Stella Maris – a Guiding Star

I’ve known Stella Maris for 28 years.  I met her at my first meeting of the Conchological Society at the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road.  The Society has been meeting there since the year dot and continues to the present day.

At my first meeting I took numerous small plastic boxes full of tiny shells I had collected, and sorted into ‘types’, from the strandlines at Porthcurno during a family holiday.  Little did I know the very person who could help me would be there and that this would mark the beginning of our friendship.

Stella has lived in Cornwall virtually all here life, with the exception of a short spell spent in New Zealand at the end of the 1920s where her father was a chaplain for 5 years.  When I met her she was just a few years younger than I am now.  She was President at the time and had served a term as Marine Recorder.  I was a complete novice and Stella was my conchological guru.  I am now the Marine Recorder and have served as President – I could not possibly have imagined, on that Saturday afternoon in October 1981, that in time I would come to know enough in order to be elected to take on those roles.  It was a fellow member who pointed out the coincidence of our names: I am Janice Marissa.  Our second names are the genitive form of the Latin word ‘mars’ – it means that we are both ‘of the sea’.

I spent Monday at Stella’s cottage tucked in a valley near Camborne.  She has lived there since the 1940s and it is more than a home, it is Stella’s sanctuary and it is a mecca for natural historians.  She has shared this home with her husband until he died in 1996 and Rose the botanist has lived there too.  Stella’s and Rose’s lives are steeped in natural history and biological recording.  Rose has just published a book on the group of flowering plants known as Fumitories.  Stella is working on a short local history.  She is also a prolific writer of verses.  These are usually triggered by something she has seen or heard in the media, a remark that a friend has made, or something she has ‘observed’.  Many of these verses have a natural history theme and are accessible on the Web courtesy of Jayne Herbert’s website.

Because the cottage is such a wonderful place to be and the welcome is always warm they are rarely without visitors.  Anyone who has been invited to eat round the table in their tiny dining room will know that to share a meal with Stella and Rose is a unique experience.

The planting in the garden has a strong oriental influence and there are huts which house part of the collections.  Every fine day the hut doors are opened to air the contents and the doors are closed when the day begins to wane.  Rose’s potting shed is immaculate, her tools cleaned and laid out ready, as if to do surgery.  When I visit, Stella has recently spent a day with Brian, who has helped her with the heavier jobs with unremitting enthusiasm for nearly half a century.  They have set to, rooting out a bamboo which has overstepped the mark.  Spears have penetrated the floorboards of the zoology hut, and this will not do!

From Stella I have learned so much about collecting shells, and more importantly keeping good records of what and where I find them so that this information can be used for biodiversity studies, conservation measures, monitoring climate change.  This is my bag as Marine Recorder.  What I have also learned is that if you make your welcome warm, your visitors will return time and again.

Porthcurno – Shellsand, a Special Swim, a School Outing

Nick and I pulled into the carpark after the so familiar drive across the peninsula from Penzance.  Through St Buryan, Drift, Treen – the names still work their magic of expectation and finally the right hand turn which takes you down to your destination.  There are few cars, it all looks just the same as it always did on those early morning trips, 25 years ago, when we brought basic breakfast to beat the crowds and have the beach to ourselves.

We take the barest minimum down to the shore, newspaper, novels, and a small shovel and some plastic bags.  No, we are not going on a clean-up mission.  My mission is to collect some of the choice shellsand for which Porthcurno is renowned in conchological circles.  A teaching workshop on sorting shell-rich sands in order to retrieve the numerous minute shelly species that are deposited daily on the driftlines, is planned by the Conchological Society in a few months’ time.  I am here today and can collect some raw material.

There has been some trampling along the main driftline – identifiable by the still damp barely disturbed sands on the seaward side and the numerous footprints in the dry sands the recent high tide did not reach.  There are a few minor strings of shell-rich deposits nearer the sea.  I take my small shovel and skim the cream!  Round the small headland to the east there are bolder deposits of numerous white clam shells, Spisula solida.  We collected a bucket of these as they popped out of the sands on the tide turn when we were here, ‘en extended famille’, for my father’s 80th birthday in August 2001.  The clams sense the rising water table of the incoming tide and rise, perhaps involuntarily, to the surface.  Dan and Emma made a wonderful paella with them at the cottages in Porthleven where we were staying at the time.

Today mixed in with the white bivalves there are bright orange, pink scallops and tiny cerise tellins.  This shellsand is coarser and will make an interesting contrast for the sorters.  I take my bags back to our pitch on the beach and tell Nick that I am going swimming.  Still nursing his recovering toe, it was as much as he could manage to get across the mobile sands but he is happy with his novel and he’s a great people-watcher!

The waiter at breakfast had told me that he swam at Porthcurno recently and three days later he went down with a chest infection.  Well I don’t buy that so I’m going to risk it.  Even before my toes make contact with the water I know it will feel like meltwater.  It always did and I hope it always will.

