Chesil

The language of stone

Today the world is ironed flat like a tea towel – a grey rather frayed tea towel printed with a monochrome pattern of bare trees, square houses, smokeless chimneys and blank windows. It hung there till I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went out to see if the world had ended.

On the coast road the sky was creased and crumpled but still grey. The sea was grey too except for a straight line of silver surf marking the edge of the Chesil bank. This line speared into the fog and led me to Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock.

Others had also been drawn here on the last day of the extended Christmas break. The shingle was churned with their meanderings and the tide was low. Calm weather had left no visible strandline apart from a scattered path of larger stones and some black dry bladder wrack high on the beach – a legacy from the last storm.

Stone ruled here – from coarse sandy gravel to the towering sandstone cliffs, layered and crumbling. Large stones on the beach bore the marks of partially hidden fossils – belemnites, ammonites and ancient shells. Lucky stones had holes in. Smooth oval pebbles were marked with thin white lines – a language which spoke of the movement of the sea, the passing of millennia, the shape and transience of life and the enduring nature of stone.

Shorter days

The clocks have been put back and the countryside looks like an oil painting in need of restoration. Sombre tones and black shadows are overlaid with the brush strokes of bare twigs against a mottled ochre sky. The recent gales have stripped papery leaves from the trees and they skip across the lane like frisky mice.

This is a transition phase between the burgeoning seeds of early autumn and the stark beauty of winter. Dilapidated plants wilt blackly on the roadside, berries are squashed underfoot and old man’s beard cobwebs the hedges. The colours are slowly draining away, staining the roads with a mush of dead leaves. The occasional flower persists despite everything, incongruous as a party dress at a funeral.

I went to the coast where hang gliders and gulls floated in the grey sky. At Abbotsbury the tamarisk was still baby-pink, but the coastal plants were looking very dull. The seed heads of Babbington’s leek had lost their gloss, nodding their balding heads at the tops of scrawny stems. A few sea campion flowered, their veined green bladders full to bursting. Teasels like hibernating hedgehogs, sprays of bristly ox-tongue and the shrivelled flowers of thrift bordered the shingle. The pebbles were scattered with the debris from the many anglers down on the shoreline.

At Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock, the setting sun was pouring pale gold rays into the sea. A black strandline zigzagged along towards the cliffs – dried seaweed (mostly bladder wrack), feathers, the usual marine litter of plastic bottles, fishing wire and polystyrene tangled together with driftwood, cuttlefish and shells.

As I drove home I saw several kestrels at intervals along the coast road, hovering wedge-like in the last of the daylight.
IMG_7359

 

Season of mists . . .

Early morning and the thatched roof looked as though it was covered in tiny muslin handkerchiefs – spiders’ webs. Grey mist, and a grey squirrel dashed across the road. Fog lay in the valley like an army blanket. In the distance, sea merged with sky. I can’t walk for spiders’ webs – feel as though I’ve been wrapped up in a grey cocoon, trapped like a fly ready for eating.

Three silvery trees, next to Horse chestnut trees, brown leaves ready to drop. My grandson showed me shiny conkers he’d collected. The weather has been good and we can’t let go of summer.

A bright green dragonfly whirring like something dangerous around the garden. Moving too fast to be seen clearly, mechanical and varnished like a strange missile on a mission. Two house martins dipped in a fly-frenzy, so absorbed they hadn’t noticed the rest had gone.

I headed for the coast through a soft-focus landscape. The sun was up there somewhere waiting for a gap in the mist. As I reached Burton Bradstock the fog fell away revealing a bright blue sky feathered with jet trails. Chesil beach was the colour and texture of an ice cream cone. Creamy foam curled on the edge of a postcard sea. I couldn’t believe it was the beginning of October.

Two fishermen had hauled their boat up the shingle and were sorting their nets. Beside them, a blue bucket of plaice, their orange spots looking quite frivolous in the sun against the dark grey skin, but an effective camouflage on the sea bed. The fishermen kindly gave me two for supper.

The tide was out and I walked towards the sandstone cliffs which looked soft and friable in the low morning sun. There have been many landslips, yet people still picnic beneath the crumbling rock faces.

Along the strandline was a trail of bright green gut weed intermingled with hundreds of white feathers – possibly the results of the autumn moult from gulls. There were no dead birds and hardly any litter after the recent calm weather. A few mother-of-pearl shells, the occasional mussel shell and one or two cuttle fish were dotted amongst the seaweed which meandered as far as I could see. Toothed wrack and kelp entwined with what looked like coral weed creating a scrawled line like copperplate writing on the parchment sand.

