Thursday would be my last day of the field trip. A very special event would be taking place in Welwyn Garden City the following day, a day of homage to a time of my life and the characters who populated that era.
I had hoped to stay at Bryn Engan in order to work my samples and get as much processing and curation achieved as I could. But this was the day for boatwork; Bas, Simon and Nick would be joining a local skipper to carry out some grab sampling offshore. So I agreed to ‘lead’ the planned excursion to Shell Island, at Mochras.
In retrospect this place is a bit of a misnomer. Agreed there are plenty of shells to be had but the site is sprawling and it is not clear just where the island of shells is. I wish that I had looked at a more detailed map beforehand, and an aerial shot or two. More correctly it is a peninsula access to which is made possible via a causeway across the River Artro estuary when the tide is out.
We paid our dues to the owner of the campsite there and then parked our cars but I think we did not find the most propitious carpark for our purposes. We clambered down the dunes to arrive at a fairly bleak sandy shore, with a boulder bed immediately adjacent and sands stretching away to the south. Eschewing the high strandline I walked down to the water’s edge and proceeded to track that line south as the tide ebbed. I found very little of anything. Perhaps most notable were the darkly orange valves of Callista. After speaking to a dog-walker I discovered that I was right off track, Shell Island was to the north by the headland I could see, where I would find ‘thousands’. Arriving at this point I met Terry and Sonia, and later, just as we were leaving, Paula. They had been picking their way over a thick line of shells at the top of the shore. These were dominantly cockles and common intertidal gastropod species but Terry had some 36 species including Aporrhais pes-pelicani and Paula was able to find two species of Epitonium (wentletrap). These two shells are beautiful in their own right but are also blessed with elegant and descriptive common names. It is evident why the Pelican’s Foot shell should be so named, but the common name for the slender turriform shell of the Wentletrap, most like a steeple in shape, is more obscure. The name derives from the Dutch Wenteltrap, or indeed the German Wendeltreppe, a spiral staircase.
In the absence of rough weather for some weeks, and given that we were at the end of the summer season when numerous holidaymakers would have trampled the shore we were picking over dregs. Tom Clifton had previously mentioned finding Trivia shells washed up in their thousands on strandlines.
Looking back in my field notebooks I see that I made a field visit to Mochras when I was in the area on a geology field trip in April 1991. Unfortunately the habit I developed later of writing notes of the site, where I searched, how I sampled etc had not then kicked in. However I have a long list of species, many of which are recorded as having been seen alive. I suspect I carried out a weedwashing exercise for microspecies, I evidently searched the saltmarsh area as I recorded Limapontia depressa, Retusa obtusa and Hydrobia ulvae and I found fourteen infaunal clam species alive. Maybe I found a good place of deposition where fresh shells were washed in and dumped by the tide. What is interesting though is that I did not see Trivia or Epitonium 🙂
Traeth Crugan is a quiet beach situated between Llanbedrog and Pwllheli. The beach is mostly coarse sand and small shingle backed by boulder clay banks with agricultural land behind. When you arrive at the shore when the tide is high, as is often the case, the nature of the beach and its sublittoral remains to be discovered. This is the site for the day but some of our number have another expedition in mind first.
A splinter group 🙂 have driven to Abererch railway station to meet up with Tom Clifton in order to walk the strand westwards to the headland at Hafan Y Mor, also known as Penychain. This is a point of deposition for driftwood. In the past Tom, who has made a unique and special study of shipworm occurrences in timber washed up around Anglesey and the Lleyn, has found some of his best samples of here. Some of is samples have been very large, possibly struts from piers, necessitating the use of ropes to haul the wood along the 2-3 miles of beach back to his parked car. So we join the beach by the Abererch Sands Holiday Park near the station and trudge east seeing little in the way of beached wood. But, as we reach the headland we start to find accumulations of smaller pieces of driftwood on the strandline and then we happen on a very promising trunk with boreholes. Out come the bow saw and the hand axe and Tom, Nick and Simon set to.
