marine litter

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 . . .

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Shorter days

The clocks have been put back and the countryside looks like an oil painting in need of restoration. Sombre tones and black shadows are overlaid with the brush strokes of bare twigs against a mottled ochre sky. The recent gales have stripped papery leaves from the trees and they skip across the lane like frisky mice.

This is a transition phase between the burgeoning seeds of early autumn and the stark beauty of winter. Dilapidated plants wilt blackly on the roadside, berries are squashed underfoot and old man’s beard cobwebs the hedges. The colours are slowly draining away, staining the roads with a mush of dead leaves. The occasional flower persists despite everything, incongruous as a party dress at a funeral.

I went to the coast where hang gliders and gulls floated in the grey sky. At Abbotsbury the tamarisk was still baby-pink, but the coastal plants were looking very dull. The seed heads of Babbington’s leek had lost their gloss, nodding their balding heads at the tops of scrawny stems. A few sea campion flowered, their veined green bladders full to bursting. Teasels like hibernating hedgehogs, sprays of bristly ox-tongue and the shrivelled flowers of thrift bordered the shingle. The pebbles were scattered with the debris from the many anglers down on the shoreline.

At Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock, the setting sun was pouring pale gold rays into the sea. A black strandline zigzagged along towards the cliffs – dried seaweed (mostly bladder wrack), feathers, the usual marine litter of plastic bottles, fishing wire and polystyrene tangled together with driftwood, cuttlefish and shells.

As I drove home I saw several kestrels at intervals along the coast road, hovering wedge-like in the last of the daylight.
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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.

Hare at Chesil beachhare running

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