In Llanrhidian we park the car and poke our noses into the Welcome to Town. It’s been overhauled and reopened since we were last here and presents itself as a ‘pub and dining rooms’. The brand advice must have consisted of one word, ‘purple!’ Electric urban purple storms its way across the facade and marches through all the rooms inside – a colour far removed from the natural grey-greens of north Gower. We ask whether we can look at the paintings on the walls, and find two Carys Evans pictures in the upstairs dining room.
We’re soon beyond the few houses at the bottom of the villages, and an outlying cluster of houses, including an old mill and former woollen factory, called ‘Stavel Hagar’. The name looks (to an etymological illiterate) like a strange mix of Welsh (ystafell?) and Norse (Hǣgr?). The path picks its way westwards, keeping to the foot of the wooded slope to our left. Sometimes it dives into the trees, sometimes it borders or crosses fields. On our right is the wide dark expanse of the Llanrhidian salt marsh, usually separated from us by broad grassy meadows, each with a different mix of flowers (the first is themed red, with knapweed and clover). The tide is out and the Inlet seems far away. Bright sun brings out flies and butterflies in large numbers – though the temperature never climbs high during the day, and there’s a head breeze when later on we start moving south.
Woods hide the features, natural and man-made, that lie above us. The blocky shape of Weobley Castle, once owned by Sir Rhys ap Thomas, appears briefly through a gap in the trees, then vanishes. Just before we reach Landimor, a hamlet for people of deep pockets but little taste, the path uses recent concrete stepping stones to cross Burry Pill. A deceptively slight waterway, the Pill rises to cover the stones at high tide – at one time it powered as many as seven mills upstream – and winds its labyrinthine way north through the marshes, gathering tributaries like tree roots, to join with the Great Pill before reaching the Inlet.
At Landimore we join a minor road that becomes a rough track and resumes the way west, again at the foot of wooded hills to our left. The remains of a castle at Bovehill are hidden in trees. A lime kiln peeps out at us from foliage. So far we’ve met just three people: a couple of cocklers in a van, and a lone walker. At last the marsh cuts a slice out the land and we follow south, joining a track up past tall marsh mallows to the Britannia Inn in Llanmadoc. It’s past midday and time for a break. J. takes possession of a hake of giant size, which he places high in his league table of Coast Path fish and chip meals. We eat outside among bowls of flowers and watch the passing traffic.
Next, up the road and through the village. Not many people on benefits here, we notice, but the residents are well organised. There’s a community shop and café, Siop y Bobl, and we start to see notices advertising a popular uprising. In the stormy winter of 2013-14 the sea broke through the old (possibly 17th century) sea wall linking Whiteford Point and Cwm Ivy Woods and defending pasture land reclaimed from the sea. As a result the public footpath on the wall was severed. The landowner, the National Trust, decided not to repair the breach but to let nature have its way. Though ‘managed retreat’ seems a defensible position, the NT and its partners are unable or unwilling to restore the path, and the residents have obviously lost patience. A protest, Save Our Seawall, had been called for the next day. ‘We are expecting media coverage’, say the rebels.
At the top of the road we reach Llanmadoc Church, restored to death in 1865-6 by the architect John Prichard for the Gower historian, woodcarver and Anglo-Catholic eccentric Rev. J.D. Davies. The church, small but strongly defended, is open, and we’re able to see the pillar crosses inside. From the churchyard are views through pines across the water to Burry Port. Next to the church sits a massive Swiss chalet of a rectory built by Prichard for the unmarried Davies, an absurdly overblown home for a local vicar. It had at least six bedrooms. The diarist Francis Kilvert visited Davies in 1872 and found the rectory ‘thoroughly untidy and unbachelorlike’. Davies emerged from it ‘like a Roman priest, close shaven and shorn, dressed in seedy black, a long coat and broad shovel hat’.
Before long we’re on Whiteford Point, the two-mile spit that separates west sea from east saltmarsh. A pinewood begins strongly to our left, but loses confidence as we walk and gives way to dunes and scrub, before resuming later on. Beyond the (ex-)seawall the marsh glows mauve with drifts of flowering sea lavender. We lapse into silence as a wind pushes its way through the reeds. At last the path loops left across the dunes to the Point’s west side. The sandline hooks gently away to our left towards the far north end of the spit. We sit on the beach and gaze over to the Carmarthenshire shore, past the lighthouse, built in 1865 – the only wave-washed iron lighthouse left standing in Britain. We silently decide not to make the trudge across the low water rocks to examine it at close quarters.
As we head south into the wind, sand is under our feet for most of the rest of the walk. Sand that yields an inch at every step, sand flabby as a soft mattress, sand too soft to gain any purchase, sand as ridged and uncomfortable as corrugated iron, and (only in Rhossili Bay) sand flat and firm as a tarmacked pavement. At one point, by some strange optical illusion, we seem to be climbing steeply, with the sea ahead lifted to a higher level. We keep just to the sea side of the last tide mark, past a continuous trail of plastic detritus – pipes, bottles, tubing, canisters, cartons, crates, nets and much else – that it would take a small army of cleaners to gather. Fullgrown jellyfish lie still, shining dully in the sun like overweight men sunbathing. We pass the cracked and decayed bodies of seabirds, and a log so covered in barnacles that it looks as if it might have been animate, or an art installation.
The only variation before we reach Hillend, though they’re still made of sand, is Broughton Burrows: a climb through a caravan park of frighteningly suburban social conformity and along a path made of parallel wooden slats set in the sandy turf, bucking the dunes like a railway roller-coaster. The path ends with a descent towards Burry Holms, islanded by the incoming tide. It seems hard to believe that this bare, exposed place was the home of a Celtic religious community, and before that of prehistoric men and women from Mesolithic times on.
We’re tiring, despite an emergency ingestion of Eddy’s flapjacks. The final mile of sandwalk seems to take an age. Tiny beach figures in the distance finally resolve themselves into holidaymakers from the campsite at Hillend – and a single windsurfer, his board glissading across the shallows, his kite’s shadow darkening for a moment the figures of children as they sprint across the sand.