Sadly when the log is sawn through it is clear that the boreholes were not made by shipworms but another organism whose traces in the timber we do not recognise. Nevertheless we have had a demonstraton of the technique by the master and it has been his pleasure to make this expedition, it having been several years since he has carried out any marine fieldwork.
So we trudge back to our cars and drive to Traeth Crugan to join the others. The tide is ebbing well now and before long there is a shallow lagoon to wade around, where dead shells are lying on the pebbly sands. Tapes aureus and Gastrana fragilis are locally common here, occurring elsewhere around the coast of the British Isles at widely scattered localities. Paul Brazier, who works for Natural Resources Wales and is a long-time acquaintance of mine snorkles the lagoon and Paula Lightfoot has also donned her diving kit so she can collect some sublittoral weed samples for Ian Smith who needs a good sample of living Pusillina inconspicua for DNA work in association with people at Cardiff Museum.
Once I can cross the lagoon and gain the platform on the seaward side I wander over this reef, suddenly becoming aware of the numerous Gibbula magus snails crawling over the substrate. Hundreds of them. Tom is taking another trip down memory lane. He discovered this site during his days as area recorder and he joins me near low water.
It is very evident when the tide turns and I recross the lagoon to join Nick. When we leave the beach I am slightly concerned that Ian is still working along the far margin of the lagoon and his routes of access to the main beach seem to be disappearing under the rising tide. I am also more than a little concerned that he is on kitchen duty for his Pasta and Broad Beans in tomato sauce. Yet again our redoubtable Marine Recorder will be one of the last to leave the shore.
Nick and I follow Tom in his car; he has a more efficient satnav than we do and we are still finding it tricky to get back to the house after our daily excursions. Back at the house there arrives a moment when the resident cooks realise that if people are going to eat at anything like a reasonable hour, and we have invited other field trip participants to eat with us, a nettle needs to be grasped. Eschewing some aspects of Ian’s recipe we concoct a Pasta and Broad Bean dish with Pesto, preceded by Sonia’s Butternut Squash and coconut milk soup. Ian arrives just as we are about to serve the pasta, full of embarrassment and apologies for having timed his fieldwork badly and spent the past hour driving round the lanes searching in vain for the house. I can identify with him, if we had not been able to follow Tom Clifton back to the house I think Nick and I might have gone astray.
On the morrow we drove north again, to Anglesey, this time crossing the bridge and turning southwest to reach Ynys Llanddwyn, a small presqu’ile, a tidal island, which projects southwest and being accessible at certain tidal states to the mainland by means of a relatively flimsy sandy bar. Before you walk round the sandy bay to reach the island you might be distracted by the extensive flat reef-like platform of cobbles and associated pebbles which are sitting stably but are not deeply embedded on the sand. On the upper shore the smooth cobbles are heavily colonised with barnacles; limpets are scarce as are dog whelks. As you descend to midshore level, weeds and small shallow pools, no more than puddles feature. And then you are crunching your way over large barnacly mussels, crowded together in secure byssally attached beds. The substrate type is continuous but larger rocks and boulders are more common as you reach the lower shore and when these are rolled they are harbouring diverse sponges and ascidians. The life under these larger rocks is teeming. Cancer pagurus, Velvet swimming crabs, and shore crabs scuttle out of sight. There are sea anemones, starfish, brittlestars, and rockpool fish splatter out of the way when revealed to daylight. I find an Aeolidia papillosa and an Onchidoris bilamellata but I am mostly charmed by the small ‘families’ of Trivia nestling amongst the ascidians. I have never seen so many juveniles ‘at a sitting’!
I have spent so much time on the flat reef that there is not time to walk over to the island although I would have liked to see it. Nick takes a photo of me and I am a dot in the distance. Before the tide reaches its full ebb it is time to leave the shore. I am on duty in the kitchen and although the meal is very straightforward, consisting of a large jar of Cassoulet bought at St Vaast market a few years ago, it needs to be padded out with 16 large pork sausages and served with vegetables. And before I serve it I will need to deal my daily haul.
