HAVING given my feet a fortnight or so to recover from any new-boots inflicted damage, not to mention having had other things to do in that period, I thought it was high time I returned to the splendorous scenery of the Gower and traversed a little further along the coast.
Killing Time in Cardiff
My seventy-first coastal perambulation was preceded by a succession of overnight and early morning buses and trains punctuated by the metaphorical semi-colon of a three-hour wait at Cardiff Central, which was rendered infinitely more bearable by two things:
The first was my having the foresight to take a good book with me and the second was a chatty and helpful member of the station staff who indicated a waiting room, its doors closed and its windows in darkness and said ‘it’s actually unlocked, the lights are on sensors’.
A third thing of not entirely unadulterated positivity was the discovery that one can buy a day ticket allowing unlimited bus travel across the Gower for less than the amount I paid last time for a single from Penmaen to Swansea. Thank you Mr Previous Bus Driver, for not pointing out that I was asking to pay more than I needed to. May choughs viciously peck the top of your head, their squeaky chirps echoing in your ears.
Penmaen & Threecliff Bay
A far more helpful bus driver dropped me off in Penmaen and I made my way back to the rather steep path down to Threecliff Bay. It was a glorious morning and I paused to take in the verdant Glamorganshire countryside.
The Gower is actually part of the City and County of Swansea (Dinas a Sir Abertawe) these days but it remains part of West Glamorgan (Gorllewin Morgannwg) for ceremonial purposes.
There was nothing ceremonial and precious little dignified about my descent down the rather steep footpath that led me back to Threecliff Bay. At the bottom, some 20 m below the cliff top, the path was a tad waterlogged in places on account of the tide being in. Fortunately my new boots are properly waterproof so I could splash my way past, taking in the beauty of Pennard Pill.
Once I had the splashy bits out of the way, the path became mostly sand. Sand can be hard going at the best of times but this path was not only sand but also a fairly steep ascent back up to the top of the cliff. I needed a brief sit down and some water at the top and I’d only been walking for ten minutes tops. I was now on a headland named Great Tor and the path ahead wound its way through gorse and grass.
From Great Tor the path undulated gracefully to Little Tor, looking down all the while on beaches and dunes. Directly to my north I could see part of Penmaen strung out along the A4118 with Cefn Bryn rising behind it.
Having rounded the headland that forms Great and Little Tor, I now found the dune systems of Oxwich Bay stretching some distance ahead of me. Bisected by the stream of Nicholaston Pill, these formed Nicholaston Burrows on the near side and Oxwich Burrows on the far side. In both cases, the terrain varied considerably across the full transition from beach to grassy dunes to sandy-soiled woodland. Indeed, Oxwich Burrows claims to be one of the most diverse coastal habitats in Great Britain.
On the Oxwich Burrows side of Nicholaston Pill,the terrain seemed quite keen to live up to the claim of variety and switched from dunes to wooded paths to meadow in quite short distances.
An Unpaying Passenger
I was just appreciating one particular stretch of sandy path lined with low trees when I became aware of something tickling my ribs. I was, I realised, not the sole inhabitant of my t-shirt and this thought caused me some alarm. The culprit turned out to be a harmless but impressively-sized grasshopper, which I evicted from my clothing along with some stern words of admonition.
With all the sand and advice addressed to ‘Grasshopper’, it all felt suddenly like a bad pastiche of the 1970s TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Okay, so Oxwich Burrows didn’t look very much like the American Wild West but that could be easily improved with the addition of some horses. Or not, as it turned out because the only beasts of an equine persuasion were four dinky little Gower ponies and an even dinkier foal.
Ponies on the Path
I wasn’t entirely overjoyed to see the ponies, for all that the foal was ridiculously cute. Semi-feral ponies tend to be skittish, mad bitey things and I’d much rather push through cattle bearing enormous horns than find the path blocked by ponies.
The ponies, naturally, blocked the path.
I went round them the long way, taking a different path. I reasoned that sooner or later, whichever path I was on, I would run out of beach and end up in Oxwich village and this turned out to be correct.
