Recently Elen and I went back to the Gower peninsula near Swansea to celebrate the forty years since we met there (when I gate-crashed her birthday party, but that is a different story…)
I had forgotten how lovely Gower was and, praise be, still is. The combination of dramatic bays and cliffs on the southern coast; a bristling central spine of common land and the ever-receding mystery of the northern salt-marshes, seem to fold a whole world into its modest land mass. I think I had gone with a ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ script tucked into my back pocket, imagining it would be overrun or hopelessly gentrified by now. But apart from some tasteless new-build here and there it was wonderfully unspoilt and rural with overgrown hedges, winding single-track roads and a surprisingly dark night sky. If anything it looked a touch run down – in a ‘potholes and peeling paint’ sort of way – which was unexpected, so close to the South Wales conurbation.
On our first day we walked, in warm sunshine, down from Parkmill following the path through the woods along Pennard pill (the local name for stream). The detail was lovely: twisted wind pruned trees, gorse stems warmed by the winter sun, overhanging banks deep enough for a child to hide and hanks of bladder-wrack stranded by the tide. This steep-sided valley, watched over by a frowning castle ruin, is a perfect ‘Swallows and Amazons’ entrance to the heady space of Three Cliffs Bay. Crooked in a sheltering arm from Pennard cliffs the bay is like a child’s drawing of how the seaside should be: a stream with steppingstones, tangled woodland, rocky headlands, sand dunes and a flat sandy beach meeting the restless sea. Thousands of people are drawn to this intoxicating mixture every year but at this season it was not crowded: a few families and dog walkers, a man riding his horse along the sand with three medieval looking greyhounds at foot, and a rather solemn party of druids wearing laurel wreaths in their hair.
Where I did notice some changes was on the common land that runs west to east along the middle of the peninsula. Much of it, particularly on Fairwood Common, has grown up with brakes of birch saplings punctuating the hazy deserts of Molinia (Purple Moor-grass). Although there were a few sheep poking about along the road verges, this was a landscape that spoke loudly of a decline in grazing. Molinia has become dominant in many areas of rough grazing and moorland around Wales, where cattle and ponies no longer graze; unfortunately sheep don’t like to eat it so it can gradually swamps less competitive plants. Molinia may also be encouraged to spread by nitrogen pollution – which effectively is an invisible fertilizer that comes down in the rain. Shaggier and wilder now, perhaps these commons are what our post agriculture, rewilded, carbon guzzling landscapes will look like 20 years from now. If, as some people predict, we end up eating plant-based or cultured ‘meat’ then there will be little call for sheep or cows, ushering in an era of ‘wild neglect’. I knew a man, all those years ago, who swore that he had seen sheep rolling over the cattle grid to get on to Fairwood common; these days they would be more likely be rolling to get off.
On our final morning we had a stroll around Oxwich National Nature Reserve, a place close to my heart, as I was warden there for 5 years or more in the late 70s. I expected to be disappointed, especially as Natural Resources Wales – the latest incarnation of the government conservation organisation that manages it, has been getting a very bad press recently. But I left relieved – even impressed.
Around the sweep of the bay the sand dunes were accreting rather than eroding: both natural processes, but the former is less anxiety promoting for people like me. Since my time a large area of the fixed dunes has been fenced off and is being grazed by ponies, at what appeared to be just the right intensity. Inside the fence there was a mosaic of tiny dune plants, which thrive when the competition from coarser, more vigorous species is reduced by grazing. Also the small patches of sandy ground opened up by the ponies hooves provide seedbeds in which new plants can establish. It was too early for flowers, save the tiny white stars of Common Whitlow Grass, but in June this will be alive with colourful plants and their attendant insects.
Also new to me was a series of winding boardwalks through the flooded carr woodland which gave us an inside view of a habitat previously inaccessible to visitors. A bird hide on one of the lakes was another innovation: although it gave the usual view of nothing much at all. The waterside vegetation had recently been cut back (another plus) and some wag had written on the chalkboard in the hide that they “didn’t seen much except some men in high-vis jackets working with brush cutters, and two mallard – presumably deaf ”.
All of this is probably a rather superficial response from somebody as much taken up with a nostalgic weekend as conservation assessment. On the other hand long absence allows for a freshness of view from what I hope is an educated eye, unclouded by the familiar. I was a restless young man back then, but looking again at the beauty and richness of Gower had me wondering if, 40 years ago, I should have stayed put and dug in.