My Robinson Crusoe fantasy in a beach den hideaway on a faraway shore

Susan reading in her beach den.
 ‘The hours drift by’: Susan in her beach den. Photograph: Wim Keesmaat/The Observer

I am lying on my back in the den I made, my book perched like a little tent on my stomach. I stare at my bamboo roof and listen to a tapping sound – a carpenter bee nesting inside one of the canes, I decide. I’ve been lost in thought, and realise it’s late in the day – the last hour before the sun dips into the sea. There’s that soft quality of light, beaming through the gaps, painting everything in crazy stripes of gold and shade. The water has turned from jade to olive, as the light bounces off the posidonia beds beneath.

No one overlooks me – I’m hidden from view by vertiginous cliffs, slate and burnt orange; lush greenery, studded with berries and flowers. It is empty, this cove, which is why I’ve made myself a tiny home at one end of it. I always mean to come for a short time, and end up staying all day. The hours drift by. Time passes companionably, despite my being alone. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the shipping forecast playing from the radio on the shelf, the books like friends lined up alongside. It’s all of it… the sounds, the shelf, the bamboo roof. It’s the beauty of the natural setting, but it’s also that I’ve made it.

I built this castaway den for lockdown and it’s made me carefree, as if I’m eight years old again. I’d been feeling aimless, sitting on the shore, looking at the driftwood and bamboo when I thought of building it, and I was immediately excited. There is something about the very idea of a den – its heady mix of adventure, independence, security – that makes you light up. It stirs feelings stretching back to childhood. It’s the perfect comfort in a crisis.

I’m in Pylos, a picturesque town in the Peloponnese. I sailed into the harbour here in October for winter. I’ve been travelling around Europe for three years since I quit my job in London and sailed off on Isean, my little boat. I was about to leave in early March, just when Covid-19 started to take hold in Italy. I had watched it progress west to Europe from China, and I delayed my departure. I didn’t want to be caught at sea if borders closed. And, soon, they did. I’d been right to stay. It’s beautiful here, but the situation isn’t perfect. Navigation was banned, so boats could no longer move. Even my dinghy was grounded. I found freedom in cycling – until my bicycle was stolen – then it was daily walks by the sea to seek space.

Living in a tiny, hot boat (the usable space isn’t much bigger than a car) in a stifling harbour as temperatures rose rapidly in Greece, was a different proposition to sailing, which is all freedom and air. I suddenly felt far away from family and friends, with too much time alone to dwell and worry. As a solo sailor, I’m used to being alone – but not feeling alone. When the borders closed I realised I had no idea when I’d see anyone I love again and, for the first time at sea, I felt lonely. Once the swimming ban kicked in – my last refuge lost – I realised it would take effort to stay positive. On reflection, it doesn’t surprise me that I responded in this way – that, like a child, I’d seek out adventure and fun, somewhere to make my own. That I’d take the idea of being isolated and trapped and really run with it – a Robinson Crusoe fantasy made real and, at its heart, my beloved little den.

Susan's den, showing the bamboo roof and a blue mat for sitting on against the rock
 Hidden away: Susan’s den, made from bamboo. Photograph: Susan Smillie

Yellow Rock Bay, I call it, a messy spit of shore, backed by a tangle of wild flowers, weeds, trees and the eponymous rock. It’s not far, but feels a world away from the harbour’s concrete structures and orderly lines of boats. I’d been coming here with a yoga mat over the winter, stretching out, swimming, clearing plastic, taking in the view. I’d never seen anyone here – people head for sandy beaches, but I’m more drawn to stony coves like this that are ignored. Strewn with pebbles, flotsam, seaweed, big smooth boulders, strange twisted rocks, pitted and ridged, holes carved by wind and water, crabs scuttling through rock pools… These places are more interesting to me.

They’re the kind of places my Irish gran took us as children – smears of muddy shoreline, fragmented rocky places along the river Clyde, where we ran out of the freezing water to flasks of tea and crisps. She used to tell us we were lost, and let us play in giant sewage pipes, probably to toughen us up. She wasn’t your typical granny, Maw Joss, not the kind to bake scones and cuddle children. She fed wild cats and shunned pets. Always a champion of the underdog, she liked each of us best when we were at our worst and lost interest in those who did well. My dad was alarmed one morning, when he stopped by to find my cousin Lorraine and I sleeping – half standing – in the hut in her back garden. It might have been wildly inappropriate overnight accommodation, but I loved that hut. We kept a tin of biscuits there “for visitors”.

When I was a older, I’d explore the crags and hills around Dumbarton, finding secluded spots I wanted to make home – places that seemed perfectly human-sized somehow. Something about the trees around a clearing, a patch of grass, a rock that was the just right for sitting, somewhere naturally sheltered and safe. This isn’t just a childhood thing. There’s something inordinately pleasing about setting up camp outdoors; the primal instinct of playing house. What else explains the strange joy of a breakfast fried outside a tent in foul weather? Part of daily life as a sailor is to find shelter – it’s fundamental. In a pandemic, and alone in this particular setting, a castaway shelter suddenly feels like exactly the thing I need, somewhere safe, and apart.

It is a particular kind of shelter, though. The safety it provides – its truest purpose – is in its making. It’s a way of looking after myself, by cutting and lashing the bamboo; tying the clove hitches; finding the beams; flat rocks for a floor; scouring the wilderness; the bracken and leaves, seaweed and twigs underfoot releasing oils and scents. Without knowing why, I feel better. My body is scratched but happy. My mind is occupied, tasks filling the place that’s sometimes bleak and empty.

