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a newcomer’s trail of exploration on the beaches and shores of her patch of the French Channel coastline

a newcomer’s trail of exploration on the beaches and shores of her patch of the French Channel coastline

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  • Prejudice v social networking in general, blogs in partic. Lack of understanding. Some political commentators, activists. Others photos recipes, advice on wealth of subjects, journals. My answer to handwritten and printing pix
  • Privacy issues Password protect some posts for friends and family.
  • NE tip Cotentin/Cherbourg. S of IOW. Ferries Portsmouth and Poole. West exposed to westerlies, east sheltered except northeasterlies. Rock types are metamorphic, igneous including extension of Breton granites.
  • Blog of March 2009
  • Cradle of the Normandy oyster. St Vaast most important industry. 250ha of shore 6,500 tons of oysters
  • Tide ebb, expansive shore. Early days fished from natural beds, leading to some management by storing oysters on the intermittently accessible foreshore. Young oysters settling on older. Led to more structured farming.
  • When tide out tractors access the shore. Process of moving oysters around the shore. Ready for market brought in close secured there. Oysters needing more time to grow lower on shore for more immersion time to feed. Tractor men brings sacks to and fro. At depot tapped apart, rebagged returned on the next tide. Oysters need more room as they grow
  • Continual traffic, as many as 30-40 tractors shuffling the sacks around
  • Ready for market
  • Tide turns but work to the last minute
  • Good spat-falls mean good settlement on local rocks. Can gather. No pilferage from sacks
  • Not uncommon sightespec after storms. Altho securely attached to trestles inevitably in rough weather some are detached. They may get ripped, oysters washed out and distrib. Or plunder but this is illegal.
  • French poet “I love oysters, it’s like kissing the sea on the lips.” Dispassionate friend like drowning. Jonathan Swift “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”
  • Here we boldly go
  • Mussel aquaculture important too. Cooked in mariniere liquor in individual steamers and served with chips
  • John likes them
  • a lot
  • Other side of town. North end of Utah beach, 5 km long
  • Dump shelly waste, shell pavement
  • Oyster park and sand flats. Oyster on other side of town, area of saltmarsh emptying out on good low tides
  • Silty sands ideal terrain for cockles. Tower on La Hougue
  • Near surface
  • Just below, small rakes, fingers easy to find
  • A good haul from a systematically worked stretch
  • Charlie prefers to traditional method with a long handled rake.
  • According to my Edible seashore bible cockles are not happy out of their environment and will drop dead at the first opportunity. So eat them asap. As cockles are little purses of sand when first collected they need to be cleaned. Overnight in a shallow tray of salt water (35gsalt/litre), cool and aerated. Cook only cockles which snap shut when you squeeze them and eat only cockles which gape when cooked – this applies to all bivalves. John Wright gives lots of recipes
  • Hold up Edible Seashore
  • Big tides regular and extensive flushing of the shore. Rules in France and England are probably different
  • When you are at a shore before heading home if time check the upper shore.
  • Looked with Bas Steve Tom Clifton March 2008. sea purslane, sea blite, boulders slabs to look under
  • Sure enough Truncatella, looping snail caterpillar-like gait
  • Flats at s margin oyster park, Vauban tower in distance. Equinox tides bring out fishers for traditions Peche a pied
  • When big big tides coincide with Easter a spectacle with people across the seascape. Come with forks, rakes, baskets and buckets primarily for razor clams. Large beds around St V
  • The species is Ensisarcuatus, huge quantities are taken and the level of predation seems to be sustained. Most fishers work with forks and here I refer to my blog:
  • In addition to Ensis other species
  • Let’s say a bit about clamming
  • Blog:
  • Digging hole fills, fish around with hands
  • Success
  • Decent haul for pasta, paella
  • Before leave clamming return to the shore
  • Highly prized, not easy to find, I have not found one in my clamming activities
  • Tatihou offshore. St Michaels Mt. oyster tables and causeway across. 29 ha no more than 500 visitors a day. Sanctuary birds, grazing for sheep sold locally. Restored building includingVauban tower
  • Boat plies between island and mainland. Wheeled vehicle when tide out
  • Boat when tide in.
  • Vauban, celeb engineer, one of 12 fortified buildings most in this pepperpot style. After battle of La Hougue in 1692 the two watch towers on Tatihou and La Hougue were built.
