Shipwreck graveyards, converted cow sheds, the Red Lady of Paviland, press-ganged prisoners, black pools, great ivied oaks, grazed moorland, slow invaders, muffling sea-wrack & Wales.
TThe wind is shaking our cottage, which isn’t easy since it’s made of gigantic stones. It used to be a barn, or, as it is called by our Welsh friend who was raised on a nearby farm, a cow shed. Real estate agents call it a “conversion,” one name for the changes going on here on Gower, a peninsula on the south coast of Wales, the first place in Britain to be designated an area of natural beauty. The cottage is on the border between the old farmland, much of it common land, and the village, Bishopston, now a suburb of Swansea five miles away. Dylan Thomas, Swansea’s most famous boyo, and his new wife, Caitlin, lived with his parents here in the village for a while. He said that Swansea had “as many layers as an onion, and every one could make you cry.”
To get here from Swansea you drive up a long, pleasant park- and tree-lined city street, climbing steadily but not steeply, until surprisingly you’re on, and surrounded by, an expanse of moorland grazed by sheep and ponies. After a couple of miles of this common, you’re in civilization again, in the suburban houses that surround the village, a typical Welsh village strung along a narrow road with houses slap up against it—no pretty central green like its English counterpart. Driving back the other way, from the village to Swansea, the vista of moorland almost convinces you that you’re in the Yorkshire Dales or Exmoor until you top a rise and see the blue-hazy expanse of Swansea Bay, on the other side the cooling towers of the mills of Port Talbot like two white salt shakers.
The past I am finding is a lot farther in the past than I thought.
I am living here for a year on sabbatical from my teaching job at a university in the Midwest—ostensibly looking for my past, since my grandfather was from south Wales. But the past I am finding is a lot farther in the past than I thought. The wind whistling under my door comes right off the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Bristol Channel, an immense shipwreck graveyard, as is almost all of the British coastline. About a mile from here one of the more famous wrecks occurred, in 1760, when the ship Caesar ran aground on the rocks of Pwll Du Bay in bad light and fog. In the hold, in chains, were men who had been press-ganged from the Swansea streets and bars only a few hours before. The crew got ashore safely, but left the prisoners in the ship to drown. The sixty-eight nameless bodies they found are buried on the slope of the cape within a circle of stones—more like the shape of a giant footstep—which for most of the year is covered by bracken, knee-high fern that turns rusty red in autumn. The spot is now called Gravesend. No mention was made of the drowned men at the inquiry into the wreck.
I walk to Pwll Du often, along the top of the deep, wooded Bishopston Valley, then through lanes lined by hedgerows taller than I am, across fields of soccer goalposts and horses, to come out of the woods on the cliffs above the bay. As I stand on Brandy Cove Head, I can see the Bristol side on clear days. Down below me and to the right is Pwll Du Bay. The two white houses at the foot of the cliff are converted pubs from when there was a quarry here, the remains of which you can see in three long piles of gravel, joined like fingers, that run parallel to the beach. At the far side of the beach, a stream flows out after coming all the way down the valley from the village, sinking through limestone at two places and flowing underground, then emerging from the almost sheer walls of the valley side to continue on to the coast. Just before it gets to the beach, it flows through a marsh, then into a pool formed by two of the fingers of quarry gravel; this is presumably the pwll du, the black pool that gives the bay its name. The rocky, densely wooded streambed was the trail smugglers used to get their casks of whiskey up the valley to the village. The next cove over is even called Brandy Cove.
The stream was also used by the villagers to get down to the bay when there was a storm, and the possibility of a shipwreck. There are even rumors that they would build a bonfire to mislead ships into thinking that the rocky headland was the Mumbles lighthouse at the entrance to Swansea Bay. Even today, a local child who is beachcombing will tell you she is “wrecking.”
The vista of moorland almost convinces you that you’re in the Yorkshire Dales or Exmoor until you top a rise and see the blue-hazy expanse of Swansea Bay, on the other side the cooling towers of the mills of Port Talbot like two white salt shakers.
Friends of ours own one of the cottages, which used to be the Beaufort House pub, and use it as a weekend place, a particularly pretty one, whitewashed and snuggled against the base of the cliff, which has been made even more sheer by the years of quarrying. The cliffs here, or slades, all look as if giant, black slate roofing tiles, the kind mined at Blaenau Ffestiniog to the north—once on every roof in Wales, and a good many in the world—had been stacked, then stuck into the sea at forty-five-degree angles, jutting out all along the channel like teeth on a saw, though they must have bitten into the timbers of those old sailing ships like the flint blade of a stone-age ax.
