shingle

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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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.

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 . . .

Time and Distance

The sky was a pale faraway blue edged with surfy white clouds – the look it gets as autumn approaches and the sun steps back. House martins were gathering on the wires – separate black notes on a page of music.

I saw things from the corner of my eye – a clump of seeding thistles huddled in a field, tufty white heads nodding sagely, the ghost of an egret taking off from the stream, a scattering of young pheasants in the dry grass, a tortoiseshell butterfly incongruously perched on an alloy wheel, the sharp silvery leaves of the Carline thistle. It’s strange how things sometimes seem clearer sideways-on. Stars are seen best on the edge of vision.

On the coastal path at Abbotsbury plants, were anticipating autumn. The multi-coloured berries of nightshade hung in strigs over the pebbles, bristly ox-tongue was seeding vigorously and teasels revealing their exquisite architecture. Tamarisk bushes were flowering desperately, pink feathery flowers in disarray, looking as though they’d got up late, and almost missed the summer.

Along the verges, tall stems were silhouetted against the sky, each one topped with what looked like a carelessly packed parcel of black yoyos dangling spindly strings. These wild leeks (known as Babbington’s leeks) dominated the hedgerow.

Thought to have originated from prehistoric times, this is a perennial plant which grows well here – behind the beach, sheltered from the salty winds by the Chesil bank. Earlier in the summer lush strappy leaves surrounded pastel green stems, each with a globular flower head encased in a tissue-like membrane. In midsummer the membranes tear into little pixie hoods revealing a bunch of round bright green seeds from which grow small pinky-mauve flowers on thin stalks. Now the seeds were black as billiard balls, ready to roll.

On the shingle, sea pea extended thin green fingers, pointing towards the sea. Clumps of sea campion lay low, seed heads bobbing in the wind like tiny paper bags. A line of anglers marked the shoreline. Unfortunately their rubbish littered the strandline – a silvery shoal of polythene bags, bottles, cellophane and tinfoil barbeque trays.

From the corner of my eye I saw a strangely shaped pebble. It was a fossilised sea urchin, ground down and misshapen by sea and shingle. It seemed to squint at me from the distant past.

Just stones and sea . . ?

A welcome shower of rain – you could almost hear the parched ground soaking it up. I headed for Chesil beach. Buzzards and kestrels were surfing the thermals above the coast road as I arrived at Cogden, a fresh breeze blowing off the sea. A couple of holidaymakers passed by grumbling that it was ‘just stones and sea . . .’

Walking down the path to the beach, I was surrounded by swathes of wildflowers in transition from flower to seed. Tall teasels with their exquisite honeycomb pattern (each with a pale mauve tutu of flowers), deep purple thistles, (some with tousled white heads), bright yellow flowers of bristly ox-tongue, ox-eye daisies and hawkweed. White convolvulus bound everything together along with brambles with ripening blackberries. There were cushiony flowers of sea carrot and everything was underpinned with vetch.

Butterflies defied my attempts to follow their flight, jinking through the air then seeming to disappear. I saw several common blues, gatekeepers, large whites, meadow browns, tortoiseshells and speckled woods. Bees luxuriated in the flower heads, drowsy with sun.

Where the shingle started were large tough clumps of Sea Kale, blueish leaves folded and crumpled like tin foil, reflecting the sun. In the hollows of the plant were pools of water from the recent rain. Pale brown seedpods seemed to peer like aliens from long stalks.

Some spectacular Yellow Horned Poppy plants were dotted along the pebbles, the wrinkled-tissue flowers just starting to go over. This is a biennial plant with a thick rosette of blue-green leaves. Its stems are branched and up to three feet long. The seeds are produced in unusually long curved seed pods (horns).

Pincushions of thrift were tucked in amongst the shingle, holding on with their long roots, – only a few pink flowers left on spindly stems – most having seeded to papery pompoms. Flattened on the shingle were the faded blue flowers of the Sea Pea, resisting the salty winds.

There was a tangible energy coming off this place where everything was on the cusp of summer and autumn, flower and seed. Insects were in overdrive making the most of plenty, harvesting the last of the pollen before fat shiny seeds formed to float away or explode over the ground. Just stones and sea?