Nearly 180 years ago, about three miles west of Lyme Regis (in the south west of the UK), a huge chunk of the East Devon coast split off to form a plateau separated from the mainland by a deep, dry ravine. This was the largest movement of land ever experienced in this part of the country; it remodelled the coast and created a unique new environment. The plateau, now called Goat Island, and the ravine are still unique and when I walked there in late June, pink and purple orchids flowered across the grassy surface of the plateau whereas the ravine was populated by a tangled jungle of trees and other vegetation.
In the early 19th century, the land behind the cliffs in this part of East Devon was dominated by farming. Between the cliffs and the sea there was an area of land, the undercliff, formed by subsidence that supported fertile market gardens and orchards with some pasture for animals. Cottages had also been built here for farm labourers who walked up and down the steep cliff path to the farmhouse a short distance inland. The latter part of 1839 had seen unprecedented rain and as Christmas approached, there had been ominous signs of instability in the cliffs with deep fissures opening on the cliff tops and settlement cracks appearing in cottages built on the undercliff.
One of the farm labourers who lived in the cottages with his family was William Critchard. At about 1am on Christmas Day 1839, Critchard and his wife returned to their cottage having been generously entertained along with other labourers’ families by their master at his farmhouse. Their Christmas Eve gathering had included the West Country custom of burning the ashen faggot (a large ash log) accompanied by the drinking of copious amounts of cider. On their way back to the cottage, the couple noticed that part of the cliff path had dropped about a foot since the morning and new cracks had appeared in the cottage walls. Still merry after their evening’s entertainment they retired to bed unconcerned. At 4 am, however, they were awoken by a “wonderful crack” and by 5am they rose to find deep fissures appearing in the garden. They realised that something major was happening and set off up the cliff path, now almost impassable owing to subsidence, to spread the alarm.
Movement in the cliffs continued over the next 24 hours and as the day dawned on December 26th it revealed a landscape changed almost beyond recognition. Contemporary drawings show that a massive section of cliffs, about three quarters of a mile long and estimated as 8 million tons of rock, had moved seawards by several hundred feet creating a dry ravine, the Great Chasm, in its wake. The plateau of land that had moved was bounded by cliffs 150 feet high and came to be called Goat Island. The ravine held a gothic landscape of lumps and bumps, peaks and troughs, vividly expressing the power of the convulsion that had occurred. (See here for some contemporary illustrations of the landslip)
The cliffs in this part of Dorset and Devon are notoriously mobile, but the events of Christmas 1839 represented the greatest ever movement of land in the area. At the time there was much speculation as to the cause of the landslip: might it have been the result of an earthquake or a volcano, was it the work of rabbits, or could it have been a punishment from God? By chance, two of the most eminent geologists of the time, William Buckland and William Conybeare, were staying nearby and could interpret the events; Buckland’s wife Mary made invaluable drawings of the changed landscape. Buckland and Conybeare concluded that the excessive rain had saturated the permeable layers of chalk and greensand that constituted the upper part of the cliffs. Beneath these layers was an impermeable layer of clay and the chalk/greensand, saturated and very heavy, moved forward on the impermeable clay leading to the landslip.
The new landscape became a tourist attraction. Queen Victoria arrived on the Royal Yacht to view the scene and others took to paddle steamers to gaze in wonder while specially composed music, the Landslip Quadrille, was played. Bizarrely, fields of corn and turnips growing on cliff top land had moved intact with Goat Island and were ceremonially harvested the following August by local village maidens dressed as attendants of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of the Harvest.
But what of Goat Island nowadays? It’s only accessible on foot but the walk along the coast path is worth the effort. I set off from Axmouth on a misty but mild morning in late June to make the steep climb across the golf course and on to the cliff top. I followed narrow lanes with high banks and skirted cornfield edges to reach the coast path. Cliff edge scrub obscured the sea most of the time but occasional breaks revealed Beer Head lurking mysteriously in the mist.
