Seven Shellers wash up at St Vaast

Earlier this year the Programme Secretary of the Conchological Society made a plea for offers to lead field trips.  I looked at my diary and the timing of spring tides and offered a few days in October.  The year wore on, our diary filled up, the EU referendum happened and my enthusiasm waned somewhat.  However an Offer means an Offer so here we are awaiting the arrival of three couples and a single woman – all these people are members of the Society but are, to all intents and purposes, friends too.   Although we are all mollusc enthusiasts and we are gathered to look for and record occurrences of marine molluscs,  the second discipline that unites us is archaeology.  Seven out of the nine share that skill, whereas only five us could be said to be mollusc experts.  By Saturday evening we are assembled and sit down to share our welcoming House Special, a fish pie.

On Sunday I propose that we should visit the shore where Nick and I found two live ormers (Haliotis tuberculata) about eight years ago. Despite the benefit of several pairs of eyes we do not succeed.  I keep my eyes open all week and it is only on the last day of fieldwork that some of us find fragments of abalone shell on a beach on the north Cotentin at Plage des Sablons.  I know that the species is living at Cap Levi because I have witnessed pecheurs a pied coming off the beach with ormers in their string collecting bags.  Although we are working springs I think we probably need the best spring tides to have a chance of finding the animals.

We work several shores and Nick, Bas and Terry go out twice on Aroona with our small Naturalists’ Dredge.  They have some success with these trips and Bas seems well pleased with the hauls.  I think the highlight of shore excursions must lie in the foray that we make onto the sandflats on the seaward side of the town marina.  This is the area that is traditionally dug for Razor Clams when spring tides prevail.  Our good friend Andre agrees to accompany us onto that shore and show us how it is done.  Nick has had this experience before and in the past I have gone down onto the beach to observe the locals wielding their clamming forks.  It is a bit of a feeding frenzy and at the end of the afternoon the sandflats are a devastation.  Fortunately in comes the tide and many of the spoil heaps are washed over although the following day does still bear witness to the upheaval.  The darker sediments which are turned over in the hunt for razor clams remain near the surface for several tides afterwards before they are taken back into the mix.

At the end of the afternoon we have a very decent haul of Ensis arcuatus and assorted clams, a couple of Buccinum, and some King and Queen scallops.  Over the next couple of days we eat some of our foraged molluscs with risotto, and enjoy razor clams with tagliatelle and a wine, cream, garlic and parsley sauce.  These things taste so good.  I feel like a ‘creature’ of the sea.


At the end of the trip our house guests go home.  It has been an interesting week and we have pulled some decent species lists together for the various sites we worked.  Three of us couples have been spending a week in September together for the past seven years.  We have rented a big house and have been working on stretches of coast in various parts of the country: Skye, Pembroke, Connemara, north Devon, Scarborough, Anglesey and most recently south Devon.  It has always been fun, notably because we thoroughly enjoy going to the shore whether to shell or birdwatch of just to amble.  We three women thoroughly enjoy cooking for the assembled.  We take it in turns.  But something has changed and we can blame that on Brexit.  Would that we had all voted the same way but you cannot turn the clock back.  Divisions have riven the country, communities, families and groups of friends.  The damage runs deep for some more than others.  As I say, something has changed and our particular golden age of sharing a capacious house with a large table to eat and discourse around has passed.  In these recent days I have read a cleverly worded definition of ‘Leave’ in the context of the EU:  it will be ‘To regain what we never lost by losing everything we ever had’

An Elephant called Brexit

If only packing clothes, assembling collecting kit, provisions, wine and all the other preparations needed to close down one’s base in order to establish another temporary one could be seamless. And without contretemps.  It seems that even after 48 years of marriage it is not to be.

So we get up on Friday morning early and stow the car, lock our front door and set off.   At least the morning has gone smoothly.  Five minutes into our journey I realise I have not brought quite enough of my current medicaments.  If that is the only oversight I will be pleased indeed.

Before we fetch up at our holiday house at Bantham we are calling in to see my sister who has a consultant coming to advise on the installation of a borehole and Nick is going to help Liz with her decisions.  It is a big step but a necessary one since the fouling of her water supply by a local farmer with his accidental polluting spillage on his land.  After the meeting Nick and I have some spare hours so we drive into Lyme Regis where we have to call in at a shop to change a tee-shirt.  Lyme is very busy, lively, with tourists, and the sun is shining.  We think it would be a great place to bring Martine and Alain when they come to see us.  We did indeed come here with Claire and Ty earlier in the year, on a wet May afternoon and the place was still steeped in atmosphere.  I discover a second hand bookshop down by the Cobb and whilst Nick plods up the hill to collect our car I indulge myself for half an hour and find four additional Booker nominee titles to add to my collection.  Turns out that the book shop, called The Sanctuary, is also a B&B.sanctuarybookshop1

We hope to call in and see Paul and Viv but they are not at home so we drive back to Hawkchurch where Liz will cook us an amazing supper of Escargots aux Cepes.  It is a confection of snails and wild mushrooms and consists of garlic and parsley buttered escargots removed from their shells which are lightly stewed with a tasty melange of fungi.  Liz has gathered Chanterelles from her private source, up her lane, which it seems no-one else has noticed.  Together with her own dried Cepes the fricassee is then placed in a flaky pastry base and topped with a coil of pastry to form a cap.  Well it is beyond just tasty.

