Flight from Orkney for Date with Fuchsias

After a stimulating week of shells in archaeology and shells on the seashore I was nevertheless ready to board my flight home.  Before we left Kirkwall for Sonia and Terry to drop me off at the airport I popped into the Tankerness House Gardens which houses the Orkney Museum, next door to our pad, to take some photos of the folly in the grounds.  The small folly with a strange pointy roof is decorated with shells and known as Groatie House, which has an interesting history. I transferred from my Kirkwall flight to one at Aberdeen that would drop me at Heathrow.  Nick met the flight and we drove home.

With just a day to prepare for a crossing to France I unpacked, put my conference papers and some of the shells that I collected to one side and started to think about putting a bag together for St Vaast.  This would contain a minimum of clothes since we are to travel on Monday with Maddy and Andrew and return to Dorset on Friday in order to take in the Conch. Soc. AGM.

Maddy and Andrew arrived at TOW on Sunday evening and first thing on Monday we boarded the good ship Barfleur bound for Cherbourg and our second home.  BarfleurJourneyDuring that week Nick and Andrew put in two good days of logging.  Nick and Francois have bought a second beech tree that had to be felled because it is now dangerously close to the main road between Quettehou and Valognes.  At the end of the week Nick and Andrew spent the morning at Le Vast helping Alain remove the cladding of ivy from a henhouse.  Meanwhile Maddy and I did a long walk from St Vaast to Pointe de Saire, via the village of Jonville and returning along the high water mark from the Pont de Saire and then retracing our steps along the beach wall all the way back to the town beach.  It is a good 12 km.

The visit highlight must be dinner at Fuchsias.  Andrew had kindly offered to treat us all, it being his birthday.  The new menus, at least new to Nick and I, are excellent and truly good value.  AndrewFuchsiasFuchsias meals are characterised, for me, by small quantities of a diverse array of ingredients which go to make up a beautiful plate of food.  Andrew pronounced the meal the best he had ever had!

We returned to WK on Friday night and as it turned out the day we drove to the Natural History Museum for the AGM was fraught, very stressful and resulted in Nick experiencing an alarming episode in the middle of the meeting.  Fearing a TIA I watched Nick’s contorting face whilst supporting him in his chair.  It can only have lasted a minute but it was a frightening one but I managed to extract a good even smile from Nick when he came to, which indicated that a stroke type seizure was unlikely.  Subsequently after hearing my description of what took place and what Nick remembered of the episode, both his French and English doctor diagnosed a vasovagal event, posh term for a fainting fit.

By Sunday afternoon we were back in St Vaast to await the arrival of Wig and Ian.

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.


Slim Pickings on Orkney Shores

I flew to Kirkwall on Mainland, Orkney for a meeting of zooarchaeologists including a working group who work on marine shells.  I was picked up from the small airport by Sonia and Terry, driven to our temporary home for the next 9 days and a cassoulet from scratch cooked by Rosemary.  It is good to be reconstituted as a group of baby boomers who make it our business to send at least one week a year under the roof of a large house with a big table and a room which we can adapt to function as a lab.  Our Orkney pad is hardly large.  It represents an economy of living but provides adequate accommodation and a useful utility room where Bas and I can do our mucky processing of shore collectings.  And a kitchen table large enough to cluster round when we are eating and otherwise occupied.

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Despite atrocious weather Bas and I decided to do a bit of shelling so Sonia dropped us of at Taing of the Clett for us to work the shore and see what we might find in the way of shells cast up and living molluscs.  We walked along an ebbing tide with narrow foreshore of flattish slates and slabs.  Our species list was meagre with no amazing finds.  We continued along to a small headland then continued along the upper shore grassy bank, passing Kirkwall airport on our left until we reached a small bay with some sands.  By this time we decided that we had had enough fresh air!  We walked along a road and up a small hill leading away from the beach whilst I searched intermittently for a mobile phone signal so we could summon our personal taxi.  Eventually I managed to get through to Sonia who came to pick us up.  We sorted through the few shells we had collected in order to make a site species list then hunkered down for the rest of the day.

In the evening there was to be a wine reception after Terry’s Plenary lecture on the subject of Islands.  We ate an early Supper at The Shore.  After the lecture we were entertained by three young sibling Orcadians on stringed instruments whilst we sampled a selection of Orkney cheeses on oatcakes with a glass or two.