  • View to St V
  • View north to yet more sands and cockle beds
  • Rocky shore beneath
  • Shores around Tatihou the full range of intertidal trochaceans
  • Gibumb and Gibpennanti. Latter northern limits French coast and Channel Is
  • Littorinacompressa, still often referred to as nigrolineata. But in my experience more often encountered as plain yellow or cream white. Shell sculpture is of rather broad, distinct but flattened spiral ribs, separated by deep and narrow grooves. The outline is slightly more elongate than saxatilis
  • Closer view from the air. The tower is bottom right and the square compound is the former lazaret, used as a quarantine station during the 17C plague. Closed then marine stn NHM Paris then educational uses. Abandon 1984-1990 during which attracted massive bird colonies. Reopen heritage cente and nature reserve. It now offers weekend courses in intertidal biology, seafood cookery, astronomy . Within compound subtropical gardens
  • There is a small subtropical botanical garden within the walled grounds of the buildings and it is managed in placesto a level which prevents wilderness taking over. In those gardens the most spectacular botanical displays are the large clumps of Echiumfastuosum
  • And single stemmed E pininana. It is a biennial and seeds freely – this year the gravels below that plant were awash with seedlings and a box of compost we brought back to the uk is nurturing at least a couple of dozen plants. I am trying this Echium at WK and if this winter is as gentle as last years was severe I may have some success – and numerous plants needing a home.
  • Just north of Tatihou we have the headland of Pointe de Saire. As you might assume this area of soft sediments and rock outcrop is a site of deposition for shells
  • Looking east with the tower on Tatihou to the right of the picture
  • Rock platform, outcrop, pools, intertidal channels, raised ridges
  • Perfect place for the shell seekers
  • Strandline scatter, beach pockets, scour moats, shell banks as raised berms, dominated by Crepidula
  • Scan surface for conspicuous species, Trivia, Epitonium, Calliostoma, sunset shell. Look closely and if deposits shell rich take some for sorting at home.
  • North coast exposed more exposed
  • Occasional Nautilus
  • If lucky ormer Haliotistuberculata
  • Farmed in France, commercial fishery 1994 along Breton coast, reg by permits and quotas. Occur onChannel Is and are collected under restrictions designed to protect local populations from over-exploitation. Delicacy tasting unlike any other mollusc meat.
  • Cap Levi. Walking on Utah Beach after storms Nick picked up a moribund fully grown ormer with some flesh in tact. First evidence on east altho knew west occurrences. Our neighbour, a source of much local knowledge, suggest Cap Levi
  • A sprawling site below the lighthouse. Francois joined us
  • You have to work the lower shore which on spring tides takes you into the treacherous reaches of the kelp zone. Over the ears I have laboured in this zone with various degrees of success. The kelp is incredibly slippery but what is worse is that the stipes of the kelp wrap round your ankles as you move about and act as a tether. I’ve taken many a tumble
  • Fortunately now I wear neopryn chest waders I no longer get a soaking, and I get a softer landing
  • Oases. You can search under boulders lying over the sands and gravels. Unfortu. Not good ormer territory
  • You will find C. varia and 3cm Acanthochitona. But experience, and more importantly talking to other fishers has taught me that you won’t necessarily find ormers using that strategy. What I finally learnt that day is that the normal strategy of looking under rocks nicely bedded on sands and gravels wont’ yield results. Where you find ormers is under rocks sitting on a lattice of other nicely bedded rocks, or tucked into crevices.
  • So to this sandy shore, Maupertus e of Cherbg. Beach all goods shop window, clean swept sands, rock margins. Not much washed up when I took this photo.
  • Revisit Nov. Check strandline, devoid of molluscs not even Sepia. But this shore has a secret place.
  • AS near cliff margin, the unbroken margin proves to have interruptions.
  • Round the small promontory there is a small sea cave, right height onshore to be very interesting. Large enough to squeeze inside to look at the walls. I can see they are coated red green coralline films and crusts. Nicely fissured walls. Time was I would flatten myself along one face to investigate but with age comes caution. This is a place to return to with a torch and more pairs of eyes
  • Hope for Paludinella. Perhaps some come and look. The discovery of this small cave brings to mind my favourite quotation
  • Little Gidding is the 4th and final poem of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, series of poems published in 1942 after being delayed for over a year because of air-raids over Great Britain during the war and his declining health


  • 1. or, a newcomer’s trail of exploration on the beaches and shores of her patch of the French Channel coastline
  • 2. Big thanks to companionson the shore, and to PaulChambers, John LlewellynJones, Richard Lord, BasPayne, Ben Rowson, SteveWilkinson for use of theirphotos 
  • 3. A website where a person writes regularlyabout recent events or a particular topic,sometimes with new information addedevery few minutes as events happen, andwith the opportunity for readers to send intheir own comments and opinions.(coined in 1997 as a ‘weblog’, from whichthe phrase ‘we blog’ was derived.)