Different types of pebble glistened at the water’s edge, some marbled pink, characteristic of the coast at Budleigh Salterton in Devon, others grey striped with white – all perfectly polished by the sea, but lack-lustre when dry. Traces of fossils could be seen here and there. I once found a small ammonite lying on the beach, but most are hidden inside rocks like embryos in an egg. The forecast is for storms so I shall go back next week when the strandline will be written in a different language.

Following the Strandline

Aged six on Brighton beach my father told me that pebbles with holes in were lucky so I spent the day collecting as many as I could find. I threaded them on a piece of orange wire to make a necklace which I could hardly lift. That was the beginning of my fascination with beach combing.

Since then I have followed strandlines in many different places. In my early twenties I stayed on an island in the Oslo fjord where the coast was littered with strange chunks of glacial rock – pink, black, yellow, some looking like chocolate chip cookies and others like rock buns full of currants. I was so absorbed studying these unusual pebbles that I slipped and fell in the icy fjord. Climbing out I scratched my palms on the barnacles that covered the rocks.

When my children were small we spent our holidays in south Cornwall where we spent hours looking in rock pools for whiskery prawns and darting fish. On the black granite rocks stacked along the coast, we often saw pink sea anemones like half-sucked sweets. My youngest daughter grabbed one and put it in her mouth only to spit it out in a hurry. If you gently touched the tentacles of an anemone under water it would quickly close on your finger tip. Under the rocks were small transparent crabs which scuttled out if disturbed. Sometimes we would find bigger ones and draw them.

My favourite beaches are on the Isles of Scilly where the glittering white sand makes a perfect backdrop for delicate pink tellin shells, bright yellow and purple dog whelks, lucky cowrie shells and silvery top shells. Sometimes I would come across a violet jellyfish washed up on the strandline, translucent and gleaming in the sun, a dust of fine sand frosting its filmy surface or a pale orange compass jellyfish with distinctive markings. The paper-thin cases of sea potatoes (known locally as sea mice) blow around here like choux buns. Sometimes I used to come across sand dollars – like tiny bleached coins, but much more desirable.

On Town Beach, St Mary’s I find fragments of china, often with faded patterns in Victorian green and pink. I wonder about the people who used these items – whether plates and cups had been thrown and broken in anger or washed up from a shipwreck. I collect small pieces of glass worn smooth by the sea – pale green, blue, mauve and surf-white.

Now I visit the beaches along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, picking up driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam to make sculptures. I photograph cuttlefish, scallop shells, different types of seaweed and draw the plants I find. I can spend hours looking for fossils. After a storm I’ve found shoals of pastel-coloured scallop shells and small rubbery starfish. Last winter’s storms washed up hundreds of seabirds and quantities of marine litter, shocking to see.

Walking along the strandline, looking at the trail left by the tide, I find myself in a meditative frame of mind, picking up memories, unravelling problems, planning a painting, thinking about family – in fact following an interior tide-line. Sometimes I pick up a shell or pebble and hold it for a while like a talisman.

Pebbles have been found in burial mounds indicating that people have been treasuring beach finds for thousands of years. Looking hard at things while you walk is a sort of displacement activity that can calm the mind. I remember once taking a walk along the strandline at Burton Bradstock, trying to unwind during a stressful house move. Suddenly I saw a hermit crab moving tentatively along the shore and made the connection with my own situation – waiting to move into someone else’s house . . .

Time and Distance

The sky was a pale faraway blue edged with surfy white clouds – the look it gets as autumn approaches and the sun steps back. House martins were gathering on the wires – separate black notes on a page of music.

I saw things from the corner of my eye – a clump of seeding thistles huddled in a field, tufty white heads nodding sagely, the ghost of an egret taking off from the stream, a scattering of young pheasants in the dry grass, a tortoiseshell butterfly incongruously perched on an alloy wheel, the sharp silvery leaves of the Carline thistle. It’s strange how things sometimes seem clearer sideways-on. Stars are seen best on the edge of vision.

On the coastal path at Abbotsbury plants, were anticipating autumn. The multi-coloured berries of nightshade hung in strigs over the pebbles, bristly ox-tongue was seeding vigorously and teasels revealing their exquisite architecture. Tamarisk bushes were flowering desperately, pink feathery flowers in disarray, looking as though they’d got up late, and almost missed the summer.

Along the verges, tall stems were silhouetted against the sky, each one topped with what looked like a carelessly packed parcel of black yoyos dangling spindly strings. These wild leeks (known as Babbington’s leeks) dominated the hedgerow.

Thought to have originated from prehistoric times, this is a perennial plant which grows well here – behind the beach, sheltered from the salty winds by the Chesil bank. Earlier in the summer lush strappy leaves surrounded pastel green stems, each with a globular flower head encased in a tissue-like membrane. In midsummer the membranes tear into little pixie hoods revealing a bunch of round bright green seeds from which grow small pinky-mauve flowers on thin stalks. Now the seeds were black as billiard balls, ready to roll.

