BEACHCOMBING

France’s coasts are a trea­sure trove of found ob­jects and artists’ in­spi­ra­tion.

France - - Bienvenue - says en­thu­si­ast Robin Gauldie

Igrew up on the shore of a vast tidal es­tu­ary that at high tide looks like a sil­very in­land sea and at its low­est ebb is a miles-wide ex­panse of mud­flats pa­trolled by flocks of waders.

The beach near­est my home was a post-in­dus­trial stretch of shin­gle. The tide brought in all man­ner of de­tri­tus from the city dump down­river: tim­bers from the ship­yards, joists and floor­boards from de­mol­ished ten­e­ments, even cat­tle skulls from the abat­toir.

This was a very urban beach. But not far away there were vast sweeps of sand where the flot­sam and jet­sam were com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The flot­sam in­cluded gnarled tree limbs, cut­tle­bones, crab shells, and some­times the corpses of guille­mots and ra­zor­bills. Among the jet­sam, we found a Dundee cake, in­tact in its bat­tered tin af­ter months or years at sea. They knew how to build tins in those days. A wor­ry­ingly bomb-shaped ob­ject turned out to be a drop tank from an RAF air­craft. And what was the sad his­tory of the soggy, child-sized teddy bear that the sea de­liv­ered one day?

The sea changes hu­man ob­jects, wear­ing bro­ken bot­tles down into translu­cent white, green and amethyst sea­glass jewels, pound­ing metal into sheets of rusted fil­i­gree, en­crust­ing bot­tles and pieces of ce­ram­ics with bar­na­cles and rid­dling old tim­bers with worm­holes.

D-day re­minders

All beaches are evoca­tive, but the stretch of the Nor­mandy coast be­tween Ouistre­ham and the Co­tentin Penin­sula has a spe­cial res­o­nance. These are the beaches where the lib­er­a­tion of France be­gan on 6 June 1944. Even on a sunny sum­mer day I still find them slightly spooky; it is hard not to con­jure up old black-and-white news­reel images. The sands are scat­tered with re­minders that these lovely strands were once a lethal bat­tle­ground.

At Ar­ro­manches – co­de­named Gold Beach on D-day – I dis­cover the mas­sive slabs of con­crete, draped in green weed. These are the re­mains of pre­fab­ri­cated Mul­berry har­bours, built to sup­port the Al­lied in­va­sion forces af­ter the land­ings. It seems un­be­liev­able that they could ever have floated.

The har­bours must be the big­gest pieces of jet­sam to have washed up any­where on French shores. But these

north-fac­ing beaches are lit­tered with smaller trea­sures. La Manche is the busi­est ship­ping lane on the planet, and dot­ted along this coast are some of France’s busi­est ports. In­evitably, a cer­tain amount of ma­te­rial – cargo that has come adrift from freighters, fish­ing equip­ment lost by trawlers out of Dieppe and Boulogne, mes­sages in bot­tles – goes over­board. Scraps of urban de­tri­tus are washed down the River Seine from as far away as Paris (or Eng­land, for that mat­ter).

Then there are the sea’s own trea­sures – shells of all shapes and sizes, from the long, slim ra­zor clams – aptly called couteaux in French – to the spiky, alien cara­paces of spi­der crabs. On the west side of the Co­tentin Penin­sula, be­tween Cap de la Hague and Granville, a sweep of coast­line is a happy hunt­ing ground for shell col­lec­tors, with some sur­prises in store. It is not un­usual to find fish crates, buoys and other odds and ends of plas­tic that have drifted across the At­lantic, car­ry­ing a mot­ley crew of ex­otic in­ver­te­brates such as tiny Colum­bus crabs from the Sar­gasso Sea, jewel box clams from Florida shores, and goose bar­na­cles from mid-ocean. These odd, long-necked crea­tures do in­deed look a bit like tiny geese – hence the me­dieval be­lief that they grew up to be birds.

Head­ing to­wards France’s far west, it should not come as a sur­prise to dis­cover that the rugged shores of Fin­istère are home to the coun­try’s most ac­tive com­mu­nity of beach­comber artists. The deeply in­dented Brit­tany coast­line could have been de­signed to amass all man­ner of float­ing ob­jects, from the weath­ered re­mains of lob­ster pots and fish-traps to tan­gles of net, line and hawser, poly­styrene floats, seabird skulls, drift­wood and drift­glass.

“Far from be­ing dead garbage, le pinsé can be the bearer of life and a cre­ative cat­a­lyst,” says Jean-jacques Pet­ton. He is pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion Brut de Pinsé, a group of ‘out­sider artists’ based in the tiny vil­lage of Plouarzel, near the

Pointe de Corsen, the west­ern­most tip of main­land France. Pet­ton de­scribes it as “the mem­ory of the sea and what peo­ple do”, and he and his col­leagues spe­cialise in turn­ing such finds into works of art. “My ap­proach is to use as much as pos­si­ble ma­te­ri­als which have al­ready been around, that I have scrounged and es­pe­cially le pinsé,” he says. There’s no one-word trans­la­tion for pinsé, so ‘flot­sam and jet­sam’ will have to do, and beach­combers find a seem­ingly end­less sup­ply of nat­u­ral and man-made ob­jects on Brit­tany’s shores.

Much of the Bre­ton coast­line is a frill of coves and rocky bays. Fur­ther south, from the mouth of the Gironde es­tu­ary all the way down to the re­sort of Biar­ritz, the shore­line is one long sweep of sand. A de­ter­mined beach­comber could walk bare­foot all the way, with just one de­tour in­land around the oys­ter-in­fested Ar­ca­chon la­goon.

