Walking along the foreshore of the Dee estuary near Parkgate, enjoying the silence and the wide vista of land and sky, I was put in mind of the old poem by Charles Kingsley, The Sands of Dee. Kingsley was Canon of Chester Cathedral at the time and, wandering through the area in his spare time and talking to locals, he had heard tales of a young woman called Mary who had been lost on the Dee marshes some time before.
At the time the local farmers grazed their cattle along the marshland edges of the estuary. Mary was sent out to bring her father’s cattle home. She didn’t go straight away, which caused her father to become angry and he sent her on her way with shouts and curses.
But the afternoon was sunny and Mary quickly forgot her father’s harsh words and took a meandering path across the meadow and along the edge of the marsh enjoying the day. A mist crept across the marshes at dusk and she became disorientated. Mary followed the sound of the cattle further and further out onto the marsh, not wanting to abandon the creatures to the rising water of the incoming tide. Still trying to find the cattle, Mary eventually stumbled into the swollen channel of the river and was drowned.
Her body was recovered the next day by fishermen who at first mistook her halo of long hair for floating river weed. Legend has it that, on misty evenings, one can still hear Mary’s voice out on the marshes calling to her father’s cattle, and the cattle lowing despondently in response. The tale haunted Kingsley’s dreams and, in an attempt at catharsis, he penned his poem about her.
The sands of the Dee, the treacherous sands of the Dee, they haunt my dreams and cause me not to sleep. Mary, poor child, all alone with a westerly wind blowing and the tide rising relentlessly. Steadily it flows inwards, filling channels and flooding the lower banks. But still she strides on, clogs in one hand and skirts hitched up to her hips and held by the other. She calls to the cattle, stops and scans the marshes to the west with screwed up eyes, and then calls again.
She had tarried too long before setting out, immersed herself too deeply in her daydreams. Father found her and was angry. And now she plunges on frantically, seeking the cattle to bring them ashore before the rising tide can do its worst. In the farm yard he swings his axe furiously, slicing and splitting each proffered log whilst, in his heart, he silently regrets his harsh words.
Warm and safe in the cathedral cloisters, Kingsley sits on a bench and enjoys the Sun’s radiant blessing. He closes his eyes to struggle once more with the words of his composition. Immediately he feels again the biting wind at his face and the cold water lapping at his knees.
“O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee”;
The western wind was wild and dank with foam,
And all alone went she.
Wisps of sea mist begin to flicker across the water, gathering and thickening even as she watches them, struggling to see beyond their haze. She is cold; her legs are numb and her body is shivering uncontrollably. It occurs to her she can feel a spreading warmth then realises that she is peeing herself, but cannot stop.
The western tide crept up along the sand,
And o’er and o’er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see.
The rolling mist came down and hid the land:
And never home came she.
The cattle are so close, she hears them lowing mournfully; can almost hear their snuffling breath. But where? In which direction? She can see neither cattle nor land now. She calls out to the creatures, but the only word that comes out of her mouth, again and again, is: ‘Daddy!’
Kingsley opens his eyes and sighs deeply, staring at his shoes as he composes himself. The fishermen he spoke to were adamant in their telling of the tale, even before he had bought them their fill of ale.
“Oh! is it weed, or fish, or floating hair–
A tress of golden hair,
A drownèd maiden’s hair
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes on Dee.”
They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam,
The cruel hungry foam,
To her grave beside the sea:
But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee.
He drew on his pipe and nodded as he listened:
‘We swear, Canon, we swear it’s true. We’ve all heard her. Her restless soul was out there that night and, God bless her, she’s out there still.’