BEING A SUN LOVER, Wales has never been on my list of preferred travel destinations, and yet here I am, and it works. Our newly acquired campervan’s parked on a hilltop, a great expanse of sand stretching out to three Hobbit-like peaks beneath me, the too-tall shape of our shelter and rollicking wind causing a boiling kettle to shake in the summer breeze.
The Gower is a rugged peninsula south west of Swansea; a largely unheralded corner of south Wales with a distinctly rural complexion, known for its beaches, walks and pub dinners. There’s a Famous Five-like innocence to the place. It’s the kind of happy middle-class escapism that pushed Enid Blyton’s characters into adventurous antics on rowing boats of dubious stability, the kind of place where you escape the tide in your swimsuit and then retire to a barbeque with an oversized hot chocolate.
My wife, five-year-old son and I have decided to explore the area in an old VW, which we check in to the civilised but minimalist peaks of the Three Cliffs Bay campsite. It’s a spot that’s home to a mid-sized camp shop, lots of alluring footpaths, a view of the waves and the heady waft of burning campfires every evening.
The beach is a short stroll down a hill, past timber-framed houses and onto an expanse of sand that varies between a small ledge and 500 metres of smooth, water-dappled space, depending on the state of the tide. There are the ruins of a castle, accessed by clambouring laboriously up a steep sand bank. There are views out over the Atlantic, and a long walk round the headland at low tide takes you to sea-view restaurants and more hilltop visages.
Life drifts. Days involve lying in rock pools, trying to surf the gentle ripples that lap against the shoreline, or ad hoc games of football between two corners of the campsite, obstructed by dogs and ended with marshmallows melted vigorously over a fire.
The Welsh language lives here in the way Irish does in the Gaeltachts: not quite dominant, but always lingering at the edges, the quick and distinct marker of a local. The visiting English speakers seem to soak up the lilt. It gently infected the fringes of their speech, as they take to walking the trails through tangled forests.
Within a swift half hour stroll of Three Cliffs if the Gower Heritage Centre, where chickens roam about, Ariel the mermaid provides lively entertainment for the children, and plastic ducks race down a tiny stream to a still-functioning mill. It’s fronted by a cinema no bigger than a living room and a yoga venue, with cider served up in the courtyard to hardy folks in designer hiking gear.
Further along the road – but better accessed by a winding trail that takes you into a cliffhanger of a footpath through the trees – the Gower Inn is all meat and two veg and local beer, a gigantic rural pub that’s taken on a culinary bent, and draws the crowds for miles around.
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Not everything has to be on foot, of course, though in a place like this, it can be. The van takes a bit of packing up, with bedding stuffed into corners and the chunky awning shoved uncouthly into the back seat, but a half hour drive to the less rustic seafront of The Mumbles is worth the effort.
There are counterless outdoor stores just in from the faded seaside glamour of the picturesque, throwback walkway. They take in crazy golf and watersports, a rugged old pier complete with penny slots and Sega-era arcade games, and the unmissable fish and chip shop.
The pace is slow: the van makes groaning noises once it tops 100km/h in the Welsh crosswinds. Once you stop, the entire pace of life seems to crawl along, all gentle strolls along the water, with breaks for coffee and time in the park.
Back in the campervan, we snack on currant-packed Welsh Cakes and absorb tea heated over a shaky gas-fired stove. The advantages are obvious: the kids commute from the football pitch directly to a bed constructed over the two front seats. They collapse shattered at the end of each day from an overkill of fresh air, sand freshly washed from the ears, but happy summer memories more firmly wedged in place.
The wine and books come out around the fire, the hilltop breeze nullified by the knowledge that a heater, duvet and shower wash away the day’s activities. There’s still not much luxury to be had in campsites, but there is comfort in the hippie-chic, and a real sense of re-engagement with the world outside our windows.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Bristol with Ryanair and then hop on a train to the Welsh coastline, or take the Dublin to Holyhead ferry and drive south.
GETTING KITTED OUT: BeaconsCampers.com have a range of appealing campers, old and new, to explore the area in. Campsites, including Three Cliffs, typically book up very early, especially during weekends and summer breaks. They’re affordable and generally cater to the basics: the sea is your pool, but you get hotel-standard bathrooms.
MORE INFO: Learn about Swansea Bay and The Gower by visiting visitswanseabay.com
As published in the Dublin Gazette, October 2018, see below…