Best of 2021: Whiteford Lighthouse – ‘salt-marsh sodden, pebble-pocked & cockle-cracked’
This week Nation.Cymru are counting out the year by revisiting the literature highlights of 2021
At the end of October, Ant Heald from Llanelli was announced as the winner of the inaugural Nigel Jenkins Literary Award. Jenkins worked closely with the H’mm Foundation, so it was fitting that the Foundation chose to honour Nigel’s memory through an award to a student whose achievements in the Swansea University Creative Writing MA in 2020 were of the highest order.
I have seen the lighthouse at close hand only once, when our eldest son had come – I was going to continue ‘home for Easter’, but it has never been Jack’s home. How does he see this place, born and raised as he was in Doncaster, where we lived for over two decades, bought our first house, brought our three children into the world? Doncaster never truly felt like ‘home’ to me, but then:
Home’s not a place, you tried to kid yourself,
tearing up the nest, as if not yours,
and never mind the fledgelings cast adrift:
one kid nabbed, one cuckooed and one marooned.
Once, crawling south-west, singing Soldier Girl,
you’d laughed together; speeding north, alone
you’d cried, uprooted from three places: one
that had been home, one that could never be,
and one you didn’t know yet would be yours,
resolving double-meaning, making heard
that silent doubtfulness through different words –
not dy gartref di, but eich cartref chi.
We checked the tides and drove around the estuary to Llanmadoc. We walked through fir woods, then splashed through marsh puddles along the spit, before cresting the dune to the beach. And there it was: Whiteford Point lighthouse with its striking sweeping curved flanks.
The only remaining wave-washed cast-iron lighthouse, it was engineered by local blacksmith’s son John Bowen of Llanelli copperworks, and built in 1865. This is beauty that shows its working out. The flanges through which the cast-iron plates are bolted together are external, where in every other iron lighthouse they are bolted together from the inside to present a smooth profile to the world.
Doubtless this was primarily a practical consideration, allowing the lighthouse to be assembled with the speed needed when the huge tides allowed only a few hours at most between inundations. But if its designer, and the thrifty Harbour Board that commissioned the light, knew those external flanges to be useful, we can allow ourselves to believe them beautiful.
They divide the lighthouse into horizontal bands without need of a lick of paint, and the ridges have an organic, serpentine quality, seeming to articulate the hard iron carapace into a sinewy skin. The design of the lighthouse manages the feat of making it both seem to arch organically from the sea when the tide is high, like a whale playfully flipping onto its back, while when the waves recede it grows staunchly from the rock-strewn coast as if an oak of metal drew its solid substance from soil of stone.
Looking across from the dune-top, it didn’t seem far, but that’s because we didn’t know how big it is. It seemed a short stroll, but as the beach gave way to pebbles the lighthouse didn’t appear to grow any larger. The pebbles became cobbles, strewn across bedrock which pocketed pools of left-behind sea, and the walking was, though not strenuous, painstaking, to avoid turned ankles or sodden shoes. What had seemed a likely five-minute stroll took half an hour, time for the lighthouse to slowly loom, in glances snatched up from our footing, into a giant: solemn, majestic, forlorn. The tracery of the empty glazing bars of its lantern, and the ornate railings round a long since vanished wooden balcony looked delicate, fragile, but intact. The overwhelming sense was of a core of stubborn solidity surrounded by a rusting fragile nimbus.
At the turn of the millennium there was an unsuccessful attempt to sell the lighthouse for £1 to find someone who could invest an estimated £100,000 “to save it from crumbling into the sea”. Despite much interest, including from an American who wanted to dismantle it and ship it across the Atlantic, and from telecommunications companies and TV crews, no sale went ahead. But nor did the lighthouse topple, and at close quarters I was surprised to see how robust and impregnable the main structure seems.
Jack sat for a time with his back against the massive stone footings of the structure, as I looked across the water to where we now live without him. The lighthouse held him, for a while, and I snapped a picture to hold that image against forgetting, before we turned and made our way back to our house, to the home we have made, wondering what ‘we’ now means.
To the lightless lighthouse
neither light footed nor listless
pebble-pocked and cockle-cracked
across the shoal that beached coal barges
before the cast iron giant’s Argand lamps
were lit against black Burry Sound.
