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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Castle Graig

In the late 18th Century, the lower Swansea Valley was one of the centres of copper working in the UK. Great quantities of cheap coal from further up the valley provided the power and the ore was brought in from other parts of the country. Swansea copper lined the hulls of Royal Navy ships, making them faster and more manoeuvrable.

Sir John Morris, who owned much of the industry along the Lower Tawe in the Swansea Valley, had a planned town built for his workers, originally Morris’ Town, which became Morriston. Between 1768 and 1774 he built Europe’s first purpose built, multi-occupancy dwelling place on the hill overlooking the metal works. It was a three storey block of flats with four 4 storey towers at the corners.

Today, the remains of two of the towers survive, the rest having fallen as a result of open cast mining, subsidence and in 1990, high winds. The local youth take the challenge to climb the ruins and leave their marks in the form of graffiti. More than one has ended up in the local hospital.

The ruins have seen great change in the Swansea Valley. The industry is long gone and replaced with a mixture of retail, leisure and housing. Where once smoke obscured the view and pollutants killed vegetation, now the view to the bay is clear and some of the flora is returning. (Time Team excavated a few years ago and found the level of toxins in the ground where the metals works were was still high enough to warrant taking precautions for the diggers.) Mother nature will always win despite or arrogant view that we are the shapers of the world.

Rufus and I were the guests of friends who showed us to the top of Castle Graig, where the ruins stand guard over the valley. The route is not easy to find, which is good because we had the hill to ourselves. Although they are under the care of CADW, the towers are in danger of further decay and even total collapse as they sit precariously close to the edge of a steep drop into the old mine workings.

Next time you’re shopping in Morfa, or taking coffee there, look up to the northern skyline and you’ll see the castle, watching you.

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