Plastic straws and cotton bud stalks, along with plastic tampon applicators and shot gun cartridges, have become a sad portrait of society: what the sea sees of us. Why do we come across so many short pieces of PVC rope and fishing net?
I am told these ‘sea kisses’ are the result of trawlers shredding torn nets at sea and dumping this ‘waste’ overboard as it is cheaper and more convenient than bringing it ashore to be buried.
Will this ultimately poison fish and make them inedible?
All these micro-plastics have washed up on the shores of the New Forest National Park. I’ve been trying to make ‘beautiful pictures of horrible things’, as the broadcaster JJ Walsh describes my photographs and framed collages.
Any throw-away plastic rings should be regarded as ‘wildlife crime’ – they strangle too many birds.
Do you know how much lead there is in a tennis ball? Despite the fact they they are not recommended as toys for dogs, huge numbers are washed up on our beaches. I find them all the time.
One of my biggest hates are the plastic things used to sell six-pack drink cans as they easily get stuck around creatures’ necks. This four-pack plastic was washed up near a seabird breeding colony. I won’t even re-cycle one without cutting it apart.
The ear-loops on masks also need to be cut, along with PPE gloves. They are washed up on the shore every day.
And there are always gloves –
Children tend to be good at finding micro-plastics on beaches once they catch the vision. We have begun classifying them by colour or type. This black party-popper was a favourite.
I’m assured that some councils need to check beaches for ‘sharps’ before volunteer litter-pickers are allowed to begin collecting in earnest. Can you spot the needle and syringe here?
Collecting all these tiny pieces takes time and one has to watch out for hazards – but if it is not collected children will no longer be able to play on our beaches. Some parts of the coast have so much broken glass that you can’t pick it up with a dog in tow. It remains sharp for decades where there is no wave action.
The Marine Conservation Society likes to classify sea plastic into Litter, Fishing by-products, and sewage-related finds such as cotton-bud stalks and plastic tampon applicators.
After collecting flotsam, it takes a different mind-set to do the sorting, but it’s important to analyse and report back on what the tide is bringing in.
I began to collect fishing tackle in a crate that was washed up on the Solent. Let me know, in the comments below, if you ever need some of this for a talk on conservation or plastic pollution. I’m giving it away freely.
Every day we collect aging plastic pollution, cans and glass bottles from Solent shores.
This old glass bottle seems representative of our time of Corona. How long has it been floating around the Solent? Fifty years? The Litter Pickers of the New Forest found me this 1960s advert for the original bottles with the same cream metal cap.
The Deposit Return Scheme running at the time ensured that most were returned to the manufacturers but I’ve found a couple on the shore. One that held ‘Limeade’ with a 3d deposit return label is selling for £23 on Ebay where it is described as ‘a lovely piece of nostalgia.’
How old would this re-useable Unigate milk bottle be? 1980s? Forty years? They have also become collectors’ items. One like this is valued at £15 on eBay. It was found in these willow trees just above the high tide mark. It might have come over from the Isle of Wight where ‘Milk and More’ ran deliveries.
You can just see a brand new mask in this photo (above) but the bottles and plastic containers were hauled out of bramble bushes a few feet from the sea where they have languished for years.
Here is a photo of the same footpath with more plastic bottles that have blown in, together with old glass bottles the earth seems to be spitting out. The message inside them is clear: this has to stop.
I found a Wellington boot, washed up or discarded, which must have been around for some time. It had a field-mouse living inside so, I left it for now, but there is plenty more like it.
This Walker’s Crips packet, found recently, is 24 years old. I have quite a collection.
Plastic is amazing stuff. My father manufactured products made from PVC. He said that back in the 1970s, his company never considered what would happen when the items they made reached the end of their useful lives.
What date did the squarish plastic milk bottles come in? How many are disposed of daily in the UK alone? How many are recycled? How long does it take for them to decompose? They tend to flake.