After a panettone and lemon curd tartine for breakfast I repair to the lab to carry on working on the material I have brought with me. This consists of shells I have been sent for identification by others, such as Steve Trewhella, and can now label to integrate into my collection. It is deeply satisfying to tie up loose ends which have straggled across my desk for so long. I show Neolepton sulcatulum to Simon and other specimens to folk to resolve identification queries. We make a lunch at the ranch then head off for Bangor. We are going to work in the Menai Strait.
The Menai Strait is a narrow stretch of shallow tidal water about 25 km (16 mi) long, which separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland of Wales. It has been the focus of attention for marine biological studies from groups such as the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland and more importantly it has provided a perfect base for Marine Biology undergraduate and postgraduate courses taught from the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University. The differential tides at the two ends of the Strait cause very strong currents to flow in both directions through the Strait at different times, creating dangerous conditions. One of the most dangerous areas of the strait is known as the Swellies between the two bridges. Here rocks near the surface cause over-falls and local whirlpools, which can be of considerable danger in themselves and cause small boats to founder on the rocks. This area between the two bridges is also a rewarding and productive area to work when surveying for marine life. Whilst some of the group decided to work the shore underneath Menai Bridge, others of us parked conveniently for Church Island around which an interesting shore is exposed at low tide. You cross a permanent causeway to the small island on which St Tsilio’s Church with its graveyard is situated. Here Tysilio founded a hermitage in 630AD and the old buildings are long gone, the current church dating to the 15th century. There is a belief that Tysilio is the same person as St. Suliac who set up a religious centre in Brittany. Before accessing the more open marine shore we spent a little time investigating the splash zone of the saltmarsh area, searching beneath plants of Halimione portulacoides for pulmonate snails. We found Myosotella and Auriculinella under embedded slabs on mud which is clean of roots. We found what we were looking for, inviting the attentions, as always, of passers-by who cannot resist asking us what we are looking for.
With the passing of years I find muddy sediments and blankets of fucoids ever more treacherous. Fortunately at Church Island there were more stable patches of pebbly gravels to tread on but once you get to the water’s edge and with the tide ebbing to the kelp zone the risk of slipping is high. But not this time.
I worked amongst rollable boulders finding good coverage of colonial growth and some interesting associated molluscs: both species of Trivia, Lamellaria perspicua, Berthella plumula and Peter found a Sea Lemon. A heron came to observe. We were joined by Tom Clifton who lives nearby at Rhianfa, what a pleasure to see him again and looking well. He is going to come to Traeth Crugan and may bring his axe and bow saw for a diverting foray for beached timber.
My overall species list was unremarkable but at low water and as the tide turned I enjoyed a molluscan experience which took me back many years to a similar occasion at Strollamus on the Isle of Skye. Laying on the gravels and byssally attached in places there were juvenile specimens of Pecten maximus measuring about 2cm from umbo to ventral margin. These beguiling little scallops were just beginning to show their ribbed sculpture; there is a stage when the little shells are smooth and belie their adult form. On Skye the baby scallops were Aequipecten opercularis a more colourful species and their bright pink, orange and yellow shells, surprisingly camouflaged amongst the gravel and pebbles on the shore, immediately became visible when they fluttered to meet the incoming tide.
The drive back to Bryn Engan took the best part of 45 minutes and, not being on kitchen duty, I was able to sort my material and make a few notes about the day’s activity. We enjoyed Rosemary’s pheasant casserole for supper followed by one of Waitrose’s superior desserts, a Lemon Meringue Pie. There is just time after to my scrubbings and weeds on soak, then crash with a ancient John Le Carre that I have found on the bookshelves.
With the late arrival, on Saturday night, of our Marine Recorder, Simon Taylor, we are nine in residence at Bryn Engan. Before we head for our shore of the day the five conchologists in our number have time to set up stations in the ‘dry lab’, a small weatherproof outbuilding which harbours a small pool table around which we erect temporary work benches to accommodate our microscopes and associated paraphernalia.
