THE THIRD day of September was the two-year anniversary of the first of these coast walks, when I walked from Gravesend to Strood. It seemed only right to celebrate this by doing some more walking, although this time I would be making my way from Swansea onto the Gower Peninsula.
A Slow Start
I awoke in my cheap and cheerful hotel and, though I had planned to just get up and go bright and early, was lured into breakfast by the smell of bacon. Breakfast turned into an extended rambling chat with the proprietor and an American student guest, which ultimately led to my setting off an almost an hour later than planned.
My new boots were not giving me too much of a problem so I lightly took my life in my hands and crossed the surprisingly busy A4067 (at this point also called Oystermouth Road) in order to regain the path alongside the beach. The beach at this point is known as the Slip and, from 1915 until 2004, a bridge — inevitably named the Slip Bridge —– gave pedestrian access to it without any undignified dashing across the road.
The Slip Bridge was found to be unsafe and need much expensive maintenance and so was dismantled in 2004, leaving only the abutments standing. The metal deck of the bridge now sits near the roadside, a little further along, serving as a sort of civic decoration. The two abutments remain, haunting the site like the twin ghosts of bridges past.
Swansea & Mumbles Railway
Originally, the Slip bridge also crossed the Swansea & Mumbles Railway, built in 1804 as the world’s first ever railway passenger service. Initially horse-drawn, the railway later embraced steam power before switching to electric trams. It closed in 1960 to be replaced with buses.
Whether the Swansea & Mumbles Railway was a railway or a tramway is hard to answer, not least because it predates the separate development of both. Its track was of the rail type, not tram track, but its carriages were more like trams than trains.
The path alongside the beach incorporated what the City and County of Swansea (Dinas a Sir Abertawe) chose to call a ‘fitness trail’. By which I mean there was a clearly-delineated footpath and cycle path to encourage the healthy pursuits of cycling, running, jogging and so on, with various items of exercise equipment dotted alongside it.
The effect was rather as if the contents of a gym had elected to nip out and sunbathe. As I made my way past the various devices, I noted that they only ever seemed to be used by middle-aged women wearing Lycra.
The path conveyed me past Swansea University, to which I applied back in 1988, which was my most recent previous visit. I didn’t end up going to Swansea then (I went to Plymouth) and I strode past it now, heading off down the foot and cycle path as it veered away from the road and became pleasantly leafy.
When I next emerged from the trees at a point where I could see actual beach it was at a place called Black Pill. Here, there was a lido and a large building containing a café, where I bought water and a cold drink. The building, it turned out, had once been the power station for the Swansea & Mumbles Railway.
At this point I’d only walked two and a half miles but an excellent view across Swansea Bay showed me exactly what that looks like.
Swansea Bay has a considerable tidal range, a natural consequence of facing onto the Bristol Channel. At low tide, when vast swathes of mud and sand are exposed, the dark, petrified stumps of trees from a long-submerged forest can be seen.
The footpath skirted the edge of Swansea Bay, carrying me below Oystermouth Castle (Castell Ystum Llwynarth), which sits on a hill overlooking the bay.
First built in 1106 by the same William de Londres who built Ogmore Castle, the castle would be repeatedly captured and destroyed by the Kingdom of Deheubarth only to be retaken and rebuilt again later by the Norman invaders.
Llywelyn the Great took Oystermouth Castle one last time in 1215, extinguishing the Londres family in the process but the Welsh victory was not to last. Not only did Henry III’s forces retake it in 1220 but the Gower became a part of Norman-English-controlled Glamorganshire, rather than Welsh Deheubarth (which later became the counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire).
Having passed Oystermouth Castle, I reached the village of The Mumbles (Y Mwmbwls), inhabited since at least the Bronze Age.
The etymology of its name is uncertain, and much argued over, with the favourite theories being a derivation from Middle English momele (‘to mumble’, in relation to the sound of the sea against the rocks); Latin mamillae (‘breasts’, since the headland & islands are similarly shaped), or Old Norse múli (‘snout, promontory’).