A feeling of being in the stone age is pervasive here, from the shaggy ponies, wild and grazing on the village greens and clifftops, to the cairns and standing stones scattered around. My favorite walk is through Park Wood, which does indeed manage to be both park and wood, all grass in the valley, called Green Cwm, and oak and beech woods on the hills. On the left as you walk the track is Giant’s Grave, Parc Le Breos, pronounced “Le Bruce,” a living-room-size ice-age cairn of stones neatly stacked to about waist high, with larger stones inside balanced on end to make little rooms where you can sit, as on the steps of a swimming pool, and look across the valley to the old lime kiln, and up the valley to a towering rock with a cave in it called Cat Hole. The cairn, the mass grave of some twenty or so people who died while in their twenties of a hereditary joint disorder, was built on the bank of the stream that now runs underground. It’s very quiet, and I tend to sit for a while, touching the stones to try to get a sense of those people 10,000 years ago. It would have been a nice place to spend the winter, sheltered and green because of the ivy and moss covering the tree trunks. It’s a nice place to be buried.
After the road leaves the cairn, it winds up through plantations of larch, firs that turn gold in the fall, through bracken and great ivied oaks, their limbs in silhouette black and corkscrewing together into a wicker canopy. On foggy days, my favorite time to walk here, the farther trees, gray and indistinct, look like mammoths easing into view through the mist, which would not have been farfetched at one time. In a cave only a few miles away, now on the coast, the find was made that helped confirm Darwin and discredit Archbishop Ussher, who said the world was created in 4004 BC. The Red Lady of Paviland, slight, trinketed and stained with red earth, eventually proved to be a young man who lived 18,500 years ago. They don’t know how he died, but bones of things like the woolly rhinoceros have been found nearby. Walking in the fog, the thick bracken up to my waist, I can imagine how it must have felt to take a walk on such a day when there were things like saber-toothed tigers loose in the world.
These woods lead up to the foot of Cefn Bryn, the long treeless beacon of Gower, from the top of which are 360 degrees of good views, such as Three Cliffs Bay, with its three-humped camel of rock kneeling on the sands; Worm’s Head, which looks so much like a swimming dragon that the Vikings called it that, wurm; and Burry, wide sands that are glossy gold when the tide’s out, and speckled with cocklers, who once used pony-drawn sleds, but more and more use three-wheelers.
In the hold, in chains, were men who had been press-ganged from the Swansea streets and bars only a few hours before. The crew got ashore safely, but left the prisoners in the ship to drown.
The best place to see Burry, and the long moorland that sweeps down to it, is Arthur’s Stone, almost at the summit of Cefn Bryn, and perhaps Gower’s most important anthropological site. A king or queen of some kind must be buried beneath the huge balanced stone, now cracked, sitting in a slight crater, obviously scooped out by many hands and lined with smaller stones like a mini-amphitheater. The nine supporting stones, the table legs and the capstone, like the stones of Stonehenge, were probably dragged or floated here from as far away as the Preseli Hills fifty miles north. You can’t help but touch it, or even stand on a fallen leg of it to look down to where there’s always a pool of rainwater in the dark beneath. A legend has it that on midsummer’s eve, simmer dim, it walks down the long slope to the Burry River to drink.
Nearby is a mass rocky grave of later people whose turf-and-stone huts may have clustered around Arthur’s Stone for moral support. The slow “invaders” the Celts called these shy, funny little dark people tylwyth teg, or fairies, because they lived underground and had plenty of gold and silver, but, strangely, no iron. And because they had no iron, they couldn’t compete with the swords and plows of their new neighbors, and were either killed off, starved or simply absorbed by marriage.
Just as you despair, the sun comes seeping through the dark clouds like a broken yolk.
There are usually shaggy, wild Welsh ponies grazing around these cairns, and you’re so far up and away, you can’t see cars, power lines or radar dishes. One frosty evening when the weather cleared, we raced up to the stone to see the sunset. The sky turned pink, which colored the sands in the bay. A few other people had come up to be quiet, having their tea in cars pulled off the road in the cold and wind, but we had to get out and walk the grassy footpath that winds through the red bracken and circles both graves. Through the pink that was all around us, the full moon began to rise above a grazing pony, white as a unicorn.
Gower, like the rest of Britain, changes often and abruptly. The high ground tends to be fields of sheep and villages, the low ground steep clefts of valleys, or cwms (pronounced “cooms,” and spelled combes in Cornwall), thickly wooded and hidden, enfolded, so that it is possible to stand in fields and see nothing but fields and think this is Gower, or stand in woods and swear this country is nothing but. Gower even seems to have its own weather system, again like Britain when compared with the rest of Europe, or even the world. It can be sunny when it’s wet everywhere else, and muffled in sea-wrack on a lovely summer’s evening. The light is constantly shifting, the sun through the clouds throwing spotlights across the fields, then dark enough to seem like the dead of winter. Just as you despair, the sun comes seeping through the dark clouds like a broken yolk. You feel your psychic thermometer constantly yo-yoing.
It would have been a nice place to spend the winter, sheltered and green because of the ivy and moss covering the tree trunks. It’s a nice place to be buried.
