Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach by Jean Sprackland

The dunes of Gronant, beyond Point of Ayr, are among other things a protected home for the natterjack toad. The natterjack features early on in Jean Sprackland’s intense meditation on the stretch of dune and beach that runs between Formby Point and Southport Pier. She visits at night, switches her torch off, keeps quite still and exults in the din the toads make, ‘a riot of amphibian sex going on all around us, eternal and moonlit.’

She has been walking this stretch of coast for twenty years. It is twenty-three miles northwest of Deeside and she has distant sight of the Clwydian Hills with Snowdon, palely, a little further. The book’s subtitle is ‘A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ and her discoveries are spread equally across things of nature’s making and the flotsam left by humanity.

To the stroller or dog walker the sea is not much more than the sea. To those upon it, it is a place of hazard. The vessels leaving Liverpool know their course to deep water is past a maze of sand and spits. Mad Wharf, Great Burbo Bank, Askew Spit, Taylor’s Bank, Spencer’s Spit, Zebra Flats and Mockbeggar Wharf are just the start.

The travel-cum-nature genre is over-subscribed by publishers. Several factors, in combination, elevate the memorable from the mundane. The writing is a start. Of the beach’s miscellaneous wrack and the force of water Sprackland writes, ‘Many of the things washed up on beaches are proof of it: they lie scoured, mangled and torn; destroyed or transfigured by the violent journeys they’ve made. A high sea can break a boat in pieces, smash sea defences, drag a child off a harbour wall.’

A writer needs to know things, as well to see them. Jean Sprackland knows the paddleworm, the sea mouse and gooseberry, the devil’s purse and the sea potato. She knows jellyfish across the spectrum, from the familiar to the ones that climate change is causing to appear in the Irish Sea. The box jellyfish has venom enough to kill sixty people. Jellyfish skin is of a thinness sufficient to absorb oxygen by diffusion.

Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach by Jean Sprackland
Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach
by Jean Sprackland,
Jonathan Cape,

This kind of writing allows the author to vault away from the immediate subject of scrutiny. Jean Sprackland does not go in for Sebaldian flights that soar entirely out of sight of their place of origin. Her disciplined writing always stays connected to its topic. A sight of seaweed prompts mention of a William Collins landscape in which two children forage. No lord of the manor may own the tidal shore. It leads her to the hydrocolloids, and their role in processed food, including those jams that are near fruitless. A tiny starfish prompts a passage on its regenerative powers – only the liver in human biology has a similar power. She traces starfish symbolism across the faiths to Baha’ism. The sound of birdsong leads to Messiaen’s ‘Le Reveil des Oiseaux’.

Humanity is a mixed presence in Strands. Discarded plastic in the last sixty years runs to one billion tons. Thanks to a huge vortex of current, its place of concentration is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A part-used Prozac blister pack leads to a description of coastal shrimps, who too are beneficiaries of serotonin uplift. It makes them reckless so that they head for sunlit water and are easily picked off by sea birds. The projections for shrimp numbers are not good.

Tobacco is one of the local industries, a natural step from import to processing. Bootle’s St Bruno’s pipe tobacco dates from 1896. In 1956 trucks began an annual dumping of twenty-two thousand tons of wet tobacco waste on a seven-acre site, an activity that aroused interest from neither authority nor public. The vague belief was that a sand-tobacco mix would prevent coastal erosion. For a quarter of a century Dalpon, a major ingredient of Agent Orange, was used to eradicate spartina grass and samphire. It ceased in 1996 and the samphire is back: ‘it carpets the shore in vivid emerald from June to August.’

Jean Sprackland leaves the beach on occasion. In a Liverpool archive she is reminded of the ‘mobs smashing German-shops and attacking the homes of neighbours with German-sounding surnames.’ She passes Taffy’s Barbers and Billy Upton Butcher en route to the Cockle Rotunda in Swansea’s indoor market. She eats a succulent laverbread recipe in a pub at Llanrhidian. Swimming at West Dale as an eight-year old she emerges from a dive to discover the other children have all fled the sea. Turning round she encounters a seal a few feet away; ‘for a long breathless moment, I trod water and looked back. The polished head, almost motionless on the surface. The obsidian eyes.’

Strands opens with the author tugging on a piece of metal that is revealed as an entire car, buried by the tempestuous force of water and sand. She ends in that bitter winter of 2010 when mid-Powys dropped to minus twenty-five. ‘Perhaps we have the wrong idea about beaches’ she muses ‘Golden sands are pretty; but mud is full of treasure.’ The hidden pollens reveal the flora of prehistoric ages. Footprints connect her walk to those who have gone before. She recalls the cave paintings of Font-de-Gaume with their startling, stylistic modernity. Picasso may or may not have said of Lascaux ‘We have invented nothing.

Jean Sprackland is author of three books of poetry. From the poet’s perspective the restless tide is as real as she. Her postscript for Strands addresses the reader, ‘The two of you are on separate journeys. You come from one direction, it comes from another, and your paths intersect.’ Her book is a fine addition to a cluttered genre. Readers who enjoy Perrin on peaks will relish Sprackland on the shoreline.

Illustration by Dean Lewis