Bays and cliffs of the Gower, playground of South Wales
Between the estuaries of the Loughor and the Tawe rivers the clenched rocky fist of the Gower peninsula stretches out into the Bristol Channel. It is a surprisingly secluded and remote offshoot from the South Wales coast. Narrow winding lanes lead to quiet bays and harbours, while spectacular cliffs towering 200 ft above the sea stretch eastwards to Mumbles Head, the southern limit of the curving sweep of Swansea Bay.
The waters of this stretch of the Loughor estuary are dangerous because of soft mud which can trap walkers and strong estuary currents which can sweep swimmers out to sea. But these hazards are braved regularly by the cockle fishermen of the river, working from centres such as Pen-clawdd. They go out at low tide on to the mud-flats with horse-drawn carts to rake cockles out of the mud, and bring them back to boil and sell.
Each fisherman has a licence which allows him to take a specified daily weight of cockles from the estuary. But the problem facing the cockle fishermen is that more and more cockles are being taken by the vast flocks of oystercatchers which nest in the a rea.
The castle was built in the early 14th century in an almost ideal defensive position high on the southern side of the Loughor estuary. Nevertheless, the castle was attacked, captured and partly destroyed during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. As more peaceful times arrived towards the end of the 15th century, the castle was rebuilt as a fortified manor house.
The north-western tip of Gower is edged by a strip of sand which can be reached by following a footpath from the village of Llanmadoc. The sands themselves are secluded, with plenty of pools, but swimming is unsafe because of strong offshore currents at the mouth of the estuary. Behind the beach and a line of dunes is the National Nature Reserve of Whiteford Burrows.
This small island off the northernmost tip of Rhossili Bay can be reached by a short walk across the sands, but only for 2 hours or so before and after low water. As befits such an easily defended spot, its top is crowned with an Iron Age fort. It later became associated with a religious hermit of the 6th century called StCenydd, and the ruins of an ancient chapel can be seen.
On the mainland half a mile to the northeast, a bay called Bluepool Corner contains a rock pool where 400-year-old gold coins from a Spanish wreck have been found.
The bay’s long sweep of sand makes it one of the most spectacular beaches on the Welsh coast, especially when seen from the clifftop path to Worms Head. It faces almost due west, which makes it ideal for surfing when conditions are right, but made it a death-trap for storm-wracked shipping in bygone years. Even now, it is possible to see the ribs of two wrecks of the last century at opposite ends of the beach – the City of Bristol to’the north and the Helvetia to the south.
The beach can be reached by a path from the clifftop village of Rhossili, where there is a small car park. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the northern end of the bay daily in summer. On the cliffs above the beach is Rhossili Down, also owned by the National Trust.
The southern end of Rhossili Bay points towards the sharp-spirted rock mass of Worms Head. The name, appropriately enough for the shape of the island, is derived from the Old English name for a sea serpent. A cliff path from Rhossili village leads down to a causeway, exposed at low tide, which leads out to Worms Head, where there is a National Nature Reserve. The walk needs care, for the path is close to the cliff edge and the tide can sweep in quickly; safe crossing times should be checked with the local coastguard station.
Footpaths from Rhossili and Middleton lead after half a mile down to Mewslade Bay and its neighbour to the west, Fall Bay. There is no closer approach by road, and as a result the bays remain peaceful and undisturbed.
This pretty little village has a sandy beach, backed by dunes, which offers safe bathing sheltered from westerly winds. The rock-bound headland of Port-Eynon Point, at the southern end of the bay, contains caves which were used as homes in prehistoric times, and there is a semicircular cove about 200 yds wide.
Beyond this cove is Culver Hole, a huge natural cleft in the cliff face which is sealed off by a huge wall, 60 ft high, with openings for door and windows. Its origin and purpose are unknown. Culver Hole can be reached along the beach at low tide from Port-Eynon, or by a clifftop path over the headland.
At Llanddewi, 2 miles north, is the Gower Farm Museum, where visitors can tour a restored farm and follow two farming trails.
