Mumbles

For most people in Swansea, Mumbles head, with it’s lighthouse and distinctive twin tidal islands, is iconic. It can be seen from the whole 5 mile sweep of Swansea Bay and, by design, it’s lighthouse is visible much further away. I’ve written about it before, here.

The first lighthouse was built there in the late 18th century. It had two coal fired lights in open braziers. The island just out into the Bristol Channel and catches every last whisper of wind; keeping an exposed coal fire burning in those conditions was well nigh impossible. So it wasn’t long before the coal fires were replaced by enclosed oil lamps with reflectors to improve visibility. There was a house on the outermost island for the keeper to live in during his (or her – there were wives and daughters here sometimes) duty, which must have been a lonely existence.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was causing mayhem in Europe and to protect the country, coastal forts were built at strategic points. By this time, Swansea was an industrial centre producing copper and other metals and exporting coal. Copper was particularly important strategically as copper coated hulls allowed Nelson’s ships to move more quickly and maneuver more easily. Mumbles Head was the ideal place for a defences and in the early part of the 19th century a stone fort was built which still stands today. Over the years various guns were placed here. Initially, 6lb cannon protected the port and these were replaced by bigger calibres until 68lb cannon with a range of 5 miles were sited on the island.

Eventually, modern 4.7″ guns were emplaced on the island and the 68lb cannon were unceremoniously dumped into the sea. One was recovered in the 70s and is situated in Swansea Marina. During WW2, these guns formed the inspection battery part of the defences of the port of Swansea, which was one of the biggest Bristol Channel ports during the war. Their responsibility was to enforce the requirement for all shipping to stop and be identified before proceeding into the docks and they were manned by regulars of the 299th Coastal Defence Battery, with Home Guard units and women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS).

A pair of 6″ guns formed the defence part of the battery and were sited further back on the mainland, above the Bracelet Bay car park. These heavier guns with their longer range and better visibility would have engaged any enemy shipping trying to enter the bay. Search lights and local defences completed the battery. Further back on Mumbles hill was the 623rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery comprising 4 x 5.5″ guns sited to engage enemy aircraft flying in to bomb Swansea.

The whole area was defended from attack by Territorial and Home Guard units in trenches, machine gun emplacements and pill boxes. A mobile 75mm gun was also available to be used where required and there were minefields laid for further protection.

Where Bracelet Bay car park is now were the Nissen huts and other temporary accommodation for the garrison troops. Immediately after the war, these were used for homeless refugees while new houses was built to replace those destroyed in the bombing of Swansea earlier in the war.

The islands are accessible at low tide. A concrete walkway built to improve access for the battery garrison was destroyed after the war when it was found to affect the way the tide interacted with the beach. As you walk out, you can see the remains of the walkway along with railway lines and, as you near the outer island, posts for guide railings. On the outer island, the Napoleonic fort forms part of the current lighthouse structure. Around it there are the remains of the buildings that made up the more modern defences. And engine room to provide power for the searchlights; barracks for the garrison; platforms for the defence of the island from landward attack and the two search light houses.

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Seeing the light (house)

Back to Whiteford again this morning. Although I love it down there, especially in the lovely weather we’re having at the moment, I’d like to be back on the hills. I think it might be a while before my knee is well enough to risk that, though.

So at 8.30 this morning, we were out in the sunshine and rapidly warming air on the golden sand of Whiteford. It was clear and there was little wind. Lapwings leapt into the air with their strange siren call as we made our way through the long dune grass. I thought we might have the beach to ourselves but a group of people appeared to be making a movie a short distance from the path to Cwm Ivy.  We avoided them and carried on along the beach towards Whiteford Lighthouse.

The tide was out today, in complete contrast to last week. I love the sound of the tide so I missed it’s lapping. I could see that it was out far enough that it would be possible to get to the lighthouse, so that’s where we aimed for. I tried checking my tide times app, but there wasn’t enough signal to get any data. Instead I decided to trust to luck and frequent checking of the tide line. I could hear words from a previous blog post ‘the tide comes in rapidly on this beach’ running through my head as we walked out. Rufus was uninterested in such trivia as tides. He was more interested in the strange maritime smells that assaulted his nose.

We passed the wreck of a small metal hulled boat. Despite many searches, I haven’t been able to find any information about it and I begin to wonder if it was an old boat brought there to use as a target. Eventually, after crossing masses of seashells and small and medium sized pools, we reached the stone and concrete base of the lighthouse. I love this place. It’s so characterful. Barnacles encrust the base and rust engulfs the upper parts of the tower. Whiteford lighthouse is the only surviving wave-washed cast iron lighthouse in the UK and one of only a few in the world. It was built in 1865 and went out of use in the 1920s, although it was briefly restored to working order with a solar powered flashing light in the 80’s. It is now a daylight only navigation aid. It’s also a Grade II listed scheduled monument.

