Day 89 – Port Eynon to Three Cliffs

starting with an unexpected meeting; journeying past limestone, limewash and wind-flung sand dunes; stories of trauma: broken toe nails, bites, bruises and brain tumours, and intimations of consciousness; ending with a cornucopia of kindness and a sumptuous feast

15th July 2013

miles completed: 974
miles to go:  84

This was a relaxed day. I had not been sure whether I would make it all the way back from Nottingham on Sunday, so had not planned any walking. Having got all the way here on Sunday night, I was ahead of myself. I decided I would do the short walk from Port Eynon to Three Cliffs, just eight miles, which I had planned for Tuesday, giving me Tuesday off.

So I sat in bed for ages writing up the previous day’s blog before going to the campsite shop to pay and buy some bacon and rolls. At the shop were two young men, the sons of the farmer who runs the campsite. They said that the bacon, from a local farm, was thick, almost between bacon and gammon, and, true to their word, a truly tasty and substantial bacon butty was the result.

I had forgotten to check the exact bus times from Penmaen to Port Eynon, but could see they were about once an hour, so after my late breakfast, I spent more time writing a short chapter abstract about the research methodology issues of the walk for a collection on ‘Research in the Wild‘ … of course having written the abstract means I must write the chapter itself sometime soon, but happily after the walk is finished.

Still very relaxed and now nearly one o’clock, I wandered back up to the shop, looked at the timetable, and saw that indeed the buses were nearly hourly, until the one I had just missed, and then a two hour gap. Still not too terrible, there is a tea shop at a farm up the road and I could wait for the bus there, maybe write a bit, until I glanced again at the timetable. 14:40: ‘change at Scurlage for Port Eynon‘: ETA at Port Eynon was nearly five o’clock. I guess the buses cater for people going to and from places in the mornings and then return in the late afternoon, not really for lazy stay-a-beds.

So, once again, I phoned Mike’s Taxis and, after a wild dash back down the lane to the campsite as I’d forgotten to fill my water bottles, was picked up at Penmaen and was at Port Eynon before 2pm. I realised again just what a godsend Mike’s Taxis are. Earlier that morning the couple in the campervan next door had told me about some campers who had walked to the next village, had a meal, been too tired to walk back, but had to pay £25 for a taxi callout from Swansea to take them just a few miles back to the campsite.

At Port Eynon, I plan to walk across the sands as far as Horton and then follow the Coast Path, which appears to run along the edge of an old raised beach around the headland to Oxwich. I set off across the beach, heading down towards the solid sands near the water’s edge, and then heard, from out of the sea, a voice shouting, "Alan!"  Part of me thought, "Oh, that must be another Alan," but no, emerging from the sea were Yvonne and Ted, her husband.

I had met Yvonne in Southampton, when I talked there in February. She is working on open educational repositories, part of the larger open data and semantic web thrust of much of Southampton‘s work.

Yvonne had tweeted on Saturday that she had just missed me at Port Eynon, but I had assumed that this meant they had just been there for the day, and they had assumed this meant I was long passed and further down the coastline. In fact, they were staying in a caravan at Port Eynon, and the Gower is almost a second home for them, travelling frequently up from the New Forest where they live.

Yvonne had been tracking me using ViewRanger‘s buddy beacon, which I had not realised works even when I am not asking it to track my route for my own records.  On the Saturday, she had tracked me as far as Port Eynon, where the signal stopped because of lack of phone signal, and then knew I was at Three Cliffs, but had assumed she would not meet up, until she saw a familiar figure cutting across the beach in front of her.

Although not so good for a bank robber, being recognisable at a distance has advantages.

Yvonne and Ted invited me to join them for lunch and we talked for nearly two hours.  They have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, from ancient history to the local tales of smugglers, who, it is said, used the old Salt House across on the point, cutting arrow slits to fire on the Revenue men, if they were discovered. I also learnt of the old pleasure boat that plied along the coast until one day, led astray by a drunken pilot, it foundered on the rocky shoals that are scattered around the Gower, and was beached in Oxwich Bay just below Horton. All were saved from the boat, but there was one casualty; at the Seabeach Hotel in Horton, an elderly man was so excited by the events that he passed away from a heart attack.

