Winter is the season people love to hate. It’s dark when you leave the house in the morning, and it’s dark when you get back home. It’s wet. It’s cold. It’s often wet and cold. The landscape seems empty, dull, lifeless.
Look a little closer, and there is actually a lot to see. You could easily name a robin as soon as this inquisitive little bird comes into sight on a nearby branch. Other little birds maybe less familiar, but they are there too fleeting between branches. Trees may stand naked in woodlands and fields, yet they stand proud. And so they should, for a real beauty is exposed, normally hidden during other seasons: lichen. Attached to the bark is a remarkably large assortment of lichen species: flat crusty yellow ones, small green fury ones, and wavy lettuce ones. Natures very own henna tattoos.
For most of us, when we build up the courage to step outside in the cold harshness of winter, we don’t stop to look at the trunk of a tree. We mutter an expletive at the cold or the wet (mostly at the cold and the wet), and do what we have to do quickly. No-one wants to be out in the cold longer than they need to be.
Nature is asleep and most people just want her to wake up. There is one place during winter which never really sleeps.
A trip to the beach is normally the thing to do in the summer. Us Brits go beach crazy at the slightest sign of a blue sky in the summer. Beaches are rammed with towels, wind breakers, and half naked people risking 10 years off their lives for a few weeks of a tanned body (which inevitably ends up as extremely painful sunburn – we always forget we have pretty fair skin).
In truth, beaches are best enjoyed during winter. Stepping out of the warm car, a fresh cold wind blasts your face for a minute. Your wellies are on, coat is zipped up, and you are ready. Your wellies make deeper footprints than your summer bare feet as you start to walk on the sand. Or if you walk onto the shingle, there is a loud crunch under your feet. After a moment, you don’t really notice the cold. What you do notice is the beach. The stillness. Silence: just the waves rushing in gently, and pulling out again. Apart from a few people scattered here and there, and a colony of sea gulls, the beach is yours.
It’s lovely to walk along an empty beach. What’s more, my little ones love it too. There’s more than just sand (or shingle) and water, and my little ones are fully aware. We always head to the where the water meets the sand/shingle (called the strandline) first, and then follow it to the end of the beach. We then sharply change direction, following the rocks to the top of the beach, before following the beach back to where we began. A nice circle walk on a beach. Sounds exciting? Oh, it really is. One walk and three surprisingly different areas to explore!
Splashing in the cold sea water is just one of the joys of walking along the strandline. We often run in together as the water is being sucked out, and play a little game of ‘chicken’ to see who stays the longest before the water gushes back in again. Often my two get a little too confident and I end up lifting them both up to save them from getting drenched – the waves don’t care who is in the way, and icy cold water sops over into my wellies.
To the untrained eye, the tide has left a lot of green smelly seaweed. My son, however, spots different types of seaweeds: red and green, and a thin branching, coraline one. He picks up barnacles, shells, and even a sea anemone and some jellyfish! His little sister watches him, and she starts to spot things too, a shiny mussel shell, a sponge, and a marine worm. Thier eyes pick out everything. Thier little fingers, red and cold, examines each new thing closely, eagerly asking questions, and enthusiastically telling each other. The receding tide leave a lot things on the beach, evidence of life hidden beneath the waves.
On one beach a year ago, we saw a hermit crab washed up, and the empty shell was just a few meters away. It may have been looking for a bigger shell, but Creb wasn’t moving anywhere. (My then 4 year old thought of the name Creb – perhaps because it sounded like Crab? Nothing to do with Clan of the Cave Bear!) With sea gulls around, we moved Creb to a safer rock pool area, and built a little shelter out of slate for protection.
At the end of our beach are cliffs. Undeterred by the cold, and without a break, here is where we explore next. This is a different place. Walking along the strand line we saw lots of wonderful things washed up, but they were all dead things. At the base of the cliffs, there are pools. Pools full of live to peer into. Humans have placed lots of large boulders, which helps (a little) to protect the cliffs from the never-ending onslaught of the sea. As the tide recedes, small pools of water were left between rocks and boulders, and with them so were some animals.
We scramble over the jagged rocks, and spread out. Carefully we all start to look in the rock pools, and lift up rocks. Shrimp, almost translucent, zoom across the water. A crab scurries and squeezes itself under another nearby rock to hide. Hermit crabs vanish with alarming speed inside their shells. Cushion stars stay perfectly still on a rock we just lifted. Here, each little pool is full of life! It takes us a surprising amount of time to make our way up to the top of the beach: each rock pool is carefully explored with loud excited shouts when something is found (and both my little ones are careful to put the rocks back how they were).
We eventually reach the top of the beach, where a path runs parallel to the sea. We follow it back, along the sand, not on the path. Here we would be walking a foot or so deep in water if it was high tide. Fortunately it’s not. My toes are still numb from being soaked to save my children earlier. The walk back is calmer and we talk about what we have seen already, with our eyes to the ground. Sentences are cut off as someone spots something: a mermaids purse (the egg case of a nurse hound), a delicate sea urchin, a squid beak. Just a few examples of how amazingly rich the marine life here is: we didn’t see a squid, but we found a squid beak so we know they are swimming out there. Holding it in their cold little hands, they both look at it, and then out to the water. It is easy to imagine what they are thinking.
Colourful shells and polished stones are all picked up, and placed in pockets. Crab claws too. And there are lots of them. I explain that as the tide was going out to sea, sea gulls would have eaten a few unlucky crabs. My son points to the colony who are still there. He asks why two are bigger and darker than the others. I didn’t spot them earlier on, but he is right: two of the sea gulls are actually greater blacked back gull! I haven’t seen one before that day! These are a bigger species than your common gull and they are magnificent to see. (To view the world through a 5 year olds eyes is something we should all try – we would see everything differently, and see so much more.)
Winters on a beach are the best times on a beach. There are hardly any people and the beach is yours to explore. The tide exposes an otherwise hidden world that we can discover for ourselves. It is difficult to respect what you cannot see: with each visit we see something new, and our respect grows. Not only our respect for nature as adults, but my little ones respect grows too. I don’t want them to be Eco-warriors. But by being able to see and hold the varitey of creatures along the shore, they have a richer understanding of the world around them, and appreciate its beauty.