1 February 2014

Turning over old leaves

As far as the eye can see
 Like Kate  I too was glued to the facebook pages of LoveTywyn   during the storms at the beginning of the year. Simultaneously I was  amazed and fearful. Amazed by the videos posted that showed the dramatic power of the sea and waves and fearful for a place that is dear to my heart, hopeful that no harm would come to the people who live there.

Tywyn was a second home to me when I was a child. We visited several times a year with various members of the family and friends too. Family connections go back further than the 1960s with my maternal Grandfather having seen some service there at the end of the second world war. It is therefore a familiar and loved place that accompanies a treasure trove of beloved memories and one that I am pleased to say has not changed in any great way in at least fifty years. I caught my first shrimps, crabs and tiny fish there in rock pools up towards the River Dysinni and I learned to swim (in a fashion) there by launching myself off sandbanks into slightly deeper water with a an attentive and encouraging Grandfather supervising and  encouraging. It was also the place where as a teenager, I wrestled with the conundrum of having two boyfriends at the same time in the same place!

In the 1960s and 70s, we always stayed in a very old caravan at Bryn-y-Mor. No running water and no electricity made for interesting holidays. I thought the calor gas lighting to be a thing of beauty because you could watch the tiny flames change colour and dance about, more fascinating than a light bulb and so much better for making shadow animals on the walls. Each morning I would fill the water container from a tap just behind the next caravan down and after breakfast we would take left-over bread and crusts to feed chickens that were kept on site. There were days of blazing hot sunshine when the beach was all we needed and wanted and days of torrential rain when we sat inside playing card and board games and probably drove the adults insane with sibling bickering and arguing.

A trunk smoothed by the sea
In all the years that I enjoyed the simple delights of Tywyn I never knew of the treasure trove beneath the sands. As a child, had I known, I would have been digging for the treasure. Lying covered with sand, protecting the precious spoils within are the remnants of an ancient forest and of peat beds, dugs by the locals some hundreds of years ago and formed centuries before that. These treasures were uncovered by the recent storms and now hundreds if not thousands are flocking to the this latest tourist attraction in this tiny seaside resort.

Two weeks ago we took a few nights away and stayed on the other side of the Dovey Estuary near Ynys Hir. Whilst there I was not going to let the opportunity slip of seeing the ancient treasure before once again, it is reclaimed by the sand. That said it would seem that this weekend there are more storms and high tides there and so even more may be uncovered. Since the first storm some of the treasure has been reclaimed  but more has been exposed, meaning that the ancient remains can be seen along a four mile stretch of beach from the Neptune end of Tywyn towards the Dovey Estuary.

I recalled mention of an ancient forest along the Cambrian Coast of Wales from a TV programme I had watched a long time since but when attempting to discover more about the forest at Tywyn there was little available information apart from various archaeological assessments and reports prepared for the many proposed coastal protection scheme plans throughout the years and to these and in particular the report number 555 prepared by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust in 2005, I am indebted for the knowledge now gained.

Wood preserved but now breaking away from the peat
Until a month ago the best place to see remnants of the ancient forest was a few miles south of Tywyn and on the other side of the Dovey Estuary at Ynyslas and Borth. These remnants have been scientifically dated to the early monolithic period. There is an underlying salt marsh dated to around 6000 years BCE and the forest bed is dated to between about 5400- 3900 BCE. So the sea was close and then receded to about 5 miles out from the coastline we see today before returning to reclaim the land once again, where it has stayed ever since and if sea levels do rise further, to perhaps go even further inland than now.

An ancient felled tree
The presence of the hidden submerged forest and peat beds, lying beneath the sands at Tywyn have been known about for a very long time. Mostly, they have remained hidden by the sands that protected their precious treasure but every now and then a strong tide combined with even stronger winds has exposed small sections allowing some research to be undertaken. The presence of charcoal has been noted indicating ancient human activity nearby. What a different view those people must have had to that now; a forest stretching all along what is now the coastline and out to the sea for what is thought to be a distance of five miles. I pondered on that during our visit as I stood beside the remnants. I tried to imagine the thousands of oaks, hazels, pines, birch and willows standing tall and largely undisturbed and all the animals both large and small that would have taken advantage of that wonderful habitat. I also thought about the local people who in the 18th century dug out the peat beds for the fuel they needed for their hearths. In some of the peat beds spade marks can be observed as can the drainage channels dug in order to take the moisture from this most valuable of resources formed over thousands of years.
Spade marks in the peat beds

The reports talk of the remnants extending for about a kilometre along the beach. In 2014 we now know that they extend for much further than that but tides are regular and the opportunity for in depth research is limited. What is there one day can have been covered on the next by the constantly shifting sands moved by the ebb and flow of the tides. What is also now clear is that the remnants disappear underneath the large expanses of sand, shingle and stones at the top of the beach that protect the land behind from flooding on a regular basis. It is possible that small remnants also stretch to and beneath the salt marshes that are beyond the beach and  that lie in effect, below sea level.

There were many people enjoying this natural and ancient tourist attraction but one thing gave me a sense that maybe not all was well, a sense of misgiving. The peat is incredibly soft. Lumps of it have been broken off by the power of the sea and deposited at the top of the beach, in fact I brought one such clod home with me. It is so soft that the prints of walking boots and trainers will be seen in centuries to come in the same manner that at Ynyslas there are 3000 year old footprints observable in the peat. With so many enjoying the remains I worry about the fragility of them and just how much 21st century footwear and use they can withstand. Although it is on the one hand sad that the sand will once again cover the remains, it is also a good thing if the remains are to stay preserved.

One paragraph from the report stuck in my mind:
Drainage channels between the peat beds
"This area of submerged ancient land surface is the largest in extent and the best preserved of the 31 known or reported exposures in North West Wales. It therefore has good potential for research and deserves monitoring."

I know from news reports that the archaeologists have been out there since the remains became uncovered and are now saying that this is probably the largest and best preserved ancient forest in the UK. I sincerely hope that they have been able to gain an awful lot of information just in case we happen to be responsible for its disintegration.

I consider myself privileged to have seen this ancient landscape, hidden from me as a child but buried treasure even for this cynical 51 year old.

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