How long does it take for a Tescos ‘bag for life’ to deteriorate? I often find them in the Solent.
Fishing line undoubtedly lasts a long time. It can be difficult to spot.
I often find individual plastic pegs. Why is this? Do they fall off boats?
The year 2020 began for me in Portugal. I was recovering from a broken arm and disappointed to have to cancel my annual charity ride through southern Africa. However, a lovely girl flew over from the Waterberg in South Africa to work for me and we had fun designing gifts, using the illustrations from ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’.
When news of the Coronavirus broke out, we launched an appeal to help families in rural South Africa, which proved a huge success.
Carefully monitored by a qualified nursing sister, and with the help of volunteers from St John’s Church, food packages are still being distributed to needy families, feeding about 150 people a month. Read the latest news here.
Tests were unavailable in March, but I might have had a light version of Covid-19 whist we were working on this fund-raising campaign. I certainly lost my sense of smell and developed a weird blister/rash on one hand and foot after spending ten days in bed with fatigue.
My talks, planned for the summer, were cancelled but I read a story for Lockdown Tales, produced by Wildbeast for BBC Radio Suffolk and made available on BBC Sounds. I took part in an online reading of ‘The Picts and the Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome, recording a chapter at home.
As literary conferences went online, I led a workshop on photographing books for instagram, when we were joined by the award-winning author Claire Wade.
While devising exotic recipes for my next book, I began baking cakes successfully, for the first time in my life, adding cardamon and cloves.
We rolled up a circle in the lawn to make a Lockdown vegetable garden so the children could see how different plants developed. Our dancing carrots became a hit on Instagram.
I photographed one of my husband’s artichokes, winning the Create! competition, organised by the literacy charity SchoolReaders and judged anonymously by Harry Cory Wright.
I was Highly Commended for a collage made out of sea plastic I’d collected when beach cleaning, which was awarded by Emma Bridgewater. The winning entries were exhibited at the Wilson Stephens and Jones Gallery in Notting Hill. I also won a prize for taking part in a socially distanced archery match, but otherwise had a year off on the sports front.
SchoolReaders invited me to become an author supporter of their work instilling a love for books in the next generation, along with other authors including Joanna Trollop and Sophie Kinsella. We are encouraging people to make a gift in their will.
Hailed as ‘the feel-good film of lockdown’,’Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was broadcast on BBC 2 in both April and August. It was screened in Australia in January 2021. The Radio Times used this shot of me rowing Swallow with Sten Grendon who played the Boy Roger.
I was invited to talk about the movie memorabilia in a socially isolated edition of BBC Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty, which hopefully will be broadcast in March 2021.
It was wonderful to be able to spend a few days in the Lake District, where Arthur Ransome’s first draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on display.
In the autumn, a signed First Edition hardback copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ was auctioned online, raising an astonishing £201 for BBC Children in Need, exceeding bids for signed copies of books by bestselling authors such as Bernard Cornwall, Jeffery Archer and Adam Kay.
Lakeland Arts organised an online event to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the publication of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, selling tickets for an evening ‘In Conversation with Sophie Neville, which you can listen to here.
Kett’s Books invited me to speak on Zoom for their ‘Books at Lunchtime’
The greatest days of this unusual year were spent on the Solent, litter picking with my extended family, who came to live with us through lockdown. Although some dreams were grounded, we had time to go for long walks and were able to explore the South Coast where we live.
Reviews and photos from readers are always appreciated, especially on Goodreads and Amazon.
After Christmas, I heard that a historical novel I am currently working on was awarded a prize in the Association of Christian Writers’ novel competition and was shortlisted for the Eyeland’s Book Awards, who have offered me a writer’s residency in Crete.
As we entered Tier 3, I was recognised as ‘Beach Picker of the Year’ by Litter Pickers of the New Forest, a high accolade that marked the end of a quiet but busy year.
