Rhossili on a Wednesday morning in early September. The car park’s mostly empty. At the National Trust canopy no one’s around to give the hard sell on membership. A cool wind’s blowing from an unfamiliar angle, north-west, but there’s no rain in the forecast. We deviate slightly from the coast path to admire the Worm, just the Outer Head gleaming in the sun. Then we rejoin the path towards Port Eynon, following the dry-stone walls with their characteristically Gower concave toppings.
I’ve been walking this stretch for years and still find it frustrating. As if obeying some solemn health and safety advice, the path keeps well clear of the edges of the cliffs, so that what makes them great , their solidity and sweep, are invisible to the walker. You only catch the occasional glimpse of the sea battering their bases. When I first came to Swansea I had a habit of walking from Caswell to Rhossili in a day, keeping as close as possible to the coast: from Port Eynon to Rhossili this meant taking unofficial, tiring and sometimes dangerous routes – but they had the advantage of giving you access to a grandeur that the coast path denies.
Nature’s already beginning its long retreat. Birds have ceased their songs. Apart from the swifts, sensing the call of migration, gulls, rooks and crows seem to have the air to themselves. Only knapweed, crane’s-bill, gorse and heather are in full-throated flower. The sheep here look as though they’ve been through a beauty parlour, with their neatly shorn coats and Google colour markings. Some of them pose for the cameras at the very edge of sheer drops to the ocean below. One lamb that’s lost its mother latches on to us and follows us forlornly along the path for a while.
The path takes regular dives into the small valleys punctuating the coastline. One of them is Paviland – the cliffs make a perfect ‘V’ for the sea beyond – where William Buckland discovered his ‘Red Lady’. There’s no pointer on the fingerpost – they don’t want to draw our attention to the cave. At one point two propeller-driven military planes approach us over the sea, completely silently, then veer inland just in front of us. Later we find ourselves covered in white powder, as the strong wind drives it towards the coast from fields where a farmer is spreading lime.
Missing the path at Overton we accidentally pioneer a new, high-level route through the gorse before dropping to Overton Mere, an important reserve for coastlife but a dreary sight at low tide. Then a climb up to Port Eynon Head and the obtrusive and ugly memorial to Gwent Jones and Stephen Lee, founders of the Gower Society. A runner sprints towards us up the ridge, rounds the memorial and hares down toward the village. We follow, threading our way slowly through the quarry scree, down to the Salt House and the few remaining tents on the camp site.
The Ship at Port Eynon serves majestic cod and chip lunches for three, rated 7.5 on J.’s coast path fish index, while I make do with something less filling. We all set off across the dunes for Horton, Port Eynon’s bourgeois sister village, at a sluggish pace. C. tells us that Stanley Baldwin used to come to Horton on holiday, and it’s easy to see why a complacent conservative would like it here, with its big houses facing the sea, and their little gardens detached on the sea side of the path. But soon we’ve left the houses behind and we’re on the long finger of the Oxwich peninsula. This is a magical place. The crumbling path follows the edge of the narrow coastal strip for a mile and a half. To our right, a beach of limestone pebbles, brilliant white in the sun, gives way to darker grey and black rocks, and then the sea, Exmoor just visible across the Channel. A single white yacht moves in parallel to us, towards Swansea. To our left an apron of fields, the a sporadic curtain of limestone outcrops, some as substantial as castles. We’ve been talking about memories of comics like the Eagle and the Beano, and suddenly our boyish imaginations people the horizon of the rocks above us with fierce Red Indians, whooping and armed to the teeth and preparing to swoop bloodily down on our small wagon train.
At Slade the rocks are interrupted by a small triangular beach, Gower’s best, just called The Sands. A few families with young children, in on the secret, are playing here. We join them, to avoid a diversion caused by path erosion, hopping like goats from rock to rock down to the sands. Getting back to the path proves more difficult. I scramble up a steep sandy gully, hauling myself up on a handy rope; the others brave the rocks till they can find a point to regain the path.
As we round the Point the path begins to ascend. Swansea Bay comes into view. Round again, to the sheltered north-east side of the peninsula, and the wood begins. The sadist who designed this path incorporated an unnecessary climb, up hundreds of steps, to the highest ground, only to send us immediately back down, via hundreds more steps, to Oxwich Beach. J. suggests that the churchyard attached to St Illtyd’s Church at the foot of the steps contains the corpses of people who expired at various points of this ascent/descent. Past the church is the white marquee used for weddings by the Oxwich Bay Hotel, and as we pass by we’re just in time to overhear the Best Man wishing the bride and groom a long and happy life together. What, we wonder, would Philip Larkin have made of this? Some gloomy meditations, no doubt, linked to the boneyard next door. Time to drink our tea and take our leave of Oxwich.