Gower Pilgrimage Way (Part V)

Walk of the month with Ian Bateman

Here we are then on the final leg of the recently launched Gower Pilgrimage Way, a 50 mile pilgrimage walk from Penclawdd to Bishopston, con-necting all 17 churches in the Gower Ministry area along the way. David Pope, the founder and organiser will be over-seeing a special Pilgrimage Week between 11 and 18 September, this will include a guided walk along a section of the way during the day, with the churches open to visitors along the route, offering refreshments, information and activities.

Each day will end with an evening service or celebration at the church reached at the end of that day’s walk. These evenings will share a pilgrimage-related theme, e.g. a Celtic-style worship service or an illustrated talk on pilgrimage through the ages, and the Festival will end with a bilingual Cymanfa Ganu at St Teilo’s, Bishopston, on the evening of Friday 16 September, which Alun Tregelles Williams has kindly agreed to conduct.

No time for banter this week as we literally have a lot to cover in the way of directions and points of interest so let’s get cracking. This fifth and final section is approximately 9 miles long, stretching from Penmaen to Bishopston, visiting the last four churches and with lots more besides. The first in Penmaen is dedicated to St John the Baptist and was connected to the Knights Hospitallers back in mediaeval times. It is thought to have replaced an abandoned church located on Penmaen Burrows in the 14th century after the original was swallow-ed up by encroaching sand dunes. It was completely rebuilt, however, between 1854 and 1855.

Leaving the churchyard at Penmaen, cross the busy South Gower road (A4118), following the narrow road ahead, towards the entrance to Three Cliffs Holiday Park passing the shop and campsite buildings on your left continuing straight on, through a gate onto a wide track which will descend into the wood parallel with the busy main road. If you walk here at the right time of year, the pungent and distinctive smell of wild garlic will pervade the air. Continue along the track, turning left at the junction at the bottom of the hill, signposted Parkmill. Just before reaching the main road, there is a stone across the track but stay to the right signposted Southgate.

Take the bridge over the stream, go up the steps, turning left at the top. Ignore the footbridge coming up on the left leading to Parkmill and Shepherds Store continuing along the path running parallel with the main road until you reach a minor road (Sandy Lane) near the junction with the main road. Cross Sandy Lane, then take the footbridge to the left over the stream to the main road. Cross the main road with care, (beware, there is no pavement here!!) and carefully follow the road to the right for around 30 yards to a gateway on the left, just before the famous Gower Inn, which leads you to Ilston Cwm alongside the car park.

This valley is without doubt one of Gower’s hidden gems. A beautiful and peaceful ancient wooded green cwm, with the accompanying sound of birdsong and the burbling and tinkling of the stream as it makes its way to join the sea at Three Cliffs Bay. It’s quite something. One of the first points of interest however is on the right hand side shortly after you enter the valley, the ruins of what is thought to be Wales’ earliest Baptist Chapel founded by John Myles in 1649. It wasn’t thought to have been built by him, but he used an existing structure to conduct services in this new religious movement (where believers were baptised when adults rather than as children thus allowing them to make a conscious decision to do so).

There is a commemorative plaque marking the association with this spot unveiled in 1928 by none other than Lloyd George, who incidentally, knew my father. Following the Restoration, Myles was forced to emigrate to the USA in pursuit of religious freedom where he established a new church and also founded the settlement in Massachusetts known as Swanzey (see what he did there?)

Progressing through the valley then, the path crosses a number of bridges as the sunlight gloriously filters through the treetops; keep an eye out for the point where the stream disappears underground. Just like the river in the Bishopston valley, in periods of low rainfall it diverts underground for a while reappearing downstream, a characteristic feature of limestone landscapes. An obvious dry river bed is then left in its place- proper A level Geography field trip territory. The valley continues to snake north east then veers left into Carey’s Woods until you eventually arrive at the church at Ilston. Now, I did say last time that up until that point Penrice church had been my favourite spot. But stand aside St Andrew, there’s a new kid on the block. This place is stunning. The church, dedicated to St Illtyd is quite chunky looking with its tower looking slightly out of proportion with the rest of the building and with a venerable 600 year old yew tree towering impressively alongside; the beauty of its location cannot be denied. Irrespective of your beliefs, I defy anyone not to be moved by the sheer spirituality of this place. I could have stayed there for hours in quiet meditation. Another church connected to the Knights Hospitallers, it was thought to have been built in the 13th century and subsequently restored in 1847.

Anyway, once you return to the real world retrace your steps back the way you came, past the Gower Inn, across the road and walk up the steep incline of Sandy Lane, taking great care as you do so. It’s quite a steep climb but it will eventually flatten out as you reach the links of Pennard Golf course to the right.

Where the road bends to the left, take the unmade road straight ahead and follow this until you reach a road named Linkside. Turn right at Linkside and cross the main Pennard to Southgate road by Pennard School. Go straight ahead at the Public Footpath sign, then follow the path to the right, around the school grounds. Don’t take the gate into the playing fields but turn left to come to a stile after 50 yards. Take the stile and continue straight on through 3 fields with a further 3 stiles and follow the path through woods. Go through the gate into a field and exit the field via a gate on the right-hand side. Turn left and follow the bridleway passing Hael Farm to your left and then down through woods into Bishopston Valley. On reaching the stream, turn left, signposted Bishopston and Kittle and left again at the junction of paths a short way along and up the hill towards the road at Widegate. Continue straight up until you reach the main road at Pennard and the church is ahead.

