Llanrhidian: a cold, clear, sunny morning. We park the car opposite the church and the ‘Welcome to Gower Inn’. Both are closed, but C. and I can welcome J. to Gower without the help of beer or devotion, and the three of us set off eastwards along the lane at the bottom of the village, beside Llanrhidian Marsh.
The first warning sign tells us we may be washed away at high tide if we continue. But the day looks benign, and we pay no heed. Later, another sign, possibly designed by an Italian Futurist in exile, warns that we may be blown to small pieces by unexploded ordnance if we venture out on to the marshes to our left. This seems more plausible, and we stick to the lane.
The marsh stretches out a long way to our left – such a long way it’s hard to see where the waters of the Burry Inlet begin, even at high tide. This is one of the largest expanses of salt marsh in Britain. Jonathan Mullard, who knows more than most about Gower, calls it ‘daunting, dramatic and lonely … an untamed place and one of the last refuges of real wilderness in this part of South Wales’. During spring tides, he says, 1,400 million cubic metres of sea water wash in and out of the estuary twice a day, flushing salt and sediments across the intertidal flats. Expanses of cord-grass and other plants, cropped by sheep and ponies, and exposed beds of mud and sand, are intersected by creeks, pills, pans and ‘micro-cliffs’, so that you’re never far from water. The carcass of an old boat, lying on the side of one of the creeks, reminds you, if you need reminding, that this is a shifting, temporary place.
Before long we reach Crofty, the cockle capital of Wales, and edge round the the village’s ‘nose’, that juts northwards into the estuary. From here we can hear a loud orchestra of birds – the brass of wintering brent geese and ducks on the left, and further east a lighter woodwind chorus of other waders (oystercatchers?). A handful of saltmarsh sheep eye us suspiciously. They look streetwise enough but apparently the sheep here lack the nous to avoid being stranded by the incoming tide and need to be watched carefully by the farmers who hold grazing rights on the marsh. The ponies, on the other hand, know how to beat a retreat, and if they find themselves cut off by water, either stand still and wait for the tide to turn, or swim to shore and safety.
Not far beyond Crofty is Pen-clawdd. It’s not a big village, but it’s full of micro-businesses, including the irresistible ironing service ‘Must Press On’ and a new, busy café, Caffi Cariad, where the cakes are so large and filling that we need no lunch. Coffee is in, alcohol out: opposite stands the Railway Inn, a burnt-out and abandoned pub, boarded up and dead as the railway that once supported it.
All the coast here is prone to flooding, and yellow excavators are at work nearby setting new concrete defences, at a cost of over £1.6m. The sea level is rising at a rate of about two millimetres a year. Some think marshes and concrete alike will eventually be submerged and that one day waves will again lap against the limestone rocks of north Gower, as they did 5,000 years ago.
The sun has now been shining continuously in a blue sky for over four hours, as we walk out of Penclawdd towards Gowerton. The Met Office app, though, still assures us that we’re enveloped in ‘Thick Cloud’. We ponder the possibility that the meteorologists may be correct, and that the three of us are suffering from the well-known philosophical skeptic’s condition, the Brain in a Vat (BiV). That is, our brains (the only organs we own) have been wired, presumably in parallel, to a supercomputer that feeds them with electrical stimulations mimicking the sense impressions we normally receive from the world around us. Hence our BiV selves are misled into thinking that we are striding ahead (our whole bodies intact) in bright sunshine, whereas in reality the day is bitter and overcast. This discussion leads J. to recall an earlier coastal colloquium when we debated whether dogs are able to foresee their own deaths. We’re in deep territory.
By now we’re now so abstracted from our surroundings that we miss a vital turning of the path across the main road and uphill through fields to the south – admittedly there was no sign to warn us – and have to plod along the pavement next to heavy traffic until we reach the outskirts of Gowerton. Here we turn left down the narrow and nicely named Pont y Cob Road. Once we’re across the river Lliw the path suddenly leaves the road and veers off right. It crosses the railway line – we narrowly miss being scythed down by an Arriva train – and the main road, before climbing up what the coast path guide writer, Chris Moss, in a curious eighteenth century phrase, calls a ‘pleasantly bosky’ sunken track. Then along towards Loughor, passing Bwrw Road (‘Bash Street’?), a recreation ground, and the medieval castle tower. By the bridge our other car is waiting for us at the side of the estuary. While we’ve been walking the water has ebbed. Upriver towards Pontarddulais mudflats and silver water-channels glow in the mid-afternoon sun.