If Gower is a miniature Britain, then Worm’s Head is Land’s End. The land narrows until it’s barely wide enough to hold the road and a few cottages, and the cliffs drop off ever steeper on both sides until you come to the point, the end. Just beyond, accessible only at low tide, is the Worm, which looks vaguely like that famous faked photo of the Loch Ness Monster. Around you, sheep are grazing at the very edge of the cliffs, from which they sometimes fall, and on a ledge below, a boy is often fishing the rising tide. I can’t imagine how he gets there.
Far to the right is the biggest beach I’ve ever seen, five miles long and a half-mile wide of tawny sand. Above it, Rhosili Down is a long mountain that, like a negative of the beach, seems as dark as the beach is light, as high as it is wide, and exactly as long, as if the curve of the beach were created by the mountain being cut out of it. On top of the down, among the boulders, heather, gorse and a WWII gun emplacement, are more views to almost anywhere. The few large white houses on the flank of the down are the size of rice grains, and sheep are salt on the green of the fields. The timbers of a shipwreck stick from the beach like fish bones. They say the wind blows harder here than anywhere in the British Isles. On the milder days, the surfers fill the water like a colony of seals; parrot-colored hang gliders drag their shadows over the down.
I’d heard about the rain and cold of winter, but nobody ever mentioned the wind. Right now the trees outside my window are flailing. No wonder each of them has its own particular bent; being near a sea changes everything. After growing up a Southern Baptist in Georgia, I’ve finally come to understand here, on this coast, the imagery of so many of the hymns of my childhood, most of which were written on this island, the sea here threatening, a cold, wet slap in the face whenever you get near it, dispelling the usual imagery of user-friendly sands and surf, the kind you play in and on, the kind you get warm by, with palm trees over your head. Here the sea is something you wrestle with, hide from, admire from a distance, its flanks always shaggy like a powerful nervy animal.
A legend has it that on midsummer’s eve, simmer dim, it walks down the long slope to the Burry River to drink.
“Rock of Ages cleft for me/ Let me hide myself in thee,” I used to sing, thinking, Who would want to hide in a cleft? Since I’ve been here, I’ve taken refuge in a cleft or two, and been glad to get them, particularly on the Pennard Cliffs when I would do anything, anything just to get the wind off my face for a minute, the whistling out of my ears. “Throw out the lifeline,” we sang. Now I have seen the big lifeboats that go down the flume into black, heavy seas. Just across the channel, in Cornwall, there’s a little museum, in it the lifeboat a whole town dragged all night over the hill to the next bay so they could save the crew of a distressed ship. All night, the men and women pushing, the crew waiting. Flares going up, ropes fired. The immense waves, the rocks, water cold enough to kill you in five minutes, suggesting why practically no page of the newspaper or hour of telly is without its travel show, or advertisements and articles about sun and warm water, like the hymn’s “beautiful shore” where we will all meet “in the sweet by and by.” Though when I think of where I’ll end up, I remember poet Vernon Watkins’ memorial tucked like another boulder under the cliffs of his home at High Pennard, gorse, heather and bracken leading steeply down to the surf breaking on the black slade below, wild ponies grazing around, and think, One could do worse.
Now it’s snowing, really rare here, and really unusual that it doesn’t more often in this place in the North Sea on the same latitude as Nova Scotia. But when it melts a few hours later, the grass will still be green, the trees, too, with their ivy and moss, so unlike the brown grass and gray woods of my childhood in much-warmer Georgia.
Through the pink that was all around us, the full moon began to rise above a grazing pony, white as a unicorn.
I wish Gower could stay as it is, but already it’s changing. On fine days in the summer, so many cars clog the hedgerow’ed lanes that the police have to close the whole peninsula, as if it were an amusement park on bank holiday. Already it’s seen as a bedroom of Swansea, for who wouldn’t want a ten-minute drive after work to a house on cliffs the rival of anything in Cornwall, to take your family on a walk through miles of wood, moorland and mountain on a footpath that begins just outside your door?
But I am a foreigner, part of the problem and not the solution. I’m like American poet Theodore Roethke, mourning at the grave of a female student, saying he has no claims in the matter, being neither father nor lover. I can only tell why I’m here, and what it is like where I come from, without fields, or sheep, or woods, where people can no longer walk anywhere. I’m a visitor, perhaps, from another kind of stone age, a future one.
William Greenway’s thirteenth collection, Selected Poems, was the winner of the 2014 FutureCycle Press Poetry Book of the Year Award, and his newest is As Long as We’re Here, also from them. Everywhere at Once (2008) won the Ohioana Poetry Book of the Year Award, as did his Ascending Order (2003), both from the University of Akron Press. He has published in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah and Prairie Schooner, and has won the Helen and Laura Krout Memorial Poetry Award, the Larry Levis Editors’ Prize from Missouri Review, the Open Voice Poetry Award from The Writer’s Voice, the State Street Press Chapbook Competition and an Ohio Arts Council Grant, and was 1994 Georgia Author of the Year. He’s professor emeritus of English at Youngstown State University, but lives now in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
Lead image: Neil Mark Thomas