Monday 30 April 2018

Isle of Wight (5): Rainbow Sand at Alum Bay

According to the local Isle of Wight forecast, the Monday before Easter was due to be the brightest day of the week, so we headed off to see the famous coloured sands of Alum Bay. 

As a youngster I was very interested in stones and fossils. Our holidays were largely spent on The Lizard in Cornwall, with its wonderfully rich shades of serpentine. I remember being very excited on one occasion when I thought I had discovered samples of a rare mineral in among the grains of sand on the beach at Kennack: these turned out to be spines that had come adrift from the test or exoskeleton of sea urchins. They may have been 'animal' rather than 'mineral', but they were fascinating all the same. 

Friends and family members have visited Alum Bay over the years, but I was keen to see the cliffs for myself. I wasn't so sure about the chairlift, but what a lot of fun it proved to be. 


What a view... and with the Needles in the background.

But what a long way down!

All too soon we were on the beach in glorious sunshine.

I came across these sandcastles, and felt they demonstrated three shades of the coloured sand to perfection. I had not imagined that it would be possible to separate the colours in this way without the use of some kind of equipment.

We had only to turn our backs on the sea to notice these stratifications of colour.

My eyes alighted on the small red outcrop of sandy rock in the photo below. It looked volcanic and hardly seemed real.

This website is packed with pictures, tables and photos about the minerals of Alum Bay. It explains the different colours and their mineral formations.

I am no geologist, but my understanding is that the red sand above comprises Pyrite (Ferrous sulphide) that has been oxidised in the cliffs. The other colours in the cliffs are due to ...
  • organic lignite layers
  • clays (e.g. London Clay which is a grey-brown shade)
  • sands (e.g. the yellow and brown sand colours which are due to limonite, a form of oxidised iron).
  • glauconite (a mineral which accounts for tints of green and is a complex silicate of iron, potassium and aluminium)
And, of course, as you round the bay towards the Needles, you encounter the stark whiteness of chalk.

There is a helpful section on the colours in this pdf.

We had a lovely time on the beach. A quick glance at this photo above with its rocks and pebbles shows immediately that there is a mix of mineral material.

The tide had receded while we were on the sands, revealing one or two rock pools like the one in the photo above. Sadly the seaweed was too slippery to allow me a close look.

The coast around the island seemed rich in shells. The photo above shows a small corner of rock on the beach at Alum Bay, housing a Limpet, a yellow-coloured Dog Whelk, Nucella lapillus (these come in various shades), and at least five other molluscs.

Limpets and barnacles were well represented, too.

The pebbles were beautiful, particularly those on the tideline, washed by the waves. I haven't been able to identify the one above.

These strands of red seaweed complemented the pebble above.

We watched a helicopter as it flew over the Needles. The photo above shows David peering out to sea. What a lovely empty stretch of beach!

Not surprisingly the coloured sands of Alum Bay have been popular for a long time. The first known mention is from 1780. Queen Victoria was apparently presented with sand gifts from Alum Bay in 1860, and this started a trend. Victorians were particularly fond of sand souvenirs and these took many forms: we noticed the bell-shaped ornament below in the museum at Carisbrooke Castle. Tourists in times gone by could purchase a painterly picture, or marmotinto, crafted from sand: they could also buy small packets of sand with which to create their own.

These days, of course, green issues and conservation initiatives are much more prevalent. Sir David Attenborough's 'Blue Planet' series has made many of us more conscious of the fact that unhelpful human behaviour can cause devastation to the wildlife in our oceans, with the haphazard and hazardous distribution of plastic as a particularly alarming issue. I was amazed to discover that the National Trust's Neptune Coastal campaign has now been running for over 50 years.

Incidentally, and speaking of the coast around Britain, if you would be interested in a vibrant new poetry book linked to the Marine Conservation Society's 'Thirty Threatened Species' 30th anniversary project, I would point you in the direction of Susan Richardson's sparkling and punch-packing 2018 collection, Words the Turtle Taught Me, published by Cinnamon Press.

At one time there were 21 different shades of sand at Alum Bay. I am glad to say that the collection of sand from the beach by the general public is forbidden. Climbing on the cliffs is not allowed.

Sand is still available in the shop above for the creation or purchase of souvenirs. These days the coloured sand is taken at the end of the season exclusively from piles that have fallen from the cliffs.

Our visit coincided with a cold but still morning. Suddenly something caught my attention as I stood with my boots on the edge of the shore, keeping a look-out for the ninth wave. I turned round to see a mini sand/landslide on the cliffs behind. The photo above shows the results of this activity. What a beautiful but fragile environment.

This view above shows the proximity of the Needles to the beach of many colours.

The lighthouse was built in 1859 and the last keeper left in 1994. Its predecessor was constructed high above Scratchell's Bay, where it often disappeared in clouds of mist.

1987 saw the creation of a helipad on top of the lighthouse. 

If the lighthouse provided one kind of communication, the wireless telegraph station provided another.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, I was thankful that the chairlift was working so that these steps were not the only way up from the sands!

As you can see, the photos immediately above and below were taken from the adjacent down. They show not only the colours but also the fact that early geological activity left the different bands of rock strata almost up on end.

