scallop shells

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 . . .

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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