The Hayling Billy Coastal Path runs between Havant (near Chichester) and Hayling Island along the route of an old railway line. The railway line puffed its last cloud of steam in 1963 and gradually became overgrown with weeds and bramble until a plucky group of volunteers transformed the 8 miles of track some 20 years later into a lovely nature walk. John and his talented wildlife-photographer daughter Natasha took me out on this clear crisp winter’s day to see the Billy Line for ourselves. Nature trails are one of my favourite things to do and no it’s not because I want to chase the birds. I’m a good cat who respects the natural world! Anyway, some of these wading birds are taller than me, like the white egret I saw feeding on tiny fish, frogs and insects in the mudflats. At least I think it’ an egret! John and I are not professional ornithologists and we rely on our experience and a handy RSPB pocket book to work out which breed the birds belong to!
We walked past an old signal and the remains of a railway bridge (the only reminders left over from the original Hayling Island Billy Line) and out towards Langstone, a picturesque waterfront town with an old mill and an historical harbour. By the early 17th century, the shallow stretches of the harbour made a good location for salt extraction until the entrepreneurs of the 18th century tried their hand at clam and winkle cultivation. An attempt at oyster farming in the 1980s failed and Langstone Harbour eventually became a lagoon that provides a home to marine and bird life. The oyster beds form part of the attraction of this nature reserve for some of the birds we saw like this curlew with its magnificent brown-speckled plumage splashing around in the seaweed or the enigmatic peregrine falcon flying high above. Langstone Harbour is an area of international importance for its wildfowl and many bird enthusiasts gather there to watch the flocks of Brent geese and oyster catchers wading in the wet sand. The hedgerows that surround the flat grassland provide nourishment for butterflies and if you look carefully and stay very still there are plenty of pretty birds to be found hidden on the twigs and branches like the willow warbler or this little wren enjoying the winter sun.
There are apparently 20 sculptures carved in Portland stone that line the stony paths of this nature trail, each one designed to celebrate a piece of local history or wildlife. We spotted this Little Tern statuette whose curved wings commemorate the invention of windsurfing by a local resident in 1958. Having trekked 4 or 5 miles Natasha was still going strong and when it comes to wildlife photography that girl has patience and stamina; but my paws were getting tired and John could tell because he picked me up for the last stretch of our nature spree. When John carries me I get a great view because he is so tall and when I looked over the top of the hedges I was mesmerised by a field of giant hairy creatures with colossal horns. They were like magical beasts from the land of Nania! As I bobbed up and down in John’s warm hold my heart sank at the sight of plastic bottles and rubbish gathered on the shingle beach. The devastating impact of humanity’s excessive use of plastic is a source of great sadness to me. Plastic pollution threatens the survival all marine mammals and sea birds and will undoubtedly be felt by humans too who consume it in the food chain. The plastic tide is the silent killer of the seas so next time you’re in the pub or the café, please reject the pointless plastic stirrers and straws and ditch the plastic bags and cups in favour of re-usable bags and your own glass or mug (preferably with a picture of a portly black cat on it)!
I never cease to be baffled and amazed by the curious antics of human beings and the ingenious ways they find to amuse themselves. I’ve watched them hurtle down an ice chute, pile on top of each other to take possession of a round thing and now this latest encounter – a crowd of people whooping and cheering as they watched other people in funny costumes leap into the air from Bognor Regis pier and fall into the choppy grey water below. John explained that this craziness was actually a competition held every summer at the seaside resort that is our home town where inventive individuals launch themselves of the end of the pier in an attempt to fly as far as they can in a human-powered custom-built flying machine. It has been a rich local tradition since 1971 and apparently is the oldest birdman rally in the world.
I watched proceedings with my head cocked and lip curled and it occurred to me that everyone there was an ordinary person who had put time and effort into creating an event that could push boundaries, entertain onlookers and strengthen community relationships. Some participants flopped unceremoniously into the sea with careless abandon, frilly knickers and yellow tropical bird suits flapping in the wind. Others achieved their goals to glide gracefully across the waves in their flying machines which was impressive considering some of these contraptions looked like a bicycle with an ironing board attached! The competition was divided into serious aviators such as this year’s winner of the Condor Class who reached 71.5m in a type of hang-glider and the inventors with home-designed machines competing in the Leonardo da Vinci Class. The most amusing participants were those in the Kingfisher Class with generally no flying ability whatsoever who demonstrated a quirky taste in fancy dress and a bucket-load of enthusiasm!
Born and bred in leafy Sussex by the sea, I love the ocean and I have an affinity with water. Just to clarify, I don’t actually like getting wet but I enjoy dipping my paws in a puddle and flicking it or watch the starlings in the garden splashing around in the bird bath. The only cats that don’t mind getting wet are tigers that will go for a dip to cool off in the summer sun or catch fish in a fast flowing river in Sumatra. Personally I am far too fastidious about my fur to risk getting it wet, although I’m always happy to laugh at another cat that does!
I remember one time I was at my friend Muffin’s house and we both sat looking out through the patio door when grey clouds covered the sky and rain started to lash down in the garden. Suddenly the cat flap clattered and her sister Tiffin appeared in the kitchen absolutely drenched. It was as though she had shrunk in the wash and her skin was showing under the wet black fur that was stuck to her sopping body. Clearly embarrassed, she quivered to shake the water off (I call this a body-wobble) until her owner wrapped her up in a towel and she was restored to her usual dry cottony self.
