The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Seaside in Summer

by D. Nesbitt.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 527-534

"Oh what an endless work have I in hand,
To count the sea's abundant progeny!
Whose fruitfulle seede far passeth those on land,
And also those which wonne in the azure sky!"
(Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene Book IV. Canto XII.)

So Spenser wrote long ago, and many who have not the poet's powers of expression have also felt, when on a visit to the seaside, that the myriads of objects clinging so abundantly on the rocks or cast so lavishly on the shore defy all attempts not only to enumerate, but even to classify them. There is encouragement, however, in the thought that the veriest tyro has a chance if he uses his eyes of discovering some new example of animal or vegetable life at the seaside. But it is not the mere enumeration, were that possible, or the collection, were that practicable, of these things that will satisfy us. We want to learn their story, we want sufficient knowledge, not to unravel their mystery, but to recognise that mystery there is. Each proved fact is full of unproved suggestion. Everywhere we meet with the evidence of mighty changes, and yet everywhere we find, as if to console us in our sense of the mutability of all things, convincing and clear proofs of the existence of fixed and external laws. The seashore, whether sandy or shingly, is often a silent witness to the great and mighty changes caused by upheaval or subsidence of land. On a shingly shore we may notice the ridge of stones which marks the limit of the last spring-tide, but on many we find "raised beaches," of which there are good examples in Devonshire and Cornwall, while the coast line on both sides of Scotland is fringed with them. These "raised beaches," having their high water-mark often far more inland than the limits of any recorded spring-tide, tell us that the sea has left or been pushed away from its old haunts. The land has been upheaved in that place, although, perhaps, in another it has subsided, so that the sea both takes and gives back again, following the eternal law of compensation, and teaching us that we must not put our trust in any one rock or stone, or beach, or shore, or cliff, or indeed in any tangible or material substance, that it will be constant and not fail, but in the law behind all that saves them from all failing together.

Other signs of the occurrence of upheaval may be seen. Perhaps we notice a line of sea-caves stretching along the base of a cliff. Such caves are formed only by the action of waves between the tide-marks. If the sea does not reach the base of the cliff now, yet there was once a time when it did so. Or perhaps we find rocks above high water-mark, fixed and firm, yet covered with the shells of acorn barnacles, or other inter-tidal creatures. Or again, we find piers and harbours built so that ships could use them, yet now beyond the reach of any ship that floats. At Lowestoft and many other places along the East coast, examples of the contrary process may be seen. Here fishermen tell sadly of the terrible encroachments of the sea. At neap-tide, remains of a once extensive forest may be seen exposed on Lowestoft beach, while but a few years ago the waves acted as bell-ringers in a submerged church near Southwold, till, in their growing strength and fury, they dashed steeple and belfry to pieces, letting them sink into oblivion as if they had never been.

However carefully any portion of cliffs may have been examined, the frequent fracture and constant wearing of the surface leave fresh parts yet unstudied.

In a chalk-cliff we may find ammonites, and belemnites, and sometimes if we make use of a geologist's hammer we may discover very beautiful impressions of ferns and cycads, there being about 60 different forms of the latter. But besides the "sleeping beauties" which we may bring to light with knife and hammer, there is an outward beauty conferred on the cliffs. Many are rich in soft grasses and luxuriant flowers, including those species which dwell alike by lane, wood, or hedgerow, and also some which are found nowhere save on the sea coast. Such a plant is the samphire (Crithmum maritimum), whose green tufts hang high up on several of our seaside cliffs. It may be known by its clumps of little pale yellow flowers. The tallest stalks are usually about a foot in length and it is a member of the Unbelliferae.

Hanging like tresses down the rocky sides we may often see the green trailing stalks of that little plant, the sea spurrey sandwort (Arenaria marina). It is very succulent, its stems about as thick as twine, its leaves of semi-cylindrical form, as sharp pointed as a needle. Small, reddish-lilac, star-shaped flowers grow here and there, between the leaf and the stem, and when the blossom is over, the seed-vessels hang down on the flower stalks. It grows also on the sandy shore and among the pebbles on the beach. This is one of the plants which the Dutch love, and plant to strengthen their dykes.

On sand or soil may be gathered the prickly saltwort or sea grape (Salsola rali), with its prostrate angular stems, bearing a single flower of pale greenish hue with three little bracts at the base. In July and August the thrift, often called sea pink or sea gilli-flower, is recognised by everybody.

The cliff cabbage (Brassica oleracea) will have ceased to show its pale yellow flowers with the month of June, but its leaves may still be recognised with their sea-green bloom upon them.

The seaside poppy (Glaucium luteum), or horned poppy as it is sometimes called, because of its long seed-pods, is also well known. This flower is as large as the poppy of the cornfield, and as shining in its gold as is that flower in its scarlet. A large mass of leaves of most beautiful sea-green tint grow around the root, the upper leaves clasping the stem, and the lower having so many prickles on them that when glittering with dew they seem as if silver were sprinkled there.