And this quiet place holds me when sadness overwhelms and I’m crying on the shore, matriarchal ravens watching from the cliffs. For me, this time of year is a time of memory, of loss – of my mum; my cousin Lorraine, the strongest, kindest woman I’ve known; and of my brother Stephen, who was the centre of every gathering. For so many, this crisis has aggravated scars, thrown the soft, blurred lines of past grief into hard, sharp focus. I’m reminded daily of my mum’s advice – cry, help each other through it, but then get outside, lighten things, remember to be hopeful and happy, and finally, be brave. “We’ll get there,” she always said. And I’m trying. I think we all are.

The canteen of cutlery Susan found.
 Treasure island: the canteen of cutlery Susan found. Photograph: Susan Smillie

Each of us is finding ways to occupy ourselves. My own obsession is bamboo, because I’m using it as building material. I spend days on methods that don’t work, splitting it into thin strands and weaving them through holes in the canes – but they break. In the end I unwind old rope into string and use that. Hours turn into days and then weeks as I try to perfect my little den. But then, why rush? There are so many distractions. Scavenging is one of them – another love I’ve embraced from childhood.

In truth, I’ve always nurtured this particular hobby (inherited from my dad, who returns from the skip with more than he dumps). I live on next to nothing, but it’s more about the excitement than the savings – finding quality things to reuse gives me a high. My friend Fred thinks I’ve become more of the person I really am since leaving work and roaming free – I think she means a bin diver. But on a castaway beach, I describe it in more romantic terms: I’m beachcombing.

One day I find a beautiful boxed canteen of cutlery someone has discarded – a painful reminder, perhaps, of a love story gone wrong. On another, I am unspeakably excited to find an elaborate trunk lid – painted tin laid over wood. It is leaning against the rock, red and green; a shiny treasure that found its way into my dreams.

I’ve become someone my gran would approve of – the kind of person who dives into bins. And I’m so much happier for it. I’ve always been shocked by waste. We know it’s madness. But it’s hard wired into us to consume. I thought I was immune, but anchored outside a department store in Kalamata last year I went in looking for food and found myself wandering along the carefully designed-to-spend one-way system, browsing fairy lights and bamboo bowls. I am still susceptible. But in my cove with my den, I’m reminded of the solution I’d known when I was small, and that craft people know still: the absolute joy of finding natural things. A leaf shaped like a heart, a stone with a hole worn through it – I’m making them into homeware. I don’t even care how corny it is, I’m hanging that damn love heart in my den.

On the other hand, it’s quite strange, my childlike commodifying of nature, my hearts and flowers, shelves and cushions. I’m not entirely comfortable with this human need to make a corner of nature “mine”. Like planting a flag in the ground, disrupting life all around as I crash through shelters that other creatures have built – a perfect web, beautifully spun, a “wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble” in the words of Robert Burns in To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough.

A driftwood bookshelf with books on
 Rock solid: a driftwood bookshelf. Photograph: Wim Keesmaat/The Observer

My eye is drawn to a tiny worm making its way up a rock; closer inspection reveals it’s dead. Carried by the industrious ants that I love to watch, marching in formation, day in, day out, to their colony at the top, its segmented body glides upwards in an S, as if it still lived.

The beam I put up for my roof has given the ants a bridge and I’m pleased this interference seems to be helpful – as far as I can see. But then, what do we know of their lives? We plough carelessly through the world, turning it concrete and plastic, destroying ecosystems on land and sea, rendering creatures extinct. We are just beginning to learn that our intelligence is not the only form, that we are not the only species capable of planning, of having memory and feelings, that we need our fellow creatures for our survival.

I’m guilty of a preoccupation with charismatic animals, particularly marine wildlife. I ignored insects through adulthood, but now, newly sensitive, I’ve regained the fascination I once had. I’m not alone – people are sharing the joy of wildlife around them, of birdsong in quiet streets. We just needed the time to stop, to appreciate life in all its forms. This is what children know and we forgot. It’s what I forgot until this den, buzzing with life, reminded me.

I’m aware that while I’m playing like a child, friends are concerned about keeping their families emotionally and physically well. While I’ve simplified my life so I can live, happily, on £30 a week, thousands are desperately worried about paying bills. The choices I’ve made have bought me freedom. It’s not the easiest life, and it’s not one most would choose, but it’s the only one I want. I’m looking around my eccentric little den. Music plays as a lizard tears through the shelf, upending the bug-eyed bamboo root that looks like a frog. Butterflies flutter where my lunch is set – all fancy silverware laid out on the treasure chest. A mad hatter’s tea party if ever there was one. Just beyond sits the stone age dumbbell set – two rocks joined by a bamboo pole – on a wooden platform. I laugh at the madness of it all.

It’s been extraordinarily healing, this den. It’s taken me back in time and it’s held me through a crisis. But I won’t hold on to it. I’ll leave intact what I made out of natural materials – the bamboo roof, the driftwood shelves, the Flintstone gym – and hopefully it will make others smile for as long as it holds up. When it’s time to go, I’ll untie Isean’s lines and leave the harbour, sail out to the Hellenic trench where sperm whales roam. Maybe we’ll anchor by my little bay first, though. I’ll swim back for a last coffee in my den, see the carpenter bees and the ants – just as majestic, after all, as the biggest whale.

Leave a Reply