PUBLISHED: 10:29 17 November 2015
Mysterious and rare, Southwold's amber story never fails to fascinate. Words and pictures by Julian Claxton
The mist, which has been rolling across the surface of the sea for the past hour, is gradually beginning to lift, pierced by rays of sunlight, providing ideal conditions for a walk along the Suffolk coast.
Waves crash dramatically on the shore, the sea hauls stones and driftwood onto the beach. My eyes dart back and forth scanning the sand and pebbles, hoping for a glimpse of a very special type of stone. I am in Southwold, following the footsteps of many hunters, walkers and chancers . . . I am on my very own Amber hunt.
The appropriately named amber coast is the stretch between Southwold and Felixstowe, one of the best places in the UK to hunt for the yellow treasure. When Britain became an island at the close of the last glacial age, immense forests covered the land, in particular the Baltic region. Resin dropped from the trees into the soil, eventually fossilising into amber and preserving within it everything with which it came into contact. Over millions of years, as the seas evolved, the amber was transported to what is now the North Sea, in particular the Suffolk coastline.
Back on the beach, my eyes remain peeled, hoping that fortune is on my side. By the time I reach Southwold and the golden windows of the Amber Shop I realise I was probably looking in the wrong places and for the wrong colour stone. The amber on display glistens in the midday sun, but I notice the larger quantities towards the rear of the shop retain their authentic rustic charm.
The Amber Shop proudly claims to be the largest and oldest amber specialist in the UK. Pressing my eye to one of the magnified containers, I am astonished to see a piece of amber about 3cm in length, containing a perfectly preserved mosquito. “Forty to 50 million years old” says Robin Fournel, owner of the shop and amber expert, who stands next to me with a small container filled with thousands of pounds worth of raw amber.
“This all comes from the amber coast,” he says proudly. He hands me a sizeable piece, rough in texture, but beautifully honey coloured by the natural world. I brace my hands expecting a heavy stone, but it is surprisingly light.
“One of easiest ways to tell if you have amber is to place it in salt water – it will float, while imitations or pebbles will sink,” says. Robin, who has been involved in the amber industry for years.
“Thirty-eight years ago I purchased a jewellery shop in Aldeburgh and among the stock were funny little pebbles, which I didn’t know what to do with. However, the more I handled them, the more I was drawn in by them and my knowledge grew from there.”
A few years later Robin bought the Amber Shop in Southwold, expanding the range and launching something of an educational resource. Walk through the shop towards the rear and you’ll find the small museum, which charts the history and making of amber, and displays stunning examples of local finds.
“Education was, and very much still is, the key to preserving and growing the industry,” says Robin. “I’m very proud of our achievements. We have people from around the world visiting our shop and museum.” For several years Southwold played host to the Amber Hunt, when 150 or more children would hunt for one of 12 pieces of amber deliberately placed on the beach.
“Although we often didn’t get them all back!” says Robin. Increased bureaucracy brought the event to an end, but people still hunt for amber, and among the local beach finds, I get my hands on the largest piece ever to have been found off the British coast. The rust coloured stone easily fills my two hands, an impressive piece of ancient history, and holding something that is 40-50 million years old is astonishing. It was found a few years ago, two miles off the coast near Covehithe, by fishermen. It’s worth several thousand pounds, but no price tag is required. This one stays put in the museum.
I wonder how such a rough piece of amber is transformed into a beautiful gemstone. Normally fine grain wet and dry paper is applied, removing the rough textures and bringing the amber to a smooth finish. T Cut or Brasso is then applied, and hours of elbow grease later, the inner beauty of the stone is revealed.
Robin takes a small piece of amber from his pocket – apparently its wondrous properties don’t stop at jewellery. The health benefits of amber in helping various conditions have been passed down the generations – it’s claimed it can bring peace and calm to people with breathing problems and restless children, while Baltic amber is claimed to be especially useful in soothing teething babies.
I head back to my car, via the beach, head down, scanning the stones in the midday sun hoping luck is on my side. I go home with nothing more than a pretty pebble, but I feel an air of tranquillity that I did not have before. It must be the amber.