December 31, 2015

The sense of an ending

Back in London to see the New Year in, after spending Christmas week in North Cornwall. We walked parts of the South-West Coast Path while we were there, the Atlantic crashing white on the rocky coves and bays below. December, but it felt like late February: there were daffodils out, and even a stray hybrid bluebell; biting insects made themselves known, and the cows hadn't all been taken inside because the grass was still growing. It felt strange, uncomfortable; as though we'd skipped winter, and in doing so, lost out on the sense of ending that it brings.

For many people, though, it seems the year's close was about endings, no matter what the weather. As we walked the clifftops we passed memorial after memorial, mute bunches of flowers or Christmas greenery left to commemorate the dead. I have never seen so many little shrines.

We found little plaques, too, affixed (doubtless unofficially) to rock faces and bearing names and dates, and legends carved roughly in stone; while every bench, it seemed, was in memory of someone – sometimes more than one person. Death was everywhere on the winter cliffs.

I've found the odd bunch of flowers on Dartmoor, and once, in the Lake District, some cremated ashes. Apparently so much ash is scattered on Snowdon that there are concerns about its effect on the soil pH and the vegetation that grows there, while in Cumbria the cardboard boxes from pet crematoria have become a problem in some areas.

We left my mother's ashes on Dartmoor, to blow in the wind from the top of a tor that she loved; it wasn't quite a ceremony – it was too shapeless for that – but it was something. It meant something to us.

It is the most human of impulses: to commemorate the dead, to leave a mark on a place, to present a wordless offering in inchoate remembrance at the end of the year. But some of the tributes we saw had plastic ribbon in, or wire that would never rot away. Some were not discreet, but screwed to rocks in places where one couldn't help but read them: more public statement than private ceremony. It was hard to avoid a sense of intrusion, as though walking through a cemetery full of recent graves; there were so many shrines and memorials along the clifftop that it became hard to enjoy the place on one's own terms.

I wonder what the National Trust and the South West Coast Path Association's policies are; whether they remove bunches of flowers, and after how long. Whether they unscrew plaques when they find them. It is a hard thing, because each tribute is individual and unique and each commemorates someone who was very dearly loved. Yet taken together, the effect is unsettling.