Nature can be cruel, but also so beautiful. I was reminded of this on a beach walk the other day. It was one of those rare days now in December on these British Isles, where there is no rain, the clouds are sparse, the sun shines and yes, although there is a chilly wind, it is nothing that can’t be overcome by a good coat, gloves and a hat. As the old saying goes, if you want to get ahead, get a hat.
My local beach changes by the week. Depending from where the gales have blown, the shoreline can be sandy or strewn with rounded stones washed up from the seabed on the easterly winds, or slowly washed out when the wind drives from the south or west.
The dunes are eroding too.
Those easterly winds drive the tides up onto the foreshore, each lapping away at the sand, one wave exposing the roots of the dune grass, the next weakening it, the next dislodging it. This is global warming, the higher seas, the erosion of land, the inundation of places that for eons before have stood the rigours of timeless tides.
The local council has tried to stem the effect of this erosion by building rocky groynes out into the sea at regular perpendicular intervals. The effect is to divided the long beach into smaller sections, each more protected. For the beach walker, each offers a new perspective, brings a heighten anticipation of what will unfold over the next groyne.
On one such beach there is the decaying carcass of a young seal. I cannot tell the type, in truth the smell too foul. The sooner the next tide washes those pitiful remains to the deep, the better for all.
It disappears every minute or so, coming back, coming nearer to the shore, seemingly curious by this winter-hatted interloper on its beachy playground. We share stares for 15 minutes and it follows my progression along the shore, disappearing behind a small tethered boat, reappearing playfully
On another, a black and white oyster-catcher is being washed over by advancing shallow waves. It struggles to flap its wings — they are weak and without the power to lift it free. Its legs seems tangled by fishing line. I approach to try and help. It uses precious reserves of its quickly diminishing energy to flee this human threat.
I stand and watch as it grows weaker, taking longer each time to come up from the cold waves. It is just a matter of time. Overhead, three large gulls watch too, waiting for that final moment of life to ebb on this tide. Where there will be death, there will be a meal for others.
At the far top of the strand there is an opening into calmer waters, an estuary providing sanctuary and succulence for waders. On good days, if you’re lucky, seals gather here. This is a good day, and one is bobbing at the surface enjoying those sparse clouds and rare sunshine.
It disappears every minute or so, coming back, coming nearer to the shore, seemingly curious by this winter-hatted interloper on its beachy playground. We share stares for 15 minutes and it follows my progression along the shore, disappearing behind a small tethered boat, reappearing playfully.
The locals here refer to this estuary as “the Slobs” — colourful but nevertheless descriptive of the sticky mud flats that are treacherous to cross but provide wintering grounds for terns and curlews, herons and plovers.
Nearby, a historical plaque reminds those of us who pass this way of those who passed before and perished on a shipwreck in a storm in 1859, with all of the victims buried together in some forgotten and unmarked grave.
The long rays of the day’s winter sun are growing weaker and dimmer with each passing moment. The rose and purple hues of a cold pastel sky gradually lose their lustre. Tomorrow will be another day.