Wig and Ian

A few days after the Duke’s visit we were pleased to receive Wig and Ian.  Wig and I go back decades, five in fact.  We met when we signed up for a bi-lingual secretarial course which was being offered by a college in my home town at the time, Weymouth.  We have kept in touch over the years and last year we celebrated our fifty years of friendship at the home of another contemporary. DSC00128 (2)

Whilst they were with us we enjoyed a bit of walking and some good occasions around the dining table.  Sunshine allowed us to manage some meals out of doors.  As a thank you our guests treated us to an evening chez Fuchsias where we dined well, seated at the round table in the conservatory which looks out onto the gardens.  DSC05248 (2)From my kitchen I offered them seafood bisque, fish pie, scallops en croute and oysters.  We spent a happy time.

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Back in Winterborne K we enjoyed some quality time with villagers.  The Roses laid on a Bookish Lunch to which we, the Shaxsons, Sallie O and Jan D were invited.  Everyone enjoyed the occasion.  In the evening I joined my Bridge bunch then on Saturday evening we met Christine and Malcolm for a curry at Namaste Gurkha in Blandford.  The restaurant is bijou, the food was good and extremely good value.  We met ostensibly for Christine and I to talk Books but in the event Nick hijacked the evening and he and Christine talked politics and current affairs.  That was a turn up for the Books!

 

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Not a Wentletrap Day

Pointe de Saire is a lovely spot for spending beach time.  At low tide the collection of rock outcrops which enjoy an elevated position in relation to the rest of the beach can be explored for their strandlines and pockets of shells.  I have been spending such time there since we first moved to St Vaast in 2005.

Maddy and I drove out to the point to look for shells.  I hoped to share the joy of finding a wentletrap or two with her.  In the event we were not lucky on this occasion, but there were certainly shells to catch the eye of Maddy’s camera.  We passed a contented interlude investigating the strandlines and the small moats of water around some of the rocks there.

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Flight from Orkney for Date with Fuchsias

After a stimulating week of shells in archaeology and shells on the seashore I was nevertheless ready to board my flight home.  Before we left Kirkwall for Sonia and Terry to drop me off at the airport I popped into the Tankerness House Gardens which houses the Orkney Museum, next door to our pad, to take some photos of the folly in the grounds.  The small folly with a strange pointy roof is decorated with shells and known as Groatie House, which has an interesting history. I transferred from my Kirkwall flight to one at Aberdeen that would drop me at Heathrow.  Nick met the flight and we drove home.

With just a day to prepare for a crossing to France I unpacked, put my conference papers and some of the shells that I collected to one side and started to think about putting a bag together for St Vaast.  This would contain a minimum of clothes since we are to travel on Monday with Maddy and Andrew and return to Dorset on Friday in order to take in the Conch. Soc. AGM.

Maddy and Andrew arrived at TOW on Sunday evening and first thing on Monday we boarded the good ship Barfleur bound for Cherbourg and our second home.  BarfleurJourneyDuring that week Nick and Andrew put in two good days of logging.  Nick and Francois have bought a second beech tree that had to be felled because it is now dangerously close to the main road between Quettehou and Valognes.  At the end of the week Nick and Andrew spent the morning at Le Vast helping Alain remove the cladding of ivy from a henhouse.  Meanwhile Maddy and I did a long walk from St Vaast to Pointe de Saire, via the village of Jonville and returning along the high water mark from the Pont de Saire and then retracing our steps along the beach wall all the way back to the town beach.  It is a good 12 km.

The visit highlight must be dinner at Fuchsias.  Andrew had kindly offered to treat us all, it being his birthday.  The new menus, at least new to Nick and I, are excellent and truly good value.  AndrewFuchsiasFuchsias meals are characterised, for me, by small quantities of a diverse array of ingredients which go to make up a beautiful plate of food.  Andrew pronounced the meal the best he had ever had!

We returned to WK on Friday night and as it turned out the day we drove to the Natural History Museum for the AGM was fraught, very stressful and resulted in Nick experiencing an alarming episode in the middle of the meeting.  Fearing a TIA I watched Nick’s contorting face whilst supporting him in his chair.  It can only have lasted a minute but it was a frightening one but I managed to extract a good even smile from Nick when he came to, which indicated that a stroke type seizure was unlikely.  Subsequently after hearing my description of what took place and what Nick remembered of the episode, both his French and English doctor diagnosed a vasovagal event, posh term for a fainting fit.

By Sunday afternoon we were back in St Vaast to await the arrival of Wig and Ian.

