Introduction to 50 Things

50 Things is an anthology of objects collected on the UK coastline.  The essence of this project is to explore memories and ideology through our material culture.

The beach is a transient environment which has mesmerised me for much of my life, and in particular, this temporary resting place of the lost, discarded and forgotten offers an inexhaustible supply of stories and wonder; a seam of innocuous remnants revealing much about daily life. A rich narrative is being written along our shores every day, betraying our tastes, beliefs, fashions and culture.

How will our stories be told generations from now, and which objects best represent what it means to be living in the Twenty First Century?  How will the most unexpected remnants of our time allow people to understand the spirit of our age? My selection of fifty things found on the UK coastline will address these questions.

For me, this environment will always be an exhilarating and wondrous place where the bracing wind is flavoured with spindrift and the ceaseless pounding of the waves is a reminder of the most ancient of natural processes. A stoic metronome governed by the gravity of the Moon, these crashing waves mark our abiding passage through time whilst shaping the most temporary of environments.

The lost, discarded and forgotten lay strewn along the high water mark; their enigmatic arrangement a beguiling story, testament to unseen lunar forces. These innocuous remnants are imbued with an inexhaustible supply of stories, a modern tale of material culture to be muttered and embellished along the shoreline with each rising tide.

To harvest these resting relics is to puzzle over an anagram where letters are familiar but the arrangement is baffling. That which was once commonplace is presented in a new context – a syntax which speaks of anecdotes bound up in the objects which once filled our homes, destined to enter the geological record as nothing more than a marker to identify our fleeting place in ‘deep time’.

What began as an exploration of material culture has become an appreciation of something much more complex. The most significant patterns and processes continue unnoticed in our busy, modern world and it is only our steady accumulation of discarded materials which are making these forces visible. Our detritus is simply tangled up in these ancient rhythms which are made visible on the high water mark of any beach.

As I walk on our coastline now, so much more is invoked than the simple joy of discovering an unusual trinket. I embrace the liminal frontier, engaging with an elemental force so much greater than myself in a space where I feel anything is possible . . . until the next high tide at least.

Do follow @Fifty_Things on Twitter to keep up to date with all fifty objects as they are added here.

Object Six: Plastic spade

The plastic spade is a brightly coloured reminder of how the British seaside was established
The plastic spade is a brightly coloured reminder of how the British seaside was established

Bucket and spade holidays. The jangle of amusement arcades, squawking seagulls, sticky fingers grasping ice cream cones and the delicious aroma of hot chips drenched in vinegar. The humble bucket and spade have come to represent so much more than games in the sand, signifying a very strong sense of nostalgia for the British seaside holiday.

Plastic spades are one of the most common items I find on the tideline, and easily the most evocative. On spotting one, I’m a six year old on holiday with my family again. We’re huddled behind a  windbreak in the lee of a blue Austin Vanden Plas Princess on Southport beach. The bitter wind carries the shrill screams of the reckless braving the creaking rollercoaster built in the 1930s. I look beyond the pier and Blackpool Tower is just about visible on the horizon; a temple for those seeking superficial trappings of the seaside which don’t involve digging or making sand pies. My young self struggles to understand why people visit the coast if not to create landmarks on the endless expanse of sand.

My sister and I step out from the shelter of the car to continue with our hard labour – we are on holiday, after all. A channel must be dug to the sea in order to feed the moat around our sandcastle. We squint through our Snoopy sunglasses across the Ribble Estuary to the Irish Sea, and are relieved the waves haven’t begun encroaching on our channel, which, by this stage is almost six foot long. We are hopeful the project will be wrapped up by the time we head back to my Grandma’s house. This ambitious hydro-engineering project of ours would rival Dutch ingenuity; we have buckets, spades and the optimism required for a memorable British seaside holiday.

The seaside has not always been the setting of such fond memories. For centuries, if not millennia, the coast invoked feelings of terror and even repulsion. Cultural connections had been made to the Great Flood, and as an environment not featured in the Garden of Eden, it was considered ungodly and to be feared. Creatures from beneath the waves were grotesque and without name, adding to the image that the beach was a contested, fierce place, where the sensibilities of the civilised world met the wild, unpredictability of Nature.

