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