Red legs and wet legs on the Gŵyr

January 2, 2010

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield

New Years Eve Blues

I was not in the best of moods on New Years Eve. Family circumstances combined to make it a stay at home evening which is not the best way to end a year. In compensation I was half thinking about a trip Swansea on New Years Day for the evening Ospreys-Blues game and that brought back memories of the old St Helen’s ground where I saw many a rugby match and several cricket matches including Glamorgan v the West Indies many decades ago, I got Wes Hall’s autograph that day. One of the bonus features of a visit to St Helens was that you could park on the sea front and go for a walk on the beach. The new Liberty Stadium is in the middle of a trading estate and has little to offer in respect of aesthetics.

I then realised at least one reason for my general feeling of malaise was the sheer length of time since I had been at the sea. When my parents were alive I could walk from their house along the sea cliffs to Moelfre Harbour to the north or Red Wharf Bay to the south. Throughout my childhood we went sailing every Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon in Llandudno Bay. At University the delights of Morcambe Bay were a short bus ride away and Glasson Dock was a wonderful afternoon walk from the University following the tow path of the Lancaster Canal.


201001020856.jpg My initial thoughts were to call in at Southerndown on the way to Swansea. In my youth, although I grew up in North Wales we were brought to the family house in Cardiff most holidays as a means of preserving ethnic identity. Half the time we were left to amuse ourselves, in Victoria Park or the Museum, but for the rest of the time trips were planned. Barry Island (Gavin and Stacy brings back memories only possible to locals) and Cold Knap were a short train or bus ride. If we were lucky then a day trip would be planned to Southerdown. This was a major undertaking and my Uncle Ron’s three wheeled Reliant Robin (see picture) would be stacked with buckets and spades (for cousin Michael’s major engineering works in the sand), food and drink, rugby balls, my fossil hunting equipment (hammer, cold chisels, sample bags) topped up with four children and three adults. Before you say anything (i) it is possible and (ii) its not safe but these were gentler times. The twenty mile trip down the A48 was precarious, and we would be made to walk up and down the steep hill to the beach for the sake of the car.

However the cure for a general malaise is not a sentimental journey; better to explore new horizons. I realised that in all the time I had been to Cardiff I had never been to the Gŵyr (Gower), anything west of Bridgend was considered dangerous territory during my youth. In adult life I had passed it many times driving down to the Pembrokshire Coast, or seen it from Llanelli at a distance, but I had never visited it. A quick search on the internet and I settled on a day around the cliffs at Rhossili followed by the rugby match. Accordingly I restricted my alcohol intake to a half bottle of Pinot Noir and left the house and family early the following morning heading west.

Winter Sun

  There is a special quality to the sun in winter. As I left Swansea, one of the least attractive cities in Wales in terms of architecture, I headed out along the coast past the Mumbles. The sun just after midwinter never rises high in the sky and the resultant light, if short lived is a treasure for the photographer. The picture to the left was taken later in the day from the Fall Bay, but it gives a sense of the unfolding vista on my left as I drove west. The journey itself was through small country lanes with a mixture of stone built farm houses and holiday caravan tat glimpsed through woods to the side of the road. There was still ice on some corners, protected from the sun by tall hedges so caution was needed. Arriving at Rhossili I parked and went for a brief walk to the cliff top. A few minutes out of the car demonstrated that it was going to be cold so I donned a Paramo mountain pull on and balaclava as well as the fleece (Paramo are the best maker of outdoor clothing by the way) donned walking boots with gaiters and set off.

The view to the north over Rhossilli Bay was spectacular and the picture that opens this entry is of a solitary fisherman digging for lug worms, taken from 50m above sea level. I’m fairly proud of this picture as it captures the sense of scale between the sea and the individual, with the wading gulls as a counter point. From there the coast guard path takes you to the cliffs overlooking Worm Head, pictured to the right. This peninsular is only accessible two and half hours each side of Low Tide and people have been both killed and stranded over the years when they get the timing wrong. Dylan Thomas, one of the greatest poets of a nation of poets once had to stay on the Worm “from dusk to midnight sitting on that top grass, frightened to go further in because of the rats and because of things I am ashamed to be frightened of. Then the tips of the reef began to poke out of the water and, perilously, I climbed along them to the shore.” While I might take that risk in August, January with snow forecast was a different matter, so rather than take the risk I resolved the follow the coastal path round to Mewslade Bay.

