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Cogden beach in west dorset – a late summer’s day visit

[This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine and describes a visit I made to Cogden Beach on July 30th this year. ]

I’ve driven along the coast road eastwards from Burton Bradstock many times but the view as the road levels out at the top of the first hill never fails to lift my spirits.  That first glimpse of the sea.   Those coastal hills spread out ahead as they slope gently down to the water.  That vast shingle beach with its fringe of foam, stretching into the distance.  This time I was on my way to Cogden Beach, part of the larger Chesil Beach and one of my favourite west Dorset places where I can be outside in the air, close to the sea and surrounded by nature.

The road dipped down and I reached the car park above Cogden but I had never seen it this full.  Many people were taking advantage of the warm, sunny, late July day and I was lucky to find one of the last parking spaces.    The view from the car park across Chesil Beach was as familiar and fascinating as always.  The strip of pale brown shingle swept eastwards across my field of vision in a broad arc turning sharply towards Portland, its distinctive wedge shape held in a blue haze as if suspended above the water.  The sea was a uniform azure, a colour so intense in that day’s strong sun that I couldn’t stop looking. Towards Portland, though, the sun intervened, casting its light downwards across the sea, silvering the surface which shimmered in the breeze like crumpled aluminium foil. 

I left the car park and headed down hill towards the sea across the short grass that appeared to have been grazed recently, a pity as this had eliminated most of the flowers, and the insects.  Dark sloes and ripening blackberries showed in the path-side scrub, sure signs that the year was moving on.  Families passed me, some laden with colourful beach kit, others dressed for coastal walking.  Stands of intensely pink, great willowherb and sun-yellow fleabane grew in a damp area as the path approached the shingle.  A small flock of about 50 birds, probably starlings, surprised me by flying up from the scrub in a mini-murmuration.  They banked and wheeled, flying back and forth for a short time before settling back on the bushes where they chatted noisily to one another. 

I walked on to the shingle beach where, ahead of me, a small windbreak village had grown up. Some of the inhabitants were simply soaking up the sun, others were swimming or enjoying stand up paddleboards while some concentrated on their fishing.   Heat shimmered from the pea-sized pebbles but a light breeze kept the temperature pleasant.  Desultory waves made their way up the beach disturbing the shingle which retreated in a rush leaving some white water.

The wild garden of beach plants looking west

Towards the back of the shingle was the wild garden of beach plants that emerges afresh from the pebbles each spring and summer making this place so special.   I stopped to look at the sea kale that grows so profusely here.   Its thick, cabbage-like leaves were a glaucous green tinged with varying amounts of purple that seemed to come and go according to the angle of vision rather like the colours on a soap bubble.  Flowering season was long past but the memory lingered and each clump was adorned with a large fan of hundreds of spherical greenish yellow seeds    Among the clumps of sea kale were the roughly crimped leaves of yellow horned-poppy, displaying its distinctive papery yellow flowers alongside some of the very long, scimitar-like seeds pods.  The almost primeval vision created by these rare and unusual plants growing from the shingle was completed by clumps of burdock with its prickly green and purple hedgehog-like flowers.

Sea kale showing the glaucous leaves and the fan of greenish yellow seeds
Yellow horned-poppy

The coast path heads westwards along the back edge of this wild garden of beach plants and for the most part it is rough and stony.  In places, however, shallow holes have appeared exposing the sandy soil beneath.  Large black and yellow striped insects were moving about in some of these exposed holes.  Sometimes these insects would dig, rather like a dog with sand shooting out behind them.  Sometimes they encountered a small stone and lifted it away, secured between two legs.  These are beewolves (Philanthus triangulum), spectacular solitary wasps up to 17mm long that were once very rare in the UK but, since the 1980s, have expanded their range. 

