In summer the Worm, the Bay and its end-of-the-earth aura draw hundreds down Gower’s narrow roads to Rhossili – us included today. In the crowded car park we avoid eye contact with the National Trust’s recruitment agents and head north towards the Down, on one of our rare circular walks.
The steep climb quickly separates us from the beach crowd and the pilgrims processing on the Worm’s Head path. Half way up we reach a group of paraglider pilots. Like bees in a flower garden they work the winds in harmony – and in rotation. One of them stands and twitches his rising canvas to gather enough air to give him flight. Five or six others, harnessed in their flying chairs, feed off the thermals rising from the sand below, the flowing colours of their polyester wings dancing slowly around one another. A couple of others descend to earth, touching the ground with dancing feet a few feet away from us. One of the pilots looks older than any of the four of us. We agree, though, that for us the ecstasies of paragliding may be outweighed by its perils.
Heather is the main tenant of Rhossili Down today, but it was a busier place in the past. The path bypasses most of the prehistoric remains – two neolithic burial chambers and a string of Bronze Age cairns that dot the eastern slope. We pass one ring cairn of stones, and towards the north end of the path come across the concrete foundations of the radar station in operation between 1942 and 1945. The hills around Swansea must have looked very different during the Second World War, as they sprouted gun positions and other installations to counter German attack. The remains occupy a surprisingly large area. With their bare floors, shallow steps and dwarf walls they look like a miniature version of the Minoan palaces of Crete.
The weather forecast promised light cloud and weak sun. Instead, though Tenby shines bright across the sea in the far distance, a dark mass low in the sky approaches from the south-west. It quickly engulfs the Worm and sweeps inexorably towards us. Within moments rain is lashing against our waterproofs and unprotected legs. Almost as suddenly it ceases and moves off inland, and a strengthening wind begins to dry us. On the summits of the Down are outcrops of rock – mixed-up quartz/sandstone conglomerates that look very similar to the concrete we saw earlier. We start on the steep descent from the Down.
Below us lies Llangennith, with its satellite village of caravans and campsite at Hillend. At the foot of the hill we head for Eddy’s café. The scene is one that hasn’t changed in essence for decades. Families, of up to three generations, are eating here, and enjoying their safe, sunny holidays on the beach and surf (the best in available in Wales). Among the conventional caravans and tents we pass an eco-tent, stitched from multangular cloths of different earthy colours, with a solar panel attached. Over the dunes the sea opens up for us, as the warm sun emerges. We turn south and start to walk on the firm sand back towards Rhossili.
To our left the Down is fringed by a raised western strip, a solifluction terrace formed by earth flushed down from the slopes above when the ice retreated. Its edge is under constant erosion from the sea. Along the three mile long beach the waves work their relentless friction – and leave behind the dead creatures they’ve stranded. Our boots crunch on shallow trails of small shells, accelerating their slow mutation to future limestone. Scattered like coins among them are small jellyfish abandoned by the last tide; some of the larger specimens show strange bluish innards and purple serrated fringes. Near Rhossili the wreck of the Helvetia looks diminished: has it been damaged by people, or is it sinking into the sand?
Half way along the beach we pass the old Rectory, apparently placed in its lonely position because the rector was expected to serve both Rhossili and Llangennith. High above, the paragliders drift past in slow motion.
The Worm now looms and it’s time to leave the beach and climb up the path back to the village. As we pass one group C. overhears someone say how breathtaking the view of the Beach is. And of course it is. It’s easy to miss that insight if you’re too familiar with a landscape, hard to recover the sense of sudden wonder at the sweep of sky, sea, sand and hill that makes Rhossili special.