WITH flood warnings in place for much of Wales and heavy rain predicted for most of the foreseeable future, I had almost resigned myself to postponing any future walks indefinitely. But when the Met Office predicted that last Thursday would be one clear day amid the ongoing deluge, I seized the opportunity with almost reckless abandon.
Thus, Thursday morning saw me standing in Rhossili, brittle-eyed rather than bright-eyed on account of a total lack of sleep. The sky was dusted with unthreatening clouds and the temperature was hovering somewhere between ‘refrigerator’ and ‘icebox’ although it soon warmed up. Rhossili Down loomed ahead like the enormous lump of geology that it is.
Up Rhossili Down
I fully expected the path to lead me straight up the side of Rhossili Down — a fairly steep ascent of about a hundred metres — and along then along the top of its ridge.
I expected this partly because whenever there’s a hill looming largely ahead the coast path usually leads straight up it as though it is legally obliged to and partly because I could actually see the path up Rhossili Down as I approached it. I didn’t particularly mind, either; I’d much rather go up and down hills at the start of a walk rather than the end of one. Besides, the nearest summit of the down, called the Beacon, is the highest point of the Gower Peninsula at 193 m, which promised some pretty good views.
There are also a couple of neolithic burial chambers, known as Sweyne’s Howes (although they are considerably older than Viking), which I was quite interested in seeing.
As it turned out though, the path up Rhossili Down was a different path to the coast path, which instead crept along the bottom of the down, between the hill and the beach of Rhossili Bay. I was actually slightly disappointed by this and wondered, as I picked my way along the muddy path, trying to keep my distance from numerous Gower ponies and their foals, if I shouldn’t have taken the higher path after all?
The path led me past the remains of an old church, which became exposed from its burial in the dunes in 1980. The church confirmed local tradition, which was that the current Rhossili is not the original village; that lay to the north on lower ground but was swallowed by encroaching sands sometime in the fourteenth century.
The low path seemed to be composed of about fifty percent semi-liquid mud and fifty percent pony poo, which was helping to ensure a properly rural aroma and making me very glad indeed that I had recently purchased new boots.
Towards the end of Rhossili Down, the path curved inland, following the edge of the down and skirting a caravan park. This was Hillend, so named for obvious reasons, where I had been assured I could get an excellent breakfast care of the campsite’s café.
It was closed.
It is, I thought, as I headed along the path through the campsite towards the beach, amazing how much you can crave a bacon sandwich when you were looking forward to one but find it unexpectedly denied.
On my right I could see the village of Llangennith (Llangenydd) about a mile further inland and I wondered, my stomach growling, if I might find breakfast over there.
St Cenydd’s Church
Llangennith does have a pub, which I was almost certainly too early for. It also has the largest church on the Gower, which is dedicated to St Cenydd (‘Kenneth’ in English), who may or may not have been a sixth century Breton prince. The current church was built in the twelfth century but stands on the site of a hermitage, said to have been established by St Cenydd himself but destroyed by Vikings in 986.
Not only is St Cenydd’s the Gower’s largest church but it also claims to be where Iestyn ap Gwyrgant (c. 1045-1093) is buried.
Iestyn ap Gwyrgant
Iestyn was the last prince of Glamorgan (Morgannwg), which at the time included both Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire. He only got to rule it for about a decade though, having foolishly called on the Anglo-Norman lord of Gloucester, Robert FitzHamon to aid him in his clashes with rival Welsh princes, such as Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth.
FitzHamon and twelve of his knights (the Twelve Knights of Glamorgan) did their work as mercenaries and then decided that actually, they’d quite like to own the whole of Glamorgan, conquering it for King William II.
Although I stared at Llangennith from a distance, I decided it was probably best to press on. The coast path took me onto the flat sandy beach of Llangennith Sands, where I teeteringly crossed a small stream named Diles Lake by means of some handy stones. Not proper stepping stones you realise, so much as some stones that just happened to be there.
