A word is a piece of language. In the same way a pebble, a shell, a shard of china are all fragments of a language, a message from the past. Each object bears the mark of its history and traces of its journey to the present day, to the time when I pick it up and try to read its story. Sometimes the writing is clear and sharp like the imprint of a fossil, sometimes obscure like reading copper-plate writing through a green glass bottle.
These findings have often been lost for millennia and only arrive on the shore, and into the present, through the actions of waves, tides, rock-falls and longshore drift. For many years I have walked the strandline of the Jurassic Coast, picking up objects that catch my imagination. I now have bowls, jars, tins and boxes of this beach-treasure. It is time to catalogue my collection and write the history of the objects from the clues borne by each one.
I am starting by drawing each piece, building up the image with tiny strokes of sepia ink. This enables me to get to know the nature of each fragment. The slow process of drawing allows time for reflection and speculation on each mark – what caused a scratch, a crack, a particular colour or sheen . . . By the time I have finished drawing, I know my subject intimately. I have examined its shape, texture and colour using my hands and my eyes. A story has started to emerge from each object and I start to piece together its lost words.
In July I visited the Isles of Scilly, staying on Bryher. I spent a lot of time on Great Par beach, sketching and beach-combing, finding tiny pieces of sea-smoothed china with cryptic squiggles of pattern, purple and yellow flat periwinkle shells, flat top-shells with their zig-zaggy stripes and pointed limpet shells with holes drilled in them by the sea.
It was just after the full moon and the tides were very extreme – the locals call them ‘bad tides’ as they make boating difficult. On Great Par it was very low tide and I found the beach dotted with stranded jellyfish. The most noticeable were Blue-fire jellyfish – a deep purple/blue the colour of Scilly seas in summer. These varied in size from tiny blobs to side-plate-sized.
Compass jellyfish were also scattered around the tideline. They were large peach-coloured discs with distinctive dark brown markings radiating from a central small circle, just like the calibrations on a compass. The edges were outlined in dark brown spots which coincided with the spokes of the ‘compass’.
There were one or two Moon jellyfish, completely clear discs like the bottom of a pint glass, through which you could see the pebbles, soft-focus and distorted.
In the shallows where the tide was turning I saw something small moving towards the sea. Bending down I could see what looked like a miniature lobster, about two centimetres long. It stopped and seemed to be aware of me, lifting its tiny claws in a show of defiance. This was a Squat lobster. They find shelter and protections from predators in small cracks in the rocks and are quite common on Scilly.
I walked off behind the beach around Samson Hill where clouds of butterflies flew up where my feet brushed through the bracken. There were small copper butterflies, meadow browns and six-spot burnet moths. It reminded me of how things were when I was a child, before the advent of pesticides and industrial farming. Here on this small island in the Atlantic was a butterfly paradise.