28th – 30th January 2022
Landimore – Pitton
16 miles/1644 ft total ascent
Whilst I don’t believe that even summer could improve the coast path experience in Carmarthenshire, rain and fog definitely changed the vibe in Gower. The backdrop of the castle up on the hill was now wrapped away in a thick and sorrowful cloud, and the joyful field and meadow walks of yesterday afternoon spoke a different story to the field and meadow walks of this morning. Forget words like ‘dreary’ or ‘gloomy’, the whole thing felt like somewhere characters find themselves in a horror film, and before anything bad even happens you just know they’re all going to die.
Tendrils of grey reached in from the borders. Or at least where I assumed the boundaries were; that uneasy and disorientated feeling of not seeing and therefore not being able to fully understand the landscape had my eyes peeled to pick out any flash of a bright yellow post in the direction of my compass.
The fields and meadows became marshes again. Where yesterday the funnelling channels trickled and babbled, today it gave off an atmosphere not unlike the swamps that Disney captured in The Rescuers. Whilst I knew there were no alligators here, since this isn’t Louisiana, I couldn’t help but think that, well, there might be. After all, as I write this up a few weeks post hike, there’s a whole news story about escaped ‘racoon dogs’ running wild through Powys, and how these species from East Asia are exceptionally mean and no one should go near them. If racoon dogs from Asia can be creating havoc in Powys, who’s to say there’s not a sneaky alligator in the Gower marshes?
It might explain the sudden appearance of so many dead sheep. I nearly tripped over the first corpse as I squinted at the compass; a hole in its abdomen from where the entrails flopped wetly across the ground and flies gathered. I could have felt horrified, but really it seemed almost apt in the intense eeriness. Two other disembowelled corpses lay further on. Other sheep grazed around them. I suppose sheep are very used to death. Sheep die incredibly easily.
Thankfully much of the fog retreated before I had reached the end of the marshes, but their character was now changed. The funnelled land was scarred and wounded instead of channelled, the amber grasses had no merriment; they were full of too many bad secrets.
The tide would be high over Whiteford Point, so I knew I would be taking a high tide route there. I turned off early and followed the wrong path, ending up on a large loop back round most of, and then returning to, the marshes. Remaking my steps past the sheep corpses, to continue past where I had made my mistake.
The correct high tide route went high, up through forested hills, looking down through the trees at the mosaic cluster of the marshes bordering the sea. Bird hides sat looking out, offering the quiet visitor a place to try to see oystercatchers, curlews, reed warblers and snipe.
The hill path came down to the dunes, less sinister by far now than the marshes, and up around Broughton. My first sight of the Worm’s Head came up between the sandy, orange hills. This famous trio of tidal islands appears like a swimming serpent; a wyrm, as these mythical ocean dwelling monsters were once known. It can be accessed on foot, but only at low tide and to attempt to swim to it can prove fatal due to the maniacal currents below. Dylan Thomas himself was once unfortunate enough to have to spend the night there after falling asleep/passing out longer than intended. He described a terrifying night of battling numerous rats and described the place as ‘the very promontory of depression’
I took a break up on Broughton Head, the sands dark from the tides and the rain, both of which had subsided for now. The dunes around these parts are home to the rare fen orchid, or ‘bog twayblade’. These yellow flowers perch in the clumps of wet grass in the hollows of dunes and, after more intentional dune management, its number are back from the brink and double the amount seen two decades ago.
From Broughton Head, it was a walk along the sands of Rhossili beach and up onto a path that edged between the sea and Rhossili Down; the highest point in Gower. The path stuck to the flank of the hill, and the fog started coming back in. By the time I had reached the point above Worm’s Head, where all the famous pictures are taken, it was completely obscured.
I was aware I was going to have far more than fog to worry about. Storm Corrie was making her way in. It was relatively calm now, but you know what they say about storms and calm.
Fortunately I was far enough south to avoid the worst, but being on the coast was not about to be a benefit. Up north the coastal areas would receive 90mph batterings, so the 40mph the coast here would receive seemed light in comparison. Out of season Rhossili winds down and pretty much shuts up, but there was a campsite away from the coast, down inside the headland that, miraculously, was open all year.
I figured it would be easier to find a sheltered spot in a place that was already flat and likely to have lots of hedges around. I walked down the lane to the site, checking myself in. There were eight others at the site tonight, but they were in campervans and motorhomes. I was allocated a pitch, but jumped to the one next to it where an empty seasonal caravan sat, and set up the tent wedged in the corner between the back of the caravan and the hedge. I could be reasonably sure that no one was going to check and tell me to go back to my pitch; the staff member doing check in was not in the best of shape and had complained to me how exhausting walking to show people to their pitch was.
