Back on Chesil Beach

A handful of pebbles sit on Ian McEwan’s large home-made writing desk. They have been there for several years silently playing the role of muse as he conceived and developed his acclaimed novella ’On Chesil Beach’.

Those stones, scooped up one day from Chesil Beach as McEwan pondered the setting and atmosphere of his story, almost landed the author with a summons from Weymouth and Portland Borough Council and a hefty fine for removing them from this ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ a few years later.

McEwan claims that he had no idea he had broken any laws when he took those little mementos back to London as inspiration to begin his next writing project.

It was only after the media furore that developed following his candid interview with Andrew Marr on Radio 4’s Start the Week in which the author recounted how he had taken some pebbles home, that this all came to light and the local authority contacted him with an official letter. He was ‘invited’ to return them or face a fine of up to £2000.

Articles on the subject which appeared in The Guardian, Independent and Daily
may have given many of us pause for thought. Who can say they haven’t
done the same thing themselves at some time?

It is illegal to remove anything from beaches in England – they are either privately or publicly owned and permission should be sought from the owner before taking even a pebble. But ownership can be difficult to determine. The foreshore – everything between the high and low tide mark – belongs to the Crown. Above that it could be the local authority or a private landlord. Owners themselves are subject to the rules of The Countryside Act, and local by-laws and their interpretations vary from place to place. Often the local police aren’t aware of the rules. Understandably, many would-be collectors don’t realise they might be committing a crime if they slip a shell into a pocket as they stroll up the beach and then forget to take it out before driving home.

‘It doesn’t matter if it is a bucketful, a pocketful or even a single pebble­’ says Hazel Griffiths of the Chesil Beach Educational Centre, ‘nothing should be removed from the beach’.

While most authorities will not take the time to go after the occasional pebble collector – it will usually require removal of more than a handful to prompt legal action – there has been an increase in the number of incidents in which they have become involved. In one recent case a woman was tracked down and given a warning by police when she took six bags of stones from a Felixstowe beach. Some have called this trend the ‘Ground Force’ effect, after the BBC garden make-over programme which has been criticised for popularising the use of rocks and pebbles as part of contemporary garden design. Ground Force are quick to distance themselves from these incidents. 

‘We never advocate people should take from natural resources like the beach. They should go to specialist suppliers’ a Ground Force spokesman has said. Specialist suppliers also get their stones from beaches, albeit under license from local authorities or private beach owners.

Chesil Beach has three owners. Crown Estates, Ilchester Estates and The National Trust, each owning a different part. Designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protected Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Chesil Beach is a 20-mile long pebbled tobolo stretching from West Bay in the west to Portland in the east. Since its creation after the last ice age, experts agree that the beach is no longer being replenished – so at some point it will likely disappear altogether. Perhaps this makes people a little touchy about it. 

This was an inspired choice for the setting of McEwan’s novel, the stark atmosphere of the area helping to establish the mood of his story. A newly-wed couple arrive at a hotel near the beach in the early 1960s, to spend their wedding night and consummate their marriage, each of them burdened by their own fears of what the coming night will require of them. The novel slowly and painfully reveals their histories, hidden fears and unspoken feelings and leads the reader towards the disastrous denouement for their relationship. 

McEwan places his characters, Edward and Florence, in a land- and weather-scape that is beautiful in its own way, but strangely bland – a bank of pebbles as far as you can see. There is a steady breeze and frequently a coastal fog.  

‘Arriving in weather that was not perfect for mid-July and the circumstances, but entirely adequate – it was not raining, nor was it quite warm enough, according to Florence, to eat outside on the terrace as they had hoped. Edward thought it was, but polite to a fault, he would not think of contradicting her on such an evening’. 

This sense of place is important in all McEwan’s work. His characters seem to take on the quality of the place itself. In On Chesil Beach he captures the mood of the area and uses it as an analogy for the repressed middle class 1950s sensibilities that the couple carried with them to their honeymoon. 

By and large the circumstances here are indeed ‘entirely adequate’ – for the fishing, walking and birdwatching – all common local activities. But swimming is not encouraged – a dangerous under-tow can develop due to the sharp descent of the banks into deep water. And on occasions something will happen that defies all expectations. 

In 2014 the gales that hit the English south coast threatened to breach the sea wall protecting the low-lying village of Chiswell on the Portland peninsula. Until the sea wall was built the village was dependent on protection from the banks of pebbles. On this day the wind was so strong and the surf so severe that thousands of those pebbles were thrown over the bank and the wall, and reached the houses on the far side. People were deeply afraid for themselves and their property. When things settled down the beach appeared to be completely changed, some thought permanently, by the storm. In places the pebbles had been washed away, revealing the underlying clay. Some called it an environmental disaster, or feared it was part of a pattern of climate change. But after several months the beach was beginning to return to normal. It seems to be more robust than we might think. 

A more serious storm back in 1824 had lifted a schooner over the beach and destroyed the church and much of the village of Fleet.  

That was a once in a 1000 year storm.’ says Professor Ian West of Southampton University. ‘Last year’s was maybe a one-in-50-years occurrence’. The recent increase in storms and flooding across the UK could change these kinds of assessments in the future however.

It may surprise some people to learn that McEwan is himself a serious and committed environmentalist who has spent time in the Arctic with other artists and activists, trying to understand the issues of climate change. This experience influenced the writing of his 2010 climate change novel Solar. His scientist protagonist Michael Beard, seems to embody many of the problems associated with action on climate change through his selfishness, gluttony and egotism. ‘He is both very clever and very stupid at the same time. If solutions (to global warming) come it will be through our cleverness’ says McEwan. 

McEwan is no stranger to criticism, from the unsubstantiated claims of plagiarism in his novel ‘Atonement’ to accusations of attacks on Islam and other religions in some of his writing – notably his 2008 Guardian essay ‘The Day of Judgment’. In this he critiqued Christian, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism and their ‘endtime’ apocalyptic mindset. According to McEwan this way of thinking shuts down the rational, practical dialogue required to address critical issues such as global warming, terrorism, and the nuclear threat. ‘These are not apocalyptic’ he says, ‘but calls to action’. He believes that ‘domesday’ thinking leads to inaction at a time when concerted effort is needed. 

Just as Edward and Florence’s inability to act in their own best interests led to the unnecessary demise of their relationship. 

For McEwan it was an instinctive action that day when he collected those pebbles, and one no different from what many of us do when we visit a place we want to remember. Humans have collected objects from nature for thousands of years either as aides-memoire or to make conscious connections to their environment. Instincts like this are what drive the creation of art and the quest for scientific knowledge. 

Several weeks after his letter from the council, McEwan asked a film crew who were filming him at the time, to do him a favour. Armed with a little map they set off for Chesil Beach with two envelopes – one marked ‘large’, the other ‘small’, along with instructions to ‘go down to the Abbotsbury car park and then a bit to the left’. In the envelopes were the pebbles from his desk. Documented by their camera they deposited the stones on the beach. 

‘Chesil Beach is beautiful and I’m delighted to return the shingle to it’ said McEwan. 


 Neil Baird, March 2015

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