pebbles

Growing on the Edge

Behind the Chesil bank at Abbotsbury, there is a hinterland, neither beach nor countryside. This area between high tide mark and the beginning of fields is known as the Littoral Zone. This is an apt name (regardless of the spelling) as the sea rarely reaches this area, so it is often littered with a strange array of objects, blown by the wind and caught in the scrubby undergrowth. This marginal area is joined to the land by a coastal path, a kind of selvedge that binds the border of the beach and attaches it to the countryside beyond. Yet this path also acts as a separation zone, the plants either side of the track being quite different.

Just as thoughts crowd your mind between sleep and waking, so the findings in this marginal area are random and sometimes disturbing. Ragged feathers and weathered scraps of driftwood mingle with plastic bottles, brightly coloured cigarette lighters and cellophane packaging and a nightmare selection of anglers’ rubbish. Light pink sea fan coral flits on the breeze and sometimes fossils of sea urchins surface from the shingle when you least expect to find anything worthwhile.

Mid-September and the sun is low in the sky, silvering glimpses of the sea and glossing the pebbles. I walk along the coastal path where teasels form a palisade to the seaward side. On my right, bordering a field, are tall stalks of seeding wild leeks (Babington’s leeks). These nod their heavy heads in the wind – clusters of dark brown seeds with wispy tendrils attached.

On the edges of the beach are the rubbery bat-wing leaves of Sea kale draped on the shingle. A few thrift flowers are in bloom, incongruously pink among the autumn colours. Sea campion is still flowering, the delicate bell-like shapes inspiring its folk-lore names of ‘dead man’s bells’, ‘witches’ thimbles’ and ‘Devil’s hatties’. The pale pink tassels of Tamarisk hang beside the path, decorating the tangle of twisted trunks and fringing the shady tunnels within the clump.

From the corner of my eye I see the seeds of the Creeping thistle float then vanish on the wind.

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Poetry Day – 4 of my poems

Pipistrelles
In the uncertainty of dusk
pipistrelles gather invisible sound
picking up echoes of warmth
from old stone walls
winding in the whirr
of insects’ wings
darting closer
in faltering light
weaving me into their loom
of silence –
netting thoughts.

I hear my daughter indoors
practising her scales,
notes swooping
dipping –

roosting even now
in my mind
undisturbed by time.

Chalk Ghost
Chalk ghost on the windowpane –
a barn owl drawn by its own reflection
flew into the moonlit glass last night,
left its outline etched in flight dust.

Swooping Narcissus-like
on its rippling image
left the imprint of each feather –
whirlpools of dust for eyes,
emptiness where the beak should be.
How the glass must have screeched
when the talons flexed.
closing on that wraith-like prey.

published by Poetry Wales

Written in Chalk
Beneath this swaying field of flax
a sea bed swarms with coiled creatures
tiny ammonites
cochlea echoing with Jurassic surf,
snails curling round pebbles
imprinted with the cicatrice
of fallen petals.

Below the keel of plough
fossil fish spawn in salt-white sponge
swim through ancient coral
brittle as bone.

When the moon brims over Knowle Hill
a tide still turns beneath the earth.
Moths move in shoals
through scented waves.

Close layers lie undisturbed –
memory written in chalk.

September
This evening
picking beans after a thunder shower,
shed blossoms cling like drab insects
to my fingers.
Late sun, yellow as pumpkin flowers.

Now, with my colander
by the open kitchen door,
the sun makes a square on the red lino.
Outside hens peck at shreds of light.

Soon bats will draw down the dark,
But I’ll leave the door open,
breathe in the honeysuckle air
while moths circle the lampshade
dizzy from touching the moon.

published by Poetry Wales

Poetry by Jennifer Hunt (copyright applies)
Photo by Brian L Hunt

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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.

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 . . .

Salt Cedar

Conditions are harsh where pebbles meet soil. Today at Abbotsbury there is snow in the air. A south-westerly has sculpted clouds into mountains which cast their shadows over the sea like a map of the world. A rainbow tints the sallow winter downs and I can taste salt in the sleet.

A thicket of tamarisk, or salt cedar, thrives here at the back of the Chesil bank – stout glossy stems like a fistful of coloured pencils – white, ochre, sepia, raw sienna, ultramarine blue and umber. No flowers, just a scribble of matted beards where the blooms have shrivelled. Deep in this tangle of stems are blotches of bright yellow-green lichen. On the sheltered edges of the clump, a fringe of spiky new leaves defies the winter gales. These tamarisk trees are tethered to the ground by long tap-roots which seek out deep water.

