Fossicking Amongst the Fossils

Recently, a birthday was had. Usually on this day, the Teen and I head off to Stratford upon Avon where we wander, lunch and drift down to the river for ice cream, via the RSC so I can buy a year’s supply of “2B or not 2B” pencils, because I do enjoy a pun when I scribble.  This year though, when the realisation that we weren’t going to stay by the sea dawned on us, it felt like a break from tradition was called for.

Now, living in the land-locked, land-lubbering West Midlands, the options for a daytrip to a coastal region are limited. We wanted to hear, smell and maybe even splash in the sea. That could be done at Weston, but you know, Weston. I haven’t been there since I was terrorised by a man in a bad flannelette Mickey Mouse costume on the sea front, after a coach trip (I loathe coaches) on the wettest and windiest day of the year. It was the 80s, there was a Club Tropicana in a prominent location and all I could hear was that bloody song. It took me a long time to forgive George Michael that assault on my ears.

Plus we wanted a nice beach, not a shit mudflat masquerading as a beach. So. Not Weston then.

Luckily, I found somewhere that was a mere 2 hours drive from home, was rocky and pebbly and sandy with intriguing cliffs that looked like giants had been layering themselves some mille-feuille for their afternoon tea. The night before, there was some extensive Googling of routes and writing of clear instructions because I am determined to conquer my reliance on a satnav and the Teen is not yet experienced enough to read a map.

Neither am I, come to that. All that geography gets in the way of the road.

We set off at a reasonable hour – it was still term time, so no need to beat the holiday traffic – enjoyed the stretch of baby motorway that is the M50 with the compilation CD from my previous birthday playing loudly and me asking regularly “what junction again” and the Teen singing back the number. We skirted Newport, me with a shudder as I remembered going to a Suede gig there over 20 years ago. We had tickets and pulled up in the town with the idea of booking a room in a hotel for the night.

I don’t know if you have ever been to Newport (and I’m sure it has it’s fine points) but even the then-boyfriend (who had been a biker and attended several Bulldog rallies, which are hardly tea dances) blanched and drove us out of there fast. We stayed at Chepstow, which is gentler on the eye and has a giant castle guarding it to boot. Went back for the gig, obvs. No way I was going to miss Brett Anderson swinging his androgynous funky thang.

Right on estimated AA map time, we arrived and decamped ourselves to a sunny outcrop of rock. Yes, rock. Sometimes it pays to take advice, especially about tide times. This rock was to be our base until about 2pm, when the tide receded enough for us to pick our tentative way over more rocks (which do not stay flat and steady underfoot but tip-top and shift as you place a cautious toe on them) to the patch of sand.

But there were rock pools to gaze in and watch tiny fish dart like silver arrows through gently waving seaweed.

Surprisingly, it was not on the rocks that I twisted my ankle, but in the car park, as we walked up to get ice cream. Gazing off to the horizon and wondering if that was an Iron Age hillfort ahead (it was), I failed to do what should always be my first task: scan the ground in front of me. Over went my ankle in the only pothole in the entire car park. The only reason it wasn’t a sprain is because that wasn’t my first time. More like my 50th. That ankle is now so loose and resigned to twisting, it’s a wonder I’m ever upright.

But I didn’t really care about the lack of sand or the twisted ankle or the ever-numbing arse from the rock we were sat on, because there was this view. And the smell and the sound of the sea. There were sandwiches that didn’t have sand in them (bonus points to the pebbly shore), and ice cream and real coffee from the tiny cafe. No chips, but you can’t have everything, and this was enough.

On went the suncream, out came the books and down the pair of us settled, conversation drifting along with the tide. Ebb and flow. After a while, I asked the Teen to bring out their A Level book-smarts and tell me more about the rocks because, actually, geology is pretty bloody cool. Especially when you discover that what’s lying by your feet are the trace remains of creatures

Their footprints are right next to yours. Their shadows are in your shadow. Those millenia old creatures scuttered, got trapped, died. Left the memory of themselves for you to find.

I find this FASCINATING…

And these here, these giant mille-feuille? Particles of minerals, plant and microscopic animal matter drift down to the bottom of the long-ago sea, get compressed by the weight of the water. The seas pull back, dry up, reduce enough to reveal these layers for us to wonder at.

And wonder we do. The top us crumbly and unstable, like old fondant icing on a slice of cake, the warning signs are everywhere. I really want to get close, poke about in those layers, find out what creatures have been left behind by ancient and modern tides. What creatures are they made of? But the friendly lifeguard issues a gently firm warning, so we stay back. Getting knocked out by a falling rock, regardless of it’s age or the fossils contained within, would really ruin the day.

I even managed to bring a pebble home that has a trilobite trace in it, which is damned exciting. I’m claiming it’s a real trilobite, the Teen is raising amused but sceptical eyebrows at me. Don’t care: my pebble, my ‘trilobite’. And on the subject of pebbles, this explains all you need to know about the pebble situation in my house.   

We drove back, skin sticky from suncream and salt spray, hair smelling of the sea, at least one ankle throbbing, to the accompanying sound of pebbles clacking rhythmically. And, I discovered later, a sunburn so potent, I looked neon for 2 weeks afterwards, followed by flakey and itchy, followed by the stage I like to call “did you miss a bit with the fake tan”, followed by a settling into a paler shade of biscuit. So much for the damn suncream. 

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