Cover of Wales at the Water's Edge

Wales at the Water’s Edge – a review (Gomer 2012)

December 14, 2014 · 17 comments

Writer: Jon Gower

Photographer: Jeremy Moore

Publisher: Gomer Press    £19.99

Hardback: 160 pages

This book was published in 2012 to coincide with the formal opening of the Wales Coast Path and is described on the cover as “a visual and verbal evocation of that journey”. The foreword, written by the chair of the Countryside Council for Wales  (now called Natural Resources Wales) – the body who coordinated the paths’ creation-, is all about the path. It took me a while to realise it, but the book isn’t really about the path or walking it; its subject  is the Welsh coast and some of the islands nearby. It also introduces a handful of people who live or work along the coast.

Sunset at the Margam steel works, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Sunset at the Margam steel works

Unsurprisingly, it was the photography that drew me to this book. Photographers are often categorized by their main subject of interest. This photographer, Jeremy Moore, may be best known as a landscape photographer but this project liberated him from this label. What most landscape photographers do, he says, and I agree with him, is to focus on the wilder parts of a landscape, equip themselves with tripod and an array of filters, only photograph in ‘golden’ hour light and end up producing rose-tinted but beautiful images.  This project required him to broaden both his subject and his approach. Although landscapes (usually, of course, seascapes) dominate, the 120 or so images in the book, there are also pictures of birds, people and even a mug shot of Elvis Presley.

Rev. Madeleine BradyVicar of St Cwyfan's photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at The Water's Edge

Rev. Madeleine Brady, Vicar of St Cwyfan’s

The people portraits are not very remarkable, and mostly look posed. Moore does better with his images of birds, which are universally averse to posing for the camera. His flock of oystercatchers in flight of the Point of Ayr, and the murmurings of starlings above Aberystwyth are superb.  Many of his seascapes could fall into the rose-tinted category, and all of those are executed with the professional skill you would expect. To take his picture of the setting sun behind an outcrop of rocks near Abereiddi, unless he was very lucky, would have required thought, planning and patience.

Oystercatchers at the Point of Ayr photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Oystercatchers at the Point of Ayr

Moore has not entirely ducked the fact that the coast is not consistently attractive. The nuclear power station at Wylfa on Anglesey, and the shot taken underneath the Dee Bridge, framing the nearby power station may not be documentary in their intent, but at least they are not glamorizing the subject. But even Moore succumbs to showing us the Margam Steelworks  at Port Talbot and the oil refinery at Milford Haven at sunset. And as for the impact of the hundreds of static caravan parks which are littered around the coast, a part view of a single such dwelling with no context of its location is a badly missed opportunity to reveal a truth about the coast.

Sunset at Traeth Llyfn, Abereiddi, Pembrokeshire, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Sunset at Traeth Llyfn, Abereiddi, Pembrokeshire

Somehow he makes a tideline tangle of rope a tasteful study in colour combination and his image of rainbow coloured foam on the beach, is a surprising inclusion as it is almost the same but not as good as Peter Watson’s  in his earlier book (reviewed here).  But there are some gems, and the picture that I wished that I had taken is of a wire fence at sunset on Barmouth Bridge.

Mawddach railway bridge, Barmouth

Mawddach railway bridge, Barmouth

Overall, though, this collection of images gives a very skewed impression of the coast. The beaches are entirely deserted and free from litter. The hundreds of caravan parks do not exist and the few towns and villages featured show nothing of their overwhelming shabbiness.  Industry past and present gets the merest nod of recognition and, quite extraordinarily, you might think that it never rains in Wales.

Nuclear power station at Wylfa, Anglesey, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Nuclear power station at Wylfa, Anglesey

The writer, Jon Gower, is described on the cover as “one of Wales’s brightest literary talents” and amongst other achievements he  won the John Morgan Travel Award in 2000 for his book “An Island Called Smith”.

The book is divided into 10 sections  starting at the Severn. Gower doesn’t claim to have walked the whole of the coast and in just 160 pages, where the photography has more than its fair share of space, there are inevitably many gaps in his journey.  This does have a rather disorientating effect as, for instance in the first section he leaps from Newport to Cardiff, Penarth to Barry, and bypasses Margam and Port Talbot altogether.

I found many interesting snippets of information. Apparently picking marram grass was outlawed in Anglesey in 1561. (I wonder what the frustrated pickers used it for?) In 1988 the biggest turtle ever recorded was washed up dead on the beach near Harlech, weighing just under a tonne. Fancy that.

I struggled with much of his purple prose though.

