In Wales, one of the oldest occupations found along the coastline is cockle gathering, a task which archaeological evidence suggests dates back to at least the Roman era.
Penclawdd (pronounced Pen-clawth), a seaside village in Swansea, Wales, on the Gower Penninsula, is renowned for its local cockle industry. The Welsh clams are collected from the extensive sandy flats in the Burry Estuary and then sold worldwide as the famous “Penclawdd [or Gower] cockles.”
Cockles are small saltwater clams widely used in cooking throughout the world, but are especially popular in Wales.
Here’s an unusual bit of trivia to impress your friends: In England and Wales, Magna Carta grants every citizen the right to collect up to eight pounds of cockles from the foreshore; pickers wishing to collect more than eight pounds are deemed to be engaging in commercial fishing and are required to obtain a permit from the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. To see what happens when cockle pickers get greedy, read this BBC story.
Though small and humble, cockles have had more than a mere fifteen minutes of fame. In a popular song that has become the unofficial anthem for Dublin, Ireland, a tune also covered by U2, sweet Molly Malone wheels her barrow through the streets of Dublin, crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!” If you feel deeply contented by something, that thing (often a good quality whisky or beer) is said “to warm the cockles” of your heart, although I’m fairly certain there are no cockle valves in the human heart.
Even gardeners, such as the famously contrary Mistress Mary, have a history with cockles, sometimes using the ridged shells as edging and soil conditioners in their gardens.
Samples of these famous cockles can be purchased at the stalls in Swansea Market and locally in the village itself. The Penclawdd cockles are also shipped worldwide for fans of this tasty Welsh seafood.
If you travel to Wales and ask for a full Welsh breakfast, you are likely to get cockles fried in bacon fat alongside your eggs and laverbread cakes. Cockle pie is a traditional Welsh dish and quite tasty–click HERE for a recipe to try.
From the mid 19th century up until the 1970s in Wales, the cockles were gathered by women using hand-rakes and riddles (coarse sieves) with the help of donkey carts, often braving very hard conditions.
Some women set up stalls at local markets, while other women sold their harvest door to door. Cockles, boiled and removed from their shells (cocs rhython), were usually carried in a wooden pail, balanced on the vendor’s head, while the untreated variety (cocs cregyn) were carried in a large basket on the arm.
Now they are harvested mostly by men, still by hand, but using tractors or Land Rovers instead of little donkeys. The original small, family-owned factories in Penclawdd have been demolished and cockles are now processed in two large, modern factories in the nearby village of Crofty; the product is largely exported to continental Europe.
Sources: For more history about the cockle women of Wales, try this wonderful blog post that has many vintage pictures of Welsh women gathering the cockle harvest.