The views were incredible, the low lying sun creating shadows and providing a clarity that you never see in the summer. Tears Point provides a wonderful retrospective of Worms Head with the cliffs, blow holes and smugglers coves (this was a coast frequented by wreckers) of the coastal path to Port Enyon opening up to the south-east. That walk with the extension to Oxwich will await a longer day with either public transport or a second car permitting a linear walk. For the moment I resolved to drop down to the beach of Fall Bay and follow the beach to Mewslade. The tide was now coming in, but the route looked safe, it might involve the odd rock scramble but exit routes were available and the sea calm.

A chattering of Choughs

Before leaving the cliff I followed the noise of a pair of choughs. These are one of the most interesting of the Corvidae their red beaks and legs and raucous noise being the most obvious feature, but their flight on a cliff face is a wonderful sight. I remember one day many years ago sitting on the top of Braich-y-Pwll on the Llŷn Peninsula watching a chattering of choughs (one of the most appropriate collective nouns there is) performing an amazing set of aerodynamics in the updrafts of a winter storm. Three quarters of the UK’s population of these birds live in Wales, and they are the heraldic bird of the county of Flintshire where I grew up. Celtic legend says that King Arthur transformed into a chough at his death and they feature in many a legend. I’ve never got as close to one as I did today. A pair were on the edge of cliff just under the path. Fortunately I have a head for heights so I got within ten yards and then waited patiently to get a picture of one with beak open. A rare privilege to get this close.

The descent to Fall Bay was an easy walk, although it required care to get across the rocks to the beach itself. At times an old instinct saw me reach to my left where a fossil hammer used to sit in a leather sling. For me a visit to a beach in South Wales was an opportunity to discover ammonites, not build sand castles. The walk along the sea shore was breathtaking, the cliffs gave more views of choughs and the sun on sea created a magical setting. The tide was coming in fast now though, but I made the first crossing between Fall Bay and Mewslade without getting my feet wet. It involved some mild scrambling which reminded me that I no longer have the knees of my youth and I need more exercise, but nothing major. However the next point produced more difficulty.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

P1010062.JPG The picture to the right illustrates the problem. By now the tide was coming in at pace and forming deep pools around the rocks. I set off confidently climbing over the bleached (I can think of no better description) of the rock you can see, and then faced a problem. There was a route, but it involved a series of confident step between small rounded boulders that were still damp with frost and surrounded by deep pools. A couple ahead of me had got across but they sensibly had two climbing poles each to provide a means of support, and they had used both. A younger version of myself would probably have attempted it. However the thought of the knee jarring experience that would likely end up with a slip and a soaking, not to mention the prospect of a smashed head meant I ruled out that approach. This was reinforced by the danger to the camera and the blackberry, neither would be likely to survive a soaking and I had no companion to hold and pass.

Discretion having proved the better part of valor I looked at the alternatives. One involved climbing the cliff to a narrow ledge that appeared to provide a route but I could not see beyond the next buttress. Returning the way I had come was not attractive, not least because my previous route was now under water. Looking to the sea there appeared to a sand spit, just below water level that ran around the rocks so I took that route. It was the right choice, and my left boot with gaiter kept my feet dry, but the right fell into deeper water and filled up. Better than a full body immersion however and good climbing boots even when immersed provide some protection and within a few minutes I could walk with ease. OK there was a sense of dampness, but not of squelching. Mewslade Bay was interesting, and I followed the old smugglers path back up through the fields to Rhossili with Peregrine Falcons sweeping the valley around me.

Of snow and dry socks

Back at the village I bought a pint of beer at the Worms Head Inn (marked down for a weekend break before Easter). The terrace provides the best views of the beech 50 meters below and Provided good company. Ramblers are friendly people, especially in winter. From there to the Liberty Stadium via a sports retailer (to buy an emergency sock for the right foot) and a rugby match that I would prefer to forget. Firstly Cardiff Blues failed to convert possession into points in the first quarter, secondly, a snow storm in the second half meant you couldn’t see the other half of the pitch and there were simply too many mistakes to make for a good match. To compound the problem it took two hours to get out of the car park at the end of the day. Fresh snow and a steep slope are not a recipe for good traffic flow.

Minor inconveniences though; it was a wonderful way to start the new year.

A map for those who want it, the walk is shown in yellow, undertaken counter-clockwise


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