Owain Jones on Tides: Introduction

I have always had, as far as I remember, an awareness of tides, and also a fascination from them, a love and longing for them, now a concern for them. This is a thread of my life which started in early childhood, developed in odd twists and turns through school, (changing) home life, my student days at art college, and then on into postgraduate and professional academic geography, and landscape and environment studies. This is a complex story which will only briefly appear through the text that follows. but it also is the foundation and motivation of what follows. My love of tides and intertidal areas and the margins.

I grew up (in part) on a farm on the Wentlooge levels in what was then the county of Monmouthshire, Wales. The main block of the farmland did not reach right to the coast, but to the coast road. Beyond that, a few fields away, was the sea wall that protected the levels for the high tides, and the dazzling (sometimes literally) space of the Severn Estuary, which opened up to view if we made the short walk and climbed up the grassy bank of the seawalls. The industrial docks of Newport (east) and Cardiff (west) booked ended the levels. The levels themselves were gridded with reens (drainage ditches) to make rich farmland. Once they had been tidal saltmarsh wetlands, but had long been reclaimed by keeping the creeping tide at bay.

The further fields down on the “moors” as we called it, had gates and small bridges across the reens which gave access to the coast road. Each spring and autumn we drive stock along the road to an outpost of the farm; the Lamby. This was an area of  wide, flat salt marsh grazing, tucked into corner made by the junction of the Ely river with the estuary on the outskirts of Cardiff. Here the seawalls turned inland and circled around some 300 acres of the salting. This was excellent summer grazing. But being open to the tides the stock were at risk at the higher tides, so we had to make regular  trips to check on them, and sometimes bring them to the safety of the sea wall. A small Arrow’s Tide Table was always in place in the farm desk so my father new high tide dates and times. The Lamby was a wild place, although, on  the other side of the river there was the industrial sprawl clustered around Cardiff dock. There were tide pools, strands of flotsam, huge baulks of driftwood,  passing trains and boats. Local people walked the seawalls, some watching the birdlife that also used the Lamby. It was an amazing place. I return to it often in my dreams, sometimes the tide is in ..sometime out…or coming in…or going out.. We no longer farm the Lamby or the farm on the levels. Going back to them is only now possible in dreams. I explain why elsewhere.

Follow the coast west from Cardiff and the estuary turns to the Bristol channel. Each year, en family we traveled that way west to the small sea side report of Tenby, Pembrokeshire, a place blessed with a dramatic coastline of rugged cliffs and wide  long beaches, and smaller isolated bays. The beaches were the staple space of the holiday But they were completely covered at the very highest  tides, partially covered by mid range tides, and at the very lowest tides became vast deep spaces where distance intoxicated. The state of the tide dictated  what play could be undertaken. Walking from bay to bay at the very lowest tides (‘low tide walking’ was a favorite event, but which only could happen a few times a month. I never ceased to be wondrous that one could explore and play in the sandy space of the harbour amongst the stranded boats,  only to watch the same boats sailing in and out the harbour, and people fishing in the waters a few hours later. The whole geography of the town flexed and morphed on a daily basis. In all these places, the farm, the lamby and Tenby, the very highest tides, and the way they filled up the space bring the sea level within inches of the tops of sea walls, and harbour was stirring

School ‘one’ was along the coast from the farm the other way from Tenby.  But by then the coast had turned into the north bank of the river Severn. The school overlooked the river on the apex of the great horseshoe bend the river makes 12 miles below the city of  Gloucester. Here it felt river rather than estuary. But it was still very much tidal. At low tide the river, particularly in a dry period seemed little more that a stream wandering through sandbanks. It seemed more than possible to walk across. But each day the tide would come and go – and now being the river – the highest turned into the famous Severn Bore (a tidal wave). Of course the tides came went at differing times of day offering a different rhythm to that of the regimented school routines.

School ‘two’ I went to was not that near any tidal coast, but very significantly from a personal psychogeographical perspective, it was on the ‘other side’ of the estuary. Travelling to and from the school involved driving over the then recently opened Severn Road Bridge. It is a very dramatic and beautiful bridge and offers amazing views of the mid Severn estuary. Each crossing offered the possibility of a radically different view, high tide… mid tide… low tide.. and also tide rising (in flood) or falling (in ebb).

From these beginnings, I have followed the tidal life of the estuary,  visiting it and photographing it. Collecting many books about its history, ecology and geography, and more recently, examples of art works inspired by the space and the tides. In short, I have gathered evidence of  the rich natural and cultural tidal heritages  of this place. I am interested in the rhythm of the tides and how they make timescapes very other to those of the more common ebb and flow of light and dark.

I have to come to love tidal processes on many levels, as spectacle, as experience, and as a manifestation of a living mobile planet and biosphere, Tides are eloquent of the relationalities, dynamism and agential life on earth.

Now I live in fear that this amazing landscape is under a very real threat from developments of various kinds and from climate change induced sea level rise. Researching around this  I realized that tidal areas are under threat worldwide from the same kinds of threat, but also that there is much tidal richness and variation around the world.

The purpose of this blog is to generate awareness of the richness of tidal landscapes and exchanges about it.

2 thoughts on “Owain Jones on Tides: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Tidal Cultures | Liquidscapes

  2. Pingback: Tidal Cultures | artdotearth

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