This is the most challenging leg of my journey around the Gower coast, thus far. It is the longest walk I have done so far at 6 and a half miles. For some reason, I keep thinking its much further than that. I had convinced myself that it was 8 miles. It felt like that.
I have been obsessing over the bus timetables and the information I have garnered from Traveline.com which makes sense of the bus connections for me. I have written all the available buses in my note book which I carry in my rucksack as well as on a cheery yellow post-it note which I have in my coat pocket. I have tried very hard not to think of all the things that could go wrong but at 4 am I have persistent visions of twisted ankles and buses not turning up. I pack two plasters although I suspect they won’t be massively useful if I do twist my ankle. Yet, it seems that I have done all my worrying in advance for once I set off everything pretty much goes without a hitch.
It is a warm day. I am wearing my light padded jacket for the first time this year. My rucksack, which is actually my husbands old laptop rucksack, contains the following:- Water bottle; food – sandwiches, banana, biscuits; bus timetables for all Gower buses; tide timetable; two plasters; spare socks; camera; handbag. Somehow I haven’t organised myself enough to leave my stupid handbag behind. I know it has many useful things in it like a tape measure, make-up mirror, phone, fold away shopping bags, but I suspect it adds a fair bit of weight.
I dont have to wait long for the number 118 bus to arrive on Gower Road in Swansea. The bus driver blinks at me slowly when I ask “Change at Scurlage?” This is the first time I have been on a NAT bus. That stands for National Adventure Travel. As a car driver, travelling on a bus has a certain amount of novelty for me and looking out the grimy windows is almost a treat! This bus is OK but not as nice as the city First Cymru buses. Buses seem like things of the city to me (I am a townie born and bred) but once we rattle over the cattle grid at the edge of Fairwood Common and leave Swansea behind, there are great views across the common towards Cefyn Bryn, the long hill that extends across Gower. I enjoy the superior height of the bus which means I can look over walls and into people’s gardens as they flash by.
It is high tide as Three Cliffs Bay as we pass, a sight that gives me a small thrill. We pass the campsite at Nicholston and two walkers, a man and woman, get on. I have company. They both have rucksacks. I wonder why they have one each. They can’t both have handbags in there!
Scurlage. Thankfully the connection is waiting. We climb down from our big bus and into the smaller bus with hard seats and a sunroof.
It takes a long and winding route, pause for 3 minutes in a lay by, and then on to Horton, past a vast caravan park and eventually down a steep hill past the church and into Port Eynon.
Port Eynon on a long sandy bay on the South coast of the Gower Peninsula. It is the second largest “indentation” on the coastline. Truth be known, it is my favourite Gower place to visit in summer because it always has plenty of space on the beach, a shallow sea which warms up in the British sun and a wonderful gift shop full of the sort of junk that is absolutely necessary on a beach holiday (kites, snorkels, body boards, flip-flops, rock, postcards), a surf shop, ice cream kiosks and best of all not one but two fish & chip shops. Oh, and there’s a couple of pubs too if you like that sort of thing. Have I made it sound commercial and tacky?
Well, you’d be wrong because almost nothing on the Gower peninsula is allowed to be commercial and tacky. I say almost nothing because I can’t think of anything at the moment that could be desribed as such, but someone may point out somewhere I have forgotten. Much of that is thanks to the wonderful Gower Society. If you have visited Gower you might think that the Gower Society have just put up some markers stones for their “Gower Way” which snakes across the inland sections of the Peninsula but not a lot else.
You would be very wrong. The Society was founded in 1947 by a group of Gower enthusiasts who were originally interested in the Peninsula’s history but soon became involved defending Gower from developers and preserving its natural heritage. I came across a copy of a book about the Gower Society in the excellent Oxfam shop in Swansea town. It’s called “The First Sixty Years” by Ruth Ridge. When I read it I was totally in awe of the tireless work they have done. Here’s a just a few short list of their many achievements
- Successfully campaigning for Gower to be recognised as the UK’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1956
- Part of the campaign that successfully fought off a Butlin’s-type holiday camp at Rhossili
- Limited and monitored the number and size of caravan sites on Gower
- Produced lots of excellent and very affordable guide books on Gower walks, plant life, castles and caves.
