This mood may have been in reaction to a strangely synchronistic thing that had happened a few days before. What follows is true; what conclusions you draw from it are entirely up to you.
Having recently established a pied-à-terre in Bristol, I've been casting around for possible excursions, particularly into parts of the West Country we didn't visit back in the late 1970s, when we previously lived in Bristol, but were too cash, time, and car-poor to get out and about much. Google Maps is indispensible in this regard. I love just floating around over the landscape, like a glider pilot equipped with a pair of ridiculously powerful zoom binoculars. While I was checking out the coast, for some reason Lundy Island caught my eye, sitting there at the mouth of the Bristol Channel so incongruously that, at first, I thought it was something stuck on my screen.
Naturally, having failed to scratch it off, I zoomed in for a closer look. It looked so invitingly like a child's fantasy of a Treasure Island that I had to check it out further. It does sound wonderfully romantic, if a bit bleak as a place to live. It actually does have a history of pirates and buried treasure, not to mention dingbat aristocrats, deranged criminal dynasties, a castle, sandy coves, cliffs, and all those little Famous Five touches that make a wind-blasted rock into a proper island. The place even has a connection with the Knights Templar, for Dan Brown fans.
Then, in Wikipedia, I read:
In 1957 a message in a bottle from one of the seamen of the HMS Caledonia was washed ashore between Babbacombe and Peppercombe in Devon. The letter, dated 15 August 1843 read: "Dear Brother, Please e God i be with y against Michaelmas. Prepare y search Lundy for y Jenny ivories. Adiue William, Odessa". The bottle and letter are on display at the Portledge Hotel at Fairy Cross, in Devon, England. The Jenny was a three-masted schooner reputed to be carrying ivory and gold dust that was wrecked on Lundy (at a place thereafter called Jenny's Cove) on 20 February 1797. The ivory was apparently recovered some years later but the leather bags supposed to contain gold dust were never found.I started checking out the ferry times.
But my curiosity was mainly piqued by messages in bottles. Some re-ocurring ideas in popular culture -- so-called tropes -- are so well-established that one is automatically skeptical of their veracity, or at least their alleged frequency. Pirates with one leg, one eye, and a parrot must surely have been thin on the ground, even in Bristol, the initial setting of Treasure Island *. So how many actual messages washing up in bottles would it take to establish the idea in the popular imagination? Perhaps just one or two? Or maybe they were always turning up on the beach, like junk mail? Was any castaway or shipwrecked sailor ever saved, in the days before GPS, by a note entrusted to the circulation of the world's ocean currents? It seemed unlikely.
As ever, Wikipedia was a good place to start. Who knew that the 16th century English navy used this ultra-unreliable medium to communicate enemy positions? Or that Elizabeth I established the official position of "Uncorker of Ocean Bottles"? Apparently, anyone else opening the bottles faced the death penalty [get this nonsense properly fact-checked ASAP. Ed.]. I wondered what the oldest genuine message found might be, and whether it might be on display somewhere (ideally on the Web). I was initially puzzled by what the Guinness Book of Records claimed as the "oldest" ocean-going message, given the alleged antiquity of the practice, but it seems what they mean by "oldest" is "longest time between despatch and discovery". Disappointingly, the current record holder was a mere 98 years, one of many bottles dropped into the sea near Scotland in 1914 by a researcher from Glasgow tracking ocean currents, and recovered by the fishing-boat Copious (no, really) in 2012.
Then, the very next morning, the BBC news ran the story of the discovery of a similar bottle, one of many cast adrift in the North Sea by another ocean-currents researcher, this time from Plymouth, between 1904 and 1906, which had turned up on an island in the north of Germany. At around 109+ years, it was quite likely the "oldest" message-in-bottle to turn up yet. I was suitably spooked. As coincidences go, it's not exactly spine-chilling, but it certainly woke me up when I heard it on the Today programme; I thought I was probably still dreaming. It wouldn't be the first time I had drifted off again in the middle of one of Jim Naughtie's interminable questions.
I suppose the thing about such coincidences is that, like dreams, they feel incredibly significant to the "recipient", and are utterly meaningless to everyone else. Presumably, the world being richly textured with events and massively populated by people, some such synchronistic, subjective spookiness is happening to someone, somewhere, all the time. It must be a variant of good old pareidolia, that human ability to spot patterns that has saved us enough times from being eaten by leopards to have become hard-wired into our brains. Though in some of us, clearly, more so than in others.
* Q: Why are pirates called pirates?
A: Because they arrhhh...