Night falls on Staithes:
I don’t think Beach combing or Wrecking as it is still known in Cornwall, would ever be considered an outdoor activity as such. In most people’s minds it is associated with a gentle stroll along the shoreline, idly picking through the high tides’ flotsam and jetsam whilst a dog hares off into the distance scattering gulls. It does however have a more extreme variant which involves climbing and scrambling above a foaming white maelstrom to reach hidden coves. The ever present possibility being swept into the sea by a rogue wave; dodging salvos of rocks which fall from loose decaying cliffs, and risking a leg breaking slip on slimy rocks whilst in a remote location. There is also the chance that you might be trapped by a fast incoming tide in a position where retreat up the cliff is impossible. At the weekend I was engaged in spot of-could we call it- ‘extreme beachcombing’-while staying in the fantastic little fishing village of Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast.
The cliffs hereabouts are pretty impressive by any criteria. Often over 500’ high and inevitably -being on the east coast- battered by wind and giant North Sea waves. Sadly, for climbers but more importantly, for people who live close to the cliff edge, the cliffs are as far removed from the solid granite cliffs of Cornwall as you could get. Consisting of a blend of mud, rock and shale which is as stable as a stack of cards in a drafty room. ( See Pic) . Rock falls and landslides are part and parcel of life here. One day you can be skirting the cliff edge along a popular coastal path, the next day that section of path is littering the beach!
Extreme coastal walking near Staithes
To get back to beach combing for a minute: The activity has for a long time drawn artists and artisans to the shore in search of detritus thrown up by the waves which might lend itself in the creation of art and crafts. Some shore lines are more interesting than others though, in that the tides in different parts of the country are linked to currents which offer either rich or meagre pickings depending on where you are. The North Cornish Coast for example which brings in bounty from as far afield as the Amazon rain forests to the Lobster fishing grounds of Maine and Newfoundland. One artist who has exploited this resource with great skill and imagination is Jane Darke who lives at Porthcothan near Padstow. Jane and her late husband -the playwright, Nick Darke- religiously combed the local coves and beaches for materials and recorded their activities in a short film shown on BBC4-The Wrecking Season. At the time, Nick was recovering from a stroke and the film is a moving account of their coming to terms with their new circumstances while continuing their passion for wrecking. ( The term ‘wrecking’ of course comes from the era when shipwreckers and smugglers worked the remote coastlines. Deliberately enticing richly laden ships onto the rocks and plundering their bounty).
Jane and Nick Darke: Photo JD
Jane Darkes’ follow up to The Wrecking Season is an incredibly moving film which started life as a continuation work but quickly developed into a searing chronicle of her husband’s final months after he developed cancer. The Art of Catching Lobsters was also shown on BBC4 to critical acclaim. I caught up with Jane just after the film was premiered on the BBC when I was in Cornwall and Jane kindly entertained my family at her lovely home set above the sand dunes of Porthcothan. Walking on the beach with her one late November afternoon with a strong, low autumn sun sinking fast into an indigo twilight, I still vividly recall the powerful tapestry of colours that day and the rich sea sounds and smells. All together a powerful concoction of stimulating creative elements. Little wonder the sea attracts so many artists and writers. ( An extract from Jane’s book ‘Held by the Sea’ appeared on Footless Crow a couple of years ago) Both of Jane’s films and her book are highly recommended.
Staithes where I was staying, also has an artistic tradition where studios and galleries abound. I do find the artiness of these places a bit forced and contrived though. There are only so many times I can take someone wandering along the cobbled streets with an easel and canvas under their arm. All they need is a beret set at a jaunty angle to complete the stereotype! Leaving the tourists and painter manques to their own devices, I set off from the town and followed the shoreline towards Port Musgrave. The tide was just retreating , leaving enough bare rock to scramble over although being so close to the crumbling cliffs, it was somewhat disconcerting as volleys of stone regularly peppered the stone pavement I was following.
Many of the rocks hereabouts offer themselves as fossil tables. Flat surfaces displaying a patina of fossilized shells, stems and leaves. In one or two places, old ropes hang down the crumbling cliffs. Suggesting an emergency escape in the event of being trapped by an advancing tide. Near the end of the bay, the land juts out into the sea. A natural division which separates the bay from Port Musgrave Bay on the other side.
Old iron ore mine shafts emerge from the cliffs. A reminder of a 19th century mining industry which flourished here. There is evidence that modern day troglodytes regularly explore these shafts but given the instability of the land here, underground exploration must be a pretty nerve wracking experience. Port Musgrave Bay itself is a weird place. At one time it boasted a jetty and harbour to service the mining and fishing industry. However, during the Second World War, the MOD displaying a paranoia which even by the standards of the day was pretty extreme, decided to blow up the harbour and protective sea wall because it feared the Germans might use it during an invasion. You can just imagine the German high command choosing a bay with 500' crumbling cliffs and accessed only by a steep, circuitous fisherman’s path as an entry point!
What remains of the harbour attracts sea anglers these days. The jetty itself is scattered with little boats and an amazing collection of crude shelters and fishing huts constructed out of corrugated sheets, driftwood, stone and salvaged materials. Usually with a collection of lobster pots stacked upon the rusting roof. I’m guessing the usual planning permission laws and regulations don’t apply down in this remote spot...and why should they! I returned to Staithes with an empty rucksack. Despite the storm the night before there was little of interest . Not even a nice sculpted piece of driftwood. Just the odd trainer, plastic bottle and marker cane. Poor pickings today but next time there just might be a whale's jawbone, a polished seed from a central American jungle or a message in a bottle?