Last summer on the Isles of Scilly I saw a lean elderly fisherman by a tamarisk tree. He was brown and sinewy as the twisting twigs above him, limbs shiny with sun and salt. Fishermen used to weave the stems of tamarisk into lobster pots. The branches are pliable, strong enough to withstand the force of winter, salt-resistant and strong as rope – it grew in the right place and seemed made for the purpose.

This group of tamarisk trees is dense and tangled – an efficient windbreak. In Egyptian mythology it is said that the body of Osiris was hidden in a tamarisk tree in Byblos until it was retrieved by Isis. I imagine that a small creature sheltering in this thicket of tamarisk, to weather the winter storms, may have difficulty finding its way out – just like a lobster from a pot.

The language of stone

Today the world is ironed flat like a tea towel – a grey rather frayed tea towel printed with a monochrome pattern of bare trees, square houses, smokeless chimneys and blank windows. It hung there till I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went out to see if the world had ended.

On the coast road the sky was creased and crumpled but still grey. The sea was grey too except for a straight line of silver surf marking the edge of the Chesil bank. This line speared into the fog and led me to Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock.

Others had also been drawn here on the last day of the extended Christmas break. The shingle was churned with their meanderings and the tide was low. Calm weather had left no visible strandline apart from a scattered path of larger stones and some black dry bladder wrack high on the beach – a legacy from the last storm.

Stone ruled here – from coarse sandy gravel to the towering sandstone cliffs, layered and crumbling. Large stones on the beach bore the marks of partially hidden fossils – belemnites, ammonites and ancient shells. Lucky stones had holes in. Smooth oval pebbles were marked with thin white lines – a language which spoke of the movement of the sea, the passing of millennia, the shape and transience of life and the enduring nature of stone.

Season of mists . . .

Early morning and the thatched roof looked as though it was covered in tiny muslin handkerchiefs – spiders’ webs. Grey mist, and a grey squirrel dashed across the road. Fog lay in the valley like an army blanket. In the distance, sea merged with sky. I can’t walk for spiders’ webs – feel as though I’ve been wrapped up in a grey cocoon, trapped like a fly ready for eating.

Three silvery trees, next to Horse chestnut trees, brown leaves ready to drop. My grandson showed me shiny conkers he’d collected. The weather has been good and we can’t let go of summer.

A bright green dragonfly whirring like something dangerous around the garden. Moving too fast to be seen clearly, mechanical and varnished like a strange missile on a mission. Two house martins dipped in a fly-frenzy, so absorbed they hadn’t noticed the rest had gone.

I headed for the coast through a soft-focus landscape. The sun was up there somewhere waiting for a gap in the mist. As I reached Burton Bradstock the fog fell away revealing a bright blue sky feathered with jet trails. Chesil beach was the colour and texture of an ice cream cone. Creamy foam curled on the edge of a postcard sea. I couldn’t believe it was the beginning of October.

Two fishermen had hauled their boat up the shingle and were sorting their nets. Beside them, a blue bucket of plaice, their orange spots looking quite frivolous in the sun against the dark grey skin, but an effective camouflage on the sea bed. The fishermen kindly gave me two for supper.

The tide was out and I walked towards the sandstone cliffs which looked soft and friable in the low morning sun. There have been many landslips, yet people still picnic beneath the crumbling rock faces.

Along the strandline was a trail of bright green gut weed intermingled with hundreds of white feathers – possibly the results of the autumn moult from gulls. There were no dead birds and hardly any litter after the recent calm weather. A few mother-of-pearl shells, the occasional mussel shell and one or two cuttle fish were dotted amongst the seaweed which meandered as far as I could see. Toothed wrack and kelp entwined with what looked like coral weed creating a scrawled line like copperplate writing on the parchment sand.

Different types of pebble glistened at the water’s edge, some marbled pink, characteristic of the coast at Budleigh Salterton in Devon, others grey striped with white – all perfectly polished by the sea, but lack-lustre when dry. Traces of fossils could be seen here and there. I once found a small ammonite lying on the beach, but most are hidden inside rocks like embryos in an egg. The forecast is for storms so I shall go back next week when the strandline will be written in a different language.

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 . . .