Some very pretty trefoils flourish exceedingly well on our sea-beaches, and tufts of sea plaintain (Plantago maritima) help to bind the stones together. Starry sea-camomile with its cream-coloured rays surrounding a yellow centre gives its strong scent to the wind. It must be distinguished from the sea feverfew (Pyrethrum maritimum) which grows all over the cliffs and shingle.

The sea-holly (Eryngium maritimum) has a large veined prickly leaf, so like a holly leaf that anyone may know it. It has the bluish tint on the green of its leaves and flowers that is so characteristic of seaside flowers.

But while we stoop to gather the flowers, we must not forget the cry of the birds over our heads. So many different voices! Some musical, perhaps, but most of them shrill, as indeed they need to be, if their choruses are not to be drowned by the resonant accompaniment of the waves. And in their own element there is beauty in their cry, a wild and turbulent beauty that has caught the spirit of the foam that leaps over the rocks, and of the spray that is chased by the wind. Strong and brave, too, is their cry, a challenge to storm and eddy, the cry of a creature ever free and ever untamed.

The sea-birds have their moments of quiet, too, but it is a watchful and not a peaceful quiet. Their grace is in their motion. On land they are awkward, but in the motion of the waves they find their truest repose. Their babies begin life either among the stones or on narrow ledges. Each ledge or line of rock is appropriated by one set of birds. It will be found that the guillemots occupy one station, the razor-bills another, the puffins a third, and kittiwake gulls a fourth, while the inaccessible pinnacles seem to be left for the use of the herring gulls.

The common guillemot can dive and swim very well. I have been told by sailors that the guillemots know each their own egg by its markings, and that no two are ever marked alike. The birds make no nest, but lay on a flat and usually very narrow ledge of rock at a great height. They lay but one egg each. The eggs are exceedingly pretty, being of a beautiful green colour and curiously tapered, so that when moved they spin round, but never roll off their resting place. In fact, I tried to hit one off a slippery table and found that it would be quite impossible to dislodge it without scooping from underneath or pushing in a way that would be impossible if it were on a narrow ledge with a face of rock behind it.

The guillemot is nicknamed by sailors "foolish one," because it is faithful to its egg and will allow itself to be caught by hand rather than desert when sitting.

The cormorant, whose appearance and cry are both remarkably distinctive, is one of the three British representatives of the pelican family. It makes a nest of dried seaweed. The cormorant has a great appetite for fish, and has considerable "sporting" instinct. It always swallows the fish head downwards, and it is usually clever at catching the fish, throwing it up into the air and catching it again in the correct manner. Sometimes, however, a cormorant misses his aim and the fish escapes; and more ludicrous (or shall we say tragic) instances have been known to occur when the cormorant has caught the fish the wrong way up and half swallowed it, tail first, when the fin sticking against the bird's throat has prevented further movement either way, and the cormorant and victim have died together.

The common gull of course we all know, but do we always distinguish it from the black-headed gull?

The shield-drake or shell-drake is one of the duck family that stays with us all the year. Most of the ducks are only here in the winter.

There are six indigenous species of tern or sea swallows, but all are diminishing on our shores. The terns fly inland for several miles, and may be seen picking up seeds from the furrows in sowing time. The black tern used to breed in the Fen country, but now only visits there, the draining of the country having rendered it useless from the bird's point of view. Its summer plumage is a black cap, the upper parts of the body being of a more or less pale grey white; they are mostly lighter underneath. They have pretty faces, with a daintier and more feminine expression than the common gull. Their rapid darting flight is not unlike that of the swallow. The terns nest among the shingle, laying three eggs at most. The young are clothed in variegated down, to resemble the shingle, this being a most wonderful example of protective resemblance. Few of us have ever seen either nest, egg, or young in their natural haunts, but their wonderful assimilation to their surroundings may be observed in the natural History Museum at South Kensington. In this museum also there is a large photograph representing the famous Wideawake Fair on the Island of Ascension. This island is the breeding station of the sooty tern, egg bird, or wideawake which visits our country.

The puffin or sea parrot is a droll enough looking bird, with a decidedly pedantic and self-important expression. The puffin lives in burrows, and not infrequently plays the part of bailiff's man to an unfortunate rabbit who returns from foraging or other business to find Mr. Puffin "in possession," when no threats or entreaties are of any avail to induce the intruder to withdraw.

But we must go on to some shells that we and the children are sure to find on the sea-shore. If we notice holes under the mud on wet sand, close to the sea, we may be on the way to discover some of the numerous species of the "gaper tribe." They are oblong shells, and somewhat rude in appearance, always gaping widely, especially at the two extremities. Both the shell and the animal within are often covered with a coarse wrinkled thin skin. They all bury themselves in sand, mud, or gravel. They have long siphons or tubes, and when buried they remain in an erect position under the mud, so that the holes correspond with the extremities of their tubes.

The razor fishes are remarkable for their long narrow shells, which might remind us of a pod of a bean. The pod razor shell is a long shell covered with a thin skin of a light brown or olive green, which when rubbed off shows the shells to be white, with a few bands of dull purple. The sabre razor shell is curved and more slender. It also inhabits deeper water. The pod razors may be found by digging wet sand to the depth of about two feet.

