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Worms Head: a footnote to the Gower Walks

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.

Oil painting of Worms Head from Rhossili Downs
Worms Head (from Rhossili Downs)

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.

Worms Head
Worms Head

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.

Oil painting of the coast towards Worms Head, Gower
Towards Worms Head (SOLD)

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.

Coast Watch Station
Coast Watch Station

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.

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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.

The Causeway
The Causeway

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.

Worms Head OS Map
Worms Head OS Map (Low Tide)

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.

Devil's Bridge, Worms Head, Rhossili
Devil’s Bridge, Worms Head, Rhossili

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.

Painting of Worms Head, Rhossili, Gower
Worms Head Reflection

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”.

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Trust me, it’s a long way down.

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!

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Rock Arch, Worms Head

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.

Seal, off Worms Head
Seal, off Worms 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.

Hidden amongst the rocks
Hidden amongst the rocks

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.

Spot the seal!
Spot the seal

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.

Worms Head, Rhossili, Gower
Worms Head, Rhossili, Gower

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.

Map of Gower Peninsula
Map of Gower Peninsula

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Gower Coastal Walk: Rhossili Bay

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.

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Rhossili Bay

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.

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Rhossili Sunset

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.

Rhossili Shadow
Rhossili Shadow (SOLD)

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!

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Rhossili, Gower

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.

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Map of Rhossili and Rhossili Downs

IMG_6612-001The 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.

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Worms Head to the south
Worms Head
Worms Head

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.

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View to the north, Burry Holmes in the distance

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.

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Path Across the Top of the Downs

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.

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The Trig point on the Beacon

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.

Paddling at Llangennith
Paddling at Llangennith Beach

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.

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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.

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Not the path I followed

IMG_6485I 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.

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Old Rectory

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.

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Taking the Long View

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.

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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.

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Worms Head, Rhossili

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.

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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.

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Fall, Bay?

Fall Bay, Gower.

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.

Fall Bay Rocks, Gower
Waves at Fall Bay, Gower

© Emma Cownie Art

 

 

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Worm’s Head Lookout Station at Rhossili, Gower

Worm Head Coastwatch station
Painting Worms Head Station, Rhossili
Worms Head Coastwatch Station (SOLD)

This is another gem in the Gower landscape – the Worm’s Head Lookout Station at Rhossili.  I really enjoyed painting this. This stout and sturdy single story building is made of granite and was built over 120 years ago, around 1896. It sits alone at the top of the high cliffs that look out towards Worms Head and beyond to Lundy Island and to the Celtic Sea. The wind-blasted building has an 8m flagstaff and a 6m wind generator.  I was inspired to paint this because of the sharp summer shadows and the isolation of the tiny building. It oozes Hopper.

It is set in a very beautiful but dangerous coastline. Between the cliffs and Worm Head is the Causeway, a scramble of rocks and rock pools, which is open for 2.5 hours either side of low tide. The tidal rise here is the second highest in the world. However, it is fatal to attempt to wade or swim to when the causeway is flooded or partially so. The coastline and waters around Gower are lovely to look at and to paint but they need to be treated with great respect. The waters around the Worm can also be dangerous to small craft, fishing boats and surfers.

This is why I am very glad that a team of local volunteers for National Coastwatch look after the interests of visitors and seafarers, alike. Since 2007, from 10am till 4pm in the winter and 10am till 6pm in the summer the lookout is staffed. 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. So although the Lookout Station looks somewhat bleak and empty, the front door is, in fact, open and there is someone inside looking out for us all!

For more information on National Coastwatch see https://www.nci.org.uk/wormshead

For an excellent online map of Gower see: http://www.mapsta.net/uk-os/gower/

Emma Cownie Art©

 

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Worms Head Gower

Oil painting Worms Head Gower
Kitchen Corner Boat House, Rhossili, Gower (SOLD)

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.

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