No sooner had I crossed it than I turned around to see an elderly couple about to do likewise.
Mrs Elderly Couple
Mrs Elderly Couple seemed very hesitant about trying to balance her way across despite Mr Elderly Couple’s earnest encouragements. I asked if my walking poles would be helpful (they had been to me) and she thanked me kindly but refused. Then, with a deep breath she nervously stepped forward and…
…hopped across as lightly as a mountain goat. Her sense of balance easily put mine to shame, although admittedly that’s not difficult. It was, in the end, a remarkable amount of anxiety for very little actual difficulty.
Mr Elderly Couple
Mr Elderly Couple, who had been far more confident, then crossed the stream after her with only a little windmilling of his arms.
Once he was across, we had a brief chat about walking in which they tried very hard to persuade me that if I’d walked all round the coast from Gravesend then I really absolutely must walk round the coast of Wales. Their enthusiasm for the Welsh coast shone through loud and clear. As for their grasp of the fact that I already was walking around the Welsh coast? Not so much.
I bid goodbye to the pair of them and turned away, facing a gloriously empty beach that stretched away to the smallish tidal island of Burry Holms (Ynys Ianwol).
A bracing stroll along the beach brought me to Burry Holms.
Now uninhabited, it was previously home to a Mediaeval monastery and before that to an Iron Age hill fort. Earlier still, it served as a summer campsite for Mesolithic nomads although at that time, some nine thousand years ago, it was a hill that stood a dozen miles from the coast.
I paused for a brief sit down and a drink of water (and a pang of regret at my lack of hot, bacony breakfast) surrounded by lots of small, darkish shore birds that might have been turnstones. Whatever they were, they were extremely chirpy.
A low mass of dunes formed the headland opposite the island, surrounded by a carpet of rocks. These were Spaniard Rocks, so named because a fisherman named John Richard found treasure amongst them in 1800. The treasure comprised a significant number of Portuguese moidores and doubloons although the wreck from which they came remains unknown.
I’m sure the Portuguese crew are turning in their graves at the show of geographical and linguistic ignorance that led to them being named Spanish Rocks. If they have graves other than Davy Jones’ Locker, that is.
Suitably refreshed by my rest I set off along a path through the dunes of Broughton Burrows, peering down into bays on my left and glancing at the lowering bulk of Llanmadoc Hill on my right. The dunes were all fairly small and covered in spiky dune grass.
These brought me to Hills Tor, a rocky outcrop forming a cliff that overlooks Whiteford Sands (pronounced ‘wit-ford’), a two mile stretch of sand that essentially forms a spit jutting out into the mouth of the Loughor Estuary.
Whiteford Sands form one of the quietest beaches on the Gower on account of it being quite tricky to get to by road. I saw one other person while I was there and he was out walking his dog.
I found my way down to the dunes and from there onto the beach. It was, as I have said, quiet and felt like the sort of out of the way place where nothing happens. This, of course, was nonsense. Whiteford Sands lie at the mouth of the River Loughor (Avon Llwchwr), historically a busy waterway full of ships heading to and from Llanelli.
In January 1868, the quiet, peaceful beach was strewn liberally with dead bodies and the wrecks of no less than sixteen coal ships which had foundered in bad weather. There were so many dead they had to be split between Llangennith and nearby Llanmadoc churchyards for burial.
Clear and Present Danger
Lest I feel myself safe from any such danger, Whiteford Sands presented me with a familiar-looking sign, namely the one that reads ‘Do Not Touch Any Military Debris. It May Explode and Kill You.’ Used as a range for shelling and mining practice in the Second World War, the sands are notorious for spitting out unexploded bombs despite having been ‘cleared’ repeatedly.
Whiteford Point Lighthouse
At the far end of the sands, below the high water mark I reached a patch of shingle and stones on which stood a cast iron lighthouse.
