Jurassic coast

Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

By-the-Wind Sailors

A gale force south-westerly was blowing so I headed for Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock on the Jurassic coast to do some wave-watching. The sea was huge and grey topped by white manes. A deep roaring sound filled the air as waves broke across the shingle. Curds of foam were blowing across the beach like enormous snowflakes.

I walked head down into the wind scanning the strandline. What looked like a piece of clear cellophane caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw a beautiful whorled pattern like a spider’s web and realised it was a tiny By-the-Wind Sailor jellyfish (Vellela) only about 1cm across. It was transparent and delicate, but marked with a concentric pattern and topped by a tiny translucent sail.

I then noticed that there were hundreds of these tiny creatures all over the beach. Some were a deep sapphire blue and up to about 8cm long whereas others were completely transparent. All were whorled like finger prints and delicate as glass. They were scattered all along the strandline like miniature shipwrecked yachts. The tiny tentacles on their undersides weren’t apparent, but, when I picked one up it left inky blue residue on the palm of my hand.

Like exquisite solar panels, the tiny medusa convert sunlight to energy, their small sails align with the direction of the prevailing winds and they are carried helplessly along, often to be wrecked in their thousands on the west coast of America. It is unusual to see them in Dorset. Storm Desmond has caused the biggest influx of these marine creatures in a decade.

I’ve never seen these beautiful little crafts before and it was both exciting and sad to see so many stranded on the shore, left high and dry by the rough seas.

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

Hampton Stone Circle

Do you ever have one of those days when you want to hide from the world? Sometimes things get too busy and you just need time out. I had a day like that recently. Things went haywire right from the start. I felt like a double image where my real self was out of alignment and slightly removed from reality.

I set off along the South Dorset Ridgeway above Portesham, feeling exposed and vulnerable on the chalky path. I saw myself from a distance – an ant on a strip of white paper – insignificant and infinitely squashable. The light was brash and a strong wind winnowed from the coast raking fields of barley to a silver sea. My hair blew across my face and I stumbled over flints. Hawthorn trees bent away from the relentless gales, their limbs twisting as they tried to escape.

I came across a sign for Hampton Stone Circle but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then, amongst a weedy patch in the corner of the field I saw it – the grey backs of the stones just visible through the stalks of cow parsley and brambles. I threaded my way through the tangle of undergrowth and sat on the first stone I saw. I was hidden by the tall stems of the grass surrounding me. The stone felt strangely warm, a comfortable place to sit out of the wind. Here it was quiet apart from the rustling of leaves and the low buzz of insects.

I stayed there a while feeling sheltered and protected from the bright open landscape. I couldn’t count the stones as they were covered by vegetation. It was as if they had grown from the ground. Looking up I could see the circle of the sky. Under my hand, the surfaces of the stones were calloused and veined. I could smell the pineapple weed dotted around by my feet. Pale moths flitted ghostlike from leaf to leaf. A pink and green grasshopper landed on my foot. Far away a skylark was singing.

When I stood up the world was a circle around me, half bordered by sea. I closed my eyes and heard the barley moving like surf. I wondered about the people who had made stone circles and what prompted them to create such structures. Words and ideas shifted around in my mind. I could hear the sound of pebbles being moved endlessly in the long-shore drift along the Jurassic Coast.

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.

Snails, dung beetles and burial mounds

I set off from Sutton Poyntz – a pretty village with a duck pond, hunkered down below the eastern haunches of the South Dorset Ridgeway. A chalky path led steadily upwards through a green landscape towards an intensely blue sky. To the south, an equally blue sea defined the Jurassic Coast. Buttercups glowed beside the path as though varnished by the sun, there was vivid blue germander speedwell and the enamelled white petals of daisies. Above these, a froth of sour-smelling cow parsley.

As the path got steeper I focussed on the ground in front of me. The track was strewn with empty snail shells – all different sorts from small lemony yellow ones to large tawny swirled snails and, in between, stripy humbug shells and chalky blue/grey ones. All the shells were empty. If a thrush had eaten the contents, I would have thought the shells would be shattered, but each one was intact. Perhaps the snails were venturing from one side of the path to the other when the heat of the sun dried them out. But there were no decomposing corpses so ‘snail mile’ remains a mystery.

