The donkeys have long gone, but the rake and riddle endure. And out on the sands of north Gower and the Burry Estuary, when the tide is right, you can still people hunched over, sifting through the mud.
Research suggests people have been doing as much since Roman times, and their harvest has been widely eaten in the area for centuries, with women traditionally hand picking the small shellfish, before selling them at the marketplace in Swansea.
Cockles have played their part in shaping local cuisine.
Few this side of the Severn Bridge haven’t tried at least once a Welsh breakfast, the country’s version of the ‘full English’, featuring cockles and laverbread.
Or perhaps you might have sampled them boiled (cocs rhython) or untreated (cocs cregyn).
The industry in Penclawdd has diminished over the last century from what it once was, from a time when most pubs across the country sold them at the bar.
At its height in the 19th century hundreds of pickers could be seen on the sandy flats at low tide.
They were mostly women, using hand-rakes and riddles – a sieve like piece of equipment – accompanied by donkeys to help them transport their harvest.
The cockle seller was one of the most recognisable images of Wales, with the women wearing traditional Welsh flannel outfits that were often red and black, and ‘cocklewoman’s hats,’ which allowed the basket to sit securely on their heads as they carried their wares to market.
A report for the South Wales Sea Fisheries Association in 1916 estimated almost 320 tonnes of cockles were harvested in the Penclawdd area each month – each donkey would carry around 150kg of cockles in sacks away from the beds.
Some women would walk daily to Swansea Market, a distance of eight miles, with cockles loaded onto donkeys (the reason the village’s inhabitants are still sometimes referred to as ‘donks’).
The market, to this day, remains the place to visit to sample the delicacy.
In the centre of the largest indoor market in Wales, is a rotunda, where cockles, laverbread and other traditional produce can be bought.
Carol Watts has been working there longer than she cares to remember. But it was almost inevitable; generations of her family have been involved in harvesting and selling cockles.
“My great grandmother was still out on the beds in her seventies, with a horse and cart out for a ride,” she said.
“I used to come to market for years with my great grandfather to help out on Saturdays.
“It has been such a part of Penclawdd over the years.
“And they remain popular. People love having some cockles with pepper and vinegar, walking around the market, as well as with a Welsh breakfast.
“People even have them now on pizza. Fortunately, the beds are still thriving”.
Much, of course, has changed since 1867, when railway stretching to Penclawdd was first opened.
Despite carrying mainly coal, it was referred to as the ‘cockle line’, and enabled cockles to be distributed to a much wider area; the Welsh valleys, and as far away as Birmingham.
Horses and carts replaced the donkeys along the shore in the 1960s. These days they are carried ashore by boats and range rovers.
But perhaps one of the biggest changes to the industry was in 1965, when regulations were introduced by the government to manage the industry and population, and allow only permitted licensed gatherers to hand-pick the cockles with limited quotas.
Ashley Jones, together with wife Kate, runs Selwyn’s Seafoods, which co-ordinates a number of companies involved in the harvesting, canning, jarring, exporting and sales of cockles
The grandson of Selwyn, who is still regularly out working on the sands of north Gower, said: “Before 1965 it was a bit of a free-for-all and it needed to be regulated.
“You would have many tons taken each year from the Burry inlet. Today it is about one thousand, between approximately 36 licence holders.
“The population was dwindling over the years. It is important not to take too many cockles from the beds, and also you can’t let the beds become overcrowded or they die. But they are better managed now. We make sure we respect them; we don’t take the small ones in the same way you don’t cut a tree back to the root, because it will not come back.
“We work closely with our fishermen. People sometimes say it is impossible to get along in business but I like to think we do. We don’t have a hierarchy. We listen to their problems, and help them out if we can, and I think we are unique in the way we work.
“That’s not to say we don’t have disagreements, we do like any family, but we treat each other with respect and work through issues together”.
These days, Ashley isn’t the only man getting his hands dirty in the mud.
But grandfather Selwyn was one of the very first; before then, it was largely women’s work.
