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Kimmeridge in spring

The light was brilliant reflecting off the outgoing tide. Kimmeridge’s shale and flat stones caught the shine and made me wish I’d brought my sunglasses. People and dogs scrambled over the beach enjoying what felt like the first real day of spring. High on the cliff, the silhouette of Clavell Tower seemed sinister and out-of-place. Built in 1830 as a Tuscan folly by Rev Clavell of Smedmore House, it was used originally as an observatory. In 2006 it was moved 25 metres back from the crumbling cliff edge. The sudden boom of a distant gun on the army ranges reminded me that this area is more than just a tourist attraction.

On the beach were ribbons of kelp, some still attached to their ‘hold-fasts’ which had anchored them to the seabed until they were ripped out by tide and currents. The erosion on the cliffs bordering the beach showed the layers of Kimmeridge clay, mudstones, shale and dolomites, creating a banded wall of different colours. These  chart the geological story of the Mesozoic era. Every so often the faint shape of an ammonite could be seen, some indented and others just shadows on the shale.

We visited the Etches museum – a beautifully designed building with lots of glass and space – showcasing the fossil collection of Steve Etches, a local man. Steve found his first fossil aged 5 – a sea urchin – in his garden. It started a lifetime’s passion. He has since become an expert on fossils found in Kimmeridge clay and donated his collection to the nation. It is now housed in this beautiful building where visitors can study the specimens and learn about their history.

Walking along the cliff top, the grass had that bright green appearance only seen in spring. Mauve periwinkles and wild daffodils added to the Easter-time feel. We looked down on small boats clustered on the shore waiting for calm seas. Coils of rope and lobster pots were stacked around the boat sheds. It was only the icy wind which reminded us that it was still early in the year.

 

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Lost and Found

A word is a piece of language. In the same way a pebble, a shell, a shard of china are all fragments of a language, a message from the past. Each object bears the mark of its history and traces of its journey to the present day, to the time when I pick it up and try to read its story. Sometimes the writing is clear and sharp like the imprint of a fossil, sometimes obscure like reading copper-plate writing through a green glass bottle.

These findings have often been lost for millennia and only arrive on the shore, and into the present, through the actions of waves, tides, rock-falls and longshore drift. For many years I have walked the strandline of the Jurassic Coast, picking up objects that catch my imagination. I now have bowls, jars, tins and boxes of this beach-treasure. It is time to catalogue my collection and write the history of the objects from the clues borne by each one.

I am starting by drawing each piece, building up the image with tiny strokes of sepia ink. This enables me to get to know the nature of each fragment. The slow process of drawing allows time for reflection and speculation on each mark – what caused a scratch, a crack, a particular colour or sheen . . . By the time I have finished drawing, I know my subject intimately. I have examined its shape, texture and colour using my hands and my eyes. A story has started to emerge from each object and I start to piece together its lost words.

 

A Year on Chesil Beach

I apologise to all my followers for not having posted a blog for a while. This is because I have been busy creating a sketchbook of Chesil Beach. This has just been published and features different places along the Chesil bank at various times of the year.

The idea came from having written many blogs about Chesil for the BBC Wildlife website as one of their Local Patch Reporters. Once these blogs were published, they disappeared into the ether. I therefore decided I would use these as the starting point for my book before they were lost forever. I wanted the printed version to look just like an original sketchbook, so had it bound with board covers and a metal spiral binding for the spine. I hand-finished each one with a title label on the front.

The book is a mixture of handwritten text and illustrations in ink and watercolour. I follow the seasons and the months, starting with Spring and ending with Winter, featuring plants, shells, fossils etc found along the coast. Birds, fauna, boats and lobster pots all appear, in fact anything that caught my imagination in the unique habitat of the Chesil bank.

I enjoyed revisiting all the locations along the Chesil and, each time, came across new things to write about. Quite often it was the small things, like finding a grasshopper on the pebbles at Abbotsbury, that most inspired me. By publishing A Year on Chesil BeachI wanted to rediscover and celebrate the diverse environment found along the Chesil at different times of the year. By putting everything together in one book, I feel I have gone a little way towards portraying some of the mystery and beauty of the Chesil coast.

I am pleased to say the book is proving popular in Waterstones (Dorchester branch), Waterstones (Bridport branch), the Gallery on the Square (Poundbury) and Dansel Art Gallery in Abbotsbury. It will be available in other outlets soon.

I am now planning the next book and will cast my net wider to include the whole of the Jurassic Coast.

