Hint of Mint and a Gin Clear Experience

CJ, Ted and I took our preprandial walk along the sands below our hotel.  We all love this early morning fixture.  I do reflect that notwithstanding the good fortune of having a home by the sea it is the moment of stepping out of the front door and onto the beach which makes the experience special.  Ted has been finding the occasional sea snail washed up on the sands.  It is the same species each time, I need to find out what it is.  He finds one this morning.  

After breakfast we are going to drive to Llandudno beach and spend the morning there before going to Cape Town to do Table Mountain.  First we must pass by the Pik and Pay to buy a bucket and spade.  It is a fabulous day and arriving at the beach we hire some umbrellas and beach chairs and set up our little camp fairly high up on the shore.

The rollers are tumbling in, there is surf.  We will be tempted to the shore a bit later.  There is a nice little splash pool and Nick and I fool around making a string of mini-castles with moats to be fed by overflow from the standing water nearby.DSC01064 (2)IMG_5674 (2)

We munch on Droewors and other South African dried meat delights, crisps.  An ice cream vendor passes with his freezer box from time to time and on one round we buy something.  I choose a mint chocolate icecream, something I have not eaten in decades.  In this fashion lunch time comes and goes.

Venturing to the shore I cannot resist the feel of the icy frothy water round my ankles and calves.  There is a very strong undertow and coupled with the vigorous waves and the swirling surf I need to brace myself to stay upright. IMG_5669 (2) Ted goes in further and is joined by his mother.  Ted finds a stipe of kelp which he enjoys waving around.  DSC01076 (2)The sea really does feel cold but the clarity of the water, gin-clear, like liquid glass overcomes the chill factor and the pair of water-babies that they are, spend some good time jumping the waves and trying to time it just right such that the whole body is not drenched each time.  IMG_5685 (2)One wave manages to trip Ted up and he goes under. DSC01096 (3) It is a shock but he recovers from the shock and indignity and it can be filed away as a useful experience.IMG_5690 (2)

If we are going to get to Cape Town in time to go up Table Mountain we must leave the beach, although we would have happily spent a day there doing beachy things. DSC01095 (2).JPG Piling into the car we head for Cape Town and the road that winds up to the point where we will take the Aerial Cableway. IMG_5693 (2) We do not have to queue for long and we are soon being borne aloft.  The ride only lasts five minutes and we reach the summit which is 1,089 metres above Cape Town.  TableMountainSummitWe are drawn up into the small atrium which serves as the station. IMG_5700 (2) Once you are up on top of the world you can sit and soak up the commanding 360-degree views of Cape Town, Table Bay, the nearby peaks of the surrounding mountains and the rest of the Table Mountain National Park, a World Heritage Site.IMG_5698 (2) It is renowned for its flora, said to be the single richest floristic area in the world. There is a lot of fynbos vegetation on the mountain, with over 1 460 different species of plants. There are also plenty of Cape Hyrax (rock badgers), lizards, insects and birdlife.IMG_5720 (2)IMG_5711 (2)

The plan is to eat in the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town.  We do a quick change in our capacious vehicle then head out into the network of malls and pedestrian precincts.  Charlotte and I seek out shops that might sell a scarf that I saw in one of the shops adjacent to the Table Mountain ticket office, but failed to buy because I did not have any rand on me at the time.  Ted is also due for a treat, a Lego one and he finds a kit he will go on to make single-handed.  After this little bit of retail activity we rejoin Ry and Nick in Quay 4 for a drink then go on to Karibu for dinner.

Razor-clamming Days

These are cold, windy days on the east Cotentin.  Nick is spending a lot of time in the Bois de Rabelais where he and fellow woodsmen have felled an ancient beech and are busy logging it.  Dede l’Accroche is a willing helper.  He of the fungus forays, prawning pursuits, razor-clam raids.  When we arrived in St Vaast we found a yellow plastic bag hanging on our front door handle.  A gift of some couteaux from Dede.  IMG_6653 (2).JPG

Two days ago Nick and I braved a squall, with wind-driven rain pricking our faces, to go digging with Dede for couteaux.  At first Nick had mixed success whilst I trickled up and down the shoreline peering into the murky, rippling sea looking for scallops and other goodies.

Rejoining Nick I started to help him look for the characteristic depressions or holes at the surface which suggest an inhabitant in the sand below.  Soon we set up an efficient team.  I spotted the holes, Nick dug deep with his trusty French fork, and I scanned the diggings to look for razor clams which I spotted more easily than Nick did.  Et voila!  Une bonne equipe 🙂

Later in my kitchen, whilst processing the clams for supper I steamed some of the razors in white wine so the shells could flip open.  What a surprise.  A new piece of information for this seasoned conchologist.  During the foray I had noticed one razor clam that went into the basket was the non-native species Ensis leei, formerly known as Ensis americanus or Ensis directus As one of its names implies, the species is a North American alien, which was first recorded in 1979 near the Dutch coast, spread across the North Sea and is now rapidly spreading in northern direction and also working its way round the English and French coasts of the Channel.  It seems to do well because it has slightly different sedimentary preferences from our other native species.

