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 . . .


Chesil Hare


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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