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. Here’s my contribution to the vast collection of Helvetia photos.
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.
The Rosses (in Gaelic, Na Rosa) is a region in the west of County Donegal, Ireland. The name comes from “Ros”, the Irish word for headland. It is a curiously rocky place. Not rocky, in the sense that national parks in the American west, like Utah and Arizona, are made of 100% rock, but rather the bedrock is covered with a thin layer of earth, with slabs of rocks and boulders poking through. It’s a barren but beautiful landscape, studded with a myriad of lakes and inlets of the sea.
It may feel like the edge of the known world but this area has been inhabited “since time immemorial” according to Wikipedia. Coastal places like the Rosses, in Donegal, looked out onto a massive highway – the sea. Missionary Celtic saints were busy in this area in the 6th century AD. These saints relished a challenge and liked to travelled up and down the Celtic waterways to spread Christianity to nearby Scotland. In the 1990s it was fashionable to argue that these Irish monks had in fact, “saved civilisation” by copying the books being destroyed elsewhere by Germanic invaders, eventually bringing them back to the places from which the books had come. Part of this movement included women like St. Crona or St. Crone (Cróine) , a female religious of royal blood. She found a monastery in Termon near Dungloe. She was a cousin of the the better known St. Columba (St. Columcille in Irish) one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who founded the monastic settlement at Iona.
Much later (about a thousand years or so) in the 16th century, a number of ships from the Spanish Armada sank off or landed off its coast. Some 24 to 26 Spanish Armada ships are believed to have foundered off the Irish coast in 1588 while returning from a failed invasion of England by King Philip II. This is not just local myth as the wrecks of two Spanish ships were discovered by archaeologists in shallow water near Burtonport, Donegal, in 2008/9.
What happened to the survivors of these wreck is unclear. We know that as many as 9,000 Spanish soldiers and sailors lost their lives off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, either through drowning or were killed by English troops or Irish chieftains after they were washed ashore. However, not all died. Some Irish who were sympathetic to the Spaniards sheltered them and some kept them on as soldiers. Local legend, credits black-haired locals as being descents of these men, but they are possibly the descents of much earlier people who came from the Iberian peninsula after the end of the last ice age.
I found this area both beautiful fascinating. Donegal manages to combine a sense of isolation with company, should you want it. This area is littered with houses, old and modern. Many homes are built on the rocks, or have massive rocks in their gardens. People have had to work around the boulders and outcrops.The prevalence of pines dotted across the landscape gives the area a Scots or Canadian feel to it; Caledonian in fact.
Although in many senses there is plenty of space, houses seem to huddle together in clusters, isolated but within sight of others. A lot of them (the newer ones, anyway) face out towards the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in many cases old cramped cottages have been replaced by larger modern buildings. Many tiny cottages, or abandoned derelict buildings are overshadowed by bigger ones. The smaller cottages ended up as holiday homes for visitors. Most of the houses are painted white, but with some older stone cottages and out-houses are left “au naturel”.
On one of the few sunny afternoons we had, we raced round taking photographs of the houses on the rocks. Each bend in the narrow road revealed different vistas. It was hard to decide which one I liked the best. Not only did these houses look out to the sea, behind them were hills and mountains. My painting “Round the Rosses” captures a typical cluster of old and new homes perched on the top of rocky landscape. The light from the afternoon sun glints in the windows of the large house, that faces out to the ocean. The older, smaller buildings look to the east; away from the force of rain and storms and towards the rising sun.
My grandfather, Fred Cownie, used to work for the forestry commission, buying up Welsh farmland and planting swaths of conifer forests. Sadly, I never knew my grandfather as he died before I was born, long before my parents were married, in fact. Apparently, he was a sociable man who was popular with the farmers and forestry workers alike and I like to think he enjoyed his work talking and with people and tramping across the Welsh landscape. Sounds like a great job working with trees and people, not stuck in an office.
I love trees. My favourite trees are the elegant beech trees, with their copper autumn leaves. I also love the scotch pines that pepper the Gower peninsula. There’s a woodland at Whiteford point and also near Parkmill, which I have returned to time and again to paint.
Scotch pines are the only truly native pines to the UK. They spread across the British Isles after the last ice age but in Wales, the trees became extinct about 300–400 years ago, due to over-exploitation and grazing. I don’t know when they were re-introduced on Gower but this section of woodlands was almost certainly planted by a local landowner, possibly the owners of nearby Kilvrough Manor. Amazingly, mature trees grow to 35m and can live for up to 700 years!