There is also a wet lab of sorts, a larger stable with a ping pong table, which is served by the outside tap where we must sieve our samples. It works. We just lack sea water on tap and late on Sunday evening an excursion to a local beach is made to fill the two large plastic containers which Ian Smith has brought. Ian needs to set up his photographic equipment and eventually settles on the front porch!
On Sunday our shore of the day is Porth Dinllaen, a stretch of coast which has been surveyed on previous Conch Soc field trips under the auspices of Tom Clifton the former area recorder for Anglesey and the Lleyn.
Porth Dinllaen at Morfa Nefyn, is a rocky peninsula projecting northwards with a small harbour of east side and more craggy and less accessible coast on the west. With special dispensation we park at the golf club there and walk the tarmacked right of way that crosses the greens and more than once to the shout of ‘Fore’ we duck because misguided golf balls are heading our way. To our left as we walk north there is a string of pocket beaches which look promising, if difficult of access. Some of our number head for the tip of the small peninsula.
Despite careful searching none of us on that shore finds Melarhaphe neritoides nor much else in the way of upper shore crevice dwelling molluscs, although I do later obtain Lasaea adansoni from my Lichina sample. Really I am waiting to see if the ebbing tide will reveal the extensive Zostera beds I recall from previous visits. Zostera is otherwise known as eelgrass (which is a good name) or seawrack which is a bad name as Zostera is a grass, a flowering plant, not an alga or seaweed. (At Studland in Dorset there are now seahorses breeding amongst the Zostera there). Sure enough as more of the sand flats are revealed, so also is the green turf, which losing its buoyancy in the water, flops onto the silty sands losing its grace and mobility, which are features to enjoy when wading Zostera beds in shallow water. I am stymied for sampling as I have slipped up by forgetting to bring a sieve of suitable mesh size in order to sieve some sediments associated with the sea grass, taking sand from small bare patches where the roots of the sea grass are not disturbed. Even so I might have expected to see a scattering of shells of the species that inhabit this particular biotope.
We do find valves and fragments of the showy venerid clam Callista chione. This is a large bivalve with a handsome polished shell. It is also edible although you would be wise to cook Callista first as attempts to swallow it raw and whole may be met with resistance from the large muscular foot. Unlike the passive and hapless oyster! My species list for the site is otherwise paltry. With the law of diminishing returns in force we decide to take our paltry haul of specimens back to the ‘lab’ leaving our stalward Marine Recorder working the little pocket beaches we passed on our way to the shore.
Who ate all the pies? Well, we did; our evening meal being contributed by Peter whose local butcher makes fine meat pies. Followed by his blackberry and apple crumbles we are replete and can settle to sorting our samples.
It’s that time of year when the Equinox approaches and high tides will be extra high and low tides extra low and there will be super seashores to explore in our hunt for molluscs. All we need is some decent weather. Well, I think I can say that the weather exceeded our greatest expectations. During the week we were based at Bryn Engan just north of Criccieth we celebrated fine sunny days, often breezeless giving us good water visibility too.
My journey would take me from Dorset north to cross the River Severn then turning towards the northwestern direction to follow a traverse of Wales that will take us through stunning landscapes. On this exceptionally fine, sunny autumnal day Nick and I share a car journey we have never made before. Leaving Abergavenny the A40 takes us into the valley that passes between the Brecon Beacons on the west and the Black Mountains on the east. Forking onto the A479 we continue north to Talgarth and, with the road tracking the flow of the River Wye, on to Builth Wells where we stop at a garage for a coffee. We have grazed on a box of salad stuffs, an avocado and a pack of 6 mini pork pies. The latter a rare and complete over-indulgence!
