PHIL MAILLARD: Rock Sea-Lavender

7th July 2011: Walk west along the beach from Swanbridge to Sully and beyond. This stretch of the Bristol Channel coastline runs more or less east-west. A line drawn from Lavernock Point in South Wales to Sand Point in Somerset separates the Severn Estuary from the Bristol Channel. The coast here, from Lavernock (where it turns north to Penarth and Cardiff Bay) to Barry is a jumble, a hotchpotch. It’s a marvellous jumble – a junction of the wild, the industrial and the recreational – but a jumble nevertheless.

From the pub at Swanbridge, The Captain’s Wife (which dates from the 1970′s, despite the forlorn lady in 18th Century costume on the pub sign, bidding farewell to a departing three-master), the going along the beach is initially rough. Opposite the pub, beyond the heap of broken concrete on the foreshore, is Sully Island, which is accessible at low water but otherwise cut off by tricky 40-foot tides, the second highest in the world. The island was recently for sale, for £95,000. In the thirteenth century the island was a base for a Norman pirate known as ‘the Night Hawk’. I’ll bet he didn’t pay anything like today’s asking price for it.

Clambering along the first part of the mainland beach, you come to an old rusty pipe crossing the rocks, some sort of outflow from the caravan park on the low cliff above. This coast has several ‘holiday parks’, where static caravans and chalets are dense-packed on seaside sites. They date from the 1950′s, the last heyday of this area as a destination for day-trippers from Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys to the beaches at Lavernock, St Mary’s Well Bay and Swanbridge. Until 1968 and the Beeching axe, you could get a train to a number of now-disused stations and halts along here, on the Taff Vale Railway en route to Barry Island. Even today each of the small roads down to the coast passes under a railway arch at some point. The brickwork under these arches is worth a few minutes’ contemplation.

Stepping over the pipe, the beach gradually becomes an easier walk. The pebbles and stones give way to smoother grey limestone, partially covered at low tide by seaweed. I’m not sure whether this is technically a ‘limestone pavement’, or merely a limestone layer which has cracked into crevices and crannies. These catch the shells, crabs and, of course, the human detritus left behind by the tide – bits of wood, plastic containers of all sorts, old tyres etc. The colour of the beach is often a lifeless grey-brown or sepia, particularly on dull days, when the land, sea and sky tend to merge. I’ve been down here under all weather conditions, including, most memorably, snow, and thick mist. The mist is eerie. You can walk right down to the water’s edge, which is calm and only just about in motion, and then you’ve lost sight of your surroundings completely. Sounds become both muffled, and more intense. Unseen seabirds mew and cry; the water slaps the stones at your feet.

Today, however, the weather is dramatic – heavy sky to the east, shafts of sunlight to the west, a dragon cloud over Steepholm, buildings on the Somerset side illuminated brightly by sun. The two islands out in the Channel seem in a perpetual dance in relationship to each other, depending on where you’re viewing them from. Flatholm – the flat one, as the name implies, with a lighthouse on it – is clearly to the left of the bulk of Steepholm from here. But from Newport, or Cardiff Bay, or Penarth pier, they may have switched round, or appear to be tied up abutting each other.

The beach is deserted, as usual, apart from the very occasional dog walker, and a couple of fishermen at the water’s edge, sea-fishing rods propped on tripods. The ‘cliffs’ here aren’t cliffs at all. This stretch of beach is edged by layers of attractive red triassic rock, only about six or eight feet high, which gradually diminish until the concrete slipway about half a mile further on, where there’s hardly a drop at all down from the small car park. The fantastical cliffs to the east and west, at Penarth, and beyond Barry on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, don’t exist at all here. I’m not sure why. The shoreline here is backed by a large area of very low-lying land called Cog Moors. It’s drained by numerous ditches and reens, but is still liable to flooding. The higher part of Sully village is built on a low hill above the Moors. ‘Gypsies’ (as they’re always described) run ponies on the damp grassland; amid accusations of neglect, the ponies are fed and watered by concerned animal-lovers, which must please the ‘gypsies’ no end. The current Cardiff to Barry railway line (as opposed to the disused one nearer the coast) picks its way apprehensively across Cog Moors on an embankment.