By the late 1700s, the health benefits of cold bathing helped shift the belief that Nature was a healer, rather than a terrifying force. In his book, The Lure of the Sea, Alain Corbain explains that ‘the sea was expected to cure the evils of urban civilisation and correct the ill effects of easy living’. This fashion for entering the water began the seaside tourist industry, and it was here on the sand where the new leisure class met the coastal peasantry – the humble poor picking over the seashore as a means of survival.

There was a Romantic fascination with the ‘discovery’ of the coastal poor as we see elements of their material culture creeping into artwork – ‘their boats, nets, sails, baskets, rakes, buckets, spades, moorings, beach anchorages, havens and villages…these were important subjects for painters in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century’, explains Adrian Franklin in his paper, On Why We Dig the Beach.

These early visitors to the coast championed the coastal inhabitants’ struggle against the powerful force of nature, and became fascinated by their rustic way of life which contrasted their own urban lifestyle. Engaging in their activities became a way for the visitors to reconnect with a more simple way of life. By purchasing their tools, the tourists were able to participate in the coastal life for entertainment and pleasure. It is easy to see how the bucket and spade, once tools for gathering and collecting shellfish and bait on the seashore became synonymous with this new tourist industry.

Rather than risk their lives at sea, local fishermen realised they were able to earn a living from this burgeoning industry, carving wooden spades and selling ‘authentic’ memorabilia. As more people ventured to the coast to seek refuge from the industrial cities, seaside resorts were born and with it, this new leisure class overshadowed the original inhabitants who had eked out their humble living here.

The plastic spade is a brightly coloured reminder of how the British seaside was established, and also represents the coastal peasant class who had engaged with the beach environment as a place of hard labour.

Memories of my sister and I working hard on the sand to dig and construct our own world echoes more than an exercise in make-believe. We were participating in an association we didn’t understand via the cultural traces of the humble spade. For an afternoon at least, we were reenacting the lives of the people who had once made the coast their home and survived by digging and collecting.

I wonder about my fascination with the coast. Today I find myself harvesting the seashore, not for survival but remnants of our material culture which inspire me as both a visual artist and writer. For Adrian Franklin, the coast was ‘refreshed with every tide creating unique episodes of discovery and leaving traces of memory and personal connections to place.’ These episodes of discovery form a very real narrative, as the humble plastic spade on the tideline has proven, in both my own memory and the birth of a tourist industry built on nostalgia.

Further reading

  • Carpenter, J.R. Writing Coastlines (2016) Performance Research, 21:2, 12-16
  • Corbin, Alain The Lure of the Sea: The discovery of the seaside 1750-1840 (1988) Penguin
  • Fiske, John Surfalism and Sandiotics: The Beach in Oz Culture (1983) Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 1 (2)
  • Franklin, Adrian On why we dig the beach: Tracing the  subjects and objects of the bucket and spade for a relational materialist theory of the beach (2014) Tourist Studies, Vol 14(3) 261-285

Object Five: USA lobster tag

Jared Bertrand's lobster tag which drifted to Cornwall, UK from Maine, USA
Jared Bertrand’s lobster tag which drifted to Cornwall, UK from Maine, USA

“Theft of this property and/or its contents is punishable by law. A fine and/or imprisonment may result.”

Nothing makes an object instantly desirable like the threat of imprisonment. Quickly clearing the wet sand off this plastic threat, the orange tag was soon concealed in my pocket.

I had come to the Atlantic coast of Cornwall. Staying in a caravan nestled in the dunes, I was desperate to be the first set of footprints walking along the sand each day. The lunar calendar dictated my waking hours and with much excitement, I had the freedom to pick and poke my way along the tideline like a hungry gull.

During the week, my tideline walks had yielded many of the trophies typical of a Cornish beach clean: Lego from a 1997 container spill; shards of pink plastic detergent bottles; a battered HP printer cartridge. Each of these objects had a traceable story but that morning, I had found something altogether more exciting.

I immediately recognised the significance of my orange tag from The Wrecking Season. In this gentle film, the late Nick Darke explores a variety of objects washing ashore on Cornwall’s rugged Atlantic coast, one of which being an identical orange tag. Nick explains that these tags would once have been attached to a lobster trap, enforced by the State of Maine Department of Marine Resources who stress that ‘all lobster traps, both commercial and non-commercial must have current State issued tags installed on them’.

