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.
Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.
I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.
I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.
I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!
Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.
The sea is beaten pewter – a tankard frothing with white foam. Gulls lurch over the waves, dipping and diving in the icy easterly wind. The shingle is scoured clean, flattened by the force of the waves. The air is saltwater, the sea full of air. A ball of empty egg cases of the common whelk (Buccinum undatum Linnaeus) bounces along the shoreline, light as the gobs of white foam blowing off the sea.
Another chunk had fallen off the yellow ochre cliff, leaving an overhang which looked ready to drop. The perpendicular face is composed of bands of sandstone, called Bridport sands, topped with inferior oolite and fullers earth. People stood heedlessly beneath the bulge, despite the evidence of recent rock falls. Others were throwing small rocks at bigger rocks trying to dislodge ammonites.
Huddled on the beach like a flock of grey sheep are humps of stone carelessly shorn by the waves of ragged fossils, revealing smooth bluish flanks, stained brown like dried blood and marked with the shapes of ancient sea-life. These fluent outlines have been swimming through the stone for millennia – a hidden world of strange creatures caged in jurassic rock. Fragile bones, leaves, membranes, tentacles, even faeces, all cradled delicately in a flock of obdurate stone.
The mysterious outlines drawn on the surface of these rocks speak of a time we can only imagine – a time when people valued the properties of stone for creating dwellings, stone circles, marking ancient ways, carving statues and as a base for cave art. Perhaps those people instinctively recognised the power of stone to preserve the past and last forever, holding secrets and clues to life on earth. Maybe when we look for fossils, we are subconsciously searching for answers – about the past, present and future . . .