Some of the ancient wood that has long been buried in peat and clay deposited after the last ice age has wonderful textures and woodgrain patterns. Whole recumbent tree trunks have been emerging from the peat as a result of recent beach erosion at Whiteford on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. This wood is not fossilised but is preserved in its original state by the anaerobic conditions in which it was buried – in the same way that the bodies of the so-called Bog People were preserved.
On Rosslare Strand in Ireland, a series of groynes transects the beach to prevent loss of sediments from the shore. Most of these sea defence groynes are constructed as a row of wooden posts embedded deep in the sand. Over time, the posts have been weathered and whittled down to varying degrees, dependent on their position and exposure to wave action. Some rows still stand knee-high, festooned with seaweed and fishing lines, but others have been worn down to mere stumps. The eroding posts reveal intricate wood-grain patterns, and have sometimes become narrow and tapered with wear, thus opening up gaps in the line that become traps for wave-driven pebbles.
In the early part of 2014, after the storms and the landslip at Rhossili, and after the sand was rearranged on the beaches of Gower, several people wrote to me to ask about the isolated wooden posts that were stuck in the sand at the south end of Rhossili beach. At the time I had no idea, and neither did the National Trust representative that I called, although people had apparently been speculating. It was not until I visited Rhossili in October later that year that I actually got to see what everyone was talking about. It was puzzling.
Visitors to Rhossili are accustomed to seeing shipwrecks protruding from the sand but this was definitely not the timbers of a ship. Low on the beach, sticking up from the sand were at least 26 wooden posts seemingly arranged at random. Each post had the same roughly circular cross-section measuring approximately 10 centimetres in diameter. The posts were widely but semi-regularly spaced apart at distances in the region of around 10 metres or less. Walking systematically around the site to gauge the relationship of one post to another, I discovered that some of the posts appeared to be line up in a row parallel to the water’s edge; others were lined up at right angle to that. Additionally, there were two places where the posts were arranged in a sub-rectangular fashion with a post in each corner – but still part of the linear sequence of posts.
It was difficult to discern from ground level what was going on – what sort of structure these posts might represent. Half way up the footpath to the village gave a better viewpoint of the wooden post feature. From up there, looking down on the low-tide beach, I could see that it was a vaguely T-shaped layout with two smaller enclosed but attached areas.
Back down on the sand, I tried to photograph each post, the general layout, and the position in relation to fixed surrounding features of the landscape. Most posts were covered with a white layer of encrusting acorn barnacles and green gutweed algae. An examination of individual posts made it clear that these were in fact man-made, each post was embedded deeply in the sand, all of the posts had been cut off parallel to the surface of the sand, they had been subject to varying degrees of natural wear and erosion on the cut surface, the height of each post also varied in relation to the sand dependent on the wear experienced, and also on the degree of scouring of sediment around the base. Exposed heights did not exceed 30 cm and were usually less.
Some of the posts had a hardened and rusty outer layer which made me wonder if at some stage the post had been clad with metal such as iron. Some posts seemed to have one or more iron rods driven down lengthwise through the post. At least one had a sharp irregular piece of iron embedded in the outer surface. This gave me my first clue as to the possible purpose of the structure. At a lower level of the beach, but quite near to the wooden posts, lies the rusting remains of what I assume to be a mine, a floating explosive device dating from the Second World War. Could the jagged metal piece in the post be shrapnel? I wonder if a possible explanation for the posts is that they were originally much taller and were used to suspend some kind of netting, maybe metal chain link or wire netting, to catch mines and prevent them from washing up and becoming stranded right up against the cliff, immediately below the village of Rhossili. It’s just an idea. Could the posts have been part of a coastal defence structure?
After the war, when the structure was no longer needed, the putative netting could have been taken down, and the posts cut level with the beach rather than being completely uplifted. The shifting sand on Rhossili beach buried the remains of the wooden posts where they have remained hidden until they were exposed by last winter’s storms – extreme weather events that created such a disturbance and rearrangement of sand and pebbles on Gower shores and elsewhere around the British coastline.
Is anyone else seriously investigating this feature? I have a lot more images documenting the wooden post feature which might be useful to a historian or archaeologist.
The shifting of the sands at Rhossili Bay has uncovered a wrecked wooden ship quite high on the shore between Diles Lake and Spaniard Rocks. I last saw this ship’s timbers emerge from the sand about seven years ago. It comes and goes and seems to be a fairly rare sighting. Mostly, the remnants of the keel with its attached ribs lie hidden from view, buried under the sand. However, following the weather events of the winter just past, the sands have moved around to a significant degree and revealed once more this elusive piece of history. I am not even sure of its name.
Of course, Rhossili Beach has seen many ships come to grief. The most famous of all is the Helvetia which features so prominently in all the postcards, pictures, and publicity material for the beach. However, there are many others: the stark rusty metal girders and plate of the Danish ship Vennerne at the base of Rhossili Cliffs; the massive anchor of the Norwegian barque Samuel lying on the Worm’s Head Causeway; and at low spring tides, the engines of the wooden paddle steamer City of Bristol – these are all easy to spot.
My favourite wreck though is this particular one lying near the dunes of Llangennith Burrows. I am delighted when circumstances conspire to enable a view of its old weathered and worn timbers. Wooden pegs form part of its original construction but these were reinforced later with iron nails which have now rusted and stained the woodgrain. Beach pebbles form a drift against the outside of this skeletal hull, and stick between the ribs; while the hollow within makes a transient tide pool.
See the image below for a view of the wreck when I last saw it in 2007.
COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014 All Rights Reserved
Stormy seas have brought lots of driftwood ashore at Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. I liked this particular tree because of the convolutions of its twisted roots that had incorporated stones during growth. The root bark texture was interesting; and the stripped-down trunk and branches revealed intricate spiralling patterns in the woodgrain. I loved the little survivor of the storms, sitting drenched and bemused among the tangled roots.
COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014
All Rights Reserved
There is a lovely avenue of mature beech trees where I live. Sadly, because of the recent high winds and storms, one of these magnificent trees had to be felled as it was unsafe. Once it had been cut up you could see why. The base of the trunk was rotten and the fungal infection had spread throughout, leaving incredible patterns revealed in the cross-sectional slices of timber remaining on the ground. There was abundant beech mast and numerous small beech seedlings on the ground around the tree stump, so I hope that another tree will grow to replace the lost mighty one.
COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014
All Rights Reserved