KATE OSBORNE’S ON A MISSION
It’s a blustery Tuesday lunch time and I’m on Felixstowe beach with Kate Osborne, head down looking for . . . well, anything really. We’re beachcombing, one of my favourite pastimes. But Kate’s an expert and she’s going to identify my finds.
After about 10 minutes we stop to compare our hauls. Mine looks like the usual mundane collection of stuff – shells, a hag stone, some other possibly interesting stones, tatty bits of seaweed. But nothing about the beach is mundane to Kate and almost everything is remarkable in its own way. Actually, I have a lump of sparkly quartz, some London river mud (millions of years old, apparently) and I’m thrilled to learn that my perfectly intact crab shell has probably not been picked clean by a gull looking for lunch, but has been outgrown and shed by its expanding occupant, which is now most likely happily sporting a smart new one somewhere on the bed of the North Sea.
Speaking of lunch, we head up the beach to the Alex, Felixstowe’s popular cafe/ brasserie on the seafront, and find a table among the throng of midweek diners. We settle down and order immediately. Kate’s in need of hearty sustenance. She’s between a morning sharing all things beachy with 60 school children and a similar session later on with the local Brownies.
Kate runs Beach Bonkers, not so much a business as a mission to help improve the future prospects of our marine environments. It’s not-for-profit, supported by grants from the Suffolk Secrets AONB fund, the Galloper Wind Farm Fund and enabling communities funding. But mostly it’s run on
Kate’s passion, enthusiasm and extraordinary knowledge about what’s on our shores and in our seas. She leads beachcombing walks and workshops, gives talks to community groups and for those who can’t get to the coast, she takes the beach to classrooms, libraries, village halls, wherever. Educating, informing, entertaining, trying to make a difference.
Before Beach Bonkers, Kate worked in the NHS, academia and publishing. Office bound and hating it, she knew she was in the wrong job. What she loved was the great outdoors, the marine world she discovered when she spent part of her childhood roaming the Atlantic coast of north-east US. So, encouraged by her partner, she made a complete career change, added a diploma in countryside management to her human biology degree, and landed a job as ranger at Landguard Nature Reserve at Felixstowe. She then became aproject officer for Touching the Tide, a threeyear Heritage Lottery Funded scheme that connected people to all things coastal, and had her ‘lightbulb moment’.
“I thought ‘why are we not taking people out onto the beaches and showing them all the brilliant natural things that a Suffolk beach has?’ So we started doing just that and it was really worthwhile and enjoyable, and it was always really popular.” As Touching the Tide was coming to an end, Kate needed something else. Here was something, she thought, that could really work.
“Beachcombing is so endlessly fascinating. After every high tide, a walk along a strandline will show you all sorts of things of interest, man-made and natural. No-one starts a beachcomb knowing what they’ll find and no-one finishes disappointed. And no-one does it without wanting to do it all over again as soon as they can.” And with that she drags out of her copious bags a box divided into many compartments, filled with all sorts of beach goodies. She does a kind of speedbeachcomb, flashing mermaid’s purses, various shells, dried seaweed, sharks’ teeth, sea glass, driftwood, fossils . . . an endless treasure trove. Her favourite piece? An innocuous looking stone that resembles a halved hard-boiled egg with the yolk scooped out.
“This,” she says, excitedly, “is a fossilised sea sponge, three trillion years old.” Actually, I don’t think she said ‘trillion’ but I’m so fascinated I’ve stopped listening. I stare into the crinkly cavity where a sea sponge once lived. Of course, I can see it now. But for me, the best thing in Kate’s collection, is the thing she waves at me next. A lump of stone, the size of a fist, dark, ridged, it looks like it’s been cast in a furnace. I turn it over in my hands. I have no idea what it is.
“It’s a fossilised woolly mammoth’s tooth, eight gazillion years old,” she says. Again, I think I heard ‘gazillion’ wrong, but who cares? It’s incredibly ancient. “I found it further down the beach one day when I had half an hour to spare. It was just lying there.” It’s fantastic and I immediately want to go to that bit of the beach and find one of my own, as if there’s some mammoth dental repository there, just waiting to yield up a molar or two.
There’s less romantic stuff in Kate’s hoard, of course, because her work does have an ecomessage. There’s plastic human detritus – shreds of coffee cups from the North Sea ferries era decades ago, straws, interdental brushes, a bread wrapper from 1980. They’ll call this the Plastic Age. It’s a hot topic right now, but we humans have a short attention span and I wonder whether we’ll be able to concentrate long enough to tackle the massive problem we’ve created. Kate’s way is to instil a sense of wonder and respect for marine life that will, hopefully, make people want to look after it.
“This is a rare and fragile habitat that’s full of specially adapted plants and wildlife as well as the evidence of the lives of our sea creatures. Beachcombing helps people to appreciate that and treasure our beaches.”
She’s right – I can’t wait to get out there again. N
For full list of events go to beachbonkers.org.uk. Contact Kate on 0751 255 7200
LEFT: Kate Osborne of Beach Bonkers at the Discover Landguard event.ABOVE: Woolly Mammoth toothBELOW: Bank holiday litter from Sizewell beach