Twilight at Sunset and a Falling Star

The last full week of January would be busy.  On my list I wish to make a visit to Stella in Cornwall.  Wrapped into that journey will be an errand to be carried out on the beach at Fistral Bay, an overnight stay with a nephew by marriage who lives close by.  I will drive back to my home in Dorset via the village of Hawkchurch on the east margin of Devon to spend a couple of days with my sister.

So I sally forth, as I do, on Monday just before lunchtime.  I am rather later than I had intended as I wish to catch a falling tide at Fistral Bay at the end of the afternoon.  When I make the long drive to Cornwall on my own I like to take an easy-to-handle sandwich to eat as it helps to break up the monotony.  Unfortunately the bread makes me sleepy and I must pull over to rest my bleary eyes.  Just under half an hour later I resume the journey and drive to Atlantic Road, Newquay where I leave my car in the first carpark I see.  Unfortunately it is not the nearest in terms of access to the shore by a long chalk, and I needs must ask an itinerant who is sloping along the cliff path plugged into ear-phones and his rolling gait, and demeanour when I speak to him, tell me he is within a gnat’s whisker of being spaced out.  He is on the way to the Spa to buy some tinnies he tells me.  But he is amiable enough and helpful.  It takes me a good quarter of an hour to gain the sand dunes which back the wide sandy bay with its rock platform well exposed on the northeastern margin.

I’ve come to collect some Glycymeris shells, Dog Cockles, the large, showy white clam shells with a chestnut-coloured chevron pattern and which were so popular with the ancients.  They collected the pleasing round shells as talismans, as pendants to string and probably for a range of other purposes for which we can only guess.  In life the robust clams inhabit coarse sand and shelly gravel.  The species is edible and is offered for sale in France under the name ‘Amande de Mer’ meaning Sea Almond.  ese were not collected for food; their worn, beach-abraded condition sometimes with a natural hole worn at the umbo, as they are excavated at archaeological sites, testifies to the fact that they were picked up as dead shells.  Will I find any today?

Right at the top of the beach, in the upper shore sand churned by many footprints and not washed by the tide in recent days, the first shells I find are two Dog Cockles, each holed.  I am much relieved.  I need these shells to create a figure for one of the chapters I have contributed to a forthcoming box, Molluscs in Archaeology, to be published by Oxbow.  The sun has only just set and the light is fading.  I give the search a good half hour and collect x whole or nearly whole shells of which y bear a hole at the umbo.

I had arrived on the beach in the late afternoon as the sun was making hste to sink behind the distant Pentire headland.  In the twilight I allow myself time to look around and appreciate this place.  There are plenty of late afternoon walkers, many with dogs.  In the distance I can see lots of figures surfing.  A couple of youngsters catch my eye.  They are standing on the open wet sands, talking.  I love their stance, the body language I imply.  I hope they have not a care in the world.  The young are our investment for the future.  Luckily my mobile phone has charge; I take some photos, they turn out really well.IMG_5440 (3).JPG

Clutching my bag of shells I find the track down which I came to access the beach.  At the top I have two options.  I can retrace my steps across the golf course or I can hang a right and walk along a track at the top of the dunes towards the street-lit headland to the south west.  I’ve been walking a while and asked a couple of walkers if I am going the right way.  They seem to think I am.  Then I spot a chap in a hooded anorak sitting on a bench gazing out to sea.  I ask him the way and discover I have chosen to take myself well out of my way and it will be a longish walk back to my car.  It’s clear he is not entirely sure which carpark I used.  In the end he offers to give me a lift.  I don’t hesitate for long, he is pleasant and I see he is a decent and mature man when he takes down his hood and I am going to give good human nature the benefit of doubt.  We talk and it turns out he has a daughter in archaeology, he knows about Littorina, he is interested in landscape, the environment.

Gaining my car I phone Richard and Anne Oliver who live in Redruth and tell them I am on my way.  They are giving me B&B and I am going to take them to dinner at the Penventon Park Hotel which is some 200 metres from their house.  Anne greets me and we get to know more about each other over coffee.  I hear about the work she does in social services, she is a jigsaw fan  When Richard gets back we go to dinner and have a delicious meal in the spacious and slightly retro dining room of the grandiose hotel.  I have a jolt of uncertainty as we are shown to our table.  Piano music greets the ear and I see that our entertainer is a woman in a backless and flesh-coloured dress.  For a fleeting moment I think she is naked!

