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by Robert Evans

      If there exist a lovelier place than the peninsula of Gower in south Wales for a boy and his sisters to grow up, I have neither heard of it nor found it. Jutting westwards into the Atlantic from the north shore of the Bristol Channel between England and Wales, Gower is sixteen miles long and no more than five wide, an undamaged park of meadows and moors, of hidden rivers and dingles, a park fringed on the south by bays and headlands, on the north by marsh and dune. Its narrow, winding lanes took us past hilltop forts tens of thousands of years old to the ruins of twelfth-century manor houses, Norman warts on the Celtic skin of Wales. And when bold enough to challenge the hills that led to the highest point on the peninsula, we stood on a wind-brushed common to stare in wonder at a twenty-five-ton stone perched delicately on three smaller ones. It was the capstone of the ancient burial place of someone so important that he was granted this beautiful view for eternity. To the north, the silver serpent that is the River Llwchwr winds seaward, glimmering in the sun shining on the broad sands of its estuary. To the south, beyond the bays and headlands of Gower, lie the faint grey shapes of Devon and Somerset in England, and on the east, the hills and mountains of south Wales curve like a giant’s hand cupped to protect our home. Where else can there be such a place?

      I look now at pictures of the three of us, aged eleven, seven and six on a beach in 1947, the year we first encountered Gower. I see my elder sister and me, newly released from an isolation hospital where we had been incarcerated for more than a year. We are skinny and pale, wasted by tuberculosis, our eyes too fearful to emerge from deep hollows beneath our brows. The new antibiotics had saved us, but we had not regained the fullness and plumpness of healthy children. Our younger sister, her encounter with the disease brief and mercifully slight, looks hale and rosy by comparison. She had been spared the cure.

      And what a cure it was: forced incarceration; treatments that bordered on torture; regular doses of noxious medicine. Confined to bed in a ward where a dozen or more boys, none older than ten, lay silent, I swallowed daily doses of foul, black liquid from heavy porcelain jiggers.

      “What are we drinking, nurse?” I asked.

      “Don’t you ask questions, Master Evans, just drink it up, like a good boy.”

      On Tuesdays of every week, half of the boys, many of them tearful and sniffling after hearing their names, were taken out early in the morning to a side-ward. Held down in a chair by a nurse on each side, the child would be told to lean his head back. A third torturer would then appear, a long red rubber tube in her hand, the tube attached to a conical glass funnel. As the young victim struggled and kicked, the tube would be pushed down his throat, and water poured into the funnel. A few moments later, the tube was pulled out, whereupon the boy would spontaneously vomit into an enamel bowl curved like a noose beneath his face.

      But when I asked one day why they gave us “the tube”, the nurse, a sharp-nosed biddy as stiff as her collars, said,

      “Who are you to be asking questions, boy? You are here to get better, not to ask questions. And don’t you be talking to the doctor, either, like that other Tuesday. Doctors don’t answer the questions of nosey little boys.”

      My elder sister suffered through similar chastisement — evidently part of the treatment for tuberculosis — although I hardly ever saw her. She was in a ward for girls and women, and only during the one hour for visiting — one hour once a month — did we talk to each other. I do remember that she grew timid and shy, and as I also remember the reproach with which the nurses greeted my questions, I understood how we both became reluctant to talk at all. The wards in the hospital were meant to be quiet places, and the treatment that we received ensured that they were. Only years later did someone explain to me that the doctors used “the tube” to get samples of the bacteria in phlegm we had coughed and swallowed. Thus they learned of our progress.

      Early in 1947 we were released, and our mother determined that we needed sun and exercise to re-invigorate us after our time in the company of consumption, as it was still called. Almost every day, she took us to the sands, as they say in Wales. We began to get acquainted with the peninsula of Gower, and the old photographs show it. There we are, on the sands at Swansea Bay, a long stretch of buff-colored shore alternately covered and exposed by the pulse of the daily tides of the Bristol Channel. In this part of Britain, the waters of the Atlantic are funnelled between England and Wales, piling up higher and higher as the channel narrows, until the waters rise and fall more than thirty-five feet twice a day along the coast of Gower. At Swansea, the sea chased us up the beach while we built castle after castle to try to stay the inexorable advance of the tide. Hours later, my sisters and I played on wider and wider stretches of an imaginary Sahara as the water fell away.