Built in 1865, it is the only cast iron tower of its size (13.4 m) in Britain. It was decommissioned in 1921 but restored in 1982 after pleas from local yachtsmen. It is now discontinued again, its automated solar lamp having failed and been removed.
A grade II listed building, it went on sale in 2000 for the princely sum of £1 (although putative owners also had to prove they had the £200k they’d need in order to restore it). It now belongs to Carmarthen County Council (Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin).
Having got not all that close to the lighthouse on account of the incoming tide, I turned away and set about trying to find the path back down the eastern side of Berges Island, the name given to the tip of Whiteford Burrows.
Much of the eastern side of the burrows is taken up with Landimore Marsh, a low, flat salt marsh dotted here and there with horses. The path was not particularly obvious and I felt the need to climb to the top of the tallest dune I could find (which was pretty tall), hoping to spot the path before I stepped on something That Might Explode and Kill Me.
To my joy, I did indeed spot a path, which I regained with only a modicum of undignified scrambling down the duneside. It led me around the outskirts of a dense copse of conifers, on the far side of which I even found a waymark for the coast path. Ahead, another copse of trees lurked, looking bizarrely out of place beside the flatness of the salt marsh. They seemed somehow almost sinister.
The waymark indicated that I was not to head towards the dark knot of trees ahead but was instead to turn to my right and instead follow a route that alternated between being squelchily waterlogged and being like this:
Coniferous woodland has a charm of its own, it’s true, but I remain a fan of the deciduous kind that once covered England and Wales. I mean, yes, the picture above shows a scene that is lovely. But it’s not a proper wood to me unless it has undergrowth up to your shoulders and straying off the path can only be achieved with serious effort and probably sharp cutting implements.
After a while, the intermittent patches of trees gave way to more open, waterlogged pathway which is probably what I deserved. It got better though when it followed a bank known as The Groose, skirting the edge of Landimore Marsh.
Now I could see the salt marsh in all its glory, if foul-smelling dark mud intercut with tidal channels can be glorious. I’ve seen quite a lot of salt marsh now and I have to say it’s growing on me slowly; it’s such a very particular habitat.
The path carried me inland to the edge of the marsh and a point where I could cross the stream of Burry Pill via some stepping stones of the concrete block kind.
I was pretty hungry by now, though, and the village of Llanmadoc was about half a mile away. It had a pub according to my OS map and looked like it might just be large enough to have a shop too. I decided to make a detour (which I wouldn’t be counting for mileage).
Like most Welsh place names beginning with llan-, Llanmadoc (Llanmadog) is named for its church, which is dedicated to St Madoc, who founded a hermitage or monastery on the site in the sixth century. Welsh llan- or Cornish lan- indicates a churchyard, although the word originally meant an enclosure and is cognate with English ‘lawn’.
The present church is thirteenth century but was restored in 1865; having arrived, I was at entirely the wrong end of the village to see it.
Shop or Pub?
I accosted an elderly couple, who were ambling along the narrow main road, and asked about a shop.
‘Oh yes,’ they told me, there was indeed a shop. But it was at the top end of the village along with the church (the village is strung out on the slope of Llanmadoc Hill). The pub, on the other hand, was near enough that they could point at it.
‘It’s a very good shop though,’ they told me. But it was too late, I had heard the lure of gin and tonic.
The Britannia Inn wasn’t particularly busy but the few people it did have in were clearly local and their conversation flowed with that small village familiarity that you can only have when you’ve known everyone there your entire life.
I sat in a corner and kept to myself, trying not to intrude. In my head that made me a mysterious stranger, like Strider in the inn at Bree. As opposed to just another English tourist, which is what I really was.
Lunch was good and very much needed and I felt all the better for eating it, washed down with a G&T.
I crossed Burry Pill and found that the path led past the bottom of North Hill Tor, along the edge of the salt marsh. Someone had clearly made an effort to harden the path into a road with stones and gravel at some point but the sucking, muddy, waterlogged power of salt marsh would not be denied.
