We are trailing Oystermouth Road—a long footpath in south-west Wales connecting Swansea with Gower (or Gyr). It is drizzling without a pause; the rain and fog only reinforce our embedded stereotypes of Welsh weather.
We could have taken a bus. Or if it were summer, even the Swansea Bay Rider—a land train that runs on the same route as that of the Mumbles Train (the world’s first passenger railway, opened in 1807). But despite the advice of our more pragmatic well-wishers, we have picked what could possibly be one of the most inconvenient times to travel in the UK. Christmas has just passed and everyone is still on holiday. This means that buses run once an hour, if at all.
A family of dog-walkers walks past us, speaking in Welsh. To us, the language sounds sweet and strange at the same time. “It is the ordinary words for ordinary things that in Welsh I find so pleasing. Nef may be no better than heaven, but wybren is more pleasing than sky,” said J.R.R. Tolkien in one of his lectures about the importance of Welsh to students and aficionados of English. Tolkien’s deep respect for this odd-sounding language is no secret and it is no wonder that he attempted to immortalize it by using it as a foundation for “Sindarin”—the language of the Elves in his literary works.
As we walk, we try to spot obvious and immediate differences between Wales and England. We find marginal, if only superficial, dissimilarities, all based around ordinary things. But Welsh succeeds in making us feel like we are in a country different from England and we are pleased to hear it.
The invisible coast line:: (from above) A view of the Wales shoreline (Thinkstock); the pier at Mumbles (Wiccasha/Wkimedia Commons); and the ruins of Pennard Castle (Eiona Roberts/Wikimedia Commons).
By now our eyes are slowly adjusting to the haze and we decide that walking isn’t bad after all. We are walking towards Langland Bay via Mumbles, a small seaside village. The name Mumbles is said to have been derived from the French word for breasts. Somehow, the frivolity of the name has conjured up the image of a happy, bustling seaside place in our minds. However, instead of a market town teeming with restaurants and cafés, we find that our path is lined with empty summer houses, reminding us again that the place possibly metamorphosizes into something completely different every summer.
The tide is out when we reach the Mumbles Pier. A family, having ignored the faded sign in red that warns people of the fast rising tide, is attempting to collect cockles. As the Gower Peninsula comes in and out of focus we see a hazy arc of crumbling tower tops. The Mumbles Lighthouse produces a faint beeping signal. Built in 1794, its sound is an eerie reminder that the peninsula is infamous for shipwrecks and lifeboat capsizes.
The air hangs uneasy, almost as though it is saturated with the rime of some ancient mariner gone unheard. We can’t help but imagine that the mists around us are mixed with the phantoms of all the poor souls who perished in long-gone disasters. Only a sizeable portion of some pasta at a cheery Italian restaurant by the pier succeeds in dispelling our morbid fantasies.
Named an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1956, the 19-mile (30.5km)-long Gower Peninsula has a lot of expectations to live up to. We are almost certain of a dream-like experience; of walking through a landscape consisting of gorgeous beaches, impeccable roads, ancient ruins full of historical tales, and picturesque limestone cliffs.
Also See | Trip Planner/The Walesh Coast (PDF)
After lunch, we are on our way again. The signs of civilization become fainter as we progress. By the time we arrive at Langland Beach, the end of our route for the day, we are beginning to take the absence of human presence for granted. The weather forecast in the morning had predicted a mere 2 degrees Celsius, and it seems to have gotten colder. But to our amazement, we spot a group of surfers, covered head to foot in wet suits, battling the wind, the rain and the cold to enjoy their sport. Clearly the act of fulfilling their passion in one of Britain’s best places to surf is far more important than the weather. We watch the surfers for a while, feeling embarrassed about believing that an experience could change in essence solely on the basis of weather.
The next day, we manage to find a bus that takes us to Pennard Cliffs. We want to see one of the most photographed areas in Gower—the famous Three Cliffs Bay. We arrive to find a scene that strikes us with its intensity—sea, the shade of aquamarine, hitting hard and noisy against magnificently multicoloured cliffs. What makes it even more breathtaking is that just one step out of line and we would be bouncing up and down with the waves ourselves.
After about an hour, we come to a small beach surrounded by sandy cliffs. We are scared of the tide closing us off from the path, so we admire the unusual little beach briefly and then climb up the sandy wall around it. Nothing could have prepared us for the scene in front of us. We realize that the little beach behind was just the prelude to a great musical movement. The three cliffs stretch out, as though endless. To our right, a stream snakes its way down to the sea, forming an estuary. We stand inert for a long time, the rain getting heavier by the minute.
A sign points us to the Pennard Castle ruins. Built in the early 12th century, the ring-shaped, sand-eroded ruins that remain today look like a crude, forgotten child’s toy. Nevertheless it is a little sad to imagine that in a few years, they might be gone altogether.
We have been hiking for at least 3 hours now. We have no idea how to make our way back to our bus stop. We pass a golf course perched on top of the hills and are surprised, once again, to see some people playing the sport. Something about them feels surreal. They seem oblivious to both, the weather and the scenery.
In the rain, in that moment spent lost in a real-life painting, we are awakened to a strong, focused realization of our initial motive for visiting in winter—a selfish desire to keep beauty of this magnitude to ourselves, sharing it with just a few others. A few months later, we would have been warmer but we definitely wouldn’t have been this alone in a place this dream-like.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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