The Gower Peninsula is one of the British countryside's best kept secrets. Measuring about fifteen by six miles, it juts out into the Bristol Channel, just west of the city of Swansea. It has arguably the best coastal scenery to be found anywhere, not just in Wales or even the whole of the UK. If your particular thing is walking, water sports, nature, or simply 'getting away from it all', Gower is as good a place as any to enjoy it. It is also Britain's first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Most of Gower remains totally unspoiled, and those parts that haven't escaped have generally been spoiled in a very understated fashion. After its classification as an AONB in 1956, strict planning regulations were enforced that curtailed its gradual suburbanisation. The further west you head into the peninsula, the greater the sense of isolation and wildness. Gower has a unique character originating from its rich and eclectic history that acknowledges Norman and South Devonian as much as Welsh influences down the centuries1.
Gower is also known for its 21 bays, and this Entry is a whistle-stop descriptive tour of many of them, including some notable local landmarks and attractions. The tour follows a westward course along the south coast of the peninsula, doubling back along its north coast2.
Getting to Gower involves getting to Swansea first, and then making your way to and around the peninsula itself. Gower seems surprisingly remote given its closeness to the second city of Wales. The second stage of this journey can therefore get tricky, so Gower is often best accessed by car rather than public transport. The famous Mumbles Railway ceased to run decades ago so the non-driver has to rely almost totally on bus transport, which runs infrequently.
If you are planning to travel to Swansea and then Gower in one day: don't! The area is simply too big, and the country lanes beyond Swansea too tortuous, to allow yourself enough time out of the car/bus/whatever. It may be best to get there by car, but Gower's bays are best enjoyed on foot and the view from a car window on a rushed tour really doesn't make up for missing the stunning views of the coast: there's an awful lot of it. It's taken the author forty-odd years to visit all the places mentioned in this Entry, and there are still some he needs to visit. So allow yourself plenty of time to stop, walk, and get those pristine white trainers dirty.
Swansea has good connections with the rest of the UK. The best approach is down the M4 motorway, Gower being well signposted from within the city's boundary. If travelling by train, you're best advised to make your way on foot to the new Swansea Bus Station, situated in the Quadrant shopping centre. Several services run from here to Gower, but the destinations tend to be signed as the individual villages rather than 'North Gower', 'South Gower' etc, so have a specific destination in mind before clambering on a bus. Failing that, book a coach tour.
Whichever approach you take, the first part of Gower you'll encounter is Swansea Bay as you drive out of the city along the Mumbles Road. There are several signed routes to 'Gower' off this road, which give the impression that Swansea Bay, the village of Mumbles, and Gower are all distinct regions. They aren't, so we'll start with with the first of these.
By far the largest (and most developed) of Gower's bays, Swansea Bay is vast, sweeping five miles from Briton Ferry to the headland of the Mumbles. The coastal road follows the shoreline from the western reaches of Swansea City almost all the way to the headland. Swansea Bay has been compared numerous times to the Bay of Naples, and not unfavourably either.
Swansea Bay is surprisingly deserted, despite being so close to the city and so accessible. This is due mainly to its inglorious recent history. The bay was very popular in Victorian and Edwardian times for its golden sands, but this was to change when the city decided to dispose of its sewage directly in the bay3. The bay became horribly polluted and most of the sand turned into mud flats. The sands started to make a comeback following the construction of a new pipeline and water treatment plant in 1996.
Nevertheless, most Gower tourists avoid going out on the bay itself, settling instead for the attractions of the shoreline developments.
Heading along bay road you eventually get to the village of Mumbles. Mumbles is strictly speaking a headland between Swansea Bay and Bracelet Bay, but has also given its name to the small village. The name 'Mumbles' comes not from the way the inhabitants speak, but from the French word 'mammelles', for 'breasts', thanks to the two rounded islands just off the headland proper4.
Mumbles used to be an oyster fishing centre until the pollution in Swansea Bay put paid to this local industry. The parish in which Mumbles and the adjoining hamlets of Newton, Norton, West Cross and Blackpill reside5 is called Oystermouth6. The main claim to fame of Mumbles is that it was the site of the world's first ever passenger railway, which started running in 1807 to the village along the broad sweep of Swansea Bay.
