There used to be a US web site called Nature Writing where one of my essays was published in 2016. The site no longer exists but here is the piece I wrote, about a day we spent at Mansands, a cove on the the South Devon coast:
An early autumn discovery
A stony beach isn’t the most obvious place for a comfortable lunch stop, but after scouting around we manage to locate a couple of flattish rocks and enjoy our sandwiches while contemplating the sea. There is no more than a gentle swell today and the waves reaching the shore look like their heart isn’t in the job. Despite this, the sea captivates us with its ever changing surface. A light breeze toys with the water creating transient herringbone textures and, as the sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, we see subtly changing tinges of blues and greens. The occasional cormorant provides a dazzling display of diving skills and a fishing boat potters past accompanied by a slick of greedy gulls fighting over scraps of fish.
This is Mansands, one of the many small coves that punctuate this part of the South Devon Coast. The beach here is a broad sweep of shingle, its surface a mosaic of pink, grey and white stones at high tide, but with underlying sand revealed as the tide falls. Either side of the beach are cliffs, precipitous to the north but gentler to the south where the land rises and bends to Crabrock Point. Today, on this gentler slope, we see frisky cows enjoying the grass and their apparent freedom. Behind the beach is a long, flat, enclosed valley with a small lake, the Ley, colonised by reed beds and waterfowl, leading to marshy land extending some way back. These watery areas are surrounded by undulating green hills where streams rise to feed the Ley; the water eventually percolates through the stony, shingle beach in to the sea.
Concealed in this superficially simple landscape is a maze of ancient green lanes that speak of long forgotten lives. Some of these tracks snake down from the ridgeway towards the beach, others meander across the valley leaving scrubby scars on the otherwise smooth green hills. Many of the tracks here are sunken lanes or holloways, where the repeated passage of hoofs and wheels over hundreds of years, coupled with weather damage, has worn away the soft surface, sometimes down to bedrock. These paths, where the footway lies below the level of the surrounding countryside, provide us with tangible evidence of earlier existences.
We had experienced one of these tracks earlier today as we cautiously descended towards the sea, taking care on the slippery, stony surface. This is Mansands Lane, a sunken track hugging one side of the valley, a green corridor defined on both sides by densely woven outgrowths of trees and scrub. Today, we notice huge stands of sickly-sweet flowering ivy, unkempt tangles of hip-covered wild rose and the fluffy white draperies of old man’s beard. Growth down the lane is so thick that, aside from tantalising glimpses, we hear the sea long before we see it.
As we descended the lane, I imagined an earlier time with packhorse trains lumbering up and down these concealed thoroughfares, harness jingling, men shouting, the harsh sounds resonating across the valley. For the most part their cargoes would have been benign, perhaps sand or lime or fish but at night the atmosphere would have become more sinister as this was smuggling country. Mansands is a lonely spot but the smugglers would have been on the lookout for the “picaroons” as they termed the coastguards. Who knows what might have happened in these lanes as casks of wine and brandy were moved about surreptitiously?
The few buildings in this landscape also speak to us of past lives. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the sea towards Crabrock Point is a long low building with white washed walls, several prominent chimneys and a grey slate roof. This was originally a Coastguard Station, built in the 19th century by French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. Until the First World War, up to five coastguards lived here patrolling the cliffs and lanes, attempting to thwart smugglers. By the 1930s the cottages were the home of the Bird family and their children who walked three miles to school up the sunken tracks. Nowadays, the cottages are showing their age, but even here the 21st century creeps in: they are now mostly holiday homes, some with compost toilets and a few very small solar panels.
Tucked away below the cottages and above the beach is a rough alcove resembling a roadside shrine and made from large stone blocks. Once you have lived in Devon for a few years you recognise this as one of the many lime kilns found around the coast and on some inland waters. The Mansands kiln was built by the same Frenchmen responsible for the coastguard cottages and was used to convert limestone in to lime. The lime went in to mortar for building and lime wash for whitening cottage walls. Lime was also used in farming where, spread on fields, it counteracted the acidity of local soil and improved fertility. Limestone came from local quarries and was “burnt” in the kilns using coal brought from South Wales. The kilns were built near water so that materials could be delivered by boat.
I try to imagine Mansands in the 19th century. For a few years, hard as it is to believe, this remote Devon valley resounds with robust French language. Then coastguards prowl furtively about the cliffs and green lanes hoping to spoil the smugglers’ fun. Add the lime burners and it would have seemed semi-industrial, the serenity of the valley disturbed by noise and smoke, the comings and goings of boats, the jingling harness of packhorse trains. But that’s all gone and nowadays, it’s peace and quiet at Mansands , the only jingling harness being a rider and horse I once saw on the sand at low tide. There is also a steady trickle of well booted walkers trudging across the stony beach enjoying the gradient-respite before they attack the next steep incline on the coast path. And then there are the visitors who arrive by car. Fortunately, Mansands is quite difficult to find and the car park is some distance away so the beach is rarely busy.
Standing on the beach, I take some time to look at the valley and the wetland just above the beach. The view seems timeless, unchanging, and I imagine that I am experiencing the same view those Frenchmen saw two centuries earlier. But it’s a comfortable illusion; landscapes change, people change them, the weather changes them.
Historically, there was wetland in the valley, or so people believe. The wetland was fed by streams with the beach acting as a dam; that’s what those Frenchmen would have seen. In the 1970s a rich farmer cut down woodland, grubbed out hedges and drained the land converting it to pasture and, in time, sea defences were installed to protect the beach and grassland. By the early 21st century these sea defences had deteriorated and were removed along with the drainage system that kept the pastureland dry; a large freshwater lake developed. The new Ley was loved by birds and bird watchers alike but, in 2007, fierce storms breached the beach emptying the freshwater lake. Since then the landscape has been in a constant state of flux. In summer the beach builds up, only to be breached again by winter water flows. A new, smaller Ley, brackish and more marshy, comes and goes. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the future as sea levels rise and extreme weather becomes the norm.
Today the Ley is peaceful, its mirror surface disturbed only by a few waterfowl. While we enjoy our lunch, a family arrive and, with much shouting, they position themselves at the far end of the cove on the rocks near the lime kiln. Some eat and a child runs in and out of the icy water shrieking with delight. Two men stumble along the stony beach in hushed conversation and return, having apparently inspected the jumble of rocks at the far end. These people experience their Mansands but they have missed our special discovery.
On one side of the beach there are low cliffs with exposed, friable, pinkish-brown soil and, in some places, scrappy grass cover. The friable soil is peppered with hundreds of small holes and today we see scores of bees laden with sun-yellow pollen arriving to enter the holes. They emerge after a short time to fly off for more forage. These are Ivy Bees, slightly larger than a honeybee and easily confused with a wasp. With their regular yellow and black-striped abdomen and smart russet-haired thorax, they are unmistakable once you have seen one. The bees we watch today are the females equipping their nests with food and then laying eggs to provide the next generation a year from now. It’s an impressive sight and we have been lucky to see them. They are on the wing for about eight weeks in the early autumn and as their name implies, they have a strong preference for flowering ivy.
As we watch the bees, I begin to wonder if this is another timeless moment. Those bees would have heard the shouts of customs men, and the rough French words. But no, that‘s another comfortable illusion. These bees are recent immigrants arriving in the UK in 2001 possibly in response to a change in the climate.
What surprises me, though, is that there are so many bees living in these crumbly cliffs. The South Devon Coast is regularly battered by wild winter weather and earlier in 2014 there was a storm surge with massive waves; much damage ensued where the sea and the land collided. Perhaps I underestimate the strength of the cliffs and the bees.