My new piece of information is that, in addition to the morphological differences in shell shape, and internal muscles scars, the soft body is different too.  It is a strange body indeed, and has invoked some saucy suggestions from those who are familiar with it 😀  And it would seem that, certainly after cooking, the foot of the animal has a rosy blush that the white animal of Ensis arcuatus does not have.  Useful stuff 😀

 

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.

 

 

Here and There in the Fresh Sea Air

After Christmas excesses it is good to walk and with our lovely coast there is variety and interest always.  A walk round La Hougue is always a pleasure although I see that with the passing of years – we have been here for nearly twelve years – the most seaward stretches of that circuitous wall are narrow.  Time’s coming when I think it will be sensible to go with a companion.  I love going to Pointe de Saire because this is a honey-pot for shell collectors and it is rare that I do not find a wentletrap or two when I rake over the shell-rich deposits which get left in drifts against sand waves and banks.  The point is a place of high energy; the rise and fall of the tides, together with the rip currents which run round that headland and through the channel between raised areas of granite outcrop are continually lifting and redepositing the shelly sands and gravels.  Bedforms are reconfigured and new shapes are created and strandlines are recast in diverse patterns.  Garlands of shells lie in the narrow and shallow runnels between sand waves and ripples.  The sea is the ultimate sorter, it is a subtle process.

Just before New Year we shared a delightful interlude with Tanou and Jean-Pierre.    They are great gamers, of the Scrabble, Barbu and other card games ilk.  We were invited to late afternoon tea with goodies that they had bought at one of the excellent Christmas Markets that take place in Alsace.  In recent years similar events have started to take place in the UK.  The Natural History Museum hosts such a seasonal market and an ice rink is installed alongside and the sight of skaters as I hasten to catch an Underground train after an afternoon meeting of the Conchological Society is one of those key moments with which I associate the impending festival.  Walking home from their home, ‘La Bouillote’ :D, we pass a house whose front garden features small trees which have been garlanded with baubles and an engaging sign on the gatepost which reads: “Here lives a happy retired person”.

Walking back to my parked car after an expedition to Pointe de Saire I was looking for possible new sources of shell-rich strandline to browse.  There were certainly distinct drifts of seaweed, with the sea’s most recent delivery of shells, to scan for unusual species.  But what I noticed in particular were the right (i.e. convex, lower) and the left (i.e. flat, upper) valves of Pecten maximus scattered across the upper shore, like so many open fans.  Lovely.

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.

razorclamprep-2

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’

A Day with Simon and the Pieman

And so it begins.  The annual jamboree with my clique of CS friends has come round all too quickly.  Which means in the blink of an eye, not that it is a chore.  At least I hope it will not be.  This September we might have to cope with an elephant in our midst.  Wait and see.

Saturday we converge on a very pleasant converted barn near Bantham.  Seven of us will share this abode for a week.  There is an adjacent building that goes with the property, a games room which will serve very nicely as a lab.  Nick and I arrive first to open up and bag a room.  We leave the lovely master suite for one couple on that basis that one of them is convalescent.  There are three other rooms with beds to sleep six people.  Although all rooms on a sharing basis are equal, clearly some rooms are more equal than others.  Nick and I have a couple of hours before anyone else arrives which allows me to make a start on the turrid material I have brought to curate.  These are from Stella Turk’s collection and will be useful, even though many of them have no locality data, because turrid specimens are few and far between.

Gradually the others arrive.  Hail fellow and well met.  We all move into our rooms and I serve the assembled a fish pie for supper followed by a plum tart.

On Sunday we are going to North Sands Bay, Salcombe which is the shore below the Winking Prawn café.  Once parked I need a comfort break so Nick and I repair to said Whistling Whelk so I can use the facilities and take in a flat white.  It is then time to hit the shore and I follow the cliffs on the left hand side of the bay and make for the lowest point on the shore.  There are a few shady recesses with weak crevice development which might be hopeful for the usual suspects but although there are plenty of winkles about it is not a propitious habitat.  cupcoralretracted  caryophyllia3By the time I reach the waters edge, if I look around towards the outcrop on top of which is perched the old Fort Charles, there is enough shore to start turning stones and rolling boulders.  Time flies when you are engrossed in staring at the undersides of rocks on a shore.  Together with the rest of the group which includes Simon the Marine Recorder we plodge around in the shallows and together manage to compile a respectable list of mollusc species.