For Nick, every high tide presented an inquisitive challenge. He believed that “the sea decides what you pick up – everything is random, you chase the story – you have to be curious – there is order in the chaos – the sea is telling you something, something very important but you just never quite find out what it is.”

Remembering Nick’s words, I relished the challenge ahead of me. I was holding the name of a real person living on the opposite side of the Atlantic. JARED BERTRAND 2495 was out there beyond the horizon, and probably at that moment, eating his breakfast. I had to make contact with him and explain his tag had travelled some 3000 miles across the Atlantic to the south westerly tip of England. The North Atlantic Current, feeding the Gulf Stream, had brought it to my feet across a vast expanse of water on a warm May morning.

Jared’s lobster pot tag isn’t the only object to have made this epic journey. Educational Passages is a US based company providing schools with small GPS equipped boats. They work with teachers in the hope that ‘students end up connecting with one another and are able to learn a bit about the world as well as their own identities’. Two of these boats have arrived in Wales and Guernsey, crossing the Atlantic from South Carolina. To find something carried by the natural force of the tides from one community to another makes for a very special human connection.

When I was at school, I recall having a penpal in Australia and devouring her evocative letters as she spoke about her sun-filled life on the other side of the planet. These satellite tracked boats seem a more advanced version of a letter bearing exotic stamps arriving on the doormat.

Utilising ocean currents to communicate is nothing new. During the 1890’s, residents of St Kilda, the most westerly islands of the Outer Hebrides, used their resourcefulness to send ‘mailboats‘ to the Scottish mainland on these reliable movements of water.

One such mailboat in the National Maritime Museum Greenwich is described as ‘a boat-shaped block of wood with hollowed out interior, closed by a swing lid.’  The words ‘St Kilda MAIL BOAT LETTERS INSIDE’ are burned onto its surface and the container would have been attached to a float made from a sheep’s bladder. The Museum explains that the mail ‘usually reached the mainland within a day or two but on occasions was picked up in Iceland and even Denmark’.

Like the family who found the US message boat in Wales, I felt an insatiable need to make contact with Jared the Fisherman. There exists a very human desire to find out about other people; a curiosity surrounds how other people live in different places and as we learn about their cultures, we can better understand ourselves.

Trying to track Jared down, I headed to the most obvious global resource – Facebook. Posting a message on the All Things Lobstering group, I waited. After a few messages from people living in his neighbourhood, I had his phone number. Before I could question whether this was a sensible idea, I typed a quick text message explaining I had found his orange tag and hit send. Only then it occurred to me that he may not want to be contacted. What if he was a peculiar individual who wasn’t very friendly?

A phone call and numerous texts later, I had learnt that Jared was born the same year as me. He fishes for crab and lobster out of Cundy’s Harbour, Maine using 800 traps. He has two sons and is the third generation fisherman in his family. And I’m pleased to report, he was glad to hear from me.

Jared and I now exchange messages and can expect a near instant response, thanks to the Internet.  Advanced communication networks have certainly made the world seem smaller. However, when I imagine that small piece of plastic coming loose from its lobster pot in Maine, making a journey of thousands of miles through wild, tempestuous seas before finally coming to rest on the soft, Cornish sand, I am in awe of its amazing transatlantic journey. That it should arrive during the week I happened to be in Cornwall reveals a stark truth in what Nick Darke meant when he said ‘the sea decides what you pick up’.

To close with Nick’s words, I had chased the story. I often think of his beachcombing philosophy when walking the tideline and gazing out to sea. In that vast expanse of water, the sea chooses when to reveal its stories. Orphaned objects are washing ashore twice a day, every day, and this will continue long after we have gone. Through considering these future relics, each with a history of how they came to be in the sea, perhaps we are all more connected than we will ever realise. I can only wonder what will happen to these stories when our sandy footprints have been washed from the shore, and all that remains is a flotilla of lost objects.