Parisian Pursuits

Between our planned city visits we spend a day of decourverte in Paris.  Allowing drizzle to ease off we left the flat at about 11 o’clock and rode the metro to Denfert Rochereau only to be confronted by a queue for the Catacombs which we had been hoping to visit.  Whilst we might have tarried a while when a rather surly doorman told us we could expect to queue for 3 hours we abandoned the idea.  We ate delicious boudin noir and mash at a nearby restaurant and ten took the metro to Trocadero where we had planned to visit Musee de Quai Branly principally for the vertical gardens which Marian had described to us.

But on the way we spotted Palais de Tokyo and, my, did we enjoy the art installations therein.   It is a building dedicated to modern and contemporary art and we loved it.  Especially the Henrique Oliveira ‘tree’ and the Venice Lagoon experience.

Time for a quick selfie with the Eiffel Tower then on to Branly and that building contains a fabulous collection of Oceanic, Asiatic, African and American primitive art.  The interior decor uses a terra cotta coloured leather as it’s principal raw material which is so earthy and atmospheric.  But the display cabinets are densely positioned and contain lots of objects and the route around is not easy to trace.  You have the unsettling feeling you might hae missed a chunk.Blog-ParisEiffelSelfie  This Museum will require a second bite as I loved the plethora of shelly artefacts and when we emerged at 1900h we were tired.  Feet beginning to blister – note to self I must buy a reeaallly comfortable pair of shoes.

Despite tempting ideas for terrace bars and riverside strolls flagged up by Claire we repaired to rue Victor Massy for a quick freshen then supper at Deux Cocottes.  (Thank you for all your Parisian serving suggestions Claire, oh for more hours…….energy  too 😉


City Kids go Native in Dorset

Lola and Ruby spent half term with us.  It was a time of green fields, flower meadows, wild orchids and arty crafty stuff at the DWT Kingcombe Field Centre. The kids have been there before; the last occasion was Halloween when they enjoyed an evening of activities centred around pumpkins, toffee apples and creepy crawly displays and activities.  This time our outing centred around an Arts and Crafts weekend at the Centre where various artists were demonstrating their crafts and displaying their work.  A Weymouth man, David Metcalf, makes chicken wire wildlife sculptures.  A mouse and a hare, each perched atop a vintage garden fork have now taken up residence in our garden.  Along with a willow butterfly which I picked up recently at the Morcombelake farm shop, on my way back from a flying visit to Cornwall to see Stella who is in hospital, and seeing Hilary B and the Paynes on the round trip.

The girls commented on the ‘green’ everywhere as we drove around.  It must have made an impact.  We had both girls on Saturday for the Kingcombe day and on Sunday their parents joined us at Winterborne K, en route from Wales after a wedding, for a Greyhound lunch at which my mother joined us.  Ruby left in the evening with her parents as she has a few days in the Lake District with a friend.

Lola stayed on.  She and I went to the cinema twice.  We had our own Bake Off competition for which Lola made chocolate cupcakes and I made savoury muffins.  She raided my wardrobe for a bit of dressing up, and Nick and I dusted off some evening garb for a roast chicken dinner one evening.  Lola made a shell picture and she read a lot.  How lovely to see her curled up in my sanctuary chair with her nose in a book.

After her few days of independence as a guest she was ready to rejoin her sister and parents.  I think it was her first stay away from home on her own, so it was a milestone.  We drove her back to Hackney on Thursday, then N and I dropped down to Godalming for a meeting, then home to WK for an early departure from Poole the following morning.



In the Company of Seasoned Conchologists

On Tuesday when Esme and Dick returned to Portsmouth they boarded the ferry at Ouistreham that had brought our friends John and Celia to stay until the end of the week.  They last came to St Vaast several years ago, before the dry rot episode which was to prove such a trial.  Then their visit was part of a week of shore searching and shell-collecting with fellow Conchological Society members.  This time with inclement weather and Celia’s reduced mobility we were happy to sit and talk shells, conchologists and tuck away delicious seafood.  John has always been adventurous in the kitchen and especially with such delights as the sea can deliver.  One evening he presented us oysters three ways and he also served ‘Praires farcies’ – Venus clams dressed with butter, garlic and parsley and eaten out of their shells.

Excursions were made by car as well as short walks around our neighbourhood.  One day popped into Maison Gosselin and I took the opportunity of a nearly empty shop to take some photos.  Even so it was not easy to capture the Aladdin’s cave feel of a store overflowing with beautifully displayed goodies of every kind.