A café on the outskirts furnished me with tea and a bacon sandwich, served up by a man whose coat was so grubby that nothing capable of causing food poisoning could have hoped to survive on it.
A quiet village, Oxwich — originally Oxenwych (‘cattle settlement’) — was once a small port exporting limestone quarried from the nearby headland of Oxwich Point.
St Illtyd’s Church
Being a village not a hamlet, it has a parish church — St Illtyd’s — which occupies a site going back to the sixth century, to which time the chancel is thought to date. The rest of the church, including the tower, is more recent, dating to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
St Illtyd’s belongs to the Church in Wales (Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru), i.e. part of the Anglican Communion, but Oxwich also has a connection to the early beginnings of Methodism:
Between 1762 and 1773 John Wesley visited the village several times, staying (and preaching) in a cottage called ‘the Nook’.
The village also has a ‘castle’, which is actually a Tudor manor house with a mock military gateway. The castle was built for Sir Rice Mansel, High Sheriff of Glamorgan under Henry VIII, and sits on the hill above the village.
Oxwich Bay Hotel
I looked up the narrow road leading to the castle and decided not to take a detour to see it, heading instead down to the Oxwich Bay Hotel, which was converted from a rectory in 1959, and the sandy shores of Oxwich Bay.
There, I could look back along the beach that fronts the dunes I had traversed. Its long, flat sands were once used as an impromptu runway for the first aeroplane flight in Wales — flown by a Mr E Sutton in a Bleriot Monoplane in 1911.
Lacking an aeroplane of my own, nor any remote idea how to fly one even if I had one, I found myself needing to ascend 50 m or so up the hillside by the rather more prosaic method of climbing some steps. They seemed to go on forever (although I was doing rather better with them than the four Italians who climbed up them behind me).
The effort was more than rewarded though by the leafy woodland path that awaited me at the top and which carried me out towards Oxwich Point, from where Oxwich used to get its limestone. A reef just off the point is popular with surfers, as it generally adds half again to the wave size.
Stripy Top Lady
My journey along the wooded path was periodically interrupted by small groups of girls, all in their late teens, hiking in the other direction with enormous rucksacks on their backs. I had just passed the third of these when a woman in a stripy top called out ‘excuse me’ and jogged past me at some speed
‘That’s odd,’ I thought, ‘that normally only happens when I’m feeling too pleased with my pace.’
Not that I wasn’t pleased with my pace, but the path involved a number of steps up and down and, while my right knee was not exactly grumbling yet, it was certainly having a good think about when would be the most inconvenient time to do so.
Even so, I still managed to overtake two separate couples, for whom so many steps were proving a challenge. There, that was feeling smug about my pace. Stripy Top Lady jogged past me again right on cue, heading back the other way.
The third time she passed me, overtaking me yet again, she shouted an apology. On the fourth she felt a need to explain. She was, it turned out, one of the organisers for the hiking challenge being undertaken by those groups of girls, all part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. Stripy Top Lady was checking the progress of each group, largely by running up and down the path until she’d seen all of them. That’s a lot of running.
Port Eynon Bay
Rounding the Point
At the end of Oxwich Point the woodland gave way to a narrow path with scrubby gorse, which then widened out as it rounded the headland into Port Eynon Bay. Ahead I could now see the villages of Port Eynon and Horton, marking the halfway point of my walk; I had every intention of stopping for lunch in Port Eynon.
An odd, high-pitched ‘chrr’ noise percolated through my consciousness and I realised that the nearby crows were in fact choughs, hopping about excitedly on their little red legs before taking to the sky.
‘Well that’s no good,’ I thought, ‘what are you doing here? You’re meant to be pecking the head of Mr Previous Bus Driver.’ The choughs, making a noise not unlike laughter, retreated to the clifftops, high above my right.
The going was pretty easy as I headed towards Horton, although there was a short detour round the back of some fields on account of the footpath having committed suicide by throwing itself off a cliff.
Soon enough, I found myself in Horton, a small but pretty village on a low but steep hill that stretches down to the beach. Horton was an agricultural village and one of the earlier places to enthusiastically adopt John Wesley’s new ideas.