Static caravan, Pwllheli, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Static caravan, Pwllheli

“Crossing the Neath by car over the high M4 road bridge- a trapeze for traffic- …..takes you over edgeland, a liminal world between human influence and natural shaping, a place where nature gets raggedy and prefabricated light industrial units grow like ragweed”.

“Llyn is a peninsula wreathed in legend, the wind carrying the wails of the drowned onto a jagged coastland, the myths settling as pockets of mist in mushroom field hollows”.

Gower is very big on birds. As a record of all the birds that you might see on a walk around the coast of Wales he probably does a good job, and many get written about at some length. Sometimes  in his enthusiasm he often veers into the fanciful:

“Then, having given up the ghost, there they were! Snow Buntings, a dozen or more, pecking for seeds on a shingle bank in the light of the headlamps. A whole, beautiful flake of them, a flurry of them, both snowy and showy”.

Beach foam, Fall Bay, Gower, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Beach foam, Fall Bay, Gower

Gower clearly wants to bring people into the picture. Some of his choices suggest a personal environmental agenda. Sir John Houghton, who lives near Aberdyfi and co-chairs the International Committee on Climate Change may be a very interesting man even if his quoted predictions of gloom and doom for the world’s climate may prove to be way out. Caerfi farmer Wyn Evans has a page devoted to his personal war on climate change through his production of bio gas and photovoltaic electricity.

The Dee Bridge, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

The Dee Bridge

People have, of course, played a massive part in forming the coast that we see today.  I think it might have been better to leave out the coast’s current inhabitants entirely. Apart from his climate change preoccupation, Gower’s choices seemed arbitrary. Why Nicola Morgan and her very ordinary looking café on Penarth Pier, despite her “warming drinks and ready smile”?

Better, I think, to tell us more about those individuals who truly have left an impact, as he reasonably does with Clough Williams-Ellis at Portmeirion  but fails to do, for example, in relation to the creation of Porthmadog by William Maddocks, who does not get a mention.

Tideline debris, Bullslaugher Bay, photographed by Jeremy Moore in Wales at the Water's Edge

Tideline debris, Bullslaugher Bay

Overall, my sense on finishing this book was that it was trying to sell me something. It portrays  the Welsh coast as a beautiful, bird-filled but sparsely populated paradise.  There’s no denying the beauty of much of the coast, but this is only part of a much more complicated story. What we are offered here is a dream of the coast. The reality is far more interesting and challenging than this.

Thanks to Jeremy Moore, who after a great deal of thought and a most intreresting dialogue with me,  allowed Gomer to let me use some of his images. Jeremy has seen a copy of the review and I have invited him to comment, unedited. 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Wareham December 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

It’s not just garden writing then, with the dishonesty and over blown writing. Depressing.

I wonder what specifically permits that approach and why certain subjects attract it while it would be anathema in others outside the local paper or county magazine?

Reply

Paul Steer December 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Hi Charles, well observed review, this is a continuing theme, a kind of dishonesty in how we portray reality. To be honest I am struggling with this, I am a romantic I suppose, and I quite like the idea that we try to hold on to a fantasy of an ‘unspoilt’ landscape (hence my rage with the trial bikes yesterday !) I suppose we find it hard to see beauty in our ugly intrusions on the landscape so we blot them out. On the other hand the flowery prose does for me link in to something from the past which provides an anchor – It seems we have a desire to go back to fundamentals – or perhaps that is the artist in me. So much of what we do because of our needs and numbers seems to have an unrelenting negative effect.But I was heartened to see the restoration of the Mesopotamian marshes in southern Iraq – so some times it is possible to do something beautiful in a world that is marred by our ugliness. Not sure if any of this makes sense !

Reply

Charles December 15, 2014 at 7:11 pm

I was still thinking about what you said about cliche on our walk. What I dislike most about it is that they are just lazy writing. Someone not troubling to come up with their own words for what they are referring to. It is very difficult I know as I find myself failing to describe what I am writing about. I suppose that’s where images do so much better than words more often.

Reply

Jeremy Moore December 14, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Charles,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to your review.

Firstly a little bit of background about the book. I had wanted to do a book on the Welsh coast for many years, and the coming of the all-Wales coastal path provided a hook on which to hang the project upon. It is the sort of thing publishers like. Originally I had chosen another author but she pulled out rather suddenly, leaving the publisher the difficult task of finding someone who could meet a rather challenging deadline. In the circumstances (or in any circumstances, come to that) I believe Jon Gower did an excellent job.

