Beaches have many significances and uses in past societies – places for maritime embarkation and arrival, liminal zones for exploiting marine resources, places for dwelling, working, playing, resting and places for commemoration and the dead. They are also places for dreaming: imagining pasts, imagining futures, imagining other worlds. Building sand castles is one manifestation of this, and it is a practice with deep roots.
One of the most famous places for medieval dreaming by the sea is the beach at Manorbier, Pembrokeshire. It was here that Gerald of Wales – son of William de Barri – played in the sand as a child with his three older brothers.
Gerald is later to describe Manorbier as the most pleasant spot in Wales, describing his childhood home in great detail to the interest of those who study medieval castles and their landscape contexts:
“…excellently well defended turrets and bulwarks, and is situated on the summit of a hill extending on the western side towards the seaport, having on the northern and southern sides a fine fish-pond under its walls, as conspicuous for its grand appearance, as for the depth of its waters, and a beautiful orchard on the same side, enclosed on one part by a vineyard, and on the other by a wood, remarkable for the projection of its rocks, and the height of its hazel trees. On the right hand of the promontory, between the castle and the church, near the site of a very large lake and mill, a rivulet of never-failing water flows through a valley, rendered sandy by the violence of the winds. Towards the west, the Severn sea, bending its course to Ireland, enters a hollow bay at some distance from the castle; and the southern rocks, extended a little further north, would render it a most excellent harbour for shipping… This country is well supplied with corn, sea-fish, and imported wines; and what is preferable to every other advantage, from its vicinity to Ireland, it is tempered by a salubrious air…”
Manorbier Castle is a fortified manor of a newly installed Norman elite in south Pembrokeshire. Gerald was among only the third generation of Norman colonists and the stone castle we see today was established by Gerald’s dad.
With striking views and distinctive dimensions the castle is today regarded as pleasant but it is a building that can only be understood in terms of ideology, power and domination as well as embodying security and status. The same applies to the economic structuring of the castle’s immediate environs.
Traces of the landscape Gerald described survive: a beautiful tall-towered Norman church across the valley and the sites of a mill and a dovecote. Fishponds may have also framed the castle as Gerald describes them.
Back on the beach, the story goes that while his brothers built sand castles, Gerald built sand-churches, dreaming of his personal future and aspirations as much as of a spiritual order.
This scenario shows boys using their imagination, but there is more. The juxtaposition of sand castles and sand churches would have mirrored their own physical skyline where the castle and church tower provided a model for a temporal and spiritual ordering of society in the landscape in which they dwelt and experienced daily.
For me, this beach is a place of dreaming today, for while no medieval structures or traces remain, this was never its power. Here, we can dream like Gerald. As an archaeologist, I don’t dream by building sand castles or sand castles, only of exploring their traces after they have been washed away by the seas of time… Dreaming through ruins and enigmatic traces is one of the greatest allures and delusions of archaeology.