How better to celebrate the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings than by travelling to Normandy? A kind invitation from our friends Jan and Nick gave us an excellent excuse to mark Duke William’s successful seizure of the English throne from the usurper Harold by spending a few days just down the coast from Barfleur, taking advantage of spring low tides to survey marine molluscs.
St Vaast-la-Hougue is a delightful small port on the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula. It has a substantial and rather well-maintained yacht marina, but also a good number of working fishing boats. Scallops from the boats and oysters from the numerous racks laid out on some local beaches are major products for the port, which gives the impression of being satisfactorily prosperous and concerned to keep up appearances. Our time in St Vaast passed very pleasantly, ambling around the port, collecting on interesting beaches, reading for pleasure rather than necessity, and eating and drinking enjoyably if not always wisely. Even the weather was mostly mild and dry.
The business of surveying and listing mollusca entails a lot of pottering about on beaches at low tide, generally following the tide out so as to get to the lowest parts of the shore as they are uncovered. Different species are identified as far as possible in the field, with voucher specimens taken for later confirmation of identification if necessary and modest numbers of dead (i.e. empty) shells taken as samples for personal collections. An abundance of hermit crabs can make the examination of apparently dead shells quite entertaining, peering into the aperture to look for tiny pincers. One way to be sure is to put the shell into shallow water and see if it runs off. Other forms of marine wildlife are regularly encountered, and the marine conchologist needs nerves of steel not to be distracted by small fish, crabs and sea-anemones. Having nerves of wool and the concentration span of a sand goby (Pomatoschistus minutus), I am invariably distracted.
Finding crabs under rocks takes me back to my childhood, learning how to extract edible crabs (pungers, as we kids knew them) from crevices and how to distinguish shore crabs from velvet swimmer crabs. This last is important: a shore crab (Carcinus maenas) will come over all threatening and waving its open pincers at you whilst backing away into safety, whereas the swimmer crab (Necora puber) sizes you up with its mad red eyes and attacks without mercy.
Surveying molluscs and enjoyable cuisine occasionally coincide, so long as the molluscs concerned are numerous and palatable. We were cordially invited by one of Jan and Nick’s neighbours to join a pêche à pied, in which forks, rakes and years of experience are deployed to extract shellfish, especially razor shells, from the lower shore. After a slow start, we were fairly successful, mainly due to Nick’s sterling efforts and his magnificently robust long-shafted fork. I have redrafted that phrase several times to avoid any hint of double entendre so stop sniggering. As the evening light faded away, we had about 190 razor shells of assorted sizes and the prospect of more than one excellent meal. Steamed, shelled and trimmed, the razors provided a lovely dish with pasta, then supplemented a paella that would have had an aficionado of such dishes beaming with approval. Especially after the second glass of chilled Muscadet.
Not all interesting molluscs obligingly loiter above the low tide mark, so two forays were made in Nick’s boat to sample different sand and mud seabeds off-shore. The shiny new net acquitted itself very well, unaccustomed muscles were put to good use and samples were acquired. One of the pleasures of bobbing around in a small boat is to see the coast from a different perspective, and the coastline around St Vaast has a fascinating assortment of defence works including forts dating to the late 17th century and designed by the military architect Sébastien le Prestre, marquis de Vauban. We did manage to snag the seabed at one point, a problem brilliantly diagnosed by Skipper Nick with the words “Why are we not moving forwards?”. A flurry of backing, hauling, letting go, coming about and having another go eventually freed the net, which innocently came to the surface unscarred and trying to pretend nothing had happened.
It was a delightful visit, good times spent with good friends, and a timely reminder that Anglo-French relations can be conducted quietly and with a smile, with no need for shouty politicians. Or battles.