On yet another lovely sunny day my daughter and I use a two car strategy to walk the next section of the Wales Coast Path, leaving one car in Oxwich car park in the shade of a Sycamore tree. Large pendulous flowers hang from the branches and I question whether this would be a good place to park; would the car need a good wash when we returned? Leaving the car where it is we walk towards the hotel and church. Rose bushes in bud, White Valerian and Common Broomrape line the early part of the road. Then a lichen covered wall winds its way past the Oxwich Bay Hotel; in its crevices lacy Maidenhair ferns, dimple leafed Navelwort and red stem Pellitory-of-the-wall grow. A bride and groom emerge from the Hotel accompanied by a photographer; they pose beside the wall with a backdrop of Oxwich beach and the coastline beyond. The path narrows as we approach the church. Shade is supplied by trees and shade loving plants cover the banks: Red Campion, Hart’s-tongue fern, Male fern and Ivy. An ancient church appears through a wall of ferns and naked branches, sulking in the salted shadows. It’s small and unassuming as if it was never built to be seen or used by anyone but the locals. It is dedicated to the 6th century Saint Illtyd. The oldest part was once a monastic cell; the nave and tower were later added in the 12th century and its bell is dated from the 14th century.
We bypass the church but admire its architecture and peaceful burial ground. We continue up the path and struggle for breath as it transforms into a staggeringly steep flight of slippery steps. It’s the shades of green that always get me, from deep jungle tones to glowing emeralds and electric limes. Lush vegetation assaults the eye; it is not all green but muted colours peep through. There are ferns aplenty; mosses and fungi surround the steps. The atmosphere is humid and the smell earthy, except when we came upon patches of Wild Garlic with its waft. of unmistakeable scent. More green leaves supplied by Enchanter’s Nightshade, flowerless Wood Anemone and Wild Strawberry leaves , Bluebell husks thrust through them and dainty blue Common Speedwell grow on the margins. Of course the Wild Garlic hugs the ground in fluffy white cascades.
The path snakes through the forest of drooping branches and moist, rotting wood; it is criss-crossed with large tree roots and wet patches which squelch beneath our feet as we slip and slide, and sometimes trip, our way around gorgeous pools of muddy goo. Sunlight penetrates the canopy producing light and dark patterns on the ground.
We burst out into bright sunshine, fields of Bracken and Bluebells to one side and low growing shrubs and trees on the other side of the path. Speckled Woods are flitting among the Brambles, Hazel, Oak, Beech and Sycamore, while Honeysuckle writhes through the branches. Then we plunge back into the wood. Again wafts of Wild Garlic overpowers us as we descend the steeply winding steps.
It seems as if we have been walking quite some way, when a glimpse through the trees of the rocky coast and Oxwich beach come into view. Really quite close.
Still in the wood the path hugs the curve of the bay with further glimpses of the coast. Blackbirds are singing and flying between the branches. Mosses, ferns, Wood Sorrel and Primroses, none in flower, caress the path and Black Bryony tendrils drip from the branches above us. Eventually the trees recede and the path takes us out to a point, Oxwich Point, from which you can look back on the beach as if you were on a boat out in the open water. Sea on either side.
We walk upon an open path with a gently sloping apron of grasses and flowers dropping towards the sea and a slightly steeper hill, also packed with flora, rising above us on the other side.
My camera is snapping furiously as a myriad of plants present themselves: Ground Ivy, Common Speedwell, Tormentil, purple and pink Milkwort, Wood Sage, Bloody Crane’s-bill, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Ox-eye Daisies, Hemp Agrimony, Rock -roses, Salad Burnet and Mouse-ear Hawkweed. The slopes are similarly covered with growth but Gorse, Bracken, Heather, Burnet-rose with Honeysuckle coursing through them are more predominant. Green beetles are crawling upon the sandy path and birds are all about. A Magpie contends with a Buzzard; Seagulls squawk and fly in formation; a juvenile Stonechat perches on the Gorse.
The gentle slopes soon become high cliffs but the path still embraces the coast. The cliffs look like hanging gardens with Ox-eye daisies, Rock-roses, Thrift, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Ivy. Presiding over them are Jackdaws. I had hoped they would be Choughs which frequent the area, but no such luck.
High above the cliffs and a little further inland is Oxwich castle. The earliest evidence of it being inhabited is in 1459, where Philip Mansel was recorded as holding it. The Mansel family were a minor gentry in South Wales, who grew in power and prestige under the Tudor monarchs. There is a path that takes you up the valley and around the cliffs towards Oxwich Green and past the castle.
Our path continues through flat wide open grassland. The cliffs are still to the right of us but the gentle slopes to the sea have been eroded and now the edge plunges down to the rocks below. This is Holy’s Wash. The Jackdaws join us on the grassy area which sports purple carpets of Ground Ivy, Bluebells, yellow Cowslips, Silverweed and Yellow Wort, pink Common Restharrow and Sheep’s Sorrel, dainty white Greater Stitchwort and Common Mouse-ear, Ribwort and Great Plantain. Common Blue butterflies are fluttering all around us and alighting upon the vegetation. Below us the rocks form large uplifting platforms which sprout Thrift and Rock Samphire in its crevices. As the path becomes thinner, squashed between a barbed wire fence, enclosing fields, and perilous drops to the rocks below, we see Pied Wagtails hopping, from boulder to boulder, bobbing , wagging and hiding in the green and pink plants. Kidney Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil grow among the rock falls, while Curled Dock, Smooth Sow-thistle, Common Vetch, Clevers and Nettles entwine in the barbed wire. The tide was quickly going out and large emerald green, seaweed filled, pools are emerging amongst the jagged rocks, which were also strewn with Bladder Wrack.