Thanks to the excellent communications with Swansea the decline of the oyster fishing industry, along with quarrying, was compensated for by a growth in tourism. A small pier was built (along with a lifeboat house), a fairground, numerous shops and a boat club. A lighthouse was also built on the outermost island on 1796, and this is still operating today.
Mumbles today has a very sedate village atmosphere, but has become nothing more than a suburb of Swansea. It is officially twinned with Kinsale but simply apes that Irish seafood capital for class. Many of the intervening villages - Blackpill, West Cross, Newton - have grown and merged with Mumbles. It nevertheless has quite a few good pubs, numerous restaurants and a fantastic ice cream parlour, Joe's, which typifies the unique (and sadly dwindling) impact of the Italian immigrant community in South Wales.
Mumbles Head and Bracelet Bay
Driving out of Mumbles, you encounter Bracelet Bay. This small, rocky bay is the first sight most people will recollect of the Gower Peninsula. There is a large car park next to a rather good café-bar (which serves ice cream, of course).
Looking out to sea, the Mumbles headland is on the left and the coastguard station to the right on Tutt Hill. You can easily access the beach from the car park, but it's not really suitable for bathing, being very rocky. It's possible to access the lighthouse station at low tide by walking out across the rocky platform. Kids will be able to investigate the rock pools, but be careful of the strong currents and also of the risk of getting stranded by the tide.7
One of the notably quirky man-made features of this bay is the Big Apple, a kiosk selling refreshments: remarkable for being moulded out of a single piece of concrete. It was originally built over 80 years ago as part of a promotional campaign for a cider drink along with about 120 others, but is the sole remaining example of its kind. It became a local landmark, but was badly damaged in a recent car accident. Repairs were successful, and the kiosk has since reopened.
The term 'slade' is used in Gower to denote a small valley running towards the sea. Limeslade is exactly what you would expect, a small rocky cove covered in a shingle beach, easily accessible from Bracelet Bay by walking around Tutt Hill. It doesn't really have any particular attractions, save for its remarkable red-veined rocks and the excellent coastal path that takes you to Langland Bay. Celeb-hunters can drive up Plunch Lane to get a furtive glimpse of Catherine Zeta Jones's mansion, although the high walls will ensure that you won't get any views of the lady herself.
You'll need to drive back along the Mumbles Road into the village and then turn left at the mini-roundabout to get to Langland Bay. This large bay is the first in Gower that provides the kind of experience that beachgoers would expect, in that it has a proper beach made of sand and not mud. It is well signposted, but beware of the steep and winding approach to the bay, as well as the traffic lights, which can lead to horrendous traffic jams on busy days. There is plenty of car parking available if you ever manage to make it to the beach.
Langland Bay is arguably one of the best surf beaches in Wales, and regularly wins a Blue Flag award for water quality. It has a broad sandy beach and is relatively highly (but tastefully) developed, with a variety of beach huts, shops, bars, apartments and hotels. Due to its size, the quality of the beach, the level of services available, and its proximity to Swansea, it's one of the most heavily patronised of Gower's bays and hence is best avoided on busy summer days.
Langland is also notable for its green and white beach huts, owned and let by Swansea City Council. Many of these were built in the 1920s. In recent years they have begun to look rather tatty, and so the council started rebuilding the huts in 2007.
Langland has had numerous hotels during its heyday. Several of these have now closed (including one that burned down suspiciously in 2005), but there are several hotels nearby and plenty of apartments if you decide you want to make Langland a base for a holiday.
Rotherslade Bay is a small bay within easy walking distance of Langland, and it's possible to walk along the beach at low tide. Up until recently, a large concrete building stood at its head, built onto the rock face in a benighted attempt at commercialisation. This was once a café and dance hall, but was abandoned and became a horrible eyesore before being eventually demolished. The concrete terrace that replaced it is certainly more practical, if only marginally more attractive.
If you're following the coastal path on foot, then you can leave this at the eastern end of Rotherslade Bay and rejoin it at the western end of Langland Bay. The path then takes you to Caswell Bay.