I’ve gained 3 pounds and haven’t been to the hairdressers for eighteen months, but we kept safe in our little bubble and are looking forward to a better future when there is no need to wear face-masks. You can find my post on finding elderly litter here
I was told the beach was free of litter. It took me ten minutes to fill my builder’s bucket with flotsam. Do people simply zone out sea plastic and litter?
Some was old, but how long have PPE masks like this been floating around the Solent? I found two, along with the usual plastic bottles.
It is interesting to count and categorise what you find. The Marine Conservation Society list: litter, sewage and fishing gear but the reality can be hundreds of small pieces known collectively as micro-plastics.
Picnic litter is inexcusable. With well-designed bins near the gate to the beach there is no excuse for this. Although some plastics, such as the straws and bottle-tops, have floated in on the tide, I found a neatly folded crisp packet tucked into the sea wall. Why?
Cotton bud stalks and plastic tampon applicators classify as ‘sewage’ since they are flushed down the loo – with things too revolting to photograph – and yet this is where our children play.
Fishing line makes up the majority of plastic pollution in the seas. We found an angler’s hook and line as well as commercial netting and floats. The fishhook, lying on the float, caught on my own finger.
We tried digging out one section of PVC rope but failed and had to bury it.
The reward for our work was finding a killer whale, a toy orca.
Since ‘Baby Shark’ has been popular in our family, this made our spirits soar, coming almost as a thank you from the sea.
We returned two days later to find half a bucketful of assorted detritus had either come in on the tide or been missed in earlier searches. Spotting a toy soldier amused me this time. I’ve found a couple of others further along the Solent coastline within the New Forest National Park.
For a list of really weird things found on previous beach cleans, click here
One thing is certain. I can no longer walk along the shore without collecting as much plastic pollution as I can carry. It always proves fun and gives us a sense of purpose higher than ourselves.
Whenever I go for a walk, I take this heavy duty bucket to collect any broken glass or litter I find using barbecue tongs or gloves. I try to remember to photograph what is in the bucket noting things of interest. This McDonald’s cup was picked up 22 miles from their nearest outlet.
I take bags for larger finds I later collect from the nearest road.
Showing the fragile ecosystem where I collect the rubbish is perhaps more important than shots of unidentifiable plastic or broken bottles.
There is always enough to fill the bucket, often twice over but the children enjoy finding flotsam, cleaned by the sea and find bottle tops for me.
This PPE litter and a bottle or Corona Extra was found on the Solent shore.
It has to be collected, taken home and recycled. Leaving bags of rubbish by overflowing bins is not the answer.
If all our children learn to pick up litter, hopefully they will take their own rubbish home in later life.
Sadly, it’s too dangerous to take the family along road side verges, where I only litter using tongs. Some of it looks distinctly dodgy:
Every bucket load raises questions: Why would someone dump the head of a mop in the New forest National Park?
What more can the take-away food providers do?
What are the risks of eating, drinking and smoking whilst driving?
We see the resulting rubbish and a growing need for car bins or heavy fines.
To see some of the weird things I’ve collected that raise a lot more questions, click here
For 20 reasons why it’s good to pick up trash, click here
Did this sachet float from China to the Solent or was it chucked off a ship? It was unopened. We also found an unopened and sealed jar of Nescafe Gold that had been floating around the Solent, and often pick up brand new, full cans of beer.
Forlorn channel markers can be heavy to shift. I had to ask what this grey gadget, below, was. It’s a compass guard. Anyone missing one?
Ancient plastic bottles often wash up on a beach. We dated the Paragon bleach as being made in 1959 but are not sure about the Fairy Liquid.
I fear this is evidence that open pen-knifes get flung from moving vehicles.
This quivering load of extra-large incontinence pads was chucked in the nature reserve, which un-nerved me. It was incredibly heavy. I found something so unspeakable nearby I could not take a photo of it. A whole shipping container of adult nappies washed up on the south cast recently. They are heavy to move.
This cash of antique Kilner jars was dug out of mud on the Solent. There is no wave action here, so the broken glass must have been posing a danger to paddling children, dogs, New Forest ponies and wildlife for decades.
