I went home to Swansea this week and spent some time with nature… and my mum. I’m still struck by how breathtakingly beautiful it is on the Gower Peninsula: the lucid greens and wafts of garlic as you zoom through canopied country roads, your heart pounding in anticipation as you search the horizon for your first glimpse of the coast.
We took a scenic drive to Oxwich Bay, one of our favourite beaches on the Gower Peninsula, to walk in the steps of the saints.
“We’ll park in the hotel carpark, shall we? No need to pay £3.50 to park in the beach carpark,” she said. “We never had to pay when I used to come here all those years ago!”
To be fair, it had been twenty years since my mum had been to Oxwich Bay; it wasn’t the only thing to have changed.
“What’s that over there? That’s new! The Coal Shed Cafe. That was just an empty old building before.”
“Yeah, I think it was a coal shed,” I said. I’m sharp like that.
“And look at that over there, it’s another cafe, a take away.”
There were tourists sitting out in those little canvas chairs you buy at service stations, eating ice-creams and flying kites in the damp sea breeze. Children dug deep into the sand in that desperate, almost angry manner that takes over even the quietest of children when you let them loose on an open beach. Seagulls squawked and the clouds hung low, silver and moody as they are in Wales.
A memory flashed though my mum’s mind and she took off like a woman half her age. “Let’s walk up to that old church!”
The path leads you gently at first, into a lush forest of drooping branches and moist, rotting wood. A thick carpet of moss squelches beneath your feet as you slip and slide your way around gorgeous pools of muddy goo – it’s such a contrast to the rocky beach below, like a Jurassic collision of land and sea.
St Illtyd 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 who lived in the thatched roof cottages of Oxwich Village. It says everything, though, about the Welsh and the people who originally inhabited what would have been an immensely secluded location. It says, no fuss. It says, it’s not the best, but it’s ours.
Heather was off patrolling the graves, “Look at this one! This family lost their daughter when she was only eighteen months old. And then they lost their second daughter when she was only seventeen. 1876, see. It was a hard life back then. Makes you realise how lucky we are to live in this day and age.”
We tried to go into the church but it was firmly locked up. “It’s sad really, isn’t it, that they can’t trust people enough to leave it open. You used to always be able to go into churches in my day.”
We continued up the path and struggled for breath as it transformed into a staggeringly steep flight of slippery steps. It hugs the curve of the bay and takes you out to a point from which you can look back on the beach as if you were on a boat out in the open water. The altitude increases dramatically and very quickly, taking you up into the heavens where the light suddenly saturates everything. It’s the shades of green that always gets me, from deep amazon tones to glowing emeralds and electric limes.
When the second group of hikers passed us on their way down, fully-equipped with proper hiking boots and walking sticks, we convinced ourselves that we weren’t dressed appropriately to finish the walk and that our safest bet would be to head to the hotel for a quick drink.
It took about a tenth of the time to get back down to sea level and within minutes we were sauntering through the beer garden of the Oxwich Bay Hotel, desperately looking for an empty table. Inside, even I was astounded by the transformation the hotel has gone through. Its previously shabby and somewhat unloved dining area was now a plush and highly attractive restaurant with sea views. A young man in a suit served me at the bar and addressed me as “Sir”. Either I’ve got much older or this place has come a long way, I thought. It’s gorgeous.
We sat on an old picnic bench in the garden and looked out over the sea, remembering all the times we spent here as a family. My mum told me stories about the times I’d been to this beach when I was a tiny babe in arms.
“You know what,” she said, “we talk about Spain and Italy and the beaches of Hawaii and all that, but it doesn’t really come close to this. And this is our home. Can you believe it?”
Make it Happen
You can jump on a bus from Swansea city centre and be at Oxwich in less than an hour. But I would recommend driving as it will allow you to explore the rest of the Gower Peninsula – plus you can take your surfboard with you!
Where to stay
You can of course stay right on the beach at the Oxwich Bay Hotel, but there are plenty of other excellent options nearby if they’re fully-booked (which I imagine they frequently are).
- For a lavish romantic getaway, stay at The Gower Hotel, an intimate little boutique hotel that’s less cut off than the Oxwich Bay Hotel. It has the wonderful Pwll Du Bay on its doorstep and is only 20 – 30 minutes to Oxwich and the other beautiful spots such as Llangennith beach, Caswell beach, Langland beach, Three Cliffs and Mumbles village. Doubles from £80 per night. Check availability now at Hotels.com
- For a family adventure, stay at one of the wonderful campsites dotted around the Gower coastline. See my Gower campsite guide for more info and insider tips.
Check out www.visitswanseabay.com for more tips on what to see and do in Swansea, Mumbles and the Gower.