We walked the dogs here last week and took photos. I like this section of woodland as the pine needles on the ground deaden footsteps and although birdsong can be heard, it seems quieter than the surrounding beech wood. Much of the wood falls into the shadow of a the valley side and direct light does not hit the trees until late morning in the winter.
When the light hits the trees it illuminates their scaly orange-brown bark. This bark develops plates and fissures with age. The twigs are green-brown and pretty much hairless until you reach the highest parts of the tree, 20 to 30 metres high. I love to stand looking up at the tops of the trees, swaying with the wind. On the ground the tree trunks appear stock still. I like to think its a good analogy for life, you have to bend with the wind.
The great thing about Scotch Pines is that they are so quiet and light, unlike conifers forests which can be pretty dark.
The sun went in so whilst I was waiting for it to reappear I filmed this 360 degree shot, I tried to pan very slowly but I don’t think I was slowly enough! There is a stream nearby that has dried up from lack of rain over the summer. It sounds daft but when I am out walking I often ponder their stoic nature. They can’t move, they have to accept where they are in the wood. Some people believe that they communicate with each other through their roots. I’m not sure what my grandfather, Fred, would have made of that!
You can but limited edition mounted prints of Gower woodland here
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I get hold of an idea I can get quite obsessive about it. Lately, it’s been early morning light. I think it sprang from a post I wrote about transposing some of the techniques I used for my “Urban Minimal” project to what I only half-jokingly called “Rural Minimal”. I think that my rural Gower houses did fulfil the spirit of “Rural Minimal” but it got me think about shadows. Now, shadows were my first love. They still are. It’s hard to find any painting of mine without blue/mauve/purple/brown shadows. I go through tubes of Lukas 1862 Mauve at a steady rate. Many of my Gower woodland paintings used early morning winter light.
And why do I love shadows so much? It’s because they act as a foil to the light. The orange next to the dark mauve positively leaps off the canvas. Perhaps, its a cheap way of thrilling the viewer? I am always very impressed by artists who capture a gloomy or overcast landscape. Plein Air painters prefer overcast conditions because they are more constant and American artist, Jeremy Sams, demonstrates this really well in his painting. He says “The good thing about painting on an overcast day is that you don’t have to chase shadows. The light remains very constant and my acrylic paints stay wet for a good long while.”
However, I love shadows. They make a composition interesting and dynamic. So, anyway, the post about Rural Minimal got me thinking about shadows in rural settings. I realised that because I have been focusing on my Gower Walks and working to bus timetables that I was mostly walking in the late morning and finishing up in the early afternoon. I was becoming increasing frustrated that my lovely walks weren’t inspiring the sort of paintings I like to make. The light wasn’t right. Midday light, especially in the summer, has a tendency to bleach out the details. This is what shadows “do”, they show us the details of the landscape.
I have always been a morning person. Each morning is like a fresh start to me. What ever happened yesterday, last night is gone.To be honest, I think that have always done my best work by 11 am. When I was writing my PhD thesis, many years ago, I’d do my best writing between at 8 and 11 am. To be honest, most of the work I did after 11 am was fact checking (this was in the days before the interest when you had to look things up in books) and faffing, but I’d dutifully stay at my desk til 5 pm.
So I decided that I need to seek out early morning light on Gower. This long spell of hot weather meant that morning skies were often (but not always) clear. That meant getting up early. I have been dragging myself out of bed just after sunrise. It’s summer and the sun rises just after 5 am in here Wales. It is painful getting up that early but once I have had a cup of coffee I can face the outside world, just about.
The first time I drove down to Three Cliffs Bay, 6 miles away, I was so tired that I actually forgot my camera! I felt so stupid but I got back in my car and drove back home to fetch the darn thing, delaying my “start” by 30 minutes.
Compare the light and shadows to yesterday morning (when I remembered my camera) and actually got there for about 6.30am.
It’s different. Not necessarily better, just different. Do you know what, it doesn’t matter. I like both conditions. The changing tides always also variety and interest. Summer Morning light has a beautiful rich quality to it and I like seeing how it changes, the shadows shorten, darken, light break over the cliffs, as the morning progresses. I have sat down on the cliff tops and watch the light change.
I like seeing nature first thing. I like seeing the dew. In this very dry summer it’s a godsend. The grass on rolling fairways of Pennard golf course has turned the colour of straw except for the patches where the dew collects in the morning. There it’s a fresh green. Walking down towards the sea, along the sandy path by the golf course, I often see the white tails of wild rabbits dashing into the undergrowth. Their numbers in the UK have fallen in recent decades but thankfully, there seem to be plenty on Gower.
