JUL 10 MY PATELLAS ARE NEARLY EXTIRPATED
Peter J James
Some attribute it to man’s supposed aquatic ancestry, whilst others blame the Prince Regent and the eighteenth century physicians for their promotion of ‘Sea bathing’ as a panacea. The more pragmatic souls among us seek the answer no further back than cheap travel and Billy Butlin. Whatever the explanation, ‘Thalassopetaly’, that is an overwhelming desire to visit the seaside, is a fact and if you have any doubts just take a look at the streams of north-bound traffic on the A 149 on any summer Sunday, answering John Masefield’s ‘...... wild call and clear call that cannot be denied.’ This traffic is, of course, all bound for that ‘Thalassopetalopolis’ of the East Coast, Hunstanton. Indeed as I write this on May 25th, I see the ‘Lynn News’ reporting @Major tailbacks ... on the A149 to Hunstanton ...’ at the weekend, when thalassophiles came in their thousands. QED!
In fact, Hunstanton owes its origin and its continued existence to Thalassopetaly and with good reason. All the major littoral habitats, sandy, muddy, and rocky shores, plus the rich salt marshes not to mention the unique cliffs entombing fossils of marine life past and our wonderful; Sea Life Sanctuary with its marine life present, are all on Hunstanton’s doorstep. We lack only coral reefs and mangrove swamps but then at nearly 53º north, latitude, this comes as no surprise.
Public interest in the natural history of the seashore probably began in a small way in the 1730s, but was restricted to ‘gentlemen of plentyfull fortune’. Another century was to pass before Philip Henry Gosse and his friend, Charles Kingsley among others, introduced the Victorian middle classes to ‘The Wonders of the Sea Shore’ and established a marine aquarium in Regent’s Park Zoo. Joseph Paxton followed and built his own enlarged and improved version at Crystal Palace. Our own Sea Life Sanctuary follows in this tradition. The 18 70s with its cheap rail travel and annual holidays brought the working classes to the seaside and the British Isles became literally ciliated with piers. Marine biology stations sprang up in this country and on the Continent. Hunstanton Pier and the Staione Zoologica, in Naples, were, in fact, close contemporise. Such, indeed, was the public’s love affair with the seashore and its mania for collecting, that as early as the 1820s one James Clealand was writing from Bangor, Northern Ireland, to a friend complaining that as a result of the collecting mania of the public, ‘My Patellas are nearly extirpated’, which, translated means that the trippers had pinched all the limpets! One of the most enduring images of natural history at the seaside is William Dyce’s painting of Pegwell Bay 1858. The picture shows the Dyce family busily collecting shells etc at low tide. Of course one of the most famous seashore naturalists was Charles Darwin whose early biological education took place on the tidal flats of the Firth of Forth where he collected invertebrates under the tutelage of some of the great zoologists of the day.
It was not only the Brits who flocked to the seaside, the French did likewise, or to be more precise, the Parisians made a bee-line for the Normandy resorts, Trouville and Etretat. Their landscape painter, Boudin, romanticised the fishing villages of the Normandy coast and later the impressionists explored the dramatic play of light between sky, sea and land. The interest here was the seascape per se rather than the natural history of the shore. ‘Beside the Sea’, said Gustave Flaubert, ‘one should always have a telescope’. One the other hand, Edwin Lankester, the British zoologist, recommended that ‘ ....on a visit to the seaside, the microscope is an essential instrument to all who would wish to study the wonders of the ocean’. So, whatever sort of dioptic tube the general or ‘grand’ public were clutching, they converged in their thousands on the tidal shores of either the English Channel from the north or La Manche from the south, respectively.
The railway engineers may have facilitated the realisation of thalassopetaly, it could not, however, have existed in the first place without the moon and, to a lesser extent, the sun. As we all know, it is the gravitational interplay of these two bodies which create the tides and gives us that cyclic exposure of littoral habitats through the extremes of Spring and Neap tides. Although the ancients did not understand the physics of the tides, they certainly appreciated that the moon was responsible for them and it is, perhaps, no accident that two genera of polychaete worm, to be found on our sandy foreshore at low tide, bear the names Amphitrite and Nereis, alternative names for the moon goddess who married Poseidon, the ruler of the sea. Pliny the Elder walked the beaches of the Bay of Naples and marvelled at its marine life. The philosopher, Democritus, is supposed to have been inspired to formulate an early atomic theory by contemplating the sand grains on a Grecian beach and the Art Nouveau movement owes many of its flowing naturalistic forms to the animals and plants of the seashore as seen through the works of Ernst Haeckel.
In this year of Biodiversity, it is worth reflecting that of the 40 major groups of animals, over half are to be found on the seashore. So, let us enjoy our thalassopetaly and when you stroll along the beach this summer and dig your toes into the wet sand, think about the biology and the human history beneath.