Cockle shells are piled like snow-drifts amongst the trees at the top of the bay; they form banks and ridges along the shore. Balcary Bay, its entrance partly plugged by Heston Island, looks to be a tranquil and sheltered haven, but it would seem that a mass ‘startle’ by predatory starfish or – far more plausibly – pounding waves, have forced the cockles out of their shallow burrows in the muddy sand and sent them rolling and tumbling, to be hurled onto the upper shore. The stench of dying shellfish must have been impressive.
These cockles are Cerastodesma (formerly Cardium) edule, the common cockle, which are gathered commercially and most (in)famously at Morecambe Bay. A large commercial cockle fishery also existed until about 10 years ago in Allonby Bay, on the opposite side of the Firth from Balcary, and we find their empty shells there too, along the tideline. Rarely, there might be a shell of the spiny cockle, its larger relative, which has obvious protrusions on its shell; hence its earlier name of Cardium (now Acanthocardia) tuberculatum.
Amongst the predators of cockles and mussels are starfish, which prise apart the bivalve’s two shells. Mussels, being fixed to the substratum, are unable to escape but a cockle, at the first scent of ‘starfish’ in the water, can attempt to leap away – as Philip Henry Gosse, the Victorian naturalist, writer and lecturer, who devised the marine aquarium and initiated ‘shore-classes’, so delightfully describes.
For several years, Gosse was a close friend of the Rev Charles Kingsley, who shared his enthusiasm for marine life. Kingsley wrote to Gosse, “I am half a sailor, having been bred on the sea-shore, with our own trawl and dredge, with which as a boy I used to work day after day in North Devon for poor dear old opium-eating Dr. Turton, when he lived at Bideford.” Thus it was that Kingsley sent parcels of marine animals to Gosse in London, and the two of them kept up a rich correspondence (the letters are held at the Brotherton Library at Leeds University ).
Charles Kingsley to PH Gosse: Livermead, [Devon], January 29th 1854
I am going dredging for you on Thursday, and DV I shall send the jar off on Friday. These short days prevent my getting the haul sorted after I come home.
I must add my thanks to you for giving not me only, but Mrs. Kingsley and my children, this occupation – we are as busy as bees about the animals all day, and the little ones full of desire to find something worth sending you.
PH Gosse to Charles Kingsley: 58 Huntingdon Street, [London], Feb. 2nd 1854:
Dear Sir, If you have the wind as we have, this moderate off-shore breeze will give you a good day’s dredging today. I hope by the time I finish this note you will be safe home with a rich harvest of spoils …
Please to express my thanks to your dear little boy for the specimen he has found for me, and for the zeal with which all the family have engaged in the search. I feel sure they will never have cause to regret having had an early bias towards out of door zoology. May I venture also to offer my respectful thanks to your lady for her kind co-operation also. It is a grand gala day for Mrs. Gosse as well as myself, when we get an opportunity of examining a consignment from the sea; such an array of pans and bowls, of vases and tubs comes out, and the whole house is on the tiptoe of expectation!
PH Gosse to Charles Kingsley: 58 Huntingdon Street, May 30th 1854
I have now 6 aquaria of various sizes and forms, most of which are in beautiful order, and well stocked, but in some there is yet room for many more inhabitants. .. My most charming tank is now 13 weeks old, and contains nearly a hundred species of animals, and perhaps twice that number of individuals, all in the highest health and beauty – many of them the treasures you kindly sent me ..
Charles Kingsley to P H Gosse
My dear Sir, I send off your hamper by this night’s Mail. I will put a list in it, with some notes and queries. …Note 6a. Cardium Tuberculatum and Aculeatum; their respiration should be (worked) out …
PH Gosse: from his book The Aquarium (1854)
“Among a number of animals of great interest kindly sent to me from the vicinity of Torquay, by the Rev. C. Kingsley, were a posse of cockles .. those giants, Cardium aculeatum and C. tuberculatum, the real aristocracy of the cockle kind. .. Many persons are aware that the Common Cockle can perform gymnastic feats of no mean celebrity, but the evolutions of Signor Tuberculato are worth seeing.
Some of the troupe I had put into a pan of sea-water …(and) by and by, as we (PHG, his wife Emily and their son Edmund [Willy]) were quietly reading, our attention was attracted to the table where the dish was placed, by a rattling uproar, as if flint stones were rolling one over the other about the dish.
We could look at nothing but the magnificent foot, and the curious manner in which it was used… (It) is suddenly thrust out sideways .. then, its point being curved backwards, the animal pushes strongly against any opposing object, by the resistance of which the whole animal, shell and all, makes a considerable step forwards. Cooped up with its fellows in a deep dish, all these herculean efforts availed only to knock the massive shells against the sides, or to roll them irregularly over each other.
A considerable number of those sent up we “killed to save their lives”; making gastronomical use of them …”
 My thanks to the then Librarian, Christopher Sheppard, for providing me with photocopies of their correspondence, when I was researching Gosse’s papers, diaries and letters for my novel Seaside Pleasures (2003). The story is told in 4 voices, 3 of them in the present day, and the fourth – that of Anne Church – is a student on one of Gosse’s shore-classes: see my Eliot & Entropy blog for details, ordering, reviews, photos and more.