The following day I go to see my friend Stella Maris.  She lives in one of Cornwall’s Secret Places.  She is in her early 90s and her health started declining rapidly about three or four years ago.  These last years are years I don’t believe she would have wished for herself.  I feel this to be so because we talked often.  Now she is bedridden, has dementia and has all her personal needs met by carers who visit several times a day.  Her life-time companion, Rose, shares the cottage with Stella and is kind, solicitous and, with the help of carers and friends, keeps their boat afloat.  This seems fit because for the majority of their shared life it would be Stella who kept house for them both, who occupied herself with all their day to day routine as well as carrying on with her own work in biological recording.  Rose would spend hours in her ivory tower, working on her botanical books.  She has several to her credit.

Stella is a star whose light is dimming, slowly and inexorably.  Each time I see her she is diminished and I marvel that, given how little she eats, she yet has reserves to hang onto her life.  I have brought a book to read to her, Hare by Jim Crumley.   Stella says very little these days but I can tell that the reading gives her pleasure.  I guess this is the comfort of a human voice, and one, in truth, that she knows well.

 

 

I Stagger on St Agnes

Full English, Smoked Haddock, a Kipper…… it is not an easy choice at breakfast time.  I choose the Full English and am not disappointed but already know what the following morning’s choice will be when I see Nick’s kipper which is proper.

We board our boat for St Agnes and as we walk up from the quay we glance at a sign outside the Turk’s Head inn which invites us to order our lunchtime pasty to avoid disappointment.  map_stagnes

It is low tide and the boatman tells us that the bar which connects St Agnes with Gugh will be exposed throughout the duration of our time on the island so we cross the sandy ridge and follow the coast round Gugh. 1BlogIMG_3969 (2)  The coastal granite structures are striking indeed and later in the week John will tell me that the tors on the Penninis Headland on St Mary’s are held to be some of the best examples of weathered granite outcrops in southwest England.

Having completed part of the circuit we recross the bar and find ourselves at the Turk’s Head just before 1 o’clock when we have an appointment with a pasty.IMG_3977 (2)

After our pasty and a pint we start our circuit of St Agnes, walking south a bit then turning west towards Higher Town.  Before we reach the centre we take a track south which leads down to Wingletang Down and the coast at Horse Point.  It is then a matter of following the coast right the way round to rejoin the Quay at Black Point

During our walk Nick photographs birds and takes a panorama view at St Warne’s Cove.  DSC00180 (2)

At every turn there are different vistas to enjoy and at Troy Town we find the famous maze.  Many turf mazes in England were named Troy Town, or variations on that theme.  It is presumed that this is because, in popular legend, the walls of the city of Troy were constructed in such a confusing and complex way that any enemy who entered them would be unable to find his way out. IMG_0234 [1233958] IMG_3993 (2)Continuing around the island we loop Periglis Cove with its short causeway to Burnt Island.  There is a small water body with resident geese, with goslings, and walking round the track which skirts the pond I stumble and fall but thankfully no damage is done.  It is then just a matter of walking around the sea wall at Porth Killier, site of former settlement by Bronze Age people who left, inter alia, large middens of limpet shells.  I worked on these shells in 1998 which were excavated as part of a watching brief prior to the construction of the sea wall, and this is what I wrote as an introduction to my Report to Cornish Archaeological Unit based at Truro. 

As part of ‘a well integrated land/sea subsistence economy’ (Bell 1984), Scillonians from the Bronze Age onwards were gathering food from the sea shore. Limpet shells, often in large quantities, are found on most settlement sites in Scilly from the prehistoric to the Post-Medieval period (Ratcliffe & Straker, 1996). Previously there have been 2 studies (from Scillonian middens) of limpet shells – which usually make up the bulk of any domestic midden – Halangy Down (Townsend 1967) and Samson (Mason 1984). Evidence from a site at Porth Killier suggests that heavy exploitation of marine resources took place in the Bronze Age (Ratcliffe & Straker 1996). During 1996 excavations at Porth Killier took place prior to construction of a sea wall. Within the prehistoric remains present a substantial shell midden was identified, from which samples were taken and have been analysed for the purposes of this report. Prior to these excavations carried out by Cornish Archaeological Unit, eight bulk samples were taken from six of the layers exposed at Porth Killier by Vanessa Straker in September 1989. The shells from these samples also form part of the marine mollusc analysis described in this report.

