Eye on Nature: The shifting sand, shingle and stones beneath our feet

There is a wealth of geology on apparently humdrum Irish beaches where beauty and variety can be found in the quartz, jasper and flint pebbles that abound

Shimmering stone: Carrowniskey beach before storms. Illustration: Michael Viney

Shimmering stone: Carrowniskey beach before storms. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00

Much of the recent excess of summer was veiled on this Mayo hillside by days of Atlantic drizzle (not wholly unwelcome; we are a temperate pair). But along with media images of human throngs at the Dublin tideline came others from England that revisited my childhood: in particular, Brighton beach, packed with sun-drenched figures, the Palace Pier shimmering beyond.

I remember the same scene from August in the last few years of peacetime before the second World War, and long before the workers could afford to holiday abroad. Any glimmer of fine weather brought trainloads of “trippers” from London, marching down the hill to the sea, their shoes rippling across the grid of glass eyes in the pavement above our kitchen. By noon, down on the shingle, one had to pick one’s way between the towels.

Other images came from the beach at dusk, of couples curled up for the night, fitting hips into the warm shingle as comfortably as beanbags. I never quite managed this, even in the wilder reaches of my teens, but it brought back the salty smoothness of the pebbles, the seaweedy fragrance that clung to them, the colours and patterns revealed by a flick of the tongue.

It is hard to believe that nine-tenths of them were flint. These nodules of silica had hardened in cavities of seabed chalk, enveloping the skeletons of sponges and urchins; they were then raised up in cliffs and later scattered in chunks as these fell to the waves.

There were big knobbly flints in the wartime fields ploughed into the downs behind Brighton, and others in old, mossy walls of the town. They seemed to have little in common with the pebbles of the beach, worn down by aeons of time, the grinding of waves and storms, the long polishing of sand.

Brighton was where the Victorian craze for pebble collecting and polishing began – first, of flints sawn open to show their fossils, then of the colourful semiprecious stones that lurked among the shingle. Even my childhood lingerings, a shop near the seafront with gloriously curved windows, offered lapidary gems of onyx, jasper, agate, chalcedony, citrine, carnelian, amethyst.

None of these, by this time, came from Brighton’s shingle. (Slabs of agate were brought from Brazil.) But enough fascination remained in the shapes and colours of pebbles for trippers and their children to take pocketfuls as keepsakes.

Over the years the toll became significant, the beaches robbed of replenishment by long concrete walks hemming the bottom of the cliffs. In 2012 Brighton was asking Londoners to return their pebbles as a goodwill gesture, however quixotic this may seem.

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