I managed to make it down to Rhossili Bay this week. It has been raining on and off for weeks. I have been painting in my attic studio listening to the rain thundering down and I have got quite tired of that sound. So when I was greeted by clear skies I decided, on a whim, to drive down to Rhossili to see the autumn colours.
Rhossili has a wonderful windy wildness to it. It’s unlike the rest of the Gower Peninsula. The trees all lean heavily away from sea and the prevailing westerly wind. As I drove into the village I was caught up in a sheep-jam. A herd of sheep was being moved from one field to another. They were packed into the little road and had stopped the traffic (it was three cars actually). I watched the mob of sheep as they swirled in front of my car and past me. They were Welsh Mountain sheep; only a few had horns. Their creamy fleeces were spotted with brightly coloured red and purple “smit” marks. These are marks painted by their farmers that denote ownership. One moment they were packed around me and the next they had moved on.
There was space in the church car park so I parked and put my donation in a slot in the wall. This car park is closer to Rhossili Beach. If I had wanted to walk to Worms Head itself the National Trust Car park with its facilities (loo block and shop) would have been better. From here I walked down a stepped concreted path down towards the beach. It seems strange but I have never walked on this particular path before. I don’t know why. I have always walked parallel to the beach along the cliffs paths (one on the top of the downs and one in front of the rectory). I wrote about the coastal path in several blog posts and in my book, Footnotes: An Artist’s Journey Around the Gower Coast.
So I followed the path downhill and got a different view of the Worm. The bracken had died back to a wonderful russet colour (one that I associate with wales) and the sea was a beautiful turquoise blue. The tide was out and the tidal island, the Worm (Wurm) rose up above the waves on the horizon. I looked at how the light caught the back of the Dragon and remembered how arduous walking across it was.
The walk down to the sea was quite steep but easy. The final descent was down a ramp of gravel. The vast beach was surprisingly populated for a term-time day in the week.
Of course, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the remains of the Helvetia on Rhossili Beach. The Helvetia was a Norwegian ship bound for Canada that was wrecked in south-easterly gale on Rhossili Bay over 130 years ago on 1st November 1887. In the Instagram age, given its picturesque location, its not surprising that it has been photographed and shared countless times.
I walk across the beach to bottom of the vast 200-foot cliffs, looking at the colours and light. There are seagulls scattered across the beach and when I turn back I can see the Rhossili Downs and the Od Rectory reflected in the outgoing tide.
On the far edge of the beach, I was surprised to discover the remains of another shipwreck in the sand. A bit of online research and I discover that this is Vennerne, apparently, it is known locally as the Vernani, and it was dashed to pieces under the Rhossili cliffs in 1894.
Another Wreck on Rhossili Bay
There is quite a strong breeze. When the clouds roll in it starts to feel cold. The clouds create a softer light. The grays and purples dominate. I am glad I have my woolly scarf on and start to make my way back to my car. The path hill is pretty steep and the climb warms me up.
The next day, I am tired from walking across the sand but it doesn’t matter as its raining again.
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.
To see landscape paintings available to buy please clickhere
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.
One thing I will say for Swansea Tourism is that they provide excellent free maps of the Gower. You can pick them up at “Information Points” around the city. I invariably have one folded into my pocket or in the front of my rucksack. They are small enough to be folded and stored easily like that. Not like my massive Ordnance Survey Explorer map of Gower. It’s about 20 years old so I don’t like to get it out unless I really have to. I am not very good at folded maps back into their original shape. Even the free map when is essentially a A2 sheet of paper (42 x 60 cm or 16.5 x 23.4 inches) printed on both sides causes me trouble in a good breeze.
I don’t really need my map today as the path follows the sea in a logical manner. The coast path signs appear at all junctions to make it clear which way I should be going. I do need the map to work out where something called the Knave is. The knave is a triangular slab of rock. I had come across a beautiful photograph of the Knave by Paul Edwards and was quite intrigued by it, as I had never come across it before.
I did not get to see the Knave from the same angle as Paul’s photograph on this particular walk.
From the coast path the Knave looks a bit like a dragon beginning to unfurl itself. I say that because there is a much larger dragon ahead, I am looking forward to seeing close up. I don’t have the time or energy to walk down to the Knave beach, today, I will leave that for another time.
I carry on the path towards Rhossili and my attention is drawn to the houses and farms that lie away back from the cliff edge. You can see them from miles away and I wonder what they are like inside, looking out at the sea.
There is lots of wildlife to observe. I can hear a lark’s rising song and I see black crows. Dylan Thomas probably would described them as “bible- black”. I see a robin. I think on every walk I have been on I have seen robins, whether I am in woodland, by a wooded stream, on heath land or on on the clifftops, they really must be very adaptable little birds. I even see a rabbit; his white tail vanishing into the gorse. Apparently rabbits are a vanishing species in the UK, their numbers have fallen by 80-90% in the past 20 years so I am happy to see one out here today. I also see and manage to photograph a solitary tortoiseshell butterfly. Although, it is one of the most widespread butterflies in Britain, it too has suffered a decline in numbers.