Exports and Industries
The Mumbles is geared mostly for tourism these days, with a minor sideline in exporting celebrities of varying fame such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bonnie Tyler, Ian Hislop and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Being geared for tourism, it was not lacking in cafés. This enabled me to sit down, apply sunscreen, and drink tea while unobtrusively eavesdropping on the next table, which was occupied by a small flock of retired pilots trying to top each others’ ‘terrifying near miss’ anecdotes.
Having protected my skin, refreshed myself and vowed never to travel by plane again in my life, I set off past Mumbles Pier towards Mumbles Head.
The pier was built in 1898 and served as the western terminus of the Swansea & Mumbles Railway (which was extended onto it). This enabled a connection with paddle steamers of the White Funnel Fleet, which dominated the Bristol Channel from the 1890s until the late 1950s (and then limped on until 1980).
These days, the pier is used only for fishing and tourism. Admittedly, it’s not the prettiest of piers but it is still standing after 114 years.
Mumbles Head comprises two tidal islands upon the outermost of which stands a lighthouse built in 1793 and which was initially coal-powered. Mumbles Lighthouse is a prominent, much-photographed landmark, which can be seen from anywhere within Swansea Bay’s five-mile arc.
Onto the Gower
From here on, I could legitimately consider myself to be walking on the Gower Peninsula (Penrhyn Gŵyr).
The Gower has been inhabited since the Upper Palaeolithic and features Bronze Age menhirs, the remains of a Roman fort and some wonderfully rugged scenery. In fact, the Gower became the first area in Britain to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty In 1956.
From Mumbles Head, I followed the road, rapidly climbing up Mumbles Hill and then past Bracelet Bay (Bae Bracelet). The ‘Bracelet’ part is thought to be a corruption of ‘Broadslade’, where slade is a toponym widely found in the Gower; it means a small valley, usually opening onto the sea.
Beyond Bracelet Bay was Limeslade Bay, at the head of which is a disused iron mine dating back to Roman times. There I parted company with shops, houses and the road as the Wales Coast Path became a rolling clifftop footpath, albeit one metalled all the way.
The hill I was skirting around on the path was named Ram’s Tor and it led me to Rotherslade Bay and Langland Bay (which are the same, larger bay at low tide).
Langland and Rotherslade used to have half a dozen hotels, of which only one remains and that one is only the core of a once-larger complex. Of the rest, most have been converted into luxury apartments.
Fortunately, there are still cafés, hiding amongst the brightly-coloured beach huts, for I desired an ice cream. By now, the sun was breaking through the cloud and it was rather warm.
I bought one in Rotherslade and, no sooner had I devoured it, than I purchased a cold drink, more water and the Ultimate Food of Walking (a bacon roll) in Langland, which I ate sitting by beach, looking back across the bay to where I’d just come from.
Setting off again, I rounded Snaple Point, at the western end of Langland Bay, and followed another metalled path to Whiteshell Point, running along the top of Newton Cliff. But these are just names, so I’ll show you:
The path led me to Caswell Bay, a Blue Flag beach with flat sands which seemed lovely enough, although the path out was rather less access-friendly than the path in. At first I couldn’t see it. But then, having crossed some pebbles and an ankle-deep tidemark of dense seaweed, I found a set of steps — a set of very narrow, partly overgrown steps — most of which were listing at an angle.
This was much more like the sort of cliff path I was used to — a path that actively tried to kill you while using it. Or so it felt.
At the top of the steps, it became leafy and muddy for a while but soon opened back out onto an unmade oscillating path more suitable, in places, for goats. It was glorious.
The path carried me around, and to a certain extent up and down, the cliffs towards Pwlldu Bay (pwll du, ‘black pool’). This lovely, though greyish, remote beach became the unfortunate final resting place of a ship called Caesar in 1760.
An Admiralty tender on a mission to visit local ports and pressgang sailors, Caesar foundered in rough weather en route from Bristol to Plymouth and struck rocks and sank. Her sailors were buried in a gully near the bay, now known as Graves End. They had been retrieved by the hundreds of locals from surrounding villages who rushed to the wreck in a brave attempt to make off with as much of its cargo as they could physically carry.
There was quite a steep climb from Pwlldu Bay to the top of Pwlldu Head, reaching High Pennard Farm at 97 m, where I must admit I paused for a rest. The path then carried me past Graves End and the bumpy remains of an Iron Age hill fort (very little is visible) before carrying me through the midst of a herd of cows with sizeable horns.
