convolvulus

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.

Goodbye to Summer

Early morning and the sun shooting low, straight in my eyes like an inquisition. I couldn’t see where I was going so studied the ground, seeing for the first time, reflective specs in the white lines on the road. The low light revealed snail trails like invisible ink – a log of night-time journeys, written in loops and flourishes. Bird droppings studded with yellow seeds blotted the pavement. Overgrown brambles and nettles plucked at me on the narrow path.

On the river half a dozen young mallards had turned sideways against the current as they swam under the bridge – perhaps to slow themselves down. Petals of Himalayan Balsam lay flat on the surface of the water like purple hearts.

Along the lane where it borders the site of an ancient track I got my usual goose bumps. The sun dappled the road through the trees and the only sound was birdsong. Suddenly I heard approaching footsteps – a jogger going by. I looked over towards the old high track almost expecting to see someone. As I emerged from the shade my shadow sprang ahead and startled me.

I could hear sheep tearing at the grass. Low down in the hedges, convolvulus flowers were furled in the shade, but open trumpets in the sun. Higher up, was a collage of colour and texture. Berries of all hues and sizes hung against a green backdrop – deep purple elderberries, dusky wild damsons, red and orange honeysuckle berries, wild cherry plums and peppermint-white snowberries. In an alder tree were compact green cones like hand grenades about to explode.

Some plants made up for lack of colour with intricate patterns and shapes – propellers of sycamore, knobbly hog weed seeds like jacks ready to scatter, wads of thistledown on the wind and delicate drifts of dandelion seeds counting down the days to autumn.

At home about twenty house martins were swooping up, one after another, to a nest under the eaves then dipping away as though saying goodbye to summer.