Support our Nation today - please donate here

Book extract: ‘On collecting sea glass’ – from Seaglass by Kathryn Tann

01 Jun 2024 6 minute read
Seaglass: Essays, Moments and Reflections by Kathryn Tann is published by Calon

Kathryn Tann

Seaham was once home to a glass manufacturer – one of the biggest in Europe.

From the 1850s to the 1920s, Londonderry glassworks made up to 20,000 hand-blown bottles every day – and dumped huge quantities of waste glass directly into the North Sea.

Now, a century after the factory quenched its furnaces, that glass is being returned to us as something wanted.

Sand gathered, heated, made crystal and strong, then disposed of again and embraced by the tides. A relay team between industry and ocean: too much treasure to fill any sweetie jar, and the promise of rare shades not found on the average town-side beach.

‘Milk-glass’ is one of the special types of glass that can be found at Seaham. It is sought-after because of its opacity – but to me, this seems like surely it would defeat the main allure. With it, you cannot hold the sun between your finger and thumb.

Another rarity at Seaham is safety glass. That old-style of reinforced window – the kind you see in the door of a community centre: wire mesh suspended inside a sheet of liquid glass. Fragments of this remind me where the tempting gems have actually come from.

But I like the transformation – the clean black line slicing through a drop of muted light.

Waning tide

Andrew and I edge our way north – moving slowly away from the town – where the glass pickings are sparser and less frantic. We move closer to the waning tide and find a few larger pieces.

We laugh when, in our concentration, we forget about the chase of the occasional wave and dash suddenly from its foaming fingers. I think of all the jagged edges in my jar, softened only at the corners, tossed, likely, or just a few short years in the rip.

Here, some pieces are like marbles. Smooth and round, translucent after the recent lick of the sea. They remind me of the pearly beads Mum used to have – dollops of glass that went in water, in a vase of flowers, or a dish of floating tea-lights on the dining table.

Soon, we start to think about lunch. We turn our course back towards Seaham, the wind now behind us, pushing us towards the town. But progress is slow. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ll miss a perfect piece of sea glass if I lift my eyes too long from the ground.

My raincoat pocket is heavy and jingles when I shake it for Andrew to demonstrate my bounty. He came along happily but without much interest in my beach-combing plans. Now the searching has gained an edge of competition.

The sea is grey and rumbling, and the wind has swept away the headache that had been lingering behind my eyes since this morning. I crunch through the shingle, forcing myself to straighten my neck every once in a while, to absorb the horizon.

Living relatively land locked now on our small island, I try never to take a visit to the coast for granted. No matter the beach, it always feels like meeting an old friend. It would be rude not to pay it some attention now.


Groynes interrupt the shore, their blackened stumps limping into the water. The terrain turns sandy, and eventually I relinquish the hunt and we climb the dissolving concrete steps back up to the promenade.

The sky has pooled its resources; the cloud gathering grey into deep, laden blue.

After a brief sweep around the main street and a quick look at the old harbour, we climb gratefully through the doorway of a fish and chip shop and manage to grab the last table at the back of the restaurant.

We treat ourselves to hot, sugary tea, thick-battered haddock and copious piles of yellow chips. I order some sliced white bread and butter, and a can of orange Fanta.

A large family with two highchairs and a mound of different coloured raincoats talk over one another. An older couple across from us coach their two grandsons through the ritual of this timeless fish-supper feast.

I sit back, smiling and stuffed, against the red-leather booth seat. I think about how much a part of the landscape our presence is.

Places are not separate from people – not on an island like ours. Places are a collection of stories.

They hold each chapter in their hedgerows, their forest floors, their bricked-up river banks and their cake-layer cliffs. They hide it in their shingle; not hard to find when you take a moment, a proper look.

When we were living in Manchester, during the pandemic, scouring the Castlefield canals for optimism, I was also trying to complete my master’s in creative writing. Classes had been swept online, and I was reading a lot – books that spirited me to evergreen forests, gale-blown beaches and frosty meadows.


It was around this time that I began to consciously write non-fiction. I had in mind a piece that gathered all my favourite swimming memories, and that would, while I wrote it, transport me to the places back home, in Wales, that I couldn’t physically reach.

But once I entered the deepest waters of the essay, I found that it was actually about something else. I gave it the title ‘Return to Water’, and it became a cathartic dive into my own unexamined journey towards womanhood. It was a piece that brought the outside world onto the same pages as my private self.

The work was surprising, difficult, and it began a chain reaction of ideas that would, one by one and over a handful of years, become their own essays.

Often, my intentions would shift like sand dunes as I typed – mapping new thoughts onto old landscapes: lakes, leisure centres and childhood kitchens. I was collecting sea glass; looking for glints of coloured meaning, watching them change with the light, arranging and then rearranging them until they made a shape that seemed to matter.

And somewhere, pretty far along the line, I noticed that I have always been collecting: shells, fossils, photographs and half-finished notebooks.

I am a library of things. I am made of places and of other people: songs, Sunday afternoons and long conversations; everything pressed, like wildflowers, into the pages of a book.

Seaglass: Essays, Moments and Reflections by Kathryn Tann is published by Calon. It is available from all good bookshops.

Support our Nation today

For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Our Supporters

All information provided to Nation.Cymru will be handled sensitively and within the boundaries of the Data Protection Act 2018.