The light was brilliant reflecting off the outgoing tide. Kimmeridge’s shale and flat stones caught the shine and made me wish I’d brought my sunglasses. People and dogs scrambled over the beach enjoying what felt like the first real day of spring. High on the cliff, the silhouette of Clavell Tower seemed sinister and out-of-place. Built in 1830 as a Tuscan folly by Rev Clavell of Smedmore House, it was used originally as an observatory. In 2006 it was moved 25 metres back from the crumbling cliff edge. The sudden boom of a distant gun on the army ranges reminded me that this area is more than just a tourist attraction.
On the beach were ribbons of kelp, some still attached to their ‘hold-fasts’ which had anchored them to the seabed until they were ripped out by tide and currents. The erosion on the cliffs bordering the beach showed the layers of Kimmeridge clay, mudstones, shale and dolomites, creating a banded wall of different colours. These chart the geological story of the Mesozoic era. Every so often the faint shape of an ammonite could be seen, some indented and others just shadows on the shale.
We visited the Etches museum – a beautifully designed building with lots of glass and space – showcasing the fossil collection of Steve Etches, a local man. Steve found his first fossil aged 5 – a sea urchin – in his garden. It started a lifetime’s passion. He has since become an expert on fossils found in Kimmeridge clay and donated his collection to the nation. It is now housed in this beautiful building where visitors can study the specimens and learn about their history.
Walking along the cliff top, the grass had that bright green appearance only seen in spring. Mauve periwinkles and wild daffodils added to the Easter-time feel. We looked down on small boats clustered on the shore waiting for calm seas. Coils of rope and lobster pots were stacked around the boat sheds. It was only the icy wind which reminded us that it was still early in the year.
In July I visited the Isles of Scilly, staying on Bryher. I spent a lot of time on Great Par beach, sketching and beach-combing, finding tiny pieces of sea-smoothed china with cryptic squiggles of pattern, purple and yellow flat periwinkle shells, flat top-shells with their zig-zaggy stripes and pointed limpet shells with holes drilled in them by the sea.
It was just after the full moon and the tides were very extreme – the locals call them ‘bad tides’ as they make boating difficult. On Great Par it was very low tide and I found the beach dotted with stranded jellyfish. The most noticeable were Blue-fire jellyfish – a deep purple/blue the colour of Scilly seas in summer. These varied in size from tiny blobs to side-plate-sized.
Compass jellyfish were also scattered around the tideline. They were large peach-coloured discs with distinctive dark brown markings radiating from a central small circle, just like the calibrations on a compass. The edges were outlined in dark brown spots which coincided with the spokes of the ‘compass’.
There were one or two Moon jellyfish, completely clear discs like the bottom of a pint glass, through which you could see the pebbles, soft-focus and distorted.
In the shallows where the tide was turning I saw something small moving towards the sea. Bending down I could see what looked like a miniature lobster, about two centimetres long. It stopped and seemed to be aware of me, lifting its tiny claws in a show of defiance. This was a Squat lobster. They find shelter and protections from predators in small cracks in the rocks and are quite common on Scilly.
I walked off behind the beach around Samson Hill where clouds of butterflies flew up where my feet brushed through the bracken. There were small copper butterflies, meadow browns and six-spot burnet moths. It reminded me of how things were when I was a child, before the advent of pesticides and industrial farming. Here on this small island in the Atlantic was a butterfly paradise.