Chesil plants

Easter at Abbotsbury

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Start of the Easter holidays and the countryside looks like a child’s painting – poster blue sky, brilliant yellow squares of oilseed rape contrasting with the undiluted emerald of winter wheat. White flakes of blackthorn blossom are melting to pastel green.

On Chesil Beach, families are picnicking, children enjoying the cereal-crunch of pebbles under their feet. At first the vast expanse of shingle looks featureless, then tiny flowers come into focus between the pebbles. The washed-out white of Sea Campion moving slightly in the breeze above mats of small fleshy blue-green leaves. Beneath each flower is a mauve-veined bladder-like calyx. Sea Campion is flowering early this year. Its dense mats help to stabilise the shingle. Scurvy grass shows up as sprinkling of white stars with tiny heart-shaped leaves.

A ragged hedge of tamarisk grows at the back of the beach, tangled and bare with shiny dark maroon branches. Some twigs are already spangled with green in the more sheltered parts of the thicket. In the past this tough plant was used to make lobster pots – its common name is Withy. On the edge of the tamarisk bank, architectural heads of the wild teasel grow tall – a honeycombed structure difficult to do justice to in a drawing. The lower couples of the leaf bases form a cup which collects rainwater. Insects drown in this reservoir and the dissolved remains are absorbed by the plant for sustenance.

Bordering the path on the landward side of the beach are swathes of strappy leaves – Babbington’s Leek. Later in the year these will produce long stems topped with balls of bright green seeds capped by a papery hood. Then a spray of white flowers will burst out forming a pom-pom on the top of the stem. This perennial plant, like many of Chesil’s, is edible.

Hardly noticeable amongst the pebbles is a creeping plant with small blue-green leaves – Sea Purslane secretes salt from its leaves forming minute crystals on the surface.

As I walk away from the beach towards the village the air is laden with a strong honey scent – meadowsweet with its sticky yellow cymes of flowers attracting the bumblebees. Comfrey is growing beside the stream, a medicinal herb sometimes called Boneset, Knitbone or Bruisewort. The verges are studded with spring flowers – pink campion, dead nettles and then, in the shade, a patch of bluebells. Soon the woods will be as blue as the sea.

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Chesil Plants

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Spring on the Chesil Bank starts near the ground where there is the most shelter from the wind and salt-spray. Hares hunker down in the gullies, perfectly camouflaged against the tan and brown shingle. I was lucky to see my second hare this week as it leapt up right in front of me from one of these hollows, before jagging off across the pebbles towards the sea.

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On the eastern end of the Chesil, to the lee of the Bank, several plants are tentatively starting to flower from foliage flattened against the shingle. Low clumps of Thrift are sending up small aerials with dark pink buds drawn by the sun. Tiny white petals of Danish Scurvy scatter like snow flakes among the pebbles. Common Stork’s Bill has braved the cold with delicate girly pink flowers. It’s strange how the earliest of Spring flowers always appear to be the most fragile yet survive the cold and inhospitable conditions.

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Towards the western end of the Chesil Bank, however, the plants are quite different. Here the pebbles are much smaller and the shingle is sandier. Nothing is growing on the seaward side, but behind the bank of pebbles, Sea Kale is sending up new growth of rubbery purple leaves, frilled and curled against the salt winds. It is perfectly adapted to resist the harsh conditions of spray and gales with its knobbly gnarled stems, low habit and fleshy leaves.

Sea Beet, the ancestor of Chard, Beetroot and Spinach, is spreading glossy leaves in fecund clumps among the pebbles and Tree Mallows with their woody stems and umbrella-like leaves seem to withstand whatever weather is thrown at them.

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I shall be following the development of Chesil plants throughout the year with regular updates. I’m looking forward to the spectacular Horned Poppy in the Summer and the Agapanthus-like Babbington’s Leek – so watch this space!

Chesil Hare

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After a week of flu, curtains drawn against grey drizzle, I woke to sunshine and set off on my quest for the elusive March hare.  This time I headed for Chesil where hares are sometimes seen near the Fleet – a tidal lagoon eight miles long, formed in the last ice age, which lies behind the Chesil Bank.

Following months of winter gloom, the sun seemed very bright, reflecting off the shiny Chesil pebbles, as I squinted into the distance. The shingle stretched as far as I could see to the west, scant patches of sparse vegetation the only interruption to this vast stony landscape. The height of the bank blocked the view south to the sea. There was a carving of a hare on the wooden bridge which crossed to the shingle, but I wasn’t hopeful of finding one in this inhospitable environment.

Walking on pebbles is hard work and you find yourself bending forward, trudging along with your eyes on the ground looking for shells, pebbles with holes in, feathers, etc. Small flowers were starting to open on the mats of vegetation, contrasting with cigarette packets washed up from a container ship that lost its cargo in the Bay of Biscay. There was the usual muddle of driftwood, fishing wire, rope, plastic and tin cans, enlivened by the occasional shell or brittle white coral.

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Glancing up towards the ramshackle fishing sheds nearby, I saw a flash of gold shimmer over the pebbles. A hare! Lit by the low sun its fur was the colour of gingerbread which blended perfectly with the shingle. As I watched, it leapt over the pebbles towards the sea, moving fluently, but stopping occasionally to watch and listen. Flying up the steep slope of pebbles with the sun gilding its fur, it stopped on the top of the bank, sitting up on its hind legs, ears jutting skywards – an iconic silhouette. Then it plunged over towards the sea.

I walked back over the shingle replaying these brief seconds in my mind, not noticing the difficult terrain or the distance, just seeing that hare leaping through time and space – a shape-shifter of myth and legend.

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