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Gower Coastal Walk: Tor Bay & Oxwich Bay

I am shattered. My legs are so stiff, I can hardly walk up and down stairs. I have been this way for days. My problem is that I can do activities, running, yoga, walking but often “pay for it”afterward. I don’t really understand how much this is to do with life post-PTSD, if at all because you never fully recover from PTSD, but you learn to manage with what you have. Maybe it’s middle age. Maybe I do too much or just can’t tell when I am doing too much. I am pig-headed. When I see a sunny forecast I am looking at maps and bus timetables and planning my next walk. OK. A word about bus timetables. The ones for Gower are very confusing. The ones for the Swansea (including Limeslade, Caswell and Pennard Cliffs) are great. I understood them. The buses ran frequently. Once you get past Pennard Cliffs and change bus companies, however, the timetable becomes impenetrable. I have spent hours looking at the little rows of numbers and columns of place names trying work out how they connect or don’t. I have woken up in the night worrying how I am going to complete this coastal walk. It seems that I can get to several of the places I want to go in the morning OK; Oxwich, Rhossili, Llangennith (if I can get to the bus stop at 7.40am). It’s the coming back that’s a much dodgier affair. There seems to be one bus in the late afternoon. Maybe. If I have downloaded the correct timetable from the internet as there often seem to be several versions and I am not sure when one is the one the bus drivers will be using (see my earlier blog for my rant about lack of tourist or bus information.in Swansea). Part of the problem is that I am trying to get to places outside the main tourist season June-August when there are slightly more buses running. Maybe this wouldn’t matter if I knew that I could walk 20 miles in a day, or 11 miles, but so far I have only done 3 or 4 miles and found them pretty tiring. So this is a long-winded way of saying that I have broken my rules. Just to remind you. They are:- 1. Travel in a clockwise direction around the Gower coast 2. Travel by public transport and by foot. 3. Walk on sunny days. So Rule No. 2. I’ll fess up. For some parts of the coastal walk, I got in my car and drove to the places that I was struggling to figure out the public transport links for. That was until Ceri from woman walking blog recommended traveline.com to me.
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Map of Oxwich Bay
Rule 1. Clockwise direction? Not always. This particular walk was done in two parts. The first from Tor Bay in a westerly direction (with both human and canine company) on a breezy, sunny day but the second part was done from Oxwich (alone) in an easterly and thus anti-clockwise direction (and looped back to my car). It wasn’t very sunny. So I broke all the rules on that day. It didn’t feel good but nevermind. I’m just doing it badly. It’s a coping strategy. I came across it recently. The thinking goes, if you are paralyzed by anxiety and a fear of failure: “Just Do It, Badly.”Once the summer bus timetable is action, perhaps I’ll be a perfectionist and do it “properly”. We’ll see. I’ll pick up from last week’s blog about Three Cliffs Bay. The climb up from western side of Three Cliffs Bay itself is pretty tiring as its very sandy but the view at the top is worth every bit of the struggle.
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Top of the Cliffs above Pennard Pill
At the top is an Iron Age fort. The Iron Age was a very long time ago – about 2,500 years.  It has a fantastic view of Three Cliffs Bay (the ramparts are covered in primroses). Following the coastal path around the very windy edge of the cliffs, you eventually reach around the top of Great Tor and Tor Bay below.
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Path around Cliff Tops
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The Spine of Great Tor
At low tide Tor Bay can be reached by walking along the beach from Three Cliffs Bay in the east and also from Oxwich Bay in the west, but at high tide the sea cuts off the little bay. It then can only be reached by a path down from the cliffs. This path is very sandy at the bottom end making it considerably easier to walk down than up it! This is a detour and not part of the coastal path walk!
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Down to Tor Bay
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Empty Beach at Tor Bay
It was a windy day and the clouds and their shadows were racing across the sands. It was really delightful watching the light and colours change on the cliffs tops and beach. We saw only three people and one day on this mid-week walk.
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Light and shadows  on Great Tor
