Behind the Chesil bank at Abbotsbury, there is a hinterland, neither beach nor countryside. This area between high tide mark and the beginning of fields is known as the Littoral Zone. This is an apt name (regardless of the spelling) as the sea rarely reaches this area, so it is often littered with a strange array of objects, blown by the wind and caught in the scrubby undergrowth. This marginal area is joined to the land by a coastal path, a kind of selvedge that binds the border of the beach and attaches it to the countryside beyond. Yet this path also acts as a separation zone, the plants either side of the track being quite different.
Just as thoughts crowd your mind between sleep and waking, so the findings in this marginal area are random and sometimes disturbing. Ragged feathers and weathered scraps of driftwood mingle with plastic bottles, brightly coloured cigarette lighters and cellophane packaging and a nightmare selection of anglers’ rubbish. Light pink sea fan coral flits on the breeze and sometimes fossils of sea urchins surface from the shingle when you least expect to find anything worthwhile.
Mid-September and the sun is low in the sky, silvering glimpses of the sea and glossing the pebbles. I walk along the coastal path where teasels form a palisade to the seaward side. On my right, bordering a field, are tall stalks of seeding wild leeks (Babington’s leeks). These nod their heavy heads in the wind – clusters of dark brown seeds with wispy tendrils attached.
On the edges of the beach are the rubbery bat-wing leaves of Sea kale draped on the shingle. A few thrift flowers are in bloom, incongruously pink among the autumn colours. Sea campion is still flowering, the delicate bell-like shapes inspiring its folk-lore names of ‘dead man’s bells’, ‘witches’ thimbles’ and ‘Devil’s hatties’. The pale pink tassels of Tamarisk hang beside the path, decorating the tangle of twisted trunks and fringing the shady tunnels within the clump.
From the corner of my eye I see the seeds of the Creeping thistle float then vanish on the wind.
Conditions are harsh where pebbles meet soil. Today at Abbotsbury there is snow in the air. A south-westerly has sculpted clouds into mountains which cast their shadows over the sea like a map of the world. A rainbow tints the sallow winter downs and I can taste salt in the sleet.
A thicket of tamarisk, or salt cedar, thrives here at the back of the Chesil bank – stout glossy stems like a fistful of coloured pencils – white, ochre, sepia, raw sienna, ultramarine blue and umber. No flowers, just a scribble of matted beards where the blooms have shrivelled. Deep in this tangle of stems are blotches of bright yellow-green lichen. On the sheltered edges of the clump, a fringe of spiky new leaves defies the winter gales. These tamarisk trees are tethered to the ground by long tap-roots which seek out deep water.
Last summer on the Isles of Scilly I saw a lean elderly fisherman by a tamarisk tree. He was brown and sinewy as the twisting twigs above him, limbs shiny with sun and salt. Fishermen used to weave the stems of tamarisk into lobster pots. The branches are pliable, strong enough to withstand the force of winter, salt-resistant and strong as rope – it grew in the right place and seemed made for the purpose.
This group of tamarisk trees is dense and tangled – an efficient windbreak. In Egyptian mythology it is said that the body of Osiris was hidden in a tamarisk tree in Byblos until it was retrieved by Isis. I imagine that a small creature sheltering in this thicket of tamarisk, to weather the winter storms, may have difficulty finding its way out – just like a lobster from a pot.
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.
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.