The Shingle Beach of North Norfolk

Relevant graffiti on the seawall in Sheringham.

On Monday, March 29, the United Kingdom moved into Step One in a four-stage "roadmap out of lockdown." We've been weaving in and out of COVID-19 restrictions for a year now, and on Monday we emerged from three solid months of the highest-level lockdown, which began the day after Christmas.

For once, the weather of Norwich was celebrating with us. I spent a glorious sunny Monday walking the University of East Anglia campus, taking a socially-distanced walk with my classmate Joanne (the first time I've met her in person), and... drumroll please... playing ultimate! Organized sports are allowed with some modifications. We can't mark or stall-count, and we sanitize the discs between drills.

Pulling, marking up, defending, handling, cutting, catching, throwing, winning, losing, cheering, communicating, teaching, learning, sweating, getting grass stains and bruised knees: I can't put into words how happy I felt. Running around on the pitch (as they call it here), out of practice and out of shape, greeted by familiar faces from the early fall, it was like something I'd lost and been trying not to think about for months had suddenly turned up, and everything seemed so much brighter.

For the past three months, we have been completely avoiding public transportation. Because we don't have a car, that means we've been existing within the dimensions of where we can walk, run or bike. In Part One of the lockdown exit strategy, we're allowed to use the train again.

My housemate Molly, a plant geneticist from Wisconsin who spends her days emasculating barley in a lab, had never laid eyes on the ocean from the United Kingdom. So, on Good Friday, Molly, Collin and I took the train an hour north to the fishing and tourist town of Sheringham. Our plan was to ride a bus on to Cley Marshes. As we sat huddled in the Coast Hopper bus stop, a kind stranger approached.

"Aren't waiting for the bus, are you?" she asked. "No busses been through here all day. Won't be running around Easter, they won't."

No signs, no warning on the website, just common knowledge. We thanked her and found a taxi company that was happy to take us to Cley for about the same cost as three bus fares.

Collin and Molly begin the long walk back to Sheringam. Every step forward on the shingle beach feels as tiring as two, because the pebbles slide backward and sideways underfoot.

In the village of Cley, we stocked up on "vagina bread" (mislabeled at the bakery as fougasse) and fresh mackerel pâté before heading out along the Norfolk Coast Path. We had eight miles of shingle beach to trek back to Sheringham, where we'd catch an evening train home to Norwich.

Egg cases of the common whelk, Buccinum undatum.

The common whelk herself! Well, at least her shell.

A common sea star, Asterias rubens. This is the same species that's found on the Atlantic Coast of the United States. When I learned that England and the US East Coast are mostly populated by these small five-pointed stars, it suddenly made sense why none of the sea stars in picture books ever looked familiar to me: most children's book illustrations are based on Asterias rubens, not the diversity of colorful, many-legged, many-sized sea stars found on the Pacific Coast.

This common sea star was dead, but its tube feet were still clinging to pebbles.

I call these things "cuttlefish bones." I used to buy them in the pet store for my budgies, Steve and Lily, to chew on for calcium. Today, the shingle beach was littered with them. Could they really be the skeletons of cuttlefish, those color-flashing, rainbow, intelligent mollusks that look like alien octopuses? Indeed, iNaturalist confirmed that these bones come from European common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis. I would love to see one alive under the water.

A mermaid's purse, the egg case of a skate in the genus Raja.

A common Atlantic slippersnail, Crepidula fornicata. Brits accidentally introduced this non-native species to Essex from the US East Coast between 1887 and 1890 when they imported oysters.

An unidentified scallop, family Pectinidae.

The carapace of a velvet swimming crab, Necora puber.

This hardy plant, a yellow horned poppy, Glaucium flavum, sprouted from the leeward side of a shingle pile where we stopped for lunch. It was a bit demoralizing to realize we'd come only one mile and could still see the Cley windmill. After that, we had to pick up our pace!

Molly was determined to swim in the ocean. Collin and I guarded her backpack and watched in awed horror as she dunked in the 6 degree Celsius (43 degree Fahrenheit) water.

A hydrozoan in the family Sertulariidae. I love encountering these strange species on the seashore. Hydrozoa is a class of animals within the phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish, sea anemones, and corals. Hydrozoans form colonies of microscopic individuals with stinging cells on their too-small-to-see tentacles.

A different species of hydrozoan in the family Sertulariidae.

Hornwrack, Flustra foliacea. This animal, a Bryozoan, stretches our land-lubber imaginations even further. Bryozoa is a phylum unto itself - the same level of classification as our phylum, Chordata, which includes every animal with a backbone. The word Bryozoa means "moss animal." The microscopic individuals, called zooids, form colonies with sturdy architecture almost like a honeycomb. Each zooid filter-feeds from its cell and passes information and nutrients to other cells across selective membranes.

Looking ahead, with the shingle beach and the North Sea on our left.

This winter, I've been collecting photos of every moss species in Norfolk. Something about this wiry neon moss on the salty seashore caught my eye. I doubled back and maneuvered my camera through a barbed-wire fence to take a few photos with the zoom lens, feeling like paparazzi spying on a celebrity. And it paid off! It turned out to be a species I hadn't seen before: yellow feather moss, Homalothecium lutescens.

Looking back from the eroding sandy bluffs as we approached Sheringham.

An exhausted train ride home.