Free-range cows roam the cliffs of Pennard and South Gate as well as the valley next to Three Cliffs Bay. They are usually busily eating the grass they can find down in the marshy valley or in the shadows of the thorny gorse bushes, or even in the Golf Club car park before the golfers arrive!
Cows chewing the cud (mid morning) and cows at work, eating grass (early morning).
I delight in the long shadows and the reflections at low tide. How the reflected light is more golden than the light on the rocky cliffs.
At high tide the colours all change again.
I have got up early and visited Rhossili, Penmaen and Three Cliffs Bay six times in the past fortnight. This includes the morning I thought the light cloud would clear but instead it thickened. A passing Jack Russell was photographed, as well as the rabbit above. So, I sat down and sketched.
I will keep going until this weather goes off, while may well be very soon. I will be working from this research for quite a while after it has clouded over again.
A while back, last June in fact, I read an excellent blog post by American artist Luann Udell entitled “How Long Did It Take You To Make That?” in which she discusses all time-consuming processes and skill that go into creating her pieces. It occurred to me that while the actual time it takes to paint my work may take anything from one to three days, depending on the size of the canvas, the actual thinking, planning, gestation, waiting for the weather and preparation takes a lot longer. I should also include in that waiting for the seasons to change. Just yesterday I was remarking to my husband that the heather was starting to flower and so another visit to Rhossili Downs would be in order soon. Nothing stays the same in nature, or in life! My job is to observe and attempt to capture some of those fleeting changes.
The Gower boasts two gems that most visitors never see. I have lived in Swansea for 19 years and this was the first time that I saw them. These are Three Chimneys, a sea arch that used to be two arches, and a massive rock pool known as Blue Pool. These two marvels are not easy to find. They are tucked to the north of Broughton Bay. They are located on Blue Pool Bay, in the northern-eastern corner of the peninsula. You cannot drive to this bay but have to walk.
I ended up doing the walk twice in one week. The first time, it was sunny when we set off from Swansea. We had sun hats too. The car park next to Broughton Caravan Park, where we start the walk, was free. This is a rare thing on Gower. We are forever pawing through our change to find enough pound coins for the ticket machines. They never seem to take £5 notes or credit cards. This car park sits next to a large static caravan park. Many of the people who own caravans here live close by in Swansea. It has a friendly family feel to it, it has palm trees and little gardens.
Almost as soon as we got out the car it clouded over. We walked through the large static caravans and along a path covered in wooden slats, which was wonderfully easy to walk along.
As the path snaked around the hill and entered dunes the clouds came lower. The further along the path we progress the mistier it got.
Eventually, we see can Three Chimneys from the top of the dunes. It was clearly two arches, once upon a time, but one has collapsed.
We walk on until we reach Burry Holms, another of Gower’s three tidal islands (the others are Mumbles and Worms Head). Just over nine thousand years ago, it was not an island but a hill nine miles from the sea. There is a lot of archaeology here, including a Mesolithic site, a Bronze Age burial mound, an Iron Age fort with a deep defensive ditch and bank, and the remains of a monastic settlement founded in the 11th century and abandoned during the 17th century. There are also a number of post-Medieval quarries and limekilns are along the cliff edges.
No one knows why it is called Burry Holms. There is a port across the Loughor estuary called Burry Port, but Burry Port in Welsh is Porth Tywyn which means White House Port (I think). I’m not sure what the Burry means in this case, but Anglo-Saxon a “burh” usually means a fortified town. Many of them date back to 9th century when raids and invasions by Vikings prompted Alfred the Great to develop a network of burhs and roads to use against them. I know that the island’s name of “Holm” comes from the Old Norse meaning “island in an estuary” (think of Flat Holm and Steep Holm further out in the Bristol Channel). This also reflects the Norse domination of the waterways in this area, which lasted up until the 11th century. After all Worms Head (Wurm – meaning dragon) is also a Norse name.
The ruins of the 14th-century chapel dedicated to Saint Cenydd can also be seen at the eastern end of the island. St Cenydd, sometimes Anglicized as Saint Kenneth, was a Christian hermit who founded a church at Llangennith, to the south of Burry Holms. The story of St Cenydd’s early life is wonderfully fantastical and not to be taken at face value. Cenydd was supposedly a Breton Prince, born of from an incestuous relationship, at Loughor (this is a modern day suburb of Swansea).
