A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures,
the sea glass, the seaweed, the incongruous objects washed up by the ocean

Henry Grunwald - 1922-2005


Last summer, after a busy few weeks of work, we treated ourselves to a long weekend away in Northumberland. Mornings began with a short walk to the beach, to sit awhile and look out over the bay. Close by, a curlew warbled its throaty song. From further off, the haunting calls of seals hauled out on the sand banks reached us on the wind.

Each day, as the sun climbs higher and the tide recedes, the visitors start to arrive; to follow in the footsteps of ancient monks or to explore the coastal beauty for themselves. As the population gently swells, the atmosphere subtly shifts. Still quiet, always reverent, but different. You don’t need to go far from the centre though to regain that feeling of solitude. To spend your time slowly exploring the island and make your own pilgrimages to the Castle and Priory.

As shadows lengthened and evenings fell, we returned to the beach, to reflect on the day and to watch the sun slowly dip and disappear from view. On the final evening of our stay, we walked out to where the road leading from the causeway turns inland, and where the line of poles which mark the pilgrim’s route finally reaches the shore. Watching the tide rise and gradually enfold the road, disconnecting us once again from the mainland, we felt a sense of splendid isolation. The calm tranquillity of this beautiful place had washed over us too; restful and restorative.

I’ve collected sea glass on beaches all around the UK, but here, against this backdrop of sublime landscapes and abundant wildlife, I was struck as never before of its origins as man-made waste. Its presence on the beach felt incongruous, a reminder of our imposition on the natural world. But however it got there, wherever it had come from, the sea had worked its magic. Surfaces once shiny, had been rendered textured and tactile, angular edges rounded and smoothed. Abandoned broken bottles transformed into nuggets of glowing amber. 

The collection also includes a range of pieces featuring St Cuthbert’s beads. Difficult to spot among the pebbles and shells, they are tiny fragments of crinoid stems – a marine echinoderm related to sea urchins and starfish – which lived in the shallow waters around the island around 300 million years ago. The small bead-like fossils wash onto the beach and, in medieval Northumberland, were strung together as necklaces or rosaries and became associated with St Cuthbert. 

Using the original fossils was never going to be an option, from either a practical or an environmental perspective. Fortunately, there are people whose skill has enabled me to create faithful replicas of the originals. Now cast in sterling silver, they are a perfect addition to the collection and its connection with this special place.