The Gower Peninsula in Wales is one of Britain’s oldest protected areas, and perfect for exploring on foot
The great outdoors seems particularly plagued by acronyms. From NNRs to SSSIs, the alphabet soup used to describe our countryside can be confusing and deterring. Yet one acronym that most visitors to the British countryside will be familiar with is the AONB, or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which has been around for more than 50 years.
The first area to be designated an AONB was the Gower Peninsula in May 1956. As a peninsula, Gower’s boundaries were easy to designate but its staggering diversity was also influential. Flora and fauna are found in abundance, and national rarities include yellow whitlowgrass, silky wave moth, fen orchids and the Gower money spider, a species new to science when it was found near Rhossili in 1964. All this, squeezed into a peninsula hemmed in by the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic.
“Gower’s got everything a walker could possibly want apart from high mountains and arctic,” said Sian Musgrave, head warden for the National Trust on Gower, which owns three quarters of Gower’s coastline. “There’s woodland, coastal scenery marshland, heathland. It’s been described as a microcosm of Britain.”
The rich deciduous woodland of the Bishopston Valley, on the south-east of the peninsula is typical of most walks on Gower, in that it has a bit of everything, including woodlands, overhanging cliffs and a beach. The valley is around three miles long and the most diverting way to start is by the church in Kittle and head across the ford and along the path, which just happens to be the riverbed. It’s invariably ankle deep for the first 400 metres or so, but should the river be in spate you may need Wellington boots. Before long, the water disappears down through the gaps in the limestone bed and as you walk along you can sometimes see and even hear the river beneath your feet; it’s one the most curious sensations I’ve experienced when walking.
Disused limestone quarries and lead mines characterise the upper reaches of the walk, but eventually the path reaches the sea at Pwil Du Bay, where a conversation I’d had with Doug Morgan, who co-runs Tawe Trekkers, a local Ramblers’ Association group based in Swansea, came to mind. “Gower has quite a wild feel to it even though it is quite compact and easy to get around,” Doug had said. “If you’re a walker it’s just wonderful because each time you go there you discover a new secluded cove.”
If Bishopston Valley represents the cosier side of Gower, wilder elements are found on the western fringe of the peninsula and the limestone cliffs of Rhossili. Here, among some of Wales’s most dramatic coastal scenery, the waves pummel the cliffs around Worms Head (the word is a corruption of the Old English ‘wurm’, or serpent – at high tide the island looks like a Welsh version of the Loch Ness Monster). The coastal walking here is magnificent. Try and time your visit for low tide, when the sea draws back to allow you to cross the dramatic causeway to Worms Head. You pick your way for around 800 metres though serrated edges of seabed to reach the island, where a narrow trail circuits the outcrop.
From the car park at Rhossili an outstanding four-mile walk, taking around two hours, traverses the beach to Burry Holms, returning across Rhossili Down, which lurches abruptly from the sea and, at 193m, is the highest point on the peninsula. The views from the down take in not just Gower, but Carmarthen Bay, Lundy Island and North Devon. As I climbed the red sandstone lump of Rhossili Down, I came across several burial mounds and stone chambers such as the Bronze Age cairns known as the Beacons and Sweyne’s Howse. Their provenance is uncertain but they're thought to be megalithic in origin.
I first visited Rhossili Down on an Easter Monday and had lunch here in perfect isolation; my mind went back to an earlier Easter Monday in the Brecon Beacons, a little further east, where the popular clamour to reach the summits was so great that a supermarket ticket and queue system would have come in handy.