EADT Suffolk - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS: Jayne Lindill

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 beach­ 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

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