About two miles into the walk, with my attention captured by the many flowers lining the path, I was jolted from my reverie as the path twisted and dropped down steeply into dense vegetation. It continued to descend with the occasional squirm to the right or left before bottoming out. About me now was a disorienting, tangled jungle of trees, shrubs and ferns with brambles and creepers dangling downwards to catch the unwary. Dampness hung in the air and only brief vestiges of light filtered through the canopy. This is the undercliff near the edge of the Great Chasm, no longer an open ravine but taken over by nature in the intervening 180 years.
Quite soon the track reared upwards again climbing steeply towards the light past a cushiony chalk hillside with a scattering of wild flowers. In time, the path levelled out to a long, lush grassy meadow sloping gently towards sheer cliffs above the undercliff and the sea; this is Goat Island. Woven within the grass were the frilly flowers of eyebright, many yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear, patches of yellow rattle and wild thyme and two blue spikes of viper’s bugloss. It was, however, the orchids that surprised me with their number and variety: pyramidal orchids with their intensely pink, three-lobed petals overlapping like ornate roof tiles and common spotted orchids with their cylinders of lilac pink flowers carrying magenta hieroglyphics. I searched for bee orchids and found only two spikes, each bearing several flowers. With their mauve propeller-like sepals and their large central petal complete with furry edges and yellow horseshoe patterns on a maroon background, these flowers are one of nature’s marvellous mimics said to resemble bumblebees. Butterflies, especially marbled whites completed the scene. Goat Island nowadays is a beautiful, unusual place, an oasis of calm where noise means bird song. It is also a managed landscape, a cooperation between nature and humans, as every year the grass is mown to encourage flowers and to prevent scrub taking back the land.
Goat Island is also a place of history and I stood there for some time, trying to imagine the scene 180 years ago when the land beneath my feet moved and the lives of the people living there were changed forever.
The picture at the head of this post shows common spotted orchids and catsear on Goat Island.
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.
The Lyme Regis Museum reopened last year after a major makeover including the addition of a new wing named after Mary Anning, the famous fossil hunter and one of Lyme’s most celebrated citizens. Mary Anning possessed a unique talent for finding, reconstructing and interpreting fossils in the cliffs of west Dorset and her discoveries transformed the field of geology in the 19th century. The new Mary Anning Wing has transformed the Museum into one fit for the 21st century.
I remember visiting the Museum some years ago on a bitterly cold mid-December day. I recall a pretty but rather spartan Victorian building crammed with interesting exhibits but very much a museum in the old style. I returned this January to a completely different experience. The Museum now has a spacious, welcoming entrance area and shop with natural light flooding through plate glass windows giving spectacular views across Lyme Bay and the Jurassic Coast. The important features of the old building such as the beautiful spiral staircase and rotunda are still emphasised but there is a new Fine Foundation Learning Centre and with the installation of a lift, the Museum is accessible to all.
I enjoyed the bright, interesting and well-presented galleries covering the Early History of Lyme, the Cobb and the Sea, the Undercliff, Lyme during the War and the Branch Line Railway. A large display on Literary Lyme features, in particular, the writer John Fowles, who lived in the town and was a great supporter of the Museum acting as Curator for a decade. Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was famously made into a film putting Lyme on the international map. Jane Austen also features strongly; she spent holidays in the town and set some of her novel “Persuasion” there.
All this alone is worth the price of admission but, in my opinion, the real jewel in the crown is the new interactive Geology Gallery. Here the visitor can see fossils similar to those discovered locally in the 19th century that changed the face of geology forever and made Lyme Regis famous around the world. The Gallery celebrates these discoveries and the people who made them while not forgetting those who continue this quest into the 21st century.
The large, high-ceilinged room is packed with exhibits: many different kinds of fossil, drawings, artefacts and mementoes. There are striking examples of large fossilised creatures on the walls and suspended above are models of these same creatures. The exhibits are so impressive and so well presented that there is a strong “wow factor” but the interactive displays bring the exhibits to life showing what the fossilised bones mean and what these creatures might have looked like. It is a gallery for all ages but there is no dumbing down.
