Graham account of 7 Jan 2009 trek to Croyde
News came in that a mystery carcass had been washed up on Croyde beach. Croyde's only around 30 miles from the CFZ: right on our own doorstep, so preparations were swiftly made to set off and have a look.
I hastily gathered a few tools – garden spades, a saw, and a hammer and chisel, and set off with Oll. We collected Matt in Bideford – he was the only one of us equipped with wellies, I noted – and we proceeded to Croyde and found somewhere to park. Not difficult, in early January, with the temperature below 0ºC.
Croyde bay is a west-facing bay. The rocky footpath down to the north end of the beach runs past a display board giving a map of the bay area. The beach is around half a mile long, bracketed at each end by rock strata, strata that have been turned vertical by a previous geological upheaval. The direction of the strata was left-to-right as we looked along the length of the beach, which slowed access to the sands somewhat.
Oll, carrying the cameras, tracked along the strata to hit the beach at its top, whereas Matt and I, conscious that there wasn't much daylight left, cut across the strata formation as a sort of advance party. It was a matter of climbing up a ridge and down; up the next ridge and down.
The carcass had been reported as having been washed up a day or so ago, and Matt told us it was currently high tide (or maybe an hour past high tide); therefore we could expect to find the remains near the water-line that we were now seeing. That simplified the walking aspect, as it meant we could walk on the firm, wet sand near the lapping waves, rather than have to trudge through the soft sand further up the beach.
Halfway along the beach, we found it's split in two by a stream flowing down into the sea. Matt spotted a group of people at the top of the beach, who seemed interested in something – two were crouching down – so he turned upstream to investigate, while I volunteered to check the southern half of the beach that lay beyond the stream.
Jumping the stream presented no difficulties; my lack of wellies didn't matter on this occasion, so I continued south along the seashore, as far as the strata that forms the end of the beach. Nothing of interest found, so I returned, and met Matt. Matt reported that the group of people he'd been to see had been involved in nothing more than icicle-breaking, an unusual occupation for a bunch of visitors to a beach.
We retraced our steps back to meet Oll, and had a discussion. Matt then had a phone call and was told the carcass was in the Downend Rocks area. Damn. If only I'd taken a photo of the information board we'd passed, we could have looked at the map on the digital camera. As it was, I volunteered to nip back and have a look.
It turned out that Downend Rocks was the area beyond the southernmost extent of the beach, so driving there was the best scheme. I waved to my companions and indicated they should join me – in which time I set off to retrieve the car from the car park.
On the road again, it seemed a long drive just to get round a half-mile beach. However, we parked again, and took a footpath down into the rocky area. The general pattern was ridges of rock strata running out into the sea, with clear channels between them, the ridges and gaps both of varying widths. By now, the sun was about to set, so we split up again and Matt found the carcass. As I arrived, the sun was sinking into the sea… a nice sunset, but not ideal conditions for photography and videography of a biological specimen.
Obeying the primary rule of forensics – take photos before disturbing the body – we hastily set about getting pictures and video. The body cavity was open, and a dark pool of liquid could be seen below the ribs. There had been talk of bringing the specimen back to the CFZ intact, but I didn't relish the idea of that stuff sloshing about in the back of the car.
After general discussion with Jon back at base, it was decided to collect the skull and a back leg as samples. Debate about the legal situation followed. If it's private land, presumably jetsam (material washed up that's of a non-floating type, as opposed to flotsam) would belong to the land owners. If one wrenches the head off a body, is that criminal damage? But who will complain about damage to a rotting body? After a few minutes it was decided to go ahead with specimen collection.
The animal's left rear leg came free as easily as the leg of a roast chicken. The head was another matter, being connected by a leathery material and what appeared to be cartilage in addition. A hammer and chisel was deployed to disengage the skull from the rest of the body.
With the light fading fast, and a series of craggy ridges to negotiate, it was time to leave, and the samples were carried away, to be studied back at base.