Object Four: Computer hard disk

Computer hard disk found on the tideline
Computer hard disk found on the tideline

For something we rely on so heavily in our daily lives, I am surprised I don’t find more remnants of electronic equipment resting on the tideline. There was no telling what had been saved to the computer hard disk I had found, as it had been smashed and corroded so badly. My imagination decided this had been a deliberate attempt to destroy classified files and nuclear missile codes, but in all reality, the broken appearance was probably the result of time in the water at the mercy of the tides.

Hard disks are an electronic memory which surpasses our own. They enable us to cherish thousands of holiday snaps, without the need to rummage through shoe boxes of prints in the loft. They store the contact details of hundreds of colleagues, that important wedding planning spreadsheet or every piece of coursework written at university. These storage devices are essential to our workday and are increasingly supporting our leisure time too, enabling us to save endless episodes of Magnum PI to a magic box connected to our television.  

As extensions of ourselves, we are seduced by the slick design of the latest iPhone, or the graphic capabilities of a powerful new laptop, and rarely think of their shiny components being crudely mined from deep within the earth. In fact, electronic devices contain many precious metals – circuit boards and computer chips are comprised of silicon, copper, tin, aluminium, coltan, cobalt, tantalum and even small amounts of gold and silver.

These valuable minerals and elements “keep your computer running so you can surf the internet. They save your high score on your Playstation. They make your cell phone vibrate when someone calls you” explains Delly Mawazo Sesete who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo where huge deposits of these materials are being mined. While minerals from Africa have enriched our lives in the West, they have undoubtedly brought violence, rape and instability to Delly’s home country.

In our love affair with the latest technology, social media timelines expose that which is most dear to us – we are putting down our own layers of opinions, photos, friendships, anecdotes, articles, tweets and updates as we negotiate our way through life. Via this personal stratigraphy, we can publish and share the minutiae of our lives via mineral rich devices carried in our pockets.

The lives we live today would be unrecognisable and baffling to our grandparents’ generation. Interactive technology and portable devices are changing the very way in which we interact with one another. Indeed, the way we are recording our lives, documented on frequently updating timelines offers a more detailed and immediate insight into someone’s life than a handwritten diary ever could. (At times, I wonder what I might learn about my great grandparents if I was able to browse through their Facebook profiles.)

I wonder about the information that is held on the broken hard drive I have found. How many similar components have I imbued with my own personality and, perhaps more importantly, what became of them? A series of zeroes and ones which defined us as individuals are held in obsolete devices. Whispers in binary code are forgotten and inevitably returned to the ground as worthless rubbish or consigned to landfill where the planet banks these future fossils as an archive of our activity within the geological record. The Earth is a recording device, holding evidence of life across changing epochs and eras, from ferocious dinosaurs to a huge cache of 1980’s Atari video games buried in the New Mexico desert – a latent memory defining our time on the planet.

Two timelines converge in the device you are reading this on – deep, geological time repurposed in the minerals found on your hard drive make it possible for you to capture and share fleeting moments of your daily life and interact with people across the world. As computers increasingly supplement and enhance our own memories, the broken hard disk and the materials contained therein speak of a much greater memory beneath our feet, one to which we are all contributing. 

Further reading

  • Minter, A. How we think about e-waste is in need of repair Anthropocene – Innovation in the Human Age (2016) Issue 1. p.31-39
  • Parikka, J. A Geology of Media (2015) University of Minnesota Press
  • Turkle, S. Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2011) MIT Press

Object Three: Roman intaglio

Roman intaglio spotted on the Thames foreshore, November 2016
Roman intaglio spotted on the Thames foreshore, November 2016

Typically, a little drizzle doesn’t dampen my curiosity when the sea has arranged a fresh smattering of objects along the tideline. However, on a cold November day in Central London, I was soaked. Pelted by unrelenting, deliberate raindrops I began to question what I was doing, not just on the Thames foreshore, but with my life. Above me at street level, my peers hurried to their comfortable offices in smart suits and dry shoes. Scavenging the remains of lives once lived, like a twenty first century descendent of Albert Steptoe, even the ends of my hair had not escaped the silt as I slid and squelched my way along the shore.

Luckily, this vanity was soon overtaken by a passion for seeking small things forgotten. I picked over shards of broken plates, haunted by their ghosts of mealtime conversations around dinner tables long since cleared. Before long I was consumed by the many stories that had come to rest on the shore and no longer noticed the rain.

