A few weekends ago we went to Budleigh Salterton. Me, Julian, Lily, Katie and Barry, my father-in-law. We drove south-east out of Exeter, along roads that tunnelled through intertwining trees, past Topsham and the muddy estuary of the River Exe. Just beyond Exmouth, at Orcombe Point, the Jurassic Coast begins, and the little town of Budleigh Salterton sits close to the western end of this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, the Jurassic coast is at its oldest, the Triassic cliffs 250 million years old. Between high red cliffs at either extremity of the town are Budleigh’s Pebble Beds, a beach of smooth grey pebbles that are constantly being eroded from the retreating cliffs. Pebbles beyond number that steeply incline to the sea.
There is evidence of fishing here, both old and new. That Saturday there were no fishers about and the girls and I explored amongst the boats, colourful buoys and green filament nets, while Julian and Barry went into town to buy us fish and chips for lunch.
Far from the water’s edge, the beach slopes gently, but the littoral zone between low and high water has a much sharper gradient and takes some skill to scale down and even more to crawl back up again, with pebbles giving way underfoot. At the top of this steep pebble slope we found a long line of drift wood – brown twigs and branches gifted from the sea, resting in marked contrast on top of the grey pebbles.
It was impossible to ignore one particularly large pile of drift wood, and I convinced Lily and Katie to leave the boats and come explore it with me. As we got closer I realised this was no natural entanglement of twigs and branches. This was a nest. A huge, hand-made nest into which the girls immediately climbed.
The nest was orientated towards the sea, with protective branches built up on three sides and the ‘front’ open to the wide expanse of the sea. Whoever made it (or someone else) had placed a cement block inside and when our fish and chips arrived the girls used this as a table.
Inspired by the Triassic landscape, I imagined the nest was built by some fantastic prehistoric creature. I waited for a pteradactyl to swoop down at any moment and steal my fish and chips…or worse, one of my children! Perhaps the seagulls left us alone because of the same primordial fears.
Later, as we walked back to the car, Julian drew my attention to a stone circle embedded in the pebbles. At first it was difficult to distinguish from the billions of other pebbles on the beach, but as my eyes adjusted, it became obvious. Someone had found difference and diversity in the homogenous grey pebbles and had made a large circle on the beach of concentric rings in different gradations of greys and whites and blacks. When I looked at the beach again I saw, for the first time, that the beach had a diversity of colours. And when I picked up the pebbles, the white ones were differently textured to the black ones, the black ones to the grey ones, all different to the touch. The pebble beds that made up this beach became more and more interesting and complex the longer I looked at and touched them.
Thank you to those anonymous wild artists who helped me to see the world differently that day.