tan-y-bwlch

by hywel griffiths
View looking south from Pendinas over the Afon Ystwyth channel. Floodplain (middle-upper left) and Tan-y-bwlch beach (middle-upper right).

This poem explores the troubling embodied experience of walking along a beach that epitomises one aspect of the climate and environmental crisis in the United Kingdom, specifically the impacts of rising sea levels and increased frequency and magnitude of storms on coastal communities and infrastructure. The dynamic nature of the gravel ridge is felt underfoot, and it is difficult to ignore the impact of early industry and capitalism on the landscape in the sights, sounds, and smells that one’s body senses at the site. The Afon Ystwyth, which now flows parallel to the beach into Aberystwyth harbour, was diverted northwards to address sedimentation issues impacting the entry and exit of fishing boats and boats exporting heavy metals such as lead and silver. The mines extracting the metals from the upper catchments of the Afon Ystwyth and Afon Rheidol were long-established (some having been worked since the Bronze Age and the Roman period) and very productive, especially in the mid-late nineteenth century. Miners would often die young due to diseases caused by their work, and heavy metal pollution associated with this mining remains in the rivers’ floodplains to this day, and is redistributed during flood events. This is the same type of extractive industry that has led us to the climate crisis and the Anthropocene, and to present concerns about the future management of Tan-y-bwlch beach.

 

The gravels rattle and the cobbles roll
underfoot, on the narrow ridge,
and you must either risk a stumbling sprain
and feel the living, shifting shoreline,
or keep to safe, well-trodden paths.

Today I chose the latter,
to survey what we had done
without the need to watch my step;

to see the ghosts of ships in the bay,
waiting, low in the water, for their tide-turn,
to see the backlog of lead and silver
heaped in the harbour,

to feel the briny air turn to mine-dust,
cold in my lungs,
to feel the spray stinging my face
from wide-open horizons
turn into the rain of untimely upland funerals
in narrow churchyards,
to see in each pacing gull
the impatience of progress,
and to hear, in each wave, crashing in my ears,
echoes of bedrock blasting.

Underfoot, once more,
on the taut yet shifting sea-level tightrope
of our making, the cobbles slip downslope
towards the sea.

Hywel Griffiths is a senior lecturer in physical geography in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Wales. He is a fluvial geomorphologist and poet, writing mainly in the Welsh strict meter form of cynghanedd. His English-language poetry has been published in GeoHumanities, cultural geographies and Poetry Wales, and he is the author of three Welsh-language volumes.