Children beside a stream running through frosty saltmarshes at Three Cliffs Bay, Gower, Wales. January 2020. (c) Merryn Thomas

By Merryn Thomas, Erin Roberts, Nick Pidgeon, and Karen Henwood.

Read the article here.

It is a dank morning in early summer, and we are on the Taf Estuary in West Wales to explore what saltmarshes mean to people. Today, my colleague Erin strikes out east towards the Boat House while I join mum-of-three Charlotte on her favourite route west along Laugharne marsh and through the trees.

This is Dylan Thomas’ Birthday Walk, named for the poet inspired by walking these green chapels under his own pale rain. Resting at the highest point on the path, Charlotte points to where the sea has left intricate patterns in the mud, creating a primordial landscape. She talks fondly of how long-gone women cockle-gatherers fuel a sense of belonging and root her to the coastline. But for her the saltmarshes are a “funny place”, not quite land, not quite sea… 

A week later, it is a brighter day further north, in Fairbourne on the Mawddach Estuary. The wind bustles down mountains to the vast marsh, where Linda shares her regular cycle route with me. She tells me that she moved here in part for the marsh, and for the area’s flatness and accessibility. To her the saltmarsh is welcoming, but we meet others who have very different relationships with this place.

In this paper we explore how 26 multimodal interviews (with walking/riding, photograph, map and word tasks) facilitated a deeper understanding of the ways in which saltmarshes are valued at our two case sites. We find that saltmarshes are ambiguous places, not having one obvious meaning; open to more than one interpretation. Constantly shifting with seasons and tide, they are both known and unknown; valued and (literally) overlooked. We suggest that this ambiguousness stems not only from the physical characteristics of the place but also from the ways in which people relate with them.

Understanding how people value saltmarshes, and recognising this ambiguousness, has important implications for wellbeing and management. We discuss what our findings mean for environmental (in)justice and adaptive planning, and consider how in-depth and place-based methods such as ours provide ways in which to explore the more ambiguous values associated with place.