The Layers of Fossil Beach

What do you learn when you consider this landscape as it once was?

Hard to say, but I thought there was something worthwhile in the consideration of that idea, as there I was, on a cold and showery Saturday morning, joining perhaps thirty others, to watch the launch of a series of heritage signs at a local beach: the appropriately named Fossil Beach, ten minute walk from my home, and a place I’ve written about before.

What did we expect I wonder?

We saw signs unveiled and launched, and we heard first-hand, the stories of the family who excavated this place. Those who told the stories were children then and returned to the place. They told of regular weekends spent unpacking the debris of the past.

We heard of the shifts in the earth that sent this place askew, pushing fossils out of the base clay, the layer called Balcombe clay, and how few places there are where you can see the evidence of how such things happen.

We heard of the indigenous people who live and ate here and walked these tracks and of the shells they left in heaps through the thousands of years of their passing. We heard how their oral history of a great flood matched the geological records of the bay filling, a thousand years ago.

Then, with settlement, industry; a short-lived cement works whose remnants lie in broken stones intriguingly half-hidden in the bush; this is progress you might be seduced into thinking, putting these stones together which have already gone to pieces.

Later, we heard of a young woman artist who painted the ruins of the cement works, a Romantic gesture like Wordsworth’s salute to the ruins of Tintern Abbey. She was eighteen, taught and influenced by the colonial artist Eugene von Guérard. An expert talked lovingly of the perspective and the frame; she’d spent months researching the provenance of the frame; what Melbourne company might have made this.

What do you learn from all this? Maybe you learn about the layers. First the primeval. The geological, the tectonic.

Then indigenous, their stories of the Bay as a great, open swampland, before the ocean rushed in, that ancient memory story, now backed by scientists.

How quickly progress became nostalgic in the art of the ruined romantic landscape.

And, finally, stories of the near-present, the place bordered up with warning signs and cyclone fencing, for years you couldn’t get in.

We listened to the speeches with rain coming in bursts from over the bay. Looked at the arrangements of rocks and the place where the tower was. A month later, and two of the fresh new heritage signs have been ‘tagged’ by some teenage vandal eager to leave his incoherent layer to all this as well.

The layers of the past
The ruins of the Cement Works
Unveiling one of the signs
Aboriginal sites

Retracing the Footsteps

What does it mean that I’ve started re-reading books? Nearly twenty years ago, in 1990 I read Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes and loved it and now I’m re-reading it.  Amazon describes it like this:

In 1985, Richard Holmes published a small book of essays called Footsteps and the writing of biography was changed forever. A daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir, it broke all the conventions of the genre and remains one of the most intoxicating, magical works of modern literary exploration ever published. Sleeping rough, he retraces Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous journey through the Cevennes. Caught up in the Parisian riots of the 1960s, he dives back in time to the terrors of Wordsworth and of Mary Wollstonecraft marooned in Revolutionary Paris and then into the strange tortured worlds of Gerard de Nerval. Wandering through Italy, he stalks Shelley and his band of Romantic idealists to Casa Magni on the Gulf of Spezia.

I liked a lot about it: the walking, the immersion in the world of the writer, and the importance of the physical place especially as that place was mostly out of the city. When I finally got to Europe three years later I planned the family trip around following the footsteps of some of my favourite writers: Hardy country, Wuthering Heights, the modest white wooden cross that marks Dylan Thomas’s grave in Walves, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Yeats’ Irish tower, even Eliot’s church from Four Quartets at Little Gidding. It was a great journey, and it’s only now that I really appreciate what part Holmes’ book might have made in its planning.

And it affected me in another way too I realise as I look back at my detailed lists of my reading over the years. From 1990 on, after I read this book, I began to read more non-fiction and see the potential in a kind of writing I’d never really taken seriously. From 1990 on every year I read more non-fiction and less and less fiction.

Below, my daughters and I at Top Withins in Yorkshire, perhaps the inspiration for the house Wuthering Heights for Emily Bronte, from that journey following those footsteps in 1993