians did in an elaborate fashion.

Down in Portwrinkle, the rain eased but the wind was still very strong, making my eyes water. I walked down into the harbour, which was dry as the tide was going out, and full of sand.  I stood inside it, looking at the walls around me. The harbour was full of great lumpen piles of seaweed and other debris dumped there by the sea. Bedraggled seagull feathers stuck out of the piles. There were old pieces of rope, mermaids’ purses large and small, driftwood and small bits of plastic.

I walked out of the harbour mouth and onto the long curve of grey beach. I was on the hunt for treasure, a feather perhaps, or something else. But it wasn’t about the finding, or even the seeking, it was the about the act of looking, of observing.  Instead of briskly walking as I usually do, I slowed down and started to examine the small things around me. There were ribbons of bright pink seaweed and tiny cowrie shells resting on top of the shingle. In the rockpools, crimson anemones flowered underwater with very slight movement. A patch of snakelocks anemones glowed green, giving me a thrill of excitement.

As I wandered, I thought of Felix. He is rarely out of my thoughts, my 20-year-old son who died in 2017. I thought back to Birds of Firle. A book born out of grief. A small focus on the birds as a way of putting the grief somewhere. I sat down on a rock and looked at the book, slowly this time. The birds seemed so fleeting, so slight, and yet somehow they symbolised something, or maybe nothing at all? Maybe they are the embodiment of a feeling, any feeling you want, whether it be grief, joy or hope.

I picked up a small, smooth mermaid’s purse. It was an odd, pale brown colour, ridged like my fingernails, with tiny curling tentacles off each of its four corners, like the tendrils on a sweet pea. A place where new life started. I kept it in my hand and walked further along the shore, and then up to the tide line. I found an unusual piece of bright, coral pink seaweed, its firm branches dotted with tiny pink buds. New life forming.

There was a big rectangular flat rock sticking up from the middle of the reef at the front of the beach. It looked like a large grave stone, tilting at a dangerous angle. I went up to it and leaned into it and closed my eyes, thinking of Felix. I rested against its cold, barnacled hardness and listened as the oyster catchers trilled in the wind and the waves pounded the rocks. My memorial stone.

Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals.  Today I felt I was performing one, doing something with my grief. A quiet focus on small, natural things.

Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

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Mourning Ritual on a Cornish Beach - Credit Sophie Pierce

Sophie Pierce is a journalist working in both broadcast & print – and the author of two wild swimming books – who lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.

Her son Felix died at the age of 20, suddenly and unexpectedly. His death was recorded as SUDEP – Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. SUDEP claims 21 lives a week, mostly in young adults and it is not known why it happens. You can learn more about SUDEP and raise funds by going to SUDEP Action – a small charity that does vital work in campaigning and funding research.

Wild Woman Swimming Profits to St Luke’s Hospice

For ‘warm, funny and fearless’ Lynne Roper of Mary Tavy, a paramedic who was passionate about outdoor swimming, ‘passing it down the line’ didn’t need to end at her death. “People can swim and take me with them,” she said.

Lynne did not mean this literally. Living with a brain tumour, she knew her condition was terminal, but she was determined to see the adventures she recorded about her sixty-plus wild swims published to inspire others to swim wild, ‘read water’ and take educated risks as she did.

St Luke’s cared for Lynne at Turnchapel before sadly, she passed away in 2016, and it was while she was in our care she met writer Tanya Shadrick, who she entrusted with her diaries for posthumous publication.

Thanks to Tanya’s tireless editing, the diaries became the book Lynne had envisioned, ‘Wild Woman Swimming – a Journal of Westcountry Waters’. Not only was it published in 2018 – following consultation with Lynne’s parents, Mike and Jenny Roper – in 2019 the book went on to be longlisted for the prestigious Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing.

In keeping with Lynne’s wishes, profits from the sale of the book are benefiting St Luke’s, and recently Mike and Jenny, together with Lynne’s brother Dave and her friend Sophie Pierce – who wrote the introduction to the book – visited Turnchapel to present Community Fundraiser Pete Ward with a cheque for £1,000.

Mike and Jenny said: “We will be forever grateful to St Luke’s and all the doctors and nurses for the tremendous, loving care our daughter received in the last six weeks of her life.”

Peter said: “St Luke’s was privileged to care for Lynne in the last weeks of her life, and we are so grateful to her parents for this generous donation that will make a difference to more families who need our help during a very challenging time.”

Wild Woman Swimming – a book for ‘outdoor swimmers, nature lovers and all who prize the wild and free’ – is published by The Selkie Press.

Text from St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth reproduced with permission.

Wild Woman Swimming longlisted in The Wainwright Prize 2019

The prestigious Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize – which celebrates the best books about nature, the outdoors and UK travel – has included the posthumously-published Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country by Lynne Roper (the only book from editor Tanya Shadrick’s Selkie Press) in its 2019 longlist.

