Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Covered up




The laws of change, more than any others, appeal to the instincts and the sight, not only of the educated and scientific, but also of the rude and ignorant. We constantly observe alterations going on in ourselves, our belongings, and almost everything around us, and yet it seldom occurs to us that there is an unseen, of which the effects only are visible, while the actual workings that conduce to those effects are hidden, or at best, very partially revealed to us. In this latter category we may class the phenomena of geology, which show us what wholesale changes this old world has undergone, and for aught we know, may yet have to undergo before all things are completed. These are the silent changes which have taken, not years nor centuries, but countless ages of so lengthened a duration that they cannot be grasped by the human mind. In fact, in the greater number of cases, scientific men can only judge relatively of the time consumed and of the amount of change that has taken place in that period; for nature very rarely shows herself at work, though never quiescent. In some few of these cases the changes have been so recent as to be matters of history, or even to come within the memory of man. And in saying this, I do not mean to include those fearful and sudden catastrophes which have been produced by earthquakes or the eruptions of volcanoes, as at Pompeii and Lisbon, but rather changes which are going on slowly and surely from day to day, by which the conditions of the surface are perceptibly altered and the relations of land and sea become differently proportioned. In a former paper[1] we saw how certain tracts of land had been at one time or another engulphed by the remorseless waves, and were for ever lost to the country, as far as any practical value was concerned. On the other hand, in accordance with that compensating principle with which Nature abounds, not only in geology, but in every other phase, the sea has in various places gradually receded, so that the once submerged land has been laid bare and reclaimed to useful purposes; for instance, I may mention the Morfa Harlech, that immense alluvial flat which is so well known to every tourist in North Wales as extending from the base of Harlech Castle to the sea. This expanse, on which now crops of ripe corn are growing, was unmistakably covered by the water at one time, and if the sea were to take it into its head to retreat in the same way a little farther south, occupied by the present Bay of Cardigan, we should get an extraordinary insight into the condition of the Cantreff y Gwaelod, or Lowland Hundred, that important district where no less than fifty cities are said to have flourished.

In this paper, however, I propose to draw the attention not so much to the ravages of the sea, as to those of the land, though, after all, were it not for the ceaseless action of the waves, triturating and reducing everything to the same fine degree, one of the most destructive geological elements, viz., sand, would be wanting. Few who loiter about on the sea-shore and sportively kick up the small clouds of sand, would imagine that that apparently light and almost impalpable powder could form one of the most subtle and sure means of destruction; and that although its progress is slow, it is no less certain than the terrible stream of lava which issues from the mouth of Vesuvius.

I will endeavour to bring forward a few examples in our own kingdom, where not only tradition, but even the memory “of the oldest inhabitant,” can prove that in certain places towns and buildings existed, nay, and do yet exist, under smooth and equable layers of sand, which look as if the foot of man had never trod that portion of the country. The north coast of Cornwall is very liable to these inundations, and is characterised by what are called “dunes” or “towans”—bare expanses of sand hillocks, very monotonous to gaze upon and very fatiguing to walk in.

These dunes are, in a great degree, the prevailing features of the entire parish of Perranzabuloe, the very name of which, “Perran in sabulo”—Perran in the sand—attests the universal presence of the enemy. We know that the district was overwhelmed, partly by tradition and partly by ocular demonstration. The legend states that St. Patrick visited Cornwall on a missionary and preaching errand, and that, on his departure from thence, he deputed St. Piran, one of the bishops on whom he had laid hands, to proceed there and further his Christian efforts. St. Piran came about the fifth century, converted the natives from paganism, built an oratory, and departed this life, full of years and sanctity. Thereupon a church was built over his grave, and was in constant use for something like a century, when it was conjectured that, in consequence of some alteration in the coast level, the district was overrun with sand, and the church, in common with everything else, was covered up. Even in those early days, the devouring character of the sand was known and dreaded, and experience had shown that a stream of running water was the only thing that would stop it in its career.

