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It’s that time of year again. When the slanting sun makes you believe that spring is just around the corner. Snowdrops and crocuses are flowering in parks and in the woods. We spent the last two days revisiting my favourite stretch of Gower woodland. It follows the stream that meanders from Ilston along the Ilston Cwm to Parkmill (the stream then it crosses the A4118 and winds its way into the sea as Pennard Pill). You can see it on an interactive map of Gower here .
Yesterday, we revisited the Parkmill end of the woods (you can read about the Ilston end of the woods here). These trees are technically part of Kilvrough Manor woods, although Kilvough Manor itself, is quite a distance off on the other side of the A4118. The woods have been here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The trees are “ancient semi-natural and broadleaved, made up of a canopy of Ash, Oak, Beech, and Elm, with a Beech plantation”. They have given me years of inspiration for painting.
Very early spring is my favourite time of year because the sun cuts through the bare branches and illuminates the ground. The shadows create an exciting combination of colours; the beech leaves on the ground are an interesting orange and mauve, and the rich brown earth is almost a dark purple, that reminds me of a dairy milk wrapper.
In the past, I have usually visited this part of the woods in the morning. I feel almost stupid when I see how different it all looks in the early afternoon.
Of course, nature is a giant sundial. The trees cast shadows in different directions, depending on the time of the day and the time of the year. If you come too early the trees nearest the car park lies in darkness, as the sun has not risen above Pennard.
If you come too late the same trees are in the shadow of the hill that rises up beside the stream to the west. When the trees are illuminated it’s very exciting. It’s like an incredible show that is switched on and off, depending on the light.
As the river meanders along the valley the path crosses it by a number of sturdy bridges. I have painted many of these over the years. There’s the 1950s concrete and metal railings one, nearest the Gower Inn.
From both sides, if the light allowed it.
There is a beautiful wooden bridge, further along, that resonates with walkers’ footsteps as the stride across it.
In the summer, when the stream is low, I have waded through the water under this bridge and listened (troll-like) to the sounds of people walking above.
Yesterday was a day of epiphanies. I stood listening to the wonderful cacophony of birdsong and soaked in the sight of the light catching the leaves I realised that what made this place so special was its sheer age. People have walked along these paths (and crossed older, long gone bridges) to reach the places of worship for many many years. Over 300 hundred years ago a Baptist chapel was built by this bridge by John Miles and people travelled from miles around to reach it. At Ilston, much further along the stream, there has been a religious cell, or church since the 6th century. These woods have been a place of contemplation for centuries, and it feels like it. Modern people may or may not contemplate religious matter, but it is difficult not to get drawn into contemplating the rhythms of the natural world.
For me is the moss that marks this woodland apart from others. The moss catches the slanting light and the trees almost look like they are wearing halos.
In some parts of the wood, the moss is so thick they cover the tree like padding.
Moss is odd stuff. It is a plant, with stems and leaves, but no true roots and no flowers. It needs damp conditions to reproduce. The moss grows so thickly here because it’s very damp in South Wales, it rains a lot. The stream also creates a lot of dampness. The moss absorbs huge quantities of water. It actually helps to soak up rainfall and create a locally humid environment. There’s also lots of lichen on the trees. This is a good sign as it only grows where there is clean, unpolluted air. Lichen, apparently is not a plant, although plant-like. Its sort of fungi. Lichens amazingly are some of the longest living things on the planet. They grow very slowly and live very long lives, a bit like the ancient yew tree in Ilston churchyard.
To give you a feel for the beauty of the place I have uploaded a couple of short videos. The splashing you can hear in the first clip is my dog, Biddy walking in the water, hoping that I will throw a stick for her.
Here she is!
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Once-upon-a-time I worked full time as a teacher in school of just under 2,000 pupils and I would teach approximately 150 pupils in a day. That’s a lot of faces to put names to every day. I was pretty good at learning all those names too. These days, however, I might only speak to a handful of people in a day; my husband, my neighbour and local shopkeepers. So, when presented with an opportunity to met with and chat with to new people I relish it. Clyne Christmas market gave me a lovely opportunity to talk to all sorts of people.
I am pretty new to running a stall, I did it once about 4 years ago. I really enjoyed it back then but teaching commitments meant that I did not have the energy to keep doing it. That has changed now. I have the energy and the time to pursue this and yesterday I had a stall at the first Clyne Farm Christmas market. I realise that I have a lot to learn.
Clyne Farm sits on top of Clyne Common, high up above Swansea. It has sweeping views towards the sea-side village of Mumbles and across the massive Swansea Bay.
Once upon a time it was a riding stables but in recent times it has transformed itself into an top-class accommodation and activity centre.
Yesterday was their first Christmas Market and we were blessed with sparkling crisp sunshine. The photos above were taken in the first half an hour before it got busy. The crowds ebb and flow. After a quite half an hour, it is quickly jammed with families carrying babies wrapped up to the eyes in jump suits and bobble hats. The little girls are drawn to the “Sparkly Bow” stall further down my aisle. The table covered in glittery objects is exactly the right height to catch a 5-year-old’s attention – at eye-level.
