Friday, February 20, 2015

Marsden Bay: top destination for ballroom-dancing seaweed collectors

This is the only picture that I've ever seen of a remarkable piece of North eastern coastal history - the ballroom in the cave under the cliffs at Marsden Bay near South Shields.

The cave has a long and colourful history and was first created by a fabled local quarry worker called Jack 'The Blaster' Bates, who used a pick and explosives to extend a natural cave and make it into a home for his family.  Bates died in 1792 and the cave, which became known as Marsden Grotto, was bought by a man called Peter Allan who extended it into a considerable mansion, with the ballroom that you can see in the engraving above and an inn, all accessed by zig-zag steps down the cliff face. 

There have been several changes of ownership since then but the Marsden Grotto is still a pub, which you can either reach via the steps or via the lift (a better bet if you've had a few)

The pub terrace is on the beach and it's an interesting place to enjoy a pint while watching the fulmars that nest on the limestone cliffs.

In this picture the tide is coming in but at low tide it retreats beyond that large sea stack known as Marsden Rock. It's a popular place for indulging in a spot of rock-pooling in the summer months.

The engraving of the Marsden Grotto ballroom at the head of this post comes from this intriguing little book - The Seaweed Collector by Shirley Hibberd, published in 1872. Hibberd (1825-1890) was a Londoner; his first name was James but he preferred to be called Shirley. He's best known for his horticultural books and journalism (he was editor of Amateur Gardening, which is still published today) and this seems to have been his only foray into phycology. You can read a little more about the contents of his book by clicking here.

Hibberd lived almost all of his life in and around London but he clearly must have visited Marden Bay at some point because he recommends it as a place for the aspiring seaweed collector and extols the delights of a sea-cave on this coast which he calls the 'Fairies' Kitchen'  as the location of a rare species:

"I can add to the list of localities", he writes, "having found it near a small cavern called the 'Fairies' Kitchen', on the bold rocky coast near Sunderland, not far removed from the romantic abode of the famous Peter Allen. This district has been but little explored by British naturalists, while its noble scenery is, comparatively speaking, unknown, except to the inhabitants of the towns in the immediate locality."

The magnesian limestone cliffs here are constantly eroded by the sea and I suspect that Hibberd's 'Fairies' Kitchen' has long-since disappeared under the waves.

One of the other very striking things about this book is the number of references in it to women seaweed collectors who became eminent authorities in the field of phycology. In Hibberd's day women had a very prominent role in this branch of botany and several had whole genera of seaweeds named after them. Today having a species named after you is a high honour and being commemorated in the name of  genus is reserved for the scientific and natural history elite, such as David Attenborough. The Victorian lady phycologists and their eponymous seaweed genera  include:

Miss Hutchins - Hutchinsia
Mrs. Griffiths - Griffithsia
Mrs. Gatty - Gattya
Miss Ball - Ballia
Miss Cutler - Cutleria

Why were seaweeds so popular amongst lady naturalists in the Victorian era? One reason was that these plants made very attractive pressed specimens and so appealed to the artistic and collecting instinct. 

This little handbook, written in 1848 by another female algologist, Isabella Gifford, is both a guide to identification and a guide to collecting, drying and pressing seaweed species.

The colour plates in Gifford's book highlight seaweeds, like this Plocamium species, which make particularly attractive pressed specimens.

Isabella Gifford devoted most of her life to the study of seaweeds. I've appended her obituary, from the 1892 Journal of Botany, to the end of this post.

The cover of this seashore guide, written by the prolific natural history author Rev. J.G.Wood and published in 1857, testifies to the popularity of seashore visits amongst women, even if they were encumbered by unsuitable clothing dictated by the norms of decency in those days.

The rapid development of the railway system in the Victorian era opened up the coast for thousands of visitors, many of whom would have never seen the sea before. Visits to the coast combined the benefits of healthy sea air (especially for those who were otherwise confined to industrialised cities) with a chance to explore the mysteries of the deep - or at least those that could be found in the intertidal zone.

But there may have been another reason why collecting and studying seaweeds became popular subjects for study amongst refined ladies of the Victorian era.........

This is Carl von Linné, aka Linnaeus, who devised the binomial system for naming plants in Latin that we still used today - and who also devised a highly controversial system for classifying flowering plants.

In his Systema Naturae of 1735 Linnaeus produced a sexual system of flower classification based on the numbers and relationships of their male (stamens) and female (ovaries) parts. He had no hesitation in relating floral sexuality to the sexual relationships between humans. He wrote this steamy prose, the like of which have never appeared in botany books before: “The flowers’ leaves... serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials....”

Above is a summary of Linnaeus's sexual classification of flowers. A quick glance will reveal that it includes direct reference to most forms of human sexual relationship, including polygamy and incest.

The reaction amongst many in the refined classes was one of horror. Here is an example: 

 “A man would not expect to meet with disgusting strokes of obscenity in a system of botany... but obscenity is the very basis of the Linnaean system’

First edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1768-1771

Faced with the depravity of Linneaus's sexual system, parents must have been keen to steer their daughters away from a subject whose study could only lead to impure thoughts. 

