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Starting at ground level

A challenge set for me this month is 'ground level'. Where to start with this one? I was pondering that as I set off on a new walk from from Beesands to Hallsands. I was following a route in my guidebook Wild Swimming Walks in Dartmoor and South Devon because I am wanting to try out new places, to have adventures and perhaps enjoy some unexpected surprises.


The weather was glorious, a clear blue sky for once, but I was surprised to find a really chill wind as I got out of the car at Beesands after a long drive through the narrow Devon lanes. I cannot remember the last time I was there, but certainly decades ago.




I started at ground level - or should that be sea-level? Resisting the urge to go and walk on the beach to my left, I took the coastal path towards Hallsands. I walked along betwixt the sea and what were fishermen's cottages. Although Beesands is still a fishing village, most of these cottages are now holiday lets.  I noted the huge boulders stacked high to protect them. This coastline is very vulnerable to erosion. Storm Imogen in 2016 caused considerable damage and most of the beach was lost. A considerable amount was spent on sea defences, but just four years later, more work was needed. It was decided to extend the defences only this one more time, to give the community time to adapt to the changes to come. A controversial decision, one that was not taken lightly, but with the climate crisis leading to rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious storms, there is no choice.


Here I feel fully grounded in the reality of the impact of our changing environment and my anxieties about the future of humankind rises. As I walk on over the hill, to reset these whirling thoughts, I focus my mind on each footstep, feeling the changing terrain under the soles of my boots. Theories on the benefits of 'grounding oneself' suggest that direct contact with the earth and its natural electrical charges can have a positive impact on your body, your health, and your mood. Walking in itself can enhance one's mood, and I find being beside the sea particularly uplifting.


I note my pace, the rhythm of my steps, the pressures on my body. The wind is really strong as I reach the top of the hill, making me unsteady at times, and I am glad to feel weighted down by the camera bag on my back. I pause for breath and look back over Beesands, Now I can clearly see extent of the sea defences, and the vulnerability of the beach beyond.



I am struck by the shapes of the trees against the deep blue sky, how their roots ground them into the soil and help them resist the onshore winds and gales. The sight of primroses and bluebells lift my spirits as I carry on over the hill, congratulating myself for having chosen this walk.





I soon catch sight of the lighthouse at Start Point, one of the most exposed peninsulas on the English south coast and the most southerly tip of Devon. I cross the fields and and can soon see my destination - North Hallsands. I descend to the beach. Deserted apart from one fisher seeking out mackerel. A welcome pause.


I sit on a large boulder in a spot sheltered from the wind. Grounded, at ground level again. Feet immersed into the shingle. Noting the variety of colours, shapes and textures. Each piece part of the ground, and yet so diverse with its own story of evolution, ground down by the water and rubbing against each other. I wonder if the shingle is actually on top of the ground? Is there bedrock underneath? Is that the ground level?



There is seaweed clinging steadfast to the boulders, and I realise l that were I am sat will be covered at high tide.


I can hear the waves relentlessly washing onto the beach, churning and turning the shingle. It is mesmerising and I ground myself listening to its rhythm.



I have a play with ICM to capture the vista before me: sunlight on the incoming waves, white surf, green and blue sea, and the rolling Devon hills beyond, with the lighthouse on the promontory. Each change in movement gives a different effect.




Beside me though is the edge of the land as it juts into the sea. Fissures and cracks in the cliff, then fallen rocks crumbling into the shingle below, and then being steadily eroded by the sea.



I experiment with ICM to see if I can represent the way the rocks are dissolving into the seawater:




As I rest in the sun, I read about the history of Hallsands in my guidebook. It was a thriving fishing village in the 1800s, with nearly 40 buildings, including a chapel, shops and pub and by the 1891 census there was a population of 159. It was built on a rocky ledge, around the corner from where I am sitting, protected by shingle banks. But in the 1890's, the Admiralty decided that the dockyard in nearby Plymouth should be expanded and a contract was awarded to Sit John Jackson to dredge shingle for the concrete required from the coastline between Hallsands and Start Point. Although the villagers protested and there was an inquiry, within a few years half a million tons was removed and the level of the beach dropped. The danger to the houses was acknowledged by the government in 1902, but although the dredging was stopped, and some defences put in after storms in 1903 and 1904, during the night of 26th January 1917 another major storm washed most of the village into the sea. Luckily no-one lost their lives. The houses were deserted and now lie in ruins.


Interested to find out more, I walk on up the next hill, hoping to be able to see these ruined houses on the shore below. However, due to further erosion of the cliff, the viewing platform is now closed. There is an interesting sign though with some old photos:



And this poem by John Masefield:


"But that its wretched ruins then

though sunken utterly

will show the brute greed of men

helps feed the greedy sea."


The tale of Hallsands is not only a reminder of the damage that humankind is doing to our environment through exploiting its natural resources, but also that we have known about these dangers for over a hundred years now. I am reminded of something environmentalist George Monbiot wrote: "Progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life."



I make my way back to Beesands, passing the old chapel on the cliffs and think of the people of Hallsands who lost their homes and their livelihoods:


And then I realise that there is a current example of human's continuing impact on the environment right in front of me. The field I am walking though is full of grazing sheep. The grass is close-cropped, a very common, taken-for-granted scene in rural Devon. But yet just the other side of the fence is a thriving diversity of shrub and other plants. with the sound of bees and birdsong.



"“Love them or hate them, sheep have done more damage to the ecology of this country than all the buildings, all the pollution and all the climate change,” says George Monbiot controversially. “Sheep have completely scoured our uplands, which should be wildlife refuges.” At ground level, the choices we make in what we eat, how we farm, how we use the land, will shape our future prospects.


As I walk past a small clump of trees, surviving on the edge of the crumbling cliffs, my thoughts were dark and whirling once again.




I wend my way back down the hill to Beesands for a welcome cup of coffee and piece of cake.



I leave with more wise words from George Monbiot in my ears: "In motivating people to love and defend the natural world, an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair." We have to share hopeful stories to promote the changes needed. Major change will only come from the ground up.


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