Some years ago I took a photograph of a black plastic rubbish sack that had got caught on a fence near the cliffs at Rhossili. Fluttering above a dry stone wall and against a deep blue sky the black shreds made a graphic and ominous contrast. I showed this picture at a joint exhibition at Pontardawe Arts Centre and it was only then that someone complimented me by saying how clever it was; specifically the way I’d incorporated or photoshopped the outline of a witch into the jagged and haphazard shapes. ‘A witch?’ I must have asked, taken completely by surprise. When it was pointed out to me I was amazed to see that there was indeed the sort of classic profile of a witch flying on her broomstick. As many of the other photographs in that show incorporated plastic figures or doll’s heads and other body parts, the assumption that I’d manipulated that image was hard to counter – but it, like a few other pictures, were purely straight photography and the witchy figure entirely accidental.
In a similar fashion some of what follows might easily be taken for artful embroideries on truth of the sort commonly created by a writer of fiction, but all of it is true. Or at least as true as my memory holds it to be. Yet memory, as has often been stated, can be subject to the workings of the subconscious and the distortions of time and imagination.
Swansea, where I grew up, sits on the edge of the Gower Peninsula, that jutting clubfoot of land that pushes out from the southern coastline of Wales and into the Bristol Channel. As a child growing up in Swansea I, just as other Swansea children had done in their time (Dylan Thomas among them), took many trips out to Gower’s cliff walks and beaches, its woods, castles and ancient landmarks.
Some, being nearer the town, were visited more frequently than others; Bracelet Bay, Langland and Caswell amongst the foremost, Oxwich more rarely and Rhossili, being at the furthest westerly point, rarest of all. In good weather these were daylong outings to the beach; grand expeditions with a transistor radio, library books, folding chairs and thermos flasks, sandwiches in a cloth covered basket, buckets and spades, rugs and towels. Everything was carried in relays from the car to the chosen spot on the sands; a feat fairly easily accomplished at Langland, Caswell and Oxwich. We only once attempted this at Rhossili where a steep winding path leads down from the village and the car park on the cliffs to the long stretch of shore below. On the way down my mother undertook this task heroically while my father fumed and complained at the nuisance, the pointless stupidity of it, casting an ominous shadow over our day, especially in light of the fact that if getting down was difficult, then the climb back up would be an exquisite and unadulterated hell (if only made so by his terrible and obdurate temper).
I do not remember anything else about that particular day, except that I might have glanced along the shore and caught sight of an abandoned house very near the beach, which was the old vicarage. Perhaps at the time (to distract me from my father’s brooding ill temper) my mother may have pointed at the house and told me it was said to be haunted, sending goosebumps rippling over the goosebumps I’d already acquired following a dip in the sea, and then a brisk scouring with the sand-laced cold wind that blew freely over the expansive beach. Certainly, years later, I happened to watch a TV programme about haunted houses and a tale was told (I seem to remember it was dramatised too) of how a visitor to the Rhossili vicarage, on going to bed late one night with only a single candle for illumination and no one else in the house, had felt a sudden bone numbing chill then heard footsteps following him down the dark passageway. He froze on the spot terrified, then heard a voice – a clear, taunting voice, saying, ‘Why don’t you turn around and look at me?’
Memory is a patchwork of both lived and learned knowledge whose edges blur and blend, the one informing the other, mixed together inauthentically rather like an archaeological site whose original contents – the bones and beaker shards of Neolithic people are invaded by the carcasses of sixteenth century sheep and the detritus of Georgian and Victorian botanists, geologists and fossil hunters. So in thinking about Rhossili I find it is always a combination of many strands of knowledge that come to mind; yet the shape they make always tends towards the darker spectrum, the tragic, the gothic, the sublime. My father’s black moods infesting and casting out the brighter, better aspects of the place, the yawning blue skies, the calm sea with its modest ruffling waves, the ice cream van, the many walkers of differing ages and nationalities taking the cliff path out towards the Worm’s Head, a double humped beast of an island that hunkers just out to sea.
Rhossili is perhaps best known as the site of Paviland (or Goat’s Hole) Cave and its famous ‘Red Lady’ which was discovered by William Buckland in 1823. Buckland, noting the red ochre covering the skeleton and the perforated sea shells which must have been jewellery, decided it was a woman – probably a prostitute or witch from the Roman period.
Research into the area’s history reveals a number of prominent families, their names now inscribed in many place names; Mansel, Dillwyn, Talbot and Vivian. Of their great houses and estates only some remain – Penrice, Margam, Sketty Hall, Singleton Abbey, Marino and Veranda, the latter three absorbed into the campus of Swansea University, while Penllergare is a beautiful garden devoid of the house itself and latterly being restored to its former glory. Penrice was once the seat of Kit Talbot who grazed his sheep at Rhossili and on Worm’s Head. Kit Talbot it would seem was a character not dissimilar to the Alec d’Urberville of Thomas Hardy’s novel; rich, but not titled and possibly lacking in scruples or at least mercy. When some men were apprehended with a dead sheep they claimed to have found on the beach near the Worm, he pressed for them to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law – which, if prior to 1832, could have meant the death sentence, while after could still amount to transportation for life. That the sheep that still graze precariously close to the cliff edge at Rhossili might occasionally lose their footing and fall to their deaths is not impossible. With a modern sensibility it is easy to imagine the miserable hand-to-mouth existence of poor families in the region; a recently deceased sheep found on the beach would seem like literal manna from heaven, its meat still edible, its skin valuable.