Fortunately there was an alternative.The last item in the key printed above, No. 24 Clandestine Marriage, refers to the group of plants known as Cryptogams (literally 'concealed sexual organs') - those plants whose reproductive structures are hidden. These include mosses, liverworts, ferns ........ and seaweeds. Unless you are armed with a microscope and a lot of patience, there's little in a pressed seaweed that would steer your thoughts towards sex. Safe subjects for study, then, for those who found Linnaeus's sexual system morally offensive.

Now back to where we started, to Shirley Hibberd's Seaweed Collector and Marsden Bay. His book also includes this little engraving, depicting the famous Marsden Rock, a scenic sea arch. Many sources on the web claim that the sea arch was formed by a rock fall in 1911 but this engraved illustration in Hibberd's book, from 1872, shows that it existed much earlier than that.

Over a century later it was still intact - these are pictures that I took in the 1980s. It was a popular landmark and early in the 20th. century had steps leading to the top. It's said that in 1903 a choir climbed to the top and sang, surrounded by the waves. But mostly it's the home of seabirds - gulls, fulmars and cormorants - that can be watched by drinkers in the Marsden Grotto nearby.

These days Marsden Rock is a shadow of its former self. The sea arch collapsed in 1996 and now the stumpy sea stack is a platform for seabirds, best viewed from the cliff tops opposite.

Tail piece

Abridged obituary for the phycologist Isabella Gifford, from the Journal of Botany 1892

Isabella Gifford 1823-1892, author of The Marine Botanist, an introduction to the study of algology, containing descriptions of the commonest British seaweeds, and the best methods of preserving them, with figures of the most remarkable species.

Isabella Gifford was born at Swansea about 1823. During her early life she resided with her parents in France, in Jersey, and at Falmouth (where her only brother died) ; they finally settled at Minehead about forty years ago. From both father and mother she inherited strong moral and intellectual powers. Mrs. Gifford was a rarely gifted and most cultured woman, and herself educated her Daughter.  But the scientific bent which very early in life Miss Gifford developed was quite her  own,—she had no individual instruction or guidance in the pursuit which she followed most unweariedly throughout her life. She had full encouragement from her parents, but she was quite self-taught, Mrs. Gilford's mind being of a literary turn, with no admixture of the scientific. The extremely simple mode of life which was characteristic of the family was very favourable to this lover of Nature, who studied and explored, and scrambled and botanised wherever her fancy led her in the neighbourhood of her home ; from Blue Anchor Bay to Bossington Point, on the shore; and, inland, over the heights and in the valleys ; or nearer home, where the woods and banks and hedges formed, for the most part, her " happy hunting ground."

 We are indebted to a cousin of Miss Gifford for many of the foregoing facts, as well as for the following note:
 " Her life was singularly uneventful, so much so, that she would count as her 'field day” a long-ago scientific meeting at Dunster, where a paper of hers was read, and her collection of the plants of West Somerset exhibited. Rheumatism and neuralgia made her in her later life almost a prisoner to the immediate neighbourhood of her home;  but though not able to go far afield, her conservatory and garden afforded her unfailing delight, while her large correspondence kept her also happily employed. Major Gifford died in 1869, and his widow and daughter lived on at Minehead, a very quiet life, but a most refreshing one to come in contact with, because of its unworldliness, and its large and genial sympathy. Influenza attacked the household before Christmas, and mother and daughter passed away within twenty-four hours of each other. They were laid to rest on New Year's Eve in the beautiful churchyard of Minehead, surrounded with hills and sky and sea ; a fitting resting place for one who loved Nature so truly."

The only portrait of Miss Gifford is one in crayon, taken many would not be suitable for reproduction. Mr. Holmes describes her as of medium height, with fair hair and complexion, and a delicate refined face.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Sea Gooseberry

Today's Guardian Country Diary is about this sea gooseberry Pleurobrachia pileus that we found stranded on the sands at Seaburn beach near Sunderland. When I scooped it up into this container and added sea water it was still alive but it died before I could return it to the sea.

Sea gooseberries are correctly called Ctenophores but in these closer images you can see why they are also known as comb jellies - there are eight rows of beating cilia, arranged like combs, along their flanks, providing propulsion and maintaining their position in the plankton.

Sea gooseberries are predators, trailing a pair of tentacles that trap planktonic fish larvae and the larvae of crabs and molluscs.

They are planktonic drifters and are quite often stranded on beaches, especially when there is a rough sea that sends waves high up the beach. This rather forlorn specimen reminds me of a deflating airship but when they are alive their are exquisite creatures. They are as transparent as glass but this bands of beating cilia create waves of green and blue iridescence along their flanks.

For a closer look at sea gooseberries, with tentacles extended and some movie, see



Monday, February 16, 2015


In summer tiny picture-winged flies, similar to this one although not the same species, lay their eggs amongst the florets of knapweed Centaurea nigra, like the one in the picture above. The usual species that parasitises knapweed is Urophora jaceana - click here for a picture.

After the larvae hatch they crawl down into the base of the inflorescence and produce a hard woody gall, where they feed on the seeds and are well protected through the winter.