I looked at them, they looked me. No one seemed too bothered, so I walked past them nonchalantly and they barely paused eating to look up. I never realised how much noise cows make when they’re chomping on grass.
Several cows later, I reached Hunts Farm, where the path joined the road through Southgate for a while. It wasn’t a very busy road, I saw two cars go along it, but then it did only run out to High Pennard Farm and stop.
There were a lot of people about, enjoying the sunshine and the clifftop near the village of Southgate. Apparently, many people think of the village as ‘Pennard’, given its location between High Pennard and Pennard Burrows, close to Pennard Church. But Southgate it is.
The village lies within the boundaries of the old Pennard village, though, which had to be deserted in the early sixteenth century because of the gradual encroachment of sand that had begun as early as the beginning of the fourteenth century.
‘Pennard’ remains the name for the immediate area, which is one of only two sites in the whole of Great Britain where Yellow Whitlow Grass (Draba aizoides) grows wildly. The other site is also on the Gower Peninsula, at Mewslade further along the coast.
I passed by the village of Southgate and found my way into Pennard Burrows, an extensive system of sand dunes beneath which lie the original village of Pennard.
Also found within the bounds of the Burrows are the remains of Pennard Church and Pennard Castle, the latter established in the twelfth century by Henry de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Warwick.
The path sadly didn’t draw close to either of those, which are some way inland, but it did meander about the dunes, in one place requiring a boards underfoot in order to make the steep dunes more manageable. Unfortunately, the boards had disintegrated at the points where they were needed most.
Still, I made it and was soon looking down on Threecliff Bay.
Threecliff Bay is where a stream called Pennard Pill flows into the sea. It looks beautiful and attracts many swimmers and beach-frolickers at low tide.
At high tide that dinky little stream and the ocean currents combine in such a manner to sweep you out and under to your death. Because that’s what Nature does; her sense of humour is twisted.
Legends of Pennard Castle
According to local legend, the castle ruins are haunted by the malevolent Gwrach-y-rhibyn, or Hag of the Tattered Vestments, a banshee-like figure who will drive insane anyone attempting to spend the night within the castle walls.
Another legend surrounds its encroachment by the sands, suggesting that centuries ago a lord of the castle mistakenly attacked a field full of the Fair Folk, who were partying in a field nearby. This, of course, didn’t go well for the lord and the castle was cursed to be buried under the sands. It is of course a very important rule that one should not mock, insult or attack the Fair Folk. Or speak to them, sleep with them or eat their food. Or not speak to them (see insulting above). In short — avoid.
Also, I’m sorry about the sock. It’s yours.
Having crossed Pennard Pill I had started climbing a hill named Great Tor (actually only about 50 m high but quite steep), when a sign gave me a choice — I could keep going on to Nicholaston, a mile and a half around Great Tor’s circumference, before making my way to Penmaen or I could go straight to Penmaen, which was half a mile away.
I chose to go straight to Penmaen, feeling I’d done enough and knowing my new boots were still rubbing my toes. So straight to Penmaen, I went, not passing ‘Go’ and not collecting £200. I did, however, stop in a farm shop to buy yet more water.
I was planning to catch a bus back to Swansea from a bus stop outside Penmaen’s church. I was delighted and surprised therefore when I got to the end of the farm lane and found, in perfect left-to-right order, a sign saying ‘Penmaen’, the church and a bus stop. Marvellous.
Penmaen (‘stone head’) nestles at the foot of the gentle slopes of Cefn Bryn, the hill that dominates the centre of the Gower. It had a twelfth century timber castle, later rebuilt partly in stone but its most dominant building now is the former workhouse, which is a nursing home. However, I didn’t see either of those as the church is right on the western edge and I never got any further.
The bus arrived, late, and conveyed me back to Swansea where I caught a train to Cardiff and then a coach home to London.
I may have only walked 13½ miles in my second coast walk anniversary but I had also walked 647½ miles in the space of one year. I thought that was pretty good. And then there’s the total since Gravesend. I’m doing okay…
This time: 13½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,147 miles