This seem­ingly wild and end­less shore­line is in­ter­rupted in places by im­pec­ca­bly man­i­cured stretches of sand at chic re­sorts such as Mimizan, where beach­combers are dis­cour­aged. Ru­mour has it that this is be­cause one of the perks for driv­ers of the beach-clean­ing wag­ons is keep­ing what they sift out of the sand – loose change, jew­ellery and the like. Over the course of the sea­son it can add up to a nice lit­tle bonus, say the gos­sips.

Away from the care­fully tended re­sort beaches, these At­lantic-swept strands are not as pris­tine as they ap­pear at first glance. Look closer, and the high-tide line is marred not just by tan­gles of nets and line lost by fish­er­men, but by cig­a­rette ends, plas­tic and alu­minium food and drink pack­ag­ing.

Ships are no longer so cav­a­lier about throw­ing their rub­bish over­board (thanks to en­vi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion), and glass and metal con­tain­ers are re­cy­cled rather than dumped, but French beaches, like those all over the world, are still lit­tered. Each sum­mer’s hol­i­day crowds leave their share of aban­doned flip-flops, soft drink cans, and empty sun­screen and min­eral wa­ter bot­tles.

The sea has its own way of grind­ing glass bot­tles back into sand and turn­ing old-style tin cans back into rust, but it takes more than ten years to grind a cig­a­rette end back to pow­der, and the ocean can­not di­gest plas­tic. Nei­ther can its wildlife. Not for noth­ing are the tiny grains of plas­tic that form brightly coloured drifts along the At­lantic tide­line called ‘mer­maid’s tears’ by ecol­o­gists. Not much larger than sand grains, they are swal­lowed by fish which are in turn eaten by birds and sea mam­mals, whose stom­achs grad­u­ally fill with in­di­gestible plas­tic. Some of the dead seabirds that wash up here will have starved to death.

France is lead­ing the way in the strug­gle to stem the tide of plas­tic that threat­ens to choke our beaches and oceans. Last year, it banned sin­gle-use plas­tic car­rier bags, and from 2020 restau­rants and vend­ing ma­chines will no longer be al­lowed to dis­pense plas­tic cups, plates and cut­lery. Any­one look­ing at a plas­tic-lit­tered shore­line must agree that is a long over­due step, and hope that other na­tions will fol­low suit.

Beach­combers who do not want to leave it to the gov­ern­ment to clean up France’s coasts can com­bine their hobby with do­ing their bit for the en­vi­ron­ment by join­ing a beach clean-up such as those or­gan­ised by a grow­ing num­ber of coastal com­mu­ni­ties and or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing the Surfrider Foun­da­tion (surfrider.eu), which has more than a dozen chap­ters in France.

The At­lantic and the North Sea de­posit their wrack on the coasts of north­ern and western France, but along the coastal fringe of the Bouches-duRhône in the south much of what washes up comes from far in­land, car­ried by the River Rhône and its trib­u­taries. Drop a mes­sage in a bot­tle from a bridge in Lyon, and it might well be found here.

For beach­combers, this is a unique land­scape of sand­bars, lapped by the wa­ters of brack­ish étangs to land­ward and swept by the Mediter­ranean to sea­ward, some­times only a few hun­dred me­tres apart. Prospect your way along one shore­line, then walk back down the other to find a dif­fer­ent har­vest on each; there is sur­pris­ingly lit­tle man-made debris on the sea­ward side, but the land­ward la­goon throws up colour­ful an­glers’ floats from up-river and an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of plas­tic play­things, in­clud­ing enough toy sol­diers to form a small army.

I love these Ca­mar­gue beaches. They are the only re­ally wild stretches on France’s Mediter­ranean shore­line, and I can walk for miles, pen­sively ac­cu­mu­lat­ing a haul of gnarled river wood, tiny pink palourde shells and the oc­ca­sional cork float.

The At­lantic-swept strands are not as pris­tine as they first ap­pear

How­ever, it is near France’s fi­nal coastal fron­tier that I en­counter the quirki­est beach­comber com­mu­nity of my trav­els. Saint-cy­prien-plage, 20 min­utes’ drive east of Per­pig­nan, is a shiny, pur­pose-built ma­rina re­sort full of gleam­ing yachts, pink-stucco apart­ment com­plexes and posh ho­tels. Just a few miles south, be­yond a swathe of head­high reeds and pines, is a seem­ingly end­less stretch of un­touched white sand.

Dot­ted along this se­cluded strand are dozens of what look like minia­ture wild-west forts, stur­dily con­structed from hefty logs and boughs de­posited by the help­ful Mediter­ranean. Some are adorned by im­promptu dec­o­ra­tions made from old fish­ing nets, bam­boo, floats and other wrack, and most are shaded by brightly coloured beach um­brel­las. Be­neath these bask their builders – de­voted mem­bers of France’s ‘tex­tile-free’ com­mu­nity, who mi­grate here each sum­mer to pur­sue the per­fect all-over tan. Naked beachcombing? Now there is a sport.

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Veryac’h beach near Ca­maret-sur-mer in western Fin­istère

BE­LOW: Re­mains of Mul­berry har­bours on a D-day land­ing beach in Nor­mandy

ABOVE: One of the drift­wood art con­struc­tions at Saint-cy­prien-plage on the Mediter­ranean coast;

ABOVE: As­so­ci­a­tion Brut de Pinsé artist Marc Mor­van’s Sous-marin Jaune

ABOVE: The Nez de Jobourg at the tip of the Co­tentin Penin­sula in Nor­mandy

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