A lovely cove called the Sands comes into view; children are playing in the rock pools and flying a bright orange kite. Beyond the cove the huge sweeping curve of Port Eynon beach looks tantalisingly close. As we pass the fields large round bales of hay lie haphazardly on the grass; they look as if they have been there sometime as plants are sprouting out of the top of them: grasses and common Mouse-ear. Port Eynon beach would have been very close, if we had chosen to cross the Sands and the rocks beyond but we follow the coast path which takes a detour into the valley because of cliff erosion. Another one of those “You may not pass!” moments happens. A large number of spectators with enormous brown eyes and flapping ears ensure we obey. Wild Parsnip, Bracken, Cow Parsley, Red Campion, Hogweed, Hawthorn bushes and Brambles entwined with Black Bryony line the path. The occasional Herb Robert, Wild Strawberry, Black Medick and Spotted Orchids also show their faces. The valley, in fact, is a delightful detour because of the planting and the abundance of wild life. We see a rabbit scarpering from one hedge to another, butterflies flitting from plant to plant, Peacocks and Common blues. Young Robins are perching on Brambles and their parents not too far away are perching on fence posts.
We eventually find our way to the cliffs, the other side of the Sands. We scramble down a gully to the rocks below to take a rest where we eat and drank a little and watch Sand-shrimps crawling about in the rock pools. Sea Beet, Bloody Crane’s-bill, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Ox-eye Daisies, Rock Samphire , Buck’s-horn Plantain and Thrift flow in cascades over the cliffs behind us. And again butterflies fly all around us.
We return to the sandy path which hugs the cliff edge and Port Eynon beach, with lots of people walking on it, is soon below us. Hedges close in on either side blocking the view of the beach and leading to a wooden gate, which leads on to an even narrower path. Wooden fencing stops us plunging to the beach below and Privet hedges and Common Mallow skirt houses on the other side. We then burst out onto a road whose houses overlook the beach and have lovely gardens, some with quite exotic plants. Further along the road the WCP turns left down sandy steps and onto the beach. Germander Speedwell, Red Valerian, Bracken and Common Ragwort line the route.
After crossing soft sand and pebbles we reach the damp hard sand where people are enjoying themselves, playing or sun-bathing. The beach is patrolled by the RNLI; sailing boats, jet-skis and swimmers are all in the water. We make our mark in the sand with our walking poles before dipping our feet in the sea then continuing around the long curving beach which is backed by sand dunes.
The beach becomes very wet; Lugworm casts can be seen percolating through the sand. A green expanse of seaweed envelopes the rocks; it is quite slimy and slippery. The remains of the Salt House can be seen at the furthest end of the beach but we take the ramp off before reaching it. The ramp cuts through the sand dunes with yet another planting scheme: lacy, feathery Fennel, Red Valerian, softly swaying Maram-grass, Black Mustard and Sea Spurge. At the top we are greeted by the Captain’s Table and The Seafarer – fish and chips anyone! Very much tempted but we buy an Ice-cream and licking quickly, as it is melting at a terrific rate, we make our way to the car park. Then it is the long drive home, stopping only to retrieve my, hopefully not sap covered, car.
Port Eynon is thought to be named after an 11th century Welsh Prince, Einon ap Owain. Port Eynon had a rich industrial past. The local people used the natural resource of the Gower to make a living: Limestone quarrying, Salt production, farming, fishing, oyster fishing and supplemented by a spot of smuggling.
Tourism in the area started well back in the 1920’s when hired buses or charabancs brought many miners and labourers on trips. I remember as a child in the 1960’s coming to Port Eynon on Sunday School trips. We would all travel in a Llynfi bus which would park very near the beach. Everyone would pour out of the bus and rush down to the beach to secure a good spot. We would erect our windbreaks, settle our blankets and prepare for a glorious day, including a picnic, on the beach.
The Salthouse, near Port Eynon Point, was built by John Lucas as a dwelling. He was reputedly said to control much of the local smuggling. The building was later altered and areas were constructed to extract salt from sea water. This was because the bay water has a very high salinity, unadulterated by fresh water. A quay, served to ship the salt and limestone to Swansea and then beyond. There are only ruins there now, the buildings being abandoned after severe damage was caused by storms. Gower salt has recently been re-established by a Sea Salt production company. They use the sea water from Port Eynon and extract the salt in premises away from the area. They promote it as Halen Gwyr and sell it at farmers’ markets in South Wales.
During the Second World War a number of US troops were stationed in and around the area. Operation SNIPE and operation CHEVROLET took place at Port Eynon during February and March 1944, carried out by 1st,5th and 6th Engineer Special Brigades, in preparation for the forthcoming Normandy Landings.