This first onslaught is followed by another wave of families with dogs on leads, and in carried in their arms. There are lots of woolly coated “cockerpoos” (Cocker Spaniels Crossed with Poodles) and some sharp-eyed border collies. They take in everything. Later as people leave for lunch in the other hall, it becomes calmer. People are clutching bags with their purchases. I recognise some people who came around earlier return to buy. It’s in the post-lunch calm that I make most of my sales. I chat with many of the people in the hall. My cards of Mumbles Pier starts a number of conversations about a controversial development of the Pier Head area that the local community (Mumbles Action Group) are currently fighting.
I manage a quick break and visit some of the animals on the farm. I’d met Ted the collie and Flo the goat and her surrogate daughters, the sheep Brillo and Lucy, yesterday.
Along a muddy tack there children’s pony rides on offer. I had to make a special journey along a different muddy path to see Peggy the Pig. She is massive. I give her a pat on her broad back and was surprised that her back was covered in bristles, not wiry hair. Her floppy ears cover her eyes, like nature’s sunshades, but it can’t be easy for her to see. I was told by Sarah who works at Clyne, that Peggy is pretty laid back and is a “morning” pig. She is active in the morning and spends her afternoons sleeping. Someone speculates that she’s a Gloucester Old Spot. I assume that they have only one big spot but looking it up later it seems that they were probably right and she’s an “Old Spot”.
The hall is filled with bright sunshine but by the late afternoon, I’m starting to feel the cold. Although there’s carpet in the hall the concrete floor underneath is cold. I run to my car to fetch my woolly hat. As the afternoon wears on I notice that the tip of my nose is numb! After 5 hours in the hall, my feet are starting to feel like blocks of ice. The girl opposite me is wearing thin daps and ends up sitting on her chair with her feet tucked under her. At four o’clock the sun is low in the sky and someone mentions that there’s Christmas Parade in town at 4pm. That seemed to be the signal for the stall-holders to pack up and within minutes the hall is bustling with activity as the stalls are rapidly dismantled. I drive home with the sun setting over Clyne Common.
What I learnt
- Get new cash bag – my beautiful leather cash bag handle snapped as soon as I put it on. Although I tried to tie a knot in it, it kept coming undone.
- Thermal socks are needed (possibly 2 pairs).
- Clear prices on each rack. We had a price list but it was difficult for people to read it. Bull-dog clips or cardboard luggage labels are good for this.
- Paper bags for purchases – brown or white. Environmentally friendly and they look cool
- Camping chair – a wooden chair was hard to sit on all day.
- Paypal card reader or izettle for mobile payments. Not everyone has enough cash on them and you don’t want to lose sales
- Presentation is vital. Rustic chic is cool – I had wooden racks and a table easel but more wooden boxes for cards would be good. I learned a lot from Ed Harrison at Minnow across the hall. His presentation was excellent.
I did not walk the length of Worms Head at the same time as my other Gower coastal Walks. This was because you cannot walk its full length between the 1st March and the 31st of August – as the last part of the Worm, the Outer Head, is closed in order to protect nesting seabirds.
So I waited until late October for a sunny morning and a low tide to set off on my adventure. It was certainly an adventure as I travelled alone and there was plenty of scope for “mild peril” and twisted ankles and, at one point, there was definitely outright fear. More of that later.
The drive down to Rhossili was beautiful. Autumn sunshine lit the russet trees and the long shadows stretched across the road. The forecast was for a fine sunny day but by the time I arrived at Rhossili, it had clouded over. I got of my car and wished I had brought a woolly hat instead of my sunhat jammed at the bottom of my bag underneath my sandwiches, banana, and the compulsory chocolate biscuits. The biscuits had been lurking down there since my last walk several months ago, but as they were individually wrapped I decided they’d still be very edible. The walk down the National Trust car park to the coast guard station at the end of the headland took longer than I expect it.
I think this is because I am usually so mesmerized by the sight of the “Worm” that I don’t really pay attention to how far I am walking. The Worm (“Wurm”) means dragon, and it was given this name by the Vikings who regularly sailed the Bristol Channel over a thousand years ago.
It is a long tidal island that undulates westward like a sea beast. The shape of it changes depending on which angle you approach it. Sometimes it seems coiled, other times in snakes from side to side.
I think I look up the tide times for Gower more often than most people, except for surfers. Every time I go to the coast I like to know if it going to be a low or high tide, depending on whether I want to photograph it or swim in it. If you want to visit Worms Head, a low tide is essential because the causeway over to the islands is only safe to cross 2 and a half hours either side of low tide.
I know that to be caught out ensures an extra long stay on the island (as happened to Dylan Thomas once), because swimming across the short stretch of water is very dangerous and I can remember a man who died attempting in it a few years ago.
