'Mail on Sunday' Travel Section - 15th February 2009
"Never look back – you’re not going there. Wise advice but I ignored it when I returned, some 55 years later, to the Gower in South Wales where I had holidayed as a small child with my parents and older brother. But it was not a mistake to re-visit this beautiful peninsula, south-west of Swansea, formally identified as a jewel in 1956 when designated the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the entire country. Only about 16 miles long and 7 mileswide, the Gower offers an ever-changing scene from neat fields to rugged moorlands and from sheltered bays to bleak isolated cliffs. The area, invaded by Vikings and conquered by Normans, has been home to smugglers and wreckers, operating at dead of night, luring ships to their doom. Steeped in history and tradition, the Gower remains largely unspoilt and waiting to be explored. Depending on the season, pack your bucket, spade and surfboard or sturdy boots, waterproofs and bobble hat. There is accommodation to suit all tastes and pockets, from 5*, though modest hotels, B&B to camping and caravanning in holiday parks.
We went in November and, having moved on fromthe days when I was less discerning and thought a tent was luxury, we opted totry a new kid on the block, the contemporary Maes-yr-Haf (a ‘restaurant with rooms’) at Parkhill, just a mile from the south coast. The promise of gourmet food apart, I was instantly warmed by the sign outside; ‘Ramblers’ Lunch – muddy boots welcome!’ Indeed they were, and had to be with a footpath beckoning from the door. After quickly dumping our bags, we headed in the car for Rhossili Bay,voted one of the Top Twenty best beaches in the world. The dramatic panorama from the cliff-top stirs the soul but this three-mile sandy beach was made for walking, especially at low tide, so we hurried on down. There was nothing but the Atlantic Ocean between us and America. The normally relentless, thundering waves,which make this a surfers’ paradise, were calm yet still provided seductive background music as our eyes feasted on the lonely windswept downs, punctuated only by cattle and the isolated stone ‘Rectory Cottage’ perched on the hillside for romantics to rent from the National Trust which, happily, owns 95 percent of the Gower coastline.
After clambering back up the cliffpath we found good ‘pub grub’ at the Worm’s Head Hotel. It would be forgivable if they charged for the view alone (it was 11th best in the world in a competition runby Jacob’s Creek wines) and it offers family accommodation at reasonable rates. Thus fortified, we began our assault on the causeway out to the Head itself, passable for only a couple of hours either side of low tide. Miscalculate,as Dylan Thomas once did, and you are in for a lonely night in the open air. Careful foot work for half an hour saw us safely across the mussel-laden rocks and onto Worm’s Head where I had never been allowed as a child (my chubby little legs would not have coped) butit was worth the wait. Walking along the narrow peak, with the rocks falling away on both sides, felt just a little daring and gave a warm sense of accomplishment on our return. Back to Maes-yr-Haf with an appetite to justify the talents of their excellent Greek chef, Christos Georgiakis, who has quickly made a name for himself, helping the hotel to win the award for ‘Best Meal Out’ in Swansea Bay since opening in July2007. This family run ‘restaurant with rooms’ is friendly and welcoming with the emphasis firmly on fresh, local and homemade. Everything is of the highest standard, easily on a par with a top London restaurant and surpassing many. After a superb dinner we collapsed into a deliciously comfortable bed and woke to find the sight of crisply frosted fields beckoning us quickly up and outside to explore.
Eschewing, for now, the tempting smell of bacon and fresh croissants, we hurried along the adjacent footpath and after a modest climb through well coppiced woods, enjoyed stupendous views from the Pennard golf course. On past the ruined castle and chapel, high on the hill, until we were looking down on the gloriously secluded Three Cliffs Bay. Nominated by soprano Kathryn Jenkins, it was not surprisingly a finalist in ITV’s ‘Britain’s Favourite View’. As we wended our way back to the hotel, the early morning mist was rising from Pennard Pill, the frost still crunching under boot, and we were ready for a hearty Welsh breakfast of bacon, cockles,laverbread and grilled tomato and eggs – but we could have ordered anything we fancied. Then it was time for pure nostalgia as we visited the little seaside village of Horton where I had camped with my family so many years ago in the fields of the local farmer. Sadly, Horton Farm has had to move with the times and is now three dwellings but the farm remains and the village itself is largely unspoiled. Sand dunes have an irresistible ‘Carry On’ feel about them and I half-expected a saucy Barbara Windsor popping out of her bikini but the local lifeboat men had to suffice. Here were the small rocks and child-sizepools left by the falling tide where I had happily passed so many weeks of innocent fun. Being naturally adventurous I was always running ahead and clambering without fear. My mother told how one day she was encouraging my brother to be a little more daring and join me instead of holding her hand. ‘Christine’ he said, with all the solemnity a 6-year old could muster, ‘doesn’t understand about dying.’
Still fortified by breakfast, we walked the magnificent sweep of Oxwich Bay. Sheltered and shielded from the Atlantic, its gentle sands were voted Britain’s Best Beach in 2007. The eponymous Hotel, which does a roaring trade in weddings with brides photographed barefoot in the surf, provided a welcome cup of tea. Unlike Rhossili and Three Cliffs, the bay is accessible for young and old alike with safe bathing in shallow waters but, for walkers, all these bays and beaches are much their best at low tide. We dined with friends that evening and after another blissfully comfortable night at Maes-yr-Haf we repeated our early morning walk and hearty breakfast before setting out towards Cefyn Bryn, the central spur of old red sandstone, which affords breathtaking views from the highest point in the Gower. Accompanied by wandering sheep, wild ponies and cows, we walked for 5 miles along the top and back, passing ‘Arthur’s Stone’ a neolithic burial ground, deriving its name from a stone thrown from Llanelli by the legendary king.
Surrounded by sea on three sides, the distant Brecon Beacons to the North East reminded me of their spring waters and the ‘Welsh Gold’ distilled therein. Penderyn single malt whisky, smooth, light and softly golden, is a favourite of mine (and of the Prince of Wales) and I had seen a bottle winking at me from the hotel bar. What better way to draw a nostalgic weekend to a close.We needed more time to visit north Gower as well and our only mistake was to forget the binoculars which are a must not only for the scenery. The whole area is a haven for wildlife and a ‘twitchers’ paradise where birds abound from herons, terns and egrets to sedge warblers and reed buntings. We drove by car, but Swansea is easy by train from London and all points west. If you choose that option, I suggest you pack ‘West from Paddington’ by Stuart Cole, the ultimate guide to the landmarks of your journey, and I promise, unless I have succumbed again to the irresistible lure of the Gower, to wave as you flash past our house in Wiltshire! www.maes-yr-haf.co.uk Tel: 01792 371000 www.thewormshead.co.uk Tel: 01792390512 www.enjoygower.comwww.the-gower.com ‘West from Paddington’ by StuartCole ISBN 978-1-905633-05-0