Selwyn went out onto the sands with his mother Sarah. On one occasion, during the Second World War, with an American army base in the village, the pair were travelling back with their cart when they were hit by a truck driven by a drunken soldier. It lead to a compensation payment from the American army.
At the time, Penclawdd cockles were rarely sold much further than Swansea market. But Selwyn had an idea, and bought a van and began to travel through the south Wales valleys to sell the delicacies.
Cockle picker Neil Page talks in 2017 about the state of the industry:
He should have been congratulated, but the very first time he returned home from those outings, with a pocket full of cash for his troubles, his uncle beat him because he assumed he’d been stealing.
Selwyn met his wife Linda, a local farmer’s daughter and together they built Selwyn’s Seafoods. Their first processing factory was on the very spot the business’ factory stands today.
Building on Selwyn’s success, Ashley’s parents, Brian and Alyson, continued to build the business.
Not only did they continue to sell cockles across Wales, but they ventured further into the UK market.
Ashley planned when he left school at 16 to inherit grandfather Selwyn’s licence to collect cockles from the Burry Inlet.
However, just before Selwyn’s death, the law of how licences were issued was changed and a list system was implemented meaning that once a licence was returned, rather than passed on, the next on the list was then to be issued a licence.
Find out about great places to eat and have a drink near you:
It meant Ashley was left with no option but to work in the factory, which had not been his ambition. But, clearly having inherited Selwyn’s entrepreneurial skill, he would search for new markets in Europe.
After years of working with several ‘middle men’, in 2002 he met a Catalan company, based in Barcelona, Dani Conservas.
Dani was one of the leading bands for canned cockles in Spain. Like Selwyn’s, it is a family business with similar values, and Dani invested heavily in the UK, not only in Penclawdd, buying the processing plant from Ashley’s parents, but also a processing and canning plant in Boston, Lincolnshire.
Ashley has lead the UK operation for Dani every since. There is also a market in Holland.
Welsh cockles are extremely sweet and due to the method of gathering by rake and riddle, are sand free. In Catalonia, cockles are eaten as a snack, often enjoyed over a beer. The canned cockles are often shared with a selection of Tapas.
“When you enter any Catalan supermarket the canned cockles stand prominently on the shelves,” said Ashley.
“It always make us feel extremely proud when we visit, to see that our little Welsh Penclawdd delicacy has become such a hit in Europe”.
During lockdown, when the wholesale market was struggling, Selwyn’s threw themselves into their latest venture ‘Selwyn’s Seafood Shack’.
The shack stands alongside their processing factory and is primarily a visitors centre where people can learn about the history of the cockle and Laverbread industry of Penclawdd, as well as promoting and selling the best Welsh seafood.
Together with local pub, The Rake and Riddle, they testify to the importance of the trade in the area.
Covid-19 has affected everyone, but the industry has overcome challenges before.
In 1999-2000, the estuary was shut for 14 months because of shellfish poisoning. And in 2005, cockles in the inlet suddenly died over a matter of days. Whether it was pollution, chemicals used to treat effluent or disease, parasites, over-crowding or temperature changes, the cause remains a mystery.
It led to some in the industry fearing for its future.
Covid-19 hasn’t made a huge impact on harvesting, with work being undertaken outside in wide open spaces, but in the market it is a different story.
Carol added: “Before lockdown, we used to have a footfall of between 8,000 and 10,000 people coming through the market, and that’s fallen now to between 1500 and 2000, because we can only have around 250 people in there at a time.
“But we have still been trading, by going out and making deliveries. We’ve had people ordering online or over the phone.
“And in the summer we have holidaymakers around which has helped. But it is a challenge for us all. We need the shops in Swansea city centre to survive, in the same way the shops need the market”.
There are other challenges.
Ashley Jones added: “We are governed by nature of course, and we have Brexit ahead, which means it looks like we will have tariffs on our exports.
“But we are in a good place at the moment, and I am confident we will continue”.