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Shell life

There are some activities that we only get round to doing on a family holiday. When life slows down enough to let us spend an hour or so just pottering, with no deadlines, no school run and no particular place to get to. Beachcombing is the perfect example. And Cornwall is the ideal place to do it. It’s also a brilliant option when your holiday is at the mercy of the great British weather. You know the sort of day – a glimmer of blue skies, but not exactly all-day sunshine.

Beachcombing for sea shells is the ‘let’s-do-something’ activity that ticks everyone’s boxes. Unlike that umpteenth round of Top Trumps, it’s as much fun for you as for little ones. What’s more, it’s actually a pretty good way for your children to learn about how the world works. No iPads, no headphones. Plenty of brain stimulation, but not a classroom ‘learning outcome’ in sight.

Instead, it’s more a matter of helping them dip into memories of things we did with our own parents or grandparents. Days when we’d clamber over rock pools, or walk to the furthest end of the beach, searching for the prettiest, largest, longest or most colourful shell.

The quest for the ‘best’ means all eyes are focussed on the colours, shapes and sizes. But a slow pace and a keen eye win the prize. As your children look for limpets, or compare cockles with scallops, they’re engaging with the natural world in the simplest most direct way. And discovering that the most beautiful shades originate from nature’s palette.

Down in Cornwall, the southern coastline catches the edge of the Gulf Stream, meaning an abundance of shells from near and far. The best beaches for beachcombing are said to be along the Roseland Peninsula. But for unusual finds, keep going west to Whitsand Bay at Sennen or head over to the Isles of Scilly, a haven for all sea life.

You don’t need to identify each shell, but Cornish environmentalist Heather Buttivant has a useful guide. Sorting your lop-eared scallops from your Venus shells, your periwinkles from your cowries, can appeal to the more organised members of the family.

On our forage we found lengths of razor clams in palest pink-tinged grey, handfuls of crusty limpets and clusters of pearly purple-black mussels. Our favourites were a teeny-tiny perfect clam shell of softest tangerine and a fragment of a sand dollar. We returned all our finds to the sea at the end of the holiday except the orange clam shell – sorry, that’s a keeper.

The rocks around Gorran and Mevagissey are studded with live mussels at low tide, but we left them where they were. After all, shells are primarily a shelter for living creatures. Oh, and if there’s something still living in your shell, leave it be. Marine conservation aside, it will smell awful after a day out of salt water – as we discovered to our cost last year. 

Shell collecting follows a gentle rhythm. Head out at low tide, peek into rock pools, then retrace your steps along the top of the beach. This is where waves will deposit the lightest, finest shells. And at the end, lay out everyone’s quarry on the sand. Sifting through those perfect discs of palest pink cowries and curlicues of cream and grey whelks, life feels simpler, slower. More natural.

Words by Jo Leevers.
Written and shot during her family break to Cornwall.

About the author
Jo Leevers writes for some of the UK's most acclaimed lifestyle magazines and national newspapers, from The Telegraph to Homes & Antiques.

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