Beachcombing involves searching the seashore for flotsam and jetsam, looking intently to see what interesting treasures the sea has washed ashore.
Walk slowly, walk mindfully. Take your time to contemplate all the little miracles of everything and enjoy your time exploring the beach. Hear the sea foam singing as the waves wash the tideline. Be soothed.
Whether sandy or rocky, every beach has its joys. Mostly I look for pretty little shells, smooth rounded sea glass, some textured driftwood and interesting pebbles — with holes through the middle (hag stones) or with stripes and crosses on the surface (often called wishing stones, you can skim or throw them back into the sea as you make a wish).
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You may also find a gull’s feather, or if you are lucky sharks’ teeth, maybe some fossils, or a mermaid’s purse (a brown leathery pouch with long curly tendrils that is a shark’s or ray’s egg case). Or maybe you will find a Victorian coin or some pieces of old pottery, a sea urchin skeleton, a dead starfish or little crab claws. The more time you spend beachcombing, and the more things you look at, the more likely it is you will find what you’re looking for.
The best time to go beachcombing is during the winter months or early in the morning when the beaches are empty. Go at a low or receding tide when there is more beach for you to savour and scour. Right after a storm, when the rough seas have tussled the waters and shifted the sand and rocks around, is a very good time for beach bounty.
Of course, let us not forget that there is also, unfortunately, a great deal of rubbish washed up too. Sometimes interesting rubbish, fishermen’s buoys and pots, for example, but mostly, just trash, plenty of plastic debris that we need to pick up and take away.
How to appreciate the small things
Arranging pebbles or shells is meditative, totally absorbing, all-consuming and utterly calming. You become completely lost in concentration, absolutely and thoroughly busy. Walking the beach, eyes alert to find the right shape or colour, looking and seeing the different markings and patterns, wondering how a pebble got here, where it come from, about the passage of a pebble, thousands or even millions of years.
Many civilisations and cultures have placed spiritual symbols on rocks, considering them mystical silent beings. Holding a pebble in our hands connects us to an inclusive universe, to the continuous recycling, reshaping, making and reforming of the Earth’s surface.
A transient thing on a long journey, a pebble will have begun life as a much larger rock, millions of years previously, and will have been battered and washed before being found on the beach, at the bottom of the sea or at the river’s edge.
I am not very good at balancing stones. I cannot create high towers or complicated structures, but that isn’t really the point of this activity. It’s the process itself that is so satisfying; it requires patience and focus to find the perfect balancing and resting points, to find harmony with the shapes and forms of your chosen stones.
There is a deep stillness we get from just using the found and natural materials that surround us. It frees our minds of all other thoughts so that we feel grounded.
You will make your creations on a beach, on the edge of the ocean or by the running water of a stream or river surrounded by nature, and this is where you will leave them. They are temporary things and will return to their natural setting. Maybe in time, another person will come along and will hold these stones, look at them and build another tower. For me, this thought is both energising and comforting.
How to get involved with beachcombing in the UK
Beachcombing is a popular pastime in the UK. It’s something you can do by yourself, or you can join a community on Facebook such as Beachcombing (British coastline).
Please bear in mind that in some places there may be restrictions on what you can take from the beach, so you could receive a fine before removing something as small as a few pebbles. If you want to try mindful pebble doodling, it’s a good idea to pick up a bag at your local garden centre rather than taking some from the beach.
If you’re looking for somewhere to go, check out this beachcombing guide from BBC Countryfile Magazine, which has some great tips to help you get started.
Extract from fforest by Sian Tucker, published by Kyle Books, priced £20. Photography by Finn Beales.