Documenting the seasons of coastal Dorset. I'm a complete amateur so don't trust I'm always right. If ever you see I'm wrong - whether with identifications or in anything else - do say!

Monday, 29 November 2010


I don’t know what it is about old brick bridges but they always seem to be running with water. If there isn't water trickling under their arches, they are likely to have damp patches or small streams dripping from the parapet instead. I don’t know where this water comes from. It’s as if the bridges are standing in for mountains. I’m never clear how mountains manage to spout water either.

But the water on this bridge wasn’t being water for long. It was dripping into the undergrowth and fossilising the plants with ice.

This twig, encased in ice, reminds me of a certain kind of pear liqueur. Bottles are tied over small fruits while they are still on the trees. The pears grow inside the glass and the liqueur itself is added when they are ripe and plucked from the trees - bottles and all.

An imprisoned thorn!

Young Alexanders. These ice-ed plants spark connections. This one reminds me of Snow White in her glass case waiting for the Prince to come and thaw her with a kiss.

* * * * *

It was bleak, yesterday afternoon; beautifully bleak.

Strewn on the sand were these tightly closed carnations with small buds. It seemed terribly sad. You can see another stem a little further away.

The beak of this juvenile herring gull (Larus argentatus) caught my eye.

What had caught the eye of the gull was something to eat. It dropped onto the water, bobbed up and down for a few seconds, then spread its massive wings (a herring gull wingspan can be more than five foot!)  hopped into the air, dived back down into the water - and came out with something pinkish in its beak - then off it went. In the picture, it’s getting ready for lift-off.

And, at last, to my destination - the National Trust Van. 

That’s what I call it - "The National Trust Van". The National Trust calls it a “Recruitment and Engagement Vehicle for the National Trust and Jurassic Coast in West Dorset”. These cheerful (though shivering) people who do the recruiting and engaging are called Ben and Caroline.

I’ve been following Ben on Twitter for a while - under the delusion that he’s a cross between a palaeontologist and a botanist and . . . and . . .  that he wanders up and down the coastline imparting wisdom and knowledge about our rocks and wildlife and history. Because his Twitter name is @jurassiccoastin I expected him to be more of a Jurassic expert than a recruiting one. HOWEVER, he and Caroline (recruiters!) were very friendly and invited me into their van for a cup of tea.

And was the tea welcome! The right hand side of my face (which had been facing east for most of my walk) had frozen so I felt a bit awkward at the beginning of our conversation. Meeting new people when it feels as if you’ve just had a tooth extracted and your mouth hasn’t fully recovered from the anaesthetic isn’t . . . isn’t . . . comfortable.

So that was my afternoon; my walk. Completely without a theme - an ordinary-for-round-here kind of walk at the beginning of winter. (I’ve given up calling it ‘autumn’. The leaves have powdered to dust because of the cold and I haven't smelled a bonfire in days.)

* * * * *

To read more about this roving and recruiting and to reach Ben’s blog, click here.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


I went to a fish and chip restaurant earlier today. There was a huge globe with two fish swimming round in it.

“That’s cruel,” I said to a friend who was munching his chips alongside me.

He thought I meant it was cruel to keep fish in a bowl. We were looking at it through a frosted glass screen. Every so often, a fish shape would emerge from the whiteness, float by and disappear again as it turned the corner and swam away.

“Those fish may be smaller than they seem,” he suggested. “Maybe the glass is magnifying them.”

But I wasn’t talking about the relative size of fish to bowl. What seemed cruel to me was that live fish were being kept right beside the place where battered ones were being fried.

He was logical.

“It’s no different,” he said, “from us seeing lamb stew. Those fish won’t identify with cod any more than most of us identify with mammals other than humans while they are being cooked.”

I floundered around by saying I wouldn’t like to be in the same room as a chimpanzee being roasted but he was right. I was guilty of an ‘ism’. All fish, to me, are fish. Just fish. I know they have different names and different attributes but I’ve tended to think of these differences in about the same way as I see differences in skin shade or hair colour. Humans are humans. Fish are fish. But it isn’t like that.