About half way through my work on the project Peter Watson’s book appeared. At first I was shocked and worried that the publisher would pull out of Wales at Waters Edge completely. But on further consideration I realised that Watson’s book was not what I had in mind at all. I felt it was bland and truly did give a rose-tinted view of the Welsh coastline. Looking at it one might think the Welsh coast consisted of barely nothing but sunsets and deserted beaches. Fortunately Gomer Press agreed with me, and renewed their commitment to Wales at Waters Edge.

Including a number of portraits was the publisher’s idea. I wouldn’t have chosen to do it myself but it did give another dimension to the book. The choice of subject was 60/40 between me and Jon Gower due his late arrival as author. It had been the original intention to focus on individuals who had a connection with the coast but who might be described as “unsung heroes”. Hence the inclusion of the lady who sold teas on Penarth Pier, the vicar of Aberffraw, the Lave Net fishermen of the Severn estuary, and the guy circumnavigating Wales on a mobility scooter to raise money for charity. That emphasis did change slightly once Jon Gower came aboard.

I will not comment on the text other than in one respect. You suggest that Jon Gower has a “climate change pre-occupation”. In my opinion it would be irresponsible to produce a book about the coast if it ignored the subject of climate change. Inundation of low-lying sections of coastline is almost certain to occur in the future, probably devastatingly. The evidence is now almost conclusive. It was my decision to include the farmer Wyn Evans because he farms organically, makes great cheese, and generates his own electricity from non-carbon sources. He is a pioneer in the movement towards a sustainable future. He is not waging a “personal war” on climate change, he is taking personal responsibility for the future – his children’s future, if you like. So I stand by our decision to include two relevant portraits.

While working on the book I found my interest became more and more focussed on the man-made aspects of the Welsh coast. Some of these aspects are valued and some not, but I do not feel that I avoided the latter in any way. In your review you state “Industry past and present gets the merest nod of recognition……” , which I feel is inaccurate. Actual industrial sites are located over a very small proportion of the Welsh coastline and it would have been unrealistic to suggest otherwise. You mention Wylfa power station approvingly as one example but I wonder if you noticed how its colour scheme perfectly reflects that of the surrounding landscape? Why not also mention the image on the opposite page – the “Anglesey sea-bass” fish-farm / factory at Penmon, which is entirely industrial in its size and appearance? I could list many others but I hope I have made my point.

You extend your criticism of the choice of subject matter in your final paragraph. You are entitled to your opinions, of course, but I find your conclusions difficult to accept. A large number of the images include some evidence of human influence. What about the pile of oiled gannets on p49? The Fun Centre at Rhyl (p153)? Holyhead (p121)? I could list many others. I’m intrigued to know why you might have missed them. Might it be that some images operate on more than one level? In other words that if an image is “attractive” in some way it can have no other value or meaning? From your comment on the tideline debris (shown above) I suspect this may be the case. Or perhaps there was some other reason?

If it had been up to me I would have included more of these images but publishers need to sell books. Few people will part with their cash for something that looks unattractive in a conventional sense. When I exhibited the photographs (most recently at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in summer 2013) it was a different selection which painted a grittier picture of the Welsh coast than appeared in the book. But it was for a different audience. I think you might have approved.

Reply

Charles December 15, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Jeremy you are very welcome. The post would have been very dull without me being able to feature your images.

I very much appreciate how candid you have been about the difficulties you had with the author dropping out. Not an easy situation to deal with. I wonder if you were tempted to write the book yourself? I am hoping to go down that route if I can find a publisher for my “take” on the Welsh Coast.

You know that I agree with you about Peter Watson’s book. And it sounds from what you are saying that you also had to make some significant compromises when it came to the choice of images that ended up being included in Wales at The Waters Edge. Perhaps if you had not had to do so, then the market for what I would like to do would be exhausted. As it is I still have hope. How many copies have you sold?

I hope that I have not been unfair but the fact is that taken together the images in the book do not reveal the coast as I know it. I accept that commercial pressures are very significant and there may well not be a market for the kind of book I want to offer. I think that I would have to steer it more firmly to the “art” field than Gomer were wanting or prepared to do. And I doubt that any money would be forthcoming from NRW or any of the official bodies who sponsor the Wales Coast Path for the project I have in mind. We’ll see.

I doubt that either of us feels the same as my friend Neil who seems to want, not Rose Tinted but magical glasses to wear when he looks at the printed page – or even reality, perhaps. I get enough of a sense of unreality through wearing sunglasses, and always feel very relieved when I take them off. As far as I am concerned much of what might conventionally be thought of as ugly – the steel works perhaps – do have beauty. I certainly admire the feats of engineering in power stations and bridges and the like. I think I can make a case to distinguish such features of the coast from the general despoilation of the coast by the caravan parks.