Reaching the law of diminishing returns Nick and I eat our sandwich on the beach then repair to our car in the carpark of the Wisecracking Wentletrap.  After I process the small amount of rockscrubbings and weedwashings and sit down to compile the joint list on paper we have recorded 64 species of mollusc and one Devonshire cup coral……….. and still counting.  Whilst restricting myself to the amount of weed etc that I take back to the lab., I do collect some cushion stars (Asterina gibbosa) to see if by any chance they will be harbouring one of the tiny mollusc species.  When I get back to the house I put these little treasures into a shallow dish of seawater to see what if anything might crawl out.  After my picnic lunch on the beach Nick and I drive back to the house so that I can start to process my samples.

Peter the Pieman is in charge of supper.  That’s great, I can just get on with my stuff and after we have eaten I can barely stay awake and after a fruitless attempt to interact with the internet (it is suffering from too many residents and not enough go-go juice) I go to bed where I promptly fall asleep in front of the printed word with my glasses on my nose.

 

 

Bass Notes

My husband is a fisherman.  He fishes mostly out of St Vaast where we live some of the time.  At the weekend he went fishing with friends, it was a long distance fishing trip, twenty miles to the northeast.  They were two boats.  There were four fishermen in total and they fished Pollack, mackerel, whiting and one enormous bass.  It measured 75 cms and weighed 4.5 kilos.  It was caught on an English rig using a mackerel bait.  Such a fish is a prize and an act of generosity is to share such bounty.

So we found ourselves chez Tailles on Tuesday lunchtime where Dede, having caught this splendid fish, had given Francois the responsibility and pleasure of cooking it for a gathering of friends.  This wonderful fish was filleted, descaled and then stuffed with lobster and crab and finally wrapped en croute before being baked in the oven.  Before we tucked into our share, we ate an entrée of pink grapefruit and crevette roses, this having been composed by Odette.  The combination of the grapefruit and the prawns was impeccably colour-coordinated but even more importantly, it tasted delicious.

It was a very convivial occasion and I was delighted to have an appropriate anecdote for the occasion.  Rather a letter to read out of Nick’s copy of The Week.  Translating as I went the letter (originally published in The Times, ran as follows:

‘You flagged up your complete seafood guide with the words: “Lovely lobster, but what can I do with it?!”  In the early 1970s, I was living in Dublin.  My neighbour was presented with a live lobster and had no idea how to prepare it.  He put it on the lawn and shot it’.

This would never happen in France, not then and not now!  The passion for seafood is deeply embedded in French culture.  I have never understood why we, across that narrow tract of water that separates the British Isles from its European neighbours on our shared continental shelf at the present day, have never come to espouse a tradition of eating all fruits from the sea, not just bony fish with a few members of the shark family thrown into the pot.

There we are.  Things are changing.  Oysters have always been available but for many have been just too yucky.  Until relatively recently they tended to be offered for sale in exclusive oyster bars in London and some further flung satellites, such as English’s  the restaurant and oyster bar nestled in Little London of Brighton.  Oysters are farmed more widely now and they feature on fish counters in supermarkets.  Similarly nets of mussels can be bought over the supermarket counter and their popularity gathered momentum, it seems to me, when pubs started putting moules marinieres on their menus.  So in my lifetime I have seen a resurgence in seafood eating in my native land.

I was fortunate to have a father who not only enjoyed fishing, and transferred this enthusiasm to my husband, but was exceedingly fond of cockles.  blogIMG_6278 (2)When he was moved to Portland Naval Base in the 1960s we, as a family, found ourselves adjacent to the sand flats at Smallmouth, Portland Harbour where we enjoyed the bonus of a double low tide.  blogIMG_6280 (3)On the occasions of the low spring tides, and for four hours, we could paddle across these sands gathering all manner of Venus bivalves, razor clams, and cockles.  My father had a childhood tradition for eating cockles and he would go and gather beauties from Smallmouth.  He had his own method for soaking the cockles in their shells, in fresh water with oatmeal to encourage the cockles to purge themselves.  Then they would be boiled until the shells snapped open, the little mollusc bodies would then be removed and popped into a jar with a little vinegar.

At that time I was in the salad days of my growing enthusiasm, and dare I say, talent for shelling.  In addition to the above species I was able to add some beautiful rarities to my collection, notably Tellina squalida and Pandora albidablogAngulusblog100112_pandora (2)Latin names are changed by taxonomists in time, but these are the names that resonate and transport me back to those heady days when you could wade through those shallow waters inside Portland Harbour  searching for the familiar outlines and colours of those lovely shells.

At the end of a special day I find myself enjoying a new experience.  Dede, he who caught the magnificent fish that we ate at lunchtime, has invited me to join him, his granddaughter Auranne and a few neighbours for a late night swim off La Chapelle near the St Vaast boatyard.  I have not swum at 10 o’clock in the evening before, nor from the promenade along there.  At high tide you can descend the white wooden staircase and lower yourself into the deep!  After a warm day and with a balmy evening, the sea felt positively tepid.  With quite a bit of undulating movement, the sea rocked us as we swam in a tight group, keeping an eye on our neighbours for their security and one’s own.

 

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.

 

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.