It is lambing season and the path is littered with sparkling white-fleeced lambs, twins and singletons sunning themselves along side their mothers. Maybe it’s my imagination but many of them seems to be smiling as they relax in the sun!
The path passes a series of narrow gullies down to the sea, Foxhole and Butterslade, and then the magnificent Thurba Head, a headland with 200 foot sheer cliffs down to the sea.
Mewslade. Here there is a path down to the sea, there is also a long dry stone wall that trails down to the sea. It is in the process of being repaired. I stop to look at the stones and marvel at the craftspeople that know how to arrange the stones to make a sold wall, all without cement.
If you go down to Mewslade, at low tide there is a beautiful sandy beach but at high tide there no beach at all, just rocky cliffs.
Mewslade – tide’s coming in!
At low tide, you can supposedly walk from Mewslade to Fall Bay around the next headland. I think some rock climbing might be involved. When I tried it from the other direction (Fall Bay to Mewslade) I ended up with wet boots (it’s a long story.)
After Mewslade I am getting excited as I can see Tear Point at the far end of Fall Bay. I have walked this part of the path quite recently and although I am getting very tired, I have a sense that I can do this. This long walk will be completed.
Now onto the climax of this long walk; Worm’s Head. As historian Wynford Vaughan Thomas called it “the Land’s End of Gower”. Its still quite a way until I reach the bus stop in Rhossili but I am now powered on by the sight of the Worm (in Old English “Wurm” means dragon).
This curious dragon-like, tidal island snakes off into the sea. I have seen seals on the leeward side of the island. Between the cliffs and the Worm is the causeway, it is visible this afternoon. It is a rocky mess of rocks and rock pools, which is open for 2.5 hours either side of low tide. At low-tide, the causeway can be crossed to the island. It is usually fatal to attempt to wade or swim to from back from the Worm when the causeway is flooded or partially so. Sadly, people have died tried to do so.
It’s one of the jobs of the little Coastwatch station, perched on the headland, to stop people from risking their lives doing this. It’s a stout and sturdy single story building is made of granite. It has been sitting alone at the top of the high cliffs that look out towards Worms Head and beyond to Lundy Island and to the Celtic Sea for well over a century. It’s also looking out for fishing and leisure craft who might experience difficulties off the rocky shoreline. A team of local volunteers look after from the coastwatch station; from 10am till 4pm in the winter and 10am till 6pm in the summer. If at the end of watch the Causeway has not yet flooded and there are members of the public still out on Worm’s Head, the watch is kept open until everyone is safely back on the mainland.
Kitchen Corner is a small bay to the right of the path that leads down to the Worm’s Head causeway. The boathouse was built in the 1920s and is often used as a location for fishermen although there was no one here today.
That little white building in the middle of Rhossili Bay is the old rectory. I will come back to it in my next post on my walk across Rhossili Downs.
I had looked at my watch and discovered that it had just gone 2pm. According to the notes on my post-it note there was a bus back to Swansea at 2.32 pm and then at just before to 4pm. I decided I would try and make the first bus.; It would involve a bit of a speedy march and by now I had a ranging thirst and I knew I would need to refill my lone water bottle somewhere. So I put my head down and forced my limbs to move as fast as I could along the long smooth concrete path from the Worm back up to Rhossili. A classic case of just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it close. It’s actually about a mile in distance.
Even as I am steaming along the path, I still have to pause and take a few photos of the incredible view across Rhossili Bay of Llangennith Beach. I pass people on the way, many different foreign languages floating on the breeze; German, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi. Of all the places on the Gower peninsula, this is the one that draws vistiors from all over the world, everyday, even on a day with bad weather. I love the international aspect of the place. It make me feel like I am citizen of the world.
I finally make it up the long path into Rhossili village. I also had time to stop off at the National Trust Conveniences to refill my water bottle. I am relieved to see that there is someone else waiting for the bus too. Always a good sign. An empty bus stop always has me wondering if I have just missed the bus.
It took me four hours to walk from Port Eynon to Rhossili. Was it 6 or 8 miles? It was probably 6 but it felt like 8, will all those ups and downs. I started the walk thinking about a slight twinge in my right knee – latter on I had forgotten that twinge in favour of my aching upper thighs (from going up and down hills), then it was aching calfs and finally whilst sitting on the long bus journey back to Swansea it is my feet that are throbbing.
So what did I learn today?
1. Remember suntan lotion. I should have put on suntan lotion. My right arm is burnt My left arm is fine. I now have a small tube at the bottom of my rucksack.
2 Water. Bring more water. Two bottles. Bringing enough water is more important than bananas, plaster, handbags and so on. I will bring two bottles on my next walk.
3. Finally, “Just because I can see it, doesn’t mean it’s close”. It’s now my walking mantra. However, it can be encouraging to see the end of your journey even if you are not there yet. This can be metaphorical as well are real – I can see the end of this journey now. I am over half way. I have walked over 18 miles out of the 32 or so I will need to do to complete this coast walk. I am buoyed by this feeling.