I watched them for a short time before heading west on to the shingle.   I soon reached the area where there are low cliffs at the back of the beach composed of thickly packed firm sand, topped by rough grass and clumps of desiccated thrift.  These cliffs were punctuated by small holes, sometimes with a spill of sand emerging and here I found the same beewolves with their distinctive yellow and black markings. They were coming and going from the holes regularly and sometimes they would rest in a hole and look outwards. 

Male beewolf with distinctive facial markings
Female beewolf with prey

Beewolves have an interesting lifecycle.  The insects emerge from hibernation in the summer and the females begin to dig nest burrows up to a metre long in friable soil or sand with as many as 30 side burrows that act as brood chambers.   At about the same time the females choose males for mating.   Each female then hunts honeybees, paralysing them with her sting and bringing them back to place in each brood chamber where she also lays a single egg. This matures into a larva that feeds from the honeybees, hibernates over winter and emerges the following summer as a new beewolf.   Although this may seem slightly gruesome, the number of beewolves in the UK is still low and does not impact significantly on the honeybee community.  Also, adult beewolves are herbivores feeding only on pollen and nectar collected from flowers so acting as important pollinators.

I was able to witness some of this activity including a female returning with prey held beneath her to be mobbed by other beewolves and common wasps trying to steal her cargo.  For most of the time, however, these insects get on with their lives quietly, unseen by visitors.  I did notice one couple who chose a pleasant spot on the top of the low cliffs to sit and admire the view, only to find they were surrounded by beewolves.  The couple moved but in fact these beautiful insects are not predatory and pose no threat to humans.

By mid-afternoon, it was time for me to leave.  I took in one last view along the coast and headed back up the hill knowing that I would return in another season.

Cogden Beach is at the western end of Chesil Beach and can be accessed either via the South West Coast Path or from the National Trust Car Park on the coast road (B3157) between Burton Bradstock and Abbotsbury. OS grid reference SY 50401 88083, GPS coordinates 50.690271, -2.7035263.

Cogden Beach: a special and unusual Dorset place

A place of sea and sky. A vast shingle beach. A unique wild garden with spectacular flowers. Wave watching, walking, fishing, or just being alone with nature. This is Cogden Beach near Burton Bradstock in West Dorset in the South West of the UK.

It was a fitfully sunny but warm day in late May when I visited Cogden. I parked the car and descended towards the beach between dense stands of gorse, hawthorn and bramble and, once I had escaped the coast road-noise, the air was filled with birdsong. A very visible chaffinch sang from the top of a tree as if to salute the fine weather and the see-saw song of the chiffchaff echoed from the undergrowth.

View from road
The view from the coast road with the beach and the sea

Cogden is a place where you can literally “see for miles” and the distinctive outlines of Portland to the East and Golden Cap to the West were clear. Spread out ahead of me was the broad shingle beach, a yellowish-brown stripe cutting across my field of vision. Beyond the beach lay the sea, its mirror surface a steely blue, disturbed only by wavelets that glittered in the occasional sunshine as though a host of fireflies were dancing.

View east from Cogden
The seaward face of the shingle beach at Cogden looking towards Portland – with people fishing and walking

Eventually, the path flattened out and I made my way on to the shingle beach, hard work on the pea-sized pebbles. The beach near the land is broad and flat and relatively sheltered but eventually it descends steeply to the sea. This seaward face is a harsher environment as the bank is attacked relentlessly by a procession of waves and, in a strong swell, the pebbles move in sympathy, roaring as they go.

Cogden Beach 2
Sea Kale on the landward side of Cogden Beach – looking towards Portland

I’ve walked on the Cogden shingle many times and thought I knew it well, but today I was greeted by an extraordinary vision. Vast tracts of the stony beach bordering the land seemed, when viewed from a distance, to have been splashed with daubs of white paint. Upon closer inspection, I saw that these daubs were huge clumps of Sea Kale, some more than a metre across. The base of each clump comprised many thick, crinkly, grey-green leaves and the centre a prodigious display of flower stems topped with a froth of small white flowers so that each clump had more than a passing resemblance to an oversized cauliflower. By the time winter arrives, this riot of vegetation will have disappeared, leaving a sad scattering of brown leaves and stems but, under the pebbles, the crown will be waiting to produce next spring’s fantastic display.

