Sunday 31st August 1924
"Halfway between the coasts of Wales and Cornwall, near the mouth of the Bristol Channel you will find the weathered remnants of an ancient volcano. Not much remains of the volcano itself, just an irregular basalt ring wall half a mile across, rising twenty to forty feet above the high-tide waves. The wall has breaks to the South and East that allow small boats access into the caldera.
Within the walls you will find the ancient structure known as Splinterton. Originally constructed some five hundred years ago, it was enthusiastically extended and built up layer by layer for three centuries, growing in a riot of archaic styles to an edifice four hundred feet high with turrets and towers bridged, spanned and infilled.
Every part of Splinterton, from the mighty pillars reaching down through the water and bedded in the stone heart of the volcano to the highest crows nest far above is constructed from the same silvery wood, made hard and resilient as stone by constant washing in the mineral-rich waters of the Splinterton caldera.
Splinterton is many generations past the golden age when it commanded the straits leading to the mainland’s capital; many of the greatest palaces of rich merchants have crumbled into the water. Patched and repatched, the exuberant colours of wealth have faded to dusty rose and pale blues amid the grey-brown blanket of time worn down.
And yet the hardy descendants of the ingenious founders of Splinterton are enjoying a minor renaissance. By necessity Splinterton has had to learn, to invent and to cooperate so that it could flourish in an environment that can turn with little warning from benevolent to actively hostile to human habitation.
The engineering underpinning Splinterton is considered to be a minor Wonder of the World; the town is heated and powered from pipes thrust down into the sleeping heart of the volcano on which it was built. Even today at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, it is considered too difficult to be economically viable to reproduce Splintonian engineering with our modern technology.
The robust self-sufficiency of Splintonians has become a fashionable affectation for wealthy and idealistic Mainlanders, and there is a small but persistent traffic in fashionable pilgrims travelling to the town, for sabbaticals, or for a qualifying “Life Experience” before attending a Mainland University.
Splinterton is a unique tourist destination with a wealth of truly remarkable culinary experiences to enjoy."
Basil Foagues, “The Young Traveller’s Gazetteer, Curiosities of Britain’s Coastal Territories”
Splinterton creaked in the sun, its silver-grey wood cracked and baking in the heat. On the promenade walkers in tawdry Sunday finery stroll arm in arm. Some leant on the parapet with their backs to the rising jumble of tenements, watching heavy oily waves far below gently washing against the ancient trees that formed the foundation and skeleton of the town.
At the centre of Splinterton Minnie sat in front of her ancient telephone exchange. Her hands flew from plug to plug as she connected callers across the the town. The shining ebony plugboard gleamed from the loving care with which she polished it every day, inspecting every cord for chafed fabric covering or a perished rubber insulator around the brass plug.
Minnie hoarded the town’s memories; she knew every secret and every scandal, every birth, adversity, triumph and death. She sat in the shadows, providing a humble yet indispensable service. Her true age was known only to her, but there were none within the town who had heard of a time before Minerva Eccles.
Far above Minnie, the day’s fire watcher wrapped both her arms around the central mast of the crow’s nest lookout tower. She peered queasily over the low railings down to the jumbled roofs of the town a hundred feet below. Nikki was fourteen years old, and this was the first day of three months of civic duties. She hoped that tomorrow she would be assigned something a little closer to the town’s decks.
Nikki took a deep breath and recited the instructions she had been given at the start of the shift; “Look North to the Mumbles, scan left to St Ignatius’ spire, sweep south to the Great Hall and the Baron’s Palace. Scan across to the Sailing Barge dock, North again to the Apollo Theatre, then finish off at the Mumbles again. Next sweep, same again but this time only halfway out to the edge of the town, then start quartering… until I’m bored out of my plunkin’ mind”.
At the foot of the stairs winding down below the promenade, far below Minnie’s cluttered rooms were the mussel-scrapers. They clambered with practised ease over seaweed-slick beams and filled knitted nets with wild-growing things, some of which only the truly motivated would consider food. The sea was calm. A small group broke away from the crowd of scrapers working in the cavernous shadows under the town, and rowed a boat across to the oyster beds at the foot of the basalt rim wall that surrounds Splinterton.
Behind the Great Hall the Baron fussed over the birds in his aviary. He frowned then wiped his nose when he saw a fallen fledgling at the bottom of the the finch cage, an expression of absolute abject loss on his face. With a shrug he reached in and grabbed the still-warm bird. He threw it across to the owls and raptors on their perches by the East wall, where it was snatched from the air by the small but speedy Peregrine.
To the North, the grizzled Watchmaster trained his binoculars on a small convoy of sailing ships further out in the Bristol Channel. Six retired sailing barge skippers shared the rota in the tall northern Watchtower, providing a year-round continuous lookout over the straits that formed the main trade route to the Welsh capital of Cardiff, and Bristol, the English capital.
The Duty Watchmaster noticed a set of sails breaking off the convoy. He picked up a heavy black Bakelite handset, cranked the bell handle and muttered into the phone.
Minerva nodded and manipulated plugs in the switchboard. Far to the East, the harbour master’s phone was answered before the third ring. “Jed, send out the launch, we have visitors”.
Jed leaned out of the open top half of his cabin door and spotted a young boy sitting on the jetty, his dark skin glowing in the sun. The boy was poking with a long stick at a dead fish floating belly up in the assorted debris trapped in a corner below the decking.
“Mitch! Go tell your dad to get the launch ready! The Clipper will be here in half an hour!”.
Mitch gave the fish one last prod and grinned up at the harbour master.
“Ok Mr Jed!”
Jed reclined in his comfy chair, glad to be going back to his book instead of taking a long walk to the boat shed. “Well, go on then! Don’t dilly-dally!”.
Abram pulled down the heavy canvas-wrapped steam tube with a boat hook, snagging onto a ring at the side of the bulky bronze valve assembly. It fit snugly onto the steam inlet of his boat, and he quickly cinched tight the locking ring. Putting on heavy leather gauntlets that reached up to his elbows, he opened the boat’s inlet valve just a touch to ensure that the connection was steam-tight. The residual pressure in the boat’s tank rushed into the valve space, but there was no leak.
Satisfied, Abram opened the inlet valve all the way. Mitch sat on the dock next to the boat, watching him fuel the launch from the enormous overhead steam tank. A banshee wail roared as the boat’s tank took on steam, growing fainter but rising in pitch as the pressures equalised. When the boat’s pressure needle was well into the green range of the dial, Abram closed off the overhead tank outlet valve, then the boat’s inlet valve. He picked up the long wrench to disconnect the pipe.
“Dad! Wait!” Abram turned to the boy.
“Good lad, what do we do before we take off the pipe?”
“First you have to clear the chamber, dad. Don’t want to get in the way of locked-in steam!”.
“That’s right son, awful lot of heat energy even in that little chamber”. Abram made sure that the vent was pointing away from both of them, then turned a handle on the valve to release the pressure before removing the hose.
“Go tell your mum I’ll be home for supper, it’s too late for any of the passengers from that Clipper to go back on this evening’s tide”.