Flotsam and Jetsam

beach after a stormOne of the great, great pleasures of living by the sea are the treasures you find  on all those everyday beach walks.

All sorts of things get washed up on the beach.  It doesn’t necessarily take a storm out at sea for us to find intriguing objects on the beach –  but it helps.blue glove on beachWe find so many odd shoes!washed up trainerslost flipflopAnd bare legs too!washed up doll's legYou can’t help wondering about the stories behind these finds.  Were there hysterics when the doll’s leg got washed away?  Furious parents because a teenager had lost one of a new pair of trainers? Was this vegetable meant for Sunday lunch?washed up vegetablesWe couldn’t believe it when we found false teeth on the beach!  – how on earth?!!! But were somewhat shamefaced when we recounted this story to my aunt, only to be told it had happened to her once…. oh dear. teeth on beachSome finds are more disturbing.  After the terrible floods last winter, we found several dead sheep on the beach, washed down the river Tweed.dead sheep on the beachA pushchair – was this a terrible accident, or just lazy parents who wanted to dispose of an old broken one?washed up push chairSome things come back with us, and we have a “nature table” display on one of the window sills in our kitchen specially dedicated to these finds.Yes, those are the teeth!  Three baby dummies, would you believe it? And all sorts of children’s toys. I love Dumbo – we have garlanded her with a child’s bracelet which happened to come home with us on the same day as we found her.garlanded dumbo It has metamorphosed with sea growth into something rich and strange. Remember Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s Tempest?

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade.
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
dumbo's necklaceThere are sea potatoes and sea urchins … and plastic too. I thought this was a beautiful sea-blue  jellyfish when I found it -but it is actually the bottom of a water bottle and only mimics a living creature.  How deadly – for all those lost pieces of plastic bottle are being eroded into pellets that sea-creatures ingest.plastic jellyfishOne special Christmas, we found this small china face. It has pride of place now on the window display.china faceTwo other special things share the pride of place spot: our house mouse and the fish skeleton.

The mouse is not, of course, a sea find.  It was brought into our house alive by our elderly cat, Poe, when we first arrived here – and she promptly lost it.  Many months later, when moving furniture, we found its desiccated body (why hadn’t it smelt?). Presumably, it had hidden from Poe for so long that it had died of starvation. We placed it here on the window ledge, a small furry creature – and then the moths came by and ate its fur.  No respecters of death, they!  So here it is, just papery skin, and presumably all internal organs intact.mouse and fishThe fish skeleton is such a beauty!  Picked clean by bird or fish or the elements, and just look at the curve of that spine!fish bone as foundYou’ll have realised that all sorts finds their place here. In a humble way, it is our own “cabinet of curiosities”.

Robert Macfarlane writing in Landmarks, tells us of “the ‘wonder-rooms’ of the Renaissance and the Baroque, in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artefacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (miribilia) were gathered and displayed.”

So here are: a pigeon’s claw (still bearing its number), seaglass, feathers, butterflies, shells, cuddy beads (on which more later), glass stoppers, feathers, the pincer of a small crab and fossilised coral. Have you ever played memory games as a child or at a party? These items would be good for that: I packed my portmanteau and in it I put … racing pigeon clawThe trouble is our sea-treasures have spread around the house.  The kitchen table doesn’t only have place mats, conserves and fruit – it’s been taken over with broken china and seaglass. Oh goodness – four bowls of broken China and seaglass!sea treasures on the kitchen tableAnd in the sitting-room, there’s a small oblong tray with a particularly intriguing treasure. We think its the contents of a ready-to-hatch gull’s egg.  It would appear that some predator ate the good stuff and left the soft feathery scalp.oblong tray of treasuresThe cats love it!Ilsa with treasureAnd then in the conservatory – why there are more bowls of sea-treasure! Fossils, toys, old bits of china and seaglass.  I particularly love anything we find that has writing on it.  More bowls of sea treasureEvery now and then, it’s fun to play with the finds.blue and white china (mostly)  To pick out the finely patterned pieces and the lettered ones too.playing with lettered chinaTo sort by colour.playing with green and redI love the mixture of red-hot geraniums and bowls of old blue and white china.conservatory bowls of blue and white chinaWe find a lot of fossils on the beach round here. Apparently, there is a fossilised coral reef on these shores and the large streaky stone is a piece from that, nicely rounded by the waves.  The other pieces are bits we have picked up on nearby Cocklawburn Beach where we find many crinoid fossils.fossils in the conservatoryCrinoids (or sea-lilies) were plant-liked animals which inhabited these shores thousands of years ago. Locally, we often find them as ring-shaped segments. They are known as Cuddy Beads after St Cuthbert who lived on the nearby Holy Island of Lindisfarne (Cuddy is the Northumbrian name for Cuthbert). According to legend, Cuthbert himself used these segments to construct rosaries – and others say that later folk around would also use them as rosary beads.

