Following a line- autobiography

As soon as I could understand anything I knew that I lived on an Island and that I belonged to a nation of sea farers, a great nation which lived on the British Isles. My country was held together by a long history of which I should be proud, the Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish and the English, also known as the United Kingdom. Ireland was not included. We were fighting some of the Irish when I was a child. I knew about Hadrian’s Wall built to keep the Scottish people in, or out. I learned about Offa’s Dyke built to keep the Welsh in, or out. I knew that the Welsh didn’t like the English because they burnt their holiday homes.

I was born in the Salvation Army Hospital in Cardiff, the capital of Wales; it was the only hospital then. Cardiff is a port on the west coast of the British Isles with easy access to the Atlantic. There was coal and steel production nearby so Cardiff became the largest harbour in the world in the age of steam. My father worked in an office as an accountant. There were ships in rows and great black cranes slinging cargo over lorries and the heads of dock workers. I was taught at school that Britain imported coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar and rubber, and that we made cars in factories for export. All this went through Cardiff’s Docks. It was known as Tiger Bay because of its wild lawlessness now it’s a lake with high rise luxury apartments.

When I was a child I thought of myself as English, even though I knew the national anthem in Welsh, because Cardiff had a lot of English people living there. My parents moved there two years before I was born from Handsworth in Birmingham. I hear about Handsworth now in news reports, about stabbings, drugs and violence within it’s a black community which is poor. When my father lived there it was genteel, his family had a big house with a chauffeur and a cook. His father was a doctor who went to Russia to support the White Russians, backed by the British government. They wanted to stop the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, defeat the communist Red Army and restore order and the Tsar. It was a family thing, the tsar was related to our King. The people who moved into Handsworth were from the Caribbean. The town houses like my grandfathers were divided into flats and the new immigrants moved in. The same happened in Notting Hill in London and in Cardiff. There the Caribbean people joined the Italians and Jews who were already there. Some of the Jews had come from Russia, driven out in the pogroms before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communists deplored anti-Semitism. I don’t know why the Italians came over. When I was a girl my mother would open the door to Sicilian lace makers. She bought fine lace made in the mountains of Sicily and Italian ice cream made in Tiger Bay.

My father had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in 1945, he was 19 and never saw active service. He made models of ships and had a letter signed by Nelson. He took me onto a submarine in Portsmouth when I was seven with a long narrow gantry running above the engines, I thought I would fall into the greasy dark below. He took us on ferries, paddle steamers, hovercraft and a hydrofoil. In the summer we went to the coast of Norfolk where Nelson was born, to Hastings on the Kent coast where William the Conqueror and Julius Caesar started their invasions, to Brittany where the D-Day landings took place. We ate langoustine, prawns and crab at every meal. We went to Corsica in the Mediterranean, where Napoleon was born and to Portugal, that other great seafaring nation where Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas.

My Father taught me about the Vikings who invaded our Islands and Normans who were Vikings too or Norsemen who also invaded in 1066 and the Celts who probably came from India via Germany. And the Angles and Saxons who came from where? They pushed the picts out to the furthest reaches so I supposed that they became the Scots and Welsh and that is why the English looked down on them because they were the vanquished. We had a long a turbulent relationship with France, mainly because we owned most of it for a while because of the Normans and then lost it. Then we fought the Spanish and then the French again at Waterloo and Trafalgar- which was where Nelson came in. And then of course there were two world wars. The second of which finished only 12 years before I was born but it seemed like distant past until I was about thirty when 12 years seemed like no time at all. And that’s about it. My history lesson. Everywhere he told us of the history of the sea and how it shaped the nations of the world.



And in all these places I gathered shells, stones and driftwood that I still have, from beaches.


When I was 22 I met a Cornishman. He grew up in a house on a beach and his grandfather was a sea captain. Very soon after we met he brought me to the beach where I live now and we explored the coves which he’d grown up with.



Scavengers were employed in Cornwall until the end of the 19th century to gather up metal and glass so that it could be remade into something else.


Nick was born in 1948 and I was born in 1956. When we were young there were still rag and bone men with horse drawn carts collecting door to door and local dumps where kids could find what they needed to make a go- cart. Toys were still made of wood, cardboard, metal, plaster and cloth when Nick was a child but by the time I was 9 years old plastic components were becoming a part of most toys.

His family checked the beach early each morning for wood and fishing gear. The first thing he found on a beach was tin of sherbet,‘I ate the lot and was sick in the river.’