I have to pause in my journey around the Gower Peninsula because I have exam invigilation work for the next three weeks.
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.
Chips at 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.
Before our visit to Fall Bay, Gower, I’d read online that it was “one of the hardest bays to reach on the Gower Peninsula”.
My curiosity was piqued. The walk from old Great Pitton Farm, to Mewslade seemed easy enough. The coastal path climbed up past Jacky’s Tor, Devil Truck and Lewes Castle until it reached Fall Bay. Not so difficult, I thought. That was until I attempted the climb down to the beach!
The beaches at Brandy Cove and Great Tor Bay also require you to clamber down some limestone rocks before you reach the sandy beach. This path, however, was much more difficult to navigate, though. The way became very narrow and I had to wait several minutes to let two energetic families come past. Still, I have this idea that one must suffer to some degree in the creation of your art so I carried on. As I started my climb down, the “path” became much tighter and steeper as the way down twisted and the rocks were worryingly smooth. The final descent was very difficult, made much more treacherous by slippery rocks. I was amazed that I didn’t twist my ankle! So no wonder, the “beach is never crowded”.
The day had become overcast by the time we reached the beach. Tears Point rises above the beach at the west end. Worm’s Head and Rhossili, is just round the corner, but out of view. The grey light meant that the waves looked greener and the cliffs more red/orange. I was drawn to painting the light through the breaking waves, where the sand and sky is reflected in the narrow part of the wave. I also loved the chunkiness of the cliff where it meets the sand and how the surf swirled around it. I got my feet and trousers wet more than once!
Thankfully, it was much easier to climb back up the path than it was coming down.
We have lived on the doorstep of the Gower Peninsula for almost 18 years now. It’s small enough (19 miles in length) to make day trips from Swansea possible. As a landscape artist, it has given me inspiration for many Gower landscape and seascape paintings over the years. Yet, there is always some part I come across that I don’t remember having seen before. It is 70 square miles in area, so that’s a lot of coastline, hills, valleys, woodlands, streams and fields to explore. I have always wanted to walk along the entire length of the coastal path, to see all the “linking sections” that we miss on the day trips. Perhaps, I will do it this summer.
Rhossili is always popular with visitors. It has an incredible view of the 3-mile beach of Rhossili Bay that arcs northward. In the other direction is Worms Head. This curious dragon-like, tidal island snakes off into the sea. I have seen seals on the leeward side of the island. At low-tide, the causeway can be crossed to the island. When we visited the tide was dropping and the causeway was revealing itself minute, by minute. Yet, the surprise for me was the Old Boathouse at Kitchen Corner. Kitchen Corner is a small bay to the right of the path that leads down to the Worm’s Head causeway. The boathouse was built in the 1920s and was up for sale in 2013. Looking at the real estate details, it doesn’t look like the new owners (if it was sold then) have painted the boathouse since! At low tide, the rocks below are exposed. I painted it when the green heaving sea was still at its feet. I love to capture the deep green that you only see with a summer sky. It’s a distinct colour that is often found off the coast of West Wales, in Pembrokeshire in particular. I use a lot of turquoise and royal blue to try and recreate the tone in my oil painting. There were also fishermen on the ledges opposite the boathouse.
One day my husband and I walked up this steep hill overlooking Cheriton in Gower Peninsula and when we arrived at the top we were amazed at the view which was a view of practically all of Gower.
We walked on and on and eventually walked to where we could see the world famous “Worms Head” peaking it’s head and neck out of the water like a rising dragon, with it’s humped back submerged behind.
I thought this would make a lovely and unusual painting, this view and perspective.
Most paintings of Worms Head are from the perspective of glorious Rhossili or from the great beautiful expanse of Llangennith beach but this view has something else. It looked like Worm’s head was a great beast swimming round the corner of the hill in the distance. I loved the patchwork of fields and colours, especially how they flowed down the hill and twisted around it, giving a really pleasing fluidity of movement. I tried to catch this fluidity in this painting.
An expressionist oil painting of the world famous Rhossili Bay at the far end of Gower Peninsula, itself the first designated Area of Outstanding Beauty in Great Britain. Autumn has draped a coppery red blanket on the hillside and the windy waves have etched patterns of light mauve and blue in the sand.
I have recently been spending time with my parents in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. On a bright sunny Sunday morning I explored some of the winding tracks of a near by village called Chalford and Chalford Hill. Where is that? In the South West-ish of the English Midlands ( see map below). The Parish of […]
I was absolutely delighted to spot Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (and my painting on the cover) at the BBC’s screen of this year’s British Academy Film Awards, known as the BAFTAs. The Irish language film “The Quiet Girl” was nominated for Best Screenplay (Adapted) catagory. The film’s director Colm Bairead wrote the screenplay, adapted Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella. The moving film was also nominated for the Best Film Not in the English Language.
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)