Turning Back the Tide

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 On 12th February 2014 hurricane force winds drove the sea onto the west coast of Wales with a ferocity few could remember. Colossal waves caused great damage to man-made and natural structures alike. As the sea sucked back down the beaches it scoured away huge quantities of sand and gravel exposing previously unseen areas of the ancient peat-beds and tree stumps that are well known along parts of this coast.

Once the wind quietened I drove down to Tywyn to take a look. The shoreline was muffled in a soft damp mist; the sea hissed and growled as it backed down the gently sloping beach. Stretching southwards along the shore was an extraordinary jumble of dull brown peat, gridded off into strange rectangular pits. Through the mist it seemed rather sinister – like the sacked remains of some ruined city we were never meant to see. The storm had ripped away its cover. Underfoot the peat was spongy, like rubber matting: a chocolate and grey labyrinth of walls, cuttings and channels flecked with fibres and fragments of wood. Scattered about were oozing tree stumps, slimy with weed, their roots clawed into the peat. Several other people were wandering through the mist, peering and prodding at the peat. One enthusiastic couple had driven from the Midlands especially to see the ‘drowned forest’. Another man walking his dog said he lived in Tywyn but he didn’t seem to have noticed what the sea had uncovered. He just wanted to talk about dogs.

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These peat-beds are a land surface from up to 7000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower than at present and marshy ground stretched out to the Irish Sea basin. The tree stumps, preserved by immersion in seawater, are the remains of a forest dating from 5000 years ago. They include birch, oak, yew and Scots pine – which is long extinct in Wales as a native. Changes in the climate caused the sea level to rise, burying this ancient landscape under thousands of tons of sediment. At various times since parts of it have been exposed at low tide and, it seems, in the 18th and 19th centuries people dug the peat for fuel. They had to get their work done between tides hence the strange walls and drainage channels. Even by the time I left the tide was beginning to creep up and re-cover the labyrinth.

Recently I went back to Tywyn on a low tide to have another look. Much less of the peat is visible now. The sea is slowly burying it again under shingle and sand. I was a bit disappointed and, irrationally, found myself worrying about its preservation; wanting to hold back the tide. I realised that this was a habit of mind acquired from 45 years of being in and around conservation. During that time there have been other tides: intensive agriculture, commercial forestry, urbanisation, pollution and the rest, swamping and obliterating our wild countryside. People like me have got into a mind-set of trying to hang on to every last fragment. It has become a reflex. Those 18th century peat cutters would have had no such anxieties – wildness was still abundant then. What they would have made of the lines of dull green caravans staring blankly out to sea at the top of the beach I cannot imagine. Names like Granada, Rio, Highlander and, most puzzling, The Concept gave no hint of connection with this place. Unless rapid progress is made with implementing the recent Paris resolution on climate change Granada and the rest may soon vanish under even greater tides.

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