I didn’t spot it straight away. Beneath Blackfriars Bridge I found myself kneeling down for a closer look at an unusual piece of metal which had caught my attention. Next to it, about the size of a fingernail, I could hardly believe the intricate detail of what I had found – a stone which had been carved with a lady’s likeness; her clothes and hairstyle stereotypically Roman.

I had found a red jasper intaglio – a small oval stone often mounted on a ring and incised with a design. As well as being decorative, Roman intaglios had a practical use. When pressed into wax to form a seal, the resulting impression was an identifying mark. Typically these carvings represented the author of the document, and their image became a means of authenticating the sender and establishing their reputation in social circles.

I lifted it from the silt and surmised that this delicate incised stone must have experienced thousands of low tides on the Thames foreshore, quietly waiting to be spotted. I was looking at the image of a lady who in all probability had lived in London, just as I once had. Studying her, it occurred to me that I could be the first person in thousands of years to be considering her tiny portrait.

The intaglio was perhaps used to seal correspondence such as invitations, news and personal letters. This desire to project an image of ourselves to those in our social circle is as pertinent as ever, as in that moment I did what anyone living in the twenty first century would do – I hurriedly uploaded a few images to Twitter. I was sharing news of the find amongst my social circle, published alongside my own image. Were these two activities some twenty centuries apart really so different?

Once the sun finally emerged and my hair began to dry, I decided against a selfie on the foreshore. I was thankful that the mudlarking version of myself would not be captured as a permanent reminder of my ridiculously dishevelled appearance that day. Did the Roman lady ever hope her image would succeed her, long after her death? I felt a direct link to an unknown woman which laid bare my own mortality; I wondered whether some 2000 years hence, would anyone consider my place in the world?

Perhaps it was time for a new profile picture.

Object Two: Pink plastic bottle

Pink detergent bottles wash ashore on Poldhu beach, Cornwall. Image courtesy of Aerial Cornwall
Pink detergent bottles wash ashore on Poldhu beach, Cornwall. Image courtesy of Aerial Cornwall

At the start of 2016, thousands of pink, plastic bottles arrived on the UK coastline. Like a day-glo naval assault, the bottles invaded the Cornish coast in south west England, thought to be the missing cargo from a shipping container declared lost by the M.V. Blue Ocean in May 2015.

Across Cornwall, reports emerged of wave crests turning pink with the sheer number of bottles washing ashore. A relentless clattering of plastic smashing on the rugged coastline and an overpowering smell of bleach at the water’s edge indicated the invasion had begun. Ironically, the bottles contained Vanish, a household stain remover. Despite its name, the local coastal communities had no option but to rally together and rid their beautiful beaches of this pink peril.

In the Twenty First Century, incidents like this only serve to highlight our over dependence on imported goods. In the UK at least, almost everything we own has arrived by sea. In her book, Deep Sea and Foreign Going, Rose George explains that a startling 90% of the goods in our homes have arrived by cargo ship.

The desire for cheaper labour and production costs often means products are manufactured far from their country of use and rely heavily on the shipping industry. In 2013, the World Shipping Council reported that 120 million containers were moved around the planet, so cargo spills must be a frequent occurrence.

The global market offers manufacturers cheaper labour and materials but all too often in the case of cargo spills, a hidden price is paid by those coastal communities saddled with the clean up operation. It is their tourist industry and fishermen who suffer. Container losses are impacting the marine environment in ways that have yet to be fully understood and undoubtedly this will be a price we all end up paying as materials are broken down and enter the food chain.

Almost all aspects of our daily life are represented along the tideline, from cosmetics to clothing, toys to trainers, and this latest pink arrival is sadly nothing new. With time, these bottles will become another anecdote when walking on the shore, a story to be told about container spills, much like Lego, motorbikes and even space debris, or the Hewlett Packard printer ink cartridges that also made the news this year.

More newsworthy items certainly capture the public’s imagination, like the 28,000 yellow ducks that spilled from a container lost in the Pacific Ocean back in 1992. Knowing what to look for, it became a novelty for the public to spot the ducks and provide data for studying oceans currents, as made famous in Donovan Hohn’s book, Moby Duck.