Fortunately, if you have forgotten to look up the tide timetable, it is clearly displayed outside the coast watch station and on the path down to the causeway. That is pretty much, the point of the coast watch station, as I have mentioned before. To watch out for fishermen and people who might get trapped by the rising tide.
Map of Worms Head (Note: High Tide)
When you arrive at the coast guard station at the end of the headland you will see the path in front of you dropping down to the causeway. Now, don’t believe any guide that tells you that this is “easy” as I have seen elsewhere online. It is not. Parts of the island are easy. Most of it and the causeway, in particular, is very very, rocky.
It resembles an assault course rather than a “walk”. There are slightly easier routes than others but they are all energetic to some degree and require a fair bit of climbing, jumping, or in my case sliding down rock faces on my backside. I was better prepared than the time I walked across it on whim one summer with my sister and my 7-year niece. That time I was wearing sandals. This time I was wearing sturdy walking boots. I regretted, however, wearing my drainpipe jeans. There were many times I could not tell if I was stiff with age or stiff from my sartorial stupidity. Nevertheless, I soldiered on.
Looking across the so-called causeway, I could not see an easy route. I could not even see an obvious way down to the causeway. Hence I ended up sliding down the rocks, hoping that I didn’t twist my ankle. That was a recurring thought throughout the morning. The trick is to stay focus 100% on where you are putting your feet, if you need to look up, then stopping to do so. Walking along and looking around at the same time was out of the question. I decided to follow a mother and her two young sons, hoping that they would find a sensible route across the rocks.
I think they must have been part- mountain goat because they zoomed across the rocks, sure-footed and totally fearless, happily chatting away to each other. I struggled to keep up. I started off feeling a bit chilly but by the time I reach the island 20-25 minutes later I was hot and thinking of taking off my jacket. Again you will read in some guides that it takes “about 15 minutes to cross the jagged and slippery rocks” but I found it took longer. Perhaps I stopped and looked at the view too often.
Arriving at Inner Head, I was greeted by more warning signs, a tide timetable and a bell to ring to gain attention, if you are trapped by the incoming tide. Here, I had a choice of paths. Either to climb the back of the Worm and walk along its spine, or to take the easier lower path to the west. I took the easy path. It was my favourite path of the day. I could trundle along it, looking at the view, without worrying that I was going to trip up!
I quickly reached Low Neck which bends round to Devil’s Bridge.
Here, I could see I had to cross another assault course of massive fractured rocks to get to Devil’s Bridge. This is all that remains of a collapsed sea cave. It too will collapse one day, dividing the Middle Head in two. I decided instead follow a long climb over the tooth-like slabs down to the rocky “beach” part of Worms Head, to take some photographs of the Worm’s reflection in the still seawater.
I then had the joy of trying to make it back onto the path. It was a long scramble/climb and at several points I wondered if it was possible but I did eventually make it without injury.
So I finally reached the Outer Head. I was greeted by a warning sign telling people not to visit during nesting season. There were yet more rocks to clamber over before I finally reached the dragon’s head.
Here the path got steep. The grass became much thinner and the rocks were worn smooth with years of walkers’ boots on them. I scrambled up where I thought the path would flatten out a bit. Then I realise that the final part of the “walk” involved a climb up an almost sheer cliff. The mother and two sons I followed across the causeway earlier, were already fearlessly climbing up the rock face. I noted that the mother wasn’t totally cavalier about letting her boys follow her as she told them in no uncertain terms that they must listen to her instructions and have “three points of contact with the ground at all time”. I bore this advice in mind, for the rest of my trip on the Worm.
I watched, with my heart in my mouth, as they zoomed up the rock face like sure-footed monkeys. I don’t like heights at the best of times, and I knew this was beyond me. I could not face trying to climb up there, in case I freaked out half-way up. More eager climbers made their way past me. The prospect of an audience decided it for me. I turned around and started my return journey, muttering to myself “I know my limits”.
As I walked back I ponder my long distinguish career as a scaredly-cat. As a child I freaked out in some underground caves, Cheddar or Wooky Hole, I’m not sure which, discovered to my surprise that I was decidedly claustrophobic. As an adult, on a school trip to Disneyland Paris, I was persuaded to go on Space Mountain. I only survived the experience by keeping my eyes tightly closed for the whole trip. Apparently a lot of it happens in the dark but never once opened my eyes to find out. More recently I climbed almost to the top of Mount Snowdon, in North Wales, only to decide I could not make it to the summit. The path was very narrow and there were hoards of people. I was convinced that I’d get pushed off the path to my death. So I sat down with my eyes closed (again) and waited for my brave husband to make the journey to the top and back on his own. Yet, I enjoy watching films about Mountaineers, like “Touching the Void” and “Everest”, go figure!
I stopped and ate some biscuits and sandwiches, drank a lot of water and admired the view along the Worms’ back in both directions, towards its head and in the other direction towards Rhossili Bay and Gower. This time I walked over Devils Bridge and started the scramble over more rocks to Inner Head.
