Someone told me that sea holly had been seen on the spit at Dawlish Warren. It is a beautiful, prickly plant which has become increasingly rare. I think that its strong, spiky lines would suit my style of drawing and I was keen to see it. So this morning I set off down the west side of the Exe estuary, following the the railway line on the edge of the water, past the pretty harbour at Starcross, small flat fronted cottages, and a lateral moraine of ugly brick houses crammed into once fertile pasture.
Dawlish is an unpretentious seaside holiday town at the mouth of the Exe. A spit of silt, and sand formed 7000 years ago projects East into the estuary and this has been turned into a nature reserve. Over the last two and half centuries it has been reduced from a width of 250 yards to 50 yards. It is probable that despite the efforts to preserve it the spit will be washed away by rising seas later this century.
There was bright flinty sunshine and an icy wind. It was -2 degrees when we left the house and the sea holly sensibly no where to be seen, but on top of the dune there was marram grass. I remember it whipping my legs as I raced down to the beach as a child. It’s useful stuff because it can survive with little water, anchoring the sand until other species can establish themselves. So I settled down to draw it and, although I did not find sea holly, I found shells dropped by the sea birds, bleached by salt and sun.
I found spiney cockles, also known as red noses, razor shells, small scallops, called queenies, slipper limpets, and a large mussel, called the painter’s mussel, because it is handy for holding paint. I have a plan to sketch and paint them all. Their colours are so delicate. It is as if they have been rinsed in washes of pale blues, greys, violets and pinks and browns and dried in chalk dust.
Photography by www.jamesforshallphotography.com
I had to deliver a Spider Crab print for a client of the Bowie Gallery in Totnes. Once I had dropped it off I went onto Dittisham. The idea was to have a cup of coffee looking out over the Dart Estuary. We walked down the north side of the village. It was very quiet, almost silent. I think it is warmer here than further inland. Leaves on some of the shrubs had come out, one felt reluctantly, and looked naked against the cold grey March sky. An alley lead down between gardens to a slipway into Mill Creek, the estuary for the Barbary Water, leading into the Dart Estuary.
The shelter it provides makes it valuable for many species. Short and long snouted seahores have been seen here, mussels, and sponges. My idea was to look for Mytilus galloprovinciallis, the Mediterranean mussel. I love painting it’s blue-violet shells, some of which shade through to a light brown. The tide was going out, leaving the dark egg wrack slumped on the shore between blackened stones and glassy mud, home to ragworms, food for seabirds. It wasn’t as cold as Mylor because the cove was better protected from the wind, but it was still cold.
I didn’t find any mussels, instead cockles. They live just below the surface of the mud, which just shows you, there is somewhere for everyone. I took some of the empty shells home to sketch. I like their beautiful markings which are so fine that they could have been engraved with a needle. Our collie loved being by the water, and the mud. Oh, yes, and I took a sliver of peeling paint from one of the rotting, clinker built boats for it’s blue. A good day: on the way back we saw periwinkles in the hedge rows.
Photography © by http://www.jamesforshallphotography.com
I drove down to Cornwall to see if I could find some native oysters at the Fal Oyster Fishery. They have been harvesting oysters here for more than 500 years, and it is the only fishery, which only uses sailing and rowing boats, as far as I know, in Britain, or for that matter Europe….so very ecological, and one of the few places in Britain where you can buy the native oyster, Ostrea edulis. It was freezing when we arrived in Mylor. We were told to look for the boat with the red sail. And there it was out in the estuary, in an icy north wind, moving surprisingly fast, with another small white open sail boat. It was freezing on the shore…freezing. What it must have been like in the boat, on the open water, handling wet rope and metal and the rough shells I could hardly imagine.
Later, we caught up with Chris Ranger, the skipper and owner of two of the boats, as he was warming up in the bar. He sold me 6 of his large oysters to sketch and paint. You can contact him through www.cornishnativeoysters.co.uk
photographs by James Forshall © www.jamesforshallphotography.com