The sun was shining, the air was warm and the water was a sparkling, Mediterranean blue. I felt like pinching myself, unable to believe that it was mid September and that the blue expanse in front of me was in fact the English Channel, notorious for its stormy, grey seas.
My vantage point was the Durlston Castle terrace, a Victorian tourist attraction located on England’s Jurassic coast along the South West Coast path, just west of the quiet, coastal town of Swanage. My travelling companion and I were visiting the castle located along our hiking route, drawn in part by the Great Globe, an impressive limestone globe built in the late 1800s, situated on the cliff below the castle.
On my own for a few minutes while my friend went in search of refreshments, I found myself in the company of two women. One was middle-aged and enjoying her read in the late morning sun. The other was an elderly woman, who had a pair of binoculars draped around her neck, and a pen and paper clasped in her blue velveteen gloved hands. A pair of silver dolphins dangled from her ears. Noticing the official volunteer button pinned to her chest and encouraged by the woman’s warm smile and bright blue eyes, I asked her what sort of volunteer work she was doing for the castle.
Her response came as a surprise.
She explained that she was counting and noting the boating activity on the water. And on those rare, special days, she got to record dolphin and porpoise sightings.
Dolphins and porpoises, in the English Channel?
With my interest now well and truly piqued, I started chatting to the woman, asking her how often she volunteered and how long had she been doing it. And out came her recent history.
She and her husband had been volunteering in this role for many years, regularly coming down for a few hours a day to enjoy the outdoors. Then last Autumn, her husband passed away. For months after, she could not bring herself to resume her routine without her husband by her side. One wintery February morning, she got a call from the volunteer coordinator at the castle, asking her to consider coming out that day. She reluctantly agreed. With cane in hand, she walked down to the terrace and looked out to sea … and saw a dolphin swimming in the bay.
She took that sighting for the sign it was and resumed her daily vigil from the picnic bench, happy to talk to inquisitive travellers and smile for the camera, making sure I took note of her name, which as it turned out was an easy one for me to remember, it being Margaret, my own middle name.
As I walked away from that remarkable woman, I thought about the resiliency of the human spirit. That even when events and life changes threaten to pull us down into a quagmire of dark emotion, we need only to focus on life’s simple joys to help pull us out of the spiral of despair.