Methodist meetings were held by the Tucker family in their cottage from Wesley’s first visit in 1768 until 1813, when a chapel was built. It is now the smallest chapel in the Gower. When the peninsula later got an actual Wesleyan minister, the Revd Richard Bray, he lived in Horton in a house called ‘the Manse’, purpose-built in 1868.
The beach in Port Eynon Bay is mostly sandy but with patches of pebbles and exposed rock. The sand is gradually being denuded however, possibly due to dredging in the Bristol Channel. At least, the locals think that the beach reduction is due to dredging, the dredging company — Llanelli Sand Dredging Ltd (LSDL) — strenuously contests this, arguing that the sand is instead being lost to the dune system behind the beach.
That’s almost certainly where some of the sand is going but I can’t help but think of Hallsands in Devon, where dredging removed the beach (despite official denials) and then storms destroyed the whole village.
The sandy bay has proved a literal lifesaver on at least one occasion, as testified by a couple of orange buoys in the centre of the bay that mark the last resting place of the pleasure cruiser Prince Ivanhoe.
Launched in 1951 as Shanklin, she ran a regular service between Portsmouth and Ryde before gaining new owners in 1980 along with a new career as a general pleasure cruiser. The following year, she managed to strike an uncharted object off Port Eynon Point while the Bristol Channel pilot — whose job was essentially to ensure that sort of thing didn’t happen — was at the helm.
Prince Ivanhoe’s quick-thinking captain, David Neill, realised that she was taking on water and would founder and so took the helm from the shocked pilot and deliberately beached his vessel so that the passengers could disembark. Which they all safely did, although one died later of a heart attack brought on by the stress of the incident.
Port Eynon (Porth Einon), at the further end of the bay, is Horton’s brash sibling with its cafés, shops, pub and youth hostel.
I stopped at a fish-and-chip shop / café for that lunch I’d promised myself and rested my feet, while looking at the pictures on the walls. These related to a disaster in 1916 when the Port Eynon lifeboat was launched to assist a ship, SS Dunvegan, in trouble off Oxwich Point. Three of the lifeboat crew were killed during the rescue.
The lifeboat was withdrawn in 1919 and its station is now used as the youth hostel. A modern but seasonal lifeboat station was re-established in Horton in 1968.
Port Eynon is said to take its name from a tenth century prince, Einion ap Owain, who may or may not have built a castle near the village, although if he did then it no longer exists.
The village used to thrive on the oyster dredging industry but, as its fame grew, trawlers arrived from elsewhere and the beds were rapidly depleted. Salt was another local industry, with the remains of an old salt house sitting near Port Eynon Point.
Chocolate and Cream
One unexpected claim for Port Eynon concerns the Great Western Railway, which painted its locomotives green and its carriages using a rich brown colour in a livery nicknamed ‘chocolate and cream’.
It seems that Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot — a local landowner and descendant of Sir Rice Mansel — just happened to be a director of the GWR, and also just happened to have a mine on his land in Port Eynon that produced a lovely brown iron ore suitable for making paint. So, when the question arose as to company livery, Talbot suggested that brown would look quite splendid.
Port Eynon Point
When I’d finished my lunch I headed along the beach, past the youth hostel, and then up a steep and scrabbly path that took me to the top of Port Eynon Point.
Southern Tip of the Gower
Had I remained at beach level, I might have seen Culver Hole, a tall, narrow cave in the cliff face that was sealed off by a wall with several windows and four floors inside linked by stairways. Who turned the cave into a building is not known, nor for certain why.
There are many fanciful tales about pirates or smugglers, while others point to etymology — ‘culver’ comes from OE ‘culufre’, meaning a pigeon or dove — to suggest it was actually just an enormous dovecote. I’d quite like to have seen Culver Hole but chose not to, as it would have meant clambering about over this:
The path undulated ruggedly for a while before levelling out at the top of the cliffs with a vista of fields as far as the eye could see. Every now and then a slade or cwm would interrupt the path, leading to a descent and corresponding ascent on the other side. At one point I passed above Paviland Cave, where the oldest human remains ever found in the UK were discovered. Not that I could see it from the path.
