One of my favourite places to be is on the beach, and I have been lucky enough to visit them all over the world; from Australia’s Bondi Beach on a very breezy December day, to hidden turquoise coves in Croatia and Montenegro, and the sand-swept, dune-filled coasts of Northern France and Belgium. Unfortunately, at present, I live in a landlocked English county and, like so many others across the world, was long separated from the beach by numerous lockdowns and travel bans.
One piece of solace which I found during this time was in Jean Sprackland’s first nature book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which won the Portico Prize in 2012. Here, Sprackland has penned ‘a series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool’, which she recorded over a single calendar year. She explores, primarily, ‘what is lost and buried and then discovered… about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.’
Strands has been split into corresponding seasons, which is one of my favourite structures in which to present a nature book. I love to see how one place can differ so much from one season to the next; even from one month to the next. This is one of the main elements of focus for Sprackland; she is aware of every small change, and of what to expect as one month passes into the next. For her, this ‘stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit. It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity. It reinvents itself. It has a talent for concealment and revelation. Things turn up here; things go missing.’
In her preface, Sprackland immediately sets out that she has been walking along this particular beach for twenty years. For her, writing Strands is a bittersweet experience, as she is about to leave her home for London, and a new marriage. She knows that this is the last time in which she will be able to travel to Ainsdale Sands so often, and wished to record this process. She writes that over those two decades ‘… our relationship has grown complex and intimate. It has become, as places can, an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from here.’ She goes on to say: ‘The version I carry in my head is endlessly flexible, but of course the external place does not obey me at all. It remains stubbornly unknowable.’
Sprackland is also a poet, and she writes her prose using careful, memorable, and even sometimes sharp, vocabulary choices. She sees her beach with a poet’s eyes. It is, for her, ‘a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.’ She goes on to say that ‘This characteristic of the beach – its capacity to surprise and mystify – is what brings me back here, day after day, month after month.’
Alongside the usual items which plague coasts all over the world – primarily plastic and litter – there are some surprises in store for Sprackland. In the first chapter, which occurs in spring, for example, she comes across ‘three wrecked ships lying on the surface’ of the sand. These, she has never seen before. She realises that she must have ‘cycled over them, oblivious’ when they had previously been buried under the sand. These boats, she finds out after conversing with a friend, that these ships show themselves for a few weeks at a time before being reburied, sometimes for years at a time. She later says: ‘I’ve often noticed a kind of “rule of recurrence”: I find something unusual – something I’ve never seen here before – and almost immediately I find another the same, and then another. And certain kinds of objects come and go; they’re numerous when I visit one week, and have vanished by the next.’
Sprackland goes on to find so many different things during her wanderings – mermaid’s purses, which hold the eggs of sharks, skates, and rays; samphire; ‘a bicycle saddle, a knitting needle, a large bleached knuckle bone, a light bulb’; a swarm of ladybirds; even a ‘blister pack of Prozac’, and a message in a bottle. She describes the way in which the ‘detritus of our lives is washed, softened and given back to us cleansed of its dirt and shame. That’s the work of the sea. It comes in faithfully, on schedule, like an old-time religion, and washes away our sins.’ She also nods to the myriad places in which these items she finds start their journey, ‘from so many different sources and directions: from the hands of walkers and picnickers; from the air; from underneath the sand; and of course from the sea. In an age where science has unlocked so many of Earth’s secrets, and almost the entire planet has been mapped and imaged, our oceans and shores remain relatively unexplored. Each new discovery presents questions and mysteries.’
Alongside the physical landscape of her particular beach, Sprackland has written about the crushing changes which climate change is already bringing to the species which are found just off the coast. She also wishes to raise an awareness of just how much one single person can see them changing. She urges: ‘Those of us with beaches to walk on should be learning the language of the things we find there. We should be reading the signs.’ She writes with a great deal of insight, stating: ‘If in the course of opening our eyes to environmental realities we have lost some of our simple pleasures and amazements, we have replaced them with passionate collective attachments to a few powerful symbols of what is previous and threatened: the polar bear, the tiger, the wildflower meadow, and so on. Our losses are not so often focused on the mucous, the smelly and the commonplace.’
I thoroughly enjoyed Sprackland’s second nature book, These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards; indeed, I think about it often. Here, too, there is so much to consider, and to appreciate. Sprackland’s prose is often quite profound; she makes one stop and think throughout, with sentences such as the following: ‘It’s dizzying, the realisation that we spend our lives moving precariously on the outer skin of the planet, and that same skin contains all the stuff of history.’ She is a considerate and quite meditative author. Her prose is beautiful and attentive; there is a haunting appeal to it. As with These Silent Mansions, Strands is highly detailed, and so well researched; there is also such a visceral sense of place within it.
I love the way in which Sprackland blends her own observations with scientific facts, and the way in which she includes quotes from other writers, particularly poets. Strands is relatively introspective, and deals with such a comparatively small stretch of coastline, but Sprackland manages to discuss so much within its pages. It is an unusual nature book in its focus, and one which I would highly recommend.
If you are interested, you can read my review of Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions here.