There is a crisp chill to the seawater off Porthcurno, it is tingly cold but soon my blood is racing around and it turns my skin rosy.  I swim then I waft a bit arms outstretched.  I stand upright and jump up and down, I think it’s joy!  Rocked by the gentle waves I can look down through the crystal water to a seabed of pale shellsand with no blemish.  The sands are rippled and there are scattered crescents of sunlight patterning the surface.  I have this sea almost to myself.  This is the best of Cornish swimming, it’s a purfication.

Before we leave I take my camera to the shoreline.  How can I begin to capture the moment? There’s a group of schoolchildren and they’ve had their picnic lunch at the top of the beach.  The teachers have escorted them to the water’s edge and they are rolling up their trousers and paddling.   Jumping the waves, squealing, wading just a bit too deep and ‘OMG I’ve got wet’!  Happy the children whose school is close by this golden beach.

Squirrel Nutkin pays a Visit

We started feeding the birds last autumn after we spotted a jumbo tub of fat balls at the local garden centre for a knock-down price.  Amazing what bargains do to one’s way of thinking.  As owners of cats over the years we have felt slightly guilty about their proclivity to hunt birds and mice of which we have plenty in our immediate vicinity, so have not gone out of our way to invite our feathered friends to feed on our door step.  But apart from the bargain aspect of the offer we felt our current feline incarnation is so grossly overweight (but adorable) we tend to think the birds have an advantage.

So we’ve also added nut cages which initially we suspended from the jasmine arch outside the French doors.  The speed with which they were being emptied, not to mention the consumption of a fat ball in 24 hours,  was explained one morning when we observed a grey squirrel, suspended from the jasmine branch, nibbling at the peanuts through the close-weave wire mesh.

The woods are full of oak, and some chestnut.  We frequently find oak seedlings in the garden and I have unearthed both sweet and horse chestnuts buried in my plant pots.  The squirrels in our woodland are not on the margin.

We moved the nut cage to the courtyard outside the kitchen.  We hung it from the washing-line, well away from a squirrel-supporting infrastructure.   We suspended a couple of fat balls too.  And we were perplexed when both fat balls and nuts continued to disappear at an alarming rate – bird food isn’t cheep!

During the past couple of weeks I’ve been at home and indoors rather more.  Laying up a lunch tray for a recuperating Nick one day, I looked out of the kitchen window and saw the squirrel suspended from the washing line by his hind feet and clasping the nut cage with his ‘hands’.  How did the blighter get there?

Thinking, ‘He’s got to retreat the way he came’, I tapped the window whereupon the squirrel dropped to the ground and scampered up the steps.  He sat there for a few seconds then climbed onto the railings, ran along them onto the fence and disappeared from view.  However, almost immediately after, I was aware of agitated movement in the Wisteria, which frames the kitchen window,  in my peripheral vision.  Quick as you like the squirrel reached the washing line and half ran, half swung his way along to reach the nuts.  Got to hand it to him.

I’ve also been indoors more because I’ve been sorting a large archive of papers: reports, folders, correspondence which relate to a job I do on a voluntary basis for the Conchological Society.  This archive was in a bit of disarray which had got to the point where I could not bear the thought of someone else having to pick up the pieces.  Well it’s sorted now, a lot is packed up for onward transmission to a facility in Leeds, other research stuff of mine is boxed – could be extracted if needed – but will eventually go the way of all things.

Of late, the garden here has received less attention than it needs and deserves.  I’m going to turn my attention to that next………..

Two Birthdays and a BBQ

On a brilliantly sunny Sunday at the end of May a contingent of Lights and friends gathered chez Perryman to celebrate a 2nd and a 3rd birthday. In addition to some exciting presents,  Teddy and Charlie were blessed with the gift of a day that was warm enough to bring a paddling pool into service.  The weather has gone downhill since, even tempting one, horrors, to put the central heating back on in June!

Whilst the children, the eldest 8, the youngest 17 months, played happily, the adults conversed in small groups.  Centre stage was occupied by Grandpa, arriving on crutches in virtually post-operative state, having had one of his big toes ‘straightened’ the day before. To tell what they did would be too much information.  Nick reclined on the long sofa indoors, which suited this sun-shunner fine, and dealt his stories, tailored to order.  He’s very good at it.

Charlotte and Claire laid out a lovely spread to accompany the products of Ryan’s BBQ.  They do a great BBQ, chez Perryman.  No family day is complete without a final splash.  At the end of the day, tired children were ferried home in their pyjamas.  Below is a small gallery, for more pictures check out Chez Perryman.

Painted Ladies and Lady Gardeners

We’ve been in St Vaast four days and we’ve managed to make some inroads into the gardening tasks.  The grass is cut, the edges trimmed.  We never get on top of the plants which seed themselves in the gravels at the front and by the back gate but Nick and Mum set to with kneelers and sunhats.  Myriads of young foxgloves have to be unrooted along with the pernicious horsetails.  The Mange tout and Broad beans need supporting on pea sticks.  The line of potatoes which will be ready for JACS to dig in August is doing well.