This reminded me of the PembrokeshireWhisky Galore‘ boat that I learnt about at Angle. I told Yvonne and Ted about this, a story they had not heard, how the only casualties there from the sinking of the whisky boat were two fishermen who were lost trying to retrieve a whisky barrel (and maybe the worse for wear when they did so), and someone on land who literally drank himself to death.

They had been coming to this bay for many years and had seen it change. These were not the more obvious changes of shop fronts (Andy and I had chosen the wrong fish and chip shop when we stopped the day before), but a steady movement in the sands and dunes, a shifting beneath our feet. The shapes change each year with different patterns of winter storms, just like they do on the wide Tiree beaches, and especially Balevullin beach, which varies from storm-tossed steps to smooth slope, from pure unsullied sands, to occasional scar-like patches of pebble or shells. However, on top of this seasonal redecorating, there are longer-term trends, a gradual stripping of sand and retreat of the dunes.

"Out there is the remains of a forest," Yvonne said.

I could imagine this, like in Aberdovey or between Conwy and Anglesey, but this was not a mere two-thousand-year-old forest, but more ancient than that.

"It stretched between here and Devon, and was drowned when sea levels changed 60,000 years ago. But the sand is going and you can find pieces of 60,000-year-old wood, sometimes whole blackened tree trunks. In a few years they will be gone forever."

This is partly a natural process, but partly, Yvonne believes, due to continued dredging out to sea.

"They say it doesn’t affect the beaches," she says, "but it is obvious," and she demonstrates in the sand, drawing sand from far away from the towel on which I sat and then watching the sand slide to find its own level, refilling the dredged part and stripping the sand to far away, undermining my sitting place.

It is four o’clock and we’ve been chatting for two hours and I still have the short, but still eight mile, walk to Three Cliffs Bay. Reluctantly, I set off and Yvonne wanders down the street for another swim amongst the forests of old.

I walk along the beach to Horton, where the Seabeach Hotel is now converted to houses, and I cannot work out how to get up from the beach as all of the many stairways down seem to belong to one property or other. I ask a family on the beach, but they had walked there from the Port Eynon end. Seeing no obvious way up I clambered the rocks just past the end of the village and up to the cliff path that way.

To be fair on the Wales Coast Path, they have you up on a higher path behind the dunes between Port Eynon and Horton, so no beach walking, but also no rock scrambling.  However, the latter was not hard, so I think I got the better route.

A short way further is Slade. The village is at the top of the hill of the headland, out of sight from the path that is following the line of the old raised beach, maybe twenty to thirty feet above the current sea level. I come to the place Yvonne and Ted had told me about, where the old coast path is closed off and a new route set goes further inland. However, they say that with a clamber, you can simply cross the small beach and come up the other side.

A helpful local has tied a rope to the railings, blocking the eroded route, making the descent to the beach easier, and on the far side I see an earthy route up and find a similar rope there. Partway up I realise I am putting a lot of confidence in this rope. For the descent I had simply kept my hand on it for occasional balance, but here, going up, I sometimes was leaning back with my whole weight suspended from it. For the way down I had seen the rope was securely tied to a thick metal railing, here I knew nothing. Happily, my trust was not misplaced, and at the top it is tied around a thick loop of gorse root, protruding from the soil.

A little further down the path, I see an easier way up, if you are prepared to clamber the rocks a bit further along the seashore.

Along the headland, the rocks stretch out in shelves seaward as if fluid like the sea, then frozen, sometimes in lunar-like landscapes, tufts of rocks, like pie-crust edge or thick cream topping, sometimes in cracked layers like dried mud. It is limestone, but varies in texture and shape, partly, I would guess, because of subtle changes in the composition, sometimes because of differences of height, or sea currents that create differing patterns of erosion and weathering. On the rocks slightly further from the sea, only washed by the highest tides, bright orange lichens flourish and plants grow from the cracks.

In places the rock is an almost chalk white where layers that must have formed under different conditions break to the surface, leaving patches of white pebbles along the beach. I notice that a patch of sea shore is called ‘Holy’s Wash‘, and wonder if this is a white stained patch of beach, but cannot recall the exact location.

