Budleigh Salterton

Jurassic journey

As a child I spent my summer holidays in East Devon on the farm where my grandparents lived. I remember being fascinated by the red soil, the red cows and the red pebbles at Budleigh Salterton. This beach lies near the western end of the Jurassic Coast and at the mouth of the River Otter. Over fifty years ago I visited this place with my Grandma. Yesterday morning I stood here once more, studying the sculpted red cliffs behind the beach.

At intervals, whitish bulges run vertically down from the cliff top. These are the fossilised roots of trees which had existed 235 million years ago when Britain was part of a huge land mass much nearer the equator. These trees had sent roots down into the red sandy desert searching for water. Minerals that dissolved in the water grew in crystals round the roots encasing them. As time went by the streams moved and the plants died leaving the nodules encasing their roots. The fossilised remains tell this ancient story.

It was hard work walking on the beach over large round pebbles varying in colour from pale pink to dark red, some with vivid splotches and others veined with lines of quartz. There were small black ones with white stripes and pink marbled ones mottled with brown. These pebbles come from a layer in the cliff called the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Bed. They are unique and were deposited by a river 250 million years ago before being buried. Erosion has caused them to be dislodged from the cliff, forming the beach. They are made of a very hard rock called quartzite.

On the shoreline were flanges of strange white jelly glistening among the pebbles. I think they must have been torn-off tentacles of the barrel jellyfish that have been sighted recently off the coast. There was little other debris apart from cuttle fish and the occasional crab shell.

Behind the beach and the brightly coloured beach huts were banks of coastal wild flowers and the exotic Hottentot fig. The tufted tops of wild carrot, pink lacy thrift, pale convolvulus, woody tree mallows and valerian all flourished here with a buzzing throng of insects visiting the flower heads.

In the distance the marshy mouth of the Otter formed a plateau backed by a row of trees that looked like a scene off an old railway poster, the reds and greens of this unique landscape giving the place a slightly surreal feeling. Somewhere inland, beavers were making this river their home.

At the end of the day I was at Chiswell on Portland, towards the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, watching the sun go down off Chesil. A beachcomber, limbs weathered like driftwood foraged on the shore grappling with a tangled mass of orange, blue and green rope. He eventually walked away leaving these dreadlocks from the sea sprawled on the pebbles like a punk-style mermaid.

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Chesil at war

At 6am the moon was a wedge of lemon on a purple plate. By mid-morning the sun had retreated behind a sea mist that settled like white feathers in the hollows of Chesil Bank. The scrunch of my feet trudging across the pebbles sounded like an army, the noise echoing as I went over the top.

During the Second World War Chesil Beach was lined with ‘pill boxes’, the remains of which can still be seen. The bouncing bomb or Dambuster was trialled here and many aircraft were shot down along the beach. In the height of the war there were dogfights overhead and the remains of a Hurricane have since been excavated. The Chesil Beach Centre has an exhibition at the moment about the role of the Fleet and Chesil in WWII.

In no-man’s land between the highest point and the sea, the debris of an invasion is washed up on the shingle – plastic bottles, brightly coloured cigarette lighters, flip flops, rags and metal cans – all bound together with fishing wire and rope – an onslaught of marine litter jettisoned at sea. Chesil is waging a war against waste. Here and there are shells, skulls of seabirds, driftwood and cuttlefish – the natural and biodegradable objects thrown up by the sea. I find myself focusing on these, but the lurid detritus of civilisation (as we call it) keeps drawing my eye.

At the Eastern end of the bank, in the shadow of Portland Bill, the pebbles are large and multi-coloured, many having washed up from the Budleigh Salterton cliffs in East Devon. The result of the longshore drift is that pebbles are graded by size from the largest in the east to much smaller shingle on the western end of Chesil Beach. It’s hard work marching across these shifting pebbles and I bend forward into the wind, looking down at the many colours that make up the beach. In the summer Little Terns will be nesting here, the chicks perfectly camouflaged against the pebbles.

A rusting hulk is perched on the crest of the bank like a tank pointing out to sea, old desolate huts and towers huddle behind wire fences. Today there’s no sign of the hares which hunker down in the trenches by the Fleet. The only evidence of life – a few crows picking over the rubbish, checking for corpses of fish and gulls. I find a pebble with a hole in and hold it like a talisman.

As I turn away from the sea I notice a strange white line in the water running parallel to the shore. Behind the beach, where the vegetation begins, are signs of new growth – flowers of Danish Scurvy like tiny white stars forecasting a brighter future . . .

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.