By this time I was at the end of the path and just cresting the ridge of hills. Below me were clusters of houses, their windows winking SOS signals in the bright sun. This litter of habitation looked like terminal moraine at the end of a glacier. I stood on top of the world surrounded by seeding grasses and the strong lanolin smell of sheep. Dreadlocks of sheep’s wool hung from barbed wire fences and a newly shorn pristine flock skittered anxiously around seemingly self-conscious in their naked whiteness.

The tall grasses were topped with multi-coloured seedheads – rust red, purple, brown and pink. At ground level were swathes of candy-coloured clover and a creeping mat of buttercups. Out of this tapestry rose a pillowy tumulus. I chose my patch carefully and lay down on the barrow among the nettles, thistles and sheep dung.

Coppery dung beetles with shiny peppermint thoraxes scuttled among the grass stems, occasionally taking off, their small whirring wings hardly adequate to carry their bulbous bodies along. In Egyptian mythology the dung beetle or scarab was immortalised in the form of amulets. The sun god, Ra, rolled across the sky each day transforming bodies and souls, just as the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food. The dung is also used for a brood chamber where the beetle lays its eggs, and where these later turn into larvae. Consequently the dung beetle was seen a symbol of the heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and resurrection. I read a report that the dung beetle is tuned into the circadian rhythms, being a crepuscular flier. It seemed a suitable companion on this burial mound.

I lay rather uncomfortably with a stone in my back imagining the skeletons buried beneath me in that cold dark earth. Above me, clouds were spaced out like continents. A skylark sang distantly and I could almost feel the spinning of the world as I lay balanced between land and sky on the top of that burial mound.

I turned my back on the pylons standing sentinel on the summit of the ridgeway and started the steep climb back down to Sutton Poyntz. On the lower stretch was a woodland – Veteran Wood, a conservation area owned by Wessex Water. A board explained that the copse contained several veteran trees of over a hundred years old. I stepped into the cool shade of the wood and the scent of wild garlic. A clear stream meandered between the trees whose roots stretched out to paddle in its coolness. It was quiet here apart from muted birdsong. Green ferns uncurled beside the water and I imagined weary travellers slaking their thirst and resting in this peaceful place before journeying on.

Dimpse

The idea was to have a moonlit walk on the South Dorset Ridgeway. This ancient trackway runs along a knife-edge high above the sea with views towards Portland and the Jurassic coast to the south and over the valley of the River Frome to the north. It was created millions of years ago when Africa crashed into Europe causing this part of Dorset to crumple up like a tablecloth. In prehistoric times when most of the land was forested, this narrow exposed chalky ridge – where little could grow apart from contorted thorn trees – provided a relatively clear and safe route.

We arrived just before dusk on the day after the full moon. The sun was low in the sky casting dramatic shadows from clusters of tumuli and the distant hill fort of Maiden Castle. We were stalked by our own shadows which crept over the wind-bent grass behind us as we walked west. Campions and Cow Parsley lined the verge beside the track. The sea to our left was a brilliant blue like paint squeezed straight from the tube. The air was peppered with pollen and my eyes felt gritty in the wind.

Skylarks were singing for a while then they dropped with the sun into the long grass. Small white moths flitted beside the path. The sun was so low it was skimming the ground, spot-lighting the wayside poppies, clover and buttercups. The clouds banked up while a single bird sang on the wires overhead. Then the sun glowed briefly like a giant poppy before vanishing. We turned to walk back and saw the silhouette of a deer above a grassy mound, ears sharply etched against the sky.

The wildflowers seemed to have kept a little of the last light, ox-eye daisies glowing in the dark grass. My mother used to call this dusking time ‘dimpse’ – a word which describes perfectly the dim soft light that lingers before darkness falls. We waited a while hoping to see the moon, but it wasn’t due to rise till much later.

As I drove home I saw a fox trotting across a field in a purposeful way – night creatures were beginning to claim the land. A few hours later a huge moon hung in the sky over our village and I imagined its light silvering the chalky track of the Ridgeway where we walk in the footprints of ancient people.

Following the Strandline

Aged six on Brighton beach my father told me that pebbles with holes in were lucky so I spent the day collecting as many as I could find. I threaded them on a piece of orange wire to make a necklace which I could hardly lift. That was the beginning of my fascination with beach combing.

Since then I have followed strandlines in many different places. In my early twenties I stayed on an island in the Oslo fjord where the coast was littered with strange chunks of glacial rock – pink, black, yellow, some looking like chocolate chip cookies and others like rock buns full of currants. I was so absorbed studying these unusual pebbles that I slipped and fell in the icy fjord. Climbing out I scratched my palms on the barnacles that covered the rocks.

