J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY SAND AND SNOW
Matthew Brace relives the memory of a surprising Welsh Christmas at the beach
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).