It is rare for John to fail to capture a shelly treasure wherever he goes.  On this occasion he visited the small Musee run by another Gosselin individual and persuaded its owner to part with the distinctive scallop shell lamp which has graced his window certainly since we have lived in St Vaast, and probably for much longer.  It was a snip at 20 Euros.

At the end of our very agreeable week John and Celia crossed the Channel, homeward bound and we followed a couple of days later for an important appointment.

Charlie and the Great Big Hot-Water Bottle

It was Charlie who coined it.  The waterbed he said is like a great big hot water bottle!  And he is not wrong.  It warms you gently and rocks you to sleep and keeps you that way as long as it can.  The visiting grandchildren this year took turns and two of them overslept by two hours.  Someone said to me ‘A waterbed?’ That’s for ill people isn’t it?’  Well if it is good enough for the ailing, it should be even better for the well.

After a prolonged absence of water beddery, arising from our holiday in Mauritius and the waiting list of family who wanted a turn over New Year, I finally sought hot water bottle sanctuary this afternoon, with my current read, for a rest.  Later with the light fading (but not this one!) I floated back up to consciousness feeling very much revived after a busy interlude.

Barns left this morning taking JACS back to Cholsey.  Coming back into the house it was at one awesomely quiet, and disconcerting too.  My mother always said that we young families filled the house when we stayed at the parental home in Weymouth and I know what she meant.

Whilst JACS were with us we taught them to play Newmarket.  This is a card game I played with my parents and siblings often, and always when we were on holiday.  The essence of the game is ably described by this blogger except to say that whereas in his version the 4 Kings are the ‘horses’ we play with the Ace of Spades, the Queen of Clubs, the Jack of Diamonds and the King of Hearts as the four horses.  It is a perfect game for children, it’s about chance and a bit of concentration and with multiple opportunities to gain winnings.

We also play the game with shells, cowries in fact.  We have a tall jar of them, accumulated over the years from such places of holiday pilgrimage as Shell Beach on Herm and Prussia Cove in Cornwall.  On the former beach you can find them scattered liberally along the strandlines but in Cornwall you must comb your fingers through the shingle in Bessy’s Cove to rake the small pink shelly ovals to the surface.  Memories of competitions with the Goldmans…..

It is appropriate that we use these tiny cowry shells as our currency for Newmarket.  Cowries have a pedigree when it comes to their use as money.  Cowries, particularly the Money Cowrie (C. moneta) and Ring Cowrie (C. annulus) have circulated as currency in more places in the world than any coin.   In China, from 1200-800 BC, cowrie shells were important valuables and in India cowries have been found in association with coins from sites dating from the first century AD.  Cowrie shells arrived in Africa by the 10th century and possibly earlier, preceding European colonization by some hundreds of years.  Their use as money spread throughout the African continent and eventually European settlers and traders brought Indo-Pacific cowries (both C. moneta and C. annulus) to North America where they were readily accepted by the native peoples in barter.  You can read more from the link at the head of this paragraph.

I wrote the text for that Conchological Society web page a couple of years ago, and the Society is going to claim rather more time over the coming weeks.  There are many loose ends to tie, some conundrums to solve, some biological recording data to process.  This year is earmarked to get it all signed off…………… note to self, review progress in a couple of months!

The Shell Seekers

Whilst Liz and Sue were with us we made two trips to the beach at Pointe de Saire. This is a headland of rock platform and outcrop, pools and intertidal channels, where shells are washed in to accumulate as strandlines at various horizons down the beach to the water-line, as shelly banks and as ‘beach pockets’.  (This term goes back to 1898 when the Irish naturalist, Robert Welch, used the word to describe little hollows of shell accumulation in sand dunes on a North Antrim beach.)

We spent a happy hour or so combing the beach for shells and other objets trouvés and we collected some shelly sand for the tiny shells.  There were plenty of clams, winkles, limpets and oyster shells lying around.  You had to search more diligently for cowries, painted top shells and wentletraps.  We found about six of the latter over the two visits.

Sue had noticed the framed shell collage that I made in my salad days, and which hangs in the guest’s bathroom at St V.  It features on the Shellcraft page of the Conch Society’s website. Pictures like this are really are not difficult to craft.  You need a piece of black felt or velvet secured around a stout piece of card, cut to a size you want to work with.  As a general rule the smaller the shells you are going to work with then the smaller your finished picture will be.