I paused as I see another walker looking out to sea and I realised there is little head looking up at us out of the water. It was a seal. I could see his whiskers. He reminded me of a dog. I don’t know if he’s a common or grey seal, as they are very hard to tell apart, especially when they are in the water. He disappeared and then popped up again, before finally vanishing for good.
Keeping an eye on time time, and making sure I have more than enough time to cross the causeway, I made my way back to the south-eastern end of the tidal island. I notice a group of people are watching something on the stony beach below the cliffs. More seals! I settled down on the grass to watch. To start with, I could not get a good view, as there were so many people. Eventually after a lot of loud “Oh” and “Ahhhh-ing” (I don’t think the seals liked this as they kept looking up), the people moved on and I had the seals all to myself. I love this.
I watched them, very happily in silence, for quite a while and make some film clips to show my husband later. I am guessing they are the smaller, common seals, but I could be wrong.
I am very tired now and as I start my walk across the causeway, I see people still crossing over from Rhossili. I look at my watch. They still have two hours to cross and back it back again. I start off with confidence, only to have to retrace my steps because the drop from the rocks I am on is too high.
As I am struggling down from a lower crag I am surprised by a strange animal-like snorting sound. It sounded a bit like an alarmed dog. I looked around at what I thought were barren rocks, only to realise that I have a pair of anxious eyes looking at me. It an adolescent seal, stranded all on his own in the rocks. I quickly retreated. I didn’t want to frighten him any more than I already had.
He must have been stuck here ever since the tide went out three hours ago. I briefly worried about the other walkers finding him, as some of them have dogs with them, but I decided that if I keep quiet, maybe no one else will discover him. I know that the usual advice with wild animals is to retreat and leave them alone. After all, he is so well camouflaged, I would not have seen him if he had stayed silent. In fact I did not seen him when I came across earlier.
Thankfully, crossing the causeway was slightly easier on the return journey. I think the tide was further out so I could walk alone the pebbly edge, although the climb back up the to main path was brutal.
I was relieved to be back on the main land, but there is some thing very special about being on an island, even if it’s only a tidal island like Worms Head. I think its because you are surrounded by the sea and that is an exhilarating feeling. The Gower is a bit like a tricorn hat, with a tidal island at each “corner”. This journey around the Gower coastal path started with Mumbles, with its lighthouse built on a tidal island; Burry Holmes is a tiny full stop marking the north end of Llangennith Beach but Worms Head is a comma. Not so much a footnote, but a wiggly tail making off towards the Celtic Sea. The open sea and more adventure.
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I am delighted to have sold “Koei 1509”, a painting of a South African cow, to a collector in Oxfordshire, England. The painting was based on a photograph by talented photographer Herman von Bon, who generously allowed me to use his image. Herman photographs the South African landscape along with its people and animals. I particular like his wildlife photography.
I like cows. I love all animals. I come from a family of animal lovers. I get pleasure from just looking at animals. I really enjoy painting them but I find it hard to part with my animal paintings.
Cows are the reason why I stopped eating meat a long time ago. When I was a post-graduate student at Cardiff University in the 1990s I spent a day cycling along the the flat marsh road that lies between Cardiff and Newport. It’s about 10 miles. On my way back, I stopped at a gate for a rest. I group of curious youngsters, Fresians, came up to gate to investigate me. They were cautious but seemed to egg each other on to come closer and stick out their noses to me. They amused me. I thought they were funny and sweet.
I stood for quite a while looking at them. Listening to them breathe. Cows have intelligent eyes. Big brown eyes. They weren’t essentially any different from the many animals my family had kept as pets over the years; cats, dogs and rabbits. Suddenly the thought came to me “I eat you and your friends”. I felt awful. Very guilty.
It felt very unnecessary. I don’t need to eat meat. So I decided to stop. I’d been thinking about for for some time. People sometimes ask why I am a vegetarian and I could mention things such as the cruelty of factory farming, the environmental cost but I have never felt comfortable eating sentient creatures. I always felt a hypocrite for eating Sunday roast, no matter how tasty it was.
Many of my university friends were veggies but I didn’t like many vegetables (potatoes and peas was about it for many years) and I wasn’t sure what I would eat. To be honest, I was lazy. I had to learn to cook vegetarian meals. I started with a lot of pesto and pasta. A friend of mine recommended a Rose Elliot cook book and I painstakingly read the recipes (there were no photos in the book) and I eventually learnt a few recipes off by heart. It was a bit of a slog but I felt much better for it, physically and mentally.
Although I don’t think that I paint cows all that often, they have added up over the years. I love Hereford cattle in particular. I was born in that English county and I love the russet red of their coats. You don’t see that many of them on Gower.
I seems to have painted Frisians the most – probably because I like the contrast of their black and white coats.
I never paint “generic” cows. These are all real cows. All individuals. I found Gower Cow on the slopes of Cefn Bryn at the Penmaen end. She was chewing the cud with a small group of friends.