We’ve rejoined the A470 and still many miles to cover we track northwest and between Llanidloes and Llanbrynmair on the B4518 we pass the large water body of the Clwedog Reservoir. We are heading for the hills again and enter the Snowdownia National Park at Mailwyd where our route takes us west to Dolgellau over the Afon Mawddach and due north to cross the River Dwyryd and now we are getting warmer.
Our lodgings for the forthcoming week are at Bryn Engan, a property belonging to a relative of one of our number, a former farmhouse hiding in the Criccieth hinterland on the margins of the Snowdownia Park.
By late early evening seven of our number have converged and taken possession of their rooms. Nick and I have carried the evening meal, a Chicken Dopiaza with accompaniments. In the view of some I probably slipped up as I had neglected to provide a pudding!! We enjoy our meal, the first of several convivialities to follow, around a table designed to seat twelve comfortably. A large kitchen and generously proportioned table are de rigueur when we Five, Six or Seven go wild for a week.
On Thursday morning I wake early and sit in the cockpit with my novel. I must make the most of this experience; tomorrow we will be getting up early to be driven to the airport for our flight home. A swim off the little improvised beach is also to be enjoyed; it is the penultimage sea swim I will enjoy in 2015.
Nick and Mike have spotted a café which offers coffee and croissants as a breakfast bargain. We sit at a table in the sunshine and I drink the view in. My choice is a ‘cheese pie’ which satisfies my liking for a cooked savoury breakfast. Before we let our moorings go, the boat is thoroughly hosed down. We have a short passage to Trogir to make. The sea is smooth and a deeply mysterious dark blue. I think of ink.
We find a suitable anchorage in an uninhabited cove with a ruin at Razetinovac for a swim and our salad in the cockpit. Arriving at Trogir mid-afternoon Mike’s connections and pre-booking allow us to tie up along the town quay. Carolyn and I go ashore, principally in search of a yummy brand of 3D crisps that we have been enjoying with our evening drinks. We have tried supermarkets wherever we have encountered the opportunity but to no avail, and despite trying more than one outlet in Trogir I draw a blank. I’ve been saving a few kuna for the purchase so I spend them, instead, on 2 kilos of the succulent golden dried figs that you find in Croatian markets.
Over drinks we chew over our mutual diaries together to try and find a few November days for St Vaast wine-tasting and a few days more for a spell on Tresco in May 2016. Then it is time to go ashore to the good Restaurant Capo we have dined at before. The Derricks are welcomed back by the owners. Nick and I are quite peckish and go for starters and substantial main courses. Carolyn is not hungry and chooses a green salad, followed by a starter. Mike’s choices are modest. It is a bit unfortunate because the Lights have already done their treat meal and this one will come out of the kitty purse. The evening develops another frisson when a group of five diners arrive and the older woman with the startling appearance and arresting voice, who accompanies four youngsters, one of whom is in a wheelchair, turns out to be trans-gender, or trans-sexual or a man in drag. I try very hard not to stare but I am intrigued because I am essentially a nosy person and that wins disapproval too. However we exchange pleasantries with the group before we leave the restaurant which leaves good feelings.
We get back to the boat for a night-cap. I have already packed our bags ready for an early departure the following morning. We have had a wonderful break in the Croatian archipelago and I have a great sense of having been spoiled because of the generosity of our sailing friends. I hope they have a sense of that.
After an undisturbed night’s sleep I woke for a refreshing swim. The morning light had not fully risen and the sun sent a shaft of sunlight along which I swam, back and forth. We breakfasted then some chores were accomplished. The men carried out some running repairs, I read in the cockpit. I am now on Great House by Nicole Krauss and finding it a bit heavy-going. There are a couple of other boats anchored nearby. One Bavaria is manned by a couple with a small terrier which is intermittently ferried ashore for its comfort breaks. Having a dog on board must require resources that only true dog lovers can muster.Leaving our bay of the colonnade we set sail for Maslinica which is a village port on Solta. We have been here before, with Nigel Kaula and since that time a very fancy marina complex has been built. It costs a fancy price for an overnight tie-up at the quai – 730 kuna (£73). It is situated at the northern end of Solta and involves a longish sail and we need to tuck round the western end then weave our way through small islands to reach our destination. We are one of relatively few boats when we tie up (there is room for 60 boats) but the atmosphere is lively and busy. After our lunch and siesta I wake up later and am amazed how the quay and harbour wall has filled up with vessels and including two monstrous showpieces, from one of which emanates loud, bouncy disco music to which a group of young things cavort and knock back glassfuls under the upper bridge. Clearly our night in Maslinica is going to be something else…..