This again is well signposted if you are driving to the bay, otherwise on foot the quickest route is along the costal path. Caswell Bay is a substantial and highly attractive if rather unremarkable sandy bay, less highly developed than Langland but still very accessible and well connected. This bay is ideal for young families thanks to its excellent water quality, safe swimming and its summer lifeguard patrol. Surfing is hence a very popular sport. If you get tired of beach activities, the Bishop's Wood Nature Reserve is within walking distance. Look out for the smelly fungus while you're there.
Heading Further Westward
To get further into Gower you need to return to Swansea along the Mumbles Road, turning left up a steep hill, the Mayals Road. Follow the signs to Gower, which will take you through Clyne Common.
If you are lucky enough to visit in May, it's worth stopping off at Clyne Valley. This small, hidden, wooded valley is beautiful in late spring thanks to the splendid collection of rhododendrons and azaleas. The valley was previously part of the country house estate owned by the Vivian family, a local industrial dynasty, but is now a public park.
Bishopston and Pwll Du
The route to South Gower is well signposted from hereon in. Follow the B4436 to the village of Bishopston. Bishopston itself is pleasant, if unremarkable. However, if you pull off the main road at Bishopston Road, you can take a delightful walk down the wooded Bishopston Valley. At its bottom is a dried-up riverbed, and water hardly ever flows down it. Take care to wear stout boots and carry a stick to ward off curious adders, and in a few kilometres you arrive at Pwll Du Bay.
This secluded bay, about half the size of Caswell, is notable for the storm beach of limestone pebbles that forms the back part of the bay. Bathing and swimming are not recommended, due to its isolation, strong currents, and lack of a lifeguard service. Many small sailing boats are often moored offshore as it's a good natural harbour.
Pennard and Southgate
Further westward along the B4436 you soon encounter Kittle – where there is an excellent surf shop – and Pennard Village. This is really nothing more than a hamlet, but there is a palpable change in ambience at this point. Apart from the neighbouring village of Southgate, civilisation begins to peter out, and countryside more like that of the west coast of Ireland asserts itself.
Eventually, following this road, you will end up at Southgate village. Follow this road south until you get to the National Trust car park: members get to use this free. There is an excellent coffee shop, selling various hot and cold drinks, snacks, and works by local artists and photographers. After you've refreshed yourselves (and probably your art collection), follow the West Cliff road on foot to Tor Bay.
Tor Bay and Three Cliffs
When West Cliff road runs out you can pick up a footpath and walk down to the small Tor Bay, which has a golden sandy beach.
The gorgeous Three Cliffs Bay is easily accessible at low tide by walking around the small headland at the western end of Tor Bay. As you approach this headland you begin to notice that it is really a large natural arch made from limestone and it has three prominent peaks: hence the bay's name. This is one of Gower's truly iconic sights, having appeared on heaven-knows-how-many holiday brochures since the invention of colour printing.
Three Cliffs started out its geological life as a slade, the mouth of which has become eroded over millions of years into a fairly large bay. The valley has been sculpted by Pennard Pill, a small creek that originates on the hill of Cefn Bryn, flows down through the village of Parkmill through a wooded valley which gradually broadens out into the inlet of the bay. The river goes through all developmental stages within the space of a few kilometres, and it's worth making the walk down from Parkmill just to experience the physical geography lesson bundled for free.
Do not bathe on the beach! Currents can be treacherous, so pay attention to the safety warnings. Also, dogs are banned from the beach from May to September, and if you do have a dog, it's best to avoid the small herd of wild horses that roam the bay. Three Cliffs is also popular with rock climbers, who like to hone their skills on the three crags.
Pennard Castle is one of Gower's many ruined castles, and stands on the eastern side of Pennard Pill between the creek and the Pennard Golf Club. It was built in the 12th Century but was eventually abandoned after encroaching sands swamped it. The castle's builders were as apparently as incompetent as its surveyors – its military features are poorly implemented, too.
Parkmill is a delightful village situated at the bottom of a wooded hollow. If you decide to access Three Cliffs from the A4118 by joining this road north of Southgate, it's possible to park at Parkmill and take the walk along Pennard Pill to the beach. Parkmill has a good pub (the Gower Inn), an excellent local shop (Shepherds) and also the Gower Heritage Centre. This occupies what was once a working watermill from the 12th Century but which fell into disrepair. This is well worth a visit if you want to experience how past inhabitants of Gower lived and worked.