As I looked around the Gallery, I felt that even if she wasn’t actually there by my side, Mary Anning “spoke to me” from almost every exhibit. Her story is outlined in the displays, how she was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 to a very poor family, received no formal education but learned from her father the way to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs. When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother made their first major fossil discovery, an Ichthyosaur, a now extinct “fish-lizard”. One of the most dramatic objects on display in the Gallery is a partial Ichthyosaur skeleton, about 5 metres long, discovered in 2005 by Paddy Howe, the Museum geologist, similar to the one discovered by Mary Anning. There is also a massive fossilised Ichthyosaur head in one of the cabinets, so we can get a real sense of how exciting it must have been to discover one of these creatures for the first time. Mary went on to become the greatest fossil hunter ever known, possessing a unique skill and persistence in finding and reassembling fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science. Among her other unique fossil discoveries were two Plesiosaur skeletons, the first ever found and probably her greatest finds. The Plesiosaur was a small-headed marine reptile with a very long neck and the Gallery contains the skeleton of a juvenile Plesiosaur with a model of the creature hanging above the display.
Despite her lack of formal education and her humble origins, Mary came to be well respected by the leading geologists of the time, Henry de la Beche, William Buckland and William Conybeare, all of whom are described in displays. These men sought her out in Lyme and befriended her but despite this friendship, they used the fossils she found to further their own reputations and gave her little or no credit. As a woman in the 19th century, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy. After she died in 1847, however, Henry de la Beche read a eulogy to the Geological Society dedicated to Mary Anning and her discoveries. This was an honour usually accorded only to fellows of the Society which did not admit women for another half century.
The new Gallery tells the story of Mary Anning but I feel that her importance is slightly underplayed, especially in relation to the male scientists of the time. Her discoveries were unique, showing that large reptile-like creatures had existed millions of years ago but were now extinct. These findings challenged existing ideas in geology and questioned contemporary biblical accounts of creation. They also contributed to changes in thinking that led Charles Darwin to propose theories of evolution by natural selection. The importance of Mary Anning should not be underestimated and it is surely significant that in 2010 the Royal Society voted her one of the 10 most influential women in science.
I very much enjoyed my visit to the remodelled Lyme Regis Museum with its new Mary Anning Wing. It is a treasure trove of fascinating displays, a museum fit for the 21st century, and the staff should be congratulated on their achievement. I urge you to visit, you will not be disappointed.
Mature trees, richly planted borders, gently curving paths, a place to look and a space to think – the Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis provide both an oasis of calm for humans and a safe haven for wildlife. Not only that, some of the town’s best views may be savoured from this green space. Looking ahead, the Cobb can be seen stretching its protective, rocky arm around the harbour whereas, across Lyme Bay, the west Dorset coast rises and falls like a gigantic wave sweeping eastwards over Stonebarrow and Golden Cap reaching, on a clear day, that louring sea monster that is the Isle of Portland.
History of the Seafront Gardens
Just over a century ago, the Langmoor Gardens were opened to the public on the slopes above Marine Parade in Lyme Regis. The land was bought through a bequest to the town from Joseph Moly of Langmoor Manor, Charmouth and the gardens were named in honour of the donation. The slopes were known to be unstable and concrete buttresses had been built to prevent movement. Despite this, there were periodic slippages of mud on to Marine Parade and throughout the 20th century the Gardens continued to move causing distortion to paths and eventually rendering the lower part of the gardens unusable. In 1962, land to the west of these gardens suffered a catastrophic landslip following a misguided attempt at development and several houses were destroyed. This land was eventually taken over by the town becoming the Lister Gardens, named after Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, pioneer of antiseptic surgery. The Langmoor and Lister Gardens now form one large continuous public space above Marine Parade.
