Like the majority of people who flock to the Gower peninsula every year, I thought that was it… that the peninsula was synonymous with Gower and ended somewhere around Gowerton on the north coast and Mumbles on the south.
For many years, going to Gower (or the Gower, as I called it back then) meant a long winter’s day walk along the windswept Rhossili Bay, or a family day lounging around on the beach at Oxwich or Port Eynon.
Then, a decade ago, my widowed father moved to West Cross in Swansea. On my regular visits west, my dad introduced me to the equally stunning landscapes at Langland and Caswell Bay, the cliff top walk at Pennard and the children’s park at Dunvant (famous for its male voice choir).
Gower was revealing itself to me, bay by bay, and yet still I remained completely oblivious to the charms of its north coastline and the undulating interior full of woods, moorland and vales. I had no inkling of the stunning 360 degree views from Cefn Bryn, the five-mile ‘spine’ of Gower where hardy wild ponies graze alongside sheep or my absolute favourite place on the peninsula, the gorgeous woodland and unspoilt beaches at Whiteford Point.
It wasn’t until Harri and I got together that I started exploring the Gower peninsula properly, in fact, Harri’s first commissioned hiking book (sadly still unpublished, though we hope to rectify that one day soon) was a book of circular walks in the area. It was while we were exploring and devising routes for that book that I began to realise the extent of the Gower’s beauty and how much this tiny geographic area has to offer those who enjoy walking.
In the introduction to his book, Harri described Gower as ‘a small but priceless gem’ and I think that’s a very apt description. He’s not alone in feeling this way, of course; back in the 1950s, the Gower Society lobbied to have the area’s beauty protected by statute and in 1956 much of the peninsula was designated as the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Yet, it might surprise people to know that the Gower peninsula is only part of the equation and that the geographic area of Gower extends as far north as the Aman valley.
Pontarddulais Walking Club provides a good explanation of the area’s history on its website:
Gwyr > Gower was originally a commote belonging to the lords of Ystrad Tywi – an area now resembling Carmarthenshire. Around 1100 AD Gower was conquered by the Normans and castles were built at Swansea, Loughor and Talybont (Pontarddulais) to guard three strategically important river crossings. The invaders inevitably acquired for themselves the rich fertile lowlands and settlers were introduced from the west of England to toil the land. The native Welsh, particularly those of the southern part of the peninsular, were evicted to less favourable areas.
For administrative purposes the lordship was broadly divided into two units- Gower Anglicana (The Englishry) and Gower Wallicana (The Welshry). Consequently the peninsular became predominantly English speaking as testified by the frequent use of the suffix ‘-ton’ in place names. The Welshry or Upland Gower, on the other hand, remained unaffected and is still generally Welsh speaking although the twentieth century witnessed a significant language decline.
A few days ago Harri and I ventured inland and away from the peninsula in search of Gower’s most northerly medieval stronghold, Penlle’r Castell.
With weathermen warning of high winds and occasional showers, we’d deliberated at length over breakfast about whether or not we should even set off on this 12-mile walk across Mynydd y Betws. Yet, it seemed a shame to head home with only three of our proposed four Gower castle walks completed and the sun was sort of shining.
We had no difficulty parking at the Lower Lliw Reservoir, in fact ours was the only car in the car park. We took comfort from the fact that it was early and the visitor centre and toilets were closed.
The first few miles were easy, a narrow tarmac path with great views across the reservoir and, as we climbed, a mountain stream gurgling alongside us in the bottom of the steep-sided valley. We stayed on the right of both reservoirs and gradually made our way through Brynllefrith Plantation where we were reasonably well protected from the howling wind but where, on more than one occasion, the path was less than clear.
We emerged from the plantation onto an undulating road across the mountain and a badly translated Welsh road sign which threw Harri, himself a freelance Welsh translator and editor, into despair.
It’s a shame you can’t illustrate high winds in still images because looking at the image above it looks like a rather dull winter’s day but nothing more. Well the camera definitely lies because at this point I was struggling to walk against the wind and, geographically, the Mynydd Du range isn’t even particularly high at around 1,000 feet.
The few drivers who went past must have thought we were mad as we ducked our heads low and fought our way through the wind. Just as I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did… we veered off the hard surface of the road to follow the Gower Way across the mountain.
Penlle’r Castell is located 1213 feet above sea level and is a short, steep detour from the main path. By the time we reached the deep ditches that are really all that remain of the 13th century castle it was very difficult to even hold the camera steady. Harri had long given up on the map and was relying on visual landmarks and memory to navigate us across the open mountain.
I have to admit the views in all directions were pretty spectacular but the peaty ground underfoot was so waterlogged and difficult to walk across that most of my efforts were focussed on staying upright (unfortunately I didn’t succeed) rather than admiring the scenery.
This is a remote landscape which has largely been neglected by hikers so we were surprised to come across six well-equipped people sheltering from the wind in one of the ditches. A few smiles and waves and they were immediately off across the open mountain, while I tried desperately to photograph the castle site.
Stopping to consume food and drink wasn’t an option (we’d have frozen!) so we just ploughed on, trying to find the track across the mountain that had looked obvious on Google Earth but had all but vanished in the muddy conditions. Time after time we tried to descend the mountain and steer towards the Upper Lliw Reservoir but were prevented continuing by fast-flowing streams and waterlogged marshes.
I really hate hiking in these sort of conditions and, when I tripped and fell over, getting even wetter, I declared very loudly and determinedly that I’d had enough. Hiking was supposed to be a pleasure.
We retraced our steps (though there was no avoiding walking through one stream) and headed back through the plantation.
It’s a shame the walk didn’t work out but Harri wasn’t happy with it and has already worked out a revised route which, though longer, should be much easier to walk. We’ll probably wait until the weather is drier before we check out that one.
I suppose it’s like anything in life… you win some, you lose some. That’s why it’s so important for every outdoor writer to check each route on the ground… sometimes the real thing is not quite what you anticipated.