“Full fathom five thy father lies” – The Tempest, Act 1, Sc. 2
The sky is falling all around me as the winter afternoon is fading. Down, down we glide, towards the North Atlantic. Three thousand miles of unforgiving sea are all behind us and ahead lies just a pinprick of green holding out against the blue-grey vastness of the ocean.
The rain lashes against the windows as our wings bank on the approach, the landing lights looming nearer in the dusk. A rugged landfall, but now we’re safe.
Outside the airport and across the causeway, a deluge is raging in sheets across the road, the palm trees swaying wildly in the storm. The evening washes itself wet and windswept upon the shore.
* * * * *
Hit by a storm on 25th July, the ship and her company fought winds and giant waves for three days as leaks sprang up between her imperfectly caulked timbers. All hands were set to bailing, but still the waters rose.
Finally on the morning of 28th July, with an exhausted crew and the ship about to founder, Somers steered into the feared reefs of The Devil’s Islands, as sailors called them then.
Bermuda (as we know it now) had been discovered by Juan de Bermudez over a hundred years before, but was inhabited only by the hogs left for provisions by past seafarers. The new arrivals called the island Virgineola – little Virginia.
Wading ashore at Discovery Bay, near the modern airport, the crew made settlement at a site they named St George.
There they set about building a new ship from the fragments of the old, augmented with new Bermuda cedar. An advance party set out to Virginia in the Sea Venture‘s long boat, rigged up with a sail. Those men were never seen again.
Nine months later, two ships were ready. The Deliverance, and the Patience finally arrived in Jamestown on 23rd May, 1610. But the sorry colonists they found there were fast running out of food, a plight only briefly alleviated by the arrival of fresh provisions from England.
Somers left for Bermuda aboard the Patience once more, to gather new supplies, but he died there before he could return. His body was transported to Lyme Regis, pickled in a barrel, and his heart was buried on the islands, then renamed The Somers Isles in his honour.
Amongst the other voyagers on the Sea Venture, John Rolfe had seen his wife and son die on Bermuda. Rolfe chose to stay on in Jamestown and later married the Powhatan princess, Pocohontas.
Stephen Hopkins, almost hanged in Bermuda for mutiny, returned to England some years later to find that his wife had died in 1613. Together with his children and new wife, he sailed for the New World in 1620 aboard the Mayflower.
A vivid account of the Sea Venture‘s shipwreck written by William Strachey in July 1610 probably formed one of the sources for The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, first performed in London on 1st November, 1611.
* * * * *
Last night’s storm has eased, and the cloudtops are shining pink above the dawn. A stiff breeze is blowing, but the Atlantic air is warm and forgiving – a different kind of winter from the one we know in London.
I run out beside the road, past a white-roofed church and pastel-coloured white-roofed houses. The sun is rising slowly behind the palm trees on the hill, but it takes some time to find it. Finally the lane dips away for a minute of easy running towards the ocean.
It’s a perfect view which awaits me on the beach. White sand, stretching out for ever, the cliffs lit yellow by the early sun. The water is pale and blue and swirling softly, ebbing languidly beneath my feet – no white-topped grey old locker this one, but an azure Atlantic of another hue entirely.
Not far offshore, thirty feet beneath the swell, lies the wreck of the Pollockshields, a munitions ship which foundered here in August 1915, taking her Captain with her. Full fathom five thy father lies. Beyond the wreck and reef, the nearest landfall is in North Carolina, six hundred and fifty miles away.
I run back along the beach, shake the sand from my shoes and climb the hill back to the yellow hotel. From high amongst the cedars, I look back once more at the vastness of the ocean. This tiny island refuge is set adrift in so much water, lost like a thin ray of sunshine peeking through all the lengths of winter.
In a month or two, the tourists will start arriving from New York, seeking days of cool and calm and rest from the summer turmoil of the city. But for now, all is quiet, and there’s a kind of slightly faded elegance about this place which is both restful and enchanting.
Work lies ahead, but tomorrow morning I’ll try a different route, along the old railway trail to Southampton’s lighthouse. Seven miles of the world’s longest, thinnest quarry, I reason, cut into the cross-bedded shoaling limestones laid down between the ancient reefs. And then I’ll return here, to be washed up once more beside the beauty of Elbow Beach.
Bermuda’s shipwrecked shores tell tales of brave New World, of savage tempests and tourists basking in the lazy summer heat. So much history, and such a story, all set in train by a storm almost four hundred years ago.
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