Shells, birds and beaches
As a lad, I found a heart-shaped flint marked with a star on this stretch of coast. I knew it as a ‘Shepherd’s Crown’, though these fossil sea urchins are the stuff of many legends and local names. It was also a ‘Fairy Loaf’ that ensured successful bread making, or a ‘Thunderstone’, placed on a windowsill to protect against lightning. The fact that I’ve turned up similar stones in my garden in Bowcombe is a reminder that millions of years ago the Island was under the sea.
The southern most tip of the Island at St Catherine’s Point marks the eastern end of the Back of the Wight that extends from Freshwater Bay in the west. It gets a daily mention on Radio 4 at 48 minutes past midnight when its weather report features in the Shipping Forecast.
Despite the exposed nature of the coast, spring comes early to this part of the Island, where the Undercliff commences and stretches another five miles east. The shelter it provides to the sunny south facing woodland and scrub, so close to the warmer sea air, means many plants that die back elsewhere can be seen in bloom along the footpaths and tracks virtually all year round.
Just east of Rocken End and Watershoot Bay, a small and remote bay with a wild rocky shoreline, I reach Knowles Farm. Perhaps named after one of my distant ancestors, it’s a large area of hummocky ground, where over the years landslips have left an undulating terrain littered with huge boulders, rocky outcrops and grass covered mounds.
Ironically, Knowles Farm was where Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radiotelegraph, set up an experimental station in 1900 and pushed us further into the world of modern communications technology. The coastline east of here also features highly in the Island’s wartime history as the site of three radar stations that were part of the Chain Home early warning system.
Walking along the cliff top towards St Catherine’s Lighthouse, the beach is about 50ft below and I’m surprised to see the grass on the cliff edge littered with limpet shells, many upside down. Quite how the shells have found their way up this high is not immediately clear. Maybe a child’s beach souvenir collection dropped on the walk home, or blown onto the cliff during a storm.
A number of birds are known to drop shellfish from a height onto rocks to smash their hard shell to get at the flesh inside, but the shells I find are sitting intact on the soft grass. Oystercatchers are known to include large numbers of limpets in their diet, dislodging the tough molluscs from their strong anchorages with a sharp and well aimed blow from its distinctive orange bill. Once the fleshy contents are eaten, the empty shell is left, frequently upside down. So, mystery solved.