Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Country diary: A fine coastline with secrets in the soil | Alex Pearce-Broomhead
Environment World News

Country diary: A fine coastline with secrets in the soil | Alex Pearce-Broomhead

The remains of last year’s thrift seem to rattle as an offshore wind pushes over the headland. It won’t be long before they’re superseded by the new flowers, and already, buds of tightly curled pink are beginning to unfurl to greet the spring sunshine. A local folktale says that every thrift flower represents the soul of someone lost at sea, resettled on the coast to remind all seafarers of the perilous ocean they sail. They will be in good company on Trevone’s coast, mingling with clusters of scurvy grass, kidney vetch, and bursts of lesser celandine.

But the wildflowers belie a darker secret. In 2022, a human skeleton was discovered on this coast path, hidden beneath the earth for centuries until the soil covering it wore away, revealing a snapshot of our past. Archaeological evidence tells us that it probably belonged to an 18th-century sailor – the upper body showing signs of heavy manual labour and wear to the teeth consistent with regularly holding rope in the mouth.

In a sense, the skeleton isn’t alone. There are suspected to be many secreted on our shores. Prior to the 19th century, bodies washed ashore were prohibited from being buried in consecrated ground as it wasn’t known whether the person was Christian, so they were unceremoniously interred on the coast, placed in makeshift graves, often with no coffin, shroud or headstone. This changed in 1808, when the Grylls Act was passed, allowing all to be given rites and laid to rest in churchyards, a calmer eternal resting place than this exposed headland.

On the rocks below, herring gulls huddle against the wind. Some once believed that gulls, like albatrosses, carried the spirits of drowned sailors searching for the “promised land” – another fairytale for lost souls. One of the gulls takes flight, soaring over the cliff top that once cradled the unknown mariner. The coastline is unpredictable; climate change means cliff collapses, and further erosion may to lead to more bones being unearthed as the ground shifts and our history is laid bare. But today, while the waves susurrate against the rocks and a skylark ascends melodically over a nearby field, the land quietly keeps its secrets, right beneath our feet.

Source: theguardian.com