Do believe the hype. In 2014, Rhossili Bay was voted the UK’s number one beach, by TripAdvisor users, it also ranked third best in Europe, and 9th best in the world. They are not wrong. The bay is spectacular. the wide flat beach curves along for 3 miles (5 km) and is backed with sand dunes along the northern half. It is quite vast.
How I have missed Gower and walking over the past weeks! I have been stuck in doors invigilating exams for one of the local universities, longing for the sea breezes and the sort-of-quiet of outside. The Gower is actually quite noisy with the sound of surf, sheep and birdsong, but they are all nice sounds.
The fresh air is a tonic. There is plenty of it at Rhossili. One thing you notice on the long narrow road to the tiny village is that there are only a few wind-blasted trees, permanently bent westwards. At Rhossili, itself there are none. It is an isolated place on the far tip of the Gower peninsula. It has two tidal islands at either end of the bay, Worms Head to the south and Burry Holms to the north.
In the days before cars and buses, it must have felt a lot like the edge of the known world here. Celtic monks, presumably drawn by its isolation and wilderness, came here in the 6th century. They founded a church here, dedicated to St. Sulien or St. Sili, that was founded in the 6th Century. The name St. Sili together with the Welsh word for moorland, ‘Rhos’, gives Rhossili its name. The first church, along with a tiny village, was tucked away at the foot of Rhossili Downs, on the apron of flat land ground, north of the present village, known as the Warren. The present-day old rectory is located here. Evidence for this first community was revealed at the end of 1979 when a severe storm exposed some of the old buildings on Rhossili Warren.
The Normans conquered Rhossili in the 12th century, but how did the village of Rhossili come to move? It’s a familiar sounding story involving storms and sand (remember the story about Pennard Castle and the angry fairies?) a massive storm in the 13th century sent mountains of sand ashore at Rhossili too, engulfing both village and church. As a result of the this environmental calamity, it was decided to rebuilt the village and build a new church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, on the high clifftop 200 ft (60m) above, away from the vulnerable low lying sand and sea. Hence the wind!
There are two paths across to Llangennith, one high and one low. Today I decided that I would walk both in a loop. Starting with the high and returning along the lower one to Rhossili.
The coastal path starts just to the the right of the National Trust Car park and the bus stop. There is a choice of paths. There is the one that climbs high along the top of the Rhossili downs and the coastal path along the flat land at the foot of the downs, the Warren.
I have decided to do both by walking in a loop across the top and then along the bottom back to Rhossili. So instead of going through the gate, I head along the path on the right. Up a long steep path.
The climb and views below are breath-taking.
It’s a long climb before the terrain flattens out. The wind up here is very powerful, indeed. Its blowing so hard that it makes my ears hurt. I pull up the hood of my coat to try and protect my ears.
In the past I have seen hang-gliders take off from here and fly over the bay. There’s no one here today. I think its probably too windy. I am scared of heights so I find the thought of hang gliding terrifying – so this youtube clip is more than mildly distressing for me but it gives you a good idea of the wonderful views here.
The path is bare, and the surrounding land is heath land, covered in wash-out brownish heather. Later in the early autumn as the heather blooms, the downs become a delightful riot of pinks and purples. I must come again in September.
I finally reach the Beacon. The trig point (its proper name is triangulation station or triangulation pillar) is part of the massive network of points built by the Ordnance Survey (OS) team as they mapped the country in the 1930s. At the towering height of 193 metres (632ft.) above sea level, the top of Rhossili Downs, the Beacon, is the highest point in Gower allowing unparalleled 360° views of the peninsula.
I usually like to walk to the edge of the downs to look down at the Old Rectory below on the Warren but it’s too windy today. I will look at it more closely on the return journey later.
The path continues northwards and dips below the headland so I can take my hood down for a few minutes, but not for long as I reach half way along the down and come across a curious relic from the Second World War; the remains of a radar station. I wonder what it was like to be stationed in this beautiful and remote location listening out for approaching German Bombers headed for Swansea.
The path continues on to another peak and a good view of Burry Holmes, the tidal island, and the caravan park at Hillend below.
Then there is a steep descent down to path that passes behind the static caravans. I did not realise that there were so many here and they seem to reach a long way towards Rhossili.
Eventually I leave the mass of caravan behind and follow the path behind an old stone wall. I spy some people walking closer to the edge of the beach.
I realise belatedly that I have probably missed the official coastal path and I am following another higher path. I cant see how to make my way down to that path so I carry on. My path takes me closer to the old rectory, anyway but it a bit further.
I am feeling tired now. I stop and eat some biscuits, enjoying the sunshine and the sound of the sheep and lambs happily bleating away. The Gower sheep here are tough mountain sheep, their long tails left are undocked (unlike lowland sheep) and they are have patchy tanny brown markings.
I can see off in the distance, the old rectory, which has been called the most photographed house in Wales.
The Old Rectory is the only building on the bay so its not surprising that it acts as a focus point for photographs. The vicar of this parish had to look after two churches, St Mary’s at Rhossili and St Cenydd’s at Llangennith. So some bright spark decided that the rectory should be built exactly halfway between the two churches, in neither village. I am not sure that any of the vicar’s wives appreciated the isolation. I suspect the vicars who lived here weren’t very happy about constant journeying between villages, as at least one, the Reverend John Ponsonby, is said to haunt Rhossili beach. He travelled between the villages across on the beach on horseback and some believe he can still be seen riding the route today.
The Rectory, itself is also said to be haunted by another vicar and his wife, who some claim to have seen and heard walking down the stairs. It’s not surprising that it haunted as it believed to be built on top of a graveyard (possibly dating back to 6th century?) and on stormy nights a frightening spectre is said to emerge from the foaming waves to stare at the outside of the building, as if angered that it has been built there.
Apparently, Dylan Thomas once thought about buying the old rectory, but he decided against it as there was no pub in either villages, there are now, though.
The climb up back to Rhossili is quite steep and although tired, but I am happily distracted by the fantastic view of Worms Head and the evening light on the whitewashed houses of Rhossili that look so small from a distance.
Back in the village we are greeted by some errant sheep, jogging through the streets. Their farmer (out of shot) is rounding them up on a quadbike and a collie.
I will leave you with a drone’s eye view of Rhossili, Worms Head and the Downs. It’s well worth watching.
You can buy original paintings from the Gower Walk project by clicking on the link.
Next week I face the challenge of sea mist and climbing down a steep slope to visit Gower’s incredible swimable (I’m not sure that’s actually a word) tidal rock pool.