In the morning Nick and I must rise and shine and head for Bantham to open up the house for the others.  Our task this week, inter alia, will be to ignore the elephant in the room as far as is possible.


In Search of the Great White…..

Back in the 80s I went on a field trip to Skye with the Conchological Society.  I had not long joined the Society and this was the first week-long trip I had joined.  Nick came with me.  The meeting gave me a series of shelling experiences the like of which I had never experienced.  Investigating the shore at low water was a revelation in showing me molluscs and other marine invertebrates living in their habitats and within their niches.  My most memorable experience, and one that has stayed with me throughout my many shelling highlights, was the finding of a freshly cast-up snow-white Chlamys.  This was the lovely scallop species Chlamys nivea.  I was very taken with the shell and also curious to understand its distinction from Chlamys varia.  One thing led to another and a fellow CS member, Phil’ Palmer, encourage to measure a few shells, carry out some biometric tests, track down other specimens in museums and the like and eventually write a short paper for the Journal of Conchology.  This was my first foray into the scientific world and was to lead me  ultimately to unimagined places, both physical and intellectual.

Some of the shells that I borrowed to measure were Orcadian giants.  These were examples collected from Orkney shores by Ian Smith, who first discovered a colony of large white Chlamys living at low water along a causeway leading from Grimbister out to the small island of Holm.  So it was that finding myself on the doorstep of this distinct, possibly unique variety of Chlamys varia I wanted to see if there was a tantalising possibility that the population would be extant.

Bas and I found our way to the site as described by Ian, with the assistance of Sonia as our driver.  We arrived on the shore whilst the tide was still ebbing.  But a causeway was beginning to reveal itself, along with an isolated and artificial stone slab wall projecting perpendicularly from the beach.  The slabs were stacked like books with plenty of room for nestling species to settle in the joints and spaces between.  I found a few very large mussels which I steamed out of their shells later and popped in my mouth there and then.  But first I waded about in the shallows and picked up plenty of valves of large white scallop species.  Some very fresh and there was evidence of predated shells on the beach, most probably left by feeding otters.  The predation traces on the shell are all similar.  We found empty mussel shells too, all broken in the same pattern.  Bas also found one articulated individual containing a decaying body so the population would appear to be extant.

As the tide ebbed Bas and I picked our way along the causeway to the little island of Holm. At some point a man came wobbling his way along the slippery and uneven ridge of the tract of rocks and slabs carrying a petrol can and a bucket of brambles to start planting a hedge.  We talked.  He owns Holm and has done for 21 years.  An Essex man, he lives alone and has another property on Orkney.  He keeps a bit of livestock on the island but has never fished or potted for food from the sea.  He knew nothing of otters on his patch although he had seen seals, but not this year.  He reminded me of Harry Enfield.

Although Bas and I worked the rollable boulders along the causeway methodically we saw no sign of living Great Whites.  However at the end of the day I had a very large bag of white scallop valves to measure.  Time to revisit my 1986 J. Conch paper.


Of Driftwood and a Tidal Lagoon

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.  crugan2InternetWhen 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.   SearchingForTimberThis 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.  BeachedTimber1 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.

BeachedTimber4Sadly 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  gibmagsInternetcrawling 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.  Blog-TraethCrugan1

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.   Blog Simon on shoreBack 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.

So Much More than Trivia

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.  Blog-Llanddwyn1      Blog-Llanddwyn3On the upper shore the smooth cobbles are heavily colonised with barnacles; limpets are scarce as are dog whelks.  Blog-Llanddwyn2As 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.  Blog-Llanddwyn5  I have never seen so many juveniles ‘at a sitting’!

I find it impossible to wander over this huge shore without stopping to collect the very fresh pairs of Venerupis pullastra.  All these will have to be rinsed and bound with thread to dry them closed. Blog-NucellaAndEggs


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.


Golfing Greens and Sea Grass Beds

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’,  Blog-DryLaba 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.   Blog-PhotoStudioIan 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.MorfaNefynInternet  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.

I decide to work the east harbour,porthdinllaenInternet and as we are on the shore well ahead of low tide, I focus on the upper shore noting Littorina compressa to be common.  LittorinaCompressa1

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.  Blog-2JanZosteraReally 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).  ZosteraInternet1Sure 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.CallistaChioneInternet2  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. Blog-SimonPorthDinllaen

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.