Baby Cenydd was born with some sort of disability, and on account of this he was put in a willow basket/cradle and launched into the River Loughor, like a Celtic Moses. This willow basket eventually washed up on Worms Head and the local seagulls and angels looked after the baby and somehow managed to bring him up as a Christian. Interestingly, St David, Wales’s patron saint, cured Cenydd of his disability in later life. Was St Cenydd at all grateful? Not a bit of it. He wasn’t happy about this at all and actually prayed for his disability to be restored!
So we sat looking out at Burry Holms eating biscuits. We watched a seagull swoop and circle the cliffs again and again. He did this at least ten times. I was trying to decide if he’s was scaring off some jackdaws or was jealous of a courting couple.
Another pair of gulls sit cosily together on a ledge. Then, suddenly the male mounted the female and a quick bit of mating takes place. The male then abruptly flies off. “To the pub!” my husband drily observes.
On the way back I try and find the rock pool, Blue Pool. We seem to have missed it on our way to Burry Holms. I clamber down a hill and finally spot it nestling in the rocks below.
I can see people in wetsuits leaping into the famed rock pool. I am very jealous. Local legend says it is bottomless. The swimmers seem to be very confident they won’t hit the bottom as they leap into it.
Two women climb to the top of the highest lip of the pool and leap into the water. It looks great fun. I read later that it is very deep. Anything from four to eight metres deep, depending on tidal and weather conditions. As much as I enjoyed watching the fun and games I was a little frustrated.
I’ll show you why. This is what I was hoping for compared with what we saw.
So I went back to get another look at Blue Pool and in sunshine this time. I returned early one morning later in the week alone. I set off at 8.15 am hoping to catch the low tide because I have the idea that you can walk around the headlands and walk to Blue Pool Bay. This time, it is cloudy in Swansea but brightens up as I reach Llangennith which is just down the road from Broughton Bay.
So I walk onto the beach full of confidence that I will be able to walk to Blue Pool Bay along the shore. I couldn’t.
I don’t know if it wasn’t a particularly low tide, I have discovered since that not all low tide are the same. Some are lower than others. Just as some high tides are higher than others. So I had to retrace my steps and I clambered up the rocks as a short cut to the coastal path. I eventually made my way along to Blue Pool Bay – I found a different path that led down the dunes and some very steep rocks.
I kept my rucksack with me, so that if I fell, I’d have my phone with me, or at the very least water and biscuits! I did have the over-dramatic thought that if I fell, no one would find me for hours/days. I chickened out of climbing all the way down to the sandy beach as the tide has just turned. I knew the tide came all the way in, leaving no beach at all. I wasn’t sure how quickly the water would come in.
I climbed back up to the coastal path OK. I then carried on to Burry Holmes and the vast three-mile expanse of Rhossili Bay.
I walked along the beach towards Worms Head. I ate my banana and put the skin back into my bag. I had seen enough rubbish on the foreshore to depress me. I watched the little wadding birds, sanderlings, I think running along the surf on their delicate long legs.
I retrace my step along the path through the dunes and I enjoy the silence which was broken only by the song of a skylark, one of my favourite sounds. I pass the caravan site and carry on along the sweep of Broughton Bay.
I saw the white tails of rabbit disappering into the undergrowth in a fields filled with sheep and their lambs. I then come across another caravan park. This one is called Whiteford Bay Caravan Park. It seems an unfriendly place. There are lots of warning signs and no trees. Broughton Bay Caravan Park seems much more relaxed, with its palm trees and little gardens and free car park.
I pass a group of senior hikers, including a chap who must be in his 80s. There’s a role model, I think. The path climbs up a sandy path up to Hills Tor.
I sat down on a sandy ledge to admire the expansive view towards Whiteford Point and try and make out the rusty iron Victorian lighthouse. I can just about see it. You can’t see it in the photos. It is very breezy up here.
I ate two chocolate biscuits. They are delicious but I have drunk most of my water with only a couple of mouthfuls left. So because I know I have so little water left, I start obsessing about water on my walk back to the car. I cross a little stream that runs from Moorlake into Broughton Bay and consider trying to take a mouthful of it. It is quite marshy here behind the burrows. The sea is out of sight. I decide that in future I will carry two bottles of water with me.
There are Two boys are playing on the tops of the dunes. They are school-aged- why aren’t they in school, I think to myself. Once a teacher, eh? I say nothing and pass on.
By the time I reach Broughton farm it has clouded over. My calfs are now aching from so much walking on sand. They carry on aching later on in bed. I’m not surprised when I work out that I walked 6 and a half miles, and a lot of that was on sand.
Next walk is Whiteford Point for a close up view of that iron lighthouse.