When I was about six, my Great-Aunt Eliza gave me this nautilus shell. It was kept on top of a high chest of drawers in the West Room – a big spare room with a four-poster bed so huge that it had to be sold with the house. I wasn’t allowed to have the shell in my own bedroom until I was about eleven, so I only glimpsed it occasionally but the knowledge that it belonged to me always gave me a thrill.
Great Aunt Eliza’s nautilus shell
I naturally assumed that shells like it lay all over the ocean floor in pearly splendour. It only slowly dawned on me that that wasn’t true and that someone had carefully removed its crusty outer shell to reveal the mother of pearl within. When I began to write this post, I had to google it to find out what it was – and nautilus is the nearest I could find. I know nothing else about it, like where it came from. Great-Aunt Eliza died a couple of months short of her hundredth birthday and she’d had had the shell as a child, so it must date back to the 19th century.
The underside of the nautilus shell
When I was a teenager, my mother gave me the shell below. She called it a leopard-spot cowrie, and that’s how I’ve always thought of it. But when I came to google it, leopard-spot cowries didn’t appear to exist, and it looks most like the photos of tiger cowries.
The ‘leopard-spot’ cowrie
I can quite see why my mother called it ‘leopard-spot’ because tigers are stripy not spotted, and this shell is definitely spotted. So there’s another small mystery here. I’ve always thought of it as a sophisticated shell, one designed by a top French 1920s couturier, Coco Chanel, perhaps.
The reverse side of the cowrie
Once I was grown up and had a house of my own, I began to look for other shells. I bought the paua shell below to use as a soap holder. It has a row of convenient holes to allow the soapy water to drain away – you just tip it gently. In fact, this is my second paua shell. I cleaned the first one too energetically and it broke. So I’m now much more careful.
The paua shell
My next shell is a helmet shell, see below. I bought it in Port Isaac, a fishing village on the north Cornish coast where my Aunt Peggy lived. I always made a bee-line for the fishing shop with its baskets of shells, fishing-floats, coils of rope, etc., whenever I visited.
The helmet shell
Incidentally, I’ve photographed all the shells next to a Victorian egg cup which is just over 2 inches (6 cms) tall, to give a sense of scale. Victorian eggs were obviously smaller than modern eggs – something I notice every time I have a boiled egg.
Helmet shell reverse side
My next shell (see below) is the fearsome-looking marlinspike which is surprisingly heavy. It fits snugly into one’s hand and it looks as though it could do a lot of damage. When I bought it, I was thinking about a possible novel set in 19th century Edinburgh. My heroine, Carolina, lives with her crusty Antiquarian great-uncle in one of the medieval flats in Gladstone’s Land just below the castle. There was to be plenty of skulduggery and something about a Jacobite rose bowl – I’ve forgotten exactly what – but the marlinspike struck me as being an excellent weapon of choice for Carolina when confronted by the villain who has (naturally) evil intensions on both the rose bowl and her virtue. So I bought one (as part of my research, of course) in the Port Isaac shell shop.
I acquired my next shell (see below) simply because I thought it was pretty and I liked the colour. I have no idea what it is. I knew what it was when I bought it, of course, but I stupidly forgot to write the name down and now I’ve forgotten.
Pink and white shell
None of my shells cost very much – I like to have them around and enjoy them, not keep them locked away because they’re so valuable.
My last shell, see above, is a murex and it’s obviously an everyday murex. When I googled it, I could see at once from the hundreds of murex photos that mine was a very battered-by-the-waves example. But I liked the glimpse of pink, and it sits on a small shelf in the bathroom, with the leopard-spot cowrie and the helmet shell where I can see them.
I’ve decided not to collect any more shells. It’s all too easy, as one grows older, to find that one’s house is full of stuff. I had a grand clear out a few years ago, said ‘Goodbye’ to a number of things which qualified as ‘stuff’, mentally thanked the donors, and took the objects to a charity shop. They would find new owners, the charity would benefit, and I’d have more space. I hoped.
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