 

A Year on Chesil Beachis published by Archaeopteryx-Imprint Ltd and is available from their website www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk

An Array of Hedgehogs

A few months ago I posted a blog about Henrietta and her urchins. The story had ended on rather a low note when I found a dead hedgehog by the roadside. However, I’m pleased to say that we still have an array (the technical term for a group of hedgehogs) thriving in our garden and, although it’s difficult to be certain, one looks very much like Henrietta.

Over the summer we watched two young hedgehogs coming out at dusk from their nest under the shed and running playfully around on the patio. One in particular seemed intent on running laps for several minutes before stopping for food. We put out cat food (jelly-based and meaty) garnished with a few mealworms. We had been advised that too many mealworms are not a good idea as the hedgehogs seem to get addicted and this can cause huge problems. The following information has been copied from the Hedgehog Street website:-

‘Rescue centres up and down the country are seeing increasing numbers of their prickly patients with metabolic bone disease, which is linked to feeding large amounts of mealworms. Metabolic bone disease is a very distressing condition which basically robs their bones of calcium and leaves them so weak that they are barely able to stand up.’ 

Another issue is overfeeding which results in a hedgehog too fat to curl up and defend itself.

Our hedgehogs grew and seemed to thrive. Some kind neighbours fed them while we were away at the beginning of September and had fun sitting in the dark watching the antics of the young hedgehogs who would come and nibble their shoelaces!

Around the end of September, things seemed to change. The energetic lap-runner didn’t appear at his usual time and we’re wondering if he’d reached sexual maturity and had gone off to new pastures. We decided to put a camera out at night to monitor the activities. This showed at least two hedgehogs are still in the garden.

We have two commercially made hedgehog houses and one homemade one. We provided straw and piles of dead leaves and were pleased to see at least two of these houses are being used, as well as a compost sack half full of earth which has been topped up with leaf litter by an enterprising hedgehog to make a cozy nest!

In the last week or so every scrap of the food is disappearing overnight and we think this is because the hedgehogs are fattening themselves up ready for hibernation.

Our near neighbours have created hedgehog access holes in their fences and gates. The whole village is becoming more hedgehog-aware and reports have come in of hedgehogs in several gardens nearby so we’re hoping our hedgehog population will be booming next spring.

 

Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

By-the-Wind Sailors

A gale force south-westerly was blowing so I headed for Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock on the Jurassic coast to do some wave-watching. The sea was huge and grey topped by white manes. A deep roaring sound filled the air as waves broke across the shingle. Curds of foam were blowing across the beach like enormous snowflakes.

I walked head down into the wind scanning the strandline. What looked like a piece of clear cellophane caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw a beautiful whorled pattern like a spider’s web and realised it was a tiny By-the-Wind Sailor jellyfish (Vellela) only about 1cm across. It was transparent and delicate, but marked with a concentric pattern and topped by a tiny translucent sail.

I then noticed that there were hundreds of these tiny creatures all over the beach. Some were a deep sapphire blue and up to about 8cm long whereas others were completely transparent. All were whorled like finger prints and delicate as glass. They were scattered all along the strandline like miniature shipwrecked yachts. The tiny tentacles on their undersides weren’t apparent, but, when I picked one up it left inky blue residue on the palm of my hand.

Like exquisite solar panels, the tiny medusa convert sunlight to energy, their small sails align with the direction of the prevailing winds and they are carried helplessly along, often to be wrecked in their thousands on the west coast of America. It is unusual to see them in Dorset. Storm Desmond has caused the biggest influx of these marine creatures in a decade.

I’ve never seen these beautiful little crafts before and it was both exciting and sad to see so many stranded on the shore, left high and dry by the rough seas.

Water Meadow Walk

The countryside is wefted by the winding trails of animals. Old footpaths tell the story of human wanderings and everyone has their favourite walk – a ritual of travelling the same route several times a week. Although the route is the same, it is always a different walk with the changing seasons and chance encounters. My regular walk is through the water meadows which surround the village, through the next village and back along the footpath which runs parallel to the main road.

I set off today under a pewter sky, no sun, through a field of sheep. Seeding thistles dotted grass which had that dark green tinge that comes with cooler days. As I reached the stile at the end, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the chalk stream – the reflections looking like an abstract painting. Dead nettles and lush stinging nettles edged the narrow path, the innocent pink of Himalayan balsam belied its invasive nature. White bramble flowers glowed among sputnik-like ivy flowers, dusted with stinking lime green pollen.

Blackberries, Snowberries, Hips and Haws decorated the hedgerows. An inky cloud was now covering the northern sky and, as I glanced up, a Little Egret flew beneath it, white as a paper dart. I stopped on the bridge and leaned over to look at the water. A moorhen was dabbling about downstream and a couple of mallards were causing a splash as they took off from the surface. Then, beneath me, a kingfisher swooped out from under the arch of the bridge making me catch my breath. A blue streak lingered in my eyes long after it had gone.