- Prevented the building of a cliff railway and zoo at Rhossili
- Prevented the construction of wind turbines on the Peninsula.
- Campaigned against sand dredging in the Bristol Channel
- Helped preserve and partially restore the iron lighthouse at Whiteford Point.
- Raised money to purchase numerous tracts of land and donated them to the National Trust e.g. Worms Head and Pennard Cliffs and also to the Glamorgan Wildlife Trust e.g. Overton Cliffs.
- Raised concerns and gave grants to help restore and maintain many important Historical buildings such as Oxwich, Pennard, Oystermouth Castles and the Salt House at Port Eynon.
There is loads more they have done to protect and preserve Gower but I thought I’d just give some highlights.
Port Eynon or Porteynon takes its name from a Welsh prince, Einion, of the 11th century who is meant to have built a “castrum“, a castle or fortified house here. There is no sign of the castle except for its church, St. Cattwg’s, and its dovecot, the extraordinary Culver Hole built into the nearby seacliffs. In Victorian times the village supported itself by Oyster-fishing from September to March and in the summer by limestone quarrying. Ships from Devon crossed the Bristol Channel to pick up the Port Eynon limestone. The trade in Oysters died out in the 1870s, over-fishing seems to have killed it off.
The Church was founded by a missionary saint in the 6th century but the building that stands in the village today is almost all the result of Victorian “restoration”. It is claimed that the church was used as hiding place for smuggled goods around the time of the battle of Trafalgar, kegs of booze being hidden in the altar, and at other times, the goods were buried in the sand-dunes.
In the churchyard is a distinctive looking memorial to three Port Eynon lifeboat men who lost their lives in a terrible storm in the winter of 1916. It may seem odd that the village of about only 500 people felt the need to erect a memorial to the three local men who died at sea when thousands of young men were being killed in far away places like France and Belgium in World War One, but the body of Billy Gibbs, the coxswain was never recovered. This was very much like the experience of families elsewhere in the country who never saw the bodies of their loved ones again. So the local community had a life-sized statute of Billy Gibbs built as a memorial to the sacrifice of all three men.
The Lifeboat House is now the Youth Hostel. Only one of two on the Gower. As it was low tide I walked across the beach to the Youth Hostel.
On the other side of the hostel are the ruins of something called the “Salt House“. Some these walls were part of Victorian oystermen’s cottages. The main building, however, was used for salt production from the 16th to around the mid-17th centuries. The site was chosen for the high salinity of the bay with little fresh water contamination. The sea water would enter the beach chambers at high tide where it would be stored in a reservoir. The water would be pumped into large iron pans and slowly heated and evaporated. As the salt formed it would be scooped off and stored in the northern part of the main building to dry. Salt was a very valuable commodity, shown by the fact the site was enlarged and fortified during the 17th century, with the inclusion of musket loops within the thick walls.
There was plenty of tall stories about a couple of outlaws called John Lucas, who were pirates and smugglers. The first John Lucas supposedly fortified Culver Hole in the 16th century, hid his loot in there and visited it via an underground passage, although there is little evidence of this. Seven generations later another John Lucas fortified the Salt House and started a smuggling empire. Some people have claimed that John was a Welsh Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Sadly, these interesting stories seem to have been totally all made up. This set of nonsense was made up by Rev. Dr. J.H. Spry during the 1830s in a dispute over property. Fake news, we’d call it today. It seems that people have been faking stuff long before the internet was even dreamt of.
The coastal path runs along the nearside of the Youth hostel.
Up a steep path past disused limestone quarries.
There are wonderful views of the bay to the east.
After climbing more steep path there is a great view of the sea to the east. This is Port Eynon Point. It is a nature reserve looked after by The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales. Part of the cliff top was once ploughed during the Second World War but there is no sign of it now. This area is a nature reserve looked after by The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales. In fact the whole South Gower Coast from here to Rhossili (Pilton Green) is a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) which is a term or designation given to an area in the UK which is protected for conservation. It is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.
If you follow the path northwards you come down a steep hill, past more disused limestone quarries towards Overton Mere.