You need a few sheets of paper and a general purpose glue like UHU.  The shapes and colours of the shells themselves suggest the flowers they would like to become.  To make the round multi-petalled flowers you select a group of bivalve shells (tellins, small white Spisula clams, tiny scallops) within a size range and start by gluing between 4 and 8 of the largest in a rosette directly onto the paper.  Once dry, you can add the next circlet of shells and so on until you have a petalled ‘bloom’.  When the flower is dry you cut the flower from the paper and trim away any bits that would show, leaving a small basal tab to glue and stick to the backing.  All the other flowers can be assembled directly onto the background, with thin strips of white paper cut to size as stems.

Unless you have a very clear idea of the arrangement you are going to create it is wise to lay out the flowers and stems on the background and juggle until you are happy with the effect.  You should also have selected the shell which will be the ‘vase’.  Queen scallop shells are suitable because they are flat and elegant.  Then you can start to fix the flowers in place.  You only need the smallest amounts of glue and care is needed not to end up with unwanted glue strings trailing across the fabric.  You can add finishing touches such as butterflies (Donax surf clams) and a bumble bee or two (yellow and black striped rough winkles).

Searching for shells is rarely unrewarding and you always hope for a rarity or two.  Like wentletraps.  These deserve a post of their own.

Winter Gardens

Whilst in England I visited Stella and Rose in Cornwall.  Their welcome was as warm as ever and no visit can be made without a turn around their beloved garden.

Brian has been working in it and has been pruning back over-zealous shrubby growth.  The bamboos have been cut from the boundary with the field, and some local slaty slabs have been set into the bank beneath the stand of canes to form three steps.  These might serve as tiers for specimens in pots.

The small mature shrubbery to the right of the Zoology hut as you look down the garden has been cleared and there are newly transplanted plants in the little raised bed that remains.  This is a take-home message for me – I tend to think that once placed, plants should be left alone and that to move them is an admission of failure to get it right the first time.  I now see that in addition to the need to thin and divide plants, you sometimes have to resite them when their immediate gardenscape changes.

Today’s showpieces are the flowering Hellebores.  The inflorescences, in a range of pinks and reds, are clumps of flowering stems rising from the ground.  There is no foliage.  I ask about this and Rose tells me that the leaves were tired, beyond photosynthesis, and therefore removed.  The result is very stylish.  I am very fond of hellebores and love the way they seed and produce new colour forms.

Stella has been preparing our lunch, with the mother-provider care she invested when she used to take a packed lunch into the old Cornish Biological Records Unit for all the staff.  I remember the homemade saffron buns………….. mmmn.  Stella has moved a bed downstairs and into the library.  She has a comfy nook with shelves – that once held books which have now been rehomed – which are decked with delightfully themed curios and pictures.

When I leave I have a box of books in my boot.  These are the writings of and about Marcel Proust which belonged to Frank.  They are going home, to France, and will find a place in one of the bedrooms.  I will tackle one of the lighter biographies and see how I get on.  I’ve got an eclectic pile of reads waiting in the wings.

As it happens the day I visit Stella is my Book Group night and I am sad to miss it, although thanks to the e-world I dip into regularly, I pick up Diana’s feedback on the evening and our next reads, before I hit the hay at my sister’s house in Dorset later that night.

A couple of days later I get an email from another book groupie, Carol, in New Zealand, who is ecstatic about a book I recommended for her because we so often agree about the books we read and I just knew she’d love it.  She did and is mourning completion.  It is The Children’s Book by A S Byatt.  A beauty.

My day in Dorset is spent viewing houses, then I’m back home for the night before picking up the ferry back to France.

These are very cold days in St Vaast.  The wind blows from the east but it is dry and sunny.  Nearly three weeks of gardening possibilities await.  With enough layers I can work happily in the sunshine.  I start by pruning and training some of the climbers; the summer jasmine, honeysuckles.  Despite a good tidy up in the autumn there is a lot of dead growth at ground level to cut back.  It already looks better.

The new circular bed is planted with delphiniums and irises.  I boldly move plants and hope the weather will not curse me for it.  Some pots are emptied and contents planted out, others are moved to new positions.  Taking a leaf from Rose’s book, I take the leaves from my hellebores.  They stand clear and darkly mysterious under the climbing roses.  I need some lighter shades to plant with them.

Nick has dug and tided the vegetable garden and so we plant out broad bean plants brought from England near a sunny wall, with a framework for them to clamber.

