I had a marvellously feral childhood growing up at Westcliffe in Overton, the last house in the village. As my friend’s father latterly said, ‘You were out the door at 9 and were back by 6. You never said where you were going. And we didn’t ask.’ Perfect. Imagine now letting your seven year old pedal the mile or two over to the Gullies at Horton to chuck bombies at high tide or be daring your mates to climb the time rounded, guano covered steps inside Culver Hole to see who could reach the highest porthole? Mythical stuff.
The coast between Overton and Rhossilli has remained largely untouched for thousands of years save for the limestone quarrying and a few hardy sheep. As kids, we roamed untamed, beach combed, lit fires, crabbed, fished, surfed, explored caves and ran full tilt in flip flops along cliff paths above precipitous drops. Probably, it was these experiences that made me complacent about the dangers when I came back after 25 years in sedate Devon to rediscover, and fall in love again with Gower. The heat wave of 2018 was nothing short of spectacular along that stretch of mystical coast and I must have walked it a couple of dozen times that summer, along the water line at low tide and the cliff paths at high.
Long Hole Cliff and Cave is the first of the enigmas. I still can’t quite get to grips with which is the cave as there are at least four, to my knowledge, within one hundred metres of each other. The first is clearly visible from the coast path and only a few metres deep is a five minute, safe but careful scurry up the quarry scree which is a little underwhelming. The drama is provided by the nesting crows who don’t take kindly to visitors. The next is the pot almost directly below the Natural trust mount not much further along. If you then walk up the valley, about half way up on the left, 20 metres up behind the hawthorn is a much deeper, narrow cave. As kids, we wondered why people would burn black candles there? Continuing to the top of the valley and along the top path, about hundred metres, if you drop down you find the most exciting of the Long Hole caves. It’s a proper cave. Deep, with a curve that cuts out the light, you need a torch to reach the end. More recently, for my kids, I cut branches of sun scorched gorse to light in the cave entrance. Burning vigorously, it sends the imagination back 10,000 years and more.
What really caught my attention that summer, though, was the Knave and the environs. It’s truly magical and, in that heat, at high tide almost tropical. If you stand and whistle long enough, the resident seal’s curiosity is struck. A heart warming sight, no less.
The Knave had the Viking’s notice when they oared passed, naming it and Worm’s Head along the way. And with good reason, too. Knave is a Viking-Nordic name for ‘sail’ as that’s what it looks like from the sea. It drew them in, as it did me. What they discovered was a thrill that I shared. Two bronze aged hill forts either side of the Knave atop the cliffs. But, why there, apart from the apparent beauty? We are practical creatures. There had to be a reason. The answer(s) lay just above the high tide line. Water, fresh water, quite simply. Deborah’s spring and another source just up the valley. To my thinking: shelter and water. Got to be, surely? Whether you be a Viking, a Roman, a modern day fool or a 30,000 year old Red Lady, the allure is there in the caves also.
Right beside Deborah’s Spring and its glorious water fall is Ogof Wintog or Cunnington’s Cave as it’s also known. You have to want it or mean it to get into the crawling man-sized aperture, but once in, it is quite the mystical experience that makes Harry Potter seem like a Zanussi manual. It is supposed to be 1500metres, a mile, long. I got about 100 metres in before the dog got scared and I lost her for a day. But that’s another tale for another time.
It’s called Cunnington’s Cave after a Ned Cunnington who explored the system in 1912. He was a the son of a family of archaeologists who visited Gower. He was killed in the First World War and his family had a piece of slate inscribed in his memory and placed in Ogof Wintog. It’s no longer there and I wonder where it lies now. To keep the tradition alive, I took my youngest son and daughter there and we placed a piece of drift wood there with our names and dates inscribed on it.
Above Cunnington’s Cave, in the eerie overhanging cliff is another cave that a childhood friend of mine has fretfully explored. To get to the entrance involves creeping along ledges which gives me the tremors after I fell there last year, 50 foot onto my nose and broke quite a few other bones, too. But the desire is still there as he tells me there is a cathedral like vault to be admired. When something excites you, as Gower does me, you can’t just commit it to memory. It has to be revisited and reinforced constantly.