The village is sheltered from the sea by the high dunes of Oxwich Burrows, which line more than 2 miles of sandy beaches facing Oxwich Bay. Water-lilies and bulrushes grow in the damp, iow-Iyingland behind the dunes, which is part of a National Nature Reserve.
The old fortress of Penrice Castle, 1 mile north, was deserted in the early 16th century by the Mansel family for a less fortified but more comfortable mansion in Oxwich itself. Called Oxwich Castle, the mansion is now being partially restored. It has an impressive gateway, emblazoned with the Mansel crest.
The hoary rock-rose grows on rocky, limestone turf on the steep south-facing cliffs of the Gower coast, ft is distinguishable from the common rock-rose, with which it grows, by its smaller flowers and the white, hairy leaves which give it its name.
A footpath from Penmaen leads for about half a mile down to Threecliff Bay, where a stream called Pennard Pill cuts its way across a broad sandy beach to the sea. The remains of an old castle mound on the western side of (he valley are balanced by the ruins of the 13th-century Pennard Castle on the east.
The cliffs have suffered as much as the fortresses from the erosion of time; one effect is the impressive natural arch through the three triangular crags that give the bay its name.
The secluded beach of sand and shingle can only be reached by following the coastal footpath for ½ miles from Southgate, or by taking a footpath from Pyle and following a steep track down to the bay.
The rocky promontory of Pwlldu Head shelters the bay on the west. To the east, a clifftop path passes Brandy Cove, once a haunt of smugglers, on the way to Caswell Bay.
Facing south-west, the bay has an ideal beach for surfing as well as swimming. But bathers need to beware of a strong undertow when the tide is on the ebb; warning flags fly when conditions are dangerous. Lifeguards patrol the beach during the summer.
When the wind is southerly, Langland Bay can offer waves big enough to keep surfers happy, though all swimmers need to avoid the water when the tide is falling, because of the strong undertow; warning flags fly when conditions are treacherous. The sandy, rock-flanked beach is backed by ranks of clifftop houses and hotels.
This bay and the neighbouring cove of Bracelet Bay on the southern side of Mumbles Head have small stretches of sand exposed at low tide. Swimming is safest when the tide is coming in.
From the high headland of Mumbles Head, Swansea Bay can be seen sweeping northwards and eastwards for almost 8 miles to the estuary of the rivers Tawe and Neath. The Mumbles has a lighthouse and a lifeboat station, and was the terminus of one of Britain’s earliest railways – a cross between a seaside tramway and a genuine railway which ran along the edge of the beach to Swansea from early in the last century until the mid-1950s.
Few traces of the railway remain, and where it ran there is now a pleasant promenade and, at the Mumbles end, a string of parking areas for sailing dinghies and small boats of all kinds. The wide expanse of sand, with scattered rocks, is lined by a strip of hotels, pubs, shops, amusement arcades and other seaside attractions which stretches all the way to the outer limits of Swansea.
Before the Industrial Revolution, Swansea was a small harbour and fishing village at the point where the River Tawe flows into the sea-hence its Welsh name of Abertawe. But in the 18th century, the plentiful supply of cheap coal, together with deposits of copper ore, led to smelting works being built on the river above the town. The harbour was expanded with new docks, and by the middle of the 19th century more than 10,000 ships sailed in and out of the port each year. Zinc and tinplate works joined the copper smelters.
The huge industrial boom which had begun two centuries earlier came to an end after the Second World War. Within less than a decade the Lower Swansea Valley had turned into an industrial moonscape of scarred tips and derelict factories. Over the last 20 years, however, an ambitious and determined restoration and reclamation plan has turned the valley back into productive use, with schools, houses, new factories and sports and leisure centres replacing the old desolation. The city has 700 acres of parkland, the largest market in Wales, an industrial and maritime museum which houses a working woollen mill, theatres and concert halls, golf courses and gardens, and sandy beaches with safe bathing.