Overton Mere is a wide bay of limestone rocks, rock-pools, shingle and a few tiny patches of sand. On the eastern side of the bay and about 200 yards west of the point, is Culver Hole – mentioned earlier – the dovecot made from a narrow cave sealed off by a 60 foot high wall. I thought about visiting it but after edging my way along the cliff-edge path for 10 minutes I lost my nerve and decided that should save my energy for the long walk to Rhossili.
Although the tide was out, the waves were very high, this morning, 5 or 6 foot high. All along this stretch of coast I was accompanied by the booming waves as they broke on the shore. Every now and then, as a particularly large wave broke, there was a crashing sound that almost sound like something cracking. The air was hazy with surf. It made walking along the path even more thrilling.
I passed a small red pony who was not the slightest bit thrilled by the waves or me walking past.
For most of this walk I only passed a couple of walkers with their dogs. The path was pretty deserted. Although two men were working on one of the usually sturdy stiles at Overton Cliff.
The path was relatively easy although the drop down to sea was quite hair-raising in places.
Then the path got rather steep.
It got so steep that I started to wonder if I had lost the real path and had wandered on to a sheep track as I have done several times. It was so rocky I could not tell whether there were any human footprints or sheep tracks here. I couldn’t see another path so I kept going although it meant that I was scrambling along using my hands as extra support. Not quite on my hands on knees but not far off it.
On the other side of the crest I came across an odd scene. All the gorse had been burnt. You could smell it. I assume that the gorse had been managed. Its seemed too much of an effort for an arsonist to come all the way out here to commit arson. I assume that this is a way of managing the growth of the gorse.
After walking a bit further I realised that off in the distance I could see Worms Head. This was quite exciting. The angle made the long narrow tidal island look like two small islands. It also gave me the idea that Worms Head was not that far away. Now, whilst this was very encouraging and cheered me, by the end the walk I realised that was nonsense. One lesson I learnt from this walk is “just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it’s close”. It has become my mantra. So on I went, buoyed by the mistaken belief that I was half way to Rhossili already.
I think I had not bothered to look at my map in a good while because I was caught by surprise when the path headed up hill and inland. I was the first of many “Where the **** has the path gone” moments. When I walking on my own I chat away to myself (like a nutter). Mostly it’s encouraging stuff like “Come on” and “Let’s do it” when I need to get up a hill but its also less ladylike stuff when I get a bit lost and I can’t find the path. I just hope any near-by sheep are not offended. I also say hello to the sheep and lambs.
I found the path, it had moved inland. It was not at all close to the cliff top so I could no see the sea. Once or twice I tried to sneak a peak at the sea by wandering off the coastal path towards the cliff edge but I decided it was too much effort as I had a long walk to do I didn’t want to waste energy of detours. I also found lots and lots of Gower mud. It was a rather fantastic orangey brown colour.
As I walked along the cliff top I knew I was passing above places with wonderful names like Blackhole Gut, Yellow Top, Foxhole Slade and Paviland Cave. I could not see any of these places from the path. I have always wanted to see Paviland Cave but it is notoriously difficult to get too. It is where the so-called “Red Lady of Paviland” was discovered by the Rev William Buckland in 1823. This was a partial human skeleton dyed in red ochre. The Rev was a man of a times and decided that because there were parts of a necklace made of sea shells and ivory jewelry that this had to be a woman’s skeleton. Today we’d call him “old fashioned”, I think. It turned out that this not a lady at all but a young man and he was buried 33,000 years ago. This was back when woolly rhinoceros and mammoth roamed around what we today call Wales. Incredibly, it is the oldest known ceremonial burial in Western Europe. Sadly, there was no Welsh museums in existence when the “red lady” was discovered so the remains where taken to Oxford, where they still rest despite the fact that we have lots of museums in Wales now.
Eventually, I reached the point where the path crosses with the one from the village of Pitton. I came a across the first people I’d seen in maybe an hour maybe longer. They were having a break. They complained that the path down from Pitton was extremely muddy. I overtook them but I was starting to feel tired. I had been walking for about 2 hours no-stop.
I was just over half way through this walk. So I found a place amongst some rocky outcrops to eat my lunch. I watched some crows flying above the cliffs. For once I ate my banana first. I was really hungry. The cheese and pickle sandwiches and the chocolate biscuits all tasted wonderful. The outcrop called the Knave is nearby and I will continue the second part of my long walk to Rhossili next week.