I’ve spent a fair bit of time lately walking the coast of the island, and in particular down at the small beach below my croft. It’s not been beach weather here in the conventional sense of the expression – it’s been typically cool and chilly, although we’ve had a few sunny and warmish days lately – but there’s something about being at the cusp of land and sea that feels good for the soul and lifts you a little when you’re feeling down.
For decades this small beach was the gateway to the sea for the men who lived at my end of the island. They cleared a channel through the submerged rocks that exists to this day; some rusted winches remain at the head of the beach, and a collapsed boat house (‘The Bonxie’; a flit boat that ended its life upturned as the roof of a small building) lies to the north-easterly end of the shore. There are often Otter tracks in the sand, and I see these charismatic animals from time to time down there from the kitchen window. Occasionally there are Harbour Porpoises offshore; and there is a good area of Shetland’s immense kelp forest exposed at low tides.
I remember as a child in Cornwall walking from Illogan down to Portreath and the large rock-pool fringed beach there. I’d spend hours looking for sea shells; and holding out for a hugely anticipated Kelly’s ice cream. It’s a trip into the past then to pick along the small strandline on this Shetland beach and see what’s to be found – mostly Flat Periwinkles in a myriad of colours from shocking yellow to dark olive, occasionally striped with livid orange bands; and good numbers of Grey and Flat Top Shells, Dog Whelks, and Common Periwinkles.
(But no ice cream. Sadly!)
The limpets remain a challenge for another day – I’m sure of the identity of the Common and iridescent Blue-rayed Limpets, but I think there may be other species here too. I need to pay them closer heed. I get easily distracted by the scarcer prizes – the beautiful Painted Top Shells, and the very occasional cowrie.
There are two species of cowrie here, and neither is easily found. The commoner of the two is the European (or Spotted) Cowrie Trivia monacha, and the scarcer is the Northern Cowrie Trivia arctica. I’m doing well if I find one of either during a visit to the beach. They’re small, easily overlooked, and appear to be genuinely uncommon compared to the other seashells found there.
That said, as a child they were hard to find in Cornwall too; and so too on a childhood holiday to Jersey. Did I ever find one when I lived in Kent? I don’t think I did. I’ve a feeling that European Cowries probably don’t exist anywhere in the British Isles at a high population density, and they’re always going to be the star find on any beachcombing expedition wherever you may be. There’s a clue in the Latin name for them – ‘monacha‘ means solitary, which seems appropriate for these elusive but subtly attractive shells.
My Cornish grandmother used to say that one should only ever give a cowrie you’d been fortunate enough to find to one’s true love. It’s a lovely thought even now, and I’ve only given one cowrie away in Shetland… Those I find here on the beach come home with me, and remind me of happy times past, and good times hopefully still to come.