Rebuilding the Seafront Gardens
The Lyme Regis Environmental Improvements carried out early in the 21st century provided an opportunity to deal with the unstable geology of the Gardens. Between 2005 and 2007, major civil engineering works were carried out to stabilise the Langmoor and Lister Gardens which were completely remodelled. The new design included many planted areas and grassy spaces, gently curving paths that seem to reflect the convexity of the Cobb, and a woodland boardwalk with outstanding views across the harbour and bay. Facilities for mini-golf, putting and table tennis were also built.
Supporting wildlife was deemed important so before work started, bat nesting sites were sealed to prevent them returning, 2000 slow-worms were caught and rehoused and a 15cm barrier erected to prevent others entering. The gardens were replanted with salt tolerant, sub-tropical and rare plants as well as native species, taking account of the needs of bats, birds and insects. Now, a decade later, the Gardens have a mature look and nesting boxes for birds and bats are flourishing. Visitors love the open space and the new design was recognised with an important national award.
The Seafront Gardens in winter
Mid-winter is typically a low time when weather is poor, plants are dormant and wildlife scarce but when I visited the Gardens in December and January I found surprising activity. Flowering cherry trees at the rear of the Gardens were covered in frothy pink flowers and close by, two fragrant shrubs were also showing well: winter honeysuckle with its white trumpet flowers filled with yellow-tipped stamens; sweet box, covered with tiny white starburst flowers, dark green fleshy leaves and shiny black berries. As I was admiring the flowers, several bumblebees flew past, stopping briefly to feed from the cherry blossom.
On the terraced borders above Marine Parade, extensive banks of rosemary were covered in mauvish-purple flowers. These were proving very popular with bumblebees and even in mid-winter, I saw queens and workers foraging busily, collecting sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers. The queens were large and furry with two prominent buff/yellow stripes and a grey or pale brown tail, the workers similar but smaller and more brightly coloured. These are buff-tailed bumblebees and their relationship with the flowers is far from one-sided. The flowers consist of two petals enclosing pollen-loaded anthers that beckon seductively at passing insects. The lower petals contain darker markings highly visible to bees helping to draw them in. Each bee that feeds collects additionally a dusting of pollen from the overhanging anthers which they transfer to the next flower they visit ensuring cross fertilisation.
But shouldn’t bumblebees be hibernating at this time of year? That’s what all the books say, but the presence of worker bumblebees collecting pollen suggests that somewhere in the Gardens or nearby there are active nests. Winter active colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees have also been described in South Devon and in Cornwall as well as other locations in the southern half of the UK. It isn’t clear why this is happening but perhaps these bees are taking advantage of the British penchant for planting winter-flowering plants and shrubs. The Langmoor and Lister Gardens with their huge banks of flowering rosemary provide this winter forage for the west Dorset bumblebees.
Support your local bumblebees and they will support you.
Although buff-tailed bumblebees seem to be doing well in west Dorset, many other species of bumblebee in the UK have declined over the past 50 years. This is bad news because these insects are important pollinators of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers. The decline is largely a result of the agricultural intensification that has changed the look of our countryside leading to the loss of bee habitat, loss of wild flower forage and the use of pesticides.
We can’t reverse this intensification, but we can all help bumblebees by planting flowers in our gardens and by never using insecticides. It’s important to choose a range of flowers that provide food for bees throughout the season: the University of Sussex has a useful guide to bee-friendly flowers. If we provide flowers, the bumblebees and other kinds of bee will return the compliment, visiting our gardens, pollinating our fruits and vegetables and improving their quantity and quality.
When I returned to the Gardens in early April, I found the rosemary still flowering profusely, showing what an important source of insect food it is. Other plants were also starting to contribute to the forage, and spring insect species were emerging such as the beautiful early bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee and the grey-patched mining bee.
