A word is a piece of language. In the same way a pebble, a shell, a shard of china are all fragments of a language, a message from the past. Each object bears the mark of its history and traces of its journey to the present day, to the time when I pick it up and try to read its story. Sometimes the writing is clear and sharp like the imprint of a fossil, sometimes obscure like reading copper-plate writing through a green glass bottle.
These findings have often been lost for millennia and only arrive on the shore, and into the present, through the actions of waves, tides, rock-falls and longshore drift. For many years I have walked the strandline of the Jurassic Coast, picking up objects that catch my imagination. I now have bowls, jars, tins and boxes of this beach-treasure. It is time to catalogue my collection and write the history of the objects from the clues borne by each one.
I am starting by drawing each piece, building up the image with tiny strokes of sepia ink. This enables me to get to know the nature of each fragment. The slow process of drawing allows time for reflection and speculation on each mark – what caused a scratch, a crack, a particular colour or sheen . . . By the time I have finished drawing, I know my subject intimately. I have examined its shape, texture and colour using my hands and my eyes. A story has started to emerge from each object and I start to piece together its lost words.
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 . . .