drowned lands

YET LET’S NOT FISH UP PARADISE FROM FLOODED EARTH
YET LET’S NOT FANTASIZE OUT OF A FEW SCANTY FACTS
    […]
FOR WE CANNOT SEE BEYOND SOME FLINTS AND A JAW
FOR WE HAD BETTER MUCK FURTHER INTO TIME’S SLIME
— Jacques Darras, ‘Doggerland’

Last month, in an idle online odyssey, I landed on a tantalising site full of speculation about the history of the River Mersey, which may be barely 1,400 years old.  Some local stories suggest that until 600 A.D. its waters could have followed the route of the Shropshire Union Canal, beneath which there are said to be traces of an ancient riverbed, to mingle with the river Dee at Chester.  What is now the Mersey estuary would then have been a marshland linking Lancashire with Wirral – a folk-memory preserved in an old couplet quoted by Mark Olly: “the squirrels ran from tree to tree, from Formby point to Hilbre.”  Olly notes that the Mersey estuary is absent from Ptolemy’s map, produced in 200 A.D.  This map is, admittedly, not the greatest work of cartographical accuracy, but it does include the estuaries of the other great rivers in the area: the Dee and the Ribble.  At some point, therefore, local lore suggests, a great natural catastrophe – an earthquake, as recorded in Trioedd Ynys Prydein – must have breached the natural land barrier between where Birkenhead and Liverpool now stand, causing the sea to rush in and flood the low land, diverting the course of the river forever.

Britain is an island rich in drowned lands.  The Formby footprints bear local witness to the gradual rising of the sea and its encroachment on the places once walked by our Neolithic ancestors; there are countless similar sites all around our coastlines.  In our far prehistory, this was not an island at all, but part of a vast landmass extending from Denmark to Brittany: Doggerland.  Fishermen have been dredging up the bones of mammoths, lions and deer from this lost land, probably for longer than we ever fully realised.  There are Cenozoic silt deposits in East Anglia which are thought to have formed part of the course of the Rhine through this ancient landmass, making the river significantly older than the coastline to which its waters flow.

Doggerland‘ by French poet Jacques Darras – written in English to “materialize the rift” formed as the sea flooded between France and Britain – speaks to the unfathomable sense of time we encounter in such discoveries:

NEITHER IN A MAN’S LIFETIME NOR IN HIS FAMILY’S
NEITHER IN A MAN’S MEMORY NOR IN HIS PROGENY’S

Over the millennia, the Doggerland peninsula diminished through the thawing of successive ice ages, leaving a low strip of vulnerable marshland linking Southern and Eastern England with Holland and France.  It is this land that forms the setting for Darras’ poem, a land of “shell-gatherers” and “whelk-gulpers” – both of which can still be found on each side of the channel today.  The image of these inhabitants of the doomed lowland assessing and discussing “the encroaching sea” creates an inevitable resonance with the concern over climate change, a low-level anxiety humming through our culture, which was captured so brilliantly earlier this year in the public response to Isaac Cordal’s puddle sculpture.

The sculpture dubbed

The sculpture, dubbed “Politicians discussing global warming” on social media.

What became of the Doggerlanders?  Perhaps some of them migrated to higher ground, following the deer-trods to our newly-forming island.  Perhaps others stayed, raising rudimentary defences against the slow, unstoppable sea (another uncomfortable echo of our times).

Earlier this year, storms uncovered a a walkway made of sticks and branches, some 3,000 – 4,000 years old, off the coast of Cardigan Bay at Borth.  Archaeologists believe it may have been constructed to cope with rising sea levels.  This walkway belonged to a different part of that Doggerland peninsula, the archetypal drowned land of Wales: Cantre’r Gwaelod, the “lowland hundred” lost beneath the waves.  In the story we learned at school, Gwyddno Garanhir presided over the land, which was also known as Maes Gwyddno (the plain of Gwyddno); one evening, the drunk Seithynen forgot to close the sluice gates, allowing the sea to flood in, and the land was lost.  An earlier, more mysterious version of the tale from the Black Book of Carmarthen, records that the maiden Mererid allowed a well in her care to overflow and flood the Cantref. I remember vividly the first images I saw of Borth: I was in a room in Aberystwyth lined with photographs of petrified stumps on a shore at low tide. Through the window the sun was setting over the sea, casting a red light on Cardigan Bay, the curve along the face of Wales that speaks of an absence where (legend has it) Cantre’r Gwaelod would have been. I was 10 years old, waiting to be called onstage for a school Eisteddfod; reading the labels to calm my nerves, it began to dawn on me that Cantre’r Gwaelod was more than just a story – that there had, in fact, been land here once, land which was now lost beneath the waters.

The tangible remains of Cantre’r Gwaelod haunt my West Wales imagination, much as the knowledge of Doggerland haunts Darras as a “Man of La Manche”.  The inhabitants of these doomed lowlands must have had some sense of the rising threat of salt water.

FOR THE FLOOD MUST HAVE BEEN SLOW AT FIRST

Beneath the waves of Cardigan Bay, as the story goes, the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the Clychau Aberdyfi of the folk song – can be heard on still days, or on Sundays, or in times of danger.

SO WHAT STORIES WILL BE LEFT AS WE QUIT THE PLANET
WHAT LEGENDS AHEAD OF US AS WE MOVE INTO NIGHT

I cannot help but wonder – if we, too, disappear beneath the waves – what traces of our lands would be dredged up by inhabitants of unimaginable futures, fuelling the discovery that we existed, once, and made this place our home.

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