The cow at Pwll Du was also with a group of friends, small herd I suppose, who came out of the undergrowth and started grazing on the grass by the stream at Pwll Du.
Writing this post got me thinking about the History of the cow in Art. There’s a lot to it so I have decided to save that for my next post.
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After working on my New York interior, I felt ready to return to the theme of rocky coasts. I was revisiting Mewslade Bay again, but a more panoramic composition with the tide coming in. My previous painting had been all about majesty and rocks but this one was different, it was more about colour and light. In particular I wanted to revisit some of the shadows that I’d found hard work in my previous painting and find out if I had left the “difficult bits” too long and whether I should have tackled them sooner.
Unfortunately, this painting fell into place a lot quicker than I expected and I only remembered to take a work-in-progress photos after I’d “solved” the rocks. I think that the addition of the grassy promontory, called “Devil’s Truck”, helped add a lot of interest and colour to the composition. It draws the eye to the left of the painting and away from the less interesting (in my opinion) shadowed part of the cliff in the centre. In the early stage of the painting, the foot of Jacky’s Tor (the peak on the right of the painting), is too light but I will adjust that later.
I paint the sand/reflection that will be partially covered by an incoming wave. I leave it to dry over night.
I darken the foot of Jacky’s Tor. I am a bit nervous about painting the incoming sea but my artist husband just advises me not too “think” about it but just paint it. He’s right and I consciously shut off my critical voice (or is that the left hand side of the brain) and get on with it.
I complete the sky. It passes the view-from-the-other-side-of-the-room test. I am pleased with it. It is less monumental than my previous Mewslade painting of Jacky’s Tor but I like its colourful energy. The warmth of the beach brings a lot of elements of the painting together.
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I am not well. I have a virus that makes me feel tired, my arms in particular feel heavy, my throat feels sore and I struggle with social interactions. The sense of illness ebbs and flows. I start off the day feeling rough but by the evening, I feel a bit better. Yesterday I felt terrible most of the day but strangely found myself defrosting the freezer at 8pm. I had fancied an ice lolly to ease my sore throat but I noticed that freezer door would not close. Obviously, the last person to use the freezer had not shut the door properly. So, I cleared the freezer of its content, switched it off, and got the steam cleaner out. Forty-five minutes later all the ice was gone and the content was back inside neat frost-free drawers.
I have struggled to write this post. I deleted my first two attempts as I kept going off at tangents (see defrosting freezer above). Thankfully, illness hasn’t stopped me painting. I started this large painting (92×73 cm) of Mewslade Bay but I made slow progress. Mewslade Bay is just round the corner from Worms Head and Rhossili Bay. There is no beach to speak of at high tide. At low tide, however, the sandy beach can be reached if you scramble down over some slippery rocks, and thick beds of seaweed that have been washed up against rocks. I had got up at 5 am to drive down to Mewslade to catch it at low tide. Although the majority of the sky was clear there was a spattering of mackerel clouds just above the horizon. The light was hazy and I had wait 45 minutes before I got a blast of bright sunshine on the cliff face.
I think I should have started with darkest parts of the image, rather than the lightest parts.
As I had to go back and darken the rocks in the distance and in the shadow of the furthest peak.
Adding the beach and shadow under the cliffs helped “intensify” the dark part of the cliffs.
Finally, adding the morning sky made sense of the blues and purple shadows on the east facing cliff faces. Some paintings seem to make sense straight away and with others, like this one, you have to wait until all the elements are in place. I particularly love the way the peak in the foreground casts its shadow on the second peak. It reminds me of a tiny Everest! The bright morning light makes the rock face look like a snow covered peak.
I am delighted to have sold this painting, Three Cliff Reflections, to a collector in Scotland. As is so often the case, the collector has a connection to the location in the painting, having visited it and climbed to the top of the peaks quite recently. I hope that the painting brings back happy memories of the summer.
As a painter, I feel that I have succeeded if I my work can provoke an emotional reaction. I would feel that I had gone wrong somewhere if someone said “that’s interesting” or “it’s technically skillful” about one of my paintings. Not that there’s anything thing wrong with being skillful, I just don’t want it to be the first thing they say.
They don’t have to be entirely happy emotions, either. I once had a friend who said a painting of mine, “Park Bench in the Snow” made her want to cry.
I am not sure why she wanted to cry, I think she said something about it reminded her of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life”. That film always makes me cry too. Mind you, I was particularly fond of this painting and was pretty sad when I had to part with it. I didn’t cry though. I do have favourites, and this was one.
Quite a few of my people portraits have a bitter-sweet quality to them as I am drawn to the fragility or vulnerability of the sort of people who are frequently overlooked by our instagram obsessed society.
Or amusing quality, I hope. I like observing little moments that are easily missed. Like these two children at the Uplands markets examining an old manual typewriter.
I also like watching for moments between dogs and their owners, in particular.