I wasn’t really the right person to complain to, but it gave me the confidence that there was absolutely no way she was going to just amble around for the hell of it. I used the laundry to clean clothes but couldn’t hack the idea of getting wet in a shower just to then have to go out to the cold to sleep so a brief wipe down by the sink sufficed.
I was reasonably confident in my plan. My nook seemed sheltered enough. I ate dinner without disruption with the breeze still mild. Maybe this whole storm just wasn’t going to happen after all and it would all still be calm in the morning?
Pitton – Hareslade
16 miles/2538 ft total ascent
So the storm did happen. By midnight, things were just too nervy out in the field as Iron Claw the tent would, more and more often, shake and strain against increasing gusts. Bangings and crashings were heard as loose items on the campsite started flying free; picnic benches toppling, wheely bins spinning away, the occasional dog flying off like Toto without a Dorothy for company.
I made a split second decision and packed everything up in lightning speed to beat a hasty retreat to the disabled bathroom. A night next to a toilet sounded far safer. The plan might have been an ingenious one if a hot water heater, I assume, didn’t blare out an alarming groan once an hour. One way or another, it was a night of fits and starts.
The winds and rain were to continue throughout the day. In fact, it looked like the wind was sticking around for quite a few days. The coast path would be getting the brunt of 50-60mph winds and, honestly, I wasn’t up to that, but I was getting so damn close to the end the last thing I wanted to do was stop somewhere too long.
I took out my map. I decided to aim to stay in Swansea tonight. I wouldn’t be able to walk all the way to Swansea today, but I could walk to Hareslade and get a bus on from Bishopston, returning the next day to carry on. Like I had done in Porthmadog. At least the first half of today was going to be plagued by all sorts of awful weather, and the previous night hadn’t left me in a mood for the challenges of exposed coastal walking so I set off along the road. I expected that once I was past the headland then the public rights of way would start to run parallel to the road rather than just straight down to the coast, and I could jump on a greener track there.
I would be right, the footpaths would eventually appear, and the weather was absolutely horrific.
Anything that wasn’t nailed down was flying. Trees bent and buckled in the wind. I barely managed to stand fast myself as rain crashed in, flying in so thick that the wind battered it all together like airbourne puddles.
I stared out to the desolate scene all around, to the howling devastation ripping out everything right in front of me, the scream of the wind like something mythical. I don’t know quite what I was thinking, but I started to sing.
“Guide me oh, thou great redeemer!
Pilgrim through this barren land!”
Even if I did believe in God, I think I’d be too stubborn to ask him for help. Surely he’d be having things like pandemics to worry about? And, well, it looks like he’s struggling with that one.
“I am weak, but thou art mighty!
Hold me with thou powerful hand!”
All of those singing lessons I’d had as a teenager were clearly in vain as I yelled out the distant memory from school assemblies. Somehow the Welsh rugby anthem seemed appropriate today.
“BREAD OF HEAVEN” I yelled “BREAD OF HEAVEN!” even louder “FEED ME ‘TIL I WANT NO MORE!”
Gosh a sandwich would be nice. A tree branch flew past alarmingly fast. I decided to get back onto the road for a while and crawl along the grassy verge.
I wasn’t really doing Gower justice. To be fair, it wasn’t doing itself much justice right now either. The Gower that others speak of is a a glorious piece of paradise, beset by sandy bays, Blue Flag beaches, surfing waves and caves to be explored.
It was in one of those caves, Paviland Cave, that the first human fossil was found anywhere in the world in 1823. The remains were stained in a red ochre and the fingers were covered in rings. Archaeology at the time was hindered by creationist religion, so the age of the earth was only assumed to be a few thousand years old. This lead the fossil to be initially dated to the Roman Era, and the assortment of jewellery made it assumed to be a woman. The ochre colouring leant the name ‘The Red Lady’ to the bones, as they are still known, despite being male. The development of carbon dating also now means that we know he lived and died 33,000 years ago.
The land would have looked very different then. Mammoths were still roaming and it’s likely he would have hunted them. Paviland Cave itself would not have been by the coast, but 70 miles inland and overlooking a plain. Despite being two or three days walk from the sea, analysis showed his diet was still primarily fish indicating that most people here still lived a nomadic life. His Stone Age remains are among the few physical finds we have of early human life in Europe.
When the Romans did come, 31,000 years after the Red Lady/Man died, they did not ignore Gower the same way they had ignored Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, and housed an auxiliary troop here. After the Romans abandoned the fort, it was used as a watchtower and defense against Irish pirates, until the Normans came along and put a castle on the site instead.
Two thousand years past the Roman Era, I was plodding along the road yelling hymns into the wind. Several hours later, everything started to calm down as I neared Hareslade. I was drenched through and stopping made me very cold. The bus came quickly enough though, and took me on into Swansea.
