tamarisk

Salt Cedar

Conditions are harsh where pebbles meet soil. Today at Abbotsbury there is snow in the air. A south-westerly has sculpted clouds into mountains which cast their shadows over the sea like a map of the world. A rainbow tints the sallow winter downs and I can taste salt in the sleet.

A thicket of tamarisk, or salt cedar, thrives here at the back of the Chesil bank – stout glossy stems like a fistful of coloured pencils – white, ochre, sepia, raw sienna, ultramarine blue and umber. No flowers, just a scribble of matted beards where the blooms have shrivelled. Deep in this tangle of stems are blotches of bright yellow-green lichen. On the sheltered edges of the clump, a fringe of spiky new leaves defies the winter gales. These tamarisk trees are tethered to the ground by long tap-roots which seek out deep water.

Last summer on the Isles of Scilly I saw a lean elderly fisherman by a tamarisk tree. He was brown and sinewy as the twisting twigs above him, limbs shiny with sun and salt. Fishermen used to weave the stems of tamarisk into lobster pots. The branches are pliable, strong enough to withstand the force of winter, salt-resistant and strong as rope – it grew in the right place and seemed made for the purpose.

This group of tamarisk trees is dense and tangled – an efficient windbreak. In Egyptian mythology it is said that the body of Osiris was hidden in a tamarisk tree in Byblos until it was retrieved by Isis. I imagine that a small creature sheltering in this thicket of tamarisk, to weather the winter storms, may have difficulty finding its way out – just like a lobster from a pot.

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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.

Snails, Showers and Seaweed

A humid morning. Snails sliding up walls lubricated with overnight rain. Bees slowly gyrating like a child’s mobile around the verbascum, their buzzing blending with the drone of a plane and the hum of approaching thunder. The air is static with electricity and the dog is on edge, following me everywhere – creeping under my desk, pressing against my legs.

I unplugged the broadband and headed for the beach hoping for fresher air. Camouflage-splodges of rain started to fall on the tarmac as I drove off. The recent dry weather has tanned the grass on the roadsides. Treetops are singed brown. The school holidays have just begun and autumn is already elbowing summer out of the way.

Rusty spokes of seeding hogweed line the road, along with spikes of rosebay willow herb. Thistles and burdock add to the purple theme. Sheep are bunching up in a field. By the time I reach the coast at Abbotsbury the screen wipers are on double speed and the rain is bouncing off the road like a million ping pong balls. People are sheltering under the corrugated iron porch of the beach café. A child in an adult-sized plastic cape is splashing luxuriously in the puddles.

I wait in the car till the flashes of lightning and thunder-rumbles subside. The heavy rain has turned the path behind the beach into a stream. I wade through wet shingle noting the bright yellow blooms on the bristly ox-tongue, the rain-battered petals of sea campion, candy-pink flowers of the common mallow and glossy red berries of woody nightshade, tunnels of tamarisk. The air is heavy and it’s like walking under water.

Back in the car and along the coast road. To my left a bank of grey cloud has merged with the sea distorting the horizon. On my right, puffs of steam are coming off the fields. Ahead, Golden Cap is topped by a plume of white mist and looks like a volcano. Colmers Hill is misty in the distance.

Along the strandline on Burton Bradstock are ribbons of different types of seaweed – carragheen, dulse and kelp, tied together by the storm. These are garnished with the usual fishing wire, bits of rope and plastic but I was pleased to see the shell of a spider crab. The gravely sand is pock-marked with the rain, there is a smell of fish and chips. A small boy is screaming like a gull as he rushes at the sea.

Driving home along a steaming road, the Fleet lies silver and flat as a filleted fish on the edge of the sea. I’m glad of the air-conditioning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter at Abbotsbury

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Start of the Easter holidays and the countryside looks like a child’s painting – poster blue sky, brilliant yellow squares of oilseed rape contrasting with the undiluted emerald of winter wheat. White flakes of blackthorn blossom are melting to pastel green.

On Chesil Beach, families are picnicking, children enjoying the cereal-crunch of pebbles under their feet. At first the vast expanse of shingle looks featureless, then tiny flowers come into focus between the pebbles. The washed-out white of Sea Campion moving slightly in the breeze above mats of small fleshy blue-green leaves. Beneath each flower is a mauve-veined bladder-like calyx. Sea Campion is flowering early this year. Its dense mats help to stabilise the shingle. Scurvy grass shows up as sprinkling of white stars with tiny heart-shaped leaves.

A ragged hedge of tamarisk grows at the back of the beach, tangled and bare with shiny dark maroon branches. Some twigs are already spangled with green in the more sheltered parts of the thicket. In the past this tough plant was used to make lobster pots – its common name is Withy. On the edge of the tamarisk bank, architectural heads of the wild teasel grow tall – a honeycombed structure difficult to do justice to in a drawing. The lower couples of the leaf bases form a cup which collects rainwater. Insects drown in this reservoir and the dissolved remains are absorbed by the plant for sustenance.

Bordering the path on the landward side of the beach are swathes of strappy leaves – Babbington’s Leek. Later in the year these will produce long stems topped with balls of bright green seeds capped by a papery hood. Then a spray of white flowers will burst out forming a pom-pom on the top of the stem. This perennial plant, like many of Chesil’s, is edible.

Hardly noticeable amongst the pebbles is a creeping plant with small blue-green leaves – Sea Purslane secretes salt from its leaves forming minute crystals on the surface.

As I walk away from the beach towards the village the air is laden with a strong honey scent – meadowsweet with its sticky yellow cymes of flowers attracting the bumblebees. Comfrey is growing beside the stream, a medicinal herb sometimes called Boneset, Knitbone or Bruisewort. The verges are studded with spring flowers – pink campion, dead nettles and then, in the shade, a patch of bluebells. Soon the woods will be as blue as the sea.

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