      At certain times, when the sun, the moon and the earth formed a straight line in space, the waters rose and fell more than they had at any other time of year. At the lowest ebb of the tide at Swansea, the beach is more than half-a-mile wide, and the sand we walked in on the upper shore gave way to fine mud as we approached closer and closer to where the waves hissed and murmured. Near the water’s edge were hundreds of small dimples and coiled lumps of mud on the slick surface that oozed between our toes. Kick the lump aside and you found a tiny hole filled with water, but though we tried again and again to dig out whatever was in there, we never once saw the creature that burrowed and buried itself so well. The occasional man digging with a spade told us they were lugworms, good for bait, but when we asked about the dimples and the coiled lumps, and how he knew where to dig, and could we see one, please, he told us that the worms could hear our chattering and would go deeper into the mud unless we stopped asking so many foolish questions. So we walked away into the water to paddle the worm-casts off our feet, talking much louder now, hoping to frighten every single worm deeper than the shovel could go. Arenicola marina remained a stranger until eleven years later, when a biology teacher named Charlie Williams actually seemed to enjoy answering the same interrogation, and on the very same beach.

      But that was years into the future, and of no concern to me and my sisters Judi and Wendy as we walked into the water, stirring up clouds of mud at every footstep. Certain that if we couldn’t see them, the worms would wriggle onto our feet and between our toes, even into our swimsuits, we did not try to splash and bathe in the waves, but merely paddled back and forth near the edge, enjoying the sibilant sound of the sea. For my elder sister and me, this was a freedom from confinement and supervision that we had not experienced before; we revelled in it. We could look back up the beach to where the tiny, distant figures of our mother and stepfather would wave reassuringly, but most of the time, we looked out to the horizon.

      I remember that once in a while, at the lowest ebb of the tide, we saw what looked like tree-stumps sticking out above the waves. They appeared and disappeared as the water rose and fell, and never were exposed for long enough that we could stare at them. The black shapes came and went here and there until the tide turned, and then, never sure that we had seen the last glimpse of them, we stood and watched, hoping that one more would show itself and give up its secret. We left only when the distant yodelling of our mother called us up the beach to soggy lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches that stuck in lumps to the roof of our mouths. In between bites and steady work with my tongue to free the glutinous sandwich, I asked my mother what we had seen in the waves. When I got the answer that it was probably a forest of some kind that had been drowned by the sea, I was satisfied. The seven-year-old boy, newly freed from the stifling atmosphere of the hospital where questions were regarded as impertinence, did not allow his curiosity to wander. One answer — any answer — was sufficient, and I had no inclination at that age to ask why? and how? and when?

      Our mother’s plan to restore us to health in the summer of 1947 was successful, for we soon became as active, energetic and lively as all the children around us. Within a year or two, no one could tell from looking at us that we had coughed, spat and swallowed for twelve months or more, or that in the hospital in the desolate hills of mid-Wales our strength had ebbed as far as did the tides we could now watch around Gower. We became normal again, and did all the things all normal children do. We ran and jumped and swung on ropes. We wandered along streams, collecting frog-spawn, minnows and sticklebacks. We climbed trees and made secret dens in the bracken that was everywhere. And as we grew older, one by one, we acquired bicycles, which released us from bus timetables and the confinement of travelling only on prescribed roads. The whole peninsula of Gower soon passed beneath our wheels.

      My favorite part was the south coast, limestone cliffs buttressing the land against the power of the Atlantic. Scalloped into them are bays large and small — Langland, Caswell, Pobbles, Mewslade, Three Cliffs, Tor — some no more than a cove a hundred yards across, others great stretches of sand longer than a mile. I came to know them all, and the headlands and cliffs in between. The limestone was riddled with caves and hollows, each of them inviting to teenaged explorers, one of whom, matured from the browbeaten seven-year-old boy of years before, was now free to express the curiosity of the young. I and my friends explored all the caves we could get into, especially some of the ones we were hearing about in ancient history in school.

      Minchin Hole was one of these, fifty feet above the sea, a hundred below the top of the cliff where we left our bicycles lying on top of each other in a tangle of pedals and spokes. Down the path we went, in our minds a line of explorers and their baggage-bearers on a distant adventure, and once out of sight of the houses in the village of Pennard, we could have been anywhere in the world. Along the ledge we marched, and into the great cave, tapering upward like a cathedral. In the dark and damp interior, even the sound of birds was stilled. Only a faint murmuring came from outside as the Atlantic beat against the cliffs far below, and if we stood quiet and breathless as we never did when instructed, we could hear that the murmuring was punctuated by another rhythm. Like the ticking of a clock measuring the passage of eons, water dripped on the rocks around us. It was a rare sound, that one that could mesmerize half-a-dozen teenagers for minutes on end.

      We were not the first humans to walk in these rock shelters. Twenty thousand years or more before we ever ventured into the shaded interiors of these caves, for the moment protected from wind and rain, our ancestors had used them as home. They left their tools and the remains of their meals, occasionally an amulet, and once, in a cave called Paviland, the stained skeleton of an important someone long dead, then exhumed and reverently re-interred. That cave we could never reach, for the climb down from the clifftop was too steep and dangerous to attempt without ropes, and an approach from the sea meant risking a pounding between ancient limestone and modern Atlantic. I do not recall ever wondering how our primitive ancestors could live in such a place, or how they accomplished the task of burial. Nor did I concern myself with why we could walk from a beach directly into some of the Gower caves, yet to others we had to climb ten or twenty feet, or fifty to the cathedral of Minchin Hole, before we could enter. Merely a curious teenager, not yet a scientist, I was not aware that science proceeds as much on questions as it does on answers. But that awareness was soon to be given to me, and on the cliffs of my belovˇd Gower.

