The sun shines, the island is brand new to us, and the day is ours…perfect for a wander. We decide to search for Priory Bay.
“Our favourite, not far, and you can probably get a cup of tea at the hotel there,” was the advice from a frequent visitor to the island.
So off we set, via the High Street and the purchase of a few supplies.
We imagine we shall find fudge and ice creams – we do not expect to see biltong bunting flapping in the sedate sea breeze. But it does, and it belongs to Greeff’s Beef Biltong…a long way from Bulawayo.
This, our first discovery, involves a half-hour of taste and chat before we leave, loaded with bags of ‘Black Pepper’ and ‘Oupa’s Original’.
“All you have to do is follow the coast to Priory Bay.”
Footpaths take us down to concrete seawalls, then alongside suburban back views, and finally on a wriggle through woods to Priory Bay.
It isn’t far, but the weather’s mood changes. As we step on to the sand, the sea is in a sulk to one side and the trees in a tangle on the other. Between them both the beach looks wild, and almost deserted. There is a dog, a family that digs and, a few yards from shore, their boat that waits, nose to the wind.
We pick out a tree skeleton up by the rocks, and clamber on to it to enjoy our biltong. It is quiet – the only sounds are the sea, and the occasional chat of walkers who emerge from the woods, then disappear again.
If feels as though we are caught in a time warp, and that this quiet wild bay and its seashells cannot be just off Portsmouth in 2019.
When the family climb back on board, and disappear around the point, we decide to pack up too. We leave the beach and follow an unmarked path through the greenery in search of the hotel and its tea.
It does not take long to work out that we are on the wrong path. There is nothing ‘hotel’ about it, and we’re not surprised when it abandons us bluntly on the edge of a rough golf course with no sign of tea anywhere. Instead we are surrounded by uncut green, with a strip of bungalows in the distance.
Our only choice is to head up towards the low buildings, and to try to ignore their net curtain stares. It is unnerving, and even though nothing happens, and we don’t see anybody, we’re relieved to find a dirt track behind them.
This road looks like a good idea, but it can only lead us on past the silent bungalows towards a long barn with rotten thatch. It’s surrounded by neglect with just one faded sign of hope, tilted sideways and marked out with the word ‘reception‘.
I want to turn around and leave, but by now we’re in the thick of it, surrounded by the balding barn and suspicious bungalows. Our only option is forwards. We press on in close formation.
In front of us a wide empty area opens out, with an abandoned green Landrover in one corner. A small sign declares the space a ‘car park’. Briefly the hope of tea flickers to life – a hotel must be close.
We round another corner and see it at last, tucked into the hillside below.
It is an ivy-covered country house, with runaway roses and the sea beyond. Steps lead down to its old stone entrance, rimmed with peering heads and with a prancing St George above its centre.
A small wooden disc at the top of the steps tells us the hotel is closed, and on the front door itself there is another sign which lists a number to call to reach the manager, who is, apparently, briefly away from his post.
There’ll be no tea, but at least there are signs of life as we know it.
Phew. I step away from the porch and along the flagstone path that leads around to the front lawn and the view. The only sound is bees. There is blossom and sunshine…surely nothing is wrong?
But there is something, and I’m sure it’s on the inside, behind the big windows and watching. Quietly the hairs on the back of my neck pull themselves to attention. I am out of formation, and the silence of the bees buzzes down my spine. I walk on cautiously.
In a great pool of a window a white flash catches my eye. “Private Property…” a small sign flaps. I don’t read further. I just want to see the view. I take another few paces around a slight corner…and freeze. My heart stops.
There is a man. I turn to run, then stop myself. Instead I step backwards slowly, eyes fixed, ready with the excuse.
He is a dozen yards ahead, with his back to me, seated on a wooden bench. His arm is stretched along its back, and he looks at someone I cannot see.
Then, slowly, slowly, as I withdraw, I realise that the man will not see me…that he cannot see me. The figure is a statue.
My fright collapses with relief, and I call out to my wingman: “Come and have a look at this.”
He approaches, grinning: “It’s ‘The Allies’.”
“I never knew they were here.”
I step down in front of them to take a few photographs as they chat, facing the sea.
It is four days until the 75th anniversary of D Day, and here they are – Roosevelt and Churchill. They are bird-marked and the garden is overgrown, but St George still prances and the sea is still there. Their spirit feels very much alive.
We leave them to their reminiscing…and choose a suburban route home.
Here are two links that may be of interest:
- The first is about the sculptor Lawrence Holofcener from Island Life Magazine
- The second is a history of Priory Park Hotel from the website Island Eye. As far as I can discover the hotel and grounds have been bought by the resort company Aria and are on the brink of redevelopment.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019