When I was the same age I gathered small green sea urchins from a beach in Norfolk. Near my home there was a derelict house with broken windows where I found two glasses engraved with flowers in a cupboard. Nick took his bike up to the dump next to an abandoned airfield a mile from his home and found old radio equipment and oranges. When I was a teenager I bought clothes from jumble sales and adapted them. I still have a dress made from Chinese silk I bought for 2 pence. After we met we went through skips for anything useful. We bought everything we could from charity shops. If someone was getting rid of something they would come to us because we would probably take it off their hands. We trawled together through junk shops and reclamation yards and built a wooden house from what we’d found. We moved into it with the children. It was very like a white wooden shack his grandfather the sea captain built on a cliff in Cornwall and where we stayed we could. And this was the thing- the more time we spent by the sea the more we wanted to live there. Nick wrote about it in his plays and I painted it. We were pulled back to Cornwall, it called relentlessly. So we gave in. And it was then that we began to turn a habit into an obsession.


Everything that washes onto a beach is owned as it hits the shore of the British Isles by the Crown – everywhere except Cornwall, here it’s owned by the Duchy. Some say this is because Cornwall was never formally made a county of England. In the days when it was faster for everything to travel by ship the value of wrecked cargo could be huge and the Revenue still claim anything of value.



Beachcombing in Cornwall is called wrecking. A wreck breaks up, washes ashore, becomes wreckage. To look for this debris and take it is therefore ‘wrecking’. Wrecking is not the luring of ships onto rocks as portrayed by Daphne du Maurier in Jamaica Inn. This wrecking has never been recorded in Cornwall though it might have happened once or twice a long, long time ago. It is true that many were arrested for taking wreck once it was on a beach. Cornwall has known poverty through generations and there were those who watched as ships foundered and waited to see what they would get and some must have left the dying until after they hid the cargo they had taken. Many paths were made down to lonely coves. Some wreckers had hand carts, some used ponies to take up what they found in them.


Even now Insurance companies employ people to guard valuable cargo and the Revenue will be present when a ship runs aground to film anyone taking possession of what they find.


Salvage at sea is big business. The owners of the salvage ship The Odyssey have made millions cracking open wrecks on the sea floor loaded with silver and gold. When they do so they disturb other cargo they aren’t interested in which floats away in the next storm. I’ll talk about that later.


So Nick and I were not alone on Cornish beaches. Wrecking was and is a tradition, though not many rely on it in the way that they did, not on the main land. Islanders on The Scillies and the Outer Hebrides still do. I know this because I’ve seen the piles of wood and buoys left by wreckers there above high water. If you leave wreck above high water it’s claimed so no one should touch it except you. All islanders have to scavenge to a certain degree because it costs a great deal to get anything shipped over, they have to reuse, remake and recycle. I know a coach driver on South Uist who keeps defunct coaches next to his house for spares. On the main land we have started to recycle again and some of us are beginning to reuse and remake.


These days there are many more people living in Cornwall and I don’t know if The Wrecking Season is partly responsible but there are a lot more people checking the beaches. Maybe it’s because they want to pick up the plastic that washes in, maybe it’s the romance of beachcombing but there are blogs, websites, Facebook sites, artists, photographers, crafts people, scientists, conservationists, film makers, writers and quite a few obsessive collectors out there on beaches now, all working them in one way or another.






The system of currents that flows around our planet has been named the Global Conveyor. It consists of cold deep water currents which originate near the poles driven by differences in salinity and warm water currents driven by surface winds which originate at the equator. The direction of the current flow is determined also by the turn of the earth- east to west and by continental land mass which interrupt the flow. This turning causes the currents to flow in a circular motion. In the Northern Hemisphere they flow clockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere they flow anti-clockwise – like water going down a plug hole. This circular flow of water is called a gyre.


This current is the driving force in the North Atlantic. It originates in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico



There are seven gyres in the world’s oceans. At the centre of each gyre the water is comparatively still. In the Atlantic this is just east of the Azores. Those who sail into it have found debris, large pieces of wood, cable reels and plastic floating together. It’s interesting that the algae and goose barnacles that grow on the debris provide food for fish and turtles in a place where food is scarce and shelter from larger predators that cruise the wide ocean.




This is where everything collects on a beach. It’s the line left by the last tide. This line moves up and down the beach as the tides change each day.


There are two high tides a day and two low tides a day. Wherever you go wrecking you need to know when it will be high tide because if you aren’t aware of it you can be caught by the sea and swept away. Never take a risk with the sea. Even experienced beachcombers and fishermen get caught out and drown.


I make an instinctive response to the combination of wind and tide and time before I make the decision to leave the house. There will be something in the air. The smell of the sea plays its part. The fact that I live right on the beach allows me to be at one with it. Once I get onto the sand I can detect within the first metre whether the line will be fruitful, I’ve got used to looking at a strandline and I know when it’s going to be HOT, it’s just experience.


