Travel: Gower's closeness to Swansea is a bonus but, really, it's all about the beaches
Less than an hour's flight from Belfast, south Wales is a handy holiday destination. On a visit to Swansea and the Gower Peninsula, Fergal Hallahan and his family were impressed by the welcome and blown away by – and sometimes on – the beaches
FOLKIES among you might recognise ‘the Gower’ from Beeswing, Richard Thompson’s bittersweet paean to free-spiritedness, which Christy Moore recorded and sings live. Its mention in the ballad, though fleeting, suggests a place of untamed beauty.
In my own family mythology ‘the Gower’ evoked somewhere similarly windswept. My grandmother was born into what was in the early 20th century an industrial landscape in a village north of Swansea, and would utter the words as if recalling the sense of escape to be found in visiting a place of beaches, smallholdings and moorland – as well, perhaps, as familiarity, it having something in common with the rural Ireland from which her parents had emigrated and to which she and they eventually returned.
Neither impression is wide of the mark, it turns out; extending westwards from Swansea into the Bristol Channel, in the 1950s the Gower Peninsula was designated the UK’s first area of outstanding natural beauty.
Its beaches, which include that at Rhossili Bay on the farthermost tip, a three-mile expanse of sand backed by dunes and heather-covered hills that has been voted the best in Britain and Northern Ireland, are pristine and picturesque, the sea views from its winding country roads dramatic.
But while Gower’s wildness endures – only the hardy or the well geared up venture on to its remotest strands in February, it seems, while cattle grids abound on roads abutted by grazing land that remains, much of it, open commonage – it is tempered by its proximity to Swansea, each complementing the other in terms of amenities and accessibility.
On our mid-term-break visit we stayed – in a fabulous guesthouse whose owner’s attention to detail made it the most enjoyable element of our holiday, as it happens – in Mumbles, a seaside suburb of Swansea (or Abertawe, as it’s called in Welsh) a few miles from the city centre. The journey between the two is made all the more pleasant by a well-used path that follows the broad sweep of Swansea Bay, continuing then, past Mumbles, right around the peninsula.
This affords walkers, joggers, scooters, cyclists and mums on maternity leave the opportunity to combine their keep-fit, fresh-air routine with lunching in one of Mumbles’ many eateries. Our top pick was Verdi’s, a bustling family-run cafe which seems to be the area’s version of Morelli’s in Portstewart in the sense of being a local institution, though with the emphasis as much on its first-class Italian food as on its ice-cream. (I had a tasty, garlicky kale and bean soup, my ever discerning dining partners gave the thumbs up to their pizza n pasta.)
For a postprandial ‘poke’ we opted for a surfer joint further along the seaside path, past Mumbles Head, with its Victorian pier and kid-friendly amusement arcade, eating our gelatos outdoors in unseasonable 16C sunshine overlooking Rotherslade Bay.
The backdrop of the Gower Coast Path, to give it its title, changes from the rows of quaint, uniformly painted beach huts and des-res dwellings of the more salubrious parts of Mumbles to increasingly rustic vistas, the further out the Gower you go. Linking urban to rural is a chain of unspoilt coves and bays, of varying shapes and sizes.
It’s surfer country. On ‘our’ street, in a residential area, they change into winter wetsuits from the boots of their cars and trot down the hill to the sea with their boards, then on out to congregate where the waves break, bobbing there like small flocks of outsized seabirds, biding their time, before suddenly getting up and going for it.
Watching them is fascinating in itself, especially when the wind makes it hard to stand erect on dry land, never mind a surfboard, but to get properly in on the act my wife, our daughter and I signed up for a surfing taster session – safely indoors at Swansea’s swanky LC2 Leisure Centre.
Opened 10 years ago after a £32 million overhaul of the original, the LC, as everyone calls it, is Wales’s most visited paid-for tourist attraction, which is saying something in a country coming down with castles and museums. You can see why: the indoor water park is airy, spotless, well run and the staff are friendly and helpful.
And the indoor surfing? Well, it was good fun but let’s just say it’ll be a while before either of the over-10s in the family paddles out to catch some waves on the Gower Peninsula. It’s a bit more challenging than those guys make it look.
The LC is in Swansea’s waterfront area, also home to the Swansea Museum and the National Waterfront Museum, the latter hosting exhibitions on Wales’s industrial heritage and housed in a building that’s part sleek, modern and glassy, part elegant red-brick former warehouse, and that backs on to an old dock, now Swansea Marina.
The two buildings are highlights of the redevelopment this part of the city has been undergoing, which is still a work in progress.
Apartment complexes and eateries skirt the marina; we had an excellent tapas-style lunch at The Swigg, a stylish bistro next door to the museum where we were once again given cause to remark upon the friendliness of the Welsh people we met.
This also applied in the King Arthur Hotel, a convivial inn out on the peninsula where we had an evening meal and a near-run-in with a pro-Brexit Norn Iron ex-pat, and the Gower’s Oxwich Bay Hotel, well worth a stop-off for a coffee or a bite and to take in, from the comfort of a leather sofa by a warm fire, the drama of the beach and body of water for which it is named.
Swansea is Dylan Thomas’s home town and both Gower and Mumbles feature in and inspired his writing so, for a bit of culture, we visited the house of his birth. Present owner Geoff Haden has restored it to as close as possible to the condition it would have been in when the poet lived there in the 19-teens and 20s.
The affable Geoff gave us a tour and a talk – call me a philistine but the impression I got of Thomas was of a spoiled brat – finishing up with a lunch of the sort of fare its famous former resident would himself have tucked into back in the day, including corned-beef pie and a local speciality consisting of cockles and boiled seaweed on toast.
Which was, to my surprise, good; however, the fact that authenticity demanded that all be served on the type of crockery my aforementioned grandmother used to keep, crown-jewels style, under lock and key in a glass cabinet in her ‘parlour’ rather took the edge off my appetite.
The only worthwhile measure of the success of any family break is, would we all go again? In this case, the unanimous vote was yes; Gower really is beautiful – but, really, it’s all about the beaches.
Before leaving we called into the peninsula’s heritage centre, a quirky place where younger kids might find some amusement (we missed Brian May there by a week, apparently; he's involved in a local wildlife project) but with Mumbles and Swansea close by, and with so many beautiful beaches a stone's throw from each other, families won't be stuck for things to do.
Getting there: Swansea is an easy hour's drive up the M4 from Cardiff Airport, which has daily flights to Belfast City Airport (flybe.com)
Accommodation: Fergal and his family stayed at the family friendly, family-run Langland Cove Guesthouse (langlandcove.co.uk) and they highly recommend it
Food: Verdi's Ice Cream Parlour and Restaurant, Knab Rock, Mumbles (verdis-cafe.co.uk)
Attractions: Swansea Leisure Complex (thelcswansea.com); Gower Heritage Centre (gowerheritagecentre.co.uk); Dylan Thomas Birthplace and Family Home, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea (dylanthomasbirthplace.com)
:: For more about Swansea and the Gower Peninsula, including excellent maps, walking trail details and itinerary suggestions see visitswanseabay.com