I found a huge rusty gas canister on the Solent shore that looked so like a UXB that we reported it to the police. They told me WWII bombs still need to be detonated every three months or so. It was near where I have found intact fluorescent light bulbs washed up on two separate occasions. I’ve kept them as exhibits. They must have been flung off ships.
We often find crisp packets or drink cans that are more than thirty years old. This tin left in a nature reserve must once have contained UHT milk.
I come across a lot of old milk bottles. This one had converted into a nice, dry home by a mouse. I left it in situ.
This 25 litre barrel washed up on the shore, that once held bleach, had been gnawed by foxes.
What was eating this ancient plastic bottle? A mouse? How old is the design? 1990 or earlier. Thirty-five years?
Why do people knot plastic wrappers before throwing them out of their vehicle? I think it’s weird. Most packets, wrappers or cans once clad tobacco, sugary sweets or drinks that are bad for the health. Rubbish from drug use or cannabis farms is common. I find bongs, and endless nitrous oxide canisters, which surely should be banned.
These rather nice reading glasses were inside a stolen handbag chucked in the river. Sadly, I’ve found stolen iPhones, laptops, jewellry boxes and makeup bags.
Old traffic cones, signs and car parts are often found on verges or in the estuary. I use the purple bucket to collect broken glass.
I often come across half-full glasses or bottles of alcohol, presumably left as soon as the taxi arrives. I take them to the nearest pub but they don’t always want them back.
There are bonuses to litter-picking. Sometimes you find money. I was thrilled to come across the mudguard from my husband’s car that had fallen off. It would have been almost impossible to replace.
I find loads of hats, gloves, socks, tee-shirts and shoes. They are seldom claimed.
I wash and give away the caps but underwear goes straight into landfill.
Apart from the Chinese sachet of Cremora, one plastic box from the Clyde and another from Plymouth, the item that I’ve found that must have travelled the furthest is this fishing crate that had floated 400kms from its original harbour in France.
I’m often ask what are the most extraordinary things I’ve found on a beach clean. This year, I came across a crate washed up on Solent shores that originated in Brittany, nearly 400 kilometres across the English Chanel.
My bucket fills with lost toys and discarded litter as I clear plastic debris brought in on the tide. There is often a piece of Lego and nearly always an old cigarette lighter. How do they get into the sea?
Plastic and PVC string gets entangled in oak trees brought down in the storms.
But, perhaps the strangest things are three unbroken fluorescent light bulbs washed up in the same place at different times.
There is always plenty to collect from tidal margins including a fair bit of rope. Most pieces are tiny. Plastic gardening waste is common.
Some of it defeats me. I couldn’t shift this marker buoy. It is difficult to imagine how it will ever be removed from such a remote spot with no vehicle access.
British mud flats, so important for wildfowl, constitute one of our last wildernesses. I long to check the whole area but birds will be breeding on the low lying islands soon.
Instead, I go inland, clearing plastic bottles and wrappers that have blown off the Solent into coastal fields where they risk being a hazard to livestock. I often find pieces of plastic that have passed through the guts of New Forest ponies. Some items have obviously been dumped by overloaded hikers such as this brand new camping gear.
Meanwhile, the Lymington river estuary seems to be regarded as a litter bin by someone who drinks Tazoo everyday. I collect what I can from the banks before the rubbish attracts even more.
The nearest McDonalds is a 25 minute drive away and yet countless people wait until they reach the bridge before tossing their cups into the tidal river. Why do they do this?
I didn’t clear nearly enough. The road flooded taking all the litter chucked onto the verge into the sea.
The shore I usually clean-up was not too bad after the storms but this is because others have begun to clear up debris.
After storm Ciara I found three old cigarette lighters at once along with other indicators of how bad things are. I learnt that one person had found 105 old lighters up on the Mersey. For a list of things found while beach cleaning in 2019, please click here.