The strandline looks different on different surfaces. Sand is best for beachcombing because everything sits on the surface and stands out against the fine grains. Shingle is more demanding on the eye but shingle is more free draining so objects don’t rot down so fast, they can be suspended in shingle banks for years. I have found leather and bone and 50 year old plastic on beaches in Suffolk that would not have held together on a Cornish beach. It is a lot more difficult to find seeds on a shingle beach but not impossible.


Orford Ness in Suffolk is a shingle bank which used to be a military test site. There may be unexploded ordinance on the beach so part of the strandline is out of bounds. I stood on the limit and saw old wood and cork floats I haven’t seen for years together with faded plastic combs and itched to pick it up. Though in fact I like the idea that ancient strandlines exist.


I went to New Zealand last year to see Jim and on South Island the beaches are clean of everything except wood. The Island is covered in forest and there aren’t many people so wood builds up into huge piles. It’s the same on the coast or Oregon, North West America. Cornwall hasn’t many trees left, due to mining and boat building, so any wood that washes in is very quickly claimed.


In Morocco I found that beaches were worked. There would be  a rough shack made from drift near the beach and anything of interest was long gone before I got there. That is until the rain fell after 10 years of drought and thousands of empty water bottles were washed out of  previously dried up river beds into the sea.


What you find is determined by the landmass where you live. The shape of the coastline creates eddies that sift debris- right hand gloves to one beach left hand gloves to another. So you find different things on different beaches and coasts. I know a beach near here which we call haberdashers cove- it doesn’t have another name- it always has cloth, rubber and socks there and not much else. On the Island of Texel, Holland, they find only left handed gloves- they reckon that the right hands go up the North Sea to Yorkshire.


There are always particular places where shells collect.


In great storms which happen from time to time, when the combination of a huge swell and a high tide come together, everything gets pulled out of the rocks and sand and shingle. The sea takes it back and travels with it further up the coast. In the end if debris isn’t removed from the beach it will keep on going. The debris in the Pacific mostly ends up in Alaska, while the end of the line in the Atlantic is Svalbard and the Arctic ice beyond.


In the year 2000 I photographed the beach every day. It was interesting to see the tide moving back and forth and the changes to the river and the surface of the sand.






As Cornwall is on the other side of the pond from the U S of A debris travels along the Gulf Stream from there to us. Not just North American, also South and Central American and Caribbean debris proliferates on the North West Coast of Europe. A lot of it is identifiable. Fishing gear has codes, cans and bottles have the manufacturers name, lighters have the place where they were sold. Plastic may have an identification mark or name that can be traced on the internet.


We found these lobster tags and some of them had a phone number on them.




It is very important to record our natural environments. Particularly these days when we face climate change. One never can tell when a record or other data will become relevant to an area of research and help to predict or evaluate changes in biological systems.


Recording the world around you has another function it helps to place you within that environment. The more you learn about a place from close observation the more you become part it, become responsible for it and start to belong there.



The bird skulls I’ve found on the strandline represent the species that live on this stretch of coast. A couple of the skulls were still attached to dead bird carcasses. Dead birds on a strandline are called ‘wrecks’. Whenever possible bird wrecks should be reported to your local wildlife group/trust with the date found and grid reference as this data may be useful, particularly if the birds are contaminated. I have recorded a bird then removed the head and buried it in my garden with a flower pot on the top so that I don’t forget where it is. Bird skulls show the nature of the bird.


The gannet dives straight down into the sea to catch fish so it skull is shaped like a dart. The kestrel hunts small mammals on cliffs and the strandline, hovering above prey with large eyes and short tearing beak.


The oyster catcher pushes its long orange beak down into the sand for molluscs and worms.


The shag swims as well under water as it flies and spears fish on the move.



The sea can be raging waves pounding cliffs to rubble or it can be soft and sheltering. Some shorelines are more sheltering than others. Below the surface too there are places that are continually scoured by the waves and others that are protected by headlands, rocks or kelp beds.


Sea balls are made in these places. Sea balls can be made of natural material or man-made or a combination of the two in varying percentages. I found the first on Porth Kidney, a beach in the mouth of the Hayle estuary facing North protected from the Southwest by St Ives and ? headland. The beach slopes steeply down because the ? river sweeps sand out to sea.


This sea ball was one of the hundreds washed up on the beach.

They may have come in on several tides, some were small, this was one of the largest. It seems to be made of a wiry root, with a few pieces of fishing line. It’s a phenomena recorded by beachcombers in other parts of the world.


These are from Brazil found there by a friend who brought them back for me. Beach?


The sea washes back and forth, back and forth gently rolling material on the sea bed. The fibres become entwined and continue to roll entrapping more fibres. How long must it take to make a ball 6cms across and what finally brings them ashore? The nylon balls here I found in huge pile of stranded kelp. All were within a small area a few metres square on one day. It would seem that the fishing line catches around the sea weed stalks then gentle rolling gathers the rest of the line up and the sea spits it onto the beach. It’s heartening that the sea gathers and rejects some of the lost fishing line which tangles around the necks and legs of sea birds and mammals.



