I’d been in Canterbury for a week, and hadn’t noticed how much I missed the sea. Canterbury, in the county of Kent, is inland about 6 miles from the closest beach. By train, the closest is Margate, the site of the Shell Grotto that I wanted to visit anyway. I got the 9:09 am train out of Canterbury and was on the beach before 10. The tide was clearly out. A huge beach, the size of several football fields greeted my eyes. Sand! I was so excited. The beaches of Isle of Wight and Brighton had been all pebbles and rock mounds, called shingle beaches.
But Margate’s beach is sand – vast expanses of sand! I reined in my giddiness when I saw that the portion of the beach closest to the road had been raked by a big machine. They were preparing it for the beach-goers. But farther out, I saw it still held a thin layer of water, so I marched out there.
Along the way, I did not see much: seaweed, the occasional rock and even a bivalve shell engulfed by kelp-like roots, a couple of limpets, and lots of tiny piles of sand shaped like intestines. I asked a fellow beach-walker what they were. “Oh, that’s worm poop. The worms dig their way down into the beach by eating and extruding the sand. I see fishermen down here all the time digging them out for bait.”
I’d already wandered around for about 20 minutes and learned a lot, but didn’t see anything of interest to me as a beachcomber. It was just too immense an area. I’m used to combing linear beaches. This was totally different.
“Think Diane, think. What have your beachcombing gurus taught you?” I mentally reviewed my “finding-stuff” tools.
- Check the high tide line. Things get deposited there. In this case, the high tide line was behind me toward the dry beach, so I went back. It was a mass of seaweed, just beginning to get stinky. The seaweed was drying in clumps, so I couldn’t see anything else without pawing through it. I abandoned this tool pretty quickly.
- Go to where you see objects of the size you are interested in collecting, because the tide will deposit similar sized and weight objects together. I found a section of the beach where much less seaweed was interspersed with other stuff, mostly rocks and shells. A blue-black muscle shell kept fooling me into thinking it was a piece of pottery. Nope. I did collect some of them and other shells too.
- Find a stream; interesting objects can be washed into it. In the middle of this vast expanse of wet beach, I saw a stream, so I walked it, inspecting it closely. Sure enough, within five minutes I found several shards, tile (?), and glass. Except for the clear glass with raised dots, the sea-glass was not the best quality; I saved them anyway as examples of using my tools. The glazed white piece is curved with masonry on the back. But wouldn’t a tile be flat?
- Be alert for transitions. I started walking towards the beached boats when I found myself in a new mass of seaweed. This time, the seaweed had caught a large number of whelk shells, maybe 20 within a 3×3 yd2 I chose three, making sure the animal was not alive.
Also in this area, I spotted what I thought might be a pipe fragment. Alas, it was not. I’m still trying to figure it out. A large amount of what looked like black ink came out of it when I scrubbed it back at the flat.
I also found a number of flat items. The pinkish one had been embedded in a matrix at one point. The large piece appears to be worked stone, like slate. The center one, which looks gold when wet, is probably plastic. Oh, this reminds me of another rule.
- Scan the ground and water for shiny objects, squares, trapezoids and triangles. Shine might mean metal. Pottery and glass often break into these regular shapes. Train your eye to see them.
6. Search near piers, groynes, fallen trees, and other stationary objects. Sometimes things get caught behind and against them. I walked over to the seawall, but found only a pile of soft sand, seaweed and litter. But the stairs nearby proved more fruitful. I walked along the sand where it met the lowest step and began to find a great bounty of shards, including hard paste, soft paste, and terracotta.
I continued to find more shards here, but hadn’t yet found a shard with a pattern on it. And then, there it was against the step. After spending a little over an hour canvassing the beach, I felt I could finally leave.
It was time to go to the Shell Grotto anyway. Awe- inspiring, but not as fun or deeply calming as the beach. After lunch, I walked back to the seafront and found the boats afloat. I’m so glad I did my beachcombing first. That’s tool 7: Know the tides. I just lucked out on that one. Obviously, I still have so much to learn. Now I’m trying to figure out if I have enough time on this trip to come back to Margate Main Sands, to practice again.
I have one other beachcombing guideline, more a rule than a tool that I continually relearn: Wipe your hands on your pants, not your coat. The pants are easier to wash.
Many thanks to my beachcombing teachers, Deacon, Barbara, Leslie, Sherri, Christine, and Lynn, without whose prior guidance, I would never have been able to canvass such a large beach with so much success.
For other essays on this trip to England see:
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