Creative responses to Planet magazine by students from the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University
by Natalie Cox
In the piece below, Masters student Natalie Cox responds to ‘Retracing Wales’, our series of creative responses to the Wales Coast Path, which go astray from the usual tourism and heritage script. For more information about our series see our excerpts pages
For more information about courses at ENCAP click here.
‘Darganfod ffurf y gendl / Discover the shape of a nation’. Emblazoned on leaflets in tourist information centres, these words entice the ramblers, dog walkers and family-day-outers on a journey of exploration along the Wales Coast Path.
Nations are somewhat abstract things, they aren’t all that tangible. They are hyper-objects, something bigger than what we can see or physically interact with; something of such immense temporal and spatial dimensions that it actually cannot be contained by the traditional idea of what it is. The traditional idea of the nation is, superficially, a country, or a political state. But the nation is so much more than this. Typically, we think of the phrase as metaphor: the shape of a nation is its personality. It is history, culture, industry, politics, people. Indeed, the word ‘nation’ is inherently political. History and tradition give the nation its temporal dimension, culture and people add depth. The nation, then, is so much more than what can be seen in one gaze. It is not simply land. You can walk the nation’s coastal path, but what you are walking on is not the nation, it is land. Yes, we can be in a nation, be part of it, we can see it, but what we see are only signs of it. Other than land, what we see are products of the nation. We cannot see politics, only what it dictates; we cannot see culture, only the art it produces; we cannot see identity, only physical markers of it. We cannot see the nation, because the nation, as a place, relies on arbitrary and invisible borders.
The Wales Coast Path traces the geographical shape of the nation, winding its way through ‘towns and villages, across cliff tops and sandy beaches, sometimes darting inland before emerging once again at a sheltered cove’ (walescoastalpath.gov.uk). This pastoral image of Wales is idyllic. The Welsh coastline itself, in many, many places, is beautifully picturesque, but places like Portmeirion, Tenby, Rhossili Bay, and Southerndown exist in stark contrast to areas of industrialised coast. Blue Flag beaches are interspersed with big factories belching smoke into the sky, and cargo ships pull into harbours only a few miles from tourist havens. These juxtapositions of beaches and industry, along the outline of Wales, encapsulate an image of the Welsh nation.
Standing on top of the sand dunes at Kenfig National Nature Reserve, looking out to sea, you are presented a panorama of this image. A part of the Welsh Coast Path, Kenfig is an embodiment of the path as a whole. To your left (geographically, the south-west) you can make out the touristy town of Porthcawl, a place for fish and chips on the seafront, penny slots and summers of sandcastle-building. In the immediate vicinity of Kenfig Sands, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, you are surrounded by peace, and maybe the odd dog-walker. Pools, grasses and sand dunes lead down to Sker Beach, each twist and turn revealing a different view of the surrounding landscape, much as the Coast Path itself. To your right (the north-east), at not that great a distance, industry looms and you can clearly see the towers and smoke of Port Talbot.
The landscape shapes the nation, and the nation in turn shapes the landscape. The relationship is reciprocal. Port Talbot is dominated by the steel industry because of its location, because of the port itself. The industry was placed there for exporting Welsh products, and the industry has in turn shaped the south Wales coast, not least by the steelworks’ chimneys that can be seen for miles around. Porthcawl, like Barry Island, is fuelled by a local tourist industry because of its proximity to beautiful beaches. Again, the landscape has created a culture, one that is tangible in its products and that borders the Coast Path. The section of the Path that runs from Kenfig to Porthcawl goes through the beautiful Rest Bay then skirts the town centre, looked upon by hotels and cafes and looked down upon by the funfair’s rollercoaster, along past the jammed Trecco Bay caravan park before returning once again to the relative peace of sand dunes. These sand dunes are part of the same system of dunes as those at Kenfig, the remainder of which have been lost to the sea. In place of this, the landscape is now shaped by the everyday necessities of tourism.
Kenfig also encapsulates the historical aspect of nation. Its past, excavated in a 2011 episode of Channel 4’s Time Team, has been buried by the sands, the old settlement submerged beneath the coastal path. Only the top of the castle keep remains visible (other than areas excavated by Tony Robinson and friends), and, according to folk tales, the buried church bell remains audible, should the wind blow the right way.
The physical shape of Wales, the Welsh landscape, shapes the nation itself. Landscape dictates where people live and where people work. Although the landscape is not the nation, the landscape shapes the nation.