The shipping industry exists largely unnoticed beyond the horizon until news of a container spill brings objects ashore, and to our attention. Hundreds of identical domestic products strewn across a beach do create an uncanny spectacle.

Now these pink bottles have vanished from the headlines, we must remember that twice a day on every beach, thousands more non-descript, orphaned objects arrive, only to be washed out to sea again twelve hours later on the turning tide.

What is the message in 27,000 pink bottles? Is it that these bright pink splinters on the shore will not vanish? On the tideline, they persist in telling a tale of global economics, signifying our hunger for cheaper and cheaper prices via mass production. These pink plastic pieces expose our ignorance of the real cost – one which sadly cannot be measured in pounds and dollars. In our global community, flotsam knows no boundaries, carries no passport and is moving freely around the planet.

Further reading

  • Clare, Horatio Down To The Sea In Ships (2014) Chatto & Windus
  • George, Rose Deep Sea and Foreign Going (2014) Portobello Books Ltd
  • Hohn, Donovan Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea (2012) Union Books

Object One: Fossilised sea urchin

Fossilised sea urchin, or echinoid found on the Thames foreshore, London
Fossilised sea urchin, or echinoid found on the Thames foreshore, London

On a Winter’s day in 2015, a walk on the Thames foreshore distracted me from London’s relentless traffic and hustle. Along the water’s edge, clay pipe stumps, pottery shards and spent shells spoke to me from a time when oysters were eaten, not swiped. Arriving beneath Vauxhall Bridge, my attention was taken from the City’s detritus to a curious stone, causing me to pause. Heart shaped, patterned with tiny circles and crowned with a five pointed star, I was looking at a fossilised sea urchin, or echinoid from the Jurassic period.

Echinoids have featured in our folklore for thousands of years. Believed to bring good fortune and protection to those lucky enough to discover them, they are bound up in superstition and ritual. With much of their significance lost to the written word, we have to rely on whispers of oral history and tradition for information, with local names also providing clues.

As thunderstones, it was believed they fell from the Heavens during storms, protecting their finder from lightening strikes. Some believed woodland fairies created fairy loaves, treasured charms placed in the hearth for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. And the shepherds tending sheep on chalky downland in southern England undoubtedly found these unusual stones too, earning them the name shepherd’s crowns.

Researching more about these enchanted fossils, I was surprised to read that one of the most significant echinoid discoveries occurred in my home county of Bedfordshire.  In a burial mound, high on the hills of Dunstable Downs, a Bronze Age woman and child lay undisturbed until 1887. Excavations of their 4000 year old grave revealed it was surrounded by a ring of over 200 fossilised sea urchins, the largest number ever found in a burial site –  certainly protection for the dead on their journey into the afterlife.

In his book The Star Crossed Stone, Kenneth McNamara discusses an even older significance for the echinoid. It is astounding to think that some 2.6 million years ago, during the Paleolithic era, early ‘humans’ (Homo hablis) were fashioning flint tools which incorporated striking echinoids into their design. This suggests a recognition that these fossils were special and held a certain aesthetic. McNamara explains that “it is not just our species that has had a protracted propensity for collecting these fossils. Even other species of our genus Homo, living hundreds of thousands of years ago were fascinated by them.”

Perhaps my special stone from under Vauxhall Bridge was washed into the Thames from its chalky tributaries, or maybe it was once the treasured amulet of another; lost or offered to the river many years previously. The most precious tideline find I own, it represents our very human need to protect against that which we cannot explain or control. The echinoid came into my life almost a year ago and since then, I must admit to clutching it on particularly worrying or stressful days to bring comfort and strength. I assert that even in 2016, an element of superstition still remains strong in our culture as it is not uncommon for people to carry small items with them for luck.

Making my way home to Bedfordshire on the train, I hold the fossil tight. I consider those people living thousands of years ago and wonder – are we really so different?

Further reading

  • Evans, George Ewart The Pattern Under the Plough (2013) Little Toller Books
  • McNamara, Kenneth The Star Crossed Stone – the secret life, myths and history of a fascinating fossil (2010) University of Chicago Press
  • Merrifield, Ralph The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987) Guild Publishing London