Back to Three Cliffs Bay. This painting “Human Concern” (below) was based on a scene I observed at Pobbles Bay, last summer. Pobbles Bay is right next the Three Cliffs Bay. The little Jack Russsell stood and watched his humans off in the sea, with such intensity. It amused me. I also found it very touching.
Part 2: Llanridian to Crofty
This is the last stretch of my walk around the Gower coastal path. I started this particular walk at Llanmadoc, which is three miles along a generally flat, but not always obvious, grassy and often muddy path.
As I approach Llanrhidian, the atmosphere changes from rural scruffiness to urban tidiness; where the grass is kept short by electric mowers rather than by sheep. I pass along a path with a wooden fence along the one side. This seemed a bit of a shock after all the open spaces.
Llanridian itself is picturesque. It feels very much like a village that has been here for hundreds of years.
There is a unique church dedicated to Saints Illtyd and Rhydian in the village. The village that grew up around the 6th century church was founded by St. Rhidian, hence it’s name – “Llan” (meaning religious enclosure) “Rhydian” (the founder’s name). Rhydian dedicated the church to St Illtyd, another Celtic saint who was believed to have lived here. You may remember St Illtyd, he was the Celtic founder of the sea-side church at Oxwich and has many churches dedicated to him across Gower and South Wales.
The church that exists in the village today was built in 14th century. It has a holy well and something known locally as a “leper stone”, as well as a 11th century wheeled cross shaft near it.
The so-called leper stone is a probably the remains of a door lintel, or maybe even or tombstone lid and dates from the 9th century. I probably did not have any connection with lepers was, other than in the imaginations of the Victorian who discovered it near the west tower doorway it in 1865 and subsequently had it moved to the church porch.
According to tradition, when St. Illtyd lived on this spot as hermit, the sea often flooded the site, destroying the saint’s cell and chapel. Several times he built an embankment of mud and stones to protect himself, but in vain. He asked an angel to help him and the sea obeyed the saint, subsiding. He then struck his crozier on the dry shore and a holy well gushed forth, instantaneously. This well still flows today and is said to have curative properties. It is located in a private garden near the Church. It also known as the “milk well” or “butter well” , by locals, as in 1185 milk and butterfat was seen flowing in it instead of water, according to the Annals of Margam. This miraculous event was said to have lasted for at least three hours.
Here I joined the coastal road. The atmosphere changes back to the marsh wildness with the mild peril of possible flooding.
It the only true coastal road on Gower. It skirts along the side of the wide marsh from Llanridian to Crofty.
I could see Crofty off in the distance, but I wasn’t going to be fooled into thinking it was close because I could see it. I can see Port Talbot from Swansea Beach, it’s still 13 miles away an in no sense “close”. Same goes for Crofty. Turns out its three miles from Llanridian, which was possibly further than I realised when I decided to trudge it’s length. It figured, its flat. It’ll be easy!
Well it was flat but it was also a very long road. It was a very empty road. I passed only three cars/vans and one cyclist in the two hours I was walking on it. The cyclist nearly ran into me when I walked into his path.
I was my fault as I didn’t look over my shoulder when I heard a noise behind me, but I was very tired at this point.
I stopped several times to take photos and enjoyed watching the light change as the clouds moved above my head. It may seem to strange to say, that this was probably my favourite part of all my Gower walks. Strange, it was very beautiful but I decided that I wasn’t going to paint this landscape. It’s too flat for my painting tastes. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it all the more. It’s even hard to capture its essence in a photograph.
I haven’t attempted to paint it but I loved the sense of wilderness here that it’s present anywhere else along the Gower coastline.
At one point there must have been a lull in the cold wind and a silence fell and then I heard a rustling in the trees and bushes behind me and then a moment later, I felt its force. It was rather eerie to feel the force of nature.
Off in the distance was an aeroplane circling round and round the estuary off over Burry Port where Amelia Earhart landed all those years ago. Amelia was the first woman to fly (or be flown) across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, when she flew across the Atlantic, this time as the pilot and on her own, four years later she landed in Northern Ireland.
I finally reached the village of Crofty.
It had a distinctly urban feel to it, not like Llanrhidian. By now had drunk both of my 500l bottles of water. I had very sore and stiff legs but I forced myself the trudge with purpose because I knew that I had about 20 minutes to make it to “New Road”, the main road, and catch the bus back home.
As I cut through the streets of Crofty, the roads all seemed unreasonably long but I eventually found the main road and I started walking in the direction of Llanridian. A bus shelter stop appeared.
It seemed like a miracle to my tired legs. A bus appeared – a number 116 it its distination read “Llanridian” and not Swansea. I was so excited to see a bus with the number I was looking for I hailed it. The rotund bus driver looked at me slowly. No, this wasn’t the bus to Swansea. The stop for that was on the other side of the road. I looked across the road. So he pulled off and I crossed to the other side of the road, although there was no bus shelter or bus sign there. So I waited and waited. After about ten minutes, a school bus pulled up and some street-wise-looking teenagers got off. None of them looked like they were rushing home to do their homework.
