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Description

Holyhead writer and performer Gillian Brownson recites a poem focused on the mingled stories of the Dutch Poniard, a dagger held at the Holyhead Maritime Museum, and a Holyhead woman by the name of Evelyn Hughes who had cherished the Poniard, given to her for safe keeping, for over 60 years.

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“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
― Rudyard Kipling.

I love visiting Museums. You’ll always hear Writers and Storytellers say that stories, in whatever form, bind us and that we can only really learn how to evolve through our collective stories. They’re right of course, or I believe they are, but in a Museum, we begin to understand what this actually means, in practice. If you visit the Holyhead Maritime Museum, you will find that stories are bursting out of the curiosities in the display cabinets. China cups, captain’s cuffs, wreck finds, diving suits, ship parts, medals – countless objects that send us hurling into the worlds they come from, like nothing else does, forcing us to empathise, to reflect, to see – as a physical part of that story is there in front of our eyes.

Salt, or Evelyn on the Shore is one such story as it started with a dagger at the Museum, or, officially, A Midshipman’s Poniard which is on display there. Thanks to the efforts of community historians such as Peter Scott Roberts and other volunteers attached to the Museum, we came to know much of the Poniard’s owner. He was Jan Christiaan Van Aller, a Dutch mariner of the Royal Netherlands Navy, who landed in Holyhead following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, along with many of his Dutch crewmates. His story is worthy of the telling, but when I discovered who had donated the Poniard to the Museum, I was compelled to tell another side of the story, because it was one Holyhead woman by the name of Evelyn Hughes who had cherished the Poniard, given to her for safe keeping, for over 60 years.

With the help of Peter Scott Roberts, I was able to trace Sue Bugh, the daughter of Evelyn Hughes, or Eve, who sadly passed some years ago. Sue has since been talking to me about the life of her dear Mam, whose early life in Holyhead wasn’t easy, having experienced the loss of her father and sister as a child. That said, the Holyhead Community, recovering from the Great War, drew in and helped the family to cope. Eve had a great love of Porthdafarch and the wild flowers that grow up there on the cliffs, often visiting the beach to sit with her knitting. She worked hard on the mail boat service between Holyhead and Dublin, while also bringing up two children as a single Mam, having been separated from her first husband. Through all her hardships, she had become fond of the Dutch sailor, after he had befriended her family, and they agreed to write when he was sadly posted to Jakarta in the Dutch East Indies. When the letters suddenly stopped, dear Evelyn assumed he had been killed in action.

So, Jan’s Poniard, given to him when he passed out as a cadet in 1939, stayed with Evelyn throughout the long years of her life. She kept it close to her, and even took it in her luggage on trips abroad before 1965. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Eve treasured this object, and Sue observed often that her Mam’s thoughts were often elsewhere, perhaps pondering on what might have been had Jan returned.

It strikes me that there were and are so many women who have cried for love that has been lost due to war. This poem follows the salt in Holyhead’s air to the salt in its women’s tears, and I thank Sue and Peter for sharing her story with me. Most of all, I acknowledge the sorrow of Evelyn, and the many women like her, who have been left alone after the Captain’s call.

Salt, or Evelyn on the Shore

The salt is in the wind where the beach bellows wide,
In the night, in the proud Port town.
On Newry Street, smell it in the tightly terraced rows
Through the windows where the grain falls down.

Past the Stanley Arms, smell it on the pavements
In the dregs of the landlord’s beer,
And it sits in the cracks of the Roman Fort
Where the dead watch the boats draw near.

In the church yard, on the stones of sleeping sailors,
Who the sea took all for its own,
The salt is in their soil and it holds them there still
In the dark, a grain for a bone.

It flies, a salt spectre, on Hyfrydle chapel’s towers
stinging in the rain in the breeze,
It’s looking for its kin in the face of a lover,
Down the lanes, in the gorse, past the trees.

It speeds in the night, past Penrhos Feliw
The salt on the standing stone,
Then it sees her awake, a drift in the dark
A woman in the wind all alone.

She walks by the boom of the sea by the moon,
The salt now settled in her hair,
It mingles with the water falling down on her face,
for her sailor is no longer there.

They rode their bikes here, the salt in their spokes
With the scent of cowslips by the shore,
and they walked to their chapel, under big open skies,
and prayed not to be riven by War.

His Captain had called him out to her sea,
So he gave her his dagger of gold,
The salt crusted thick on the side of his ship
and on her skin, in Porthdafarch, in the cold.

Copyright, Gillian Brownson 2021

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