Monday, 20 July 2009

Day 7 - Wales - Gower Peninsula - Official area of outstanding natural beauty

The Gower Peninsula, just to the west of Swansea, was the first area in the UK to be declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, by a governmental body, in 1956. Today there are 47 in total across the UK, and they are each deemed to be “a precious landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them”.

It is clear, once you drive onto the peninsula, why Gower is an official AONB. But it is once you get to Worm’s Head, on the south west corner that you realise why it was the first to be declared. Worm’s Head is a photogenic offshore island, cut off at high-tide from the cliffs of the mainland. (The name is Viking in origin – “Wurme” meaning “Dragon” or “Serpent”). This in itself might be enough for an AONB designation, but it is Rhossili Bay immediately to the north that completes the symphony. Sweeping for a few miles along the coast, the beach of Rhossili is made all the more spectacular from the high viewpoint above the cliffs, where the Worm’s Head Hotel is situated.

This family hotel is a popular with locals who like to enjoy a sunset drink on the bar’s patio, perched high up on the cliffs, looking over the beach and the island. Just a week into my trip, I have been surprised again and again by the edge of Britain. It seems like the more I travel, the more diverse and locally unique it becomes. This west coast really does hypnotise.

The Worm’s Head hotel is right at the end of the road, next to the parking lot for visitors to the site, which is managed by the National Trust. The building itself is not beautiful or grand (fortunately, because the view deserves the attention), and it provides simple, clean, comfortable rooms, with reasonable food in the restaurant. And there's lot of fun in the bar. It’s hard not to enjoy oneself in a place with views that would cheer up an old fisherman who’s spent a whole winter’s night without catching anything. But they do catch down here. At sunset last night, a about ten local fishermen parked their cars next to the hotel, donned their wetgear, and headed down to the edge of the peninsula. The sea bass ended up on my plate later.

There is no cellphone signal, and no internet connections here. Owner Julian Short, who used to lecture civil engineering at Swansea University, says the telecom companies “won’t go near the area, because there are hardly any people living here.” It’s a couple of houses, and the hotel for plenty of miles - in one outstandingly beautiful area. There is no sign of commercial tourism. Even the hotel looks non-descript and subdued – the first time I drove up to it, I didn’t see it – because the sign can be easily missed. It is graded 2-star by the AA, which means there isn't the wide range of services that more demanding customers may require - but this suits the scene. I'm not sure guests should be making cellphone calls or checking their email in a place like this. It should probably be outlawed actually.

Julian’s son Adrian helps manages the hotel, after leaving university a few years back. Julian says:”I said to him, you can go to London and work on the tenth floor of a building, and not know who’s on the floor below, or on the floor above. Or you can come and work with me here, and enjoy the best view in all of the UK every day.” Adrian didn’t argue, and it’s obvious why.
The view from my room looked onto the island and the beach. The only thing that obscured it was the salt on the window, which probably accumulates over night, every night....the westerly wind is incessant.

There is, probably appropriately, very little to do in the area.

Walking is why most people come: you can walk for 18 miles along cliff tops from the hotel to Mumbles, the popular seaside town of Swansea.

There are five golf courses within a ten mile radius, the best being Langland Bay and Pennard, according to Julian.

For something more adventurous, check out Dryad Bush Craft, an outdoor survival school that teaches you how to enjoy nature without modern help.

There is a lot of water around, so you can try out some kayaking, surfing, canoeing etc with Gap Activities.

For more info, see Swansea’s tourist website.

Click on image for a full screen version...the Worm's Head hotel is on the right, up on the hill.

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