Thrift

Jurassic journey

As a child I spent my summer holidays in East Devon on the farm where my grandparents lived. I remember being fascinated by the red soil, the red cows and the red pebbles at Budleigh Salterton. This beach lies near the western end of the Jurassic Coast and at the mouth of the River Otter. Over fifty years ago I visited this place with my Grandma. Yesterday morning I stood here once more, studying the sculpted red cliffs behind the beach.

At intervals, whitish bulges run vertically down from the cliff top. These are the fossilised roots of trees which had existed 235 million years ago when Britain was part of a huge land mass much nearer the equator. These trees had sent roots down into the red sandy desert searching for water. Minerals that dissolved in the water grew in crystals round the roots encasing them. As time went by the streams moved and the plants died leaving the nodules encasing their roots. The fossilised remains tell this ancient story.

It was hard work walking on the beach over large round pebbles varying in colour from pale pink to dark red, some with vivid splotches and others veined with lines of quartz. There were small black ones with white stripes and pink marbled ones mottled with brown. These pebbles come from a layer in the cliff called the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Bed. They are unique and were deposited by a river 250 million years ago before being buried. Erosion has caused them to be dislodged from the cliff, forming the beach. They are made of a very hard rock called quartzite.

On the shoreline were flanges of strange white jelly glistening among the pebbles. I think they must have been torn-off tentacles of the barrel jellyfish that have been sighted recently off the coast. There was little other debris apart from cuttle fish and the occasional crab shell.

Behind the beach and the brightly coloured beach huts were banks of coastal wild flowers and the exotic Hottentot fig. The tufted tops of wild carrot, pink lacy thrift, pale convolvulus, woody tree mallows and valerian all flourished here with a buzzing throng of insects visiting the flower heads.

In the distance the marshy mouth of the Otter formed a plateau backed by a row of trees that looked like a scene off an old railway poster, the reds and greens of this unique landscape giving the place a slightly surreal feeling. Somewhere inland, beavers were making this river their home.

At the end of the day I was at Chiswell on Portland, towards the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, watching the sun go down off Chesil. A beachcomber, limbs weathered like driftwood foraged on the shore grappling with a tangled mass of orange, blue and green rope. He eventually walked away leaving these dreadlocks from the sea sprawled on the pebbles like a punk-style mermaid.

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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?

Chesil Plants

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Spring on the Chesil Bank starts near the ground where there is the most shelter from the wind and salt-spray. Hares hunker down in the gullies, perfectly camouflaged against the tan and brown shingle. I was lucky to see my second hare this week as it leapt up right in front of me from one of these hollows, before jagging off across the pebbles towards the sea.

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On the eastern end of the Chesil, to the lee of the Bank, several plants are tentatively starting to flower from foliage flattened against the shingle. Low clumps of Thrift are sending up small aerials with dark pink buds drawn by the sun. Tiny white petals of Danish Scurvy scatter like snow flakes among the pebbles. Common Stork’s Bill has braved the cold with delicate girly pink flowers. It’s strange how the earliest of Spring flowers always appear to be the most fragile yet survive the cold and inhospitable conditions.

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Towards the western end of the Chesil Bank, however, the plants are quite different. Here the pebbles are much smaller and the shingle is sandier. Nothing is growing on the seaward side, but behind the bank of pebbles, Sea Kale is sending up new growth of rubbery purple leaves, frilled and curled against the salt winds. It is perfectly adapted to resist the harsh conditions of spray and gales with its knobbly gnarled stems, low habit and fleshy leaves.

Sea Beet, the ancestor of Chard, Beetroot and Spinach, is spreading glossy leaves in fecund clumps among the pebbles and Tree Mallows with their woody stems and umbrella-like leaves seem to withstand whatever weather is thrown at them.

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I shall be following the development of Chesil plants throughout the year with regular updates. I’m looking forward to the spectacular Horned Poppy in the Summer and the Agapanthus-like Babbington’s Leek – so watch this space!