Little jets of sand and water mixed may sometimes be seen issuing from the surface sand beneath our feet. These are caused by the presence of cockles.

Every sea teems with some of the numerous species of scallop. One of the most highly coloured of our common kinds is the tiger scallop, which is streaked with every variety of marking of brownish red, lilac, chocolate, yellow and white.

Three common species of limpet may be found, the common limpet, which is nearly round or conical, and usually an olive or yellowish colour; the horse limpet, more triangular in shape; and a beautiful little limpet, common in the long leaf of the tangle of the seaweed, the pellucid limpet, which is clear and thin, of dark olive, rayed with brilliant blue.

It is probable that the limpet takes several years to attain its full growth, and during that period it frequents the same spot which becomes gradually sunk below the surrounding surface, especially if the rock be formed of carbonate of lime. The limpet has a strong internal ligament, which it contracts so as to create a vacuum. When the tide rises, the limpet detaches itself and feeds on minute algae, returning to its own little spot on the rock with the rising water. Limpets have two eyes on the ends of their tentacles like little pits or depressions. Young limpets start life in April. Several millions of these creatures are used annually in Great Britain as bait.

A less common kind of limpet than any of the former is the keyhole limpet, so called on account of an oblong aperture at their summit, shaped exactly like a keyhole. Of what use this may be to the creature it is hard to say.

Few shells are more similar to those of our land snails in form than is the pretty, glossy brown species called the sea snail. It is very abundant on our sandy shores. The false wentletrap, a very long spiral shell of a whitish colour and thickly ribbed, is another frequent kind. Then there are parasitic shellfish, which infest living animals. One of these, the stylifer, is among mollusca what the ichneumon is among insects, dwelling within the fleshy substance of the starfish, almost hidden from sight, and like the parasitic insect, avoiding till the end the vital parts of its victim. It is never found except in the rays, and it looks like a little glass bubble.

There is a shell found on most of our shores, though not in great numbers, except on some parts of the southern coast, which is called the Torquay nightcap. It is shaped like a little cap of liberty.

The tooth shells are dainty little shells, often found, but always empty when cast on our shores, as the living animals, which are sand burrowers, live at the depth of from ten to a hundred fathoms. The younger shells are incomplete. The common dentalium, when full grown, is like a horn, slightly curved, of white or yellowish colour, and about an inch and a half long.

I once found on the beach at Hastings a little worm-like creature with many feet and of the most brilliant iridescent colours. I was eight years old then, but I have never forgotten my surprise and delight at this discovery. Yet the sea mouse, for so it is called, is not very uncommon, but it is wont to hide among the weeds and under the sides of rocks and so is seldom seen. By a little turning over of the weeds it may be discovered. It is about six to eight inches in length and has a plated back. The plates are covered by a filmy substance resembling tow, and it has flexible bristles radiating glorious sheeny colours; sea hedgehogs, or sea porcupine, would suit it better than its real name, but if we want to classify it scientifically we should place it not certainly with the mouse but with the earth-worms, for it is one of the Annelides, that is, creatures having rings. In this class also we find the Serpula, which makes so strange a dwelling-place for itself, and the Cerebellae, whose homes are even prettier objects because they are more thickly studded with pieces of shells mingled with the sand, and forming a dainty piece of mosaic work.

But the weird strange creatures that meet us at every turn must be left in their thousands unnumbered. The "sea's abundant progeny" is so limitless. However many treasures we have collected, we must leave many more unnoticed at our feet. Skates' eggs, weird and black, whelks' eggs, blown hither and thither across the shore, dog-fishes' eggs, those dainty little "mermaid's" purses, strange pebbles, strange shells, strange corallines that blossom unexpectedly into life—all must be passed ruthlessly by as we hurry homeward. A few of the common seaweeds we pick on our way however.

The largest of our common marine plants is the knobbed focus (Fucus nodosus), with its thick leathery stems, sometimes several feet long, and its air vessels or bladder-floats. Commoner still is the bladder wrack (Fucus vesisculosus), with bladders in its very substance and a strongly marked ridge running through its midst. The ostioles, as the little pits in this plant are scientifically called, are interesting subjects under the microscope. Then there is the serrated focus, whose brown spray contains no bladders, and which may be known by its saw like edges.

The common sea-belt, or sea-girdle, is like a long narrow leaf with a curled margin fastened to a very thick stem and ending in a cluster of very strong fibres. The sea-belt is the seaweed that some people hang up as a barometer. It is one of the oarweeds (Laminaria). Another is the bulbous oarweed, sometimes called furbelows. It is a long broad leaf cut into several segments which stream in the water. It has a flat stem which has one twist in it and a waved margin, which latter gives it its second name of furbelows.

Seaweeds may be conveniently classed into three great classes—the blue-brown, or olive-green, the grass-green and the red. The first kind are the largest and grow at about half-tide level. Fucus and Laminaria are in this first class. The slimy cord-like weeds, the sea laces, belong to the second class. The red seaweeds are the most delicate. Some are shaped like the leaf of a tree, as, for instance, the oak-leaved Delessaria.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008