Cogden Beach 1
Sea Kale flowers (and leaves)

Sea Kale has a long culinary history. The Victorians loved Sea Kale as a vegetable, particularly the young shoots which they forced by covering with pebbles. They picked it almost to extinction and, thanks to their efforts, it is now found only in a handful of places in the UK. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in Sea Kale, stimulated by celebrity chefs, but don’t be tempted to forage in the wild: Sea Kale is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and anyway seeds and plants are available commercially.

Cogden Beach 3
Drifts of Thrift on Cogden Beach – with Sea Kale on the left of the picture.

 

Thrift at Cogden Beach
Flowers of Thrift (Sea Pink)

The dominant plant at Cogden in spring is Sea Kale, but it is by no means alone on the beach. Parts of the shingle are colonised by large drifts of pink Thrift, its flowers nodding merrily in a light breeze. I also saw Yellow Horned Poppies, just coming in to flower above their frizzy, silvery-green leaves. They will produce a succession of delicate lemon yellow blooms all summer and are named for their long, horn-like seed pods. There were a few clumps of Sea Campion covered with white trumpet-shaped flowers and some large mats of Sea Sandwort decorated with many small, starry, white blooms. The shingle garden is a profusion of flowers at this time of year but by the winter, there will be little to see and the beach will feel almost post-apocalyptic in its desolation.

Yellow Horned Poppy 1
Yellow Horned Poppy growing on the shingle at Cogden Beach

 

Yellow Horned Poppy 2
Close up of a Yellow Horned Poppy flower

 

Sea Campion at Cogden Beach
Sea Campion at Cogden Beach

 

Sea sandwort at Cogden
A dense mat of Sea Sandwort growing on the shingle at Cogden Beach

 

But how do these plants survive and prosper here? Cogden Beach is a harsh environment in all seasons with high winds, salt spray, occasional saline inundation and little or no soil or fresh water. Anyone who has stood on the pebble bank in a strong wind will know what I mean. If they managed to stay upright they will have tasted strong salt on the blustery air.

In fact, the plants are quite choosy about where they grow. The majority of beach plants at Cogden grow above the strandline on the sheltered landward side of the beach. Here there is an extensive tract of stable shingle stretching eastwards and the plants colonise this special environment. The plants that thrive here are also adapted to cope with harsh conditions. Frequently their leaves are fleshy with a waxy coating to prevent loss of water. The roots of some plants extend deeply in to the shingle in search of fresh water; in the case of Sea Kale they can stretch up to two metres. Some plants grow as large mats with extensive root systems to help them adhere in high winds. At the cellular level the plants have multiple mechanisms for dealing with the prevailing high salt.

But it’s not just the plant life that inspires people when they visit Cogden. Whenever I go there I find “beach art”, usually clever constructions made with the flat stones lying around the beach. This time I found a mini “Stonehenge” that must have taken hours to build.

Beach art at Cogden
“Beach Art”

 

 The featured image at the top of this post shows Sea Kale at Cogden looking west towards Golden Cap.  All the pictures were taken on May 26th 2015.  This article features in the July edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Cogden Beach is at the western end of Chesil Beach and can be accessed either via the South West Coast Path or from the National Trust Car Park on the coast road (B3157) between Burton Bradstock and Abbotsbury. OS grid reference SY 50401 88083, GPS coordinates 50.690271, -2.7035263.

National trust sign at Cogden

Coast path at Cogden

Bloody British weather or a wake-up call?

Here is an article I wrote for the December edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine considering whether the recent awful summer weather could be a reflection of climate change.

Summer this year was the wettest for a century and Dorset experienced some particularly heavy downpours early in the season.  Rainfall at Portland and at Hurn in the first ten days of July was nearly three times the normal monthly average.   Several rivers burst their banks and towns were flooded including Bridport and Burton Bradstock.  Devon was also badly affected and Modbury, Ottery St Mary and Yealmpton were inundated.  The torrential rain in Dorset caused a landslip at the Beaminster Tunnel where two people died.  The rain also undermined the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast leading to a 400 ton rock fall that killed one person near Hive Beach.

Flooding in Burton Bradstock, West Dorset, July 2012

Our notoriously changeable weather depends on many factors but this summer it has been dominated by the Jet Stream.   This is a band of fast moving winds running eastwards across the Atlantic high up in the atmosphere separating cooler northerly air and warmer southerly air.  The Jet Stream is important for our climate as it guides Atlantic weather systems bringing rain and unsettled conditions.  In a typical summer the Jet Stream lies to the north of the UK shielding us from these weather systems and bringing milder, settled conditions.   This summer, the Jet Stream lay below the UK so the weather was cooler and wetter and because it did not move, this pattern persisted for several months.

The position of the Jet Stream could simply be a result of natural variation and most of us will shrug our shoulders and blame the awful summer of 2012 on “bloody British weather”.  We do, however, live in a world where changes in conditions in one part of the globe may affect the weather in another part.  Some climate scientists are beginning to wonder if the weather in Europe is being influenced by changes in sea ice many miles away in the Arctic.

At the North Pole there is a large mass of pack ice formed from sea water in this very cold part of the world; this is the Arctic sea ice.   The size of this ice pack varies by season, partly melting in the warmer months and then refreezing as the cold returns.  There has been a long term trend towards less ice in the warmer months and this reached a record low in September 2007.  Slightly more summer ice was seen in subsequent years but in 2012 the record was broken again; the level of Arctic summer ice was the lowest since records began.  This had not been expected and scientists were surprised and shocked by the extent and speed of Arctic sea ice loss.  If, as seems likely, the loss continues, summer sea ice will disappear altogether from the Arctic some time this century.  This represents a major change to the planet that should concern us all.

One of the principal drivers of this major change in the North Polar ice cap seems to be global warming; as the sea temperature increases so the ice melts more.  Much of this effect on the polar ice can be attributed to human activity; burning of fossil fuels (e.g. coal, gas, petroleum) raises levels of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, causing warming.  Loss of such a large amount of sea ice has major effects on the planet.  Most importantly, loss of the ice accelerates warming of the sea; the sun’s rays are no longer reflected away by the ice and the heat is absorbed by the sea.  This is very serious for the stability of the climate.

There is also an indication that loss of the sea ice affects the position of the Jet Stream and makes it stay in one place longer.    In consequence, weather patterns are maintained for longer; periods of wet weather may lead to floods and periods of dry weather may generate drought.  These changes are compounded in that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture leading to heavier rain.  The loss of Arctic sea ice may, therefore, have contributed to our poor summer and we may now be experiencing the effects of climate change in the UK.

The unexpectedly large and continuing loss of the polar ice cap should be a major wake-up call to governments that the planet is changing.  We are all beginning to feel the effects.     The solution is clear, we must reduce use of fossil fuels; this will not reverse the changes but may slow them down. Unfortunately, governments still look on with disbelief and do nothing.   It is a disgrace that climate change did not feature at all in the recent US presidential debates, especially when the US is one of the major users of fossil fuels.  Perhaps the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will make the US think again about extreme weather events.

But it gets worse.  The response of industry to the melting of the Arctic ice has been to see opportunities for trade.  Oil, gas, mining and shipping companies are rushing to expand operations in the Arctic as the ice recedes and new sea routes open up.   This has the potential for environmental catastrophe as well as leading to greater emission of carbon dioxide and acceleration of climate change.

Let’s finish by quoting Bill McKibben, the environmental campaigner, on the loss of Arctic sea ice:  “Our response (so far) has not been alarm, panic or a sense of emergency.  It has been “Let’s go up there and drill for oil”.  There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we’ve ever faced”.