Secret Seven explore North Wales

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.  LlynClywedogInternetpic1We 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. Blog-ViewBlog-House1andGrab

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.

Highlight at North Landing

The peaceful cove beach at North Landing, set snugly within the Chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head, was to provide the sort of excitement which I hope for when recording on the shore.  The narrow beach is bounded by cliffs with many sea caves including one spectacular one on the east side of the inlet.


The beach is composed of sand and pebbles and there are rock pools on the platforms which bound the cove.  Taking a torch and a few specimen tubes I investigated a narrow cave cutting obliquely into the cliff on the east margin.  The north-facing wall offered all the geological, geomorphological and biological features I have come to associate with ‘the crevice fauna’.   I wrote about these, and figured them, in my Marine Recorder’s report to the Conchological Society for 2009.

The micromolluscs which inhabit the zone of the shore, known as the upper- and supralittoral, have been an ongoing interest of mine since the mid-80s.  Some of the members of this microfauna are rare and elusive but I have developed a nose for them.   With sustained searching in the cave, involving close examination of the fractures and fissures in the Chalk with a torch beam I managed to find a handful of specimens of Otina ovata,  an air-breathing snail with a shell length of 2-3mm.

Before I leave the shore I investigate an adjacent cave whose small entrance belies the dimensions of the cave within.  It opens out into a wide, high-ceilinged gallery.  Initially confronted with gloom, you are then aware of a source of daylight round the corner of the small entrance chamber.  This is coming from another entrance at right angles to the access point on the upper shore.  The second entrance gives out onto the sea-facing lower shore kelp zone.  The floor and walls are evidently subjected to high wave action, being more or less smoothly worn and bare of life.  You can only appreciate the dimensions of this cave by searching for the human figure, dressed unhelpfully in greyish blue,  in this photo:


Subsequently I learn it is the first record for the east coast of Britain in 100 years.  That’s what biological recording is all about.


Filey Brigg and Hayburn Wyke

Field work continues with a brand new shore each day.  Filey Brigg is a long narrow peninsula on the North Yorkshire coast.  Its steep cliffs are 20 metres high and consist of a variety of Jurassic rocks containing fossils of dinosaurs and ammonites. In 2001 the substantially complete skeleton of a plesiosaur was found by an amateur collector, Nigel Armstrong in the Speeton Clay.  The well-preserved skeleton was removed from the clay in one block weighing about one and a half tons. The skeleton was identified as being that of an elasmosaur, a long necked plesiosaur of which there are several types and the Filey specimen is about 140 million years old.  As we scramble over the large blocks on the north side of the Brigg trace fossils are conspicuous and abundant.

Ian finds the tiny sea slug Limapontia capitata in the grazed green algal turf at the top of the shore.  He is a very competent ‘finder’.  At Hayburn Wyke later in the week he uncovers a young lobster in the kelp zone of the boulder shore.  You can’t help admiring the brilliant Prussian blue carapace of the live animal.  There are still quite a few people who believe the animals sport their red colour in life.

Talking of red we have a great treat in store when we leave the shore.  We trawl ourselves up the cliffs and wooded slopes above Hayburn Wyke to rejoin our cars parked at the Hayburn Wyke Inn.  Just before we leave the woods to cross the fields we come across a clearing with a cluster of Amanita muscaria, Fly Agaric.  Continuing on our way we repair to the Inn for welcome refreshment.



The Mind Boggles

There is one feature that will unite the Jurassic coastal sites we visit during our week in the Scarborough area.   There will always be a walk down to the shore and a bit of a puff back to the cars.  The first beach we visit is Boggle Hole at the southern end of Robin Hoods Bay, an SSSI known for its fossils.


For us it offers a wide platform with shallow terracing which allows us to range over the shore and down to the kelp zone in search of marine life in general and molluscs in particular.  Paula Lightfoot is a whizz at finding nudibranchs.  We all tend to acquire a penchant for particular molluscan groups and she has a knack for spotting the tiniest jelly blobs which do their nudibranch thing when you place them in seawater, opening their ‘petals’ like so many bright aquatic flowers.  We score at least 8 species of sea slug on this shore and will go on to record them at every site we visit.  Although we all take our own pictures, Sonia could be viewed as the official photographer.  With her camera ever at the ready she finds old friends and makes new encounters in the marine life at our feet.  She snaps conchologists at work, and captures the magnificence of the coast we are working along.  She generously shares her photos with me and they provide a wonderful record to look through after one’s time on the shore of the day is over.


With samples in our buckets we haul up the slope as far as the Youth Hostel stopping for a beverage and thence to the lab to sort, stabilise and examine.  Here is an opportunity for us to see how painstakingly Ian Smith retrieves minute specimens from the weeds and hydroids he collects, the care he takes in housing his specimens in small tubs and stowing them in the fridge, so that they might make the perilous journey back to Stockport to await their moment of fame before the camera.