My two canine companions Biddy and Mitzy had a great time, especially when they found something really stinky to roll in, on top of Little Tor. There were streaks of “it” in their coats. Like brown dog-highlights. Urgh! It smelt really bad even out in the fresh air, despite a dip in the sea. It was even worse in close quarters in the car home. Needless to we drove with the windows open and they were bathed as soon as they got through the front door with lots of lovely dog shampoo.
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My walking companions (the ones with 4 legs are smelly)
On the path above Tor Bay is a curious stone building with two archways going nowhere. A useful shelter if you are caught out in the rain or in a hail storm was we were a few months back. It’s actually a lime kiln. Gower is dotted with these buildings in which which limestone was burnt or calcined to produce quicklime.
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The Lime Kiln
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Lime Kiln (Close Up)
The path then undulates along the headland until it reaches little five bar wooden gate with a wonderful view of Nicholston Burrows (dunes) and Oxwich Bay on the other side.
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Oxwich Bay & Nicholaston Burrows
The path continues until you are given the choice of carrying on down through the woods on the right on down to the sandy beach on the left. I took the long sandy path through the dunes down to the beach, the smell of the sea calling me all the way. If the tide is out you can then loop left round to Tor Bay or right and walk along Oxwich Bay. Oxwich Bay is a wide expanse of water and sand. It’has a sandy beach which is about 2 1/2 miles long, flanked by sand dunes, patterned by a maze of tracks. Beyond the dunes lie lakes, woodlands, salt and freshwater marshes. Apparently, it’s rare to have so many different habitats in such a relatively small area in the UK. They are all part of the Oxwich nature reserve. The beach and the dunes are bisected by Nicholaston Pill, a small river that flows out from the marshland and reeds. I’d forgotten that there’s a little wooden bridge over the river, tucked away in the dunes. There was a middle-aged couple sitting on the sand dunes with their dog. I stopped and we had a long chat, in which we discussed in quick succession; the weather, buses, Cardiff, Swansea’s one-way traffic system, the council, the Slip Bridge and buses again.
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Some very large flotsam
Eventually, after a very long walk on soft sand, past much flotsam, I reach the end of the beach. There lies the village of Oxwich. In summer this is a very busy beach.  This is the second largest beach on the Gower peninsula after Llangennith. There is a large car park, a flat beach, a cafe, and toilets so it’s rather popular with visitors, apparently, an incredible a quarter of million of them each year! There are several caravan parks within walking distance too. When we first came to Gower we used to come here and I once attempted to surf here. It didn’t go well as I paddled too far out and got scared.
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Oxwich Bay Hotel
Set just a step back from the beach is the Oxwich Bay Hotel. It is an imposing building, its steeply pitched tiled roof reminding me of French architecture for some reason. The tiny village Oxwich lies on a road leading inland from the sea. That because this was not a fishing village. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the woodland areas of Oxwich were quarried for limestone and exported, using Oxwich bay as a small port.  So the cottages of Oxwich were once the homes of the local quarrymen. At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, in which Britain declared war on France, the Royal Navy was forcibly “recruiting”, or press-ganging, men from communities situated along the British coast. This included the Gower coastline. Late one Thursday evening in October 1803, the HM Press Gang called at Oxwich and took 5 sailors, one of whom was a ship’s boy, who had happened to come ashore from a merchant vessel. Once upon a time, all the houses in Oxwich would have been thatched. Now few are except the cottage that has gained fame for being the place the Methodist Minister, John Wesley once stayed in 1764. It was known as the “Nook”. The well-traveled Wesley was impressed by the people of Oxwich as he noted in his diary that “all the people talk English, and are in general, the most plain, loving people in Wales’. There is no pub in Oxwich and it has been suggested that the influence of John Wesley may have had a bearing here!
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John Wesley’s Cottage, Oxwich
So I broke the rules (including the staying on the official coastal path one) but I have made it past my “block”.  I have had to pay the price as must have walked for about 5 miles on the sand. Hence the very stiff calves. Maybe, next time I will take the woodland walk! I did it badly today but I did it. Next time I will walk Oxwich Head and experience mild peril.
Painting of Great Tor, Gower, Gower Walk
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Walking the Gower Coast: Caswell Bay & Brandy Cove

