It all happened as we were getting ready to walk back to our house from the beach we tend to think of as our own at Borth y Gest. We have been holidaying here since 1976, and there must have been a huge number of different sandcastles and sand-creations on the beach since then. Most are of stereotypical castles, boats, cars, with a few mermaids, tortoises, alligators and crocodiles appearing from time to time. And there are tide fights and canals and embankments associated with the stream near the dunes, and the sandbanks between the two outcrops, Garreg Cnwc and Garreg Wyn, that constitute the outer boundaries of the bay. But this one was of a different order. In the light of the evening sun there was a beautifully executed array of walls, castles, bridges and steps moulded around a limpet-covered slate rock.
Several onlookers associated it immediately with the Great Wall of China and it certainly deserved such a comparison, but as one who has visited mainland China it struck a deeper chord for me: it was about human interaction with the natural world, where there was the deepest respect for existing geology, geography and biology reflected in creations that revelled in the uniqueness of micro-landscapes and adapted ideas to harmonise and interact with them.
The boy in the picture was one of two people involved in the project: the other was a hirsute middle-aged man, who I took to be a relative of the child. In conversation it turned out that this was not so. The man, whose job was that of a gardener, and who had studied Philosophy at Cardiff University, had embarked on the creation himself, and the boy had come alongside and joined the endeavour. He was part of an extended family based nearby on the beach. The philosophically minded gardener was not only open to such assistance, but eventually left the work in progress entirely in the hands of his apprentice.
As I was studying the intricacies of the stairs and arches in the walls a lady noticed my interest and came alongside. The boy was completely engrossed in his work, so much so, that had it not been for the incoming tide I think he would have been lost to the world until nightfall. The lady was either the mother or grandmother of the boy, and when I congratulated her on such a gifted and creative child, she told me that he had been very late in learning to speak and was way behind at school. He had been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. In his early years he seemed to express himself most naturally and fully through Lego.
This made perfect sense of what I was witnessing: as the gardener had discovered, this was a talented boy indeed, fully engaged in and centred on the task in hand. So much so that I do not recall the boy’s face: I am not at all sure that he turned round despite my conversation of ten minutes or so. The child’s adult relative was clearly overjoyed that the boy had found such an inspiring and welcoming friend.
It so happened that at the time I was re-reading one of my favourite books, Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. Not an easy work to categorise, but I think of it as a philosophy of human relationships with mountains over several centuries. It was mountains that had drawn us to North Wales in the first place, and from a child, like Macfarlane, I was drawn to them irresistibly, developing a love-affair with them while living in Scotland. There are symbiotic relationships between beaches, rocks, sand, castles, walls and paths, and the gardener and the boy seemed to me to epitomise the best of interactions with this aspect of the natural world. Their model fortification followed the contours of the sloping slate perfectly, and they used the quality of the sand (rough with plenty of friction) together with the limpet-covered surface of the rock to make narrow and intricate walls and staircases that appeared to defy gravity and the ordinary laws of nature.
I don’t want it to sound as if there is a moral to this story, because the purpose of sharing it with you is to pass on something of the satisfaction and joy that I found in admiring such a beautiful work, while discovering the unique and complementary nature of the relationship between the gardener and the boy. But I hope it doesn’t seem out of place to reflect on the potential of the natural world both for human exploration and creative expression, and the healing properties of such spontaneous play. It has been my privilege to have children and young people alongside me in North Wales for most of my life, and to engage with them in enjoying the natural world from snorkelling in sea and rivers to hill-walking, scrambling and rock climbing on local crags and mountains. What the gardener had done both with his hands and his acceptance of the boy epitomised all that I seek to do and to be: one who loves the place, and seeks to inspire in others the same love; to encourage them to develop their natural skills and talents; and to be blessed by their natural enthusiasm and imagination.
I think it goes without saying that this feels a long way away from conventional school and education, counselling and social care. I knew that this evening on our beach I was privileged to be witnessing a rare process of acceptance and teamwork, where as far as I could gather, there was little or no need of words, and certainly not of books or instructions. The next morning there was barely a trace of this creation, and I have not seen the gardener or the boy since, but they have caused my spirit to sing. It was singing today as little ones with me on the very same beach played with and explored the same beach and rocks. As it happened, they haven’t yet seen my photos of this work of art, and they were making volcanoes of the best sand, and using dark, estuarine mud for the lava. In case you were wondering, they too were wholly engrossed in their spontaneous endeavours, and they are growing and maturing.
The thing that they each had in common with the little boy was that their start in life was not auspicious, so this activity alongside us, and with our encouragement as and when appropriate, is part the healing process in their lives, in a therapeutic milieu that combines the security and acceptance of Mill Grove with the infinite varieties of possibilities offered in this uniquely varied part of the world.,