We’d been walking for twenty minutes or so with plenty to see: a wooded garden with a drift of early snowdrops scattered across the grass like confetti, the winter sunshine percolating through the trees creating mosaics of light and shade, running water a constant companion. Then suddenly, something new captured my attention but I couldn’t immediately identify what it was. You know how it is when you hear a fragment of a well-known piece of music but can’t place it; only this wasn’t music. Gradually, though, I became conscious of a low-level odour permeating the air by the path. I am sure there had been other smells as we walked, such as rotting leaves and wet mud, but this was entirely unexpected: a sweet, fragrant odour that stopped me in my tracks.
It was the day after Christmas and we decided to walk the riverside path linking the village of Uplyme in the far east of Devon to the seaside town of Lyme Regis just across the border in Dorset. This was the most rural section of the walk. One side of the path was bordered by skeletal trees and a damp, woodland bank. Hart’s tongue ferns grew prolifically, their leaves spilling out across the soil, octopus-like. On the other side of the path, the ground fell away steeply to the river Lym.
But the ferns did not have it all their own way and a small section of the bank was occupied instead by heart-shaped, bright green, fleshy leaves. Floating above the leaves, on thick stems, were the flowers, daisy-like brushes of pale petals gathered together and swept upwards. Each slightly hairy stem carried several of these chunky flower heads. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans).
I bent down to smell the flowers and was greeted by a sweet, cloying fragrance that spoke to me of almonds and resurrected distant memories of amaretto liqueur; this was the source of my arresting sensory experience. Although I smelt almonds, it turns out that there is some disagreement about the exact odour of winter heliotrope. Perhaps it is the complexity of the smell; there was indeed an additional hard edge to the `fragrance that I couldn’t place, and some say the flowers smell of almonds, others vanilla, some even licorice and I began to doubt my response.
Back home, I looked for another patch of the plant to test my nose. Finding the plant wasn’t a problem; there is a lot of winter heliotrope about at present in south Devon. Much of it, however, grows by busy roads and it took me a while to find some that I could smell safely. I finally struck lucky by the coast path above the beach at South Milton Sands. Here I found drifts of winter heliotrope, some in shade and some in sunshine on the cliff top. The flower heads trembled in the breeze and the late afternoon sun highlighted the delicate colours of the flowers, some pale lilac, others tinged dark pink. Sometimes, the sea breeze carried traces of that low level woodland odour.
But what was the smell of the flowers in this seaside location? I took first sniff and smelt almonds again so my earlier response had been correct. Next Hazel tried without knowing my experience and she said lilac. It would be interesting to know what others sense when they smell winter heliotrope.
Many people, however, have an entirely different reaction to winter heliotrope, they hate it! They regard the plant as an introduced, invasive thug, taking over landscapes and eliminating native plants like a triffid destroying everything in its path. I share these concerns, but I have to admit to having a soft spot for winter heliotrope. It brightens up the sparse winter landscape and provides welcome forage for early insects. South Devon, with its mild climate, supports colonies of winter bumblebees and they need forage throughout the season. Winter heliotrope provides some of that food and this morning I watched winter bumblebees foraging on the flowers above the sea in Torquay.
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.
In 2010, the Royal Society compiled a list of the ten most influential female scientists in British History. One of the ten was Mary Anning (1799-1847) who from humble beginnings in Lyme Regis, Dorset came to be recognised as the “greatest fossil hunter ever known”. Her discoveries of long extinct, fossilised creatures in the cliffs around Lyme Regis were central to the development of new ideas about the history of the earth at the start of the 19th century. She became an expert in her field but did not get the recognition she deserved because science at the time was an exclusively male profession. Nowadays she is receiving this recognition and the fascination of her story has spawned biographies, novels and children’s books. The Lyme Regis Museum has well-developed plans to build an extension, to be called the Mary Anning Wing.
I had thought that Anning was the only prominent West Country female scientist of her time until, walking along the coast path near Torquay recently, I paused to read an information board. This included a panel dedicated to the work of Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) “who collected and preserved nearly 250 species of seaweed ……. one of the first women to be recognised for their contribution to science.” Never having heard of Griffiths, my interest was piqued, especially when I discovered that, in the 19th century, she was described as “facile Regina – the willingly acknowledged Queen of Algologists”. [Seaweeds are large multicellular marine algae.]
