Tidelines are historical records: of the lives of plants and animals, and of their deaths; of weather – storms and floods – local and far away. There are geographical records too, of movements round the globe of ships and currents; records of human technology old and new, and of the objects we use, lose or discard; even records on a geological timescale.
But tidelines are not just repositories of past events, they also offer a place where animals may live. Kick a tangle of the detritus aside, and sandhoppers flip in all directions, small kelp-flies startle upwards.
The Solway’s tidal range varies enormously throughout the year, and in Allonby Bay the biggest tides – often in September – leave their flotsam high up near the dunes. During a big storm like that in January 2014, the ‘tideline’ is artificially high, as the waves are forced high up the beach by the wind and low barometric pressure, hurling débris into the air, onto the dunes, even across the road.
The January storms left dense meshworks of inextricably tangled vegetation, dead sea-birds, plastic, wood and branches, even small boulders and shattered concrete, at the top of the strand.
But the tidelines formed in gentler weather are more easily dissected. On our shore-walks we regularly find the delicate skeletons of Echinocardium, the heart-urchin – an animal which lives burrowed in the sand at the bottom of the intertidal range.
Dry balls of empty eggs of the whelk, Buccinum, bowl along in the wind like tumbleweed. One time, several years ago, there were drifts of tiny purple triangles of an unusual jellyfish, Velella. My most-treasured find is a sandal, from which a curtain of glistening white goose-barnacles, Lepas anatifera, dangled, each attached by a leathery black stalk: their larvae would have settled on the sandal off the coast of America, and their ‘boat’ must have drifted in the currents for more than a year before being wrecked on the Cumbrian coast.
The ‘weird and wonderful things’ that you can find on the tideline have been captured beautifully in photos by Nic Coombey, in the Strandlines project, which launched as an exhibition at the Mill on the Fleet, at Gatehouse of Fleet, on April 3rd.
The subjects of Nic’s photos glisten: mermaid’s purses, shining kelp, the ‘driller killer’ necklace shell Natica, and the pink tellin shells that it has drilled. There are long views, too, of the waves rolling kelp along the shore, and multicoloured rope amongst sea-kale on the shingle.
Strandlines was funded by the Robertson Trust, the Crown Estate and Leader+, and managed as part of the Making the Most of the Coast project by the excellent Solway Firth Partnership. Its end-product is a very attractive and family-friendly booklet, ‘Strandline, a beachcomber’s guide to the Solway Coast‘, which you can download here.
Longshore drift up the Irish Sea brings a multitude of objects, dead, alive or man-made, into the Solway Firth. Of the northern shores, Nic commented at the launch that, “Our coast seems to collect most of the rubbish of the Irish Sea. … The more I’ve been down to the beach and found things, the more I’ve realised that everything tells a story about itself and about us.”
Many of the the stories that are told about us don’t have happy endings – plastic bottles and food cartons tell of greed and consumerism and laziness, and the gull hooked by a fishing-line tells of carelessness.
But Nic has found amusing stories too – “I’ve also been collecting ducks”, he said: yellow plastic ducks, marked ‘ World Record Duck Race Ireland 2006’.
And the latest objects in his collection? “Two hundred and twenty-five footballs in two months!”