Parasitised seed heads tend to have thicker stems but the easy way to detect the presence of the developing larvae in winter is just to squeeze the knapweed seed heads between finger and thumb. If they are galled you can feel the hard lump inside.

Opening up the gall reveals the developing larvae down at the base. You can see how they've chewed their way down through the gall, growing fatter as they progress and finally resting in a chamber where they'll pupate and hatch as picture-winged flies in spring.

Knapweed seed heads are carried on stiff stems that often protrude through the snow in winter. Then they tend to be shredded by hungry  birds - probably blue tits and great tits. It's hard to be sure whether the birds are after some of the smaller insect larvae that sometimes colonise these seed heads or whether they can winkle out the picture-winged fly larvae from inside their woody gall - I suspect that they can.

For a closer look at the larvae, click here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meadow ant metropolis

The undisturbed grassland in glades in the hawthorn scrub in Auckland Castle Park, at Bishop Auckland in Co. Durham, is home to an astonishing collection of meadow ant nests. There must be about 200 of these domed nests on the sunny south facing slope, with many more scattered throughout the park.

At the time of writing they are dormant but at the peak of activity in summer each is home to tens of thousands of ants and - like icebergs - there is more of the colony below ground than above.

There are so many that they are easily visible in satellite imagery. This is a screen grab from Google Earth. Double click on the image to enlarge it, then look for the two groups of pale dots across the centre of the image, just south of the footpath that snakes across the map.

This enormous concentration of ant nests makes it a perfect feeding site for green woodpeckers, which are ant-feeding specialists. I can't think of a single time when we've visited when I haven't seen or heard one (though I've yet to get a decent photograph!).

One curious feature of the ant metropolis is that every nest is capped in winter with a single species of moss - neat feather moss Pseudoscleropodium purum

When the grasses die down in winter the vibrant green moss has a chance to thrive in its place in the sun, surrounded by dead grass.

There's plenty of moisture for most of the winter months but the moss's enduring success in this habitat, which can at times be very dry in such a sunny, south facing site, may be due to the arrangement of the moss leaves.

The leaves are arranged like a spiral whorl of overlapping cupped hands around the long axis and the 'cups' hold water

You can see the effect here - when the moss is moist it has this very shiny, inflated appearance. Under the microscope you can actually see water trapped under the leaves,

Friday, February 6, 2015

Footprints in the snow

The snow has almost gone, hereabouts.

One of the delights of a fresh snowfall is the sudden appearance of animal tracks, that reveal just how much activity is going on in a seemingly empty winter landscape. Here are a few from earlier this week.

A field mouse, hopping from top to bottom of the picture - you can see the line where it dragged its long tail in the snow.

A grey squirrel, with those prominent claws used for climbing

A moorhen, with that little sideways-facing spur at the back of its foot

A grey partridge. The line between the footprints is where the claw on the long central toe has dragged through the deep snow

A pheasant - similar to a partridge but larger, with a longer stride

A domestic goose - big webbed feet

Mallard duck, webbed-feet turned inwards as it waddled

The ubiquitous rabbit. Fore-feet are placed one in front of the other when they lands, then longer, larger back feet overtake them before they land.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about these charming little crustaceans - woodlice. They are reputed to have at least 65 colloquial names - more than any other animal in the UK fauna - and are locally known as bibble-bugs, coffin cutters, sow-bugs, tiggy-hogs, sow bugs, sink-lice and slaters.

I disturbed these while I was moving a pile of bricks under our hedge. Well over 100 were packed into the recessed face of one brick and once they were exposed to sunlight there was panic, as they fell over each other in their hurry to escape.

Eventually only this one remained - a fine specimen of Oniscus asellus, the common shiny woodlouse. I particularly like the elegant curves of its articulated armour plating and their saw-tooth outline.

Woodlouse senses are centred around the jointed antennae and these simple eyes that have only about 25 individual ocelli – probably enough to detect light and shade and largish moving objects, but incapable of forming images with a very high degree of resolution.

The tail segment of a woodlouse is called the telson, flanked by two appendages called uropods , and its shape is often an important species identification feature.

All woodlice have only six pairs of legs in their infancy (when they’re known as mancas) and the full complement of seven pairs, visible here, only appears after their first moult, a day after they’re released from the brood pouch of their mother who carries them around. 

From below you can see the mouth at the head end, between the antennae .

Woodlice are omnivores but will eat other small animals if they can catch them, so have two pairs of jaws – crushers at the front and lethal-looking pointed ones behind.

The armour is an obvious defensive adaptation to surviving terrestrial predators like spiders but the woodlouse’s main problem is keeping moist, because it obtains oxygen by diffusion over these plates at the tail end. 

Generations of schoolchildren have conducted simple experiments offering woodlice a choice of moist or dry environments but the outcome is never in doubt – in a dry environment a woodlouse will suffocate, for lack of dissolved and diffused oxygen.

Mother and child

Woodlice face a regular crisis when they need to moult in order to grow. They do this in two stages, shedding the old carapace from the hind segments first and then easing themselves out of the cladding on their front segments. You can see in this photograph that the exposed outer covering on this animal's newly exposed front segments has yet to harden.