Not all days are equal. Some are destined to disappoint, others to lift the spirits. Today is one of the latter days, a day of high clouds, azure skies and calm seas. A day for doing as you please and doing it at your own pace. A day that banishes stress and creates time to stop and reflect. These are rare days, days to appreciate before they are gone.
Living by the coast it’s easy to take the sea for granted. Sometimes you almost forget it is there. It’s probably why you came. So to refresh the memory I took a lazy walk along the beach before lunch. The sand was hot under foot, the sea not quite warm. The air temperature, a limpid 25°C, is my ideal – a faint smell of suntan lotion and seaweed lingering in the air. The white chalk cliffs were at their most improbably dazzling against the deep blue sky, odd patches covered in cascading vegetation.
At this time of year the red Valerian and brash yellow-flowered silver ragwort (Cineraria maritima) are over and fading. Replacing them are quieter coloured flowers such as rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), pictured above and below. When the leaves are broken samphire gives off a wonderful, sharp lemony smell. I have often wondered if it’s edible and apparently it is. Samphire was once used for pickling and the spicy, salty succulent stems can be eaten raw in salads. If that doesn’t take your fancy it can be boiled and eaten with butter like asparagus. The seed pods can even be used to flavour sauces. I shall be trying this out so will keep you posted!
Back in the 17th century, Shakespeare acknowledged the hazards involved in collecting rock samphire from the cliffs. “Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!” By the 19th century, samphire was being shipped in casks of seawater from the Isle of Wight to market in London. There it was sold on the streets as “Crest Marine”.
In the UK, rock samphire can be cultivated in gardens where it prefers a light, rich soil. I have found that seeds are available from Chiltern Seeds should anyone have the right conditions to give it a go.
Further down the coast from here a reclaimed piece of land near Dover harbour, called Samphire Hoe, is named after this fleshy native. The land was created from spoil from the Channel Tunnel – rock samphire used to be harvested from the neighbouring cliffs. Below, the coastline between Stone Bay and Joss Bay, two of Broadstairs’ finest beaches, with not a cloud in the sky.
Nestling at the foot of the rock I found ribbons of common sea lavender (Limonium vulgare). A small and unremarkable plant, sea lavender enjoys the shelter of alkaline chalk cliffs, but can also be found in muddy saltmarshes around the British coast. The tiny flowers open purple but dry to a papery grey colour.
Bringing a bit more colour to the party were seaside stalwarts, tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima) and trusty Escallonia macrantha, a hedging plant I grew up with at our home in Plymouth.
Tamarisk is a small deciduous tree or large shrub which is grown for its light wispy foliage and dense covering of candy-floss pink flowers. It is brilliantly adapted to coastal gardens where it makes an effective windbreak. Tamarisk will readily tolerate salt-laden winds and provided it’s cut back quite hard at the start of spring, lots of fresh, feathery new growth will quickly follow. Escallonia, beloved of home-owners around the south and west coast of UK, makes a wonderful, aromatic, glossy-leaved evergreen hedge. The pink flowers at this time of year are a bonus and attract bees and butterflies. There are many different varieties available so if pink is not your colour, try red or white instead.
I’m hoping tomorrow is as beautiful as today. Even if it’s not, the sunshine has given me enough of a boost to see me through the rest of the week. Thanks to the sea air I’ll also sleep well tonight.