  • 4. My ‘patch’ extends from Cherbourg east along the north Cotentin coast and south to St Vaast LaHougue which is at the north end of Utah Beach. There are rocky shores and sandy bays.
  • 5. “As I coast up the shallow slopes of dreamworld the unmistakable sound of tractors passing thehouse seeps into my consciousness. The oystermen are on their way to work. I find it pleasingthat I can enjoy the friendly sound of a tractor, hinting at provender and productivity. It’s nothorticulture but aquaculture of oysters and mussels, in the waters off St Vaast La Hougue.”
  • 6. St Vaast La Hougue is the cradle of the Normandy oyster. It is the town’s most importantindustry with 250 hectares of shore given over to oyster farming, yielding 6,500 tons per year
  • 7. As the tide ebbs an expansive area of shore is exposed. In the early days oysters were simplyfished from natural beds and then gradually a degree of management of stocks came about bystoring oysters over the intermittently accessible foreshore. It was noticed that young oysterswere settling on adult shells and thus evolved a more structured approach to oyster-farming.
  • 8. The tide goes out, the tractors access the shore. They bring sacks of oysters from the depotback to the shore, and others will be taken back to the depot. Sacks are moved up and down theshore; those ready for market are brought inshore and secured to readily accessible trestles.Oysters needing more time to grow are taken to trestles low on the shore where they willexperience longer periods of submersion to feed, filtering plankton from seawater.
  • 9. There is a continual traffic with as many as 30 or 40 tractors moving the oyster sacks around theshore. Sacks of oysters taken away at the end of the low tide will be sorted, graded and oystersthat are cemented together will be knocked apart. As oysters grow they must be rebagged.
  • 10. Ready for market
  • 11. And once the tide turns that is the day’s work done. Tractors may linger until the last minute,working the vestiges of exposed shore until the rising tide forces them back onto dry land.
  • 12. When you get good spat-falls the hard substrates around the oyster park are colonised byoysters which cement themselves to the rocks. Whilst pilfering from sacks is strictly forbiddenthe public may gather ‘escapees’ by knocking them off the rocks with chisels and hammers.
  • 13. Empty sacks like this are not an uncommon sight on the beaches, especially after storms.Although sacks are securely attached to trestles inevitably, in very rough weather, some sackshave become detached and are strewn across the beaches. They may get ripped and the oysters,washed out and scattered along the beach. Or they may be plundered although this is illegal.
  • 14. A French poet once wrote “I love oysters, it’s like kissing the sea on the lips”. A friend remarkedrather more dispassionately that when she tried an oyster she felt as if she was drowning.
  • 15. Perhaps Jonathan Swift got it right when he said “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”.
  • 16. Mussel aquaculture isimportant too. Mussels aresteamed in a marinièreliquor in individual pots,which are then brought tothe table.
  • 17. If you like mussels, there is nothing finer for lunch, with a bowl of chips too…………………..
  • 18. …………………… and the cooking liquor is just too fine to waste!
  • 19. On the other side of town there is the north end of the 5-km long Utah Beach
  • 20. Here the foreshore becomes a dumping ground for the shelly waste of the locals, giving rise toan attractive shell pavement of scallop, mussel and oyster shell
  • 21. The outlines of the submerged oyster trestles as they lie west of La Hougue promontory arevisible. This area of muddy sandflats empties out completely at low tide, allowing the oyster‘farmers’ access to manage the stocks.
  • 22. Picture of north end utah beachWith the Vauban tower on the Hougue in the distance, this huge area of cockle flats can beaccessed on any low tide. It is a perfect territory for cockle-fishing.
  • 23. Cockles are very shallow burrowers and often you can find them at the surface of the sand
  • 24. Cockling is an activity to engage the whole family and demonstrates that foraging is fun too
  • 25. Within a short space of time and over a compact area of the shore you can rake up a good haul
  • 26. For Charlie size is important –happiness is a long-handledrake.
  • 27. Cockles are not happy out oftheir environment anddeteriorate rapidly. They arelittle ‘purses of sand’ so needto be cleaned. Left for a fewhours or overnight in saltwater (35g salt/litre) they willpurge themselves of sand.Cook only cockles which snapshut when squeezed, and eatonly cockles which gape openafter cooking.
  • 28.  If you are new to the game ideally get hold of a copy of a suitable handbook: Edible Seashore by JohnWright is excellent. Read chapters on Foraging Safely and The Rule Book. Before you access the shore feel confident about the weather and the state of the tide. If the substrate underfoot is unstable in any way don’t venture out. You need to be aware of any legal constraints with regard to the shore you are accessing. Be aware of any species of animal or alga that you may not collect for legal/conservation reasons.
