yasmin chopin | Beachcombing on Ainsdale Sands
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Beachcombing on Ainsdale Sands

Strands Jean Sprackland cup 1100x

Beachcombing on Ainsdale Sands

After every high tide the sea dumps seaweed and debris on the beach; known as the strandline it is a constantly changing landscape.

Jean Sprackland is more widely known as a poet and this book is her first foray into non fiction. In an interview with Robert Cox published in The Scotsman she admits it was difficult to change her writing style, ‘I had to really work quite hard at unlearning some things that had become second nature to me in my poetry writing – those habits of condensing and condensing… concision… I became very interested in that, very engaged with that – so much so that I found it very difficult to write poems at the same time.’

Sprackland, J. (2012). Strands: A year of discoveries on the beach, London, Jonathan Cape.

For decades the author walked a particular piece of coastline, Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool, and it was only when she was planning to move away she realised her obsession with the place, and decided to write about it. Chapter headings are enticing: ‘Gooseberries and Jelly’, ‘Old Seafarer’, ‘Drifters’. They’re organised so that a year is covered in four seasons and each one talks about a new discovery found on the flat sands of the beach.

The publisher calls the chapters ‘a series of meditations’ and there is a thoughtful meditative quality about a sense of place, but the chapters could also be described as a series of essays. The poetic voice of the author is often expressed in the narrative which is written with care and sensitivity. The gentle pace, and the words rich with variety, make the book easy to read. There are some lovely descriptive passages, here are two examples, the first from a chapter called ‘Denatured’ which I found fascinating, and the second from one called ‘White Horses’.

‘But they hadn’t reckoned with the sand: its shiftiness, its talent for surprise. Sand and sea have this in common: they will swallow our dirty secrets, but they cough them up again in the end. Whatever it is, we may think we’ve chucked it, buried it, seen the last. Decades later, the whole unfortunate business is forgotten or glossed over. And now suddenly, here it is, waiting to be found, lying in plan view: the evidence’ p 84.

‘It’s a squally day of dangerous skies and sudden daggering light. A navy-blue horizon where the Welsh hills should be. On the ground, a smirr of glittering worm casts, each packed with fragments of white shell.

Everything else is jittery with movement. A few feathers skitter across the surface, and tattered rags of grey froth slide northwards, like a platoon of ghosts, translucent and shape-shifting.’ (p215)

I would recommend Strands to anyone interested in the landscape and seascape of Britain. Regular and occasional beachcombers will also enjoy delving into these chapters. 

Strands Summer Ainsdale Sands 1100x

A note about photographs in the book: fuzzy black and white photographs with no captions seem to be de rigueur for books about place, a genre of non fiction that is quite apart from travel writing or nature writing. The images are not aimed to be educational or informative and they’re not aesthetically pleasing enough to be artful. Personally I find them irritating but others may find their speculative quality appealing.

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