The Red Lady of Paviland
The Red Lady of Paviland was discovered by William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University, in 1823, having been invited to the site by the Talbot family following the discovery of animal bones the previous year.
Finding its bones stained red with natural dye and wearing jewellery made from seashells and ivory, Buckland confidently declared the bones to be those of a Roman woman. They weren’t.
The skeleton is that of a young man of about 21, now thought to have lived 33,000 years ago when the cave overlooked a landlocked plain. His jewellery, which was the main reason Buckland thought he must be a she, turns out to be ivory from mammoths rather than elephants.
Of course, Buckland didn’t have radio carbon dating at his disposal and so had to guess the age as best he could. His devoutly-held creationist beliefs didn’t help him there at all.
As I made my way along the cliff top the fields that spread out on my right appeared to be perfectly flat in all directions except one. Looking ahead I could see the bulk of Rhossili Down rising to 193 m with the villages of Rhossili and Middleton nestling below it (I was probably at about 60 m above sea level at this point.) Rhossili, I knew, was my destination for the day.
Undismayed by the light but almost constant rain that would follow the rest of my walk, I pressed on (though perhaps slightly less quickly as wet rocks can be treacherous underfoot).
Fields full of sheep watched my passing with general indifference, moving casually out of my way only at the last minute. Some of them were white with dark markings around their eyes and nostrils, which looked very striking indeed. These, the internet tells me, were the Welsh Hill Speckled Face breed, a name as descriptive and accurate as it is sadly unpoetic. I decided to think of them as ‘Goth Sheep’.
In one of the many valleys, I found a sign on a gate imploring people to close it. The gate, which was in a fence that marked the boundary between two farms, had replaced a stile in the hope of making the footpath more accessible to people. Both landowners had agreed to this in the understanding that people would follow the country code and shut the gate behind them. As you do. Except apparently someone doesn’t.
No, someone wedges the gate open, so that the two farmers have to sort through their now thoroughly mixed flocks and separate out their sheep. I can understand someone being ignorant enough to not close the gate, though I don’t condone that. But who wedges open a gate between two farms?
Before long, the path dropped me down into another steep valley, this one bisected by a small stream and a wall. This was Mewslade Bay, which, along with Pennard Burrows, is one of only two sites in Great Britain where Yellow Whitlow Grass (Draba aizoides) grows wildly. Looking out to sea, I could see Lundy lurking indistinctly on the horizon as a hazy blur.
Fall Bay brought me round past Tears Point to the rocky headland and tidal island known as Worms Head (Penrhyn-Gŵyr). This juts out for a mile and gets its name from the Vikings who thought, when they saw it, that it looked like a dragon or sea serpent. They called it ‘Wurm’ and the name stuck.
‘Best Beach’ in 2010
Rounding Worms Head carried me onto the end of Rhossili Bay, voted ‘best beach in the UK’ in 2010, in a contest organised by chocolate company Cadbury’s: the Cadbury Flake 99 Great British Beach Awards 2010. Rhossili Bay got a whopping 47% of the vote.
My eyes were not on the beach though but on the village of Rhossili (Rhosili), sitting at the foot of Rhossili Down.
Rhossili is quite small and I found a bar easily enough and enjoyed a gin & tonic as my walking reward.
The etymology of the village’s name is uncertain — the first part is rhos meaning ‘moorland’ but the rest is a mystery. References to St Sulien (an eleventh century Welsh bishop) or St Sili have been suggested but no one really knows.
St Mary’s Church
The village church is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and dates back to Norman times. It contains a memorial to Edgar Evans, a Rhossili-born member of Scott’s doomed expedition and the first member of it to die.
Being a Bus Boffin
I sat and relaxed with a drink for a bit before finding a bus back to Swansea. I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because every single one of the other half dozen people at the bus stop asked me what time the bus was due. This surprised me, not least because there was a bloody great timetable put up on the back of the bus shelter.
The bus arrived pretty much dead on time, which impressed me, and whisked me back to Swansea and the rest of my long journey home. And that, of course, is when it decided to stop raining. Naturally.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,163 miles