On beach-combing treasures

St. Leonards-on-Sea - looking out over silty water and rocky outcrops

Where were we? Oh yes – SEA URCHIN.

cleaned up sea urchin - it's red and pink with vertical stripes and covered in tiny little dots

Isn’t she amazing? So red and pink! So spotty AND stripy! So many colours!

This was such a special find. I’ve found little fragments in the past, but never a complete urchin. I wrapped it in much bubblewrap and protective packaging in my suitcase with my fingers crossed that everything wouldn’t STINK when I unpacked once I got home. I am pretty hyper-vigilant around my luggage while traveling as it is, but with this prize in my possession, I was extra specially attentive to my suitcase on the long journey home.

Anyway it survived the trip away and I set it in a bath of bio washing powder to get it cleaned up. Apparently the enzymes help to break down the residual proteins and meat inside the shell (and also the little soft tissue piece that was at the top of the urchin).

I rubbed off the softened spines and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever found by the sea. It will for all time remind me of the special walk at Gletness with Mark, where we saw otters.

I’d never been to Gletness before. It’s in the Nesting parish to the east of the Shetland Mainland and the coastline is very varied and rocky with many voes and inlets, and different kinds of stones collected in different bays and beaches. As well as my prized sea urchin, along the short stretch of shoreline that we walked we found areas of deep red iron-rich stone, identified as Ironstone, using The Pebble Spotter’s Guide…

iron-rich red stone

deep red iron-rich stones at Gletness

deep red iron-rich stone at Gletness

Mark stands looking out at Gletness and beside and behind him is a big seam of iron-rich red rock

…these beautiful, enormous, lined and light grey boulders (the name of which I have not been able to find)…

amazing great big lined/striped light grey boulders at Gletness

more lovely striped boulders at Gletness

more mixed grey rocks

a striped pebble in hand

…and this beach of evenly-sized mixed and gorgeous pebbles on which we stood to watch a pair of otters swim, climb onto the rocks, groom themselves and eat something, before heading back out for a second swim.

evenly-sized pebbles on one beach at Gletness

The three bays with these very different and distinctive kinds of rocks were very close – not, ahem, a stone’s throw from one another (sorry) – and I am fascinated by how the sea collects, sorts and distributes such different materials into different areas. I’m also fascinated by the different kinds of rocks and shells to be found on different beaches. For example the stones above are all very different from the shingle we have in St. Leonards-on-Sea – and there are no sea urchins here, but we have an abundance of delightful Piddocks – which I’ve never seen in Shetland.

Piddocks are shellfish who make burrows in stiff clay or in soft, sedimentary rock. Our beach here (Bulverhythe) was a forested valley some four thousand years ago (you can see the remains of the forest at low tide, and I’ve read that sometimes you can find an ancient hazelnut there). The remains of this woodland seem to be the ideal substrate for the common piddock to carve out a home.

dotty little piddock burrows

Little Piddocks in their burrows

More piddock burrows

I’m interested in these coast-to-coast differences, and my shelves are beginning to proliferate with little collections of site-specific shells and beach finds.

Hastings beach finds

This is a small part of my Hastings/St. Leonards-on-Sea coastal collection, complete with a beautiful ceramic study I bought in town of the iconic net shops that are such a big part of Hastings’ fishing culture and heritage…

…and this is a small part of my Shetland collection, the whiter of those two massive scallops having been found high up in the hills where a seabird had left it to be bleached and whitened by the weather.

Shetland seashore finds

I still have so much to learn about the seashore here – its inhabitants and its geology – but finding out more about who lives here (shellfish and creatures) and how the landscape was formed (geology) has atuned me to the many differences in shorelines and coastlines.

So far I’ve read The Book of Pebbles by Christopher Stocks & Angie Levin which was a great exploration of the cultural allure and appeal of pebbles; The Pebble Spotter’s Guide by Clive Mitchell which has enhanced my pebble-identifying skills; and the Collins Pocket Guide to the Sea Shore by John Barrett & C.M. Yonge which is very helpful for identifying shellfish and other sea creatures whose shells end up on the beach.

Do you have any recommendations for books or other resources that can help me better understand the seashore and the treasures that wash up along its edges?


Beach in Shetland covered in rocks, one of them is just the colour of Chingly

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