18 March 2015
It was a quick trip to the beach today on a day with non-existent long views but sharp, bright, touchable air in the near distance. As soon as we came around the houses in the village the ozone hit. Smells are evocative, this we know. This one gave a false reading, smelling curiously chloriney, more like a swimming baths than the sea. But a second assessment, checking nature against allowable smells encouraged a mental adjustment to a smell tasting of the sea. The tide was high, and despite what felt like low winds, what little winds there were came from the east with a touch of north, making it both cold and exhilarating to the waters of the Bay. These breakers were not so high to stop N from swimming, but close to. We knew, had we gone further towards Start Point into a more protected part of the Bay there would be no breakers, but time tolls sometimes, and today it was tolling loud.
Torcross barely betrays its past as a fishing village, unlike many of the small villages here in the Bay. It had its moment of fame in the 1970s when disaster hit and most of the houses had their fronts removed by the raging sea. The concrete sea wall was opened by HM Queen Elizabeth (as it says on the plaque), which perhaps gives some sense of how front-page this particular disaster was even though there was no loss of life. Some years later a local hotelier paid for the discovery offshore of a Sherman tank, lost during the disastrous Operation Tiger – part of the the rehearsals for D-Day which took part in this part of the coast and overtook a very large swathe of land, lives and livelihoods here. (I still find it beyond belief that the War Ministry could simply order people away from their homes, away from their farms, and destroy livestock if no other home could be found for them, but I suppose I’ve never lived through a war.) The tank now stands in the village car park, and draws thousands of people here even though the last American veterans involved have now either died or become too ill to travel. Their families come, local tourists come, far away tourists come. Some surely think they come purely for the long beach, but in some curious way they come for the fame. The village car park has visitors’ cars almost every day in the year. Consequently almost none of the properties in this village (a hamlet, really, although it boasts a shop/post office and used to have a hotel, now converted into holiday apartments; I suppose the Edwardian hotel suggests that this tiny collection of houses was more than a fishing village for some many years) are lived in. Torcross has become an uninhabited place – despite its bustling busy-ness, so few really live here. They come to eat and to sleep and to sun- and sea-bathe. But no one fishes anymore, at least not launching or landing here. The local fishing boats still come, of course, but they launch and land elsewhere. The only visible remnant of that humbler past are the launching arms (I don’t even quite know what to call them) rising from the sea wall. Clearly in the 1970s these were still considered necessary, but time moves on and industries change.
There are, of course, the rod anglers who still come to this two-mile long beach. Now that neighbouring Beesands has lost its waterside parking back where it belonged to Gaea and Neptune, it will be interesting to see how many of the anglers who brought their camper vans and parked alongside the water will now migrate the few miles along the Bay to Slapton Sands.
Time pressed, N swam. Although she was only in the water a short time, maybe fifteen minutes, she nevertheless came out breathless with her own ozone, the uplift gained from this brief moment of joy, fighting the breakers and the cold. The couple on the beach with their grandchild came over to say the usual things ‘how brave’ ‘is she mad?’. She is of course a little mad but long may that reign within her. ’Til death one can only hope.
The beach was littered with curious objects looking a little like sponges. Further research shows them to be egg casings of the whelk. Here’s what the lovely Shell Guide says:
‘The spongy yellow egg masses of the common whelk are common on beaches. [boo!] Varying in size from a golf ball to a football, they too are usually empty and the juvenile whelks have gone before the egg capsules reach the beach, having been torn from their rock anchorages by turbulence. But there may be a certain amount of yolk left, so open them gently (because you may find they squirt liquid at you: sailors and longshoremen have been known to use them instead of soap) and there may well be castaways like long-clawed porcelain crabs hiding inside. They are about the size of your little finger nail, but they have broad prizefighter’s arms. Normally they are found in kelp holdfasts, but it seems that the whelk egg masses have an attraction for them. I once examined fifty of the masses on a beach and found that all but six had the little crabs nestling inside, many of them still alive.’
Alas, I found neither soap nor tiny crabs, but how loving this language is. It is born of a deep connection to the land, and is a kind of nature writing that seems to have become extinct. That’s not to suggest that there is any lack of nature writing displaying an almost erotic love of land, but these kinds of nature books, educational in intent, seem largely to have disappeared, it seems. Perhaps I’m simply not looking. There is certainly no lack of articles in print and online about how to engage your children with the natural world, so perhaps I’m simply being old-fashioned here. Anyhow, thanks to dear Tony Soper (still alive, and living in these parts) for his legacy of these Shell Guides and many other writings and TV narratives. This particular Guide was lent to use by artist friend Susan Deakin in a signed first edition no less. It is the Shell Guide to Beachcombing published in 1972, written by Tony Soper with illustrations by Robert Gillmor. I wonder, in these morally-black-and-white days if a naturalist of Tony Soper’s reputation and standing would put his name on a book published by an oil company? Shell may have had its own agenda for their wonderful, rich, expansive, land-loving Guides, but they knew how to pick their writers.
The frothed-up sea left wonderful spume in its wake as the adventurously high tide came and went along the shoreline. As usual, the movement of the waves was from left to right, although with the east wind less so than usual. I never tire of the way the water simply disappears into the sand as its source recedes back to sea.
Even now as March comes close to retiring, as clocks are about the change, and as the hedgerows and gardens burgeon with life and song, the light is still winter light. The sun is still quite low in the sky in these northern latitudes (despite my very southerly location, we’re still very northern) and the shadows still long and sharp. We’re getting towards the end of this special light, and it’s one of the few regrets about farewell to winter. Like breath-taking springs and enervating summers, this light will of course come again.