Travels in a Pandemic

A travel log of the summer of 2020 spent touring southern Britain ... well parts of it.

BY GUY JONES

Copyright 2021 Guy Jones. All rights reserved.

It was the summer of 2020.

We should have been going to France for a whole calendar month, travelling around in George, our Bailey Pageant, Champaign Edition, caravan.

We should have been eating too much French cheese, drinking too much French wine and speaking a load of bollocks in bad school boy/girl French.

And we should have been doing it in the sunshine!

But it was the summer of 2020.

There were an awful lot of people not doing what they should have been doing in the summer of 2020.

With a pandemic weeping across the globe, France was very much off the radar.

So, following the principle of, ‘have caravan will travel’ and being allowed to do it under the Government Guidelines ... as far as could be made out ... we decided to hit southern U.K. and social distance our way to adventure ...

Part 8

The Gower Peninsula

The Gower Peninsula is one of those areas of the country that has a special place in the national consciousness. Everyone, well almost everyone, has heard of it, has a sneaking feeling that they rather like the place, but most have never actually been and have no realistic plans to do so.

It is difficult to know where this association in the national head comes from. A long forgotten report on Holiday ’86, when the BBC, strapped for cash due to too many Caribbean holiday reports, sent Cliff Michelmore to the principality, shortly before his retirement, to fill air time on the cheap and keep the licence payer happy, possibly.

Dylan Thomas’ short stories based on his youthful adventures on the peninsula, maybe, but hands up all those who have actually read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. I thought so.

Which leaves the usual cause of things that get lodged in the national psyche, for no readily apparent reason, and often, for reasons that are beyond reason, actually become government policy, as ministers try to keep Daily Mail Readers onboard, and are usually more than the economy, to say nothing of society as a whole, can stand. Drunken mates waxing lyrical about things they don’t understand, whilst following the age-old tradition of the alcoholically influenced and exaggerating, somewhat.

In this case, the half remembered things would include: warm Welsh bitter beer (a phrase that sounds better than it tastes); a microclimate all of its own that means it never ... that is ... never ... rains ... honest; locals with soft lilting accents, dressed in the most bizarre national costume this side of Alfa Centauri, living off a diet of Welsh Cakes, rarebit and freshly made/harvested lava bread, whatever that is.

All I can say is, if you haven’t been to the Gower yet, rewrite your bucket list and go. Your drunken mates may have gone a little too far with exaggeration, misremembering or even deliberately going over the top with clichéd cultural stereotypes, but that doesn’t stop the Gower from being one of the finest parts of the UK to visit.

I used to go there when I was younger. For me, it is one of those holiday destinations that was a major part of my life at a particularly significant point in my life. The significance of that particular point being my first real girlfriend. Her parents had a caravan there and for two legendary years, Llangennith was a place of dreams, adventure and all that gooey, naughty stuff that goes with your first proper girlfriend, once you’ve achieved the rite of passage that is working out how to pull the wool over the eyes of the prying older generation.

As such, I might be a bit biased, and my opinion maybe tainted by memories of things that shall remain unsaid, but I think Llangennith is wonderful and has retained most of its charm since I was last there, 40 years ago.

OK, the weather was as variable as the internet, and that was as you would expect in rural Britain at the beginning of the 3rd decade of C21st. Practically none existent (by which I suppose I am trying to say that the weather was crap). But it was, when all said and done, a lovely stroll down memory lane.

Way back in my youth, when crap internet was something that even the least optimistic SCIFI short story, hadn’t found the need to predict, the sun always shone in Llangennith, every day was the first day of spring and had that texture that you only get when your first real girlfriend looks you in the eye and ... there I go ... looking through rose-tinted spectacles and talking like a drunken mate, waxing all lyrical and indulging in a wee bit of exaggeration. Next I will be telling you just how good the Welsh bitter beer is.

The truth is, as ever, a bit more nuanced. You only have to look at the greenness of the grass and the impressive growth of lichens on the trees to deduce that this is a place that has known rain. The sunshine of my youth, burned as it is into my brain cell, like a young lover’s promise, was probably just a matter of getting lucky, the first time always being the best and a few carefully selected memories.