In awe of the historical and engineering magnificence of the lighthouse, Rufus peed on it.

We headed back to shore. I kept a wary eye on the tide but it didn’t seem to be doing much. I also kept a wary eye on the route, as we were in prime artillery range territory and it was unlikely that the tidal part of the beach had been cleared as thoroughly as the dunes. We were both okay, though, and we climbed the tallest dune around to sit and have a snack. Of course, Rufus wanted my snack as well as his own. It wasn’t to be and with a huff, he went looking for adventures.

We made our way back through the dune system, weaving and wandering as the whim took us. I spotted a Kestrel sitting on a dune top, tearing apart some unfortunate prey. It was more interested in Rufus’ movements than mine, so I was able to get quite close before it flew off to a safer dune.

The while the sharp crack of shotguns had started to disturb the quiet. Near to Cwm Ivy tor, a club has built a clay pigeon shooting range. I say built, it’s a small container and some rope fencing off a dip in the dunes. It’s a little too close to places where people walk, the ponies and horses wander and more importantly, the Lapwings have their sanctuary. The coastal path passes behind the gun line but then turns to climb a hill to the left of the range. Be warned if you are in the area.

We trudged up the final path to the car park and I stopped to talk to the lady in the house nearest the gate into the village. She’s been putting a bowl of water out for dogs every day for the last 30 years. It’s certainly been there very time I’ve been there and although Rufus tends not to drink from it, I appreciate the thought. So today, I said thank you. We chatted for a bit about how dogs tend not to like fresh water. Then we completed our trudge to the car.

Today we did 10.3km in about 3.5 hours.

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Mumbles

Out of my window I can see Swansea bay. If I strain and squeeze my neck out of the window (okay, I can’t do that but I’m painting a picture here so bear with me) then I can just see the Meridian Tower (South Wales’ tallest building). At the other end of the bay is Mumbles Head. The headland juts out into the Bristol Channel, and has two tidal islands. They are probably the origin of the name; many websites will tell you they are so named as they resemble breast shaped hills (the Latin ‘mamillae’ being easily corrupted by sailors and fishermen). What they’re trying, delicately, to say is that the two islands look like boobs. There, I’ve said it. The sniggering you can hear is from schoolboys who have Googled ‘boobs’. (And, of course, I can now legitimately add boobs to my keywords list and thereby raise my hit count ten fold).

Anyway, if we could get back to the real subject. I’ve been going to Mumbles for years, every since we first moved to Swansea several decades ago. Some of my earliest mameries.. er memories of Swansea are of Bracelet Bay, between the lighthouse and the coastguard station. A little shop, in the shape of an apple, sold buckets and spades and other beach essentials. It was originally built as a promotion for an apple flavoured drink in the 1930s. Recently, the apple shop was damaged by a car and there was some doubt over whether it would be repaired. As a result, a campaign in the local paper took off the the apple has been restored and is there today.

I remember playing in the remains of an anti aircraft artillery battery on the top of the mainland when I was 10. It took me many years to go back and find the place again. My mum, who lived in Swansea during their blitz of February 1941, recalled hearing the sound of anti aircraft guns. There were several sites, but they always knew when the Mumbles site was firing because the guns were bigger and made a deeper, louder sound. There was also a battery of anti shipping guns protecting the bay based just the other side of the road by the big car park at Bracelet Bay. There is nothing left of this now apart from the flattened area where the guns were located, but on the outermost breast… er… island, clustered around the light house are the remains of searchlight houses and the old Napoleonic era fort that protected Swansea docks.

In the 1980s, me and a group of school friends were making a comedy movie on super 8 equipment and one of the scenes called for an old pram (with a baby inside) to be washed up on the shore. We chose Bracelet Bay as the location and I still remember trying to get the pram to float and then hoping it would come back in to the shore again. As I recall it belonged to the sister of one of the guys, and she didn’t know we had it! We told the coastguard in case there was a scare. I’m not sure what they made of it.

Mumbles Head catches the worst of the westerly winds and it’s always a good place to go if I want to capture storm waves crashing against the rocks. I’ve seen them breaking over the lighthouse, although I’ve never managed to snap those as I’m usually sheltering in the car at that point.

In the summer, Mumbles is a popular destination for day trippers as well as those staying longer. The village itself is strung out along the shore and as a result, there is always a bottle neck of traffic as people try and get to and from the few car parks. I like it in winter, though, when the sun rises over the light house, there is no one else around and as long as I don’t look too closely, I could be back in the days of my childhood.

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