Time-warps and gnomons

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Lines of sand-scape, Allonby Bay

It was a fine bright morning, there was still a sprinkling of snow on the fells, but Spring was clearly on its way; I’d spent too much time at my desk writing and longed for the changed perspective of the shore, and so arranged to be dropped at Allonby. Solway Coast AONB had asked for volunteers to help with a beach litter-pick at Silloth, so my husband had offered to help. We agreed I’d meet him at Silloth two-and-a-half hours later, which would allow plenty of time even if, as expected, I was distracted by rock-pools, tidelines and stones.

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Twentyman’s sweetie shelves

From Twentyman’s store, with its eclectic mix of goods and rainbow stacks of sweets, I walked along the ‘new’ cycle-track on the grassy bank by the shore – a bank that was built by the council to prevent the shore-side houses, some of which were formerly herring-salting sheds, being flooded by high, storm-driven tides – and then cut inland to walk beside the beck. Otters have been seen in the beck, despite its proximity to the houses, and one of my shore-walkers saw a kingfisher.

On the other side of the beck is the Ship Hotel, a blue plaque marking the fact that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed there in 1857: it’s all too obvious from his story ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’ that Dickens found the village very unappealing [1]. The tall red sandstone reading room, commissioned by the Quaker Thomas Richardson, and just a hundred yards along the road, drew his scorn too.

I crossed the fast-flowing muddy waters of the beck by a wooden footbridge, soon passing the long building of North Lodge, Thomas Richardson’s holiday home. The central house is flanked by ‘cottages’ in which single ladies and widows could live rent-free.

A small yappy dog leapt out of a car which had just parked, and bounded towards me, tail wagging, its ears as big as bat’s wings. It was hard to believe that 15 months ago, during Storm Desmond, the waves had been crashing over the bank into the carpark, so that those of us who had come to enjoy the wild mood of the Firth had hastily to move our cars up onto the road. Today, though, the tide was low and ebbing, the edge of the water a distant line.

Each time I come to the shore, I marvel how the beach profile has changed, season by season, year by year; sometimes the sea takes, sometimes it restores, the sand and shingle. Strange concrete structures, parts of now-defunct drainage schemes and perhaps the war, appear and disappear.

I continued walking on the grass above the beach for a while, past wooden benches and a shrine of sodden toys and dead flowers; dried seaweeds, a plastic bottle, and a mermaid’s purse – the egg-case of a ray – were tangled in the marram.

A tractor pulling a cylinder of slurry (a ‘pong-wagon’ in our childhood jargon) passed IMG_5025rszalong the road, leaving a trail of – pong. Two small birds zipped past me and perched on the tall dry grasses – stonechats, with proud strong markings of red and brown.

Rather than paddling through the beck that ran across the shore, I climbed onto the concrete outflow to admire Criffel with its hat of pale cloud, across the water in Dumfries-shire; Scotland was a land of misty blues and greens and browns, fronting the blue sea.

The grey mass of Seacroft Farm, perched on Dubmill Point at the North end of Allonby Bay, was for once looking comfortable as the sun dried its salty walls. In the ‘big tides’, with a storm driving up the Firth, spray is thrown over the roof of the house, pebbles and water cascading against the shuttered windows. The coast road becomes impassable, even dangerous, and the storm-surges are only prevented from taking bites out of the Point by the sloping concrete sea-defences, and the blocks of fossil-laden limestone ‘rock armour’.

Further along the shore, piled grunions have been ripped apart by the waves, their wire cages gaping and tangled, stones spilled out onto the shore.

But here, below Dubmill Point, is the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone, barely one year old [2] The sculptural mounds and reefs built out of delicate sandgrains by the honeycomb worms, Sabellaria [3] were not yet uncovered, and the big blocky granite erratic known as Maston [4], a landmark on the low-tide shore, was only half-visible. Thread-like sandy coils on the surface of the sand around me betrayed the presence of young lugworms in their burrows, and a small flock of ringed plovers, previously masquerading as grey and white pebbles, took off from a few metres away; oyster-catchers peep-ed and trilled down at the tide’s edge

 

Reaching out wooden fingers from the concrete wall, groynes attempted to hold back the drift of sand and shingle that would be pushed northwards by the sea. Their lines of posts mirrored the posts of the abandoned oyster-lines that stuck up from the edge of rocky Dubmill scaur; the tops of the current oyster-lines, with their wire cages of growing shellfish, peeped above the water further out.

And then, round the corner, Silloth was just visible to the far North. Underfoot, drifts of fragmented sea-coal contrasted with the broken white shells of Buccinum, the common whelk.Three clear tidelines on the shore, memories of the passage of the moon, had in places sorted the jetsam by size: large tangles of weed at the top; a middle row of shells; and the lowest row with beech leaves, leaf skeletons, feathery hydroids and flat pale fronds of bryozoan hornwrack.

 

A grubby Shetland pony with tangled mane stared out from its paddock on the shore side of the row of three houses at Mawbray Banks, and I looked down towards the sea, hoping to see the strange low walls and triangular shapes of what must once have been fish-traps. I have walked these lines of boulders on a low-tide day and have flown above them in a gyroplane [5,6] and can discover no more than anecdote and speculation about their provenance: unlike the boulders in Allonby Bay, their oral history has vanished.

Then up onto the dunes again, through marram grass that, pale and wintry, still struck at my legs like sharpened knitting-needles. All along this shore, to gain the extra height of two or three metres provides a very different perspective; looking back, southwards towards the Irish Sea, the drumlin at Crosscannonby with its Roman milefortlet juts above the shore, and clouds of steam plume upwards from the Iggesund paper-mills further South at Flimby; the offshore wind-turbines on the Robin Rigg sandbank gleam white against the sea and sky.