Above, a classic limestone escarpment rises, rather like Cheddar Gorge, just one side, formed by sea not a river valley. The old settlements, Slade, Oxwich Green and the old part of Horton are up there where the farmland is; only Port Eynon stretches close to the water for fish and trade rather than agriculture.

As you turn the point the landscape changes abruptly from a grassy or earth track across an open almost stark hillside, to scrubby mixed woodland, with just about every kind of tree I know from oak to birch. Initially this was like a tunnel through the short but thick trees, but later is more open and mature woods, with steps where the path cuts up, and then down the slopes.

Eventually, coming down a long flight of steps, Oxwich Beach appears through the trees, but preceded by a soundscape of whoops and laughter. However, while the beach is still seen in brief glimpses through trees, you find St Illtyd’s church, nestling in the trees.

The churchyard wall is curved at one end, a reminder of the oval churchyard garden at St Peter ad Vincula near Machynlleth, making me wonder whether this too occupies an ancient sacred site, but then it is straight-edged where the gate is at the front, facing the land. Maybe the churchyard is a parable for much of coastal Wales, struggling between a deep and meaningful past and the hard-edged, but often shallow, realities of modern life. Further on I see an information board that says it dates back to the 6th or 7th century, and a couple of days later either Zetta or Andrew tells me it is the oldest church in Wales.

St Illtyd’s is whitewashed, but evidently this was only renewed recently, and for a while made it stand out incongruously amongst the green of Oxwich Wood. This reminds me of the whitewashed church in Manorbier, standing guard opposite Manorbier Castle. The whitewash is a weatherproofing, but also makes it a beacon, a landmark, in the case of Manorbier, maybe helping sailors find their way along the coast and in another way a parallel of the church, a landmark, helping spiritual sailors find their own way home.

And, as I write I wonder about the Holy’s Wash across the headland, is this maybe the source of the whitest limestone, and symbol of purity?

In the 6th century did they limewash? Maybe the Irish and other sea raiders did not come this far, but if they did, would the locals instead have sought to keep the church hidden from sight, camouflaged? I think of the church today, whitewashed beacon on a hill, or camouflaged, keeping its head low, blending in with the world so that it becomes hardly noticeable.

The old Oxwich Green is above the woods, above the castle; down by the sea is a scattering of toilets and lifeguard huts, with a holiday park beyond, and the Oxwich Bay Hotel, with parasol-shaded benches outside, posh-looking restaurant within, and half amongst the trees a large white marquee for weddings and parties. I am later told that this marquee was a bit of an eyesore when it was first installed, but has now weathered, and from a distance does not stand out unless you look for it. I cannot vouch for the quality of the food, a beer and packet of crisps cost "5.25, so I never even look at the menu.

Between Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bay is a long dune-backed beach, first Oxwich Burrows and then Nicholaston Burrows, and beyond the beach a headland topped by Penmaen Burrows, more sandy dunes, but this time sand blown to the top of the cliffs, an inverting of natural order. I almost expect to see a small patch of sea sitting in a giant globule of water, perched on the highest dune.

The formal Coast Path is a high-tide-safe route, taking you along the edge of the Oxwich Burrows dunes and then almost all the way to Nicholaston, before cutting a slow ascent of the cliffs above Nicholaston Burrows. As the tide is low, I can instead walk nearly two miles of beach, virtually deserted apart from Oxwich itself, soon behind me. At the far side, it is a steeper ascent between Low Tor and High Tor, but there are sandy tracks cutting up the cliffside.

On Penmaen Burrows, the map says there is a burial chamber, ruined church, earthwork and ‘pillow mound’ (whatever that is), but I just saw gorse, sand and my first view of Three Cliffs proper. From far away the three ‘cliffs’ of Three Cliffs Bay align, so that it looks like a single triangular flat-ended headland, rather like the end of Penmaen Burrows on which I stand. However, as the angles shift, the triple pyramids of the headland become clear, their angular forms complemented by the curvaceous sands carved by the sinuous waters of Pennard Pill, flowing lavishly from side to side across the bay.