But to Kit Talbot it was theft, and the matter of whether the sheep fell or was pushed, was dead or alive, mattered not one jot. It was his property and they had taken it; the issue was simple. The case when it came before the bench was dismissed, the burden of proof found impossible to judge. In another interesting morsel of information about Kit (his given name was Christopher but the diminutive is sharp and spiky, both on the page and when spoken, suggesting briskness and cruelty) it seems he had commissioned a yacht that he named The Galatea, later remarking on her performance that ‘she sails like a witch’. I find this metaphor surprising, invoking a fearful supernatural woman whose power he controlled. The choice of name is also interesting as it had grown to be associated with the beautiful female statue that came to life in Pygmalion.
While any landscape can be inscribed with and by history, can memory also be lodged there? As is proposed in Stephen King’s The Shining. Are there psychic ley lines left by the traces of past wrong doing? It’s not an idea I subscribe to, being a sceptic and in some matters a pragmatist these days, and yet… and yet…
The Red Lady was in actuality a young man and the sea his cave in the cliff face overlooked was once a grassy plain where mammoths roamed; unbelievable yet irrefutable.
Yet more than anything Rhossili has left in me a triumvirate of deep and mysterious memories in regard to the deaths within a short span of time from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s of three young men.
In 1970 or thereabouts I unusually (and thus memorably) was taken to have my hair done by a hip new hairdresser who’d just opened his own salon in (if I remember correctly) Craddock Street in Swansea town centre. It was still a fairly rare and daring thing for a man to be a ladies’ hairdresser. Of course there’d been Vidal Sassoon leading the way in the sixties, famously cutting Twiggy’s and Mia Farrow’s hair into short elfin crops. If Vidal Sassoon was a star on the world stage, then also, or so it seemed – this being Swansea, was this young man. Another first on this day was that once he’d cut my hair he spent ages blow drying it. What he achieved that day for my unruly hair was transformative – though the effect was not long lasting and was thus salutary as he had warned me that the style I’d chosen didn’t suit my hair type.
I know very little of this young man and have only the vaguest memory that he was good-looking, well groomed, fashionable and effortlessly confident. I also seem to remember that he drove a sports car. He was obviously living life to the full, and part of that must have led him to take up the new sport of hang-gliding. The place he chose to do this, like so many others, were the 800 ft hills above Rhossili where, one fateful day a few years later, he Icarus-like lost control of the hang-glider, crashed and died.
Some years before I learned, I can’t recall how, that a school friend’s brother while on an illicit egg gathering mission had fallen from the cliffs at Rhossili and died. In the way of all children and adolescents, I looked at this friend, saying nothing, asking nothing, but watching for signs of something that explained or elaborated this terrible event. I had not known her brother; he was for me only a figurative brother, a reckless brother with a licence to roam I didn’t possess. I hardly knew what it was like to have a brother, let alone one who died.
The first incident must have happened sometime in the mid 1960s and I remember it thus; I am sitting on the swing in my garden which was flanked on one side by the neighbouring garden and on the other by a broad swathe of undergrowth that consisted of (to me) head-high brambles and nettles. There is little that is remarkable about this memory; I was often on sunny and not so sunny days to be found sitting on my swing all alone in the garden, but this day was different, as thrashing painstakingly and methodically through the weeds were between 5 and 7 uniformed policemen. I understood, perhaps because I’d overheard my parents talking that they were searching for the young man who lived next door who had recently disappeared. Then, within days the news came that he had been found, not in wasteland in suburban Swansea but out on the Gower in a potholing cave at Rhossili. The young man had been around 19 or 20 and I was about 8 or 9, so it’s not surprising that I had never met him, never seen him. Suicide was hinted at, but why he had killed himself or why he chose that lonely cave, literally entombing himself I never knew. The memory fell away, inexplicable and but also indelible, rising again periodically as unanswered questions are wont to do.
Three young men died in a period of no more than ten years; one in air, one in water and one in earth, all in Rhossili, where once a young warrior or chieftain 33,000 years ago was laid to rest in a cave, his body ceremoniously covered with red ochre and surrounded by precious and symbolic grave goods.
It was only coincidence, only chance that I had some slight connection and thus knowledge of those three young men’s brief lives and tragic deaths but many years later I tried to write a short story about these events. I very rarely use direct autobiographical experiences in my work and in this instance my efforts felt forced and artificial; hiding truth in fiction seemed to serve neither very well, as the readers’ suspension of disbelief would be sorely tried and this author’s sense of personal memory was cheapened. Like a photograph that promises verity but proves to be manipulated, there was only one way of telling this, truthfully.
Jo Mazelis’ collection of stories Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002) was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005) was long-listed for Welsh Book of the Year. Her novel Significance was published by Seren in September 2014. She lives in Swansea.