Brownsea Island

In the first of the photo albums that line the bottom shelf of my parents’ bookcase is a picture of me, aged about eighteen months, fat-faced and nylon-onesied, next to an ostentatious and substantially larger peacock in a field of heather. I look bemused by the peacock; the peacock’s attentions are to camera. He is used to cameras.

Brownsea Island is inhabited by peacocks, red squirrels, Sika deer and vast numbers of birds. It is also inhabited by vast numbers of visitors and a phalanx of delightful volunteers, as befits a National Trust property. In the daytime, on a sunny day, it is all azure sea and Narnia woods, its filmsettishness eroded only by too many people who slowly erode the paths down to the yellow-pebbled coves along its southern edge.

Our family seems to end up here time and again. There is the office where my grandmother worked for years, the house that her boss lived in, the patch of sea where her and my grandfather’s ashes were scattered when I was newly pregnant with their sixth grandchild. Now I’m in a house my parents are renting on the quay, a house that would normally be booked up for years but for some strange glitch of fate, and a house whose neighbour we stayed in when I was the same age as my son who has gone off somewhere with a stick.

If you draw a map of the layout of places in a dream when fresh in your mind first thing in the morning, the act of map-making often provokes memories of new bits of dream you might otherwise have forgotten. The layout of the dreamed place is often very similar to the layout of a real place, but with the added capability of wormholes and secret passages and paths in the undergrowth that cross-reference it to other dream versions of real places, and something about the many repeated visits and weight of family relations with Brownsea make it exactly like a dream place.

I went running in the rain one night when all the daytrippers had gone home and found the thick patch of wood at the end of the nature reserve with the strange high scaffold that I thought I remembered from early childhood, in a scene etched into the memory of many consecutive dreams. Emptied of people, the museum-like quality of the place ebbs away. I ran past the crumbling village where the soft grey clay that oozes seaward never made a fortune after all, over the beach made entirely of discarded shards of clay pipework, and up back into the woods where the deer ran off, clearing overcleared logpiles on the forest floor and disappearing into thin air as though into another dimension.

I promised the children I’d take them on the same run tonight, in the hope on my part of getting last night free to run alone and indulge the strangeness of memory/dream/reality where they meet and part along the way. I wonder if they’ll have the same relationship with it too one day, here or in some other place.

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