The Synchronicity of Beachcombing

The process of collection or rejection can reveal much about a person. My own assemblage of beachcombing finds is both a record of our throwaway society and a collection of evocative signifiers for my own very individual tastes, experiences and memories.

By Jo Atherton

Humans are narrative creatures, and we read significance everywhere. Perhaps in the same way we gaze skywards and interpret shapes in the clouds, the high-tide mark on the seashore offers scope for personal interpretation in a similar way.

There are those objects we consider lucky to find, such as a rare sea bean that has drifted to our shores from the West Indies, or a lobster pot tag that has made a transatlantic journey from Canada.

A Canadian lobster pot tag in a flotsam tapestry.

A Canadian lobster pot tag in a flotsam tapestry.

These objects come to rest on the sand along the trajectory of a beachcombing walk, and if we are concentrating, we are lucky enough to spot them and claim our prize for being in the right place at the right time.

Then there are those objects which present an amusing significance to their context. Consider a plastic packing tag I picked up in Norfolk. I was searching for blue items for a tapestry I am currently working on. These tags frequently feature in my work as I delight in their ambiguous codes and text which are often impossible to decipher.

Occasionally the tags betray a clue of their origin and I can conduct some detective work. Imagine my delight when running the phone number through Google, I discover this tag was issued by a company called Weaver Vale Fire & Security, and there it was, woven into a flotsam tapestry! This is an example of one such find, amusing but not incredible.

A Weaver Vale Fire and Security plastic tag.

Then finally, there are those objects which wash ashore that have an undeniable connection to a person that it can be considered synchronous; a power beyond simple interpretation brings an object to our attention with a concrete connection. This happened to me last year with an innocuous shard of plastic.

Martin Gray is a beachcombing friend I met via Facebook. Last year he was working near to my home and very kindly offered to bring me some flotsam finds that I could incorporate in my work. Gathered on the south coast, I was interested to see what kind of finds were in his collection and whether these differed much to the marine debris I had collected on Norfolk and Cornish beaches.

Out of all of the pieces of plastic, rope, broken toys and creel hooks, one thing caught my eye. It was a piece of plastic pipe bearing an address. I love trying to uncover the stories of flotsam relics so was excited by the prospect of an address I could research.

Latent stories surround us, waiting to be found.

The piece of pipe had come from The Oxford Bee Co Ltd, which one can only assume to be a bee breeding business based in Loughborough. A close friend of ours lived in the town for a number of years so I was keen to show him the piece of plastic and see whether he recognised the address. Not only did he know the street, but he actually lived next door to the very address on this battered piece of sea-smoothed plastic!

This was very strange, as here I had a series of events that had brought this object to me which I was closely connected to. Firstly, the plastic pipe originated at an address in Loughborough, next door to my friend. It somehow found its way into the sea, drifting for an unknown period of time in the English Channel, only to arrive on the very beach where my internet friend Martin was beachcombing one day. These are a lot of connections which tell a story of how linked we are to one another, maybe more than we realise.

Perhaps these connections exist everywhere; latent narratives we are yet to discover, strands waiting to be woven. Orphaned objects washing ashore twice a day, every day. And this will continue to be the case long after we have gone. What will happen to these stories of our time?


U.K. artist Jo Atherton combs the Cornish coast which juts out into the North Atlantic Current, a tributary of the Gulf Stream. This coastline serves as a unique collection point for material from all over the planet. She documents her findings on her blog Flotsam Weaving, where this post originated. Used with permission.