Celebrating its sixth year, The Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize is awarded annually to the book which most successfully reflects the ethos of renowned nature writer Alfred Wainwright’s work, to inspire readers to explore the outdoors and to nurture a respect for the natural world.

You can find out more about the longlisted authors and books, and read chapter extracts, on The Wainwright Prize website.

The longlisting has attracted a new and growing readership for the book, as well as strong interest in the book’s moving backstory: its publication keeping a promise made by Tanya Shadrick to fellow West Country woman Lynne, at a single meeting at the author’s hospice in the month before she died.

You can enjoy regular short extracts from Wild Woman Swimming by following @WildWomanSwims on Twitter.

Wild Woman Wainwright

‘Joy and friendship, grief and cold seas’: Outdoor Swimming Society on Wild Woman Swimming

‘The diaries are a snapshot, a moment in a life, filled with joy and friendship, grief and cold seas. If we could all find something we are happy doing, as Lynne so clearly was in her pursuit of wild swimming, then I suspect we would all feel more content with our lot. I read this book with a smile on my face all the way through, my mind filled with the colours of Dartmoor and its rivers and seas, the laughter and shrieking of friends as they plunge into cold water together echoing in my mind. Read this book and then plan a trip with your friends to these places: I know I want to swim where Lynne swam, and see the places she wrote about so beautifully. Join me?’

Read the whole of this beautiful review by Lexi Earl over at The Outdoor Swimming Society

‘A tangible book as alive as the weather’: Jenny Landreth for Caught by the River

Jenny Landreth – winner of the Sunday Times Sports Book of the Year 2017 for Swell: A Waterbiography – gives a wonderful, long review of Wild Woman Swimming for Caught by the River. Extract below.

‘This is a tangible book. It’s as alive as weather. Everything thrusts outward from Lynne, there’s a physicality to it. It follows the years in great big footsteps and there’s a sense of everything expanding out as the weather warms and then contracting back in again as ice returns.  Or it’s like the tide. Sometimes the joy is palpable, but then, so is the fear. Sometimes that fear belongs to me, the reader. When she writes ‘we find another deep cave … we’re pulled in and shooshed back; it’s like being caught in the windpipe of a living creature’ I have to put the book down, take a minute. She’s casually, devastatingly, laid out my own nightmare, and I can feel it, safely here on dry land. She is not immune to fear herself, and knows how to tell it – there are stories in here that have the pacing of a good thriller. Times where it feels really wild, where Lynne dances on ‘the edge of control’, where the water makes her afraid and unsure. Of course you know she survives this one but the adrenaline! Hers, mine! It all adds to the allure of this extraordinary woman, how she faced things some of us don’t dare think of.

And alongside all of this, there’s love. So much of it, again like waves coming in and going out again. That too you can feel on the page, and it’s never cloying, always rather wonderful, actually. For her tribe and for her surroundings, an enthusiastic passion that really only wanes right at the very end, when her certainty is gone.

I don’t want to ward off hags, witches or wild women. I want the opposite of a hag stone, something that will ward them towards me. And I think this book is that thing. I’m going to carry it in my backpack, it’ll act as a talisperson, a signal. And if people mistake me for a wild woman, though I have a tenth of Lynne’s character and daring, I shall be delighted. Yes! I’ll say, I am a wild woman. What do you make of that?’

‘Love of life and the role of water in it all’: Wild Woman at Kendal Mountain Festival

‘Outstanding talk by Wild Woman Swimming editor Tanya Shadrick at Kendal Mountain Festival. Love of life, and loss, and the role of water in it all. And fascinating insights on editing another’s work: “I let Lynne’s life divert the course of mine; the best diversion of my life…”‘ Nancy Campbell, Author of The Library of Ice

At the Alpkit Swim Session for Kendal Mountain Festival 2017, Tanya Shadrick shared the story of Lynne Roper with a 300-strong audience, and promised to return next year with the book of Wild Woman Swimming.

It was a promise she kept to a sold-out audience in November 2018, that included Lynne’s childhood friend (who had travelled from Scotland for the event). The book also sold out in the Festival shop, where audience members were buying multiple copies to gift onwards: exactly the ripple effect Lynne wished for.

‘Beautiful, moving, funny & irreverant’: Launch at Dartington

Wild Woman Launch at Dartington

‘Beautiful and moving, funny & irreverent – Tanya Shadrick reads from Lynne Roper’s journal Wild Woman Swimming at the Green Table Cafe, Dartington.’ Totnes Bookshop on Twitter

Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters was launched on 14 September 2018 to a packed room at the Green Table Cafe, Dartington, which included many of Lynne Roper’s swimming friends, as well as her parents Mike and Jenny. Also attending, and the focus of much attention, was Lynne’s dog Honey, who is a vivid presence in the diaries.

Before reading from Lynne’s work, editor Tanya Shadrick noted how strange and good it was to be sharing the book with so many people who appear in it, inviting them to sign her copy at the end of the evening. A precious artefact was the result.

Signed Book