For a few seconds, I was back home in San Diego looking up the coast from the cliffs of Torrey Pines. In front and a bit above of me, paragliders rode the currents in their aerial ballet. Beyond, and somewhat lower was an expanse of broad sandy beach – virtually empty – arcing to the left for three miles with the sea gently sweeping in. And, what were those specks in the water on this glorious summer afternoon? Surfers! But the plaintive baa-ing of sheep nearby soon broke my spell, as did the expanse of dense gorse, an underbrush so thick that it is an impenetrable refuge for birds and other wildlife. Not to mention the lush green coastal plateau. This, then, was the tip of Gower Peninsula of South Wales, running roughly seven miles across by 14 miles long.
The Gower, as it is known, is Britain’s first Area of Outstanding Beauty, proclaimed by government decree in 1956. No one need ask why. “Gower is unlike the rest of South Wales,” said Blue Badge guide Bill O’Keefe, who leads tourists along the byways and through the sites of a magical land well on the way to recovering from the ecological ravages of unrestrained coal-mining.
Here, however, the scars of mining were mercifully avoided. Left instead is an area of primal beauty now protected by government and community watchdogs. Much of the Gower is held by Britain’s National Trust, which owns about 10 percent of the peninsula, keeping developers at bay. Secluded beaches, rocky promontories and historic sites are part of the Trust’s domain. Another protector watches over the Gower. The Gower Society sponsors hikes along the many trails, and helped create the Gower Path, a 60-mile hiking trail covering coast and inland areas. But for surfers, the Gower’s unspoiled coast is the premier destination in Wales.
“It’s touch and go whether you’ll get perfect waves if you come to the Gower, but there are a few characters to meet, the night life in Mumbles is classic – and the sheep are friendly,” said Carwyn Williams, a veteran surfer from the nearby community of Mumbles. That said, there’s plenty of surfing action along the peninsula. The crowd clusters at PJ’s Surf Shop in Llangennith. At remote Rhossili, the end of the road, there’s a National Trust interpretative center, a pub and hotel, art gallery and a few homes. In 2011, a world’s Skinny Dipping record was set here when 400 naked people ran into the surf as part of a cancer fund-raising effort. Up from the beach is Rhossili Rectory, a former parsonage that the Trust now rents to overnight visitors.
The Gower is a naturalist’s mecca, full of hiking trails, interesting geologic formations and a profusion of birds and other animals as well as historical sites dating back thousands of years. There are Bronze and Stone Age ritual and burial sites and hints of smugglers’ roosts. Turning around from my beach overlook, I took in Worms Head, a mile-long rocky outcrop jutting into the sea that is accessible to hikers by a causeway only during low tide. When the tide is in, all that can be seen is the “head and humped coils” of what looks to be a worm. The late Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas, who grew up in nearby Swansea, described the enduring scene some years before his death in 1953: “Laughing on the cliff above the very long golden beach, we pointed out to each other, as though the other were blind, the great rock of the Worms Head.
The sea was out. We crossed over on slipping stones and stood, at last, triumphantly on the windy top. There was monstrous, thick grass there that made us spring-heeled and we laughed and bounced on it, scaring the sheep who ran up and down the battered sides like goats.” I had struck a traveler’s bargain here – finding a poet’s lair in this setting that is as much a part of the territory as the protected bays and buffeted coastal headlands that mark the Gower. Now, it was time for a conversion – taking a half-hour ride to Mumbles, a seafront community in the city of Swansea with trendy hotels, bars and an old-style pier. You can base yourself in the many rustic B&Bs of the rural Gower but, for the action, Mumbles is the place. “The infamous ‘Mumbles Mile’ seems to have as many pubs, nightclubs and restaurants as paving stones, some of which may have been sampled by two of Swansea’s most famous residents, Dylan Thomas and Catherine Zeta-Jones,” wrote Alex Wade in “Surf Nation,” about the British surfing scene.
Two more names to add among the locals shaped by this area: actors Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton. Burton’s memory is kept alive in the mining village of Pontrhydyfen, where he was born, and the town of Port Talbot, where he developed his interest in acting. Hopkins also grew up in the area. One of Wales’ most beguiling figures, Dylan Thomas — just Dylan in these parts –occupies center stage in Swansea and held the Gower Peninsula deep in his soul. The mercurial Dylan was the type of man who could buy you a pint in a pub and then break into a heated argument minutes later. One of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century, casual observers best know him for his works “Under Milk Wood” and “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” His life’s story unfolds in Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre, opened in 1995 by former President Jimmy Carter, himself a big Dylan fan.
It has a permanent exhibition on the writer’s life, as well as a bookstore and café. The teetotalling Carter is an unlikely fan. People magazine in 1977 said “he could not have picked a less likely hero than the roistering, wenching, boozing Welsh man who died in New York in 1953 of a ‘massive alcoholic insult to the brain.’’’ “We love our archetypes in Wales,” said Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who played Thomas in the film “The Edge of Love.” “The big drinker, the carouser, the no-good boyo. Dylan’s image fitted incredibly well. And he was irreverent at a time you weren’t supposed to be, the 1950s. “We haven’t got many hell-raisers, but Thomas stuck two fingers up at it all and lived the life he wanted. Richard Burton (who was friends with Dylan and who was buried with a copy of Dylan’s poetry) was exactly the same,” Rhys said. Today, literary and film pilgrims interested in Dylan and Burton can embark on hikes tracing their lives in South Wales, including stops at pubs with connections to the two local icons. Back at Rhossili, a favorite of Dylan’s, I could see what were like toothpicks sticking out of the otherwise pristine beach below.
These were the rotting timbers of the barque Helvetia, left from its wreck in 1887. There was time to take it all in for a few minutes more, watching the sun draw closer to the sea’s flat horizon as the paragliders remained like gulls overhead and as stragglers raced the tide to hike back from Worms Head. This was definitely a moment, a newly discovered “I’ll be back” place. Next time I’ll be prepared with a map, hiking boots and a certain book of poetry. That’s all you need on The Gower. IF YOU GO Blue Badge Guide Bill O’Keefe: www.planetwales.co.uk Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea: www.dylanthomas.com The Gower Society: www.TheGowerSociety.org National Trust – Gower Peninsula: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/rhossili-and-south-gower-coast/ Patricks With Rooms (Mumbles hotel): www.patrickswithrooms.com Richard Burton heritage trails: www.visitnpt.co.uk Swansea and area: www.visitswanseabay.com Visit Wales: www.visitwales.com