There is a family of gastropod molluscs which I put near the top of my hierarchy of shells. This is the Epitoniidae, of which Epitonium is the ‘type’ genus. The common name for these shells, Wentletrap, is derived from the German word for a spiral staircase, Wendeltreppe or the Dutch Wenteltrappe. Is there anyone who does not think that spiral staircases (or spiral anythings come to that) are not beautifully satisfying forms?
Yesterday Nick and I went to the beach for a walk at the end of an afternoon spent gardening. We are doing battle with weeds in the gravels and the flower-beds and finally seeing some progress. We drove out to Pointe de Saire to walk around the sands and rocks which form the headland at the north end of the bay of St Vaast. The tides are on a spring cycle at the moment and as we arrived the first of the low-tide ‘pecheurs a pied’ were arriving. We watched a man, surrounded by gulls, cleaning some cuttlefish at the water’s edge. Some women were wandering casually along the shore, we think they were looking for winkles amongst the rocks and seaweeds.
This particular bit of shore is good for what I call beach pockets. I’ve googled this term but can only find references to ‘pocket beaches’, which are small beaches, between two headlands where often there is very little or no exchange of sediment between the pocket beach and the adjacent shorelines. My ‘beach pocket’ is something different, much smaller and typically an angled area of sediment, at the base of rock outcrop, where shelly material is washed and then left by the tide. Not all the shells get washed back when the tide recedes so the shells build up and on the surface you often find the freshest and what I suppose to be the most recent shells left behind. This is where I find cowries and wentletraps, the latter being more scarce. But cowries asked to be picked up for the tall glass jar at WK, they have significance in our family. A wentletrap, though, is a prize especially if its markings are clear and the spire is intact. As today’s shell was.
You just have to look at the images on the web to get a sense of how beautifully nature has crafted these shells. Probably best known is the Precious Wentletrap and this inspired the late Guy Shaw to carve a pair of foraging ants inside his intricate reproduction of a Precious Wentletrap shell. This was quite a challenge: the delicacy with which he undercut the ants so that only the tips of their legs were in contact with the shell was all the more remarkable since they had to be carved from the back towards the front to avoid damaging the front parts while carving the back.
Many legends surround the famous Precious Wentletrap. When originally discovered, it was so rare (specimens sometimes selling for large sums of money) that Chinese craftsmen began making ingenious rice-paste imitations, but these replicas sadly deteriorated over time. At least this is the myth you will find perpetuated in literature and on the internet. But my friend Peter Dance: in my book the doyen of Conchology knows otherwise. Now I can tell you that the truth is rather different. It is a tale of convolutions and calumnious testimonies. There is no evidence that rice forgeries of the Precious Wentletrap ever existed and you can read all about it in either of two of Peter’s books: Rare Shells (pp 86-7) or Out of My Shell (pp 94-95). In the latter volume you will discover how Peter arrived at the truth, and how, with goodness of heart, he dealt with that revelation.