On Saturday evening, we found ourselves settling down to watch the 2015 film adaptation of Hardy’s classic novel. (It’s very good, by the way). And on Sunday morning we experienced our very own ‘far from the madding crowd’ moment as we left the chaos of the car park above Rhossili beach to set off on a 15 mile circular walk at the western edge of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales.
This was our second ‘proper’ walk of the year and was by far the longest that we have embarked on, taking in Harding’s Down and Llanmadoc Hill, before returning along the Welsh Coastal Path to Rhossili. We followed the excellent directions on the Glamorgan Walks website, which proved accurate and easy-to-follow with one exception (described later).
The walk initially leads north out of Rhossili and back along the single track road towards Middleton. On a warm and sunny Bank Holiday Sunday, the road was busy as we made our way against the traffic, getting rather closer to the recently re-pointed, old stone wall at the edge of the carriageway than we’d have ideally liked. Within half a mile, though, we crossed the road and headed up a narrow lane leading out of Middleton and out towards Harding’s Down.
One of the best things about getting out and walking is the little things that you would otherwise never notice as you speed from place to place in the car. In Middleton, we were struck by the juxtaposition of traditional and modern as we paused to allow the Tesco home delivery van to pass by, and then spotted an ‘honesty box’ grocery stall at the side of the road, selling home-made cakes, jam and chutneys. Passers-by were trusted to leave the money for their purchases in a jar next to the produce. Picking up a packet of freshly-baked Welsh Cakes, we left our £1.50 and carried on along the roadway.
Just before leaving Middleton, set aside near the top of the hill with a fantastic view of the valley below and a glimpse of the sea in the distance, is a relatively unprepossessing cottage. What sets this house apart though, is the blue plaque on the wall. It turns out that Edgar Evans, one of the men supporting Scott’s ill-fated attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole, was born in Middleton and spent the first seven years of his life in the area.
The walk out of Middleton and up onto Harding’s Down takes in a mix of heathland and farmland almost exclusively turned over to grazing and occupied for the most part by a mix of sheep, cattle and moorland ponies. It had rained very heavily on the Saturday evening before our walk, and we were glad of our boots as the access to some of the stiles along the way was soft (to say the least).
Although the route that we were following was well-worn and clearly sign-posted, it was very quiet on the day that we walked it. In fact, in the first hour of walking we only saw two other people (passing us in the opposite direction), a real contrast to the busy-ness and congestion of the car park at Rhossili. The relative isolation and the peace and quiet accentuated the spookiness of some of the old-abandoned farm houses and outbuildings that you pass on the way up to Harding’s Down. One of our favourite television programmes of recent years is the BBC production Y Gwyll/Hinterland (recently repeated on BBC2). Although shot in Ceredigion, the landscape is very similar to that in the area around Rhossili and Llangennith, although the brooding skylines of Hinterland were considerably lightened by the blue sky and sunshine that we enjoyed in late May.
Stopping for lunch at the top of Harding’s Down, we took a few moments to savour the view over Llangennith and out to the sea before continuing down to Tankeylake Moor before ascending Llanmadoc Hill. The path to the top of the hill is a little bit steep in places, but the views from the top on a clear day are simply breathtaking. To the right, the whole sweep of the Loughor estuary stretches up to Penclawdd on the Gower side, and Llanelli to the north. To the left, where the rivers Loughor and Burry reach the sea, the golden sands of Cefn Sidan run into the dunes beyond.
The summit of Llanmadoc Hill is marked by a cairn, and provides a natural meeting place for a number of pathways up from Llangennith, Llanmadoc, and along the ridge from Cheriton. Given its natural beauty, it’s not surprising that it brings out the romantic side of some walkers, and whoever they are, we hope that Sam and Ash enjoyed their walk to the summit!
Dropping down from the hill into Llanmadoc itself, we stopped off briefly to have a look around the parish church that gives the village its name, before pressing on towards Broughton Beach. This part of the walk was along a single track road serving several large caravan parks and camp sites, and was relatively busy. Our Glamorgan Walks guide directed us towards Llanmadoc Camping Site on the way to picking up the coastal path back around to Rhossili. We were encouraged to read that there was a shop and café at the camp site, and we were looking forward to sampling the home-made cakes and a cup of coffee in the Gower Pantry that was extensively advertised along the road as we approached. Unfortunately, we were ‘greeted’ at the campsite by a Rottweiler of a woman who demanded to know what our business at the campsite was. It turns out that the route of the public right of way was changed at the time of the creation of the Wales Coastal Path, and we were unceremoniously told to leave the campsite without ever having the chance to sample to cake and coffee. It’s a shame that there are still some people in the tourist industry in Wales who seem to see potential customers as an irritant. Thankfully, it’s a small and diminishing group.
Having re-traced our steps and found the public footpath leading back to the coastal path, we made our way through the dunes to Broughton Beach, cutting across the sand to rejoin the pathway up onto the headland to the south. The promontory separating Broughton Beach from Rhossili leads out to Burry Holms, accessible with care at low tide. Time was against us on this occasion, though, so we continued on the coastal path around Spaniard rocks and Bluepool beach, eventually dropping down onto the southern end of Rhossili beach.
The tide was almost at its lowest point as we reached Rhossili, and it took us almost forty minutes to walk from Bluepool to the pathway up to the car park at Rhossili point. It’s a large sweep of sand, inaccessible for all intents and purposes to motor vehicles, and offering no facilities whatsoever for visitors. But its beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring, and deservedly features in many lists of the top ten beaches in the UK. It also happens to provide the backdrop for the heart-rending last moments of Dobby’s life in the Harry Potter film franchise! Half way along the bay, and set slightly back from the beach, is the Old Rectory. It’s somewhere that I’ve always fancied myself living, and even more so now that I know you can get Tesco to deliver your groceries!
Finally, six and a half hours and 15 miles after setting off, we made our way back up the hill to the car park. Stopping to pick up some well-earned liquid refreshment from the shop at the top of the path, we sat in the car and reflected on a wonderful way to spend a Bank Holiday Sunday, before making our way back east along the M4 and home.