Before we look at the church though, it’s interesting to note that this area was prime smugglers’ country back in the 18th century. Contraband was landed on the remote and secluded bays at Pwll Du and Brandy Cove (hence its name), hidden and distributed from nearby Little & Great Highway Farms and by all accounts much of Gower’s population were complicit in this illegal activity, clergy included. Outrageous!! A clandestine track known as Smugglers Lane linking Widegate and the farms was a well-known route used by the scallywags for the carriage of the illicit goods and is just down the road.

The original church was built close to where the castle is today but it too became engulfed by the encroaching sand dunes and was abandoned. Built in the 16th century and dedicated to St. Mary you will note that the walls are painted white although if I’m honest they are in dire need of touching up. This feature dates back to 2011 when churches in the area were persuaded by Cadw that in order to claim valuable restoration funds the outer walls would have to be restored to their original colour by lime washing them. Things to note is a commemorative plaque in remembrance of one of the original Kardomah boys and Dylan Thomas’ bestie the poet Vernon Watkins which is located on the north wall of the church and the grave of another Gower poet and journalist, Harri Webb (no, not Cliff Richard). It’s also the final resting place of another local literary figure Nigel Jenkins. Nigel was a writer, poet and head of Creative Writing in Swansea University and was brought up in the farm adjacent to the church so had Gower blood running through his veins. I would strongly recommend his books on Gower and Swansea, which are written with authority and love. He sadly died in 2014 at the relatively young age of 64.

From Pennard churchyard, retrace your steps back down into the Bishopston Valley. At the junction of paths at the bottom, take the left-hand path, then cross the footbridge, following the path uphill signposted to Pyle. At the top you’ll see a gate on your left but ignore it – go sharp right and then a sharp left and go through the gate in front of you. Continue along this track which leads onto a tarmac road (which leads to Pyle Corner). Keep an eye out for Backingstone Farm and then Chapel House on the left. The road goes downhill and where it levels off look for a track on your left which is signposted and go through the metal gate. At the yellow footpath sign, take the footpath left, eventually passing a National Trust sign for Bishopston Valley. Walk down the steps and at a junction of paths, take the right-hand path slightly uphill. At the top of the hill, go through the gate and follow the path to Bishopston.

To the left of the path is a steep drop down to the valley below. After 2 further gates, cross the field ahead, keeping parallel to the hedge line on the left-hand side, and go through the gate at the other end of the field. At the first junction of paths, turn left through the gate and immediately turn right up a slight hill. At the next gate, follow the path between two fields to another gate, leading into a field. Walk through this field and leave via the pedestrian gate at the right of a farm gate. At the crossroads with a wider track, continue straight on. On reaching the houses (Prospect House is on the right), turn left and follow the path downhill. At the junction, by a house named Hillside, take the track down the hill, marked ‘pedestrian access only – no vehicle access’. Before the double gates for Brynllan, at the Public Footpath sign on the left, follow the tarmacked path down the hill into Bishopston churchyard.

So, to the final church of the trail, St Teilo’s at Bishopston apposite in the circumstances given the theme of this walk, as it’s considered to occupy the site of one of the very earliest Christian settlements in Wales. The church dates back to 480AD although the current structure was built in the 12th or 13th century and renovated around 1851. A perfect spot to end the walk then.

So, there you are. All done.  Although completing the walk may not necessarily guarantee you a place ‘upstairs’ come judgement day, I’m sure it won’t do your chances any harm at all and besides I’m sure you will find the experience rewarding on a number of levels. Our view of Gower is commonly framed within a modern context of its natural environment, whether it is beautiful sandy beaches, dramatic coastal scenery and headlands shaped like dragons, or from the recreational angle of great pubs, restaurants and holiday parks. So, you could be forgiven for being unaware that the area is steeped in a rich and fascinating history and where for centuries Christian worship has been a central element. So irrespective of your religious beliefs, this pilgrimage walk will engage you in ways that will hopefully add a new and enlightening dimension to your enjoyment and understanding of our special little corner of the world.

There is a dedicated website which contains far more information of the walk than I’m able to include here, so please pay it a visit gowerma.org/gower-pilgrimage-way David will also be interested to hear your feedback if you’ve completed the walk or part of it and there’ll be an opportunity to do so on there. So, go on then, what are you waiting for?

Start: Penmaen

Finish: Bishopston

Distance: 9 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 3 ½ –

4 hours

Refreshments: Shepherds in Parkmill, Gower Inn and pubs, shops in Bishopston

PLAYLIST:

Walking Back to Happiness: Helen Shapiro

Carpe Diem: Green Day

Valley to Pray: Arlo Guthrie

Jesus is Just Alright with Me: Doobie Brothers

Bridge Over Troubled Water: Simon & Garfunkel

That’s the Way God Planned It: Billy Preston

God Gave Rock and Roll to You: Argent

Turn Turn Turn Turn: The Byrds

Graceland: The Bible

Day by Day: Godspell Original Soundtrack

I Don’t Know How to Love Him: Jesus Christ Superstar Soundtrack

Let the Sunshine In: The 5th Dimension

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