Gower - Britain’s first natural beauty parade

Two out of six top National Trust walks

Gower, in South Wales, was named the very first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1956. When the government prospected the most precious countryside in Britain in the 1950s, Gower was the first gleam of gold in the tray. Now the list has grown to 41, in England and Wales. Their landscape is every bit as good as national parks – that’s official. And now the National Trust found two of its 'Six breathtaking walks in Wales' in Gower. See web site below. Picture, headland at Penmaen, Gower, by Tim Davies

They shaped up suddenly on the path ahead, edgy and urgent in the dusk. Pausing for only a second to take our measure they charged, heads down and straight at us.

This looked dangerously front-on. Then, just a hoofbeat away, they veered by an inch, and came thundering past so close to our shoulders we could feel their hot breath on our faces.

For a moment West Wales was as wild as Africa. Then the certainties of serene childhood holidays flooded back. These were not raging stallions at all, only the amiable descendants of old pit ponies released to run free on Gower, and still celebrating.

The ponies panned out over the moor looking for fresh golden gorse flowers to chomp. We climbed on to the top of Cefn Bryn, 600 feet high, for views into the four winds.

This is the very middle of the First of the Best, and I’m not spinning for the tourist board. When the government prospected the most precious countryside in Britain in the 1950s, Gower was the first gleam of gold in the tray. The peninsula, prodding into the Bristol Channel like a nimble outside half’s boot aiming a drop goal at Devon, was named the pioneer Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956.

Gower was conveniently packaged for the purpose. Just 15 miles long by 5 wide, its boundaries were already written by the sea, opening to the suburbs of Swansea in the east.

On the south coast you sense the hand of a prehistoric Slartibartfast from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was the planet designer who loved doing coastlines. Some of best south-facing beaches in
Britain are here – Langland, Limeslade, Caswell - parked end to end like buses in a traffic jam.

Winner of the landscape beauty contest it might have been, but there was never anything posh or swanky about Gower. Like so many people slipping out of the South Wales industrial bustle, we arrived amazed such a halcyon place was so close.

Port Eynon was our favourite, gentle sands under high dunes and a steeper hill, which the bus would inch down as carefully as a rhino on the ski slopes. I always believed it to be the best beach in the world, but maybe I was wrong. One writer recently awarded that honour to Oxwich, the beach next door.

We grew bolder and ventured into the mysterious west, through cliff top fields, past Paviland Caves, where the ‘Red lady’ once resided in delicious prehistoric mystery. (Such a pity when some killjoy archaeologist downgraded the ancient bones to ‘Red Person’).

Then on to the glorious sweep of Rhosilli Bay, like the final movement of some great symphony. It’s the screen saver on my computer, because I don’t know many better views. One white house in three empty miles, under a towering, brackeny hill which seems much too big for a little peninsula.

We teased out Gower’s secrets over the years, through the seasons. Once we thought it was only for high summer, when traffic was so heavy the council put up ‘Gower Full’ signs. Now we feel the tug as strongly on a glum Tuesday in November when the only life on Port Eynon beach was us and a lone gull weaving through the slate grey swell.

It packs so much in. The north coast, so different, slants away over to Carmarthen Bay where one of Gower’s greatest fans, Dylan Thomas lived at Laugharne. The moor in the middle, studded with brimming ponds, cut by the straight open road down its spine, is as creepy and romantic as Dartmoor. And castles everywhere, from Oxwich, stout and intact, to Woebley, worn and cryptic.

In the deep leafy heartland you plunge down a mystery maze of lanes so narrow the hedges burnish the side of the car, and all ways seem to bring you back to where you started. But persevere, because you might miss Fairyhill.

This hotel, set in ornate gardens, tucked into Gower’s cosiest folds, stands high in any Welsh list of cuisine excellence. But the style is as relaxed as Swansea Market. We like it best when the fire is crackling in the bar, the howling Welsh gale is firmly shut out, and Paul and Andrew are taking the orders for dinner as we nibble Penclawdd cockles in batter.

We were there the day of the horses, met as we walked up from the hotel for the last act of a dimming winter afternoon, for the full 360 degree experience atop Cefn Bryn.

Nowhere’s far on Gower. To the north, late cocklers moving sedately ahead of the tide. To the south, a hint of surf breaking on Three Cliffs Bay. Far to the east, the lion roar of the M4 reduced to a mouse’s hum. A farmer on a quad rounding up stray sheep hopped through the gorse like a demented beetle. Then the reassuring calm of the Gower evening clamped down like a curtain, and we strolled back to Fairyhill for Welsh cakes and tea.

Fact Box
The writer stayed at Fairyhill Hotel: 01792 390139. Prices from £225, inc dinner, B&B. Taxi from Swansea Railway Station - about £30.

National Trust ''Six breathtaking walks in Wales''. See web site below.

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