There is something magical about being on a tiny island, it brings out the Famous Five feelings in the most jaded of us. Throw in an old abandoned fort and the imagination can run riot. Now add a small group of hardy characters determined to turn this chilly and isolated building into a party paradise, a whole lot of enthusiasm, hundreds of candles, miles of holly and ivy, aching arms and can-do attitude and you have the recipe for the party of the year!
My friends Lis and Pete and their little group of ardent helpers have been working on the fort and St Catherine’s island for well over a year now. Just a few weeks ago the new bridge was erected to permit access to the old fort itself so it seemed only sensible to hold a couple of parties to celebrate and let people actually come into the fort for the first time in over thirty years.
Everyone knows that party planning always seems like a great idea at the time but the actual process of pulling everything together can be a tad harder in the hands-on work department. This past week we had to clear the fort completely, sweep out floors caked with decades of dust that had us emerging from thick clouds like ghosts of Christmas past and clear fireplaces and hope that the chimneys would take smoke upwards and not add to the cloudscape inside.
We had a herculean task and I have to admit that there were moments when I thought my friends were completely mad to be doing this and that we didn’t have a hope in hell of pulling this off and making the fort into a party paradise in just 3 days.
The weather was against up from the word go with rain lashing and a wind that threatened to blow us off the cliffs completely. While Liz and I battled the elements to gather ivy from the side of the cliffs, the guys heaved boxes, kit, chairs, tables, all the food and drinks up the hundreds of steps to the fort itself.
We hung ivy and greenery from every nook and cranny, made chandeliers of the stuff and threaded in tiny battery operated lights. No surface went without greenery. Next came candles, literally hundreds as it was out only source of lighting in this huge cavernous space. While the band would use a generator to provide them with their own lights and amplifiers etc, there was no power for anything else.
While Lis and I escaped the island at low tide (it is cut off from the beach when the tide is in) and scoured every charity shop in a 30 mile radius for old candle sticks, ancient books, sheet music and glass jars, the boys put in the sensible things like portaloos, fitted doors and carted yet more stuff up all those steps again and again.
By day three we could do no more, filthy and exhausted we had to stand back and hope that it would all be all right on the night, just a few hours hence. After all the rain and hellish winds of the past week it was with amazement and joy that we were able to look skywards and see millions of stars sparkling in the heavens. The weather had cleared and we had the perfect night for a party.
Dressed in all our party finery the team went into action yet again, this time with torches to lead the way and smiles at the ready to great the 120 guests who came to see the fort at its festive best and enjoy good music, fine food and a party atmosphere that must surely go down in Tenby history.
People were amazed when they stepped through those heavy metal doors into a land filled with candlelight and magic. The ancient scarred walls with their graffiti and holes were softened into a characterful canvas that acted as the perfect background to the people and party that were the subject of this piece.
While the band played the people mingled and partied and marveled at this extraordinary venue. It was time out of mind, a place out of the ordinary and just what Christmas is all about, sheer magic.
After four hours of partying we led everyone back down the hundreds of steps off the island and back to the beach and the little town of Tenby just before the tide came in and the sea reclaimed the island as its own.
The next morning we were back as soon as the tide allowed to clean up and reset all those hundreds of candles to do it all again on Saturday night. This time we were aware of how things could be improved, how we could tweak things here and there and make the whole evening even better.
It was better and the evening was a total triumph. Everyone enjoyed themselves and took home memories that will surely make Christmas 2014 one for the diary.
For me it was amazing and the joy I feel for my friends knows no bounds. They have taken their idea from just the tiniest seeds of a dream so many years ago and step by step are drawing it forth into the light and creating the adventure and the world that they want. I am so very proud of them for their efforts and their tenacity in holding so fast to their dream when so many things have been against it. Their dream of bringing St Catherine’s Island to life again is one that enhances the lives of so many, for who doesn’t want to visit an island and enter another world of history, myth, magic, forts and the sheer escape from the humdrum normality of day to day life on terra firma.
My little dream of living by the sea and walking every day on the beach seems so small by comparison, but as I drove the ten hours back to Scotland last night I kept thinking back to the days before the party when we stood in that empty fort covered in dirt and freezing cold with the wind and rain howling outside and wondering if we had a hope in hell of pulling off this whole party business in just a few days time. We did it, we made some magic, dreams really can come true. So here’s to hanging in there for mine too.
Merry Christmas everyone and may all your Christmas wishes come true.