Another thing I admire about water is its power. It is said to have mystical powers of healing and relaxation and indeed I have seen John enjoy many a calming hot tub in his time. I’m still in therapy! But I’m talking about the force of nature, like the massive waterfalls of Yosemite Park in California or the spouting hot springs of the volcanic Geysers in Iceland. A little closer to home is the sound of waves crashing against the shore and pulling the pebbles across the beach as the swell rolls back and forth. This was the sound that greeted John and I over the weekend as we took one of our leisurely Sunday strolls along the seafront. We had a suspicion that the kite surfers would be out given the strong winds so we headed to one of our favourite spots along the prom to find out.
I love taking shots of the kite surfers in action, the muscle tension in their bodies as they manoeuvre the kiteboard into the wind and the ferocity of the thundering waves that break on to the shore. John and I are now friends with the surfers, having been here a few times before to take pictures, so they gave us a thumbs-up as we watched the forces of nature propel them across the water. I also made an unexpected friend in the form of a chocolate brown and white spaniel trotting happily across the shingle. As he came towards me I sat resolutely and fixed him with one of my looks of grandeur, but as he came closer my nose twitched and my lip curled under another force of nature, the musty smell of a damp dog! Despite my displeasure at the pong of salty wet woofer, he made me laugh running backward and forwards in front of me, wagging his tail and generally being a buffoon.
Many of the shorelines along the south coast are lined with rows of beach huts Worthing and Bognor Regis sea fronts are no exception. Beach huts are a quintessential characteristic of British seaside life and their beginnings can be traced back some 250 years to a time when no trip to the seaside was complete without a ‘bathing machine’. Apparently these vehicles were like beach huts on wheels drawn by horses who pulled them towards the sea so that the bather could step directly into the water without risking their modesty. By the 1890’s it became more acceptable to walk across the beach in a bathing costume and share the beach with members of the opposite sex and before long villages of stripy changing tents were erected on the Edwardian sands. Eventually bathing machines lost their wheels and our modern day purpose-built huts began to appear, constructed in a similar style and painted in bright colours.
Judging by my walk along the seafront with John, there are plenty of beach hut fans out there because all but one of the beach huts we saw were well maintained. A crowd of crows gathered on the top of their favourite hut and squawked their approval as we ambled past. When John and I stopped to sit on a bench, we got chatting to a nice mature couple resting in deckchairs on the patio of their own beach hut, all too happy to regale us with the joys of beach hut life. They offered us a cup of tea and a biscuit while we watched the jet skiers zooming around on the water and I gazed out to sea, wondering what kind of life lay beneath the shimmering surface.
There are some wondrous creatures in the sea like the Thornback Ray found in shallow waters all around England or the dolphin, a highly intelligent and social marine mammal located across the world. I looked at the fishing gear sitting on the shingle close by and wondered how many of the ocean’s dolphins and sharks were caught right at that moment in discarded fishing line or huge commercial fishing nets. These nets are often left behind by irresponsible trawlers and travel many miles across the deep, risking the lives of marine animals that become trapped in them. John showed me a video the other day of some kindly humans relaxing in their cruise boat somewhere near the equator when they spotted a sea turtle in distress and stopped to free it from its ropey tangles. Sea turtles are one of the earth’s most ancient creatures having been around since the time of the dinosaurs so I was pleased to see this little guy rescued to continue its legacy. Scientists estimate that around 26 million pounds of plastic travels from land to the sea every year contributing to massive floating patches of rubbish that kill one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals.
As John and I stood up to take our leave and head home, we thanked our generous beach hut hosts for their hospitality and made our way back along the dried grass pathway adjacent to the beach. John stooped down to pick up an empty plastic water bottle that someone had left on the ground and I contemplated the lovely afternoon we had enjoyed with this couple who represented a time of trust and simplicity which I liked. I also liked them because they gave me tea and biscuits and they clearly had taste, having spent a considerable portion of time stroking my fluffy black cheeks and admiring my plucky personality! Next time I go to the beach with John, I must remind him to pack a little picnic.
Every photographer has an arty side and John is no exception. He left the house early the other morning for a solitary stroll along the sea-front to contemplate life. It was 3°c outside which is far too cold for my little paws so I stayed at home keeping the sofa warm whilst John wrapped himself up to meet the brisk early day light. He came back with a smile on his face and a selection of photos full of muted tones and geometric shapes. Oh yes, it was all very ‘organic’ and a big change from the real lifes and landscapes that we often like to shoot. Thank goodness I had a brain-boosting breakfast of mackerel fillets in tomato sauce! Although I noted with interest that John did not have breakfast when he came home and I have a strong suspicion he went for a fry-up without brining me any tit-bits.
We spent a lovely morning rummaging through the arty pictures, discussing the effect of the sea on light and how the contrasting shades are enhanced by printing in black and white. I really like the asymmetric silhouettes of the pier and how the pictures characterise the architecture of the sea-front. The shot of the sea groyne is done in such a way that it changes the scale of the object and look at the lonely barnacle sitting patiently on its side waiting for the sea to bring its supper. While the barnacle waits for his dinner, the birds are busy feeding in the sand amongst the pebbles. I’m not sure if they’re eating worms, crabs or seaweed, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.