Thursday, 2 January 2014

Rhossili, Gower - Ancient Winds of Wales

Look closely at the west coast of Britain. Notice how the land reaches out, extending, fragmenting, as though desperate for release from the island's core.

So for people as for land. Overseas, the red buses and telephone boxes and royal family in England may well be synonymous in popular imagination with “Britain” or the “United Kingdom”, but over half of the UK's territory is in fact home to heritages and identities foreign to the English. Indeed, for most of their history, the Celtic peoples of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and even Cornwall, have struggled against ruthless English conquest and oppression. These nations were some of the very first to experience the bloodshed and cultural vandalism of what became the British Empire, whose search for people to plunder and terrorize soon took it beyond its own neighbourhood, and on to the Americas, Africa and Asia.

But these are tenacious cultures, who in spite of hundreds of years of this struggle, still retain their own sense of themselves, although only Ireland – most of it – has won complete independence. The others have Welsh or Gaelic spoken alongside or instead of English; compete in their own teams in international sport, passionately expressing themselves in football and rugby; and have continued to struggle for political autonomy within the UK, or outright separation.

This uncomfortable history feeds straight into Britain's current mire of socio-economic repression and collapsing ethic of care. The country is now in deep subjection to the Conservative Party's austerity programme, which has involved the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, the removal of measures protecting the vulnerable and poor, the deliberate cultivation of popular ignorance and prejudice of all stripes, and the concentration of resources and influence in the hands of political, financial and big business elites, effectively selling out the country to thugs, thieves, and the acolytes of a renewed and remorseless cult of the market.

This process's regional dimensions have been obvious. A privileged, insulated, hankering southeast has become a tentacular Laputan monstrosity, siphoning off resources, jobs and dreams from Britain's north and west, to further service the coffers and egos of the London elites while leaving behind the rest of the country in suffering, stagnation, and a constant bombardment of brazen southeastern contempt. The debates surrounding Scotland's coming independence referendum have become as much about an opportunity to claw back a paradigm of socio-economic fairness and political accountability, not to mention basic human decency; that is, to say no to the campaign of national cannibalization orchestrated from Westminster, over and above questions of Scotland's geopolitical interests or long historical grievances.

And then there is Wales.

Subjected, often brutalized, by England for 700 years, Wales now has its own national assembly with considerable autonomy over its own affairs. More thoroughly integrated into the UK than Scotland, its present independence ambitions are more muted, though one wonders how a positive outcome in the Scottish referendum might affect this.

Wales, like Scotland and Ireland, is a land of wild and beautiful landscapes. Unlike England it actually has mountains, and its moors and coastlines carry that same sense of distinct direction as Wales's culture: that freedom of remoteness, whose systems and secrets, not like those that call themselves British, make themselves known beneath your footsteps.

Here, then, are some landscapes and themes from the Gower Peninsula, an outstanding region of natural beauty just out of Swansea's back door.

This is the village of Rhossili, on the peninsula's southwestern corner. The area has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, and archaeological excavations have frequently found bones and neolithic tools in this coastline's sea caves. Among them, a human skeleton carbon-dated to 29,000 years ago is thought to be the oldest example of modern homo sapiens found so far in Europe.

A church was founded here about 1,500 years ago, likely as part of a coastal pilgrimage circuit at a time when Celtic missionaries travelled the shorelines, their Christianity a relatively indigenous variant conflicting with Roman and Norman versions. The original Rhossili village is thought to have been engulfed by the sands, forcing a relocation to higher ground, but its Church of St. Mary still incorporates a twelfth-century Norman arch salvaged from the former site.

The arch.
The church also memorialises one of its parish's most famous sons: Petty Officer Edgar Evans, the first to meet his end on Captain Scott's infamous 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole.

Rhossili has been ranked in polls as one of the world's most spectacular coastlines, and its geography certainly distinguishes it. Its broad and sweeping beach has a haunting, even haunted quality to it, with its cloak of spray and hazy frontier between sand and sea. Overlooking this beach are the undulating moors of Rhossili Down, and a peninsula the Vikings named the “Wurm's Head” for its resemblance to a rearing dragon, about to dive into the waves.

Rhossili Down.
Wurm's Head, in the distance.

All of these face west, out to sea, and receive the full force of whatever inclement weather sees fit to crash upon Britain from the Atlantic. At the time of these explorations, the UK was getting battered by massive new year storms, arriving west to east in an unrelenting series of rain bands. I was fortunate to catch a window between these bands, but the fresh winds on Rhossili Down were some of the most tremendous I have experienced anywhere, perhaps apart from Mount Fuji. Nonetheless I would consider them an integral and exhilarating aspect of this landscape's identity.

The winds, ripping the sea to shreds.

The ruins remain of a large World War II bunker, built to command a full view across the bay.

North of the Down squats an incongruous manifestation of the tourism industry. It is ugly, and not a service to the landscape. Had it been built in accordance with traditional architecture, as part of an approach to tourism based on cultural preservation and immersion (perhaps learning from eco-tourism projects in Guyana or the Philippines), it might have blended much better as a natural part of its environment. Tourism is one of many things that has been too overcome by commercialized mindsets and the hunger for instant sensual gratification, rather than for substantial human experiences, so such reform is essential.

Now this one looks much more satisfactory.

The beach itself is its own world entirely. What looks like short distances from above, drastically expands once you set foot on the sands, while the mist of the spray filters out the realms outside. Rivers of drifting sand stream eerily for the cliffs, and the sunlight reflects in strange ways off that hazy continuum by which land transitions, subtly, mysteriously, to water. As you walk forever towards the waves, it feels as though you approach the edge of the world.

Or at least the edge of Britain, thank goodness, and an edge with a very large window, from which sweeps in liberating winds devoid of cruel ideas, and air that you can actually breathe.

Prime territory for dogs, all this.
“The Old Man and the Sea”.

An old cottage, the Old Rectory, sits alone on a plateau between the moors and the sand. It is said to be haunted, most likely by the spirit of a sailor from one of the many ships wrecked, bountiful cargo and all, upon the Gower Peninsula's notoriously treacherous waters.

The Old Rectory.

One of these ships, or what is left of it, remains. At the south end of the beach, the wood-and-metal frame of the Norwegian Helvetia, which ran aground here in 1887, emerges from the sand at low tide.

The mysterious dancing streams of sand. I am sure there is some oblique technical name for this phenomenon. Any geographers who care to enlighten, comment below!

Naturally plenty of animals inhabit this area too. Horses graze on the moorland, while an attentive eye may spot rabbits. It is also a good place for birdwatching: aside from the crows, seagulls and magpies, a range of rarer migratory varieties such as divers and sandpipers like to frequent Rhossili, particularly in winter.

As well, of course, as that creature with which Wales is primarily associated.

Some of which graze with alarming ambition.

These final images come from the cliffs along the Wales Coast Path, from Rhossili and Wurm's Head to the village of Port Eynon. Ages of elegant weathering have carved the earth open, exposing beautiful veins which beat, quite evidently, to a Welsh heart of their own.

The sun sets on a difficult year for this world. Gifted with the Earth's abundance and beauty, we have no excuse. In 2014 the human race must do better.

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