As a result of the absence of cliffs, it’s easier to see the rather eccentric sequence of buildings and land use along the shore. On the western edge of Sully village is an old Remand Home, now being re-invented as some kind of care centre. Ever-present in the background are the stacks and tanks of the Dow Corning chemical works, which has two sides facing Barry, one side looking out over Cog Moors, and one side running parallel to the coastline. Between the shore and the works – much of which is now weed-invaded flat concrete – is a kind of accident blast-zone (and unofficial fenced-in nature reserve). Between the road and the slipway car park is a domestic recycling site, now closed – or rather, re-located nearer Barry. Then there’s a cat’s rescue centre, and, hidden in woodland on the road side but open to the water at the rear, the low, modern structure of Ty Hafan children’s hospice.

Then there’s the old Sully Hospital buildings. Sully Hospital is described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘an outstanding example of inter-war architecture’, a classic and elegant art deco structure, which it remains. It started as a TB hospital in the 1930′s. I worked here briefly in the 1980′s, when it was a general rehabilitation hospital. The patients liked it, but visitors from Cardiff didn’t, considering it too great a trek. I remember wards with very high ceilings, and lots of windows and glass doors giving on to balconies facing the sea. After closing in 2001, it was briefly considered as temporary housing for East European asylum seekers, but capitalism won out, and it’s now been re-developed as posh flats. Most of the grounds are still there, and a cricket pitch alongside, complete with pavilion.

The path along the shore here has more bushes and trees. Stinking iris, with its grinning scarlet-berried pods, is often the only brightness in the winter. You nearly always see long-tail tits flitting around in the branches. The whole coast here is rich in flora and fauna. The person who’s written most extensively about it – and indeed about the whole coast from Gower to the Wentloog Levels east of Cardiff – is naturalist Mary Gillham. In fact, I would put her forward as amongst the best general writers on South-East Wales, because she has such a breadth of understanding about the relationships, natural and human, underpinning the area, as well as having a great prose style. Unfortunately, she’s conspicuous by her absence from such collections as Peter Finch’s Big Book Of Cardiff.

Looking westward, you can see Nell’s Point at Barry – the holiday camp now replaced by new housing – and the small lighthouse at the entrance to Barry Docks. The path is blocked, however, by the security fence of a timber yard. You can clamber down there and walk along the rocks to a small sandy bay. Here, on the limestone in the lee of Bendricks rocks, are the only known dinosaur footprints in Britain, from the upper Triassic. A tetrasauropus, or maybe more than one, strolled across some damp mud here when this land was in the tropics, and its footprints were lithified and covered before they lost their shape.

Such large historical vistas, and the immensity of the Bristol Channel waters, give us a valuable, if humbling, perspective. But this coast, from Newport to the Vale of Glamorgan, has been under a series of all-too-human threats recently, most of which have been fought off, for the time being, with a little help from the global recession. The first of these was the plan to build the M4 toll motorway across the Gwent Levels, as a relief road for the existing overcrowded stretch of the M4 into and out of Wales. After nearly two decades, this has been finally dropped from the regional Transport Plan. The second was the scheme to develop RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan into a combined services military academy (cost: £13 billion), which would have meant much building work, traffic and new roads across the Vale, as well as handing defence training over to a private consortium. The third bright idea was the infamous Severn Barrage (cost: £21 billion and rising) across the ten-mile stretch from Lavernock to Brean Down in Somerset, to generate electricity. Plans for a barrage were first put forward in the 1840′s, and revived regularly, in the 1930′s, the 1970′s, and, currently, from 1989 on. On the Welsh side I imagine the scheme would seriously damage or even annihilate the hard-fought-for nature reserve at Lavernock Point which, along with nearby Cosmeston Lakes, is an important landing point for migrating birds. But, in a much larger sense, above and beyond specific environmental issues, there’s the folly of ‘taming the wild’, destroying the power of something ‘larger than ourselves’, the importance of which in limiting the destructive illusion of human omnipotence is beyond any price you can name. A vox pop cited in The Guardian – from a ‘retired miner but active birdspotter’ near Newport – said, ‘This is the only great wilderness in this part of the country. It’s a wild, exciting place. I love it and don’t want to see it vanish’. His view would have been supported by Virginia Woolf, who once spoke of ‘the delight of the unmastered’. Anyway, both St Athan, and the Barrage were sunk pro tem by the incoming Coalition Government last year.