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A Unique Des Res

Whilst on Orkney various field trips were set up by the organisers.  Although aware that there is so much archaeology to see on the islands, I wanted to have time to do some shore work with Bas.  However, there was one site that was not to be missed and indeed, had been a magnet for a number of the delegates at the meeting.

Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. It consists of eight clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180 BC–2500 BC. Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the “Scottish Pompeii” because of its excellent preservation.

What more is there to say?  It was a fine day when the Famous Five visited the site, clear and cold and with high seas rolling in to good effect.  I walked round the ‘ramparts’ of this bijou hobbit village and marvelled.

Afterwards, having a double ticket, we walked round the former home of the man who discovered Skara Brae at the bottom of his garden.  William Watt of Skaill, the local laird, began an amateur excavation of the site, but after four houses were uncovered, the work was abandoned in 1868.  The site remained undisturbed until 1913, when during a single weekend the site was plundered by a party with shovels who took away an unknown quantity of artefacts.  In 1924, another storm swept away part of one of the houses and it was determined that the site should be made secure and more seriously investigated.  One can only wonder what accessories to the lives of the former inhabitants were removed from posterity.

After afterwards Sonia drove us to Birsay where we grabbed a light lunch in the cafe with the amazing view then Bas and I descended to the shore and causeway to investigate for shells.  We were looking for good seams of shellsand which were not immediately evident.  This is a serendipity pastime, it just depends on what the weather and the sea have combined to throw up for one’s delectation.  th[1] After searching for a while we were joined by Alastair Skene who confith[4]rmed that we were searching in the right place.  I was hoping to find Erato voluta, of which I picked up one example:) and maybe even Simnia patula, of which Alastair found a fragment.  ArjanGittenberger__Stiefelslak_Simnia_patula3[1]

The photo on the left shows the living mollusc on its host food, Dead Man’s Fingers, Alcyonium digitatum.  Until very recently there was only one Simnia species described from our islands.  However Keith Hiscock noted that animals found on the sea fan Eunicella verrucosa were sufficiently different to investigate the possibility that they might be a separate species.  Which they were found to be…..  Keith has the honour of giving his name to this second species, Simnia hiscocki.  Before we left the shore Alastair presented Bas and me with a bag of shellsand to sort at leisure.  What treasures it might hold!!

 

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A Gathering of Archaeomalacologists

Every two years a Working Group of archaeologists whose research focuses on mollusc/shell use by man since the beginning of his time.  It has a Facebook page with the following mission statement:

“The International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ) shell working group was proposed and subsequently established after the 2002 ICAZ conference in Durham. It consists of people from around the world who have an interest in shell recovered from archaeological deposits – whether that be as evidence of past subsistence strategies, palaeoenvironments, artefact production or a myriad of other things.

At the 2012 AMWG meeting in Cairns, a Facebook page was proposed to allow archaeomalacologists from all over the world to communicate ideas, ask questions, interact and share knowledge.  The Facebook group signed up to this page thus have a useful forum for informal discussion.”

And so it is that I find myself amongst a group of people, most of whom are academics working on shell remains retrieved from archaeological sites. 12473958_1178219122223001_4723675153117683856_o The papers presented variously dealt with molluscan topics such as oysters, scaphopods (so-called tusk shells) from sites in India, freshwater mussels from Wisconsin, cowrie shells as currency from the Indian Ocean, shells for building materials, for beads, for purple dye extraction.  And of course for food.

The highlight for me was a paper given by Maureen Moore, one time curator at the East London Museum in South Africa.  She gave a biologist’s observations on the use of Mollusca by the Xhosa peoples of South Africa.  A breath of fresh air because here was someone who had seen at first hand how a tribe of indigenous people living at Mbotyi in the Transkei practised fishing to supplement their meagre cattle and sheep dietary contributions.

The seas are very rough on that area known as the Wild Coast so places for collecting molluscs are few and far between.  But Maureen did observe women collecting from one particular rockpool and the processing practices on the shore.  Only a dozen women of around 40 years would gather the shells; no younger women or children would accompany them.  This is at odds with a received belief that children would accompany women to the shore to gather seafood.  It rather suggests that some status is attached to a ‘permit’ to collect molluscs.

Maureen went on to describe other methods the women used whilst gathering what she noted to be exclusively gastropods, and mentions species that were collected.  Her article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the inhouse magazine of The Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Mollusc World,  and I cannot wait to read it.

 

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In Search of the Great White…..

