A spring morning. Six paces from the car and we’re standing, four of us, on the beach at Oxwich. Calm sea, a light airflow from the south east, and, best of all, sun – a star banished from sight during the darkest, warmest, wettest winter in memory.
Our only mistake is neglecting to notice the tides. At the end of the Bay we can see that there’ll be no exposed sand at the foot of the Great Tor, and so no easy entry to Three Cliff Bay. But here the sea retreats quickly and soon we can leave the pebbles and start striding out on firm sand, the long elegant curve of the bay ahead of us. The tide’s left a thin necklace of shells and other debris, and the occasional tree branch. On the soft sand below the dunes stands a small child’s blue and pink plastic car, intact but abandoned, as if misled by its faulty satnav. Gradually – it’s a 40 minute walk from one end of the bay to the other – the Tor begins to exert its pull. A great vertical plate of rock, it looks as if it’s been hurled angrily, with huge force, to land in the sand. But we’ll be waiting an hour or two for dry passage below it, so we divert into Tor Bay, my favourite Gower bay, and pedal inefficiently up the sand slope to reach the old lime kiln and the path at the top.
We get back down to sea level in Three Cliff Bay by a narrow, steep, unofficial path through young trees. It leads to a tall chute of dune above the sand floor. Years ago our small children would leap down this slide, yelling, arms outstretched, sand spraying in all directions. Now our own stiffer, sixties bodies try to find an echo of those days. H. glides down with her sticks as if she’s on skis, J. takes giant strides, C. flails his arms plausibly.
The Pennard stream’s still flowing strongly and we’re forced into a long detour to the west, crossing on the concrete stepping stones and along a pebble ridge to gain the sandy ridge on the east side of the bay. To our left, across the broad sand, the three cliffs are black and two-dimensional, silhouetted by the low sun behind them. A small figure stands outlined in the teardrop cave below them. Another strenuous climb through sand and we reward ourselves with a snack and a view westward. We sit in a row on a wooden bench, swinging our legs in the air, duplicate Gullivers several feet off the ground thanks to the constant erosion of the dunes.
At Southgate we stop for a bite in the excellent Three Cliffs Coffee Shop. On the wall above our table the owners have placed posters giving the text of two poems by Vernon Watkins, ‘Hunt’s Bay’ and ‘Taliesin in Gower’. Then we continue eastwards, along the clifftops. The sea below us glares in the sun, and opposite the long arm of Oxwich Point looks distant and grey in the haze. When we reach Hunt’s Bay I leave the others to search on the steep slope below the path for the plaque to Vernon Watkins. The other Gower memorials of the poet are easy enough to find: a plaque on the wall of the old people’s home at Southgate notes that this house, in an earlier incarnation, was his family home, and the north wall of Pennard Church holds another. I knew the Hunt’s Bay one was hard to track down. Fortunately, Nigel Jenkins, in his posthumous book Real Gower, gives some informal coordinates, and after a short but leg-scratching hunt amid the gorse I stumble across it, sited in a (deliberately?) obscure spot overlooking the bay. It says, ‘Vernon Watkins, Poet of Gower, I have been taught the script of the stones / and I know the tongue of the wave’ (from ‘Taliesin in Gower’).
Now Pwll Du Head is in view. The path drops down, only to climb again to the same height. To our right is the point, its parabolic curve descending to its tip, a melancholy place called Graves End. This is where the sailing ship Caesar was wrecked in a storm in 1760. Below deck were men press-ganged for service in the Navy. Most of the 65 people on board were drowned. Their bodies were buried in a mass grave, marked later by a circle of stones. It’s a place we avoid.
For the first time we’re in sheltered land away from the coast winds. Primroses line the path back up, and celandines flower in the fields beyond. Next come the woods above the next bay. The path that zig-zags steeply through them turns into a stream in wet weather, when it’s easy to turn an ankle on the greasy stones. This is C’s least favourite Gower walk, even with walking sticks: a direct route to pain and the knee surgeon. Today, after several days without rain, it’s more benign, and we’re soon surfing the sea of washed pebbles on the great storm beach of Pwll Du Bay. The beach is a magical shape-shifter. After rain the Bishopston stream punches a passage through the stones to the sea, but today it’s gathered darkly in a pool behind the beach, reappearing in trickles out of the pebbles, apparently, but impossibly, at a higher level.
We take the low level route to Brandy Cove and its old lead mine, and then march across the whole length of Caswell Bay – the tide is at its lowest now – and struggle to scramble up from the beach to the path via the old earth gulley, which seems to have become badly eroded. Then to Rotherslade, where the winter storms have scoured so much sand and stone from the bay that Alfred Sisley’s ‘Lady’s Rock’ has had its stony base cruelly exposed. And finally, up the hill to C and H’s home in Langland.
This is a route I’ve walked dozens of times in the last 25 years, but seldom on so perfect a day. Only a short stretch of the Coast Path now remains for us to walk in south Wales, between central Swansea and Langland – a walk we’re going to reserve to the very end. Next month we resume in Aberystwyth, striding boldly into the north.