shells

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.

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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 . . .

Postcard from Scilly

Clouds of butterflies flutter around my head taking me back to childhood. I’m on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, in June, in a heat wave and in love with the place – an archipelago of granite islands which seem to float in a turquoise sea surrounded by white sand. Thirty miles off the rugged spit of Lands End and with nothing between them and America, the Scillies are unlike anywhere else.

The roads contain sand from the beach glittering with quartz, fragments of sea-glass and pieces of shell. Wildflowers edge the way, attracting insects in the sort of numbers I remember from the sixties, a contrast to the barren fields and verges of the mainland. Small and large tortoiseshell butterflies, red admirals, bees and beetles forage everywhere. Caterpillars gorge on the profusion of plants. We wait while a thrush smashes a snail in the road. The birds have little fear of people and hop around under your feet, and sometimes will even take food from your outstretched palm.

I saw a humming bird hawk moth gathering nectar from a tree echium – a plant which will grow to twenty feet high, smothered in small blue flowers attracting the bees and butterflies. On the margins between land and sand, sea holly and other salt-resistant plants flourish. The beaches are strewn with tiny shells not seen on the mainland – lucky cowrie shells like small clenched hands, swirling pink and silver top shells, yellow hi-vis winkles, fragile fan-shaped tellins, whelks hollowed by the sea to ivory twists … all set in dazzling white sand peppered with quartz crystals. Beachcombing on a sand bar with the turquoise water lapping at your feet is paradise.

Beyond the main islands are uninhabited smaller islands and large rocks which are a perfect environment for seals and seabirds such as the Puffin, Guillemot, Shag, Cormorant, Gannet and various types of gull. Unusual birds are often storm-bound on Scilly and create a great deal of interest. At St Martin’s a blackboard lists recent sightings – whitethroat, bar-tailed godwit, sanderling, golden plover …

I went on a boat trip to the Western Isles by invitation of the Sea Bird Recovery Project and learnt more about the birds of the Isles of Scilly – the subject of my next blog, coming soon.