My recollection of places from the past is always a little vague. I remember the pub. How could I forget the pub? It was and still is the centre of village life, whatever that means in a land of 2nd homes and holiday lets. However, I don’t remember it the way it is. Beyond the inevitable refurbishments of the last 40 years, I was having difficulty fitting the pub of my youth into the outer walls of the present day version. As for the beer. I suspect the recipe for Double Dragon hasn’t altered much. But more than half a lifetime of ale swilling, to say nothing of the merging of just about every local brewery into 1 or 2 mega producers, has left it tasting ordinary.

There was still the church. But since it has stood since C12th, minding its own business, it was always likely to remain a feature of modern day Llangennith.

As for the tat bucket and spade shop, that me and my ex-girlfriend regularly grabbed a bag of chips at, as the only alternative place to the pub for the teenaged youth to spend its time and cash, it has gone the way of most things and morphed into a surfing shop*.

Over the intervening decades since I experienced embryonic love in the sand dunes and beaches of this corner of Wales, the main change is that it has become a centre for surfing. Way back in that distant land that we call the 1980s, only people with nothing much to do, rich parents and living in California, went surfing. Now, thanks to the advent of cheap surfboards, the constant promotion of the ‘big wave’ lifestyle via impressive videos on social media and the belief that anyone can make a living doing anything they like these days, all that has changed. There is even a surfing community hanging around, waiting for waves, on the chilly beaches of the west coast of Northern Ireland.

The Gower has fitted neatly into this cultural change because of the 3-mile beach that stretches from Rhossili to Llangennith, taking up the entire western shore of the peninsula. It is listed as one of the top 10 beaches in Europe. When the wind and the tides are right, there can be some fairly decent surf, or so I am told by people who give a fetid dingo’s kidney about such things. Consequently, surfing types from all over the place, gather to do what surfing types do when they are waiting for the right conditions to turn up. This largely consists of hanging around looking cool in sun bleach locks, wearing expensive surfing gear that shows of the tan to jealous office dwellers form Cardiff, while sipping expensive craft beers, from the bottle, staring hopefully out to sea in search of a 7th wave.

This invasion of surfing types has meant that the tourist economy of the area has grown. As a result, it is no longer reliant on teenage kids sneaking off from the prying eyes of parents to find a quiet corner for a bit of experimental fumbling before pooling their pocket money for a pint or two in the King’s Head, then wending their way, tarry eyed, under a starry sky, back to the caravan and her disapproving parents.

For the none surfing amongst you, fear not. There is also a lot of scenery on the Gower to keep you entertained.

Wormshead stands out. This is a strip of land that looks, from the right angle, a bit like some kind of giant worm raising its enormous head above the water ... hmm ... so maybe 'worm' is entirely the wrong kind of animal for the ancients to have chosen to describe this feature. Possibly some kind of mythical sea monster, or a dragon (it being Wales and all) or at least something aggressive with teeth, would have been more appropriate. But in Welsh tradition it seems to have always been a worm.

It is possible that, if we could trace the origins of this, quite frankly pathetic association with a dramatic, spectacular, geological formation with a member of the animal kingdom least associated with things spectacular and dramatic, back to its origins we might get close to unlocking some profound secrets of Welsh psychology.

Anyway, it is a fun and challenging walk to go across the causeway and get as far as you dare, before you have to turn round and get back ahead of the tide that will cut you off and strand you for an unexpected night on an island, with nothing for company but a few seagulls who just want to be lonely and your own irritation at being such a plonker for getting all your timing wrong.^ My vertigo, which has got worse as I’ve got older, was fairly insistent that I was not going to do Devil's Bridge, the rocky, scary bit that links the body to the head of the worm and looks like something that Gandalf would defend against a nasty, scary monster, with little more than some serious attitude and a wooden stick.