  • 29.  Talk to local fishermen/local authorities about water quality. Collect only from obvious clean areas. Use the sensible old adage of avoiding months that lack an ‘r’. Give the bivalves time to clean themselves for a few hours in well-aerated salted water. Unless you are sure they are from Category ‘A’ waters, always thoroughly cook any shellfish you gather. Check for signs of life before you cook them.
  • 30. For conchologists some of the most interesting mollusc species live in an unlikely habitat.
  • 31. You must look under boulders and slabs of rock at the spring tide high water mark. This zone is
  • 32. The rare looping snail lives in interstitial sediment under rocks where it is dark and damp. It is aRed Data Book species which means it receives protection under Conservation legislation.
  • 33. The sandflats to the south of the oyster park are the focus of foraging activity during springtides, and especially when the Equinox tides coincide with Easter weekend. This tradition isembedded in French coastal culture and is called Pêche à pied.
  • 34. On a shore with a low gradient the tide goes out a very long way, revealingan expanse of flats which will accommodate a large number of ‘pêcheurs’.
  • 35. The principal quarry on these sandflats is the razor clam. You need to develop a bit of skill tocollect them. Razor clams lie perpendicular in the sands. You can detect a potential burrow bywatching for spouts of water as you walk over the sediment. Identify the spout hole and thendig rapidly because the mollusc can also dig deep and rapidly with its strong, long foot.
  • 36. Also from these flats you get an assemblage of edible bivalves
  • 37. “All you need to dig for clams is the ability to look and learn. We lugged a large garden sieve, afork, spade and rake to the shore. The sieve was too fine for the gravels so we had to dig a holethen search it. To begin with you dig rather randomly and occasionally strike lucky.”
  • 38. “After a while we noticed siphon holes developing in the sands and gravels as the water drainedaway and the sediments dried out a bit. What we noticed on the shore is that not all the siphonholes were the same size or shape and that we could recognise, perhaps, six differenttypes. With experience we learnt to recognise the siphon holes for the different species of clamwe were finding and then I became confident and would announce before I put spade to sandhow many and what species I would collect!”
  • 39. Once you start digging, your hole starts to puddle with water…
  • 40. ….and you can be very pleased when you find a clam……………….
  • 41. …………. and here’s a decent haul, composed of species traditionally associated with eating andothers less familiar. All these can be chucked into a paella or pasta dish. Some species weremore abundant than others: Dosinia clams (which are somewhat less tasty than some othertypes) were very plentiful but another species, Gari depressa, was very sparse. .”
  • 42. Before we leave the topic of clamming here are some afficionados searching for a particularprey item….
  • 43. Venus verrucosa known locally as ‘le Praire’ which translates to ‘the Priest’
  • 44. The islet of Tatihou lies just offshore, and rather like St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall is accessibleon low tides by a causeway. You can see the submerged trace of the causeway running betweenthe oyster trestles. With an area 29 ha. it receives no more than 500 visitors a day at peaktimes. It harbours a bird sanctuary, offers grazing for sheep whose meat is sold by localbutchers. There are some restored historical buildings including one of the famous Vauban‘pepperpot’ towers, and a maritime museum whose exhibitions change every 18 months or so.
  • 45. There is an amphibious boat which plies between the island and the mainland. When the tide isout it is a wheeled vehicle…………..
  • 46. …………………..when the tide is in it’s a boat.
  • 47. This is one of the 12 fortified buildings designed by the celebrated engineer, Vauban. This andthe other watchtower on the end of La Hougue were built after the French naval defeat in 1692.
  • 48. Looking west to St Vaast La Hougue
  • 49. Looking northeast to Reville and Jonville
  • 50. Looking down onto the lower shore rock platform at low tide
  • 51. Osilinus lineatus Gibbula magusCalliostoma zizyphinum Tricolia pullus
  • 52. Gibbula umbilicalis: dorsal and ventral viewsGibbula pennanti: dorsal and ventral views
  • 53. Littorina compressa
  • 54. Lets take a closer look at the structure on the western side of Tatihou. It is a former lazaretdating from 1720 as a quarantine station during the Plague. After closure it was intermittentlyused as a marine laboratory for scientists, then for educational purposes for young people.There was a short period of abandonment (1984-1990) during which it attracted massive birdcolonies. It was reopened as nature reserve and heritage centre and has sub-tropical gardens.