It's also worth a visit if you're a film buff, as the smallest cinema in Wales, La Charette, was transported and rebuilt here. It's a converted railway carriage which sat in the back garden of the late Gwyn Phillips, who worked as a projectionist before falling in love with the movies. Kenneth Branagh, Mark Kermode and several other dignitaries gave it a splendid send-off in February 2008, but thankfully it was dismantled rather than destroyed and is now showing films again.
The ancient deer-hunting grounds of Parc le Breos are about a mile's walk or drive from Parkmill. In this area there are the remains of a chambered cairn, in which the bones of up to 40 people have been found, buried up to 5,500 years ago. There are also several other sites of prehistoric importance here, such as the Cathole Cave.
If you want to get your own snap of the definitive view of Three Cliffs Bay, there is a lay-by off the main road a mile or so west of Parkmill built specifically for this purpose. You can take the gate and the footpath down to the headland if photographic clichés no longer appeal.
At low tide, it's possible to walk directly from Three Cliffs Bay to Oxwich Bay: failing that you'll need to drive. This is a large (2.5-mile), crescent-shaped bay with a superb sandy beach, backed up by sand dunes and, rather remarkably, a salt marsh. This wetland site forms part of Oxwich Burrows, designated as a National Nature Reserve. Beyond the salt marsh are wooded hills.
Oxwich often gets very popular in the summer, but has excellent car parking, a large hotel and restaurant, and several small shops and cafes. The bay itself is privately owned by the Penrice Estate, which contains the large mansion house of Penrice Castle. Unlike the bay, the estate is off-limits to casual visitors, but there are numerous holiday cottages within the estate available for rent.
Thanks mainly to the careful custodianship of the Penrice Estate, Oxwich is almost totally unspoiled. It has been nominated as both the best beach in Britain and the best beach in the world by Travel Magazine. It's ideal for young families, as bathing is safe, however there is no lifeguard patrol. For those of us who need to take into account the needs of a disabled relative, the parking has direct access to the beach. The hill down to the bay is horribly steep, so it is probably best avoided in winter.
The National Trust now owns Oxwich Marsh, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. If you're a birdwatcher or naturalist, then this area is particularly interesting. The bay used to extend to the base of the surrounding limestone hills, but several thousand years ago tidal forces created a barrier of sand dunes that stretched across it. A lagoon formed between the dunes and the hills, and then silted up into a salt marsh. Man then intervened in the period between the 16th and 18th Centuries to drain certain areas, create ornamental lakes in others, and allow the development of freshwater marsh fed by Nicholaston Pill. Today's landscape is home to a huge variety of bird life, including many birds of prey, woodpeckers, and marsh and willow tits. The reed beds are perfect nesting sites for several species of warbler.
Don't, however, be tempted to clamber over the fenced-off areas of sand dunes. Access to these is restricted to preserve them from erosion and over-grazing by ponies and sheep. Look, but don't touch. There are plenty of well-established walks in this area, so put aside any urge to blaze your own trail.
This castle is often confused with Penrice Castle. Unlike the former, it's publicly accessible, but is a castle in name only, as it is simply a manor house built during the peaceful 16th Century. Its builders may well have described the architectural style as 'mock-Norman'. It was apparently the brainchild of Sir Rice Mansel, a powerful member of the local squirearchy. The remains of an interesting cylindrical dovecote stand close to the house.
Port Eynon and Horton
Following the A4118 further westward takes you to Knelston, where you can turn left to take the road to Port Eynon. Halfway there you get the unique experience of passing through the only British village that sounds like it's named after a skin disease: Scurlage. Scurlage, as the name might suggest, has very little to recommend it save for a few shops and a rather functional nightclub/pub.
The road terminates at Port Eynon, the most southerly point on Gower. This is a pleasant and picturesque if rather touristy village, reputedly built by the 11th-Century Welsh Prince Eynon. Like most other noblemen in Gower, he built a castle and, like most Gower castles, it has fallen down. Port Eynon is still very much standing, and has numerous shops, cafes and restaurants.