      Only a few years later, in the company of Gilbert Davies, the teacher of geography to the senior students in our grammar school, I walked along the path on the headland between Caswell Bay and Langland Bay on the southern coast of Gower, looking at physiographic features where land and sea competed for supremacy. He was encouraging me to develop what he called “an eye for country”, the eye that saw causes and origins along with beauty, deduced what was normal and what exceptional, what fitted the pattern and what did not. As we walked along the cliff paths, we saw that here and there, the sea had undercut the limestone, which had collapsed into a pile of debris at the foot of the cliff. Storm-waves carried away what they had just destroyed, and in each of the bays in between the limestone buttresses, those same waves had cast up ridges of rounded, fist-sized cobbles at the top of the sand beaches, ridges that had caused the small rivers and streams seeking the Atlantic to meander back and forth before becoming one with the sea. When we knelt down and looked in amongst the piles of cobbles, we found shells of limpets and snails, some entire, some reduced to fragments by the never-ending assault of the waves and the depredations of sea-birds.

      “And what about that, Robert,” Mr. Davies said, pointing to some rocks above our heads, “what do you make of that?”

      I looked up at the cliff of limestone above us and saw adhering to it a mass of large pebbles bound together as a rock. I climbed up a few feet and knelt on a ledge to take a closer look .

      “They are like the ones on the beach at Langland, Mr. Davies, the same size but not all the same colour. And there are some shells. Look, here is a limpet!”

      “But what do you make of it? What does it mean?”

      “Is it an old beach-ridge then, like the one at Pwll-du? But this is too high. The ridge would have to have been twenty-five or more feet high. And I’ve never seen waves breaking up here. Could the sea have been higher once?”

      I looked down at Gilbert Davies, standing on the cliff-path, his hands closed as fists, resting on his hips. He was smiling, a rare expression in his classroom. Then he turned and lifted his right hand, pointing off into the distance like the captain of a ship seeing a destination on the horizon.

      “If that is true, Robert, why aren’t the pebbles the same as the ones over on the beach over there? They should be of limestone, too, shouldn’t they? Like the cliffs all along the coast?”

      “Perhaps they came from further away?”

      “Perhaps, indeed. Remember your Thornbury, Robert. Do you remember the picture of the Aletsch glacier? Tell me what it looked like.”

      “Well, it was like a great river of ice flowing down its valley in Switzerland. Mountains on either side. I think there were two glaciers coming together.”

      “And what did the ice look like?”

      “Well, it wasn’t clean like you’d expect, Mr. Davies. There were long ribbons of debris on the surface. In the picture it looked like striped sweets filling the valley.”

      “That’s right. And what do you make of that?”

      “Oh! I see. Didn’t the ice in the last ice-age come down into south Wales? Could those other rocks, the ones that are not limestone, have been stuck in the ice like the stuff in the Aletsch glacier, and then washed out of it? They might be from mid-Wales, or even English rocks, then?”

      Gilbert Davies looked at me for a moment, smiling again, and began to nod his head. He took his hands from his hips, pushed them down into the pockets of his trousers and turned towards the sea. Standing there, staring out at the Atlantic, heaving and foaming beneath our view, the teacher continued to nod. Once more he turned to look up at me, still kneeling on the cobbles of an ancient beach. And then he started to walk away, nodding his head as he went. I got up to climb down to the path and follow him, and as I scrambled down, leaning on one hand to steady myself, I heard him ask, the question tossed over his shoulder into the air, and not needing an answer.

      “And what do you make of that?”

      With that question, I knew, and knew suddenly, what this conversation was all about. It was about water and ice, about rising and falling of the sea, about old forests and elevated caves, all of which made sense to me as I recalled them from experiences of the previous ten or eleven years. It was about how things fitted together when you understood how the earth worked, and if you were allowed to ask why? and how? and when? For when water froze into the great ice-sheets, the level of the sea fell. On the new land so exposed, trees grew in forests on the margins of what is now the Bristol Channel. Caves that had been formed by the waves at the foot of cliffs became accessible to our ancestors living at the margins of the ice. As the climate ameliorated, icebergs broke free from northern glaciers and drifted south, where eventually they melted, dropping the cobbles they carried. The strangers, the English rocks, became piled up with the locals on the new beaches, mingling with shells and sand to become cemented into a solid mass. And when the sea fell again, as the latest ice-age began, the old beach was left high and dry on ledges on the cliffs of limestone, to become the subject of study by a twentieth-century Socrates and his student.

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