Jersey Interlude

Not a spat of cold weather……… but a flip over the blue from Granville to St Helier.  This is a long post which focuses on my lifelong fascination for shells and the journeys I make to indulge my passion.  Let me share a quotation with you:

It is perhaps a more fortunate destiny to have a taste for collecting shells than to be born a millionaire.  Although neither is to be despised, it is always better policy to learn an interest than to make a thousand pounds; for the money will soon be spent, or perhaps you may feel no joy in spending it; but the interest remains imperishable and ever new.’

from Lay Morals, by Robert Louis Stevenson 1850-1894.

There you have it and if you are unconvinced, read no further. Be warned, this is a long post!

I have come to Jersey to meet Paul, Rachel and Eleanor who moved here April.  They are living in a delightful house on the coast road with views across an immense stretch of shore when the tide is low.  With guidance you could walk out a mile and a half (as the seagull flies) to a point beyond the Seymour Tower, which is our destination on my first evening.  But the uninitiated would be very unwise to undertake such an excursion without a guide.

Fortunately I have one.  Paul grew up on Jersey, moved to the mainland as a student and after some years working over there (variously for the BBC and on ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ out of the Natural History Museum) has returned to Jersey with his family.  He writes for a living.

We walk out from the slipway at La Rocque to the Seymour Tower (built in 1782) where we can clamber up steps hewn in the granite to a platform where you can gaze yet further out to distant rock outcrop where on exceptional spring tides you can walk further still.  But if you are wanting to look at marine life and collect shells you’d no sooner get to that distant point than you would have to start back for the sanctuary of the upper shore.  Apart from the sheer magniture of this shore (the lowest of spring tides effectively doubles the island’s area)  the high energy here means that sand and gravel ridges and channels are carved in the sediments by wave and current action.  The channels,  which are hidden from view until you are upon them, fill up preferentially once the tide has turned and the water table is rising through the sands and gravels.

It is potentially treacherous and there have been too many tragedies over the years.  So much so that a ‘refuge tower’ has been built.  Standing 30 feet high it is like a mini-pylon made of steel and many a hapless beachcomber has been rescued by the lifeboat from its upper platform.  The tidal range on Jersey is 12m and on some tides the sea can rise 0.5 m in 10 minutes.

As we walk out over the topography of rock outcrop with gullies, larger channels, pools of standing water to splosh through, there are plenty of granite boulders scattered about but there isn’t enough time to linger and roll them to look for life underneath.  But we can stop and pick up empty shells which catch the eye.  I see there are shells of the Manila Clam which I show Paul and discover this is new information from him.

This clam, Tapes philippinarum, is a species which was introduced for farming in the UK on the basis that it could be reared in a controlled environment, but could not escape into the wild because UK seawater would never be warm enough for this to happen.  The rest is history……..!

There are populations of the Manila Clam now on the Essex and Kent coasts of the Thames Funnel, and there is a thriving population in Poole Harbour and no doubt it will eventually become as widespread as its fellow carpet clam species.

As we trek out across zones of compacted pebbly gravels, gravelly sands, sandy gravels, sands, these sediment types change abruptly and sweeping curves of stones or shells mark out where the changes happen so suddenly.  A splash of orangey brown colour is the clam Clausinella fasciata.  It is alive and I pick it up and show it to Paul.  He has not found living examples on Jersey before.

We are now walking over a zone of gently rippled coarse sands and there are scattered articulated pairs of assorted bivalves, notably juvenile dog cockles (Glycymeris glycymeris).  Also pretty in pink are Tapes rhomboides which I think Eleanor will enjoy.  The opened joined valves are like little butterflies.  On arrival Eleanor had showed me her terra cotta pot of shells, and crab and lobster pieces.  She is a 5-year old beachcomber and is obviously learning fast.  She has found a shell of Bulla striata which is an exotic species……

Our shore walk has a mission.  Paul has mentioned that there is a population of Mactra glauca, otherwise known as the Five Shilling Shell on this shore.  To quote him from his book on Channel Island Marine Molluscs “This was once a highly prized specimen amongst conchologists and received its common name from its market value”  It seems that early collectors would part with this sum (25p in modern currency) to add the shell to their natural history cabinet.

