Following in the bootsteps of intrepid Victorian seaweed hunters, Melanie Molesworth and Julia Bird collect and press specimens along the Cornwall and Dorset coast
As natural history was coming into its own in the 1800s, the biggest clubs for the ‘gentlemen sciences’ still banned women. While hunting was seen as too dangerous a pursuit and digging up plants too sexually loaded, gathering seaweed was deemed relatively safe. A popular pastime for both Queen Victoria and George Eliot, it was not, however, without risks. Margaret Gatty advised wearing men’s boots and, due to the dangers involved (especially on low-water mark expeditions), the protection of a gentleman companion may be necessary. She warned he might require some enticing by proposing he “fossilize, or sketch, or even (if he will be savage and barbaric) shoot gulls”, while his lady collect her crop.
With their crop, which they gather along the shores of Cornwall and Dorset, Melanie Molesworth and Julia Bird create beautiful pressings and artwork. They kindly share their secrets with us:
1. Start by gathering your seaweed in a bucket – low tide is the best time.
2. Rinse well before placing them in a large plastic or metal tray dish filled with a couple of inches of fresh cold water.
3. Place a piece of watercolour paper in, then float your chosen piece of seaweed on top.
4. Swirl and arrange your seaweed over the paper until you are happy with it – you may want to snip a few bits off to make a cleaner shape.
5. Slowly lift the paper out and lay it on kitchen paper or cloth to help soak up some of the excess water. Blot with kitchen roll or blotting paper.
6. Place a piece of greaseproof paper on top and then a layer of newspaper, followed by a sheet of cardboard, before adding the next specimen and repeat steps 4 and 5.
7. They will then be ready to press – you could use an old-fashioned trouser press or pile books on top.
8. Check seaweeds daily and replace the newspaper layers and paper until dry.
9. Carefully peel the paper off (some pieces are more fragile than others) and fix them in place, to display, using thin strips of masking tape.
10. Seaweed identification can be tricky as there are hundreds of species. Try Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland published by Seasearch, £16.95.