Most people assume that when I see the sea, I get in it. But actually that is not always the case. Sometimes I stay dry and can be found just as happy scouring the strandline for pretty pebbles, shells and sea glass.
Every pot and shelf in my home is full of my finds. Moulted crab shells, wishing stones, hag stones, shells, drift wood, coral and my most prized possessions, sea glass. Each one reminds me of a beach I visited and happy times. Some people display photographs, I display my beach bounty.
Beachcombing is similar to sea swimming in lots of ways. It is another way I can relax, unwind and rest. I struggle to switch off and have had very little success at relaxation exercises and meditation. But by the sea, I am instantly soothed into a calm state and if you throw in a repetitive process that holds my attention without mental effort and there you have it. Mindfulness.
I started searching the shoreline when I was very young. I often collected huge quantities of shells from Selsey’s East Beach. Large scallop and oyster shells discarded by the large fishing fleet that was once there. And smaller spiral shells in the patches where the sand meets the shingle. The dull dark periwinkles thrown back into the sea but the pretty pink top shells hoarded. I would then create pictures and patterns on large pebbles using clear nail varnish to attach the shells and show off their shine. When my daughter was young, I bought her a shell collecting net bag and books to help her identify them all, only for her to show little interest and hurl herself into the water. They didn’t go unused as I assumed my shoreline position to keep a watchful eye on her and have snatched searches. She has now become the world’s best sea glass spotter so something must have rubbed off. My son has always been my magpie. Always finding shiny treasure, lost earrings and feathers, proudly bestowing them to me as boons.
As I’ve aged, my love for looking for beach booty hasn’t abated. Shingle beaches are often ignored in favour of sandy beach breaks or dramatic cliffs by the many. But I love a pebble. I look for unusual shapes and colours. My husband used to search for black round pebbles that would fit perfectly into my belly button. If he finds one now he still calls them belly button stones. I am yet to find a piddock in a piddock hole but I certainly have enough large soft pebbles with evidence that they have been there. They are bi-valve shellfish that seem to particularly like the local soft chalk to burrow into and there they stay, hiding away their bioluminescence. Once they are gone, they leave smooth large holes in their wake making the most attractive hag stones. They are abundant in clay and sandstone too. I also search for wishing stones. These are pebbles that have stripes of quartz through them or round them. The idea is for you to make a wish and throw or skim them back into the sea. The reason none of my wishes have come true is because they end up on a shelf, a surface or in a jar! I also love a grey basalt pebbles, flat round pieces of slate and banded metamorphic stones all made by hot lava.
You can also find sea gems, some of which are semi-precious stones like amethyst. Milky quartz is another preferred pebble. There is the famous Whitby Jet, Amber to be found in Suffolk and Red Garnets on the aptly names Ruby Bay in Scotland. Regardless of its status I treasure the pieces of shingle that evoke a reaction in me, that fascinate me and provide a lasting memory of happy times spent on a beach.
The best time to go beachcombing is after storms when the sea has spat out more of her contents. My preference is for shingle beaches, as like finds like and smooth pebble shaped and sized sea glass can be found by the most observant. I follow the spring tide strandline on a receding tide walking from west to east on the south coast. This is the direction of the prevailing wind and the tidal flow at home, so I feel as if I am following in the footsteps of the treasures I find.
Different beaches provide different finds depending on the direction they face, their geography, sea currents, the local sea bed and also the local industries. When I am away I always search and love that I find things in other places that I wouldn’t come across at home. The North Cornish coast is home to many a ship wreck due to its rugged coast line. Wrecking, an opportunist activity of coastal communities, regularly takes place there when a ship has the misfortune of failing to avoid the granite outcrops. The cargo becomes fair game. This part of the country also has visitors from afar washing up on the shore. The gulf stream regularly provides beach treasures, from cowrie shells to coconuts, all up and down the west of the UK that have travelled all the way from the Caribbean.
Local industry, either past or current, can also play a big part in what you find on the beach. Mudlarking on Tower Beach on the River Thames is now illegal but the river has been used as a dumping ground from Neolithic times to the modern day. The finds there range from Roman coins to children’s toys. Sea pottery, also known as beach pottery, sea porcelain or sea china, sources are usually local to where they are found. And likely to have been thrown into the sea as waste. Much of the sea pottery found in Ireland and the UK dates back to the 19th and even 18th centuries. Seaham beach, in the North East, is famous for sea glass. Londonderry Bottleworks was based there, which operated from the 1850s to 1921. Waste from the glass making process was regularly dumped into the water and has spent over 100 years be worn smooth by the North Sea.
My best ever sea glass haul was along the shores of the river Fal. I like to think of the merchant navy and pirates in tall ships flinging bottles of rum into the sea or shanty singing fishermen swigging beer and discarding their empties over the side. I found a undamaged black glass bottle stopper there. The best spot to find it in Brighton is along the stretch from Shoreham Port to Hove. Again in close proximity to a harbour. Much of our local Sea glass is not as smooth as that of Seaham. It takes at least 40 years to create the milky smooth surface and sadly much of our glass comes from recent litter louts.
Wombling the West Pier has been a popular pastime for locals. Particularly after big storms. The shelf in my bathroom is a pier floorboard and I have other remnants of drift wood dotted around the house. We also get a considerable amount of fishing waste washing up on our shores. Both from commercial fishermen and anglers. Lots of thin fishing line tangled in the strandline seaweed is all too common along with cast off and cut off pieces of plastic coated rope and net. Finds like this can be repurposed. A fishing tray I rescued from Shoreham is now home to beetroot, lettuce and tomatoes in my back garden. I love the colours of the fishing rope and hang it like bunting. Local artist and ocean activist, Kitty Kipper weaves and sculpts using ghost nets and marine plastic. Establishing an emotional connection with a place, like the beach, makes you passionate about its protection. Beachcombers inevitably become beach guardians.
Whatever the type of beach you find yourself on to forage through the flotsam, you will find joy. Walking slowly, taking in the sea air, being curious is a respite from the real world for a few minutes. Or in my case hours. When I recently threatened to take my sons Xbox away from him, he retaliated by threatening to take the beach away from me. Even he appreciates the emotional connection I have to the shore. Spending time beachcombing in a salty outdoor setting is a wonderful way to reduce stress.It doesn’t matter if you don’t find what you have come to the beach to search for, the actual practice of beachcombing is restorative and relaxing enough to be its own reward.
Beachcombing DOs and DON’Ts
The strandline is in fact a place of food and shelter for small creatures. Collect things sparingly and try not to disturb the lines of seaweed too much.
Make sure you know what the tide is doing. While your eyes are looking down you may not notice how much the tide is racing in. You can’t take your treasures home if you are stuck at the bottom of a cliff.
Likewise the sky- incoming weather fronts likes squalls and fog can appear suddenly.
Go in the winter, early in the morning, when the beaches are empty.
Always take an extra bag or two to pick up the litter you will inevitably find.
Many of our shingle beaches are man-made and are actually there as part of our coastal defence. If you are going to take, doing it sparingly and pay the price by collecting some litter.
Make sure you stretch afterwards, walking with your eyes down, neck bent an back stooped can result in aches and pains.
Make something with your finds or at least display them. But don’t try and drill through sea glass unless you have specialist tools. This was an experiment that went badly wrong in my house and I now have a hag stone hole in my desk!