A Winkle fit for a Queen

When did you last notice the tiny winkle? Often overlooked, the winkle has royal connections: Walk with one for a while…

The zen of the sea world

The humble periwinkle, Littorina littorea, are tiny shells of mystery and wonder. How do they manage to exert any influence or control over where they live, a small shell thriving within the intercostal reaches of the surging energies of the tide? Yet, there are endless comments by eminent professors, who declare that somehow, they do: Research states that the species tends to aggregate and form clusters in areas that are more favourable for them, such as rock pools, rather than drier area, and the species is found mainly on the lower shore and shallow subtidal but in ideal conditions may be found up to the high tide line. How do these tiny snails of the sea manage to be anywhere other than where the waves toss and cast them as it scours the rockpools at each high tide?

Winkles are small gelatinous bodies that graze upon algae on the rocks; miniature cows or goats of the rockpools, inching their way along, feeling their way with one foot and limited vision through two protruding eyes.

They are skilled architects, secreting an outer protective layer around them and thus creating their protective shell – a twisted cone; a frozen cape thrown about their body as a shield. Some build left-hand twists, and others right-hand spirals. Like a tree, each twist of the shell indicates the age of the winkle, each ridge marking a time measured in moon cycles and tides. Their shell glistens in the water, but their true beauty is hidden underneath – do they even see their own beauty?

Inside their shell there are twists of pearly rainbows, swirls of rich alabaster to rival any king’s palace. The shy winkle hides, his flat foot protecting himself from the outside world, shut up into the dark of his own coil. Unlike the common garden snail, the winkle does not reach out beyond its own shell, it stays huddled under it, wearing it like a heavy helmet. Even watching a winkle walk over the rocks, you cannot easily see the actual animal, he lifts his shell over him and slowly edges it along.

Perhaps visitors to the beaches do not notice the winkle at all. They look stationary, dark clusters on the rocks, like barnacles cemented in place, or limpets stuck fast. But they will roll if nudged with a toe, spinning on its back, to rest at the bottom of a rockpool. Docile, inert, still. But sit. Wait. Watch. In time measured by the endless scream of gulls and the ever-present growl of the sea, they move. They move in no discernible pattern, or premeditated goal, seeking out algae in their blind bumbling, leaving trails of curving tangles of pathways: Rock artists.

Some winkles meander out of the water and settle in the sun, their dark shells turning dull and lacklustre as they dry. Others wander deeper, vanishing amongst the green fronds of weed. Some circle around, edging past fat shiny blood red anemones clever; interesting; not sensational waving just under the water level, squat to a rock, stationary but presenting a mobility and awareness with its environment that the winkle just does not demonstrate: The anemone extrovert show-off, shocking in their contrasting nakedness and the introvert winkle with its shell pulled tight about itself.

What compels the winkle to plod forwards across an unknown and unseen space? What must it be like to feel your way forward, hunched inside the dark, peeking out to see a short distance into a watery world, or dry hot rock-world? How does a winkle feel as it bumps and crashes to the bottom of a rocky gully, dislodged by a sandals or fisherman’s boot? Perhaps they are the epitome of resilience, of resigned existence, or if their silvery rock paintings are anything to go by, maybe they are creatures of stoic acceptance, content to literally ‘go with the flow’, the zen of the sea world. They must be used to being hurled, dragged, lunged at and battered by the sea. The winkle encapsulates in one tiny, inconsequential spiral the essence of living with mindful focus on the present.

Holiday makers may ignore the unglamorous winkle in favour of shrimps flitting out of the corner of eyes, and crabs lurking bad temperedly under rocks to thrash their claws in high drama when found. However, in the past and still in some areas, they are harvested for human consumption. In the UK they are common all around our coastline, and could be found sold by the pint, having been boiled in salt water, from ‘winkle barrows’ and eaten by scooping them from their shell with ‘winkle pickers’ – a sharp pin, in London markets. They are still collected from the coastline on the Drigg Coast in Cumbria, especially in November and December for the French Christmas markets.

There is nothing humble nor hidden about the winkle in Hastings, Sussex: There is a large silver statue of one on what has come to be known as Winkle Island. Churchill always carried one in his pocket, and Queen Elizabeth II had a gold one she wore as a broach. And the sudden demand, “Put your winkle on the table a moment, I wish to compare it with mine for colour.” could be heard in that part of the world since the 1900’s. For those who could not immediately produce the winkle on demand, there was a hefty fine to pay. This is how the ‘Winkle Club’ works. The fishermen of Hastings wanted to establish a charity to support ‘impoverished children’ and were scratching their heads for a name for their charity, when someone came into the pub selling winkles, scooped from a pail into cones of newspaper – and so the Winkle Club was born. Each member carried a winkle, cleared out of its original occupant, and replaced by sealing wax. Fines for not having the winkle on you at all times has raised millions of pounds to good causes ever since. Churchill and Prince Phillip are some of the more famous members – Queen Elizabeth did have a gold winkle but was not made a member as it is a ‘men’s only’ club.

The Gold Winkle: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1102834.1d

Winkles reproduce by spurting small eggs into the tidal environment when the water temperatures are right. One research paper tells us that egg release is synchronized with spring tide. How does the winkle, hardly able to see anything, check out a mate (apparently males prefer larger shelled females – how can they see that far?), and tie the activity in with the spring tides? In its resting space within the present moment, can the winkle relax in total trust of the tides and currents that guide it, and thus rock within the rhythms of time, lulled in the cycle of the moon?

Within its watery ecosystem the winkle makes a significant link in the food chain. Free swimming larvae hatch after a few days. After six weeks in the ocean juveniles settle on the shore. They reach sexual maturity at 2-3 years of age and can live up to 5 years. Those that do not make it to adulthood provide an essential food source for the diversity of species surviving together around our coasts, widely distributed – to be found on all British and Irish coasts but rare or absent around the Isles of Scilly and the Channel Isles.

The species is distributed from northern Spain to the White Sea in northern Russia. The small innocuous creature, stealthily thriving and clustering far and wide. In the five-year life span of a winkle, could it be dragged and drawn by the currents to travel from Lisbon to the Russian Kola Peninsula, or do they stay local, never to visit their European cousins? How do they manage to be in the right place for their ideal habitat, after being submerged in the pounding waves? Science explains so much, but for me the mystery of the magic of with winkle remains locked inside the secretive creature tucked up inside its camouflage helicoidal home. Separate, yet integrally a part of our marine coastal world.