One further threat, however, remains current. It is the proposal to start exploratory drilling for shale gas at Llandow, in the Vale of Glamorgan near Llantwit Major. The picture is at present confused. Final permission hasn’t been granted yet, although the decision is imminent. The company who are to do the drilling seem to be claiming that they’re not looking for ‘shale gas’ but ‘natural gas’, i.e. gas not ‘trapped’ within rocks; but a lot of potential shale gas sites have been identified, inside Wales and across the UK. This type of drilling has been widely criticised in America, where, apart from the ‘surface’ issues – noise, ugliness, and the large numbers of huge trucks involved in exploration and extraction – there have been claims of water pollution. In some cases, it seems, you can put a cigarette lighter to your kitchen tap – but make sure you jump clear, because there’s a fireball coming. In Britain, however, there’s a different issue developing. This kind of extraction – called ‘fracking’ – involves pumping large amounts of water, sand and noxious-sounding chemicals into the rocks, to crack them so the gas is released. Recent explorations in the Blackpool area seem to have caused two earthquakes, in April and May this year, magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 respectively. The locals are having second thoughts about converting the Blackpool tower into a drilling rig, tempting though it may be economically. In the context of the Bristol Channel, this is an interesting issue, because there is evidence that the wider area is geologically unstable. In January 1607 the greatest natural disaster to hit Britain occurred along the Welsh and English coasts of the Severn. This was ‘the great flood’, caused by a huge wave travelling upriver, without warning. Thousands of people died. Farmland was washed away, in some cases never to return. For example, the foundations of the Second Severn Crossing, and the reservoir of Oldbury nuclear power station, are both built on rock denuded by floodwater. According to contemporary accounts, the wave occurred on a calm, sunny morning, and the waters travelled ‘with a swiftness so incredible, as that no gray-hounde could have escaped by running before them’. Two geologists called Haslett and Bryant have recently found strong evidence suggesting that the flood was a tsunami, which reached a height of 25 feet in Monmouthshire, where, of course, the narrowing of the river has a bottling effect, as seen in the Severn Bore. Classic features of a tsunami, such as the deposition of very large boulders above high tide levels as well as sand layers in otherwise muddy environments, have been found at Dunraven, near Llantwit, and on Sully Island. The cause of the tsunami is as yet uncertain, but possibilities include a landslide off the continental shelf between Ireland and Cornwall, or an earthquake along an active fault system south of Ireland (this fault system experienced a magnitude 4 earthquake within the last 20 years). Since Haslett and Bryant put forward their theory, we have of course seen the problems with nuclear power stations caused by the Japanese tsunami earlier this year. Another relevant factor is that, with global warming, the undersea geology generally is becoming less stable with time: the melting of the polar ice-caps and the release of more water volume into the oceans is putting more physical pressure on the sea-beds.

Today, however, we are halted by a more local, and certainly less depressing, revelation. To the west of Sully village is a line of large bungalows built more or less right on the shore. Some have been kept up; others are showing signs of neglect and wear, hastened by the extreme weather conditions coming off the Channel. They date from the would-be-luxurious, tacky period of this coast, before and just after the war, the time of the chalet parks and now-abandoned cafes and hotels. From the road, these bungalows are impenetrable, with crenellated walls and ‘I Live Here’ dog warnings. Inside they tend to be time-warps, circa 1970: interior random-stone walls with cement grouting, artex ceilings, nylon swirly carpets, copper-sheet-clad fireplaces with electric log-effect fires. One (I’ve been inside!) has a full-size billiard table and bar above the garage. On the seaward side, however, beyond the patio doors, there is hardly any separation between the shallow gardens – where growing anything apart from mini-palm trees and broken clumps of pampas is a challenge – and the rough public footpath. In places, this path is screened from the beach by wind-shaped bushes, thick and thorny. What we came across on the beach there, screened from both bungalows and path, had the air of being hidden, tucked away, despite being both extensive and entirely open to view from the shore.

