teasel

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?

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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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