After my adventures on my first walk along (or rather off) the coastal path from Limeslade to Caswell, I was left with legs that were covered with scratches from the sleeping-beauty-brambles that smothered the path I was stupidly trying follow. I didn’t discover these until later on that day when I was in the bath. I looked down at my legs and marveled at all the scratches that I didn’t realise were there. I had walked just under 3 miles but I was very tired and very stiff the next day. My toes hurt, my legs were stiff and my back ached from carrying my rucksack.  The going up and down hills is more arduous that you’d think.

Caswell Map

It took a weekend’s rest and a sunny forecast to tempt me out again. It was the spring Equinox. The day when light and dark are balanced before the days lengthen into spring. I got up earlier this time and caught the 9.20am 2C bus on Oystermouth Road to Caswell. The same bus driver from my first bus trip to Limeslade was driving this bus.

Unlike the bus to Limeslade that snaked all around the houses Langland before it reached its destination, the bus to Caswell is pretty direct, travelling through the villages of Mumbles and up a hill into Newton then before the long descent  of Caswell Road, past the Summercliffe Chalet park with its very expensive chalets (£150K to buy one, if you are asking). There are some very different chalets nearby, tucked away in the woods and easily missed. These chalet fields are Holtsfield and Owensfield.  They started as holiday huts but became permanent homes after families were bombed out of their homes during the second World War.

At the bottom of the hill is the beach. Caswell is a very popular beach with locals and tourists alike. In the summer the car park fills up and  if you leave too late in the day, they close the car park and you just cannot get in!

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After School

When I arrived at Caswell the tide has just turned. High tides make a big difference to how much beach there is here and all along the Gower coast. This is because the Bristol Channel has the second-highest tidal range in the world. The low tides expose vast stretches of golden sands while the high tides flood the bays create cozy bays of sheltered water. When the tide is out there is more than enough beach for everyone.

This morning, however, the high water meant that Caswell Bay was cut into two small bays.

So why are there two bays at Caswell? Apparently it because there are two neighbouring faults, one along Caswell Valley (beneath the car park) and another directly under that ugly block of apartments behind the western arm of the Bay.  At the foot of the western cliff (called Redley Cliff) runs a small brook, which starts at nearby spring.  In the past water from this stream was stored in a massive concrete cistern and supplied to the houses of the bay by gravity-feed from a wind-pump situated on the top of the cliff. You can just about make out the windmill on the top left hand-side of the old postcard below.

OLD CASWELL BAY

We have a wonderful insight into what Caswell used to look like in the mid-19th century, thanks to photography pioneer, John Dillwyn Llewelyn. John was what you might call a Victorian playboy scientist. He was very rich did not have a “proper job”. His father Lewis Weston Dillwyn managed the family-owned Cambrian Pottery in Swansea. This meant he was in the very lucky position of being able to pursue his interests in science, botany and astronomy full-time. John’s wife, Emma, was the cousin of pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot and this clearly inspired John to take up this new science. John actually became a one of the most important amateur photographers in the 1850s and he took photographs of the holiday home, Caswell Cottage, he built at Caswell.

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Caswell Cottage

He was also an inventor of new techniques. One of his innovations was a camera shutter that allowed him to capture the movement of waves at Caswell at approximately 1/25th of a second.

 

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Redcliffe Appartmments

These photographs of an unspoilt Caswell make me sad because in the 1960s the local planning authority decided that this beautiful bay would be “improved” by the knocking down Caswell Cottage to make a car park and also knocking down Redcliffe House (once home to the family of Dylan Thomas’s poet friend Vernon Watkins) to build the brutalist-style Redcliffe apartment block. As my husband says, “I like 60s’ architecture, but it’s like an office block has been randomly dropped into the countryside”. This makes painting nice paintings of the bay difficult because the 1960s block, in my opinion, is not very pretty. It might be great to live in, with lovely views, but its not great to look at, or paint.