Meandering on in my thoughts, I began to wonder why humans don’t feature in a nature blog. We are as much part of nature as a leaf is. And the men who were strimming over the patch where I had been observing these toadstools are as much part of nature as are fungi. They are practical humans too for they are preparing a place where lorries and equipment can go while a bridge is being mended nearby. I wouldn’t want the bridge to fall on me for the sake of leaving the undergrowth undisturbed. None the less, I was disappointed not to have watched the toadstools right through from their fairy tale beginnings to their tatty end.

* * * * *

It’s an odd thing, watching the same spot each autumn to see whether particular fungi return.

Probably a Phellinus
I’ve been watching this one for three years (20082009) and I think it may be the last time I take its picture for the log it lives on is sinking into the muddy little stream it rests in and the fungus itself seems, somehow, less enthusiastic about life than it used to.

Fungi and lichen are peculiar enough as life-forms - and I haven’t managed to grasp why, when red seaweeds are algae, green seaweeds aren’t. They look much the same. But brown seaweeds aren’t even plants. They seem to be something all on their own! And I’ve been looking at diagrams about how Bladder Wrack reproduces (a brown seaweed which looks green to me when I see it lying around on the beach) - and there are sperms and eggs! What! I thought sperms and eggs were reserved for . . . I’m losing my way . . . for . . . for non-plants! Oh. But they aren’t plants. But they look  like plants!

Sea Squirt
(probably Ascidiella aspersa)
Sea Squirt
(probably Ascidiella aspersa)
I’ve also been disconcerted to discover that this (a dying and therefore miss-shapen sea squirt) is our closest living invertebrate relative. It belongs in the same phylum as we do - in other words, they are part of our family tree. If Victorians struggling for the first time with the concept of evolution got all uptight because we are related to monkeys (not descended, note, that’s different) how fortunate it is that sea-squirts have not figured highly in the public consciousness. Their digestive system seems to be a kind of U bend with what comes out coming out right next to where it went in. They also absorb their own brains. I really am not understanding anything. The world becomes less comprehensible every time I look at it!

(According to this article sea-squirts may give us a good idea of what our early human ancestors looked like. Brilliant!)

Here’s an oyster thief. It got its name because if it attaches itself to oysters instead of to rocks, being hollow inside, it floats away with them. It is an alga. Whatever that is. And I am alga/algae challenged. When is it an ‘it’ and when is it a ‘they’?

An Oyster Thief - Colpomenia peregrina

* * * * *

I mentioned in my last post that I had joined Ispot. Until I posted an Oyster Thief picture there, I thought it was probably an empty egg case from some kind of big fish. Wrong! Now I know. But more than that, another of the Ispotters (Mike Kendall) gave me a link  to an extract from the Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Gardens, Kew) 1911 where the arrival of the Oyster Thief along the southern coasts of Britain is described. (He told me not to worry about the slight discrepancy in naming.) Not only that, the very stretch of small coves where I found this one is noted as the place chosen by scientists in 1908 as suitable for observing these olive globes, one reason being ease of access from London. London really is a very long way away from here. In an age of steam trains, it must have seemed even further. However, there was a branch line along here. Local lore has it that there was an informal halt very close to the Oyster Thief Beach (my name) where vegetables from a market garden were loaded onto trains. I’ve not yet been able to find out when this stop operated but there was, none the less, a larger station, closer into town, where scientists could arrive and be within walking distance of their site of interest and in April 1909 another halt was opened as the next stop along. London was far - but the beach was accessible.

However, in the January of 1909, there had been a significant landslide along this bit of coast. I don’t know whether this had an impact on the project or whether scientists continued with their observations regardless. The extract from the Kew Bulletin is but a fragment. You have to ‘belong’ to read further.

It was a busy time for people building and maintaining the railways. It still is. The tracks have long been lifted but nearly all the platforms are still there. The biggest of these is in a cutting and at one end of the old station there’s a road bridge joining the banks. Between one of the platforms and the bridge are the toadstools; at least that’s where they were - for it’s here the workers have arrived to mend and strengthen the bridge and they’ve strimmed the undergrowth to make a place for their machines.

Toadstools and Oyster Thieves have their places in railway history. Sea squirts, washed up with the Oyster Thieves near the old line show us what we might have looked like if we’d been born a bit earlier. Odd that. Not many people will have noticed the toadstools. Who beyond very few have heard of Oyster Thieves, let alone handled them? And how many know the significance of sea-squirts?

Isn’t history odd!

This post is included in Circus of the Spineless.