The Penclawdd Cockles of Wales

Feb 28, 2017 by

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. 

Penclawdd cockles for sale.

Penclawdd cockles for sale. Image by Scott Dexter

Laverbread made with Penclawdd cockles from Gower.

Laverbread made with Penclawdd cockles from Gower. Image by Smylers.

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 cakesCockle 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.

More stories about harvesting cockles are HERE and HERE, and more info about Penclawdd is available on Wikipedia  and on the Gower website.

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Dydd Gwyl Dewi Dedwydd! Happy St David’s Day!

Feb 28, 2014 by

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Dedwydd!  Happy St David’s Day!

March 1st is the feast day of Saint David, otherwise known as Dewi Sant, a Celtic monk and bishop who became the patron saint of Wales.   In Wales, St David’s Day, or Dydd Gŵyl Dewi as it is known in Welsh, is celebrated as a national holiday, and symbols  of Welsh pride are proudly displayed throughout the country.

 

 

David was born in Wales—the only one of the four main UK saints to be born in the country he represents– near the end of the 5th century, possibly in Pembrokeshire.  He was a member of the royal Ceredigion family, the son of Sandde, Prince of Powys, and Non, daughter of a chieftain of Menevia, now the town of St David’s.   He founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosin (The Vale of Roses) on the western headland of Sir Benfro, at the spot where St David’s Cathedral stands today. In addition to being the patron saint of Wales, David is also the patron saint of doves; in almost all depictions of the saint, you’ll find a dove somewhere in the image.   Legend holds that a white dove alighted on David’s shoulder while he was preaching, thus marking him as blessed by God and forever a protector of the peaceful bird.

 

 

 

 

 

One well-known tradition associated with St David’s day (and one of my favorites) is the wearing of daffodils, the national flower of Wales, and a colorful symbol of the return of Spring.  Daffodils supposedly grew around the walls of St David’s monastery, and the flowers are also known as cenhinen pedr, “Peter’s leeks”.   More about leeks in a moment…

Many Welsh people (Cymry) dress in traditional attire, such as the conical black hat once worn by Welsh farm women or miners’ helmets and lamps representative of Wale’s long history of mining.

 

 

 

 

Another plant worn proudly on St David’s Day is the patriotic national vegetable of Wales, the humble leek.     Leeks are wonderful cooked in soups and stews and breads, but why would you WEAR one? 

Well, the custom allegedly came about because St David ordered his soldiers (who were also probably monks) to wear leeks on their helmets as they went to battle against the pagan Saxon invaders. Or maybe it was King Cadwaladr of Gwyned who ordered the soldiers to strap on the leeks before the battle against the Saxon foes. It’s even possible that adoration of the leek pre-dates St David, stemming instead from ancient druidic practice in Wales, when the medicinal properties of leeks would have been highly valued.  According to Shakespeare, King Henry V wore a leek in honor of his Welsh heritage; soldiers in modern Welsh regiments carry on the tradition by pinning leeks pinned to their uniforms as a symbol of national pride. 

   Whatever the source of the tradition, the leek is firmly rooted in Welsh hearts and attire as their national allium.

 

 

If you don’t want to wear the leek, try cooking it in this recipe for cawl, a traditional Welsh soup served on St David’s Day. I usually add lamb to mine, but it is just as tasty without any meat.

 

 

 

St David has his own flag, a gold cross on a black background, which you’ll likely see flown alongside the national Welsh flag, with Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon of Wales, emblazoned on a green and white (leek colors) background.

 

 

 

Want to learn the national anthem of Wales, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Old Land of Our Fathers) but worried you won’t know the correct pronunciations? This video has the lyrics for you in Welsh, phonetic Welsh and English:

 

 

 

Wishing you a wondeful St David’s Day, beautiful Celtic people–CYMRU AM BYTH!** WALES FOREVER!

 

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**Cymru am Byth is pronounced KUHM-ree ahm BITH

 

Sources and more info about St David’s Day and Wales:

St David’s Day, Wikipedia.org

St David’s Day National Parade, stdavidsday.org

www.walesonline.co.uk

The Leek: National Emblem of Wales, Historic-uk.com  and St David

Saint David, Catholicsaints.org

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