Eventually, after I started wondering if Crofty had a taxi service or I’d have to stumble another two miles up the road to Penclawdd, a number 116 bus appeared. It said Swansea on the front. The bus indicated that it was stopping before I put out my hand to hail it. That was handy, I thought. I stepped onto the bus to show the driver my return ticket and as I glanced into his sour face, I realised that he was the same bus driver I spoke to twenty minutes earlier. Not a flicker of recognition passed over his face. I walked to the my seat, glad to sit down after 4 hours walking, chuckling to myself.
I had covered 6 miles and my feet were throbbing. It was a funny end to the walk. I had not seen the sea or river all day but I had smelt the salt and felt the wind. I had hardly seen a soul. It certainly the wildest and flattest part of the coastal path. I was glad it was over and my challenge was finally complete, Well, almost.
This isn’t quite my last Gower coastal walk. I haven’t walked out along the causeway to Worms Head. However, you cannot climb to the top of the outer headland between the 1st March and the 31st of August – as it is closed in order to protect the many breeding sea birds, so I am waiting until September to do this final walk.
Below is a short video clip of the marshes near Llanmadoc. I’m afraid its rather poor, turn off the sound, but it’ll give you a good sense of of how vast and flat the marshes are.
Part 1: Llanmadoc to Llanridian
I was feeling very nervous about this walk as I would have to change buses in the middle of nowhere. I very nearly chickened and got in my car after a fellow blogger commented that I “should not bother with rural buses but drive. However, it was a long walk, just over six miles, and I did not want to break it up into two or three circular walks. I wanted to walk the length of the north Gower coast in one go, if I could. So I got up and packed sandwiches, lots of biscuits, a banana in its strange yellow banana “gimp” case and two bottles of water. I had decided that thirst was the worst torment on my last two solo trips and I was going to be better prepared this time.
I had caught the same bus to Port Eynon (the number 119 to Rhossili, if you interested) and had changed at Scurlage but this time I had to change at a location called Llanridian Turn. I have studied the map and I think I know where it is. I don’t remember passing it from the previous bus journey and it doesn’t really seem to be “on the way” to Rhossili. So I check with the bus driver as I buy my ticket.
The bus arrives at Llanridian Turn and it pulls in behind another bus, a number 116, but its not the one I want. So I ask the driver about the 115 to Llanmadoc and he says that he’s driving it and walk towards a small bus that has just arrived and he swaps buses with the new driver. He’s a friendly chap, with a sparkly diamante earring in one of his ears. So we set off. I am the only passenger.
I end up standing at the front of the bus (holding on to the special rail) chatting to the driver for most of the journey. “You couldn’t ask for better weather” he says. He’s right. It’s a sparkling bright spring morning. It’s cold though. Only 7 degrees Centigrade (that’s 44 in Fahrenheit). He fishes out a timetable for me from his rucksack. It’s a timetable that covers all Gower buses. I have not seen this before, it certainly wasn’t to be found in the bus station anyway. “Where do you want to get off?” I have never had a bus driver ask where I want to stop before. This must be one the joys of rural bus services. I eventually get off by Llanmadoc Post Office. I wave at the bus driver as he drives away as if we are old friends.
I find a path, not an official coastal one, but it is sign posted for Whiteford Burrows, which seems the right direction, so I take it. It’s more of a farmers’ track than a path. I walk down a long muddy track, pass cattle, sheep and an old tractor and eventually reach the same point as we did on our detour from Cwm Ivy (to avoid the breached sea wall). I find it more by luck than any thing. It is very muddy.
This is Landimore Marsh. It’s a saltmarsh, an area of coastal grassland that is regularly flooded by seawater. Springs, small rivers called “pills”, flow out into the estuary, in meandering lines that make maze-patterns in the marsh. The main pills crisscrossing the area are Burry Pill and Great Pill.
For hundreds of years, the people who lived along its edge have used the marshlands for grazing their animals. They still do today. The lambs that are raised on the salt marshes are reputed to have a distinctive and special flavour, but I cannot speak from experience as I am a vegetarian. Although the cows and ponies know to move off the marsh with the advancing tides, especially the spring tide that can move with great speed, the sheep for some reason don’t. The local farmers have to bring them in. Although sheep can swim, as all animals can, for a short period of time, if they get cut off by the tide they will drown.
The walk along the marsh path is very muddy indeed. I have visions of me sliding and twisting my ankle or falling flat on my face, but I manage to survive without incident. I take the low tide route, but I spent much of my times sliding around wondering if the high tide route would have been less muddy.
To my right is North Hill Tor, or Nortle Tor, on which are the remains of a partial fortifications, probably dating back to the Iron Age period (c. 800 BC – AD 43). According the the famous Swansea-born historian, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, Nortle Tor was quarried in previous centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars, one of its extensive caves provided useful hiding place for local young men when the press gang was spotted coming across the estuary from Llanelli.