Then there are loads of cliff walks, more beaches and salt marshes. Now, you might not care much about salt marshes. After all, they are simply marshes, stretching for miles and miles, looking untidy and not in the least inviting from an exploring point of view, what with the mud and ditches and the speed of the tide coming in. But then you haven’t eaten salt marsh grazed lamb. If you had, you would value salt marshes above all other grazing land. Salt Marsh raised lamb is expensive, but well worth it. Something to do with all the samphire they get to eat.

Despite the weather being a bit Welsh, I still managed to get sunburnt. Managed largely by being particularly careless with the application of sunslap and being on the top of a hill the three times the sun deigned to show its face on a particularly long walk along the coast path to Woebly Castle, 15 miles in all ( Woebly is probably spelt wrong, but I couldn’t check it cos the internet was down when I was writing the first draft of this, and it was pissing down ... not that that makes a difference, but I thought you’d like to know ... and I feel that leaving the spelling mistake in will go some way to getting you into the moment and giving a real flavour of what it was like to actually be there!). At the end it we both demolished a post walk pint or several of cider, crashed into a fish supper in the pub, before crawling across the valley to our caravan and a long, knackered, kip!

On the whole, it was very quiet on the Gower, but this was very much the first weeks after lockdown. “Just like the 1980s” the local farmer whose field we were using said, with dreamy nostalgia for the good old days, mixed with trepidation for what the future might hold. “Mostly day trippers.”

Boo has fallen in love with the place. We will be back. We are thinking of walking the Gower Coast Path in the spring.

On our last night, we walked down the lane that led to the campsite where my ex-girlfriend’s parent’s static caravan used to be. I think I worked out which plot is was on. Then we walked over the brow of the hill on the road into Llangennith where, 40 years before, someone had scrawled, in white emulsion, in the middle of the road, ‘Morgan the Organ’. I pointed the spot out to Boo and related the tail. She laughed. In the same way that me and my ex-girlfriend laughed all those years ago. Now that is what I call culture. Graffiti that still has the intended effect 4 decades after the bloke from the council had scraped it off the road and the chap who painted it had grown up, moved away to Swansea and has grandchildren behaving in exactly the same, unacceptable way that he behaved in his day. I hope that they are following the family tradition and creating petty vandalism of similar cultural significance.


*I am not trying to suggest that most things will, given enough time, literally morph into a surf shop. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of the laws of entropy and a passing interest in history to know that this notion is clearly bollocks. What I am trying to say is, bucket and spades shops, situated a mile from the beach, will, sooner or later, go bust and be replaced by a shop selling beach stuff with a higher unit cost and therefore a better profit margin. At this end of the Gower peninsula, that was always going to mean a surf shop. It is just a shame that they don’t do a side line in chips.

^I did Wormshead as a field trip when I was at college. We went to the very end. My vertigo wasn’t as bad back then and we got all the way to the top of the head of the worm, well beyond Devil’s Bridge. It was a Sunday, in the days when pubs shut in the afternoon on a Sunday. I was panic-stricken! Never mind the tide cutting off the causeway, could we get to the bar before Last Orders!

I took the orders and started to run. Not so bad for most of the journey, but once I got to the causeway, it all became a bit hairy! Never more than a tired footplant away from a twisted ankle, or worse, much worse, I raced on.

Having survived the jagged rocks, the gapping rock pools and the slipper seaweed, it was up to the pub, which someone had inconveniently placed at the top of a hill!

With my lungs close to busting, my legs well and truly done in and my brain no longer capable of thinking straight, I staggered into the bar.

It was 5 to 3.

I had made it!

Only to be told, in a lilting soft Welsh accent, as the bar maid started to pour my extended drinks order, while giving me the once over, wondering how this impoverished looking student was going to pay for all this beer, that it was “a bank Holiday and it bein’ an ‘oliday destination, like, an’ everythin’, the pub 'as an extension. We aren’t closein’ till 10:30.”

It had taken me 25 mins to get from the top of Wormshead to the pub, risking life, limb, to say nothing of street cred (well beach cred).

I believe that still stands as a rather unofficial course record.

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