TALES FROM THE SEA
Writer Jane Dunford deepens her relationship with the landscapes and seascapes of the Sussex coast by taking a storytelling walk with nature guide Nana Tomova
Jane Dunford goes on a guided storytelling walk on the Sussex coast and is spellbound by stories and scenery
There’s blue sky above us, the call of seagulls on the breeze, and open views of the white cliffs of the Sussex coast as storyteller and nature guide Nana Tomova reads the poem Exiled by Edna St Vincent Millay. It’s a fitting setting to hear of the writer’s yearning for the sound of the ocean and the ‘sticky, salty sweetness’ of its spray, as waves lap the shore and rocks below us.
I know this stretch of coast well. The Seven Sisters are a famously picturesque series of chalk cliffs between the towns of Seaford and Eastbourne, and The South Downs Way follows an undulating course between them. It’s a favourite for hikers and film-makers, often standing in for the White Cliffs of Dover, and stars prominently in 2019’s Hope Gap with Bill Nighy and Annette Bening, and Jessica Swale’s 2020 film Summerland.
INSPIRED BY FOLKLORE
Today’s adventure, though, is more unusual than previous strolls. I’m on a storytelling walk with Nana, and as we wander east from Seaford Beach to Cuckmere Haven, she will be regaling me with tales and poems of the sea. ‘There’s sea-related folklore from so many cultures – from mermaids and selkies to ghost ships and strange creatures,’ she says as we set off.
‘The sea holds such mystery.’
Based in Lewes, but originally from Bulgaria, Nana runs private and group storytelling walks in various locations around Sussex – from the South Downs, to woodlands, to the coast. Trips can be tailored to suit – whether it’s a full day by the sea or a short forest foray, and other elements from creative writing to making art might also be woven in. Born by the Black Sea, ocean tales are among her favourites, Nana says.
LOST IN WORDS
From Seaford we climb higher until we have a clear view of the coastline and settle in a sheltered spot for a tale. Nana talks of how the land was formed when the ice caps melted long, long ago, and begins with an old local legend, The Seven Sisters and One True Shepherd. The tale starts with a shepherd who comes across seven shining sisters dancing as he searches for a lost lamb – with the cliffs named as Nana points towards them, from Haven Brow
‘There’s sea-related folklore from so many cultures – the sea holds such mystery’
to West Hill – and ends with the sisters as stars forming the Pleiades in the night sky and the shepherd becoming Orion’s Belt. There’s a child-like thrill at being told a story, taken to another place, while firmly rooted in the seascape, and I’m lost in the words and surroundings.
The sun’s out and we wander on past Hope Gap and further still until the cliffs begin to drop down to the estuary of the River Cuckmere. A duo of picture-perfect cottages stand close to the cliff edge; to the north the flood plains are alive with oystercatchers and egrets as the river meanders to meet the sea. It’s low tide, the scene of seaweed-strewn rocks and weathered groynes makes a perfect backdrop for Nana’s next yarn.
This one is from Scotland, a tale of selkies or ‘seal folk’. In Celtic and Norse mythology, the selkies are capable of therianthropy, changing from seal to human by shedding their skin; the sea is the way to pass into another world. I’m told of a fisherman with green eyes who falls in love with a selkie, how she agrees to stay with him for seven years, but yearns to go back to the deep
waters to be with her seal sisters – and eventually returns to her true skin, her sorrow turning to joy. Gazing out over the sea as Nana weaves the beguiling tale brings it to life all the more – and she sings an ancient song, Seal Woman’s
Sea Joy, in a language now lost, both beautiful and melancholic.
THE POWER OF STORYTELLING
Nana’s passion for storytelling began in childhood and she juggles it with her work as a mental health pharmacist (and as a photographer and poet). It may seem like an unlikely combination, but there is a link – Nana sees stories as a way of offering hope, courage and wisdom and her ‘Story Apothecary’ podcast dispenses stories as medicine, prescribed to help the listener feel better. ‘There’s something soothing about listening to stories,’ she explains. ‘It can help with agitation, makes you slow down and be in the moment – and stories particularly come alive outside.’
Our next story is an Inuit creation myth. Set in a time before there were creatures in the sea, it blends drama with violence and wonder at the natural world and how it came to be. Afterwards we wander back, cutting through a patch of forest, spotting bunnies hopping over grassland and butterflies flitting by. Before we finish, Nana reads By the Sea by Christina Georgina Rossetti, a poem celebrating the ocean and the life within it, the ‘sheer miracles of loveliness’.
Back on Seaford beach we say goodbye. I end the morning in the most fitting way I can think of: with a dip in the sea, musing on its mystery, power and beauty as I dive beneath the waves. Group walks cost from £40 for three hours; private walks cost from £150 for three hours for two people, extra people £20pp. For more information visit nanatomova.com.