So who was Griffiths and what did she do?
Amelia Warren Rogers was born in Pilton, North Devon in 1768. In 1794 she married Rev. William Griffiths and the couple moved to Cornwall. Eight years later, her husband died suddenly under mysterious circumstances leaving his widow with five young children but not without money. Amelia Griffiths decided to leave Cornwall for Devon, living first at Ottery St Mary before settling in Torquay where she could best follow her favourite pursuit of studying seaweeds.
For much of her adult life she collected seaweeds avidly: in north Devon and Cornwall, in Dorset and along the East and South Devon coasts. When she began, identification of species was difficult as many had not been named or clearly described so Amelia devised her own names – “bottle brush”, “cobweb” etc. She helped male seaweed enthusiasts in producing scholarly studies on the larger and smaller seaweeds, generously giving her knowledge and donating samples. One such enthusiast was the leading botanist William Henry Harvey with whom she corresponded and who eventually became a close friend. Her reputation grew and in 1817, the Swedish botanist Carl Agardh named a genus of red seaweed Griffithsia in her honour.
Dried samples of seaweeds collected by Griffiths are held in several museums including Kew, Torquay and Exeter. Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds three slightly battered leather-bound volumes of her seaweeds which I recently had the privilege to see. Each sample is mounted on stiff white paper and annotated with the name and location in Griffiths’ neat handwriting. Many of the seaweeds still retain their bright colours despite being collected more than a century and a half ago.
Griffiths was often accompanied on her seaweed sorties by Mary Wyatt, formerly a servant in the Griffiths household but eventually the proprietor of a Torquay shop selling shells, polished madrepores and pressed plants. Harvey encouraged Mary Wyatt to sell books of pressed and named seaweeds to help identification. Supervised by Amelia, she produced the first two volumes of Algae Danmonienses (Seaweeds of Devon) by 1833. Each volume contained 50 species and cost 25 shillings or £1 if you subscribed to the series. The books sold well, being partly responsible for making seaweed collecting the must-do pastime at seaside resorts in early Victorian Britain. Followers of this seaweed craze were able to explore nature, improve their scientific knowledge and perhaps produce a memento of their seaside holiday.
Despite their extensive correspondence, Harvey and Amelia Griffiths did not meet until 1839 when he visited Torquay. At her urging, he wrote a hand-book of British Marine Algae later expanded to Phycologia Britannica, illustrating all known British Marine Algae. This great work required constant correspondence with Griffiths who despite being in her late 70s provided extensive knowledge of the plants in their natural state. Harvey held her in high regard and his hand-book contained the following dedication: “To Mrs Griffiths of Torquay, Devon, a lady whose long-continued researches have, more than those of any other observer in Britain, contributed to the present advanced state of marine botany….”
The more I investigated the story of Amelia Griffiths, the more I found similarities with Mary Anning. Both were systematic collectors, acquiring immense expertise in their fields and passing on samples to male scientists who furthered their own careers as a result. Both were strong women who pursued their interests whether or not these conformed to norms of society. Griffiths is known to have collected at Lyme Regis so perhaps she encountered Anning on the beach; it is an interesting thought. Anning is now better known, partly because her discoveries were much more significant for science and partly because of the well developed Mary Anning-industry in her home town.
Griffiths lived until nearly 90 maintaining her passion for seaweeds to the end. We must not forget that she began her systematic study of seaweeds in the early years of the 19th century, a time when women could not develop independent scientific careers. Despite this, she made a major contribution to marine botany and deserves to be more widely known.
I should like to thank Holly Morgenroth of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, who showed me Griffiths’ books of seaweeds and took the photographs.
This article first appeared in the August edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.
The picture at the top of this post is of Phycodrys rubens (formerly Delesseria sinuosa) in Griffiths’ books (copyright 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council).