Port Eynon also looks out onto a bay of the same name, somewhat smaller than Oxwich but with a similar aspect. It too is backed up with sand dunes but no salt marsh. The eastern end of Port Eynon is known as Horton, where there is a small hamlet at the foot of a rather treacherous hill. The roads to Horton are equally treacherous, and so this village tends to be neglected by tourists. If you are feeling adventurous and have both the sort of car and the nerves that can deal with steep gradients and hairpin bends, Horton makes an ideal location for an undisturbed beach picnic.
The western side of the bay is increasingly rocky, and leads to a rugged section of coast, accessible only on foot, but well worth a visit, as just around the headland is a highly unusual cave:
Culver Hole is a very narrow inlet into the rock which, at some time during its long history, was walled up. The wall has several openings of the size and organization such as a child might draw. At low tide it's possible to access an opening that leads up several flights of a slippery staircase. At some point, someone fixed a nylon rope out of the lower window and if you are feeling particularly athletic and foolhardy you can climb up this into the cave.
What purpose Culver Hole served in recent centuries is anybody's guess, but its original purpose is more straightforward. It was almost certainly built as a dovecote in the 11th or 12th Century to serve the local castle: kulverd was the Old English word for 'pigeon'. About 30 tiers of rectangular nesting boxes honeycomb the interior of the cave. Presumably it was built next to the sea so that the water would periodically flush away the birds' droppings. Since then, it has very probably been used at some point as a smuggler's hideout, smuggling being very popular in Port Eynon.
There is a coastal path that leads west along the cliffs past the small inlet of Overton Mere. This is not suitable for bathing or water sports, nor are many of the other small coves you encounter as you make your way along the path.
Paviland CavePaviland Cave is a small cave, accessible from either the coastal path or the main road. It is a good deal less exotic than Culver Hole but far more historically important. In 1823, the Reverend William Buckland discovered a skeleton dyed in red ochre. This young man had been buried about 26,000 years previously, but Buckland decided that the skeleton was female (because of its decorative items) and Roman (because, being a Creationist, he could not imagine that a human skeleton could be so old).
When the young man, probably a tribal chieftain, had been buried with great ceremony, Paviland would have overlooked not the Bristol Channel but a great plain of tundra, possibly being 70 miles inland from the then coast. These are the oldest anatomical remains ever discovered in the British Isles, and his was the oldest ceremonial burial in Europe.
If you want to see the skeleton, you'll have to visit Oxford University, where Buckland was a professor: Wales had no museum at the time. However, Swansea and Cardiff Museums have on display a huge collection of flints, needles and bracelets excavated from the area.
Rhossili and Worm's Head
Following the coastal path on foot past Paviland Cave gives the chance to take in some stunning coastline. This recently-inaugurated 16km stretch of path terminates at Llanmadoc in North Gower, but Fall Bay is only several kilometres away from the start of the walk. This is probably Gower's most remote bay: most of it is rocky and there is no lifeguard, so its qualities are probably best enjoyed from the coastal path.
On passing Fall Bay, or If you are driving, you will eventually come to Rhossili. This small village is quite picturesque, having a Norman church, several cottages and shops, and the very good and inexpensive Worm's Head Hotel.
The main attraction is not the village but the incredible view afforded from the headland. The west-facing Rhossili Bay is utterly spectacular, running 5km north to south, and backed by sand dunes and the imposing hill of Rhossili Down. This hill is the highest point on the Gower Peninsula, being about 200m above sea level, and is the remains of an ancient wave-cut platform. At the base of Rhossili Down is the Old Rectory, which is in the ownership of the National Trust and let out as a holiday cottage. You will need to be prepared for the cost and the waiting list, as this property is incredibly popular. Those with shallower pockets or less patience might consider renting one of the old coastguard cottages on the head instead.
Worm's Head is about fifteen minutes' walk from Rhossili. It's best to park at the field behind the hotel and walk down along the clifftop path to the coastguard station. The island of 'The Worm' is connected to the headland by a causeway which is exposed at low tide, suggesting that although it's possible to get out to it, sometimes it's not so easy to get back again. It gets its name from its resemblance to a dragon's head, although this Researcher has never been able to see this.
