Matthew Brace re­lives the me­mory of a sur­pris­ing Welsh Christ­mas at the beach

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

ONE hun­dred years ago when I was a boy in Eng­land, there were things I could rely on at Christ­mas, such as snow and sherry and Roger Moore as James Bond just af­ter the Queen’s speech. It was a time of com­fort and warmth and grand­par­ents who gen­tly toasted them­selves in front of our log fire and smelled like di­ges­tive bis­cuits.

One year, in my early teens and to the bis­cuit-scented rel­a­tives’ hor­ror, my par­ents opted out. In­stead of play­ing host to cack­ling aunts and red-nosed un­cles, we skipped town and drove to the Gower Penin­sula in South Wales, the place where we al­ways spent our sum­mer hol­i­days, ev­ery year since I was young enough to eat sand and not no­tice.

Dur­ing sum­mer so­journs my par­ents sat in fray­ing deckchairs on the lawn, wait­ing for the tired sun to sink fi­nally be­hind the haystacks of the Beynons’ farm, and promised that we would come down for a short Christ­mas break.

We would take lots of board games and be­tween throws of the dice watch the big tankers in the shal­low Bris­tol Chan­nel wait­ing mourn­fully for the tide to come back in and of­fer them enough draught to con­tinue on their way. We would go for brac­ing cliff walks to Caswell Bay and eat warm Welsh cakes drip­ping with but­ter and drink mugs of tea and my par­ents would have whisky tod­dies at bed­time.

On the drive down, my fa­ther, who had grown up in New­port (also in South Wales) and had a pas­sion for ev­ery­thing Welsh, urged me to read Dylan Thomas’s short story, AChild’sChrist­mas­inWales , which is set in Swansea, Thomas’s beloved home town, gate­way to the Gower Penin­sula and a city I knew well.

By the time we reached its out­skirts just be­fore lunchtime on Christ­mas Eve, I was cap­ti­vated by the tale and was al­ready look­ing for the ‘‘ harp-shaped hills’’, the ‘‘ tin­selled win­dows’’ and post­men with ‘‘ sprin­kling eyes and wind-cher­ried noses’’.

We stopped long enough to buy some lavabread (ed­i­ble sea­weed that is es­sen­tial with ba­con for break­fast) from big, jolly women in Swansea mar­ket who were chas­ing the butch­ers with mistle­toe. We mar­velled at the Christ­mas trees in shop win­dows in the main streets, and took a quick spin around Sketty (Thomas’s lo­cal sub­urb where parts of his Christ­mas story are set) to give marks out of 10 for fes­tively dec­o­rated bay win­dows be­fore we headed west to the sea.

Out on the Gower, which Thomas also knew well and wrote about with youth­ful aban­don, we were alone. No sum­mer crowds. No hol­i­day­ing car­a­vans stuck fast be­tween banks of daisies in the tight lit­tle lanes.

It felt strange open­ing up the sum­mer house and feel­ing a chill is­sue from its heart. We were used to rays of sun­light pour­ing in and warm­ing the furniture. We were used to fill­ing the shelves with minia­ture pack­ets of ce­real and tea bags and bread and jam, and sprint­ing down to the beach along the track over­grown with wild gar­lic and queen anne’s lace, over the two wooden stiles and through the Beynons’ cliff-edge field where we hurled sun-dried cow pats at each other.

But on Christ­mas Eve, this was an­other coun­try. We edged timidly into rooms that were at once familiar and alien. The house was hi­ber­nat­ing and un­will­ing to be dis­turbed un­til the first black­berry blos­soms lit up the hedgerows again in April. We turned on ra­di­a­tors, warmed Welsh cakes un­der the grill and flicked on all the lights. My dad played Mozart.

In­stinc­tively I headed for the beach, walk­ing down the steep street that led to the sea, pass­ing cot­tages locked up for the win­ter. What I knew as jun­gle-thick, berry-bent hawthorn hedgerows taller than a gi­ant were now trans­par­ent and life­less. I saw through their skele­tal bri­ars to the sleep­ing cold soil of the fields be­yond. Down at the beach, an au­tumn storm had taken an­other bite out of the sandy cliff face. I was mea­sur­ing my age by the ero­sion of that cliff: at least 1m-wide calv­ing for ev­ery year. By the time I hit 60, the Beynons’ field will have dis­ap­peared and there will be no cow pats to hurl.

