Two fragments of pottery, one with a geometric pattern, one of which has the number ‘22’ stamped in it, some quartz, a lump of marble, a flint that rings like a bell when you strike it, some possible basalt, a pleasing piece of driftwood, and a fossilised belemnoid. Oh, and some beach glass. That’s the treasure haul from today.
Beachcombing is the baseline against which all other activity can be measured: if you have calls to make, places to be, people to see, then you cannot beachcomb. If, however, your day is long and empty, and the futile investment of time for low to no return is on the cards, comb away. This is the sport of the idle, and delight of the leisured. When you hunt down the side of the couch for lost coins, there is, at least in theory, the chance of financial gain. When you search the beach, it’s pretty certain that there is none. At least not unless you count the stone with a hole through it as a win. Which i do.
Did i mention that i found a stone with a perfect hole?
The Norfolk coastline is being eroded, in places, at speed: winter storms chewing metres into the soft cliffs, toppling houses and fields onto the beach. The result of the downfall is that this year i have a bumper harvest of bricks, mainly from the London Brick Company (the distribution of ‘London’ bricks to the regions heralded by the railways, nicely dating the toppled houses. I could make a sequence, from bricks, clean and angular, the text nicely visible, through to those weathered down to the size of a pebble. On one place, i find a section of wall, if memory serves me, and the curve i see is correct, probably a foundation of the old lighthouse that fell long ago. Ultimately claimed by the waves.
The beach is just one stop on a circular journey, from stones forged in heat and time, ground down to boulders, pebbles, sand, then silt, before finally settling to the ocean floor, in time to compress to clays and shale, and then with heat and pressure, back to stone. Not a rapid journey. The belemnoid fossil comes from a creature that likely swam somewhere from 200 million, to 60 million years ago. And it’s not made it back around to rock yet.
The driftwood fits perfectly into the palm of my hand. What is it? The hull of the Larchspur, shipwrecked on jagged rocks, the roots of an old oak, torn from the cliffs by a winter storm, remnant of a Viking raider, driven across the sea by grim hands from nordic shores? Or just a wind pruned branch, swept down river and into the northern sea.
I just read a book about pebbles, a spotters guide really, but am unsure how much use it was: certainly i am now more aware of the direction of my longshore drift, but my selection of that pocketful of stones to carry home was never on the basis of science and identity, but rather shimmering and quirky beauty. I like the broken edges, and my home is filled with pebbles, perched on shelves and ledges, remnants themselves of winter walks and mountain passes past.
A future geologist will view the footprint of my home as we view the ballast drifts from old time traders: the ships that filled their holds with pebbles from far off shores, and dropped their global cargo on our shores before filling up with coal or trinkets. Over time, whole shingle banks of these immigrants washed up next to busy ports, now smeared by time and time along the coast. Not all so luck of course, not all the remnants of trade: some of those ships came to grief and scattered their igneous and sedimentary loads as the timbers gave way to the storm.
Beaches are edgeland spaces, liminal zones, cleansed and refreshed by the tides, never really ours, never really not. To spend our time, walking the edges, pacing the boundary, is meditative, and a reminder of impermanence. A reminder that everything rough edge is smoothed off by constant battering, and every stone, no matter how large, is ultimately at the mercy of the tides. And if you find a lucky pebble along the way, all the better.