In the first week of November, we spent a few days in west Dorset. On the way over we stopped at Charmouth, a coastal village we know very well from many visits, to take a walk and to eat our sandwiches. It was a luminous, very mild, sunny day with mostly blue skies and a light but cool west wind.
From the beach car park, we walked along Higher Sea Lane, a residential road which heads up the cliffs that rise to the west. An enclosed grassy path then led us to the cliff top with fine views to the west across Lyme Bay to Lyme Regis. Looking to the east, we could see the cliffs rising steeply from the other side of the beach and the distinctive flat-topped bulk of Golden Cap (see picture at the head of this post). The sea was calm and a steely blue, transformed in places to tracts of liquid silver by the sun. Although the sea appeared to be calm, two surfers were lurking in the water with their boards so good waves must have been expected that day. The mild weather had also encouraged four hardy swimmers to take a dip, clad only in swimming costumes.
The cliff top to the west starts as a gently sloping plateau wreathed in thick scrub and brambles, fenced off for safety and a perfect haven for wildlife. Many insects were flying and one large queen bumblebee landed on a bramble leaf in front of us. At the edge of the plateau the cliff drops more steeply in soft mobile rock containing fossils and Charmouth attracts many visitors keen to sift through rocks hoping to find the perfect fossil.
We walked back down the grassy slope to the promenade and beach. It was high tide and waves were attacking the concrete sea defences dissipating their energy in a mixture of noise and spray, lending the air a distinctive salty seaside odour. The beach at Charmouth is a mixture of sand and shingle and stretches to the east under high cliffs. The river Char also reaches the sea here and before it crosses the beach a long lagoon forms separating the beach into east and west sections connected by a bridge.
Large amounts of woody debris were spread across the west bank of the lagoon and when I looked carefully I found small, ridged, cylindrical blue plastic pellets (about 0.5cm across) scattered among the debris. The same pellets were also apparent in debris on the east bank. I have seen these pellets here before: they are biobeads used by South West Water in sewage treatment at their Lyme Regis works but released into Lyme Bay through poor husbandry. The company were supposed to have put in filters to prevent this release but it is possible that a reservoir of pellets exists on the seabed and storms bring them on to the shore.
We also walked on the beach and cliffs on the east side of the river and as we turned back into the wind to return, we were greeted by a very unpleasant smell, something I have never encountered here before. Rotting seaweed can create unpleasant smells by the seaside but this was not rotting seaweed and smelt more like sewage.
There is an ongoing problem, a crisis even, in the UK with water companies discharging untreated sewage into the sea and into rivers, especially after storms. There were reports of sewage being discharged at Charmouth on November 3rd and we visited on the 4th. After we had detected the smell, we noticed that the water in the lagoon was rather cloudy (a potential sign of sewage pollution) and wondered how this might affect the resident population of gulls and ducks and the aquatic invertebrates that live there. We also watched dogs going in and out of the water and shaking themselves dry, sometimes on to their owners. And what about the swimmers and surfers?