Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Walking with Gosse – almost...

My annual "Coming up for Air" trip to Torbay [1] was in September this year. Fortunately, the weather was good, so I walked along the coast to re-visit places that were so important to me when I was growing up. Returning home to land-locked Hertfordshire, I then read what Philip Henry Gosse wrote in Land and Sea [2] about the parts of the Torbay shore that I had strolled through, and this made me appreciate Gosse's wonderful enthusiasm even more than usual.

I began by walking along the beach at Paignton and followed the strand line, always an interesting place to a Natural Historian. Unfortunately, there was little to see on this occasion and it was quite different to the strand line after a storm, when masses of algae are washed up. Like Gosse, I had always enjoyed exploring this evidence of the marine world of the bay, particular treasures being blue-rayed limpets attached to straps of brown algae, now torn from their anchorage. Of all the organisms I saw, I don't know why these limpets so appealed to me, but they are certainly attractive to the human eye (see below). 

In Land and Sea, Gosse describes their appearance:

The shell is of unimpeachable symmetry, polish, and delicacy; it is of a translucent horn-colour, and its summit is marked with three fine lines of the most brilliantly-gemmeous azure.

Not all the creatures washed up are so obviously attractive and, even fifty years ago, there was also much evidence of human pollution, with tar balls and pieces of net being common. Flotsam and jetsam are a rich source of natural materials, like wood, to the avid beachcomber, but there is now much more plastic refuse on beaches, as we continue to regard the sea as a convenient dumping place. I am impressed that artists like Jo Sayer can turn these plastic objects into attractive works of art that tell stories about what we are doing to Nature [4].

After the sands, I walked over Roundham Head and then on to Goodrington Sands (the sequence is shown in order in the photographs below; a route that Gosse walked in the opposite direction [2]). There was no promenade at Goodrington in the mid-nineteenth century and, while I took the promenade walk and cliff path on this visit, as a boy I preferred to scramble over the rocks when the tide was low, just as Gosse would have done.

 Gosse has a vivid description of some fisherman he encountered on Goodrington Sands:

..away across the heavy sands, in which we sink at every step, away obliquely to the left, where another bold headland, Roundham Head, breaks the sweep of the bay, and for the present shuts out Torquay from our view.

There is our working ground, at the foot of those red cliffs. We diverge a little from a straight line, and approach the edge of the sands, in order to see what those two men are so busy about, as they trudge along the water-line with stooping backs and downward gaze. Oh! they are fishermen taking solens, or razor-fish, as they call them. Each carries a light, narrow, but deep spade in his hand, and, as he marks a little jet of clear water that spirts upward from a small hole in the sand, he rapidly thrusts in his instrument, and adroitly jerks out his prey.. .. The man scarcely deigns it a glance, thinks nought of its curious structure, cares only for the halfpence it will bring him in the fish-market, jerks it into his basket, and watches for the next jet of water with which the frightened and retiring mollusc shall betray its place of retreat.

Razor clams (see below) are still a prized delicacy and they are certainly very effective at burrowing. Being a Natural Historian, Gosse was fascinated by this, but, as he pointed out, the clams were merely a commodity to the fisherman.

It was not only the wonders of Natural History that inspired Gosse, but the knowledge that all he saw was evidence of God. To him [2]:

..the inimitable, unapproachable, incomprehensible impress of Deity is there. Augustine says, "The soul bending over the things Thou hast made, and passing on to Thee who hast made them, there finds its refreshment and true strength."

Thus would I desire to contemplate the works of God, as bringing to my sense ever-fresh proofs of His all-pervading care, of His wondrous skill and wisdom, of His glorious majesty and power. Above all, they are the productions of the august Word: it is not that they were made by One who is infinitely great, but far removed from me, so that I can only reverently admire Him at an immeasurable distance. No; they are productions of the mind and hand of the Word (John i 3)..

..Yet let me not be mistaken. The study of the creatures could never teach me this. Notwithstanding all that they eloquently declare of the eternal power and Godhead of the Creator, they are ominously mute when I ask them how He will deal with me, a sinner.

All this comes as no surprise to those that know Henry Gosse's work and life. However, my appreciation of him does not extend to the religious views that made him such a devout Creationist. I find it baffling, and it is one of the reasons why I have never read any of Gosse's books on religious themes (listed in [3]). I admire his work in Natural History and enjoy his company in my imagination during my nostalgic visits to Torbay, but why did he have such a need to proselytise? Was he trying to convince himself?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

[3] R. B. Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Wm. Dawson & Sons.

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