  • 55. The sub-tropical botanical garden in the walled grounds of the fieldstation and museum is managed to a level which prevents wildernesstaking over. In those gardens some of the most spectacular botanicaldisplays are the large clumps of Echium fastuosum.
  • 56. I have successfully established thesingle stemmed species, E. pininana inour Normandy garden. It is a biennialand seeds freely. This year the gravelswere awash with seedlings and a boxof compost is nurturing at least 2dozen plants awaiting new homes. Iam trying this Echium in WinterborneKingston. If this winter is as gentle aslast year’s was severe I may havesome success………… and numerousplants needing new homes!
  • 57. Lets go due north from Tatihou to Pointe de Saire, a headland of disjunct rock outcrops and apoint of deposition.
  • 58. A view looking west with the Vauban tower on La Hougue at the horizon
  • 59. This is a headland of rock platform and outcrop, pools and intertidal channels.
  • 60. Perfect spot for the Shell Seekers
  • 61. Some shells are washed in and accumulate as strandlines at various horizons down the beach tothe water-line, or they collect as beach pockets and in scour moats. They form shelly banks,dominated by slipper limpets, Crepidula fornicata, but with many other species mixed in.
  • 62. It is worth scanning the surface for conspicuous species, Calliostoma, Trivia, Epitonium. Eye-catching freshly cleaned bivalves such as the Sunset Shell (Gari depressa) catch the attention.
  • 63. Let’s leave the shelter of the east coast and go north where it can be rather exposed and barren.
  • 64. ………………… although you might find the occasional Nautilus!
  • 65. If you are lucky you might find an ormer shell as well: the highly desirable Haliotis tuberculata.
  • 66. Ormers are farmed inFrance; a commercial fisheryopened up along the Bretoncoast in 1994. It is regulatedby permits and quotas.Finding an ormer on ourlocal east Cotentin shore israther exciting. They occuron all the Channel Islands,and are collected undercertain restrictions whichare designed to protect thelocal populations from over-exploitation. They areconsidered a delicacy with ataste quite like any othermarine mollusc. I knew thatthey also occur along thewest Cotentin.
  • 67. Walking one day along the waterline on Utah Beach, after stormy weather, we found a fullygrown ormer with a moribund animal intact. This was my first evidence that ormers may beliving on the eastern coasts of the Cotentin. One of our neighbours told us that he had heardthat ormers are taken from the shore below Cap Levi.
  • 68. When the tide goes out a sprawling rock platform with areas of standing water is revealed.
  • 69. If you are going to search for ormers you will find yourself searching amongst the kelp jungle. Itis treacherous because the alga is slippery, the stipes wrap round your ankles, tethering you as
  • 70. You can work around the marginal kelp and boulder areas with relative ease. Knee-high in waterand wearing chest waders you are less likely to take a tumble. Unfortunately this is not goodormer territory.
  • 71. What I learnt on this day is that ormers seem to avoid contact with sandy gravelly substrates.Where you do find ormers is under rocks which are sitting on a lattice of other bedded rocks ortucked into crevices. You may even find them relatively high on the shore if the crevice appearsto be sheltered, damp and private enough.
  • 72. Chlamys varia Acanthochitona crinitus Ormers live under interbedded rocks and in crevices
  • 73. And so to this sandy shore near Maupertus, east of Cherbourg. A beach which in a senseappears to have all its goods in the shop window. Clean swept sands, rocky margins. Not verymuch was washed up on this shore when I took this photo. Maybe you’d find a few bivalvessieving at low tide.
  • 74. I revisited the site one November to look at the strandlines for clues. This is when I found one ofthose secret places that the coast can throw up and surprise you with every now and then.
  • 75. Something about the rocks looks interesting here.
  • 76. A sea cave, at the right height on the shore to be interesting. It is just large enough for a personto squeeze inside to have a look at the walls. I can see that they are coated in red, green andcoralline algal films and crusts. The walls are nicely fissured. I had no idea that this cave washere and it is a place to return to with a powerful torch, and the eyes of some companions.
  • 77. What I hope we’d findliving there isPaludinella littorina.This tiny snail is globoseand has glossy shellwith a relatively broadprotoconch. Adults arerarely more than 2mmhigh and 1.7mmdiameter. The shell hasbeen considered rare,and was until recentlyprotected under theWildlife & CountrysideAct. However surveywork in the past 2decades has shown thatits rarity is more a factorof the difficulty infinding it in situ. Thisputs me in mind of myfavourite quotation:
  • 78. We shall not cease fromexploration. And the end of allour exploring will be to arrivewhere we started and know theplace for the first time.T.S. ELIOT Little Gidding, 1942