When my children were small we spent our holidays in south Cornwall where we spent hours looking in rock pools for whiskery prawns and darting fish. On the black granite rocks stacked along the coast, we often saw pink sea anemones like half-sucked sweets. My youngest daughter grabbed one and put it in her mouth only to spit it out in a hurry. If you gently touched the tentacles of an anemone under water it would quickly close on your finger tip. Under the rocks were small transparent crabs which scuttled out if disturbed. Sometimes we would find bigger ones and draw them.

My favourite beaches are on the Isles of Scilly where the glittering white sand makes a perfect backdrop for delicate pink tellin shells, bright yellow and purple dog whelks, lucky cowrie shells and silvery top shells. Sometimes I would come across a violet jellyfish washed up on the strandline, translucent and gleaming in the sun, a dust of fine sand frosting its filmy surface or a pale orange compass jellyfish with distinctive markings. The paper-thin cases of sea potatoes (known locally as sea mice) blow around here like choux buns. Sometimes I used to come across sand dollars – like tiny bleached coins, but much more desirable.

On Town Beach, St Mary’s I find fragments of china, often with faded patterns in Victorian green and pink. I wonder about the people who used these items – whether plates and cups had been thrown and broken in anger or washed up from a shipwreck. I collect small pieces of glass worn smooth by the sea – pale green, blue, mauve and surf-white.

Now I visit the beaches along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, picking up driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam to make sculptures. I photograph cuttlefish, scallop shells, different types of seaweed and draw the plants I find. I can spend hours looking for fossils. After a storm I’ve found shoals of pastel-coloured scallop shells and small rubbery starfish. Last winter’s storms washed up hundreds of seabirds and quantities of marine litter, shocking to see.

Walking along the strandline, looking at the trail left by the tide, I find myself in a meditative frame of mind, picking up memories, unravelling problems, planning a painting, thinking about family – in fact following an interior tide-line. Sometimes I pick up a shell or pebble and hold it for a while like a talisman.

Pebbles have been found in burial mounds indicating that people have been treasuring beach finds for thousands of years. Looking hard at things while you walk is a sort of displacement activity that can calm the mind. I remember once taking a walk along the strandline at Burton Bradstock, trying to unwind during a stressful house move. Suddenly I saw a hermit crab moving tentatively along the shore and made the connection with my own situation – waiting to move into someone else’s house . . .

Beachcombing

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Things were not as they appeared to be. I thought I saw a fragment of coral washed up on the beach, but it was a tiny white plastic reindeer half-buried among the flotsam and jetsam. Then a pink ribbon of seaweed caught my eye – a torn piece of rubber glove. The translucent skull of a bird turned out to be perforated plastic. Things became even more surreal when I saw a face someone had drawn on a pebble, looking up at me like Humpty Dumpty.

I was on Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock, on a stormy day beachcombing for things to draw. I was hoping for small multi-coloured scallop shells, mauve, yellow, orange and white, perched on the pebbles like tiny butterflies. I had seen huge quantities of these a few years ago and have been hoping ever since to see them again. May be I would see a few spider crabs or a fossil or two.

So today I was scanning the strandline for sketchable wildlife, only to find myself wading through a tangle of detritus. A landslip of clay like a frozen wave stuck to the black and white feathers of dead razorbills and guillemots among the bright colours of plastic, fishing wire and nylon rope. I counted at least a dozen dead birds on a short stretch of the beach. Some killed by the violence of the storms, but there is also evidence of chemical pollution along the coast.

Waves rolled in, driven by the relentless gale, then broke in thick ropes of water fraying to white on the pebbles. The sound filled my head like a migraine and I was blinded by the salty spray. Through the mist I saw a glossy brown mermaid’s purse (the egg case of a dog fish) and a ribbed piece of a large cockleshell like a bird’s wing. I put these finds in my pocket to draw later.

My visit hadn’t turned out as I anticipated. I had had a vision of what I wanted to find and was not looking properly at the strandline, seeing coral where there was plastic, seaweed where there was rubber … It took me a while to look properly and to observe what was actually there instead of what I imagined might be there. I suppose it’s human nature to have preconceptions and to anticipate what is to come, but I felt this was a lesson to me in how important it is to keep an open mind and to observe impartially in order to see clearly.

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 Shells from a Summer beach                                  A memory from the Summer