Back in the 80s I went on a field trip to Skye with the Conchological Society.  I had not long joined the Society and this was the first week-long trip I had joined.  Nick came with me.  The meeting gave me a series of shelling experiences the like of which I had never experienced.  Investigating the shore at low water was a revelation in showing me molluscs and other marine invertebrates living in their habitats and within their niches.  My most memorable experience, and one that has stayed with me throughout my many shelling highlights, was the finding of a freshly cast-up snow-white Chlamys.  This was the lovely scallop species Chlamys nivea.  I was very taken with the shell and also curious to understand its distinction from Chlamys varia.  One thing led to another and a fellow CS member, Phil’ Palmer, encourage to measure a few shells, carry out some biometric tests, track down other specimens in museums and the like and eventually write a short paper for the Journal of Conchology.  This was my first foray into the scientific world and was to lead me  ultimately to unimagined places, both physical and intellectual.

Some of the shells that I borrowed to measure were Orcadian giants.  These were examples collected from Orkney shores by Ian Smith, who first discovered a colony of large white Chlamys living at low water along a causeway leading from Grimbister out to the small island of Holm.  So it was that finding myself on the doorstep of this distinct, possibly unique variety of Chlamys varia I wanted to see if there was a tantalising possibility that the population would be extant.

Bas and I found our way to the site as described by Ian, with the assistance of Sonia as our driver.  We arrived on the shore whilst the tide was still ebbing.  But a causeway was beginning to reveal itself, along with an isolated and artificial stone slab wall projecting perpendicularly from the beach.  The slabs were stacked like books with plenty of room for nestling species to settle in the joints and spaces between.  I found a few very large mussels which I steamed out of their shells later and popped in my mouth there and then.  But first I waded about in the shallows and picked up plenty of valves of large white scallop species.  Some very fresh and there was evidence of predated shells on the beach, most probably left by feeding otters.  The predation traces on the shell are all similar.  We found empty mussel shells too, all broken in the same pattern.  Bas also found one articulated individual containing a decaying body so the population would appear to be extant.

As the tide ebbed Bas and I picked our way along the causeway to the little island of Holm. At some point a man came wobbling his way along the slippery and uneven ridge of the tract of rocks and slabs carrying a petrol can and a bucket of brambles to start planting a hedge.  We talked.  He owns Holm and has done for 21 years.  An Essex man, he lives alone and has another property on Orkney.  He keeps a bit of livestock on the island but has never fished or potted for food from the sea.  He knew nothing of otters on his patch although he had seen seals, but not this year.  He reminded me of Harry Enfield.

Although Bas and I worked the rollable boulders along the causeway methodically we saw no sign of living Great Whites.  However at the end of the day I had a very large bag of white scallop valves to measure.  Time to revisit my 1986 J. Conch paper.

 

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Slim Pickings on Orkney Shores

I flew to Kirkwall on Mainland, Orkney for a meeting of zooarchaeologists including a working group who work on marine shells.  I was picked up from the small airport by Sonia and Terry, driven to our temporary home for the next 9 days and a cassoulet from scratch cooked by Rosemary.  It is good to be reconstituted as a group of baby boomers who make it our business to send at least one week a year under the roof of a large house with a big table and a room which we can adapt to function as a lab.  Our Orkney pad is hardly large.  It represents an economy of living but provides adequate accommodation and a useful utility room where Bas and I can do our mucky processing of shore collectings.  And a kitchen table large enough to cluster round when we are eating and otherwise occupied.

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Despite atrocious weather Bas and I decided to do a bit of shelling so Sonia dropped us of at Taing of the Clett for us to work the shore and see what we might find in the way of shells cast up and living molluscs.  We walked along an ebbing tide with narrow foreshore of flattish slates and slabs.  Our species list was meagre with no amazing finds.  We continued along to a small headland then continued along the upper shore grassy bank, passing Kirkwall airport on our left until we reached a small bay with some sands.  By this time we decided that we had had enough fresh air!  We walked along a road and up a small hill leading away from the beach whilst I searched intermittently for a mobile phone signal so we could summon our personal taxi.  Eventually I managed to get through to Sonia who came to pick us up.  We sorted through the few shells we had collected in order to make a site species list then hunkered down for the rest of the day.

In the evening there was to be a wine reception after Terry’s Plenary lecture on the subject of Islands.  We ate an early Supper at The Shore.  After the lecture we were entertained by three young sibling Orcadians on stringed instruments whilst we sampled a selection of Orkney cheeses on oatcakes with a glass or two.

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