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Marram-grass on dunes near Bank Mill

Then I had a strange experience: there was a figure way down the shore, near the crooked boulder that I use as one of the markers for my low-tide shorewalks; someone walking slowly, crouching down to look in pools. I had never seen anyone so far down the shore, with that behaviour, before. Through my binoculars, I saw that it was a person with white hair, wearing a jacket the same colour as mine, and accompanied by a black-and-white border collie, similar to our own long-departed Hafren. It was like seeing my doppelgänger, through a timewarp of six or seven years: I mentally wished them well.

The dunes were close-cropped, pock-marked by rabbits. A halo of grey-brown fur marked a fight, but perhaps not a death, for there were no bones. In a shallow valley between the dunes I was surprised to find moss and lichen underfoot; the scrape for the natterjack toads contained water, greenish and still, but as yet no spawn. The nearby concrete arrow was a war-time relic, marking the direction for bombing practice for the young pilots from the Solway’s airfields [7].

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Back on the shore, the sand had shifted, large patches of pebbles had been exposed, and shingle had been pushed to the top of the shore and compacted, a raised beach in the making. Another small beck formed rills of light and water as it drained towards the sea, and further along I stood watching a larger braided beck, and puzzled about a regular pulse of water that travelled down it, spreading like a fan. Each time, the noise of the ripples briefly crescendoed, and a large round pebble was tumbled in the rush.

Changes had occurred too where the submerged forest [8] has been exposed for several years.  Now there were only battered peat banks and large pools of water, with no sign of the stumps and roots. A little further on, ridged banks and sheets of rough red clay like terracotta had been exposed – clay that must have been the source for the loom-stones and fishing-weights that you can occasionally, if you are very lucky, find along the shore [9]. The winter storms had damaged the seaward faces of the sand-dunes too, showing the layers of former beaches and vegetation. The holes of last year’s sand-martin nests were ragged-edged.

 

Past Beckfoot village where there is a Quaker burial ground, and where there was a Roman camp.

White splats, footprints and the occasional feather were clues that gulls had rested here,

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Evidence of gulls

preening, on the mid-shore.

 

I could see my goal in the far, far distance –  a sandy point, and just inshore the pale rectangle of the grain silo at the port. It was more than 45 minutes away for sure. I needed to walk faster, to cover some distance, keeping to the firm smooth sand of the mid-shore – no diversions would be allowed to look at tidelines, sand-ripples or pools…

Out in the Firth, I could see the small green shape that was Beckfoot buoy, which with the Solway and Corner buoys marks the ‘English channel’ for shipping up to Silloth [10]; Criffel was now clear of cloud and the hill-top clump of trees to the West of Caerlaverock merse was as sharp as a gelled quiff.

Jared Diamond, talking about the ability to spot birds in the rain-forest canopy, talks of the transient glimpse and the sense that ‘something is awry’ in the familiar and expected pattern of the surroundings. And so it was on the smooth, domed sand of the mid-shore – a merest flicker that took a second to register. A slim twig, barely 18” high, barely seen, bearing tiny unopened leafbuds, and stuck vertically, so firmly, in the sand. How did it get there? I had seen no footprints for half a mile at least. Its long, thin shadow, was precise as a gnomon. I looked at my watch – and laughed: the time was midday, precisely, and the shadow pointed directly North. Directly North, to where the AONB’s volunteers were now just visible, as small black pins, on the distant sandy point.

 

Now, with only a half-hour left, I strode determinedly North, cutting a chord across the curve of the shore. The pins fattened into columns, grew tall on a wavering mirage. The sun was right behind me, the shore was otherwise empty, and my husband would see me now and wait. The figures were no longer black – one wore orange, another pale blue. At a quarter-past-twelve they bunched together, and shrank in size until they vanished. For a moment I felt completely alone and bereft, unable to believe that nobody had waited.

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Lees Scaur lighthouse  – the ‘Tommy-legs’

But the sun was warm, the Firth was blue, Scotland was close across the water, and I had some attractive fragments of pottery in my rucksack. The ‘tommy-legs’ lighthouse stood like a spider-crab at the edge of the tide, and the varying sound of my footsteps over the alternating bands of sand and fine shingle was delightful.

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Half-an-hour later I finally reached the carpark by the port. The tide was out, leaving the mud of New Dock to be enjoyed by a flock of dozing redshank.

I admired the mountain of beach rubbish the AONB volunteers had collected – and I finally had time to pause for coffee from my thermos, before getting a lift home with my husband!

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Rubbish

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Not long into this walk, I realised how intimately I had come to know this shore – both in the minute sense and from a larger viewpoint – and (less intimately!) some of the people who live and work along it. Below are links to earlier articles on my blog and website about some of the things I saw on this walk: each will also have links to information and articles by other people, all of which will help you to follow up on the ‘stories’should you be interested.

[1] ‘Hobbling through Allonby with an Idle Apprentice’

[2] ‘Big moon, big tides,at Allonby Bay’  andAllonby Bay MCZ, a slimy, dangerous place?

[3] The Sabellaria reefs

[4] ‘The naming of stones’

[5] ‘Loom-stones and fish-traps’

[6] ‘The design of the Solway: an aerial perspective 2’

[7] ‘Hudson Bay’

[8] ‘The submerged forest’

[9] ‘Loom-stones or fishing-weights?’

[10] ‘Piloting a ship up the Firth to Silloth’

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