A second church was therefore built, fortified by the stream, and remained for ages as a monument of the Christian feelings of the ancient Cornishmen, who enlarged it about the middle of the fourteenth century. Time flew on, and mining industry sprang up, with all the changes of surface to which it gave rise, entailing, among other things, the diversion of the stream, unfortunately for the church, which was covered over with such rapidity that old inhabitants of the parish remembered the porch becoming invisible in one night. For a time the enemy was kept at bay—but only for a time—whereupon the parishioners took the building bodily down and erected it at a considerable distance, where it was thought to be safe. The old church lived only in tradition and the folklore of the fireside, until, by the shifting of the sand after a tremendous storm, it again stood forth, though only partially, to the light of day; but, on a systematic clearance being made around, it was found to be nearly as perfect as when it was built to commemorate the bishop-saint’s resting-place. It is of very rude workmanship, the blocks of masonry being apparently selected and placed just as they came to hand; while instead of lime the builder had used chinaclay, which was a plentiful material in that district, and was probably the only substitute on which he could lay his hands. Should the sceptic be curious to know how the appearance of the church corresponds with the legend, as to its age, the antiquary will point to the extreme rudeness and primitiveness of the masonry, the small size of the building (an invariable feature of the early churches), the peculiarity of the windows, and the use of certain ornamentation which was then common and is still visible in churches in Ireland reputed to be of the same date, viz., from the fifth to the seventh century. The sand is fast closing round again, but Perranzabuloe is still worth a visit from those who love to see Nature in her dreary garb, as well as in her beauty and grandeur. The same phenomena may be observed further west, in the neighbourhood of Hayle, where a very fine old church on the bank of the estuary seems as though the “towans” were pressing it day by day more closely in their deadly embrace. Again, about two miles from Hayle, on St. Gwithian’s river, the sand is even more desolating, and threatens to swallow up the whole village, church and all. A very singular chemico-geological change may be seen here, in which the sand is becoming converted into stone sufficiently hard for building purposes. If we cross the channel to the Welsh coast, we shall find the same phenomena at work. About ten miles from Swansea, in that most picturesque and out-of-the-way spot, the promontory of Gower, there is a sandy estuary or pill overlooked by the tower of Pennard Castle, which, were it not for its commanding position, I take it, would long before this have become invisible. Here we have little but tradition to guide us, and the nomenclature of the neighbourhood, which is generally, however, a very sure indication of past events, customs, or appearances.

Tradition speaks of a large town that was buried in this spot, and nomenclature points to a farm, at a considerable distance off, which is called Norton or North Town, while a hamlet in the other direction is named Southgate. Another, midway between the two, is the great highway—all names unmistakably denoting some extension of fortifications or roads where now is only a barren surface of sand, inhabited by countless numbers of rabbits. Although we may dismiss the legend that the sand was all blown over in one night from the coast of Ireland, it would be a point of sufficient interest to see what excavations might bring to light.

Let us now cross the Irish Channel to the Wexford coast; where, in the neighbourhood of Duncannon and Hook Point, we shall find the ruined church of Bannow, sole memorial of a prosperous town, which we know to have existed not such a very long time ago—for we read that in the reign of Charles II., no less than ten streets are mentioned in the Act of Settlement. Not only the town, but the whole bay appears to have suffered considerable damages, for according to a survey made in 1657, an island called Slade, was marked as being opposite the harbour, and separated by a narrow channel; whereas now there is no island and no channel. Here the covering up was undoubtedly a work of time, as there is no mention made historically of any sudden submergence, and moreover the phenomenon may be seen in operation at the present day.

The west coast of Donegal is very liable to sand invasions, which have proved rather a costly affair to the nation. Between Dunglow and Gweedore is an extensive series of dunes, in the very heart of which the Duke of Rutland, when Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, erected a fort that was intended to form a garrison and emporium of provisions for that out-of-the-way district, which in those days was as wild and unknown as the King of Dahomey’s territory is now. Thirty thousand pounds were expended in this scheme, and it may be said to have been literally expended on sand; for no sooner was the fort built than it became gradually covered over, and as it was found that such an establishment (like many a public undertaking) was perfectly unnecessary, it soon became deserted and a ruin—for in Ireland, everything that is not looked after, is considered by the peasants as left for their peculiar good, and is used accordingly. Of Rutland Fort very little is now left of even the ruins.

If we coast round to the north,—and few coasts are more worthy of a visit from those who love the wild and unfrequented,—we shall find near Dunfanaghy, a very large and smooth expanse of sand, known as Rosapenna. To look at it, one would think that it had been undisturbed for centuries by the foot of man; and yet, underneath, lies the skeleton of one of the finest mansions in the kingdom. It was built by Lord Boyne within the last hundred years; and, as we are told, was replete with every comfort and refinement of the day. Nothing, however, could stop the march of the subtle destroyer, and Lord Boyne’s house lies snugly imbedded until the crack of doom, unless some sudden change in the direction of the sand current may, perchance, bring it again to light, like Perranzabuloe. The question naturally occurs, as to the possibility or impossibility of controlling or altering the directions of the sand, when it threatens danger to property. We have seen that a stream of running water was considered a specific, but then running water is not always to be had conveniently. Fortunately, it has been noticed that the casual growth of the bent grass, Ammophila arundinacea, acted as a check, and the hint has been taken very largely in many localities, and in none more successfully than by Lord Palmerston in his estates at Cliffoney, county Sligo, which, by this means, he is changing from a sandy desert to a promising colony.

Indeed, the incursion of sand at Rosapenna is entirely owing to the destruction of the bent grass, which formerly grew there, by the rabbits, and is a singular instance of how trivial circumstances link together to form great ends.