There is a wonderful presence about the marsh. It stretches away as flat as a proverbial pancake. No sea, or River Loughor in sight. The marsh is indented by patterns of muddy pools, creeks and channels. It is very peaceful and I get drawn into the atmosphere of the marsh. The grass has a curious white-ish tinge to it which I assume is from the salt. I see a lot of sheep’s footprints but no sheep, although I can see a few ponies far away on the marsh. It turns out that the sheep are in the farmers’ fields with their lambs.
The path eventually passes a couple of houses and leaves the marsh. I see my first fellow walkers of the day. I only see one other couple on the path today. I see, however, vast numbers of sheep and lambs, marsh ponies, robins, sparrows, a red kite and a large Great White Egret flying over the marsh.
The path reaches Bovehill, where it turns further inland and passes the remains of another fortification, Bovehill Castle, a fortified mansion with walls a metre thick. It was once the seat of the 14th century crusader knight, Sir Hugh Jonys and later Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a support of Henry Tudor (the father of Henry VIII of six wives fame).
Ivy Cottage Landimore
The “coastal” path then turns off the road onto Bovehill Farm. I can’t see the sea and now I can’t really see the marsh, either. I don’t see the marsh again for a long time, perhaps for about as much as an hour as the path trails inland. In fact, it turns out its about 2 and a half miles to Llanridian. The path instead, runs through the farmland, parallel to the marsh.
This get a bit confusing. I often enter a field and have little idea of where the path goes. So I set off at a 60 degree angle only to adjust my course when I eventually spot the stile in the opposite corner of the field.
There have not been enough walkers recently to make tracks for me to follow across the fields.
I see swallows (the first I have seen this year) over the fields by Landimore. Weobley Castle, another fortified manor house, is a dark presence looming on the cliff above me. From the time of the Norman conquest of Gower to the 15th century, Weobley belonged to the de la Bere family.
Just below Weobley Castle there is a road that leads out into the marsh.
Where does it go? It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, as such.
At the end of the track, there is a odd wooden structure out in the estuary. I can see it with my naked eye but my camera is struggling to get a good picture. I think its made of wood. I can’t tell. You can see it from miles around.
According to historian Wynford Vaughan Thomas, the American army used the marshes as a firing range during the Second World “War. It turns out that it was the US army that built the causeway out into the marshes. The strange building, is not wooden but made of concrete and brick. It was a look-out built by the Americans. I have to search online for close up photographs.
Photo credit: mylifeoutside.co.uk
There is a very dark tale about the Burry Estuary during the Second World War that Wynford was probably not aware of, as it was kept secret until 1999. There had been rumours about the secret testing of chemical and biological weapons in the estuary during World War II for many years. This story is to do with the British government and experiments in biological warfare, not the American Army. The wartime government had asked Porton Down, its chemical warfare research installation, to conduct trials of an anthrax bomb. Anthrax, is a lethal bacteria, which was seen as having “enormous potential” for biological warfare. I would like to point out that biological warfare was, and still is, banned under a 1925 Geneva protocol. This is why countries will make a big fuss about its use on civilians in Syria or even Salisbury, England.
In 1941 there had been a series of tests of anthrax bombs on the uninhabited Gruinard Island, off the west coast of Scotland. These tests had produced contradictory results, primarily due to the soft, boggy ground at Gruinard, so it was decided at short notice to carry out a single replacement test on the firm sand of the Burry Inlet.
On a Wednesday afternoon, in late October 1942, the scientists carried out an experiment over the north Gower salt marshes, dropping an anthrax bomb from a Blenheim aircraft. Two lines of 30 sheep were placed downwind of the aiming mark, spread at 10 yard intervals. When the bomb fell it made a crater of about three feet in width and two feet deep. Three days after the trial, two of the sheep died of anthrax septicaemia, and three others were ill for a day or so before recovering entirely. Apparently, the scientists proclaimed the test result ‘very satisfactory’, especially as this was the first time such a bomb had been dropped from a plane flying at operational level.
According to the report, the site was ‘effectively decontaminated’ by the incoming tide a few hours after the test took place. The carcases of the dead sheep were ‘buried deeply at the seaward edge of the marshland area’. The remaining sheep were observed for seven days after the test, the survivors then being slaughtered and buried.
This all seems a bit of a casual clean up and in marked contrast to the situation at Gruinard island, which had served as the previous test site for anthrax. In that case the entire island was set ablaze and subsequently closed to public access for nearly 50 years. Even today people and animals alike avoid the island, despite efforts to decontaminate the island in the 1980s. All I can assume is that larger quantities of anthrax was used in Scotland.
Update: There’s no need to worry about the dangers of anthrax as it was confirmed in 1987 that “investigations …[after the] trial revealed no evidence of any residual contamination”.
When the path finally reaches Llanrhidian, it seems like quite a shock after all the open space of the marsh and the fields. I think about walking up to the main road where I could catch a bus home but instead I press on .
My next post will be my final stage of the coastal path, from Llanrhidian along the coastal road to the village of Crofty.