The room I had booked came with a bath. I thawed out considerably in hot running water, hung up all the wet clothes to dry. In the nicer and brighter afternoon, I made my way to a harbourside pub where I had a far more genteel time in the pub quiz. I say genteel, but when it comes to trivia I am extremely competitive. By any measure, however, the outrage and emotional rollercoaster of the pub quiz was definitely a far calmer end to the day that the start had suggested.
Hareslade – Swansea
9 miles/988 ft total ascent
It seemed like there had never been a storm, as if blue skies and still winds were here for good. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the fine weather, but it definitely made me feel like a liar.
I got the bus back to Bishopston and walked through Hareslade to get back to the coast near Caswell Bay. Quickly the path was replaced by a purpose built walkway with railings that would guide me all around the cliffs of Mumbles and, eventually, back into Swansea.
‘Mumbles’ is a strange name for a place. Whilst the specifics of where it came from are debated, all suggestions involve a base word, in one language or another, which would translate as ‘breasts’. I suppose the groups of men that made up scouts, soldiers and sailors looking for space to settle in the past frequently went so long without female company that natural landmarks, and pretty much everything else, started looking like boobs. Mumbles wouldn’t be the first time this happened; I live in Manchester, originally named Mamucium (which became Mancunium) for the boob shaped hills at the confluence of the Medlock and Irwell. Wikipedia even has a whole article about boob shaped hills..
The Mumbles headland is primarily limestone, covered in the associated scrub and home to 200 species of plants and fungi. It rose steeply and in all shades of ambers, golds, greens and the occasional splashes of pinks, yellows and blues as wildflowers started poking through.
Up at the point, up from Bracelet Bay, the purple swathes of heather were blooming. This would be the Erica heather, the winter bloomers that can carry on all year and not the Calluna that we normally reference in regards to heathland and highland heathers. Even so, it put a vibrant tinge of spring in the air reaching way down to the beacon.
The cliffs flattened out, and the path continued now with Swansea in the distance. Many people were out for a walk today, the ice cream shops were open and queues stretched outside. Seriously, where yesterday and the night before had seen a tearing wind and deep, deep cold and driving rain, today everyone was acting like it was summer. I suppose sometimes, you take the moments you get given.
Mumbles got smaller and smaller behind me as I went past boatyards and onto the roadside path that took me up the perfectly formed smooth, long sweep of the bay, past the university and into Swansea again.
As it had been a fairly short and easy walk, over faster than I had anticipated, I went to the Dylan Thomas Museum. Thomas was born and raised in Swansea, living in his parents Uplands home until he was 23; long after he had left school at 16 and abandoned his reporters job eighteen months later. Most of the poems for which he is still famous he wrote while still a teenager and his first anthology that launched him into the limelight was published when he was just 19.
His sudden launch into a public life was hindered somewhat by how mollycoddled he had been by his mother. He famously didn’t even know how to remove the top of a boiled egg, and when he married Caitlin Macnamara, she would continue to have to do it for him. He didn’t see his ineptitude or pampering as an issue, in fact he relished in it.
It was when he moved to London in 1935 that his drinking started and never stopped. Caitlin was an equal drinking partner and the two would create a venomous love story that no one should ever aspire to. After publishing two more successful anthologies, Dylan returned to Wales with his new wife, and their first child was born soon after.
He continued publishing throughout the war. Chronic asthma and other respiratory issues meant Thomas was never sent to fight, and watching his friends leave to be part of the war effort with many never to return saw him fall deeper in to addiction. Despite his success, he was now drowning in debt, and he and Caitlin had to move every so often to avoid his creditors. Infidelity also started to plague their marriage as they moved between Wales and London. It was in one of the moves, to New Quay, that he started to write Under Milk Wood.
After the war saw Thomas begin to embrace broadcasting, invited frequently to America whilst his wife and children stayed in their rented home in Laugharne. Caitlin had to deal with his debtors, while Thomas took lucrative tours abroad. Despite a substantial income, he frequently drank it away before he ever came home. He was reputedly a terrible guest and was frequently drunk while recording.
It was on his fourth tour that his health went rapidly downhill and was admitted to hospital on the 5th November. Caitlin was flown over, her first words on entering the ward being ‘Is the bloody man dead yet?’. She proceeded to get drunk and fly into such an incontrollable rage that she was restrained in a straitjacket and taken to a psychiatric detox clinic on Long Island.
Dylan Thomas died at the age of 39. Whilst all the lung infections and diseases that had weakened his system throughout his life would surely have given him an earlier death anyway, the alcohol drastically shortened even this. The ‘roistering, drunken and doomed poet’ died with only £100 in assets.
As well deserved a fame as Dylan Thomas had, there is understandably some contrition about him being Wales’ most famous modern son. He did not speak Welsh, and was celebrated only as an English language poet.
If you are interested in Welsh-language poets and poetry, may I recommend The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry; an anthology of Welsh language poetry with the English translation provided.
Gower was now complete. I had only one coastline out of eight left.