He quotes a well known English conchologist, Marshall, who said in 1897 “The Jersey habitat for this fine shell is situated in a dangerous locality in the south-east part of the island,  and should not be negotiated without a local guide or fisherman. ” Fascinating to me is the fact that, to judge from the description of the original locality,  although occasional specimens may turn up in suitable habitat on the island, the  principal population of this species has persisted as a discretely localised colony at exactly the same site for a very long time.  What is it that holds this large showy clam species to the locality and what prevents it spreading further on this shore and round the island?  You can read more about this species and a whole range of British marine shell species in Paul’s new book, British Shells.

We find some nice examples of the species but cannot tarry.  The tide is going to turn and we don’t want to be refugees to this shore!  By the time we get back to the slipway we work out we have probably walked 2.5 km.

On Thursday we are going to visit a rather special site on the island.  Paul has found two tiny Red Data Book snails living together under slabs and in shingle beneath a craggy harbour wall.   The site is unusual for a number of reasons and we need to do some work to find out why the snails live there, and then write a paper about it.

We are picked up later by Rachel and Eleanor who have had a slightly frustrating afternoon.  ‘La Ferme’ which is a farm which has Open Days wasn’t open so they went to a Maize Maze instead.  But it has meant a lot of time in the car.  We drive to Gorey Harbour and look at the beach beneath Mont Orgueil Castle.   We do a little potter on the shore – a delicious experience with a bacon sandwich in one hand!

Friday we are going to continue the search for tiny rare snails.  Dead shells have turned up in shellsand drifts in St Aubin’s Bay,  which is a very wide arc and we make for the western end.  Rachel delivers Paul and I close to the harbour itself.  I stare down onto the mud below.  Boats are sitting askew, abandoned by the receding tide and there are shallow drainage channels where freshwater is running across the muds.

The walls themselves are large regular blocks of  thick granite with brown seaweeds attached and some Lichina pygmaea growth at the margins of the blocks.  There is no chance of finding anything by way of loose slabs to remove and inspect.  At the foot of the walls there is mud with occasional deposits of rubble and pebbles.  Along the inner side of the left hand wall as you look in through the narrow harbour entrance there is a culvert-type feature with a ‘floor’ of small cobbles.  Under these there are snails: Hydrobia ulvae, Littorina saxatilis, Cingula trifasciata. There is no sign of any Red Data Book snails.

We’ve looked elsewhere for suitable upper shore habitat but nothing is evident.  Paul shows me a shallow shell-rich ridge bounded on one side at the water’s edge with a scattering of dead shells (mostly cockles and slipper limpets).  The other side is a steep sloping eroding edge, thick with shells which Paul believes are building up within the ridge to give it its height.  Here’s a place for the shell collector.  Its a place of deposition for shells from several habitats within the bay, to judge for the meli- melo of species: Gibbula magus, Angulus squalidus, Loripes lucinalis, Pandora albida, Mangelia brachystomia, Jujubinus striatus.

At six o’clock we join Rachel and Eleanor who are waiting in The Salty Dog.  We’re going to eat supper there and we have a delightful meal.  Eleanor tackles Moules frites, a sure-fire hit with many young children, and tucks away rather more little mussel bodies than she did the previous time.  The best bit is dipping the chips into the creamy soupy marinade the moules were steamed in.  The adults start with a spicy crisp salad of beanshoots, cucumber, slivers of red onion and shavings of green papaya with a light dressing of sweet chilli, and some prawns. Paul and I follow with a velvety red Thai curry of king prawns and steamed rice.  The hot coconutty sauce wraps itself around the rice which I add to the bowl bit by bit and it is so flavoursome.  Rachel chooses a grilled black bream and the fish looks so good.

On Saturday morning there is time to look on the shore immediately below the Chambers’ home.  There are some pools at the top of the shore which never drain at low water, so the range of small sea beasts you can find in them is varied.  We manage to find some rarities: a cushionstar and a chiton.  It is an auspicious end to my sojourn on this busy Channel Island.  Next time I come I hope it will be with Nick on Aroona.  We have yet to make a ‘petit voyage’ on Aroona, so bringing her back to the Channel Islands where we bought her seems a good idea.

(Thanks to Paul for allowing some of his photos to be added to the Gallery)

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