Shorelarking at Rye

We went down to Rye harbour in Sussex, a few weeks ago, on a beautifully sunny but bitingly cold day. The actual harbour entrance is in the middle distance of the above photo with Dungeness Power Station just visible on the horizon in the distance.

This red-roofed hut sits on the shingle on the approach to the harbour and has become the iconic image that everyone photographs. I resisted the temptation this time, but took this one a few years ago. No one seems certain when it was built, but it was certainly in use from the early 1900’s onwards and was used to store fishing equipment.

The salt marshes behind the harbour constitute a nature reserve and are an important place especially for migrating birds. We walked around the marshes for an hour or so and did see quite a few birds, especially when we spent some while in a hide with the binoculars we’d brought. No close-up photos, because we were too far from the birds and I only had my pocket camera that day, but especially noticeable was was a group of some forty to fifty cormorants.

One of the tasks of the Environment Agency here is to continually move shingle in trucks westwards along the coast to shore up (pun intended) the sea defences. Due to the prevailing winds, longshore drift continually moves shingle eastwards along the coast and without this intervention it would choke the harbour mouth and undermine the sea wall at Pett (to the west). They load up the trucks with shingle from the shore, the trucks drive west and tip it out on the shore. The sea washes it eastwards along the coast again. The trucks load up with shingle from the shore…It almost feels a pointless exercise, but I suppose there’s no real alternative.

But longshore drift means that the shorelark on the South coast of England has a chance of finding rocks and stones (and all sorts of other things) that originated further to the west, and we spent some while searching among the stones here to see what we might turn up.

Shorelarking? It’s like mudlarking, but on the seashore. ‘Larking’ in this sense means looking for…well, anything. Coins, interesting rocks, anything lost or old or, preferably, both. Not that we found much, not that we ever find much, but we don’t do it as seriously as some folk. And as nice as it would be to turn up the sort of finds some people find in the mud of the Thames, we’re not that dedicated. But in the past I have found bits of flint tool while fieldlarking, and usually come home from a walk with an interesting stone or two.

We did find a couple of interesting things that day – they don’t look much, do they? But the grey stone in the centre is possibly a Mesolithic hammer stone, used for shaping flint tools while the nail had a tiny piece of wood still attached, but this crumbled away as soon as I picked it up. How old is it? I’ve no idea. Nails like that were in use from the 1800’s through into the 1900’s but it’s impossible to pin it down further. My immediate thought was it could be part of the beach groyne, but when I looked they seem to be constructed entirely with rivets. Maybe it is from an old shipwreck. The rock at the bottom is simply a lump of sandstone from further west along the coast, a piece of what was called Hastings Sandstone when I studied geology, but now known as the Ashdown beds. Nothing special, again.

Just an interesting few finds on the beach on a cold sunny day before we headed off for a warm drink.

Flint Flakes and Very Big Snails

We are now allowed to go out to exercise for an unlimited amount of time each day.

This may not have been top of everyone’s Relaxing-the-Lockdown-Rules-Wish-List, but other than the opportunity to finally begin to see some family and friends, I think it was top of mine. On this first day of slightly increased freedom, I take camera and notebook and go off for a longer walk than I’ve been used to this last couple of months. Nothing particularly long, but it feels good to know there is no reason at all for me to limit my walk or have to justify it to anyone.

Naturally, there are other walks I want to do even more, but I’m still reluctant to use public transport to get to somewhere I want to walk and, to be quite frank, the government has not made it clear whether I’m allowed to (although they’ve given the police a major headache if they want to try to control it). So for the moment, the South Downs will have to wait.

But now I am thinking of a walk I did almost exactly a year ago, to reacquaint myself with an area of the North Downs I lived close to a long time ago. I planned to walk along an ancient trackway running along part of the ridge of the Downs, and marked as such on the Ordinance Survey map. This is an area where many Roman remains have been found over the years, mainly in the wide river valley nearby, but I had no idea how old the trackway was thought to be, whether it pre-dated the Romans or was more recent.

But many of these routes were in use long before the Romans arrived, since the early Britons found the lower lands were frequently too marshy and thickly wooded for either easy settlement or for travel. And so it is highly likely this route is several thousand years old. One of the Old Ways. And just walking along it gives me a sense of continuity with the past.

In a wooded area the footpath passed a wide, shallow pit, although there was nothing marked on my map. Mindful that it was always possible it had been dug out by early settlers mining flints, I stopped and poked around in a few areas of exposed earth until I found a couple of flint flakes that appear to have been worked.

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To my un-scholarly eye one flake appears to just be a waste flake struck off the flint being knapped (R), but the other could be the tip of perhaps a knife that was being worked but broke in the process, or even a stone chisel (L).

Having adjusted the focus of my eyesight, as it were, to looking for worked flints, I almost missed the fact that the obvious snail shell partially revealed nearby was larger than it should have been, measuring about 5 cm across.

The Romans brought all sorts of goodies to Britain, including a large edible snail (there’s no accounting for tastes) that we now call the Roman Snail. Although found over much of Europe, they have become rare in recent times. In the UK, too, they are now only found in a few areas, including parts of the North Downs, and are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it illegal to kill, handle or possess them without a licence.

The shell I found obviously belonged to one that had long ago gone to meet its maker (or maybe a few herbs and a thick gravy), although I had no way of telling how long ago.  Whether there is still a population of living snails in that area I don’t know either, since that is information that tends to be kept as secret as possible.

But both the finding of the flint flakes and the snail shell seemed to reinforce that feeling I had of continuity with the past.