Dear Readers, I was a great fan of Jean Sprackland’s book ‘These Silent Mansions’ which I reviewed here, so I wanted to have a look at her earlier work, ‘Strands’. Sprackland knows that, in a year, she will be leaving her home in the north west of England to live in London. So, she keeps a kind of diary about the things that she finds on her local beach, ‘ended by Southport Pier to the north and Formby Point to the south‘. Her mission is
‘…to cut through the blur of familiarity, and explore this place as if for the first time. Some of my finds may be real surprises, and others more predictable; but I shall pick them up and hold them to the light, regardless‘.
One of the joys of beachcombing is that sense of the unpredictable. You never know what the sea will bring, and you have to be quick, because at the turn of the tide they can be taken away or hidden again. In spring, Sprackland finds no less than three wrecked ships, uncovered by a combination of tide and wind, including the Star of Hope’, a barque wrecked in a force 10 gale in 1883.
‘Until the sands shift and reveal it, the Star of Hope is sealed in its sandy tomb. From time to time there are tantalising clues: sometimes the place is indicated by a group of wooden stumps sticking up out of the sand at low tide, like grave markers, squatted by a couple of cormorants with hunched black shoulders and reptilian necks. I’d walked out to those mysterious stumps dozens of times, kicked them experimentally and found them solid, speculated about what might lie below the surface‘.
And on this day
‘There was an abrasive wind, and the sea was flattened to a sullen grey line on the horizon. But the wreck was an astonishing sight, sitting on the sand in a shallow pool of water like an overgrown toy boat in a puddle…..The Star of Hope has her own, very curious afterlife. She’s been sinking and rising, sinking and rising for over a century, in a ghostly reprise of that first calamity‘.
I was fascinated by this. I’d heard that wrecks were sometimes uncovered during storms, but had no idea that they appeared and reappeared in this way. And they are not the only things: in winter, storms uncover the footprints of aurochs and red deer from over 5,000 years ago, and also the footprints of the humans who lived at that time. They, too, appear and are washed away – the scientists who study them have learned to make plaster casts as soon as new traces appear. There is a sense in which things are both ephemeral and eternal; the children of Neolithic parents played on this beach, just as people do today, but every trace of them can be washed away at the turn of the tide.
Of course, me being me I particularly loved the sections of the book that dealt with the natural world – Sprackland investigates mermaid’s purses, jellyfish, sea squirts, star fish. I love the way that her work moves from natural to social history, from personal observation to folklore. I particularly loved the section on the ‘sea mouse’, a kind of scaleworm with iridescent ‘hairs’ on its back. Sprackland describes her first sight of the creature:
‘It’s exquisitely beautiful, like a strange piece of vintage jewellery….and yet at the same time it is slightly alarming, even repellent’.
Sprackland does some research to find out what the creature is, and finds out how people have longed to see a sea mouse – the American natural history writer Sue Hubbell even wrote a book about her search, called ‘Waiting for Aphrodite‘, (the Latin name for the sea mouse is Aphrodita aculeata‘). The poet Amy Clampitt wrote a whole poem about the creature, which Sprackland quotes:
‘The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to
admit the sea mouse’.
But this is a difficult creature to see, living as it does at the bottom of the deep sea, embedded in mud. It is usually only seen after a storm has ripped it from its hiding place. As one scientist that Hubbell talks to says, ‘No one has ever seen Aphrodite except when it was unhappy‘.
And so, after her first introduction to the sea mouse, Sprackland looks and looks for more, and is disappointed until one day, after a March storm, she finds five, each one alive and laying on its back in distress. Being the good souls that they are, Sprackland and her husband pick each one up and deposit it back into the water.
‘Each one, when we slide it into the shallow water, revives quickly and seems to feel the pull of home. It has endured its time under the glare of the sky and wants only to return to obscurity. it begins to bury itself with a slow shuffling motion into the wet sand, until there’s nothing left to see but a soft oval outline, disintegrating eo smoothness under the in-and-out of the waves.‘
I love the way that this book makes connections between animals, plants, people and the landscape. I learned a lot of interesting things, and was forever interrupting my husband’s reading with ‘I never knew that!’ It’s beautifully written, and I found Sprackland a great companion – I felt that I was walking along with her as she explores the strandline. Above all, it shows me what can be done by observing a single place in depth, over time, provided you approach it with a spirit of curiosity. Highly recommended.