We pick through pools the keeper saw
then wade through sanded winds
and piles of plastic puckering the shore
as, redundant, rusting,
doused but implacable,
purposed by pulling us here,
the lighthouse broods behind us,
wave washed, waiting without light
to be dimmed further by dusk
and swallowed soon, as always now, by night.
Looking across from the other side, to the lighthouse framed by the humped-back of Gower, I wonder whether the sea seen at high tide is the normal, through which sand and silt punch their twice daily way? Or are the cockle beds and salt marsh the default, smothered bi-diurnally by a brine and brackish insult? Are you looking out to sea, or across a river? Estuarine topology muddies the waters both literally and figuratively. It is, I suppose, Bristol Channel on the flow, Afon Llwchwr on the ebb.
A tide of English in-comers, Welsh trickling out.
I turn my back on the lighthouse and walk away from Llanelli beach, across the back of North Dock, beside the crackling wires of the electricity sub-station where Llanelli Power Station used to be, before the Carmarthen Bay plant made it obsolete, which in turn gave up its bricks and spoil to make the Millennium Coastal Park.
There, now shadowed by the warm concrete of the flyover that takes the new road along the old route of the Mynydd Mawr railway that hauled coal down from Gwendraeth to the docks and metalworks, is the old hydraulic pumping house, sympathetically converted into a fine dining restaurant, now mothballed. Between it and the road, is the footbridge over the silted and filthy Afon Lliedi, slackly meandering to the sea.
Mae gyda ni bad wedi suddo yn yr Afon Lliedi hefyd,
ar bwys yr doc gogledd. (At least I think that’s what it was.
At least I think that’s what I said.) The tidal range round here’s
the second largest in the world you know. Sometimes
the wish-they-were-rusting but they’re-built-to-last
shopping trolleys are as much as fifteen feet below
the swirling scum. Dead saplings wither in their cages.
Brushed steel weathers inelegantly, unlike iron that
wasn’t sequestered for the war. Water tumbles through the sluice.
Field mushroom risotto with truffle oil takes the place of pumping gear.
That iridescent flash? I saw my first kingfisher here.
On a few more yards, across the road and up Cambrian Street, onto the railway bridge. Another blue plaque, overlooking the scene of the 1911 railway strike where troops opened fire killing two young men in the back garden of that house just over there. I want to feel a sense of solidarity, but —
Oh yeah, I know that ffycin fakery too well.
Bagging fertiliser bags for sledging
while a life away lads stockpiled them for bombs.
The working-class roots growing hydroponic
from cotton-sown seeds. Mild, and useless,
as cress in an upturned eggshell. Pussy willow
on the nature table. An airgun pellet shot
at a tennis ball wedged in a drystone wall
missing, and staining the blonde girl red.
And now: o ble wyt ti’n dod yn wreiddiol?
Dwi ddim yn gwbod. I don’t know.
Looking over the side of the bridge, where the line heads west towards the setting sun and the Celtic Sea, train tracks lie slowly rusting, their surface only, polished by passing wheels, catching the last gilding gloam of sunlight. Down the other side of the bridge, and onto Queen Victoria Road. Ffordd Frenhines Victoria. Just a few more yards now, past Albert Street, where I can see the end of Brynmor Road where my wife, grew up in the house where her dad, still lives.
At Easter 1987, after drawing into the station where that strike and those shootings sparked riots seventy six years earlier, I walked into that house for the first time and pulled the handle of the living room door straight off, holding it gormlessly in the hand with which I was about to shake my future father-in-law’s. The recollection, though excruciating, always makes me smile. A neighbour has just painted his cast-iron railings black, picking out in gold the little plate with the name of the foundry – Thomas Clement and Sons – that I hadn’t noticed before.
Next door, a Leeds flag hangs from the window celebrating their promotion back to the top-flight. I look at the names of the houses, both Welsh and English, and savour their differing feel in my mouth: Abermorlais, Hillsboro, Ty Undeb, Onibury.
Where am I from originally? Dw’I ddim yn gwbod. I don’t know.
But I’m nearly home.
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