Three Cliffs ‘Holiday Park’, where I am staying, is not one of those villages of static caravans that the name suggests, but more a campsite and touring caravan site, with a few ‘shepherd’s huts’ to rent. It sits overlooking Three Cliffs Bay, but is opposite the three cliffs themselves, which stand … well it would sound nice to say ‘inaccessible’, but I think probably all easily climbable in flip flops … so, shall we say at least free of caravans opposite.

Indeed as I write this, I think about the time when a group of Cambridge students disassembled a mini and reassembled it on the roof of King’s College Chapel (maybe they left the engine behind?). It would make a fine piece of installation art to do the same and perch a caravan on the tip of the highest of the peaks of Three Cliffs. Anyone for a bit of guerrilla art?

Looking across the bay the fields of the Three Cliffs campsite can be seen perched high on the flat clifftops, and just below and to the left is the hamlet of Notthill, a handful of houses and then a tumble of shack / shed / holiday huts, scattered and tumbling down the hillside to nearly shore level. It is almost as if someone had emptied a box of giant Lego bricks, then righted them where they fell. Notthill reminds me of the Ferry Point near Llansteffan, but appears slightly more ‘up market’, as befits, I guess, the Gower.

I have seen nearly every inch of the Welsh Coast, except for  a few stretches where farmers, or more often holiday park owners, will not allow access. Of these, few could compare to the view of Three Cliffs Bay, and indeed my concept of the ideal landscape is drawn from a few intermittent childhood visits to the Gower and Rest Bay, which I will visit in a few days’ time.

However, my warm feelings towards Three Cliffs are perverse given it is wrapped with memories of trauma: broken toe nails, bites, bruises and brain tumours, albeit happily none too terrible in retrospect.

My first visit to Three Cliffs was when staying at Scout camp in the small valley beyond Parkmill.  We arrived on Saturday and set up camp, and on Sunday made our first venture to the beach. It was glorious, the tide was out so we could go through the gap into Pobbles Beach beyond. So wrapt in the joy of sea and sand, it was only when I glanced down at my feet in the warm flowing waters where Pennard Pill meets the sea, that I saw the clear water turning red. Somewhere along the way I must have caught my toe on a rock, and never noticed that it had knocked one of my toe nails clean off. However, once I saw the flowing blood, it suddenly began to hurt.

I was carried back through the woodland path to Parkmill where one of the leaders drove me to A&E in Swansea and my toe was cleaned and bandaged and I was given one of those far more painful tetanus jabs in my leg. There is something so weird about a muscular injection, the way you can feel the volume of fluid pushing through your flesh, the dull pain of it stiffening and hardening the muscle almost as if being embalmed alive.

For the rest of the week I could not fit any shoes over the bandaged toe, so instead wore my wash bag as a makeshift shoe on my left (I think) foot. However, that did not stop me making my first bivouac, finding and then sadly losing (or maybe someone else appropriating) an old rusting air pistol, and in general feeling alive in a way I could not remember feeling ever before.

For various reasons, I only ever managed to go to four or five Scout camps, but it was as if all of life between was simply an intermission for those periods of fire, axe, and wind-whipped canvas. I recall in the final camp I had just turned sixteen and was about to leave, but attended one last time. I had already relinquished my role as Patrol Leader, but neither was I one of the adult leaders. I was an in-between figure, liminal, I think the way I always function best, and for the Scouts a sort of demi-god, who could apparently simply look at a bundle of sticks for it to magically burst into flame, who woke before the camp, and had tea brewing and my kit neatly stacked outside my solo tent already before they had even noticed the dawn.

Indeed it was after the return from an earlier Scout camp that I had one of those defining experiences that has coloured my understanding of the mind and consciousness ever since. I had just got back and was walking down Bangor Street, where I was born and had always lived, I had turned the bend in the street towards the church, treading familiar, too familiar, ground, having returned from fresh air, pebble-tumbled streams and earth-floored woods to brick, dressed stone, tarmac and the ever present heat-risen tang of dried dog shit.