 

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Bay House, Caswell

Still, at least we are still left with the handsome Bay House. Three sisters Emma, Agnes and Alice Morgan built and lived in this house in 1877. The sisters also planted many of the bay’s distinctive pine trees.

If you look closely at the photo to the right you may well be able to spot a helicopter. This house is currently owned by the flamboyant boss of the Welsh supermarket chain “CK’s” who is a keen helicopter pilot. He’s got into trouble a few years ago when he flew his helicopter into Heathrow airspace and caused a security alert. In Chris Kiley’s defense he was late for lunch at a nearby country house, and although he’d been given directions he didn’t have coordinates! Its seems that he’s gone off living Caswell because the house is up for sale for £2.5 million (that’s around $3.5 million dollars).

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Bay House, Caswell Bay

Today, the tide was in, so I had to walk along the road, to find the coastal path. Usually I’d walk across the beach and climb up the cliff path, which is what I did in 2016 (see photos below).

I decided to take the higher path and this time I was determined to follow the map. I find it hard to follow instructions, I don’t know whether its my sense of curiosity, laziness or plain stupidity that makes me think I know a better way. Mind you, looking at my Pathfinder Guide, I realise why I find it so difficult. Although the maps are useful, the rest of the page is pretty much solid text, no gaps, bullet points, paragraphs, so its difficult to follow. No wonder I just look at the maps!

Not today. My coastal path map (picked up for free from one of those information points in Swansea) has no instructions just a big map on both sides of the page. That suits me just fine. The map tells me that the path joins the road further up the hill so I start walking. This road, however, does not have a pavement for pedestrians for much of its length so I have to keep stepping back onto a narrow grass verge when cars pass by.

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View From Bay House’s Driveway

Eventually, towards the top of the road I find the path and follow it although it did not feel very “coastal”. In fact the path takes a short cut across Redley Cliff and down a long flight of steps cut into the earth to Brandy Cove. I love going down steps like these.

The woods on the way from Bishopston to Brandy Cove inspired an early painting of mine; Brandy Cove Stile (see below).

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Brandy Cove Stile

Writer Wynford Vaughn Thomas called the Gower Peninsula “a secret people hug to themselves”. Brandy Cove is bit of a secret places in Gower because you can only get here on foot. You can walk down narrow lanes and paths from Bishopston village or via the coastal path. It is a little cove that is made of mostly pebbles and rocks at high tide but at low tide looks very different as golden sands stretch out into the Bristol Channel. Its a lovely place to swim in the summer and usually deserted.

I had read somewhere that it used to be known as Hareslade. All the locals call it Brandy Cove, however, thanks to the pirates/smugglers who used to maraud the length of the Bristol Channel and unload their illegal tobacco and alcohol goods here during the eighteenth century. Think Ross Polark with a Welsh accent and you’d be about right.

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Brandy Cove at Low Tide

In the 19th century Brandy Cove was later home to a silver and lead mine, although mining had probably taken place in this area in Roman times.

Maime StuartOne of the mine shafts was put to a much darker used in the early part of the 20th century when the dismembered body of Mamie Stuart were dumped by her murderer. Mamie, from Sunderland in the industrial North East of England, was dubbed a “chorus girl” by the local press. She had been used to a life on the stage but she’d given that that up and married Cardiff-born George Shotton in 1918 and moved to Swansea. The marriage was mistake. It was a very unhappy one and Mamie wrote to her parents complaining that her new husband beat her. After these complaints they heard no more from her. She vanished.

Her suitcase turned up in a Swansea hotel. Despite a national serach, she was never heard of again. It turned out that there was already a Mrs Shotton who was living in Cardiff with a daughter. George did 18 months’ “hard labour” in prison for bigamy, but the cad got away with murder because by the time her remains were discovered in Brandy Cove in 1961, he had been dead three years. Poor Mamie.

In my next post I carry on and visit one of Gower “hidden” villages and visit a Gower bay that many people have never heard of.

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Brandy Cove