Here are some of our Cuddy Beads – some are fat, some thin, some squashed, some already come with holes punched, and some are still in the their stone casing.  I particularly love the ones that have starry holes. You can see particularly fine examples of branching Crinoid fossils on Palaeontologist fiann_smithwick’s Instagram feed.some of our cuddy beadsWhen my daughter Helen last visited she put together this wonderful composite picture of fossils we found on the local beaches.fossilsIn the garden, there are yet more piles of seaside treasure – old toys, shoes, a doll’s leg, interesting stones.sea treasures amid the garden flowersThere are interesting bits of wood too.sea woodpoppies and seawoodTruly the seaside is a magic place.  You can lose yourself for hours there, searching for treasure.absorbed in searching for sea treasureI think e.e.cummings puts it best:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.bottom of a glass jar

The Black (and White) Dog

My father died earlier this week.  It is deeply deeply sad, and he is much mourned by his family and friends, but it was also a blessed release.  He had been unable to walk for some years, and towards the end we discovered that he was suffering from Lewy Body disease.

This is a surprisingly little know neurodegenerative dementia considering that at least 5 percent of 85 year olds are thought to suffer from it.   It shares the mental symptoms of confusion and loss of memory with Alzeimer’s, but the really distinguishing feature for many of those suffering from this disease are the visual hallucinations. For many these are visions of animals.  In my father’s case, it was a black dog.

I don’t think the black dog was really surprising because there had been a black dog in the family several years ago.  Brackler was of mixed  Springer and Labrador parentage, and originally came to live with Hugh (my first husband) and me in Devon in 1978. He was a fine dog – almost completely black, apart from a white flash under his chest.  Apart from this, he could easily be mistaken for a pure Labrador.Proud Brackler 1980 Sanctuary LodgeHowever, he had inherited a wild untamed need-to-explore trait from his Springer mother, and when my son was born in 1980, I couldn’t cope with Brackler, so he went to live with my parents in Kent.  Memorably, Hugh and my father met to pass Brackler on to his new owners at Guildford Cathedral – a place forever etched in my father’s mind as completely miserable because Hugh was so extremely upset to have to part with his dog.RHE Brackler 1987 BSBrackler went on to live an extremely happy life with my parents.  When they moved to Budleigh Salterton in 1987, he took to amazing sea swimming.  He would swim the entire length of the bay from the red cliffs at the west of the beach to the River Otter without break.  A very powerful dog.  My father adored him, and grieved terribly when he died in 1992.  (They went on to have another dog, Pellow – featured in the photo below.)9 RHE Pellow 1994 BudleighA couple of days after my father’s death, one early afternoon,  we were visited by a black and white collie dog running round the Seaview properties.  It was racing around, up into our gardens and off into the fields – a sloppy walker I thought, not walking with their dog conscientiously.

But later in the afternoon, by teatime, it was back – in our garden, nosing around the fat balls that we crumble up for the birds to eat on the path. It ran away when I went up to it – clearly shy and anxious. It had a broken leather lead round its neck, looking as though it had been tied up and pulled free.

It kept on running off into the fields and back into our garden – was clearly hungry. So I went to our neighbours’ house to get Jan and Craig to help me catch it.

They are very experienced dog-owners who originally hailed from Gateshead, but have been tempted to Spittal like us because of the beauty of the place.  Jan says she’s half gypsy. She’s a carer, and if I was old, ill or dying, I would like her to care for me – she’s a wonderfully warm woman.

Anyhow, we couldn’t catch the dog. It kept on running off into the fields – miles and miles away, we could just see the small black dot. We were worried because we are quite close to the main eastcoast railway line. Then it would come careering back.

Eventually, Jan got close enough to give it some food. It scoffed everything really quickly. She managed to stroke it – then it bared its teeth, so she left off.

We rang the police – but they won’t help as they no longer have facilities to house lost dogs. I rang the local council dog warden. Somebody else locally had reported the dog. They also wouldn’t help – unless we caught it, and then they would come and take it away.

We just couldn’t catch it, so eventually we tempted it into our greenhouse with food and water, and left a blanket in there for it to sleep in. The idea was that in the morning we hoped to find it asleep, shut the greenhouse door and phone the authorities.

As we hung around in the twilight trying to tempt the collie in, I told Jan that my father had just died. Lightbulb moment! “That’s why the dog is here! It’s come from your dad, he wants you to know he’s alright!”

Stephen and I had a small chuckle about this later in the evening – but it felt curiously comforting.

In the morning the dog was gone

I’m with Hamlet on this one:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

RIP RHE, born in Melbourne’s Surrey Hills, 9th March 1926; died in England’s Surrey Hills, 31st March 2015.RHE snow 1966

One of my favourite photographs of my father, taken in the garden of No 5 embassy house, Tokyo, during the snowy spring of 1967.  Behind is the Diamond Hotel which featured strongly in our childhood dinner conversations as we could see it very clearly from the dining room, and my father would regularly comment on the seasons with the (to me) immortal phrase:” Soon we won’t be able to see the Diamond Hotel any more.”  It was code for spring approaching.  It is lovely to remember him smiling, happy and having fun!

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