Back along the cycle path, past seeding hogweed and teasels. Spiders’ webs draped the hedge. A scattering of pheasant’s feathers lay on the verge and nearby, at the edge of the road, the sad corpse of a fox cub. I walked home via a friend’s house to collect some huge green cooking apples. Next time the same walk will be different again . . .

Water blog

We sailed under Weymouth town bridge with nine inches to spare, not waiting for it to be raised as we wanted to catch the tide. A cardboard cup blew off the table as we headed for the Shambles, east of Portland Bill. There were three of us aboard, bound for the Isles of Scilly in a motor yacht, Moonlight Dancer. We were going to see my daughter who was working there for the summer. It was my first real sea voyage.

For a while I had been in emotionally uncharted waters and it felt good to be planning a trip meticulously and to know my destination. However, I was apprehensive about how I would cope with rough seas and had a supply of ginger sweets just in case. We gave the notorious Portland Race a wide berth, but the seas were very rocky and it took a while to round the Bill.

As we entered Lyme Bay off the Jurassic Coast, a watery sun tarnished the lumpy waves. A gannet swooped past in a flash of yellow, black and white then a fulmar skimmed the bow, dipping one wing in the water as it passed. Soon we were surrounded by a flock of fulmars, guillemots and black-backed gulls. I stood on deck with a sense of being cocooned in their weaving flight as they moved effortlessly between air and water, equally at home in either.

By late afternoon we sighted Start Point. We had the sun in our eyes and were negotiating three-metre waves. We decided to head for Salcombe to shelter overnight, but would be entering the harbour at low tide over the sand bar across the entrance. The sun went down and it became grey and murky. My feet were numb as we finally tied up in Salcombe. We could see the pub on the harbour side among the huddled houses, but had to be content with imagining its comforting warmth and good food.

When you see waves coming onto a beach, they seem orderly – all lining up and taking their turn to roll in. Out on the sea it’s a different matter – they seem to come from all directions and flow together in a chaotic mix of peaks and troughs. It makes for a relaxing night’s sleep however, being rocked about continuously.

The next morning was colder and windier. A weak sun glittered across the harbour as we had a cooked breakfast. We set off into a swelling sea, punching tide and doing 12 knots. About mid-morning a pod of dolphins appeared and swam along with us, playing around the boat for about ten minutes. I wondered if they could sense our pleasure and excitement at seeing them. I tried to take photos without success – all I got was a splash or two as if the camera was a net, from which they were trying to escape.

What must it be like to live in a limitless environment like the sea instead of being tethered to rooms, houses and towns . . . The cohesion between this family of dolphins formed an entity stronger than any manmade city. The collective fluidity of the creatures was like the sea itself – a harmony of living that seemed so much more sophisticated than our own muddled existence.

The dark curves of the plunging dolphins shed water like memories leaving bubbles of laughter on the surface of the sea. The way they moved seemed carefree, exultant yet purposeful and organised. I wondered if they were aware of the stick-like creature standing on the deck cheering them on.

Just off Fowey five warships loomed menacingly out of the fog, then two more dolphins swam reassuringly beside us in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements. By 2pm we had covered fifty-two miles and had forty-eight to go before we arrived on Scilly. We passed the Lizard then Lands End and saw the splendid isolation of Wolf Rock Lighthouse as the seas became very rough, and there was no leisure to do anything but try to keep the boat on course.

Scilly emerged from the distant horizon – a collection of fragmented rocks no bigger than seals. On a clear Summer’s day the Atlantic waters would be turquoise, each island surrounded by a frill of white sand, but this evening the archipelago seemed more sea than land, grey and indistinct. We set a course for St Mary’s and went slowly on a low tide down Crow Sound to the Quay where my youngest daughter waited – a sleek silhouette against the setting sun – as we came alongside.

Roman Road

Hot tarmac dwindling away.
Air thick as a swarm of bees.
I breathed hay and salt
husks and seeds as I drove.
Then the sky broke and
shards of rain fell on the road.
Steam-wraiths rose up
writhing beneath the tyres.
The hills either side
fell away to blankness,
whiteness.
I went slowly on through
chalk-light up a stony track.
A hare leapt from nowhere
jinked ahead –
a bone-raddled
automaton
leading me on.
I drove transfixed by
vein-marbled ears
moulded skull,
by limbs
loosely sleeved
in grey-brown
rain-soaked fur.
As it ran before me
the hare glanced back.
I saw its ancient
beckoning eye –
and would have followed
anywhere.