The thick sand­pa­per rope peo­ple used to ease their de­scent to the smooth peb­bles and the glo­ri­ous sand had dis­ap­peared with the cliff chunk and all that re­mained was a pa­thetic horse-tail tuft stick­ing out of the ground at the cliff edge.

I looked out into the Bris­tol Chan­nel, so over­hung by clouds it looked like the inside of a whale, and saw it punc­tu­ated by a car­toon cur­tain of bul­let-grey rain pelt­ing a lone fish­ing boat with icy drops. At the wa­ter’s edge were two lob­ster­men in yel­low oil­skins hold­ing hooked poles and salty nets in their frost­ing hands, wait­ing like herons for move­ment in the rock­pool.

Other than that it was just me and a wicked Welsh wind sent straight from the Arc­tic, via Llanelli. A dead gan­net was washed up at my feet, its bill still as yel­low as the lob­ster­men’s over­alls. I pulled my hood closer to my ears and slapped down the sand to the shore­line, past shiv­er­ing beached jel­ly­fish and mer­maids’ sea­weed wigs. The waves were lit­tle more than a few cen­time­tres high and they rolled in ur­gently like chil­dren blus­ter­ing in the front door, home from school and ea­ger for toast. They were Thomas’s ‘‘ ice-edged, fish-freez­ing’’ Christ­mas waves.

I turned and looked back up the fastcrum­bling cliffs and over the shrink­ing fields to the des­o­late houses on the track. One had lights on and move­ment inside. I imag­ined it in­hab­ited by Thomas’s ‘‘ un­cles breath­ing like dol­phins’’ giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing ‘‘ use­ful and use­less presents’’.

I longed for one of the au­thor’s use­ful presents — ‘‘ mit­tens made for gi­ant sloths’’, maybe — but in­stead had to rely on my jacket pock­ets to keep my hands from turn­ing blue. The lit­tle fish­ing boat had moved east, up the chan­nel, and was al­most out of view, but its ter­ror­is­ing rain cloud had fol­lowed it dili­gently. The lob­ster­men were gone, too; yel­low spots trudged home­ward through the cow pat field.

Alone on my beach on Christ­mas Eve, sur­rounded by the ghosts of sum­mer, there was an over­whelm­ing feel­ing of re­newal and prom­ise. I would be here again in six months, pre­tend­ing to be brave in the waves with a sun blaz­ing over Port Eynon warm­ing my back and sand­wiches and Welsh ginger beer for lunch.

Christ­mas, I re­alised, is when my beach takes its hol­i­day, when it recharges and re­news. Each year the sub­merged rocks look slightly dif­fer­ent be­cause at Christ­mas, when no­body is look­ing, they re­or­gan­ise them­selves, jostling for the best spots. Christ­mas is when the sand gets churned around and cleaned by North At­lantic storms, so it is fresh and bright in time for our sum­mer ar­rival in July.

The light be­gan to fade and over my shoul­der I heard the Bris­tol Chan­nel moan with cold and melan­choly. A big tanker was tak­ing ad­van­tage of the ris­ing tide and hum­ming back out into the Ir­ish Sea at speed. Christ­mas at sea? In this anvil-like gath­er­ing gloom where the hori­zon and the ocean meet im­per­cep­ti­bly in a steely, love­less haze? No thanks.

The track was al­ready dark when I reached it and the branches reached out to grab me. Salt caked my eye­lashes and my breath made phan­toms in the dusky air. Over the sec­ond stile and — I’m sure it was — a snowflake on my nose. And an­other, and then the prom­ise of that won­der­ful soft, safe blan­keted hug of a white Christ­mas.

Thomas said his South Welsh snow was ‘‘ shaken from white­wash buck­ets down the sky’’. It wouldn’t last and wouldn’t settle, not this close to the salty sea, so I caught some on my tongue and made a men­tal note to carry this mo­ment with me through life.

As I rounded the top of the lane by the Beynons’ farm, I saw our house, lights ablaze like an ocean liner in full sail on a dark and fore­bod­ing ocean. Home, at least for the next three days.

Within the com­fort of the cur­tains, Mum was cook­ing a goose that steamed up her glasses ev­ery time she opened the oven to check on it. Dad was read­ing Thomas (again), the first gins and tonic were half­way gone and there was a Christ­mas tree for me to put in a pot and dress with tin­sel and an­gels. Matthew Brace is the au­thor of Ho­tel Heaven:Con­fes­sion­so­faLux­u­ryHo­tel Ad­dict (Ran­dom House Aus­tralia).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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