Further along, just beyond the chair lift, there were places where horizontal stratifications could be seen ...

There were a good number of rabbits grazing up on the chalky down near the Old and New Batteries.

We stood at the Needles viewpoint, looking back at the beach. In contrast to the warm sandy reds and yellows, the cliff here was a mass of cold white chalk which reminded me in some ways of an iceberg.

It had been a fascinating and educational experience. David tried out a couple of selfies before we left to find a much needed cup of tea.

My next post will probably be my penultimate one in this series on the Isle of Wight. I hope to highlight a couple of gardens and the Newtown Nature Reserve.

Friday 27 April 2018

Isle of Wight (4): Farringford, Tennyson's Home

With sweeping views like this it seems hardly surprising that the Isle of Wight is steeped in literature. The literary connections on this website alone bear testimony to this fact.

With the 'Break, break, break' of Tennyson's evocation of the waves ringing in my ears we set off for a pre-booked guided tour of Farringford, the poet's island home. There was a certain sense of mystery as we walked through the shiny brown door: we were entering the territory of a remarkable man who not only recreated the charge of the Light Brigade, but brought the colourful image of the Lady of Shalott and her charmed web before our eyes.

It was cold and fresh, but as we walked towards the house, we were greeted with signs of spring in the form of a swathe of crocuses.

You can catch a glimpse of the grounds, with the house in the distance from the greenhouse.

There were plenty of small plants and a splash of gold from the miniature daffodils.

No prizes for guessing who had been gnawing the fir cones! Though, sadly, we never saw a Red Squirrel.

The photo below gives a good impression of the path up to the house. Just imagine how beautiful this will be on a summer day.

Here I am at the entrance, just before the start of our tour. We were given an introduction and were then handed audio-guides so that we could go round pretty much at our own pace. I am not usually a fan of these machines, but the commentary was excellent. The staff were very helpful, too.

Tennyson settled here in 1853, and bought the property three years later. His library, one of my favourite rooms, equipped with a terrestrial and a celestial globe, was built in 1871. I was also particularly drawn to the (intensely blue) Blue Room on the ground floor, with its Parthenon frieze wallpaper.

The views of 'West Wight' from the grounds are wonderful.

Two days before our guided tour we had been exploring the area near Tennyson Down. The primroses were beautiful. 

David left me to 'take the low road' while he climbed to the top: you can just see him disappearing over the brow.

The white cross in the photo below is the Tennyson memorial, a cross to serve as a beacon to sailors. And yes, we did have some wonderful blue sky!

While David was walking on the ridge, I took a level path towards Alum Bay, and was delighted to find the following Tennyson quotation (from 'The Charge of the Light Brigade') on a National Trust gate.

We spent a little time on the beach at Freshwater ...

... and tried to visit the little thatched church of St Agnes. Sadly it was locked. You can read about it here. The stone is very old, but the building is only just over a century.

I shall stay in the West Wight area for my next post, which will be about our visit to Alum Bay and the Needles.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Isle of Wight (3): Newport Roman Villa

Well, I wonder if you can guess what this reconstructed item might be!

It was one of the first things I noticed as I entered the building that contains a large part of the Newport Roman villa on the Isle of Wight. I was immediately reminded of the eel 'hives' (or traps) that were used in the Fens in East Anglia long after the Roman era, but this object has nothing to do with eels.

Unlike Brading Roman villa which can easily be seen from the top of Brading Down, this villa nestles in an urban street and has a tucked-away (or tucked-in) feel about it. 

I was surprised to find how many villas had been discovered on the island. There is, apparently, very little, if anything, to see at most of them, which is a shame as it would be good to be able to compare the aisled farmhouse type with the cottage house or winged-corridor layout.

What a useful map, showing the locations. I wonder if it is significant that the one at Gurnard (8) was not built on chalk.

As at Brading, there was a beautiful recreated Roman garden. It was pretty cold when we were there, but it must be a lovely spot in warm weather. You can see more masonry walls to the left.

There was a helpful diagram of the gardens.

The picture below shows David reading about the walls in the area adjacent to the Roman garden. 

Back inside you can see the extensive remains of a bath suite.

It was designed with domes made of tufa (like pumice), floors of mosaic and underfloor hypocaust heating. A mirror had been carefully positioned in the trench to allow visitors to see a lead pipe. You can see how the space has been interpreted for visitors by the additions of a loom, pair of shoes and a broom.

Fresco designs had been recreated on the walls.

And this was the scene roughly 90 years ago...

I think this dog was one of my favourite finds ...

... though I also have a soft spot for the oil lamp.

And finally, in case you had not guessed, the object in my first photo above is a reconstruction of a Roman beehive. Thanks to the Roman writer, Varro, who refers to Merula's knowledge of bees, we can catch a glimpse of the Roman attitude towards these special insects:

'Bees are not of a solitary nature, as eagles are, but are like human beings. Even if jackdaws in this respect are the same, still it is not the same case; for in one there is a fellowship in toil and in building which does not obtain in the other; in the one case there is reason and skill — it is from these that men learn to toil, to build, to store up food.'

My favourite Latin texts about bees, however, come in the Georgics by Virgil. 

In my next post we will consider a couple of literary links on the island.