Starting mileage: 17098 km
Day started: 09:00/11:00
Day ended: 22:00/21:30
Continuing with Welsh freebies, we started the morning with a free car repair – the proprietor of SK Autos fixed our oil pressure problem in about 30s by reattaching a loose cable. For free.
We spent most of the day chasing the wave, with no luck at all. This part of the coast has some great surfing beaches – long, flat, empty, suitable for newbs like us; but they were of no use today. The sea was flat, the air was still, the water was luke-warm.
Following the failure of Rest Bay in Porthcawl we drove up the M4, with windows shut tight, past UK’s most polluted city of Port Talbot. Along the south coast of Wales we started seeing something very unusual in Great Britain in 21st century: heavy industry. Steel works, power plants, even working coal mines; it felt like going back in time to the 1980s, a stark reminder of the statistical fact that sounds surreal from the perspective of London’s service-based economy: despite the efforts of consecutive governments, the UK is still one of the world’s most industrialized nations.
We’ve reached Swansea in time to buy some fresh fish from its covered market. Both Cardiff and Swansea have their unique, old-fashioned market halls which still do what a market hall is supposed to do: sell good local food to local people. There are no tourists in Swansea Market, just local customers and local vendors.
The food wasn’t exactly free, but it may as well have been; we asked the fishmonger for “all the cockles he had” and paid £1.80 for the lot – a bagful of fresh, plump, tasty pebbles; we got three big lemon soles for £9; we could get a lot more – if we could fit any more in the fridge of the van. And I bought a small tub of laverbread – Welsh specialty made of nori seaweed – that I’m yet to dare to taste.
Swansea centre is more compact than Cardiff; within 10 minutes walk from the railway station you can reach the ruins of the castle, the main shopping centre and market, and the harbour area, well restored with a good Brains pub (£2.90 for a pint) at the Pump House.
There is only one direction you can go from Swansea in the summer, and that’s Gower Peninsula, South Wales’s answer to Costa del Sol. We were still searching for the elusive wave, but neither the Caswell Bay nor the famed Rhossili could provide us with anything bigger than a lapping pool, so we headed for the campsite in Rhossili for the night.
The conditions got no better in the morning, and we resolved to simply soak in the sun and views of the Gower.
It is a mind-boggling mystery why anyone would prefer to fly all the way to Spain or Greece rather than come here; Gower has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen – vast swathes of golden sand, pristine, almost untouched by human hand, and surrounded with tall, majestic cliffs. Knowing how a place like the Three Cliffs or Rhossili would look like in the Med, you get the feeling of being the first man who discovered a virgin beach on some unknown tropical island, before the bulldozers and developers came to ruin it all. The foreigners appreciate all this better than the Brits – we’ve heard more German, Dutch, Swiss and other Northern European languages spoken on the beaches and campsites than English.
It’s almost impossible to get bored of these beaches, as each is quite different: Rhossili is a perfect golden crescent, bordered by tall dunes and sweeping green hills on one side, and a red stone cliff and the monster-shaped tidal headland on the other – the Worm’s Head, or Dragon’s Head. Three Cliffs is simply enormous, a field of sand reaching almost to the horizon, overlooked by a small ruined castle, with a wide river winding slowly through it – think half a mile long knee-deep warm pool, filled with tiny crabs and baby flat fish running away from under your feet; it’s so nice you almost don’t want to get to the sea itself.
We left Gower with some regret, heading for Llanelli’s Wetlands Centre – one of 9 such centres in the UK, run by the WWT (£8 pp). This was the first WWT centre we went to outside London; an hour-long stroll took us through several continental zones, and a couple of hides overlooking salty lagoons. Summer is not the best season for birdwatching in the UK, but we finally got lucky, finding a lagoon with a substantial flock of black-tailed godwits, redshanks, lapwings and a couple more waders.
Our last stop of the day, a small village of Llansteffan at the Towy estuary, merged everything that’s great about the South Wales coast in one: a fantastic ruined castle on a cliff top, a golden tidal beach reaching towards the horizon, and hundreds of birds on the wide flat lagoons.
Llansteffan Castle, a well preserved ruin of a 12-13th century fortress cared for by Cadw, is of course free – once you climb up – and offers one of the best views in the region: a fantastic panorama across the sea, all the way to Gower; you can easily see the Worm’s Head promontory in the haze. Across the estuary runs a railway line, the trains of which are reflected in the waters of the bay.
*) Haul – “Sun” in Welsh
Cwrt Mawr is a tiny C&CC campsite two miles north-west from Llansteffan, very cosy and secluded, with picnic tables and hook-ups at every pitch, and for only £14 it’s a real bargain – especially as it includes free laundry machine and showers. Highly recommended.
It makes a contrast from Pitton Cross camping park near Rhossili, which cost us a terribly steep £23 and was nowhere near as nice. It does have a great location though, and is aimed at a young, active crowd, which is a pleasant change.