And as I walked, on auto-pilot, not needing to think where my feet fell on these childhood streets, it was as if I was not walking at all, but watching myself walk. I do not mean in an out of body experience seeing myself there in front of me, but watching from within, as if I were sitting on a couch in front of the TV, except the TV was my own eye view. I realised that it was not clear whether the I that watched had any control at all, or whether I was simply observing the decisions, memories and actions of another automaton Alan. Although I felt I was making decisions, calling things to mind, in fact I might simply be watching these pass and there might be no more connection between the two than between me sitting in my living room and Angela Rippon reading the news.

I think at heart I was too practical for my ponderings to cause more than intellectual angst.  However, it was only many years later, when talking about these issues in Cambridge, that I realised that the very act of talking about this couch-potato self, who it feels is the real self, showed that at very least the acting Alan knew about the aware Alan. So, my singular identity once more integrated after maybe five years of dislocation, albeit making little difference to my enjoyment of marmalade sandwiches and sausages from Woolworths.

It was only thirty years later again that I found neuroscientists and philosophers of consciousness talking abut roles of the conscious mind that sound so familiar to my 14-year-old self; yet also, to my mind, sometimes falling over themselves, confusing the me of action, which as a computer scientist I can very well imagine automating in silicon, with the me of perception, the couch-potato, which is an altogether more stolidly numinous entity.

The bites, bruises and brain tumours all came some twenty years after that first Scout camp. Fiona and I were camping here, in the same, albeit smaller, campsite with Esther and Miriam (then called Ruth) in our VW Type II campervan.  We had gone for a walk around the cliffside past Parkmill and on to the headland towards the castle, when Miriam found she had some sort of large insect bite. It was swollen and red, and we realised she could not walk all the way back. We pondered alternatives, carrying her all the way back would be possible, but uncomfortable for her. We were not far from Parkmill, so she, Fiona and Esther started to make their way there at Miriam‘s pace, while I ran back to the campsite, quickly put things away sufficient to drive the van round to Parkmill, where they had just arrived, and then drove Miriam back to camp.

By the morning the bite was less dramatic, but on my shin was an enormous black, yellow and green bruise. Like the lost nail all those years before I had no memory of striking my shin, and can only imagine that in my adrenalin-fuelled rush the evening before I had thumped it on the edge of the van as I got in. Over the coming week it slumped, travelling down my leg and eventually spreading, leaving a grey-blue stain across my ankle. Alun, my brother-in-law and a GP, who we occasionally used as a sort of NHS-direct phone-a-doctor, said this sinking under gravity was not unusual for large bruises on shallow-fleshed areas like the shin.

No sooner had we decided I was not in danger of imminent demise, I noticed Fiona‘s eyes were asymmetric, one pupil large, the other small. In fact after a period they equalised, but one was laggardly, only very slowly changing when she went from bright light to shadow and back again.  Maybe they had been like this for some time, but in the campervan where there were sharp and rapid contrasts in light it was more evident.

Another phone call for Alun, early but busy days for my mobile phone. He was reassuring … I guess brain bleeds or other most immediate reasons for blown pupils would have already rendered her unconscious … but told us to visit A&E as soon as we were passing a hospital. So, on our way towards West Wales, we called in at Haverfordwest hospital, where, after a worrying delay, they pronounced Fiona not requiring admission for immediate brain surgery, and simply to call on her GP on her return, who in turn referred her to a specialist in Carlisle hospital. The appointment with the specialist was short, he tapped the opposite knee to the laggardly eye, and there was no knee jerk response. It was a syndrome whose name I always forget, which causes no long-term harm, but slows the autonomic reflexes of opposite eye and knee.

So Three Cliffs is replete with memories of trauma, but I guess none have been too terrible, so maybe it is the drama not the trauma that I recall.

On my return to the campsite at Three Cliffs, I find under my van the spare food that Yvonne and Ted have left on their way home. Only it is not bare leftovers, but a veritable cornucopia. In a large flat grocer’s fruit box are fresh carrots with their green leaves spread making a carpet for cherry tomatoes, a red onion, fresh peas in their shells, chocolate biscuits, eggs, and a large rump steak. It is clear they have not just left the things that would go off whilst driving back, but thought through the things to make a meal, even down to a bottle of beer to drink with it.

So, that evening, I toast Yvonne and Ted‘s kindness as I feast.