A sand bar spreads southeast from Whiteford Point in Gower, South Wales. At low tide in the Burry Estuary, it is part of a very extensive sandy area over which cockle and mussel fisherman can traverse in vehicles from places further along the north Gower coast. The sand depth is variable and mostly envelops a spit of pebbles. Sometimes the pebbles are entirely hidden. Sometimes they are partially exposed. Intermixed with the pebbles are seashells – cockles, mussels, whelks, and oysters are the most commonly occurring. There is a wide range of colours and textures in the pebbles and they are particularly interesting because of the range of rock types they represent.
As you take a 360 degree scan of the horizon from this isolated expanse of sand and pebbles, there is not a single rocky outcrop in sight. So where have these beach stones come from? The collection includes sedimentary rocks from the locally occurring Carboniferous limestone and Devonian sandstones, mudstones, and conglomerates – like the bedrock exposed at Rhossili and at Broughton Bay. It also includes samples from higher up in the Carboniferous strata such as the Millstone Grits, sandstones, and shales, and Coal Measure layers. These strata underlie the Burry Estuary into which this spit extends, east Gower, and the Swansea district and way beyond. There are many rock types with which I am not familiar but I notice that some are metamorphic and igneous in nature. So how have all these rocks ended up on this spit, far from their place of origin?
Part of the answer is undoubtedly the effect of sea drift, currents, and storms carrying weathered and broken stones along the shores of Carmarthen Bay and into the estuary or inlet – but a significant proportion of the stones are thought to have been brought to the area from considerable distances away by glaciation, and deposited by the melting of an ice sheet, possibly in the late Devensian era about 24,000 years ago. Most of these stones lie hidden in a mass beneath the Whiteford Dunes but some are exposed high on the shore at the foot of the dunes, and beneath the disused iron lighthouse on Whiteford Point. Over time the waves have dislodged the often frost-shattered stones from the surface of the deposit, and washed them further along the beach around the Point to form pebble spits and banks, in the process smoothing and rounding them into the pebbles visible today.