“There is one bay almost too lovely to look at. You shall come and see it with me; we shall utter words of maudlin wonder, and swoon away on the blasted heath.”
I steadied myself as the wind attempted to unbalance me. Waves edged onto the sandy sweep of seashore below. Sheep nibbled unconcernedly, impervious to the stunning view. Skirting the clifftop, I followed a path from the tiny village of Rhossili, at the western edge of Wales’ Gower Peninsula. The path leads to a lighthouse set on 200-foot high cliffs high above Worm’s Head, a sandstone spit, accessible only at low tide. The three-mile long unspoilt beach is empty of human habitation except for “The Rectory”, now owned by the National Trust for holiday rentals.
Rhossili Bay’s sunset is the sixth most photographed in the world. Dylan Thomas spent entire days here, enthralled with the landscape’s beauty. It is certainly the most dramatic of Gower’s many attractions.
Sandy beaches, hidden coves and towering limestone cliffs mark the southern coast, while salt marshes and mud flats are the hallmark of the northern coast. Orchids, foxglove, marigolds and flowering grasses add colour to the spring countryside. More than 200 species of birds frequent the Gower. It’s understandable that, in 1957, it became Britain’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Ancient burial sites, medieval castles, churches and small villages wait to be explored. At Parkmill I took a path leading down to sandy Three Cliffs Bay. Along this south coast, the cliffs are honeycombed with caves that provided shelter to early man. Michin and Bacon Hole yielded the bones of bison, elephant and hyena. Flint and bone tools and an ivory bracelet were found in Goat’s Hole. Paviland Cave, near Port Eynon, housed a skeleton.
Archaeologists located the remains of six megalithic chambered tombs on Gower. I visited Parc le Breos, down a narrow dead-end road near Parkmill. A footpath in the wooded Green Cwm valley leads to this once-chambered Neolithic tomb, constructed of coarse limestone slabs. Archaeologists believe it held the skeletal remains of 40 persons.
The Romans, too, visited the Gower and built a fort, Leucarum, near the estuary of the River Loughor on the north coast. They harvested cockles on the nearby sand flats—stretching for four miles at low tide.
Today, cockle pickers still harvest the sea’s bounty at Penclawdd, using time-honoured traditional methods. Cheryl Addison, manager of the Penclawdd Shellfish Factory, offered me a taste of this chewy shellfish and told me that, in the past, women of the nearby villages rode donkeys onto the sands. Using short-handled rakes to collect the cockles, the gatherers loaded them into baskets to sell in the villages. Now men do this work, and landrovers take the place of donkeys.
Although the Gower is a peaceful and mostly pastoral place today, it knew troubled times under both Welsh and Norman control. In 1135, a large Norman force was wiped out by the Welsh and, in 1257, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, prince of Gwynedd “laid waste all Gower”.
The Normans constructed Lougher castle, made of sandstone slabs, at the site of the Roman fort. Set on a small hillock, only a small tower still stands. A tripod pitcher dated c.1200 was found in the ruins. After the Norman conquest of the area was consolidated, fortified manor houses, rather than castles, were constructed.
Meandering along the south coast—once a favourite smugglers’ haunt, I stopped at Oxwich Bay’s large sandy beach. The nearby dunes, marshland and woods are a Nature Reserve. Sir Richard Mansel chose the site at the head of this bay to build Oxwich Castle, a luxurious Tudor mansion.
A plaque, decorated with the family coat-of-arms is displayed above the pretend-military gates. The building had an east and a south range, and the six-storey tower still survives to its full height.
A gold ring-brooch with its jewel setting—two rubies (one is missing) and three cameos—was found here in 1968. It’s considered one of the finest medieval pieces discovered anywhere in Britain.
I drove over the Gower’s sweeping commonland, Cefn Bryn, a central ridge of sandstone where the whole peninsula is on view. On an isolated, windy hilltop on the northern coast, overlooking the Llanrhidian Sands stands another medieval castle-home, Weobley Castle, built between 1304-1327. Like Oxwich, Weobley yielded a treasure in its rubble—a piece of finely worked 14th century stone.
But there is more in the way of architecture than castles to interest the visitor. Historic small churches, dating from the 12th century to Victorian times abound on the Gower. Cheriton’s Church of St Cadog is one of the most beautiful. Rhossili Church’s 12th century Norman doorway, with its chevron and dogtooth mouldings and carved heads, is particularly worth a look.
During the 13th century a mill, Parc le Bros, was established at Parkmill on the southern coast. The present mill dates from 1672 and is a listed ancient monument. Leigh Davies gave me a guided tour of the fascinating Gower Heritage Centre and set the millwheel spinning. Remarkably, in 300 years it has needed only three repairs. Davies explained that the millstone has a brush on it that sweeps the flour from the sides of the container in which the stones rest. He said, “This is where we get the saying, ‘making a clean sweep of it’".
The three-room mill cottage built by the Davies family in 1673 housed fourteen family members. The family descendants lived in this tiny home until 1976.
I headed to the very Victorian "Mumbles” and its village of Oystermouth on Gower’s more populated east coast at Swansea Bay. Fired by their passion for sea bathing, the Victorians turned this one time oyster fishing port into a fashionable holiday spot by building the first passenger railway in the world (or so it was claimed to be), in 1804 to carry them here from Swansea.
An 800-foot, 1898 Victorian pier juts out into the Bay. Typical arcades, amusement parks and eating establishments line the “Mumbles Mile”. A five-mile walk/cycle way from Swansea sweeps around the bay to climb the cliffs to a viewpoint overlooking the 1794 stone lighthouse.
I walked up the hill in Oystermouth to the Norman Castle—King Edward I was entertained here—as much for the far-reaching view as to see the ruins. The castle at one time belonged to the de Breos family, reputed to be “a licentious clan of freebooters, who appear to have been so habituated to duplicity and chicanery as to render it impossible to be straightforward and honest in their dealings with their neighbours.”
At Mumbles I discovered one of the more modern delights of the Gower, Joe’s Ice Cream Parlour, in business since 1922. During the Second World War, rationing didn’t allow ice cream production, so Joe spent his time improving his vanilla ice cream recipe—the only flavour he serves—to perfection.
But the Gower comes in all kinds of flavours, from dramatic coastal scenery to wild windswept vistas to secluded coves to heritage landmarks. This 19-mile long, 8-mile wide peninsula, is, according to H.V. Morton, “one of the most exquisite parts of Wales”. The Gower is indeed glorious.
Gower Heritage Centre
On the A4118, on the Gower peninsula
A4070 to Loughor
In an old garage in the village
in Oxwich village
Tel. 0 1792 390359
Parc Le Breos Chambered Tomb
A4118 to Parkmill, minor road, walking track
B4295 to Llanrhidian Village, then minor road
Tel. 0 1792 390012
Aberdulais Tourist Information Centre
Tel. 01639 636674
Mumbles Tourist Information Centre
Tel. 0 1792 361302
Photos courtesy Visit Wales, CADW, Swansea Cam and by Barbara Ballard
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine
All photos and text copyright.
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