On the shingle, sea pea extended thin green fingers, pointing towards the sea. Clumps of sea campion lay low, seed heads bobbing in the wind like tiny paper bags. A line of anglers marked the shoreline. Unfortunately their rubbish littered the strandline – a silvery shoal of polythene bags, bottles, cellophane and tinfoil barbeque trays.

From the corner of my eye I saw a strangely shaped pebble. It was a fossilised sea urchin, ground down and misshapen by sea and shingle. It seemed to squint at me from the distant past.

Just stones and sea . . ?

A welcome shower of rain – you could almost hear the parched ground soaking it up. I headed for Chesil beach. Buzzards and kestrels were surfing the thermals above the coast road as I arrived at Cogden, a fresh breeze blowing off the sea. A couple of holidaymakers passed by grumbling that it was ‘just stones and sea . . .’

Walking down the path to the beach, I was surrounded by swathes of wildflowers in transition from flower to seed. Tall teasels with their exquisite honeycomb pattern (each with a pale mauve tutu of flowers), deep purple thistles, (some with tousled white heads), bright yellow flowers of bristly ox-tongue, ox-eye daisies and hawkweed. White convolvulus bound everything together along with brambles with ripening blackberries. There were cushiony flowers of sea carrot and everything was underpinned with vetch.

Butterflies defied my attempts to follow their flight, jinking through the air then seeming to disappear. I saw several common blues, gatekeepers, large whites, meadow browns, tortoiseshells and speckled woods. Bees luxuriated in the flower heads, drowsy with sun.

Where the shingle started were large tough clumps of Sea Kale, blueish leaves folded and crumpled like tin foil, reflecting the sun. In the hollows of the plant were pools of water from the recent rain. Pale brown seedpods seemed to peer like aliens from long stalks.

Some spectacular Yellow Horned Poppy plants were dotted along the pebbles, the wrinkled-tissue flowers just starting to go over. This is a biennial plant with a thick rosette of blue-green leaves. Its stems are branched and up to three feet long. The seeds are produced in unusually long curved seed pods (horns).

Pincushions of thrift were tucked in amongst the shingle, holding on with their long roots, – only a few pink flowers left on spindly stems – most having seeded to papery pompoms. Flattened on the shingle were the faded blue flowers of the Sea Pea, resisting the salty winds.

There was a tangible energy coming off this place where everything was on the cusp of summer and autumn, flower and seed. Insects were in overdrive making the most of plenty, harvesting the last of the pollen before fat shiny seeds formed to float away or explode over the ground. Just stones and sea?

Snails, Showers and Seaweed

A humid morning. Snails sliding up walls lubricated with overnight rain. Bees slowly gyrating like a child’s mobile around the verbascum, their buzzing blending with the drone of a plane and the hum of approaching thunder. The air is static with electricity and the dog is on edge, following me everywhere – creeping under my desk, pressing against my legs.

I unplugged the broadband and headed for the beach hoping for fresher air. Camouflage-splodges of rain started to fall on the tarmac as I drove off. The recent dry weather has tanned the grass on the roadsides. Treetops are singed brown. The school holidays have just begun and autumn is already elbowing summer out of the way.

Rusty spokes of seeding hogweed line the road, along with spikes of rosebay willow herb. Thistles and burdock add to the purple theme. Sheep are bunching up in a field. By the time I reach the coast at Abbotsbury the screen wipers are on double speed and the rain is bouncing off the road like a million ping pong balls. People are sheltering under the corrugated iron porch of the beach café. A child in an adult-sized plastic cape is splashing luxuriously in the puddles.

I wait in the car till the flashes of lightning and thunder-rumbles subside. The heavy rain has turned the path behind the beach into a stream. I wade through wet shingle noting the bright yellow blooms on the bristly ox-tongue, the rain-battered petals of sea campion, candy-pink flowers of the common mallow and glossy red berries of woody nightshade, tunnels of tamarisk. The air is heavy and it’s like walking under water.

Back in the car and along the coast road. To my left a bank of grey cloud has merged with the sea distorting the horizon. On my right, puffs of steam are coming off the fields. Ahead, Golden Cap is topped by a plume of white mist and looks like a volcano. Colmers Hill is misty in the distance.

Along the strandline on Burton Bradstock are ribbons of different types of seaweed – carragheen, dulse and kelp, tied together by the storm. These are garnished with the usual fishing wire, bits of rope and plastic but I was pleased to see the shell of a spider crab. The gravely sand is pock-marked with the rain, there is a smell of fish and chips. A small boy is screaming like a gull as he rushes at the sea.

Driving home along a steaming road, the Fleet lies silver and flat as a filleted fish on the edge of the sea. I’m glad of the air-conditioning.