Thnaks again for your contribution here.

Reply

Neil December 16, 2014 at 12:16 am

You’re misunderstanding me Charles, or im not being clear. Its not magical glasses I’m wanting, but to find (refind) the magic inherent in some reality. I think we can ‘explain’ away wondrous things, things that just experiencing them can leave us with a sense of contentment and wonder. Certainly some music can do that for me, as can some walks and views. There is plenty of beauty around, but some things have an additional quality, something I’m currently describing as magical, that is just wondrous if I allow myself to experience it. I’m not wanting to fool myself through magical glasses, but to find and experience magical reality when I come across it.

Reply

Charles December 16, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Hiya
Yes,I was misunderstanding you, sorry.
I think I know what you mean by something that promotes a sense of wonder. Funnily enough I am not sure I like it. makes me feel uncomfortable. Like looking at the stars and trying to contemplate the extent of the universe. I wonder also if you have in mind the experience of what people refer to being “moved” by something. I have no idea what happens in our individual make-up that makes some things move us. Music, yes. I was listening to a lovely concert of the choir called The Sixteen last week. It was mostly Christmas music, sung beautifully. Then there was this piece called “O Magnum mysterium” by Morten Laurian and I was near to tears. Not for the first time in a Sixteen concert. This probably has nothing to do with Wales, or walking. never mind.xx

Reply

Neil December 16, 2014 at 7:34 pm

Absolutely. I’m reminded of your account of standing under that waterfall in the Brecons. Not necessarily magical. But thunderously wonderous? I’ll check out The piece you mention. Yes, a number of stunningly beautiful pieces of music, and also memories of some just wondrous views ( Jacobs ladders seem to feature a lot for me. Like stars, an indication of something immense).

Neil December 14, 2014 at 9:36 pm

I tend to your take on it, Paul. There is ample ugliness in the world, and on the whole the Gods and fairies seem to have disappeared. I take much more pleasure in seeing / hearing something beautiful and fantastic, espescially something surreal or otherworldly, than in the dreary and drab. And am much more likely to photograph it, or play it. And to keep it.
I want my walks, and my wardrobe come to that, to lead me to Narnia. I accept it may also lead me to Wylfa power station, but thats the price one pays.

Reply

Anne Wareham December 14, 2014 at 11:13 pm

No, Neil – that’s the price you are desperate to avoid! No fairies there! (Try looking for a wardrobe..?) Xx

Reply

Neil December 15, 2014 at 7:17 am

So far have only found wannabe fairy moths…. But my walks often succeed in leading me somewhere magical and indeed, soul full. I’m pretty adept at denial, so manage to maintain a high level of wonder at the wonderfull, and block out the dreary and downright depressing. Plenty left in my glass…. Which all means I’m probably an ideal market for anything showing the most glamourous views and pictures.

Reply

John December 14, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Well if nothing else, you’ve sold a copy of the book so I hope Jeremy will pay you commission! Into 3rd person……

It’s interesting that people do seem to refer to the steelworks at Port Talbot as “Margam Steelworks” when they want to beautify the place. Almost as if Port Talbot (with its excellent hotels as experienced by Charles) is something apart from beauty.

I guess that not everyone has a fixation with caravan sites. So be it. Arguably, it is the very beauty of the Welsh coast that has resulted in the proliferation of these, to some, aberrations. The problem is not the caravans but, rather, man’s selfish propensity to manipulate things to his own ends. Cue debate on whether gardeners are good or bad for the environment ….

Still, I will wait for my copy to arrive and will then make my own judgement (not only of Charles’ review but of Jeremy’s response).

Reply

Charles December 15, 2014 at 7:07 pm

I think he’s earned his royalty! We’ll all look forward to your further thoughts once you have read and seen the book!

Reply

Jeremy Moore December 16, 2014 at 9:05 am

Another quid in the bank then…….

Hope you find the purchase worthwhile, John.

Reply

John December 18, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Well, FWIW, someone in the Amazon Marketplace not only sold me a copy for £11 + £1.28 p&p but then delivered it by overnight courier! So I’ve had a few rainy days to read it.

Here’s my take: http://library.rivendellgarden.uk/wawe.html (this is a site under development so apart from a link to Peter Watson’s book any other buttons will result in unknown behaviour).

Reply

Charles December 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

Well it seems like you largely agreed with me. You are even harsher on the writing than I was.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post:

Copyright Charles Hawes (2012)