|The Stupid Brothers Go To Sea
© Mark Gatter, 2004
"Are you sure it's OK to park here?" I said, looking around the hotel car park as we drove in. "Oh, sure - everybody does it" replied Martin. "Besides, they'll just think we're guests".
I took another look at the motely collection of Jags and BMW's surrounding us, punctuated here and there by the odd Lotus or Ferrari. Definitely, my dusty old Clio was in good company. It was probably going to be safer sitting in the middle of this lot than it had ever been since it rolled off the Renault production line, many years before.
We were parking here because it was the closest we could get to our intended target, the mid-point of Chesil Bank. For those of you unaware of this unique feature of Dorset, Chesil Bank is a long strip of shingle separated from the mainland for most of its length by a salt-water lagoon called The Fleet. At its eastern end the it meets Portland Island, and at its western end it fizzles out completely as it joins the mainland near Abbotsbury. In between are some 20 miles of strenuous walking. At the Portland end the shingle is large and rough, and you find yourself hopping from one ankle-breaker to another. These get progressively smaller and smaller as you proceed westwards until you're scrunching through smooth pebbles of a size similar to those seen in tropical fish tanks. For anyone wishing to get to the uncharted territory in the middle, a lot of exhausting trudging through gravel has to be done from one end or the other - unless you have a huge, inflatable flapping thing with which to get across The Fleet. We did.
At this point some of you may be excused for thinking: a beach entirely made up of shingle sounds like a lousy place to detect, so why bother? Indeed, it's a question I was to end up asking myself repeatedly. However, we had heard that a freak combination of wind and tide had pulled much of the gravel away from the beach on the ocean side, thus exposing the ancient clay beneath. This is something that only happens every 30 years or so. Friends had seached both ends of the beach already, and some very interesting finds, ranging from fairly recent to downright ancient, had been handed round at the Club meeting a couple of days before. But so far, nobody we'd spoken to had made it to the middle.
Despite what Martin had said, I doubted whether guests often tottered away from the hotel rather than towards it immediately upon arrival. I also doubted whether many guests, in whichever direction they staggered, sported shorts, anoraks and wellies while desperately clutching bundles of metal detectors, assorted plastic bags, oars and a vast heaving mass of neoprene which we hoped we could magically transform into an inflated dinghy once we got to The Fleet. Uninflated it was amazingly difficult to carry and the wretched thing appeared determined to escape.
At every step I was sure we'd hear a distant cry of "Hoi!" from peeved hotel management representatives as they surrounded my poor car, tyre-clamps in hand. Amazingly we got to the end of the path without major mishap to either ourselves or our respective loads, having only frightened a mere handful of guests (and a cow) on the way. I was quite proud that I'd only fallen over once.
There before us lay the target of the day's adventure: Chesil Bank. Between us and our target lay the day's obstacle: The Fleet.
The Fleet isn't really very wide, nor is it particularly deep. The difficulty in crossing it lies in the timing. The only outlet to open sea is at the Portland end, and the tidal currents within it are therefore fierce. I’d checked my tide tables carefully the previous day and discovered that for the outward voyage we would have the calm water of high tide, while on the return journey it could be reasonably expected to have gone out, turned, and be coming back in. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, to begin with, the dinghy was really intended for one passenger. With two of us, it was definitely top-heavy. Martin sat in the bows, such as they were, and I hunkered down in the stern, oars in hand. Off we went, with only a little undignified splashing as I tried to figure out how to row while sitting slightly below the level of the water. However, once I got the hang of it it was really quite pleasant. The sun shone, the water sparkled, and so far neither of has got very wet. As we approached the far side Martin directed us towards a likely looking landing and jumped ashore, then held everything steady while I did the same. Together we heaved the boat and our assorted bundles a little further up the beach.
Once again I was impressed by how much garbage we collectively manage to leave in seemingly inaccesible areas. Broken glass, plastic bottles, rusty metal items poking out of the sand - the entire shoreline looked like a recycling centre that had recently been attacked by terrorists. We tied our trusty dinghy onto a scrubby bush at the water's edge and started up the steep bank of shingle to the top.
What a view. On either side of us, Chesil Beach stretched quite literally for miles and miles. A light mist obscured both Portland and the western end, and the overall impression was that we had suddenly arrived on a strangely timeless, uninhabited world where the only thing that could ever happen would be avant-garde productions of 'Waiting for Godot'.
Unfortunately, our goal - the anticipated clay layers - were nowhere to be seen. Wind and tide had conspired against us overnight and covered everything with at least a metre of gravel. However, looking towards Portland we thought that maybe, just possibly, we could see a bit of clay poking out near the water's edge - a mere half mile away.
Neither of us thought much of walking all the way there, doing a spot of detecting, and walking all the way back again. Rowing seemed a good choice - but the tide had now turned and was rapidly filling The Fleet. We gave it a try, but after several minutes of hard work had made absolutely no headway whatsoever. The only choice left was to pick up the boat and carry it.
You would think that the wretched thing would have been easier to carry in an inflated state, but this was not the case. We tried putting everything into it, and each taking one side. Hopeless - it was almost impossible to walk in a straight line, and besides there was quite a lot of broken glass lying around. We tried grabbing it at both ends. Worse - all our gear threatened to fall out with every step. Eventually it was clear that one of us would have to carry it on his back, in the manner of a snail with its shell, while the other carried all the bundles.
No prizes for guessing who drew the short straw.
"I wish we'd brought a camera", I heard him say. "I wish we'd brought a truck", I replied.
It seemed to take days. Finally we reached the point that we judged to be roughly opposite the exposed clay beds on the other side, and again we set off up the bank. At last! There below us, the clay beckoned. What treasures might lie beneath? What abandoned valuables had been washed up over the centuries, just waiting for us to find them? What...bullets?
Loads of them. 303's, 303's and more 303's. Oh, and a much bigger tracer shell. And shell cases. And a couple of musket balls, so at least we had finds from different time periods. As for gold coins, jewel encrusted chalices, various and assorted heaving piles of pieces of eight - well, actually there didn't seem to be any. Just lots and lots of old bullets.
I'm quite used to finding a wide range of ordinance in our pleasant pastures green, and am amazed that for a relatively gun-free nation there's so much spent ammunition just lying around. But on Chesil Bank, miles from anywhere, I must admit I didn't expect to see any. I certainly didn't think that bullets would be just about the only things out there, aside from garbage and a few seagulls.
Several hours later we had detected along the few hundred metres of exposed clay and back again, and having found nothing much more exciting we decided to return to our trusty inflatable. However, the tide in The Fleet was still heading out, posing a serious problem. I certainly didn't relish the thought of lugging said boat even further back along the beach on the far side, and nor did Martin as it would be his turn. Nevertheless, we decided to give it our best shot. By the time we had made it halfway across it was obvious that the current was pulling us towards Portland at least as fast as I was able to row north, and it looked as if the last part of the day was going to be another miserable trudge. Suddenly a brilliant idea came from nowhere. "Martin", I said. "Hold your anorak out. Make a sail". He immediately got the idea, and held his coat open as far as he could. The wind was blowing strongly, right in the direction we wanted to go, and we merrily skimmed across the waves towards home.