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a time for fear
 
Monday, September 22, 2003  
Whitford, Sunday, 8am.

I slept in the car last night, in a field just down from the village of Llanmadoc on the western tip of North Gower, a short walk up from a hamlet called Cwm Ivy. The plan being to move before dawn, and there was nowhere else to stay, besides I had money for petrol and food and nothing else. I had some cooked chicken wings, some welsh cakes and a cartoon of orange juice containing no discernable trace of orange, just a sharp, vulgar tan, a taste somewhat like the sound of a singing wine glass. In the dying light, with the empty field and the cry of cattle like far-off dinosaurs, I picked up radio Pembroke and some elderly Kenneth Clarke type eulogising Europhilia. Ravens flocked above me, the death-winged brutes, a thuggish roost, clucking, squarking and grumbling. Farm collie barks richoceted through the encroaching dark, the car-light somewhat consumed, but the radio waves still clear. The Northern shore line was lit with the orange street and white house lights of Llanelli and Carmarthenshire, just across the estuary, visible above the hedgerows and scattered trees. The air was clear, cold and clean, smelt like charred wood, and the sky was dotted with bright stars. By now the night was as silent as death, but the radio buzzed, and I worried about the car battery for a second, then listened for the sea, and could just pick out the lapping shore line. The car, the stars, the sea, the moon, and I. Turn the light off, curl up, get under the rug. There's a moth in the car.

Awake before dawn, but then I was awake anyway. Walked down through Cwm Ivy as the night lifted into morning, through the trees and the dawn chorus, past the cottages, the odd window already lit. Down the path into the nature reserve and up into the conifer forest. There's a route you take because of the tides: a mistake at Whitford Point can kill you: the tide can advance faster than walking pace, and cut you off by a network of channels. Farmers let sheep graze on the beach and the estuary*, and there have been stories of them running to escape the incoming sea, leaping over the pill for their lives. Once, in the late seventies, a farmer was forced to leave a flock of sheep to drown. Every year somebody drowns on the Gower, and it's usually around here. I immediately took the wrong path - I mean the route didn't exactly specify which path, and the right path looked more like somebody's driveway - and for the next hour waded through sand dunes, going the wrong way, wondering what had happened to the path that's supposed to weave through conifers, and forever heading for another conifer forest on the horizon. Eventually I found the correct path and turned east away from the point, towards the estuary and the famous, inaccesible bird-watching hide. This is one of the richest wildlife spots in the country, but you need a telescope to see anything good, and all I have is a tiny pair of Olympus 8 x 20, so I couldn't see much. What kind of idiot goes to Whitford with opera glasses? There were no proper birdwatchers around, despite an assurance that they would be there in packs: maks, wellingtons and telescopes galore. But the view north across the sand and mudflats shimmered, and the bubbling cacophany of song betrayed a teeming population. The tide was low. From the tumult of sound all I could pick out was: crows, gulls, oystercatcher and curlew. The rest a piping mystery, but breathtaking, gorgeous, almost too elaborate, somewhat Rococo, like seashells. Day broke to flat cloud, a translucent rim of golden light crowning coal hills to the North like a halo.

I got bored, and walked back towards the point, across the sand banks, bedded with muscle and periwinkle shells, razors and whelks, cockles, limpits and scallops. I disturbed a colony of sandflies, thousands suddenly leaping to life around my feet as if a high voltage of electricity had pulsed through the sand. But then: Whitford lighthouse, the old cast iron lighthouse I first spotted driving past the shore marsh out of the concrete ribbon development of Penclawdd - home of cockle farmers, boy racers and broken homes - emerging on the horizon like a ghost from a childhood room, and a strange sensation, almost a blush of tears, and no idea why. And it's here! Well close! This lighthouse, unused, except by cormorants, rusting away into the sea, ringed by swirling currents and murderous tides. An image in my head for years, now some kind of existential pilgrimage, and a symbol of defiance and isolation (they're inseperable). Still with this dumb, broken heart, but laughing now: if J had been with me last night she'd have said "Oliver, you're an idiot, you're crazy, what are we doing in a field, in this cold car, in the middle of the night?", but this morning, here, all she would have said was, "oh! superb!". Right on the point the bow of a ship, the ship almost fully submerged in the sand, the bow poking out, wrecked, blue paint eroding to reveal old wood, still firm. Actually, when you look, it seems like...shipwrecks everywhere! Rotting hulks, scraps of rusting iron. But you must stay alert for another reason - and the terrifying yellow signs remain; 'DANGER OF DEATH'/skull and cross bones - look out for unexploded shells: Whitford was an artillery range during the wars.

It's 8am, a flock of small brown birds swoop down and land on the sand about 50 metres in front of me. I reach for the pocket-sized bincolars in the pocket of my jeans. These are the first birds I'll see properly all day, but the binoculars are stuck in my pocket and I cannot get them out, and then my hand is stuck as well, and I'm flailing about like a daft giraffe while the birds happily scavenge and peck along the sand. Then I fall over, and they all fly away, safe into the dunes, out of sight. I'm flat on my back on the hard, smooth sand, thinking: I'm really glad that this is the most unpopular beach on the Gower due to inaccesibility and danger.

Why am I even telling you this?

*This is a local delicacy, only available from local butchers: succulent lamb with a distinct flavour due entirely to sheep grazed on salty, sea-washed grass. It is, apparently, delicious, but only if cooked correctly.

11:53 PM

 
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