Earlier this year, I wrote here about the plastic pellets that were appearing in large numbers on Charmouth and other nearby beaches in West Dorset in the south west of the UK. A group of us investigated the problem and discovered that many of the plastic pellets were biobeads, used by local water companies in sewage purification before the treated and purified effluent is discharged into the sea. We showed that, most likely, the biobeads were escaping, along with treated effluent, from the sewage works at Uplyme run by South West Water to pollute the very beaches they were intended to protect. The post created considerable interest at the time especially on Facebook. Then, a few weeks ago. the story was picked up by the local daily paper, the Western Morning News. Here is the article:
Should you wish to read the text of the article, I have enlarged it and cut it into two parts below.
As you can see, a local photographer, Richard Austin recently visited Charmouth Beach with his granddaughter and was shocked to find these plastic pellets littering the beach. The well-respected local journalist, Martin Hesp, then took up the story and the feature article was the result. In my opinion, he gives an excellent account of the problem stressing, in particular, the health implications for both children and marine life.
The Western Morning News asked South West Water (SWW) for a response and their Director of Wastewater, Andrew Roantree responded in the article. I was not asked to respond so I want to take up a few of the points he makes.
He says “From the photographs these (the pellets we found on the beaches) look as though they could be biobeads”. I’ll take that as a begrudging yes. Besides, we found the same pellets at the Uplyme sewage works and one of SWW’s employees confirmed that they are used there so we know they are biobeads.
He goes on to say that “…………….we are confident that there has been no loss of biobeads from the (Uplyme) site………. Any escape of biobeads is unacceptable……………….In 2017, we reviewed and updated the technical standard covering their use at our treatment works. This included requirements for storage of used and new biobeads. We also conduct regular site inspections………………….Uplyme Sewage Treatment Works has secondary and tertiary containment measures installed to prevent any biobeads escaping from the process units.”
When we visited the sewage works in February 2019, we found biobeads scattered around the site, so until quite recently biobead husbandry at Uplyme was not as rigorous as he implies.
We know that SWW uses biobeads at Uplyme and we know the identity of the two types of biobead used (knobbly black and ridged bright blue). These same biobeads appear on the beach at Charmouth so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that these two observations are linked.
When we visited in February 2019, the SWW representatives told us that the new containment measures at Uplyme were incomplete so escape of biobeads was still possible until a few months ago. Anyway, why did SWW go to the expense of installing extra containment measures if there were no containment issues in the first place?
The good news, if we are to believe Mr Roantree, is that containment of the biobeads at sewage works run by SWW is now much improved so there should be a gradual reduction in the numbers appearing on our beaches.
There is also a misunderstanding in the article. Biobeads are not “designed to catch nasty bits in the water”. They are designed to act as a solid support for bacteria to grow on and digest the sewage. Their ridged or knobbly nature provides a larger surface area to accommodate more bacteria to hasten sewage digestion. As they are made of plastic, they do absorb organic chemicals like PCBs from the sea but then so do nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.
It should also be acknowledged that the installation of the additional pellet containment measures by SWW results from the extensive activities of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition who first highlighted the biobead pollution problem on beaches in Cornwall (see report).
The picture at the head of this post shows Charmouth Beach with Golden Cap in the background.
This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea.
The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017. I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native. I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea. Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.
I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline. I picked one up and started to leaf through. It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events. I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to. There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use. Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common. I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.
Looking for pellets
Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets. It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches. My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines. These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges. By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).
Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach. Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets. There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets. Most of these were nurdles. Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets. When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below). We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.
Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018. We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges. We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.
Trying to understand
In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein. The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification. Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage. The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.
Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads. For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads. At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead. There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth. The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.
So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach? The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion. The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy. I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.
A Nurdle Hunt
In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018. There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her. It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John. Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues. It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.
I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background. This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there. He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation. We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.
In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads. I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on. I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved. Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.
I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim. I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely. When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo. They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim. This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.
Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.
I enter the South West Water labyrinth
In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks. I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know. I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing. After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works. This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe). I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries. He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me. The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there. They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall. I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.
To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:
They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
The biobeads used are black and knobbly
This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.
Living the high life – visits to the sewage works
In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on. The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site. This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.
The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there. Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment. They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting. The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”. I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.
The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood. We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful. Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it. Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea. He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised. The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.
While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground. A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area. This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea. I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth. South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.
Chemical analysis of pellets
The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018. The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements. I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner. I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative. I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.
While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel. The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.
Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches. This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.
I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.
The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.
At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.
South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish. This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand. It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.
Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.
I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.
You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions. About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment. I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.
Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine. Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre. At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together. Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea. She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food. Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting. Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.
And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets. It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks. Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are. Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green. The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.
What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world. Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills. In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches. Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free. Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.
Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories. The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites. These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea. Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care. These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose. Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.
Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads? They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment. They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands. Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food. Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation. For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.
Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects. Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture. Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs. These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.
What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely. Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.
Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment. As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”. Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties. For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches. Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead. If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?
It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day. Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt. Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.
The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others. This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea. Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England. It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists.
I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago. It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience. It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth. The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels. I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows. Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds. Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification. Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here. My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow. We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.
Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees. The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view. Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power. Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets. About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides. Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine. The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.
The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion. Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side. In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling. The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate. As the path rose there was a change in the landscape. Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.
Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks: a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim. The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations. Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.
I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill: to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale. Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below. The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.
On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel. Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain. There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments. But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict? A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry. Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.
The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.
This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
Two hundred years ago, Jane Austen found herself well pleased when she visited Charmouth in Dorset and offered this description in her novel, Persuasion:
“..with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation…”
Not much has changed since then and nowadays, thousands visit Charmouth each year returning home with fond memories of family holidays spent on Charmouth beach or of fossiling forays on the beach and neighbouring cliffs.
At the end of Lower Sea Lane, just above the beach, is a large stone building, built in the 1860’s as a cement factory. It now houses a café and shops on the ground level with the upper level occupied by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. The Heritage Coast Centre was set up in 1985 to encourage safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils. It was modernised and extended in the winter of 2004/5 with support from the National Lottery and the Fine Foundation and now provides a unique resource for this part of the Jurassic Coast with interactive displays, microscopes, computers, marine tanks and a theatre. The Centre organises fossil activities and marine events and nearly 100,000 people visit the Centre each year with about 5,000 school children also taking part in educational programmes. It is run by three full time staff and a dedicated band of volunteers and the success of the Charmouth model has influenced the development of other centres along the Coast. I wanted to find out more about the work of the Heritage Coast Centre so on a grey autumn day I went to Charmouth to meet Meirel Whaites, the senior warden. What she told me was as inspiring as the view across Lyme Bay from the Centre.
I met Meirel in the small theatre and we talked about the work of the Centre. Meirel hopes that the Centre manages to inspire and educate visitors helping them to enjoy the coast without damaging it. Indeed the Centre was originally set up by the village to protect the coast by educating the public on collecting fossils safely and responsibly.
The Centre’s work focuses on two principal topics, fossils and marine life. Both topics are underpinned by complex scientific ideas and I wondered how Meirel and her staff put these across to the general public. She told me that she intends the Centre to act as a bridge between this science and the people who visit, translating complex scientific subjects in to readily digestible ideas, showing their importance and bringing them to life.
The beaches and cliffs near Charmouth are world famous for their fossils and the Centre runs a wide ranging programme of fossil activities. These include guided fossil walks and fossil weekends, also school visits based around fossiling. If you can’t get to Charmouth there is even a Virtual Fossil Hunt on the Centre’s web site. The Centre also manages the Fossil Collecting Code on behalf of the World Heritage Site team. This Code serves to regulate collecting and to encourage reporting of fossil finds. Some of these may be catalogued and the information shared with the Natural History Museum in London.
Marine activities, culminating in the annual Marine Week in August, have always been an important part of the work of the Centre but with the designation of this part of the coast as a Marine Conservation Zone, this importance has increased. Meirel believes that the staff of the Centre educate people in many different ways about the seas. A rock pool ramble or a plankton trawl may enthuse people about the coastline but during the event the effects of marine pollution may become apparent, raising awareness of conservation issues.
We also discussed the issue of climate change in relation to the work of the Centre. As she pointed out, the Coastal Change Pathfinder Project has issued the dire prediction that beyond 2030 increasing storms coupled with rising sea levels may make the Centre unsustainable. Although this needed to be taken seriously, her current view was that storms each winter were regular occurrences but did not seem to be increasing in severity.
I asked if she had seen any evidence for climate change in her marine work. She told me that when rockpooling on Broad Ledge in Lyme Regis, she had been surprised to see the occurrence of two new species in the past two years, the Peacock’s Tail Seaweed and the Strawberry Anemone. These are species typically found in more westerly warmer waters and their arrival on Broad Ledge may be an indication of rising sea temperatures linked to global warming. Interestingly, the Plymouth-based Marine Biological Association has recently seen the same trend in a study of the coast in the south west.
Finally, we discussed the 2012 Olympics with the sailing competition occurring some 20 miles away down the coast at Weymouth and Portland. Would this lead to a big increase in visitor numbers at the Centre? So far, she told me, there had been little evidence of any effect. 2012 was, however, a very busy year for the Centre with other events including the Big Jurassic Classroom which aims to involve every school in Dorset and East Devon in learning about the Jurassic Coast, UNESCO and the Olympic values. Big Jurassic Classroom is also part of the 2012 Jurassic Coast Earth Festival which comprises a series of educational, arts and science events along the Jurassic Coast next year.