Walking west from Sully Island on the rocky, seaweed strewn expanse of beach below the bungalows, we spotted a large, pale shape, probably a tree-trunk, more or less up against the bushes by the path, the highest high-water line. But around the trunk was a kind of haze, which grew more definite in colour as we approached. It resolved itself into an extensive area of Rock Sea-Lavender, in full flower. The colour of the flowers varies, according to the light that’s catching them, but today ‘bluish-lilac’ is about as near as I can get. The blossoms, each with a small patch of white at the tip, grow along the curve of the branched stem-ends, about six or eight inches off the ground. One spray has a Tortoiseshell butterfly perched on it. Vivid green ‘spade-shaped’ leaves grow out from the base of the plants. Rock Sea-Lavender isn’t related to the lavenders grown for their scent; in fact, it doesn’t smell of anything much. It belongs to the genus Limonium, of which there are a confusing number of look-alike sub-species. Most Rock Sea-Lavenders in the UK are endemic; they don’t grow anywhere else in the world, and are confined to western coasts. They love rocky cliffs, shingle, dune-slacks and salt-marshes. The ones here, at Sully, are probably either Limonium Procerum or Limonium Binervosum. Nationally, they’re rare, but locally there are patches here and there, on the Welsh and West Country coasts, and the east coast of Ireland. There are some on Flatholm, apparently. Under the leaves – and this is particularly visible here – the roots are thick, gnarled and dark-coloured, like claws dug into the cracks and crevices between the limestone, anchoring the plants to something solid in this ever-shifting environment. The experience is to some degree synaesthetic: the tree-trunk among the flowers is mostly pale and sea-bleached, but large areas of it have been burnt black at some time. This charred wood, minimally reflecting the light, has achieved a kind of silkiness to the touch. Taken together, the tree-trunk and the brown seaweed-covered beach, the water and the sky, the wind-shaped hedge and the haze of flowers, it’s as if the desert bloomed!

13th October 2011: A calm, dry day, with sunny intervals. We go back to the Rock Sea-Lavender, below the palm trees and pampas grass in the bungalow gardens, and the hedge-hidden footpath. Amazingly, there are still one or two pale purple flowers out. The leaves, however, are shrivelling and discolouring, revealing the thick roots clutching the crevices even more clearly. The tiny seeds have set; tipping them out into the palm of your hand, they’re like dust. Round about, the beach rocks show patches of white and gold lichen. At the tide-line, there are the usual plastic bottles and containers, and old tyres. On the beach, a couple of fishermen. Planes are flying in and out of Cardiff-Wales airport, on the other side of Barry. At the car park of the Captain’s Wife, we’d seen a small cloud of house martins, stocking up on midges before the long journey south. Recently, someone rather graphically described Wales as ‘a small coat with deep pockets’. This coast west from Swanbridge is certainly one of those pockets!

PHIL MAILLARD

Born in 1948 into a London family, with Guernsey Donkey and Mediterranean Mongrel splashing about in the gene pool.

Worked in the building trade, and for the NHS, until recent ‘retirement’.

Much influenced in my writing by an early connection (1966 onwards) with poet Chris Torrance and his circle.

My first chapbooks were published by Allen Fisher and John Freeman, in 1976. My most recent book, Sweet Dust And Growling Lambs, was published by Shearsman in 2008 (see website www.shearsman.com).

I’ve lived mostly in South Wales for over 30 years, and in the Cardiff area since 1986.

LEAVE A COMMENT

From the Junction Box

Junction Box Categories

Glasfryn Project

GLASFRYN, LLANGATTOCK, POWYS NP8 1PH
+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK