Beauty spot has a dark history
IT’S one of Wales’s bestknown and popular beaches, a seven-mile long stretch of sand where families play during summer.
But there is a dark history to this dangerous stretch of South Wales coastline, dating back to the time when it was a major shipping route serving Wales’s booming coal and tinplate industries.
There are said to be around 300 ships wrecked under the sands of Cefn Sidan, near Llanelli.
And though many of them will have been dashed on the area’s treacherous sandbanks, others were lured to their doom by merciless looters.
Coastal park ranger Emyr Richards said: “There would be a gang of looters that would actually try to entice the ships on to the sands using false beacon fires.
“Your ship gets caught in the sands, and it’s wrecked, and then they come in and plunder the cargo.”
Mr Richards was speaking to Will Millard on his programme Hidden Wales, which recently appeared on BBC Wales.
He said one such group of looters was known as “Gwyr y Bwyell Bach”, the men with the small hatchets, so-called because of the weapons they carried.
“The reasons the hatchets were special was because they had a claw hammer and little hatchet,” said Mr Richards.
“And the main reasons for that were to chop off the fingers of victims to get their rings off and to take what they want, breaking into the casks of brandy and fine wine.
“It was quite a savage time.”
The entire coastline of Wales is dotted with shipwrecks.
A few miles east of Cefn Sidan is a tiny island which is a graveyard of ships near Porthcawl and Ogmore.
And diver James Hedley Phillips has discovered more than 30 shipwrecks off the Welsh coast, once recovering a batch of 100-year-old bottles of wine from a wreck which he drank from freely before discovering they were worth at least £1,500 each.
There are actually only six “designated wrecks” in Welsh waters, and these have been given protected status under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act.
Anyone who visits, films or surveys these sunken vessels needs to get a special licence from the Welsh Government.
On Cefn Sidan, the largest visible remains are at the western end, and belong to a large windjammer that grounded there nearly 100 years ago, called the SV Paul.
In 1925, the ship left Nova Scotia in Canada, and on October 30 she ran into severe gales, losing her sails and anchors and eventually grounding on the sands.
The ship was carrying a cargo of expensive tropical hardwood timber when it grounded.
“Luckily nobody lost their lives in the wreck, but the cargo – that’s a different story altogether,” says Mr Richards on Hidden Wales.
“Many of the houses (locally) have got some very expensive tropical hardwood, and there were a few garden sheds that were very well built.”
After the decline of Llanelli’s tinplate industry, the ships stopped coming.
“That industrial heritage is what made this area,” says Mr Richards.
“We spread tinplate, saucepans across the world, it’s a fantastic heritage that we’ve got along this coastline, and its story needs to be told.”
Cefn Sidan’s wrecks date back to 1668.
They include La Jeune Emma, which was heading to France from the West Indies when it was blown badly off course in 1828.
Thirteen people on board died, including Adeline Coquelin, the 12-year-old niece of Napoleon Bonaparte’s divorced wife Josephine de Beauharnais, who is buried at a nearby church.
Off the same stretch of coast is the Whiteford lighthouse, an extraordinary structure which is entirely surrounded by the sea when the tide is in.
It is the only cast-iron lighthouse in Britain which is “wave-washed”.
Remarkably, it was occupied, and whoever would have lived there would have done so surrounded by wind, waves and one of the most dangerous tides in the world.
It was the lighthouse keeper’s job to maintain it, and records from 1880 show they were paid £1 a week and stayed up there for two weeks at a time.
Despite the small number of people who would ever have seen them, the lighthouse still features intricate Victorian features, like the railings that surround it.
It was decommissioned by the 1930s, and has been decaying ever since.
A shipwreck on Cefn Sidan beach. Left, the SV Paul, which was wrecked on Cefn Sidan.
The Whiteford Point lighthouse.
The SV Paul, which was wrecked on Cefn Sidan.