Having come this far, it's almost mandatory to visit the beach. Rhossili Beach can be accessed from the village, but the path down is steep, and the way back up rather daunting after a day on the sands. A better option is to retrace the road back for a couple of miles and take the left turn to Burry Green. After passing through this pleasant village, one comes to Llangennith. This village is considerably larger than Rhossili and is situated between three hills: Rhossili Down, Llanmadoc Hill and Hardingsdown. Llangennith has a very good pub and several guest houses, and caters well for surfers, as the beach is readily accessible.
For the readiest access to the beach, head for Hillend Campsite. This excellent campsite is at the foot of Rhossili Down, and charges a reasonable parking fee for non-residents. It's a short walk from the campsite through the dune complex of the Warren onto Rhossili Beach itself. The car park gets very busy at weekends so if you intend to use this place as a base for the day, get there early.
The beach boasts its own shipwreck, The Helvetia. On 1 November, 1887, gales stranded two ships around Mumbles Head. The Helvetia was carrying timber, and, being unable to dock at Swansea due to the storms, ended up being blown down the Bristol Channel and eventually swept into Rhossili Bay.
Here the captain dropped anchor and was rescued by the coastguard, but refused to abandon his ship altogether and left the crew onboard (although in little danger). The wind then changed direction, causing the ship to drag her anchor. They eventually abandoned the ship and the wreck was found on the sands the following morning surrounded by her cargo of wood.
Various other mishaps ensued, with the result that the wreck of this ship never made it off the beach. The timbers can still be seen poking from the sand, and are probably some of the most photographed objects in Gower.
If ever there was a feature that was badly named it is this hill. It rises over 200m from sea level to a small but very exposed plateau. The best way to the top is from the Llangennith end of the hill. You'll pass the site of several prehistoric burial chambers, known as the Swine Houses8, which were looted and destroyed in a rather less enlightened age.
Rhossili Down is ideal for paragliding, having a westward facing aspect, stunning views and a dependable updraft, and you'll be certain to see numerous enthusiasts on a fine day. On an unsettled or rainy day, the Down is very unwelcoming and an unpleasant place to be, so check the weather forecast before you set off. If you descend the Down at the Rhossili village end, then you will pass the old rocket house, a legacy of the risks that mariners used to run when navigating this part of the coast.
Whiteford and Broughton
Past the northern headland of Rhossili, known as Burry Holmes, is a small bay called Broughton Bay. This bay faces north and is quite exposed, and although pleasant, really isn't suitable for bathing, as the nearby Loughor Estuary subjects it to some treacherous tidal currents. It's possible to access this bay fairly easily by car, and at low tide you can walk around the headland to Whiteford Sands.
Often (wrongly) referred to as Whiteford Bay, this is a two mile sand spit that extends into the Loughor Estuary. It is the most northerly beach on Gower and is backed by the Whiteford Burrows, a system of sand dunes and a pine plantation, all of which are owned by the National Trust. The best way to get to Whiteford is to park in the hamlet of Cwm Ivy and walk down to the beach. It's worth bearing in mind that because of its seclusion, the beach has become popular with naturists, so don't go if you are easily offended by nudity.
If you feel energetic, then it's worth walking to Whiteford Lighthouse. This remarkable structure is Britain's only remaining wave-swept cast iron lighthouse, built in 1865 to warn ships of the treacherous sandbanks of the Loughor Estuary. The tower itself is only 61 feet high, a midget by lighthouse standards. You could be forgiven on first viewing it that you had somehow stepped into a steampunk alternative reality, such is the stylised construction, as it is built of over 100 cast-iron plates all bolted together.
The lighthouse used to accommodate two keepers in rather cramped conditions, but its use was discontinued in 1920. In the 1980s it was fitted with a solar-powered automatic beacon after local yacht owners complained about being marooned on Whiteford Point. After the light finally failed, it was removed, as by then many yachtsmen relied on satellite navigation systems. It was offered for sale in 2000 for the princely sum of £1, providing the buyer could cough up £200,000 for restoration. It's still for sale at the time of writing (no chain).
North Gower has a rich history of its own but its coastline is estuarine and consists mainly of saltmarsh and mudflats, so Whiteford Lighthouse will conclude our tour around Gower's major bays. There are numerous smaller ones, mostly rocky coves or beaches, but these sights are certainly enough of an introduction to this enchanting and uniquely atmospheric part of the Welsh coastline.