Seaside postcard: Chesil Beach If you ever did Geography O Level, or its GCSE equivalent, you'll know all about the beach to the west of Weymouth. You've probably drawn sketch maps of it, labelled with arrows to show the progress of longshore drift from one end to the other. It's Chesil Beach, one of the natural wonders of the British shoreline. And last weekend, nearly three decades since I first learnt about Chesil's geomorphological excellence, I finally got to stand on its pebbly ridge. I will confess to being just slightly thrilled.
For those of who you dropped Geography early, I need to mention that Chesil Beach is an 18 mile-long strip of shingle linking West Bay to the Isle of Portland. That's phenomenally long for a beach, let alone an offshore structure which barely clips the coast for over half its length. There are reputedly 100 billion pebbles from end to end, gradually increasing in size the further east you go. The prevailing southwesterlies are responsible for this clinical sorting, with pea-sized particles at the western tip and orange-sized rocks at Portland. Really, you should have taken Geography rather than that arts/historical subject you did instead, you'd have enjoyed it a lot more.
My pilgrimage began in the visitors centre at the nearly-Portland end of the beach. It's no ordinary visitors centre, being more a hut for twitchers and naturalists than anything aimed at casually-passing tourists. There's not much space to hide inside if the weather turns bad, nor a huge amount to look at, but the kiosk out the front serves up decent rolls and soup (and more) to those who linger. Bring a kagoule, or some sort of mega-telescope on a tripod, and you'll fit right in. Many come here to keep an eye on the Fleet - an eight mile lagoon trapped behind the shingle ridge - frequented by countless migrating waterfowl. Cross the Ferrybridge back to the mainland and you can even take a trip out across the Fleet on a glass-bottomed boat and spot some salty wildlife close up. But no, I was here for the pebbles.
Cross the car park to the edge of the beach and you pass a big sign which reads "The unauthorised removal of pebbles from the beach is prohibited". Stern words, but nobody's told the sea which flagrantly breaks council bylaws every time there's a big storm. Pebbles slip and crunch beneath your feet as you stride up to the top of the ridge, each footstep with the destructive power of a hundred waves. Whoa, now would you look at that. The beach stretches off into the very-far distance, curving gradually towards distant cliffs. Each individual pebble is clearly discernible beneath your feet, but the rocky carpet gradually blurs as your eye passes towards the horizon [photo]. The pebbles are a diverse mix of types and colours - most grey, others white or black or almost red - but all are smooth and rounded, eroded by centuries of sea power [photo]. They'd look perfect on your rockery, but don't even think about it.
Chesil's ridge slopes down even more steeply towards the sea. A string of anglers pitch up beside the water's edge, some protected by weatherproof canvas, others standing proud and casting their lines into the prevailing wind [photo]. Few venture too much further than the half mile nearest the car park, so fish with a survival instinct should swim west where there's a full eight miles of beachfront without road access. I didn't have time for that walk, tempting though it would have been to watch the pebbles grow slowly smaller beneath my feet. So instead I yomped towards the orange-sized end of the beach, high above the stream of cars, lorries and buses hurtling along the parallel road to Portland [photo]. It's no doubt a lot bleaker here during the winter, and this is no place to be in a storm. But I loved my own personal field trip - thirty years too late to be of use in any exam, and all the better for it.