It was early, before the sun’s warming rays touched the land. A group of women waited with their donkeys for the tide to turn. Their feet were bare, their clothes shabby and worn. They followed the receding water out across the estuary, at first in single file, past the deep channels of treacherous running water, and then spreading out, each to their own bed. The donkeys followed without fuss, they knew the way and had trod the path a hundred times before. Some women walked ten miles to their cockle beds as their mothers had done before them. From the shore, they looked like tiny dots sprinkled across the sand. Then, bent double with their bums in the air, the back breaking work began, raking the cockles from the heavy sand, sieving them, packing the cockles into sacks and loading the donkeys. Oyster catchers swooped and stole the women’s cockles. ‘Rats with wings,’ they called them. With the tide turning, it was time to return. The women and the donkeys, with their heavy burdens, retraced their steps toward the shore and safely. It was a race to beat the rising water before the deep channels blocked the way. In some places the water advanced faster than a woman could run; where delaying for an extra bag of cockles might cost a life.
The Magna Carta gave every citizen the right to collect eight pounds of cockles from the foreshore.
On the shore, the women’s work continued, in small sheds behind their homes, washing and boiling the cockles, until they were clean and safe to eat. The cockle women were a tough breed with calloused hands; they had to be to survive. ‘The women have webbed feet and the men quarrel with boathooks,’ wrote Dylan Thomas. He was writing about Laugharne but the same could be said of Penclawdd.
Mary Pamp, of New Inn Cottage, went cockling with a friend in December 1937. Despite being experienced they were overtaken by the incoming tide and carried out to sea. Other cockle women watched but could do nothing to save them. The bodies were given up by the sea and buried at Penclawdd a few days later.
Saturday was different, it was market day. The cockle women gathered early. Each had a heavy basket, filled with cockles, balanced on their head and boots tied around their neck. A cap or folded towel protected their heads. They walked barefoot to save shoe leather, until they reached Olchfa (washing place) where they bathed their feet and put on the boots; to look respectable in the town. From there, they walked to Swansea market to sell their catch. The nine mile journey home was easier, back to Olchfa to remove the boots and on again through the village of Killay to Penclawdd. Now, the baskets were lighter, containing just a few delights like sugar or tea. Lizzie Davies remembers her mother walking across the fields with a basket on her head. She would help her mother cockling before she went to school. Later, with the coming of the railway, the journey was faster and the morning train filled with cockle women, dressed in Welsh costume, on their way to market. Some of the cockle women walked to Morriston and went from house to house carrying wooden and brass buckets filled with cockles. The 2.30 p.m. train to Penclawdd was known as the relish train because of the delights the women brought home for supper.
In November 2013 five men were convicted of illegal cockle picking on the Burry Inlet. When challenged, after being seen loading sacks of cockles into a 4x4, the men tried to drive away but, after a short chase, their vehicle got stuck in the sand and they were arrested.
Many of the cockle women supported injured or unemployed husbands. Others were adding to a husband’s income or widows raising children. Money in their pockets gave the women confidence. Penclawdd was a matriarchal society with children taking their mother’s family name. When German bombers destroyed Swansea Market, the cockle women opened stalls in the street and carried on trading. Another delicacy from Penclawdd was laver bread, seaweed, gathered from the rocks and boiled for eight hours until it was a green pulp, loved by locals and full of iron. Laver bread is still prepared and is an acquired taste.
In the 1920’s horse drawn carts replaced the donkeys and more recently the carts have given way to four wheel drive vehicles. It’s no longer legal to boil cockles commercially without a licence and processing has become industrialised. In the 1970’s Burry cockles were still sold at Swansea market but more were being exported. Some went to London and other provincial cities. Cockles from the Burry Estuary were enjoyed on the continent and as far away as Canada, America and Africa. In Spain, cockles were used as an ingredient for paella. Sadly over fishing has reduced the cockle population and water testing has revealed high levels of bacteria, responsible for more cockle deaths. According to the Daily Mail, £7m pounds worth of cockles died, in one year, as a result of the contamination. In 2012, the cockle beds around Carmarthenshire’s shoreline were closed. Thomas Hughes, Chairman of the Burry Inlet Hand Gatherers’ Association, described the situation as, ‘Catastrophic.’
Illegal cockle picking is a highly profitable business. On the 5th Februay 2004, 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned while cockling in Lancashire. They had been warned of the incoming tide but didn’t understand English. The gang-master leading the pickers, who were described in court as slaves, was sentenced to 14 years in prison as a result of the disaster.
The cockles on Burry Estuary have been harvested since Roman times. There is a plan to help the industry to recover and remain sustainable but the cockle women who trudged barefoot across the mud flats, with their donkeys each day, have gone forever.