Back at the Inn and suitably refreshed we repair to the bar where we compare notes on our respective days with John and Jenny before supper. IMG_4009The following day Nick and I will plan to spend time on Bryher, possibly my favourite island of the group based on my visits to Scilly so far.  Mike and Carolyn plan to visit Bryher in the morning and the Abbey Gardens in the afternoon.

 

 

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!!

 

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.

 

Entre Deux Fleuves

We arrived at Gare de Lyon in very good time for our booking on the TGV train bound for Lyon Perrache.  We have booked ourselves (with help in the choosing thereof by Claire) into a small hotel for an overnighter on the Presqu’ile which passes between the Rivers Saone and Rhone.  Our seats are on the upper deck which gives us a great view over the countryside as it speeds past.  It has a maximum speed of ~350mph.

Arriving at Lyon it was a short walk to Hotel Vaubecour for which you gain entrance via a door off the street into a vestibule, through some double doors where you take the lift to the first floor.    Before showing us to our room the hotel proprietor spent a good 10 minutes marking routes and recommendations on a map and how helpful was that!  We at lunch at an excellent café-restau round the corner.  We walked north and crossed a bridge to find ourselves in the heart of the old town.  At the tourist centre we bought City Passes which would cover all our transport needs, including a guided river cruise and entrance to all the museums.

Without delay we took the funicular up the hill to visit the Basilica and then on to the Gallo-Roman museum which is stuff full of goodies including mosaics, statuary, glass, ceramics, artefacts, coins……….  You enter the museum at the upper level and spiral down through the collections to emerge at ground level into the amphitheatre.

We hoped to take in the Musee des Tissus/Musee des Arts Decoratifs  but we arrived at the end of the afternoon with the ticket office closed.  So we repaired to the hotel to get ready for dinner, at the famous Chez Georges Brasserie, recommended by Ty.  It feels like a restaurant laid out on a railway concourse,  rows and rows of tables cheek by jowl and it was filled with the world and his wife and intermittently the lights dimmed as birthday cakes were delivered to celebratory tables and much applause.  We are glad to be part of a tradition that has endured since 1836.  We wondered if there might be any chance of our making their duo centennial anniversary!

Although our hotel fitted the bill in many respects we would have loved a bit of air-conditioning.  The night was very warm and we slept poorly.  But it was only one night.  The following day we acquainted ourselves yet further with Lyon.  We stumbled upon the market and such fabulous produce, the vivid colours, and it does put our St Vaast market a bit in the shade.  But that’s the sunny south for you.  I bought a bargain batch of 8 fat garlic bulbs for 2 Euros.

At 10 a.m. we were waiting at the river cruise ticket office,  ready to book ourselves on the 11 o’clock when it opened.   The trip was excellent, taking in the old Lyon river frontages and hinterland motoring north and then we turned and cruised south towards the confluence which we had not anticipated seeing.  Much of the development there is situated on reclaimed land and the modern buildings though diverse, sit comfortably next to each  -the orange and the green!   There was definitely a joined-up feel to the concept and execution of that whole complex.

We ate lunch at Cafe Gadagne then visited the museum, taking a trip through Lyon history, glancing also at the temporary exhibitions on the Rose and world Marionnettes. We then took the Lyon metro out to Monplaisir-Lumiere and spent a good couple of hours at the Musée de l’Institut Lumière.   I knew nothing of the famous Lumière brothers Auguste and Louis and what remarkable men they were.  We owe them film, and the concept of commissioning film-makers to go abroad to make shorts, filming from a moving rickshaw for example as native children ran behind, laughing and careering from side to side in a tumble.  Early documentaries.  And we owe them colour photography – Autochrome preceded Kodachrome and the other processes that would follow.  The Institute is the former family home, with some lovely original wallpapers.  A gracious airy room with numerous windows and family portraits on the ground floor the family is called The Winter Garden.

So that was a hit, very much the best till last,  and feeling thoroughly cultured out we headed back to Bellecour for a stroll down rue Victor Hugo before we rounded up our bags, bought a sandwich and caught the train – very impressed with TGV, great views from the upper floor.