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Sheppey author Lisa Woollett turns beach rubbish into treasure

They say you can take the girl out of Sheppey but you can never take Sheppey out of the girl.

Lisa Woollett grew up on the Island where she spent her youth collecting seashells on the seashore at Shellness, hunting for fossils on the cliffs at Warden and cockling in the mud and sandbanks off The Leas at Minster.

Former Sheppey schoolgirl Lisa Woollett near her home in Cornwall
Former Sheppey schoolgirl Lisa Woollett near her home in Cornwall

Now she lives at the opposite end of the country near the tiny picturesque fishing village of Polperro in Cornwall, with her husband and teenage children Joe, 16, and Erin, 13.

But the lure of Sheppey is still strong and she has included many of her memories in a new book of photographs called Rag and Bone - A Family History of What We’ve Thrown Away.

It has already been reviewed in the Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer and Evening Standard and includes a chapter on the Isle of Sheppey, where she walks from Warden to Minster along the shore, and two on the Swale Marshes near Lower Halstow.

Lisa draws on her family history to explore the culture of our throw-away lifestyle. Her grandfather was a south London dustman and her great-grandfather was what was known as a 'scavenger' making a living reselling items thrown away by others.

She is herself a self-confessed beachcomber who spent much of her childhood exploring Sheppey's coastline and later documenting her finds in award-winning photographic books.

A map from Rag and Bone by Lisa Woollett showing the areas of Kent she knows. Published by John Murray
A map from Rag and Bone by Lisa Woollett showing the areas of Kent she knows. Published by John Murray

For her latest, she travels along the River Thames from central London toSheppey and then ends in the sea off Cornwall.

She said: "The journey reflects our changing consumer culture. Starting out in medieval London I found bone combs, scraps of leather and metal thimble-tops. By the time I reached the sea it was plastic toys from cereal packets, Biro lids and toothbrushes."

Lisa said: “My interest in the sea can be traced back to the beaches of Sheppey where I grew up. I lived in a house on the cliffs and spent a lot of time on the mud flats and searching the shore.

“I’d find mermaids’ purses and ‘sea wash balls’ — whelk egg cases — washed up on the beach. Once I found a dead squid which squirted black ink when I squeezed it.

“I’d go cockling and looking for old bottles and spent a lot of time searching for fossils and sharks’ teeth which would wash out of the cliffs after heavy rain.”

Rag and Bone by Lisa Woollett published by John Murray
Rag and Bone by Lisa Woollett published by John Murray

Lisa went to Minster County Primary School and the Sheppey School. Her family moved to Looe when she was 19. Lisa went on to take a degree in psychology and after studying documentary photography worked as a freelance for 12 years with the Observer, Independent on Sunday and Daily Telegraph.

She added: “I still adore beach-combing. I have boxes and buckets of washed-up stuff like shells, seaweed, stones, driftwood, fish bones and Lego all over the house.”

Rage And Bone has already won a £5,000 Royal Society of Literature Giles St Aubyn 'Work In Progress' Award for non-fiction.

The Observer described it as a "compulsive… absorbing memoir…" The Evening Standard said: "Woollett’s alchemy is to form narrative gold from these scraps."And Countryfile said: "A powerful book that has much to say about the present and future state of our world."

* Rag and Bone - A Family History of What We’ve Thrown Away by Lucy Woollett (John Murray, hardback, £16.99).

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