I splashed in water, I squelched in mud, which came in different varieties: There was the surface mud, which was brown and clingy. Or there was deeper mud, where it was wet enough to reach it, swallowing your whole foot with a sickening squelch. This mud, when you had retrieved your foot, was as black as strong coffee and smelt like something had died that should never have been born in the first place. I was so very, very glad I have new boots. Because they’re still waterproof.
The path left the bog at the hamlet of Landimore, which sits below a hill on which Landimore (or Bovehill) Castle once stood. Not really a castle but a fortified manor house, it was built for Sir Hugh Johnys, Knight Marshal of England, who had been granted the manor in 1451 by the Duke of Norfolk, who was also Lord of Gower.
It didn’t last long, becoming neglected by 1500 and derelict by 1666. Whatever ruins may remain they’re not visible from the road; the hill is pretty overgrown.
From Landimore, the path was mostly drier as it led off across a series of fields, only some of which had been churned up by cows into a recreation of the Somme. One was full of sheep, another full of horses.
At one point, the footpath crossed an unmade road which headed up a hill in one direction and out across what was now Llanrhidian Marsh in the other. Not that there was anything in the marsh for it to lead to; it seemed to head out across a causeway only to falter when it reached mud and sand. Then I realised that slightly further out was some kind of tiny structure, a brick hut on stilts; this was a watchtower built during the Second World War.
At the other end of the road, atop the hill, I knew I’d find Weobley Castle (pronounced ‘web-lee’), a fourteenth century castle whose ruins are rather impressive.
It was home to the De la Bere family and then to Sir Rhys ap Thomas, firm ally of Henry Tudor (King Henry VII) and possibly the man who slew Richard III at Bosworth Field. Sir Rhys extended and improved the castle, intending to leave it and the rest of his estate to his grandson, Rhys ap Gruffydd. But by then Henry had died and his son, Henry VIII, had other ideas, confiscating everything and giving it to Lord Ferrers. The younger Rhys objected and fought Ferrers, for which Henry had him executed. Weobley Castle was abandoned and allowed to moulder, its estate becoming little more than a farm.
I contemplated heading up the hill to look at Weobley Castle but decided that it would take too much time. I’m still not sure I was right. In any case, I kept going.
The path carried me past the tiny hamlet of Leason, which I never even saw since Leason Wood lay between me and it. Leason Wood was a small stretch of ‘proper’ deciduous woodland, which made me happy.
I ascended a gentle hill across more fields and through more woodland and soon enough came to Llanrhidian, where I planned to end my walk.
St Illtyd & St Rhidian’s Church
Somewhat predictably, Llanrhidian’s church is dedicated to St Rhidian, who is said to have founded it during the sixth century. However, just to keep us all guessing, it’s also dedicated to St Illtyd. The current church is a thirteenth century affair with a fourteenth century tower. There is a ninth century stone, carved with figures of people and animals, in its porch.
Llanrhidian used to be something of a centre for weaving, in addition to farming and cockling. These days it is quiet and the old mill’s millstone lies silent and broken. Two stones of a different kind stand on the village green: one is the base of an old Celtic cross while the other, raised as a standing stone in 1884, had probably served as a pillory before it became ornamental.
Missing the Bus
Llanrhidian is built on a hill and the bus stop lies at the top where the village’s main street meets the end of the B4295 (plus several other roads at a junction). I reached it just in time to watch my planned bus drive off. Fortunately I had planned with contingency and I knew it wasn’t too long before the next one and the start of my long journey home..
Two Steps Forward…
Inland from the bus stop, the ground continues gently to rise until it reaches the north side of Cefn Bryn on the south side of the Gower. For, having rounded the end of the peninsula, I was about three and a half miles due north of Oxwich and only two miles west of Penmaen. My next walk should cross the Loughor and take me beyond the Gower…
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,177 miles