When the light is good I take a few photographs of my winter blooms.  Greatest delight is the Daphne odora, in this it’s first flowering year.  The Sarcococca confusa is also flowering with its dark berries beneath.  This scented pair border the opening in the pergola onto the lawn.

Gardening sessions are punctuated by lunch breaks, reading, computing and other outdoor activities.  But that’s another story.

It’s time to Wrap it Up

It’s Friday which means they are frying tonight in Aviemore.  After a day spent variously filming and walking we send out for F and C all round.  Except the two eldest boys who go for battered sausages.  No deep-fried Mars Bars are requested, fortunately 🙂

The joys of fish and chips are enduring.  It’s possibly Lola’s favourite, she eats this after her swimming lesson every Sunday.  She has recently achieved a length of the swimming pool on her back,  aged 4.

Fish and chips will always be associated in my mind with visits to my paternal grandmother who lived at Portsmouth.  She, one of 10 children, the eldest with 8 brothers and a sister.  All those great uncles told such stories of childhood mischief, often scrumping was involved.  Do children still scrump??  One of my uncles would take me to see the lights in the famous Southsea Rock Garden or to the funfair on the sea front: pink candyfloss and terrifying rides on the Wild Mouse …………….which the internet tells me is still there.  My grandmother was great on spontanaeity and rather permissive, she allowed me to dress up in her clothes…………. and go to the corner shop in them.

On Saturday more Lights will be melting away, meanwhile the snow still lies on the ground, crisp and white, preserved by the very low temperatures, especially at night.  First we need to get the Cholseys to Aviemore to catch their 11.30 train.  Armed with a fat picnic, their 3 laptops with DVDs, and a Nintendo DS which Sam seems pretty devoted to, they pile into 2 cars and are delivered to their waiting train.  It will take them 7 hours to reach their London mainline station and another 3 to get to their door in Oxfordshire.

Shortly after, the Sunburys are on their way.  They will break their journey twice to give Ted a good run around and do some shopping.

So it’s Nick, Dan, Lola and me to rattle around the mansion for the rest of the day.  Nick spends most of it in the farmyard working on Petal the Land Rover with Walter.  Dan has started to edit his sequences and needs to can one or two more.  One involves Nick standing unseen below the crest of a hill and throwing up shovels of snow to simulate explosions.

And there are a couple of scenes with dialogue which Lola will deliver, including the final line.  When she is not throwing sticks of dynamite made from empty loo rolls covered in red paper, or plodding through the snow with an improvised flame thrower strapped to her back, we sit at the kitchen table and colour fairies and princesses all shades of pink, and make waterlilies with the polystyrene chip containers.  She has undivided attention and intends to make the most of it.

As we have leftovers from Thursday’s dinner we invite Lucy, Walter and Malcolm Handoll (who has come from Orkney to run a one-day course in survival and bushcraft skills at Inshriach) to supper.  Malcolm and I talk shells in archaeology and he describes some of the many uses to which one can put a limpet shell.  For example, Malcolm tells me, you can transport an ember cupped in two shells by inverting the shells periodically when the lower one gets too hot to handle.  Is this how the Neolithic community might have transferred fire from site to site?

When sensible people facing long journeys on the morrow are thinking of going to bed, Dan and Walter opt to go to the pub.  The trip turns into a lock-in.  At 5.30 a noise in the house wakes me.   I lay there for a while then think I’ll just pad along the gallery to check on Lola, who chose to sleep in the huge fourposter of the master bedroom.  But there is no sign of her father.  I check all the bedrooms and he is definitely not in the house.  With a sense of rising panic (it is minus 14, there are ditches and the lanes are treacherous) I phone Dan’s mobile but he does not answer.  Thankfully Walter does answer when I ring his and I learn they are both in the bothy about to settle down for a session of their VHSVideo club.  Dan will be back soon…………….

Soon drifts on and in the end Nick has to fetch our lad, who then sleeps in the car, virtually all the way home to Hackney.   He wakes up intermittently to post a Tweet courtesy of my Orange dongle.  Lola is an absolutely brilliant passenger.  We stop at one of the watering holes Dan and I used to use on journeys to and from Edinburgh when he was up there reading English, and Lola orders her usual.  Dan tells Lola that there is a kind of very large school in this big city,  to which he and Mummy went and met each other.  “What do you think we did at that big school, Lola?”  “Colouring?” asks Lola hopefully.  “Well yes, they called that Geography”.

Nick and I eventually fall indoors at midnight, 14 hours after we left Inshriach.  We have already put our marker down for 2011.