In Kelp beds, dense thickets of dark brown weed floating vertically, anything which floats below the surface becomes trapped. In gales the kelp is ripped off rocks and deposited on the shore, sometimes in huge quantities, piles 2 metres high. I have seen many deposits on beaches and they always hold three things: sea balls, broken pieces of water bottle and socks.


The broken pieces of plastic water bottle are almost weightless and must be taken down by waves into the kelp. The lost socks must fill with sand, wrap around the hold fasts of kelp and sit in the weedy deposits on the sea bed until a violent sea digs them out. Or do lost socks swim out to sea?



Whales can travel freely around the oceans of the world. Some have particular migration routes. The most common whales around the coast of the UK and Ireland are Minke, Fin whales, Sperm whales, Pilot whales and orcas. Sometimes they come ashore alive singly or in mass strandings and they almost always die. It is thought that they are disorientated by sounds underwater, human signalling systems and blasting may play their part. They frequently wash ashore dead sometimes from natural causes, increasingly plastic is found in the guts of the toothed whales. Sperm whales eat squid. Floating plastic bags and balloons trailing ribbon look like squid when floating in the sea.



Ambergris is a naturally occurring resin made in the stomach of a sperm whale. The outside has a waxy surface but inside its granular, containing small pieces of bone and black slivers of squid beak. It is thought that the gut produces this resin to protect it from sharp pieces of squid beak. Squid are the main food of sperm whales. No one is quite sure which end of the whale expels the ambergris. It’s found rarely on beaches anywhere where sperm whales are- which is anywhere. This piece is small, they can weigh-? I found it on my beach 10 years before I realised what it was. I knew it wasn’t plastic but couldn’t think what else it could be.


Ambergris has been used as the base for the most expensive perfumes since the Egyptian civilisation 3,000 years ago. It smells faintly of honeysuckle.


This is a test used to identify it:

The Hot Needle Test

Heat a needle and touch the item with it. If it’s ambergris it will become oily, melting to a black residue and giving off a musky smelling smoke.

The sperm whale can dive down 3 km so this piece of ambergris may have travelled to that depth.


There are only 5 toothed whales: Dolphins, Beluga, Pilot, Orca, Sperm whales.


The rest: Blue, Finback, Right, Sei, Humpback, Grey and Minke whales filter seawater with baleen strips of a fibrous material. They take a gulp of water and krill and force the water out through the fibres so that the food remains. The largest animal on the planet, the blue whale feeds this way, diving down 300 metres then coming up under the mass of krill.



My son Jim works as a fisheries scientist. His work in New Zealand has included looking at sea lions and fur seal populations and at the Hoki fishery and South American tooth fish populations in the South Atlantic. The squid is a food source for all these pelagic fish. He has therefore analysed squid beaks from seal droppings to determine the age and size of squid consumed. The squid in the piece of ambergris would have been about half a metre. Squid come in a variety of sizes from as small as a thumb to 18 metres for a giant. Sperm whale will hunt giant squid into the deep ocean. So he was surprised that these samples were so small. Maybe this ambergris is from a young whale?




The national tree of Barbados and national flower of Jamaica is Lignum Vitae- the Wood of Life, called this because of its medicinal uses. It is slow growing, dense and very strong.  At 4500Ibf it’s the hardest of the trade woods which is why it was used for cricket balls and truncheons.


It is now a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) protected species but the wood was once grown and used for dead eyes, belaying pins, mallets and blocks on sailing ships. The wood has high resin content so it’s self-lubricating. If you look at the surface under a magnifying glass you will see pores filled with white gum. The wood smells like rubber. This made it ideal for the bearings on early ships chronometers including the first ever accurate ships clock made by John Harrison in 1761. Also for shaft bearings for ships and stern- tube bearings for ship propellers. All the uses mentioned contribute to its place in this book. You will find pieces of Lignum Vitae on any beach but particularly near old harbours where sailing ships were moored.

My son Jim found a piece on South Georgia near the old whaling station there. He was working as an observer of a fishing vessel from New Zealand. All fishing vessels in Antarctic waters have to have an ‘observer’ by law to record the catch and ensure that the skipper keeps within the limits of the area to be fished and the size of catch. Another seaman on the ship carved the lignum Vitae he found into this small orca. On his return to Britain he declared the carving, as it’s a CITES protected wood, and it was confiscated. He appealed for its return as it was a probably ancient piece of lost block and some months later it arrived in the post from the Revenue.

I have found seven pieces, two on one tide. Because it’s heavy it rolls around on the sea bed becoming gradually rounded but it doesn’t wear down that much.


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