The roses are the best ever this year and Nick spends time picking off the rusty leaves and cutting off spent flowerheads.  Along the borders there is no shortage of foxgloves which I allow to flower wherever there are spaces.  There is one pale, baby-doll pink one by the back gate – I must try and collect seed to propagate it.  I’m very fond of foxgloves, I enjoy their promiscuity and willingness to set plants all over.

There is a lot of weeding to do and we only scratch the surface in the time we have.  Delicious as our chunky compost is, ideal for the fine mineral-rich sandy soils we have in St Vaast, lots of seeds survive the brewing process, I suspect we don’t leave it quite long enough to mature.  There are hundreds of Nicandra physalodes seedlings to remove – I move three volunteer seedlings to a site near the Pittosporum and these are the only ones which will be allowed to flower.

Of the Fuchsias that were bought for our Ruby Wedding Dinner Party last October the one given to us by Susie and Charles, and the late-flowering one with long droopy flowers have failed to show any signs of regeneration after being hit hard by frost even though they were under glass in England.  I empty their pots.

On our last evening in St Vaast we are invited for apero with Francois and Anne.  We are given a glass of bubbles and take a walk round their garden.  Mum is thrilled with this turn, not least because we are feted by the Poulet’s dogs Loupiac and Rully (they name their family dogs after wines!).  Anne’s roses are also fabulous this year and, it being a mature garden, they are substantial bushes.  One rambler has found its way to the top of a Yucca clump some 4 metres high.

Sitting inside their conservatory which runs the length of the back of the house we have a constant view of the garden.  A butterfly flits across the tops of bushes which prompts Anne to say they have seen many butterflies during the past few days.  We have also seen dozens in our garden.  They are all Painted Ladies but go by other names: Vanessa cardui, Cynthia cardui, Thistle Butterfly, Cosmopolitan.  This latter because of their worldwide distribution.  Well, this butterfly by any other name cannot be more beautiful.  And they only live for 2 weeks.

My Mother the Globe-Trotter

A year ago my mother gave up her home of more than 40 years to move to residential care.  Whilst recognising the sacrifice of the passing of independence, she has been very happy at Chestnuts and it was time to arrange for her to have a short holiday in our French home.

So it was that my sister Liz brought her to Godalming on Sunday for a passage across the English Channel on Monday.  We boarded the Mont St Michel at midday for a 6-hour crossing.  We sat in the lounge on Deck 9, drinking tea, reading newspapers, magazines and when the main Restaurant opened we took Mum up for dinner.  We had a table by a window and looked out onto the windy deck with its steamer chairs, people in fleeces seated round tables and beyond, to the sea where from time to time we could see gannets diving and then circling around the stern before diving again.  Were these the same gannets, following the ferry, or maybe hitching a ride with us with a view to fishing from time to time?

The house is always welcoming because Daniel switches the hot water on and opens up the shutters.  Mum is delighted to be back after a year’s absence and we install her in the little boudoir which is the mauve room.  An inspection of the garden reveals that the foxgloves and Dutch iris are in full swing, the Allium schubertii are bearing huge globe flower heads on short stalks and other Allium are blooming also.  Some of the delphiniums are doing their bluest best, others are waiting in the wings.

As for produce, the strawberry plants have large numbers of green fruits, the mange tout and broad beans are holding their own and there are GLOBE ARTICHOKES to pick!  I select the largest on the leading shoot and cut it.  It is not far short of 20cm in diameter and more than enough for the three of use to share as an entrée.

I boiled it for 30 minutes, drained it well and laid it on a plate.  We then stripped the ‘petals’ and dipped them in vinaigrette and butter and sucked the fleshy bases.  Bit by bit we got to the heart of the matter.  You cut off the whiskery thistly choke then cut into the small soft core.  The taste and texture are unique and Mums loves it all.

It is her first globe artichocke experience and I have enjoyed introducing her to a new food.  She is still adventurous with food and I think I have her to thank for my willingness to try almost anything once.  As a post-war baby I was fed on a diet based on restricted commodities and those that were plentiful.  One of the latter was the humble herring – surely one of the boniest fish to tackle.  But my mother taught me how to find my way round one when I was three or four years old and fish bones have never held any fear for me since!

Talking of fish, during her visit we are to enjoy a variety: we have Raie a la Crème with Riz at the Debarcadere one lunch-time.  However the ultimate piscatorial experience is reached on our last day in St Vaast when, thanks to Nick who takes Aroona out fishing on Thursday,  she is served grilled Mackerel fillets on her breakfast tray, Beignets of Whiting with courgettes for lunch, and rolls of Dover Sole with Brittany vegetables for dinner on the ferry.  This latter being preceded by a platter of crevettes roses, langoustines, poached and smoked salmon.  Surely the pinnacle of piscivory.