Education & Family
by Aspect County

Beachcombing by chef and author, Ian Dowding

Beachcombing is an art. It may mean, to some, just looking down as you walk along the beach and picking up things that might be interesting or useful, but it is much more than that. The things you find on a beach tell stories; they can be imagined, or researched, tragic, exotic, or mundane but they all tell a story. You learn how the tides sift and sort things; you discover ways to admire something that is beautiful but perhaps not useful.

The things you find on a beach tell stories; they can be imagined, or researched, tragic, exotic, or mundane but they all tell a story. You learn how the tides sift and sort things; you discover ways to admire something that is beautiful but perhaps not useful.

When the tide recedes, it leaves behind things that are lighter than water; a tide line that is marked by a wavy deposit of dried seaweed. Amongst this you will find mostly detritus – the ubiquitous plastic but also items of interest. Over twenty years ago a container ship, the Tokio Express was hit by a freak wave off Land’s End, and lost part of its cargo to the ocean. One of the containers held over five million pieces of Lego and they are now turning up on beaches all around the world.

Shells are a common find. Cockle, whelk, mussel, and oyster shells litter the beach in their thousands. I like the whelk shells when they are broken, you can see their internal spiral and feel how smooth and shiny the inner surface is. Oyster shells get drilled with tiny holes by a type of marine sponge making them look like discarded crumpets.

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Wood, because it floats can be plentiful. Some has been at sea a long time, perhaps liberated from an ancient wreck after a rough sea has disturbed it. Or it might have been around the globe a few times, stopping off on other lonely beaches for a while until a high tide takes it on another journey. It will have been rolled in shingle, smoothed by the tumble of the waves. You can tell these pieces have history. They feel rounded in your hands. They are usually hard woods ranging from the black of ebony, through chocolatey oak to red mahogany.

Sea glass turns up on occasions, mainly white but also in greens and blues. Broken glass loses both its sharp edges and its smooth surface as it gets churned amongst the sand, making it look like it has been rolled in caster sugar.

Drift metal is rare – it doesn’t float, but currents under the sea move it around until it gets thrown up on the beach – twisted, folded, pitted, sometimes rusted or green with Verdigris – they tell different stories. Stainless steel stays bright and shiny, aluminium gets grey and pitted and iron wears the colours of autumn. One finds kitchen utensils and cutlery lost or thrown overboard, bits of engine from sunken ships, nuts, bolts and washers from the destruction of groynes and sadly car parts – who knows what tragedies these pieces represent.

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A pebble may stand out because it is different or interesting. It may be from another part of the globe or have unusual markings of patterns or veins – it might be a fossil. You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate them but if you start to learn more you can become obsessed. This I also know: out of the vast quantity of pebbles on a beach you will never find two that are identical. You may find some that are similar and maybe there are identical ones there, but it could take a thousand years to find them. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

The beach is an edgeland, a lip, a rim that doesn’t change much with the season and the weathe, but more dramatically with the movement of the moon creating the tides that change the flotsam twice a day. If you get hooked like me it is an interest that requires no expensive equipment, just sturdy legs and sharp eyes. If you want to find out more here are some books that might interest you: 

Further reading
Sea Journal by Lisa Woollett
Beach Stones by Margaret Carruthers
The Pebbles on the Beach by Clarence Ellis. 

www​.iandowd​ing​.co​.uk