There is a small purpose-made beach close by encircled by a boom and which makes a pleasant natural pool in which to swim. Later we dress a bit tidily for supper and have drinks and walk round to a rustic and inexpensive konoba which is tucked in between flashier and inevitably more expensive establishments. Our choice is perfect I order Scampi Buzara with chips as an indulgence which turns out to be excellent. Back at the boat for nightcaps and triangles of mini Toblerone. I would sleep well.
The winds have turned against us so we abandon ideas of going to Katina and head south. We let loose our lazy lines at 9 a.m. and our eta is given as 17.30h. I have my Ryvita and marmite breakfast and we then make the passage in pairs with two hour watches. We make our way down through the Kornatski Kanal and out into more open water. I took the helm at 11.30 and during my watch Nick made us omelettes and we ate fresh fruit, then coffee and biscuits. Whilst off watch I took a break on my bunk with my novel and slept. I took Verity again at 15.30h passing along the seaward coast of Solta. At the southern end we approached the narrow strait between it and Brac; we are heading for the small port of Milna.
At this point I passed the boat to Nick and we found a pleasant anchorage just outside the Milna embayment where I took a welcome swim, showered and washed my hair on the stern. After drinks on board with a wonderful sunset view, Carolyn cooked us chicken and mushrooms which we enjoyed with the potatoes which had been doggy-bagged after our Peka Lamb.
In the morning the sea was rather choppy but I swam anyway and after breakfasting we picked up and motored into Milna, dropping anchor in the middle of the town harbour. Now was the time to go ashore to reprovision, buy postcards, stamps and have a coffee on the quay. After a salad lunch there was a long siesta for me then a walk around the harbour to the marina where I scrumped a prickly pair to pot up in England. Big mistake – the numerous fine spines become detached very easily and embed themselves in the fingers. I was still pulling them out the next day.
After our cocktail hour on the boat we went ashore to eat at a Restaurant called Palma. Mike had picked this establishment out and we had booked a table. The menu contained some unusual dishes, one of which included fried sea anemones – something I have never seen before and had not dreamt to be edible. To start I chose pasta with snails, smoked ham and sprouts (Brussels to my amazement) the followed with the sea anemone dish. They were a very creamy and rich squiggleness, a bit like fish milt and I doubt I would choose them again. Also on my platter were scallops stuffed with Gorgonzola and shrimps together with grilled octopus. Nick chose squid stuffed with quinoa and shrimps. Back on board we made coffee and played Barbu until bedtime.
Awaking early I read for a while and played bridge on my bunk then rose to finish writing my postcards. With no possibility of a swim in the harbour we decided to do a walk over the headland to Zucica where there is a konoba right on the sea’s edge, owned by a former professional footballer (Tottenham Hotspur). Beneath the trees and amid the cicada cacophony we looked through the canopy to the choppy waters beneath our table and drank a beer.
Walking back to Verity we repassed the olive trees, the grape vines, fig trees and occasional almond trees bearing a few residual nuts. We found a very agreeable restaurant in a corner of Milna set back from the edge of the quay. I ate a delicious octopus salad and by now I was very weary and keen to find my bunk, but back on board we needed to up anchor to go back to the small bay of the previous night with the large house which has an overgrown garden and a small colonnade near the beach.
I melted into my bunk and knew nothing until I woke at 6! I had a good swim before drinks and supper. We spent the evening on board and completed our game of Barbu.