Sunday, 24 April 2016

Ghosts of East-side beach

Many wrecks are stranded along this beach.


I am walking along the western half of Seaford Bay towards the mouth of the River Ouse, where waters and silts from the catchment between here and Upper Beeding bloom in a final flourish from the river mouth into the sea. I have walked from Denton over downland via Bishopstone and The Buckle. The shingle underfoot gulps the energy from every stride as I trudge along it. I pause and ponder the past and see that this land is one of relics and ghosts. There is much happening close to here, but very little here itself occurs, little other than the circadian pulses of wavelet and tide, of morning and afternoon dog-walkers, of weekend beachcombers, and the passing of the weather and the seasons - each beating its own rhythm like the mainsprings of many clocks.

There is plenty of wildlife here to be seen. Amongst the birdlife alone one could see Ringed Plovers nesting in small undulations amongst the shingle and Purple Sandpipers picking at low tide amongst the encrusted skeleton of the east pier or hunkered down waiting at high tide for its ebb. Great Crested Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers dive in sheltered, shallow water at quiet times; and gulls own the air above us all.

Short Type 184 seaplane, (public domain picture credit)
The sea to the south and a tidal creek to the north have created an in-between spit of land which is caught between the heartbeat of human habit that speeds past by boat or train, discarding relics in a multifarious eddy. Here are the old creek and its ruin of Tidemills, here also the ghosts of aircraft hangars and a slipway serving a First World War seaplane station, where Short Type 184 seaplanes performed anti-submarine patrols until the end of the war, and here also the ruins of the Chailey Heritage Marine Hospital, a recuperation home built in 1924 for disabled boys. It is hard to imagine now that the  Newhaven Marconi Radio Station operated from just in front of where I am standing, its tall white antenna visible from miles around. The ghosts of an astonishing array of spent industries all wither before me and before the eroding effects of the sea and the wind, run aground by time and progress like some sad Golgotha of storm-weathered bones. These and other less mighty structures have been swept up by the unforgiving temporal wave and cast high and dry upon on the strandline.

Newhaven east-side beach - seaplane station under construction (credit)
Chailey Heritage hospital, Newhaven East-side beach (photo credit)

Standing in mute reflection on this tongue of vegetated shingle, I am in the midst of activity: trains, ferries, tankers, container ships and fishing boats are all within sight and earshot. Yet here I find myself on a temporal hard-shoulder watching life surge past. I am in a grey, marginal world and, while I am here, I feel that I am entangled in the sidelines of time itself. The weather adds to this feeling: it is a grey, calm, silent day and the horizon is suspended somewhere between sea and sky in a vast sheet of brushed aluminium.

Along the strandline rests the remains of innumerable shellfish. We are taught as children that the some of the shells contain echoes of the sea when placed against the ear. Each shell is an echo of a former life reborn as a pretty, collectable trinket, a memory-echo of a seaside visit. If innumerable shells are here at this moment, how many shells, how many spent lives have stacked up along this one beach throughout history?

Each individual shell and half-shell holds within it the story of a life passed. For each half a bi-valve (a valve!), where now is its counterpart? How long since they hinged and jointly protected soft tissue within? There is something horrific resting quietly amongst these emaciated strandline shells which can be given flesh and made tangible by imagining their number replaced with the equivalent of something more charismatic: a wreck of dead seabirds, a beached pod of whales. Imagining this reveals something of the true extent of the horror. Do they now become something more than simple shells? Does the thin veneer of grey periostracum, violet in life, but soon to fade and peel in death, reveal something stark about the exquisite fragility of life itself?

Amongst the myriad species is the Rayed Trough Shell (Mactra stutlorum). This is an edible clam which lives burrowed in sand and gravel beneath shallow seas. The rays radiating out from the umbo suggest captured sunlight through water. Just a stone's-throw from where I am standing, in 1861, when the mouth of the Ouse river was being deepened, the Rayed Trough Shell became the object of a feeding frenzy. Paul Chambers, in his book British Seashells (2009), describes the drama:

...a harbour channel in Newhaven was being deepened using an industrial steam dredger but as the sediment was churned up, so thousands of rayed trough shells were disturbed and washed onto the beach, much to the delight of the local inhabitants. The Newhaven fishermen took advantage of this bonanza by clustering their boats around the steam dredger to haul up both the shells and fish that were being thrown up with the sediment.

Mactra stultorum - the Banded Ray Shell (credit)
One can imagine the noise from screeching gulls, excited townsfolk and booming industrial machinery. The commotion is long since silenced, broken today only when children fish and jump into the water from the skeleton of the eastern arm on hot summer days, or when dogs race excitedly across the wet sand at low tide, and of course with the passing of marine traffic and the awesome bass hum of ferries.


I make my way down the shelving shingle and to the sea, which is high but just on the ebb. Wavelets lap against the stones and disappear in tiny raptures. Several Purple Sandpipers are dotted along the pier, waiting for the tide to fall. The strandline contains a wealth of natural flotsam: cockles, otter-shells, common and American limpets, banded ray-shells,  scallops, oysters, razor-shells, mussels, netted and common whelks and their familiar spongy egg-balls, various sea weeds, crab-shells, cuttle-fish, mermaid's purses. Their Latin names slip off the tongue and conjure oceans of wonder: Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea, Crepidula fornicata, Ostrea edulis, Chlamys varia, Pecten maximus, Acanthocardia tuberculata, Laevicardium crassum, Mactra stultorum. I have counted more than two dozen species of marine mollusc here, but the natural flotsam is dwarfed by the volume of non-natural, human-induced filth. This is the swill and slop of a castaway consumer culture, the dreck and dregs of our age, a loathsome littoral litter, the feculence of efficiency. One cannot help but cast a sheepish eye back to 1861 and wonder how we came to navigate so far off course from a comparative harmony with the natural environment*.

Modern strandlines are a depressing example of human disregard for the natural environment. Amongst the world's litter along this beach there is a scum of palm oil or paraffin wax. This is a wreck of marine pollution cast adrift by humans, swilled out of some passing ship's hold to form a polar sea in miniature as fat-bergs bob and drift coast-bound at the mercy of tide, wind and wave. Plastics abound - memories stirred up by a stormy sea.

Nobody knows how long plastic remains in the marine environment. It doesn't biodegrade; it is broken into ever smaller pieces and is inadvertently ingested by the smallest marine species all the way up to the largest. Once it is deposited into the water it might remain in the sea or along strandlines for a very long time. Our grandchildren, nine or ten generations into the  future, or perhaps a hundred or more generations of marine molluscs into the future, might still be affected by what we fail to properly dispose of today. This is not my prophecy: we could end up with as much plastic in our oceans as fish. But it is complicated: food wrappers have helped to protect humans from typhoid and other infectious diseases and reduced food costs by prolonging shelf-life. Plastics are useful as well as harmful, but we need to do better when we have finished with them. People the world over urgently need to support the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics and avoid persistent plastics where possible.

Forget the echoes within those empty, spent shells which pepper the strandline. The longest, loudest echo on this beach is made in a faraway country and made of plastic.




*Comparative harmony with the natural environment - even back in 1861 catastrophic environmental change was old news, even if the concept of it had not been fully cultivated.

Reference:
Chambers, Paul. 2009. British Seashells - A Guide for Conchologists & Beachcombers. Remember When: Barnsley. 

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