SURFING THE GOWER by Mark Vickers
3 lifelong friends Mark Vickers, Lee Daines and Dan Allison were more-or-less absolute beginners when they descended upon Hillend Caravan and Camping Park, Rhossili Bay (nr Swansea), for a 3 day escape incorporating drinking and, er, surfing. Read more below about their escapades and pick up tips for where to surf at the Gower Peninsula.
As the trusty van negotiated the winding roads down to Hillend, we knew that at the very least this would be a trip to remember. More than the end of the road, this place felt like the edge of the earth, such was the splendour of the desolate coastline that awaited. Even from a good mile away the surf looked pretty special, but as complete beginners, would this rugged, open vastness prove a step too far for the 3 inlanders to cope with?
With winds of 30mph and rising, our immediate concern soon turned to pitching the tent. It wasn’t just pure coincidence that we were the only campers in site (pun intended), clearly any other would-be funseekers had not only checked the weather report but also taken notice of it (with the exception of one party who arrived, tried for about 20 minutes to pitch their tent then just gave up and left!). But with the van acting as a trusty windbreak, our 4-man was successfully erected and stood firm – a lonely soldier braving the battle those unforgiving elements were throwing at him. A cuppa later and there was only one thing on our juvenile minds.
The section of Rhossili Bay at our very own campsite looked too delicious to miss and daylight hours were limited. Armed with a couple of bodyboards we took to the waves for a trial run. With one wetsuit between the 3 of us, it’s no surprise that half an hour of adrenaline-fuelled excitement was more than enough at this stage. By now the conditions were brutal, and we waded back up the beach through a violent sandstorm, two thirds of us red and raw from the waist up. As we sought shelter in the more secluded dunes I’m sure we would have all happily traded in our right arms for a hotel, or even one of the many more sensible caravan options in view. But never has a hot meal felt as rewarding as the one that followed.
The feeling of stumbling across a much-needed pub in the middle of nowhere is always satisfying, and one which we craved as the end of day one neared. Actually it wasn’t such a gamble as we’d driven past one earlier in the day but, considering the weather, the hilly walk was testing and took longer than we’d bargained for. It’s fair to say that the sleepy hamlet of Llangennith isn’t renowned for its nightlife, but it does boast the King’s Head, home to a decent pint and free pool! The locals appeared friendly enough, but I learned the hard way that asking a Welshman the England football score, especially on a night that Wales have lost, is not such a good idea.
It’s fair to say the tent struggled that night, and some of us slept better than others. Some early hours repair work was required to hold it together throughout the ferocious gusts and rain that ensued throughout the night and into the next morning. But after a much needed lie-in, by the time we were up and about there were signs of hope. The sky was clearing, the winds were dropping slightly and, by crikey, there were even other campers arriving! All in all it was shaping up to be a great day at the coast and the next port of call just had to be PJ’s Surf Shop.
PJ’s Surf Shop
For the benefit of those less read in the subject of Gower folklore, PJ is a local hero. The guy was (and arguably still is) a world class surfer and his achievements include competing in World Championships in Hawaii. He also looks the part, with the long flowing locks, leathery tanned skin and wispy facial hair along with the lingo to boot. However, true to his roots, he continues to ply his trade in sleepy Llangennith. And once you’ve had enough of chatting up his daughter, you’ll also notice what a nice guy he is. Board and wetsuit hire are reasonably priced and if you ask nicely you might be able to get a discount if you need the equipment for a couple of days. His web address is www.pjsurfshop.co.uk.
Despite the day brightening up, the wind had rendered the conditions ‘big’ along Rhossili Bay, and so bearing in mind our next-to-non-existent experience PJ recommended a nearby alternative. Broughton Bay lies next to a caravan park a couple of miles down the road from Llangenith and, though not quite as idyllic as Rhossili Bay, is still a sight to behold (we were particularly privileged to witness a rainbow). More importantly, this beach was host to some decent yet smaller breaks; toned-down versions of the beasts relentlessly attacking the shoreline down the road, this being a slightly less exposed part of the peninsula. As we donned our wetsuits and prepared for battle, one of the first things we saw was some poor dude swimming after the ‘smaller half’ of his board, which had clearly snapped just minutes before. Undeterred, we took the plunge, starting at the far-left near the rocks. As beginners we found it difficult to paddle out far and began to settle for trying to catching the smaller waves heading in. There is a fair amount of drift on this North-West facing shoreline, so before long we were heading towards the middle of the beach, where the breaks were coming from all angles making them more difficult to judge. With strong undercurrents it was also harder to get out to a depth offering decent waves, hence the sensible thing was to get out and walk back along the beach to our starting place.
It was at this point, during a short beer break, that we saw a true genius at work. It was clear that the few surfers still out there were more experienced and were doing a pretty good job of hugging the left side of the bay to get the best routes inward. But one man stood out head and shoulders above the rest. We watched in awe as for a good two minutes he rode a crest, from a distance it seemed unfathomable to reach, all the way to the lowly shallows we’d struggled to advance beyond. That man was of course PJ, and he abruptly came over to us for some friendly chat and a couple of tips. An hour and a half later and we’d been out another 2 times, and though we struggled to cling to the left-side without drifting, by the end we’d all managed to stand up a couple of times, albeit for seconds rather than minutes.
Back at the site a campfire and music in the sand dunes rounded off a momentous day. As we tucked into Dan’s dad’s speciality sloe gin, one thing was clear – all 3 of us had got the surfing bug in a big way and couldn’t wait for sunrise!
Ok, so it turns out that drinking sloe gin into the wee hours doesn’t exactly inspire a sunrise awakening, but nonetheless after breakfast we were more than ready to brave the sea again. The conditions had settled considerably and we were keen to take on the now more manageable waves crashing into our own beach at Hillend. Quite a number of surfers were out today; as early birds left, latecomers arrived and this seemed to reflect a key advantage of surfing this peninsula – the wide range of suitable times. We were told that an hour or 2 either side of high tide was ideal. However we were on the beach from approximately an hour before high tide until nearly two hours after, and throughout that entire spell the waves were consistently good and workable. Equally, people had been out there for some time before we arrived and were still turning up after we left, and we heard no complaints. Furthermore, by all accounts the bay can be surfed most days, so your timing options should be much less limited than with other regions.
In terms of progress, we managed to get a little further out and all stood up successfully a few more times. However, I speak for myself when I say that I’m still a pretty crap surfer. This doesn’t appear to be the kind of sport where something suddenly clicks and you can then just do it every time with ease. It’s constantly hard work and takes lots of practice. I’m inclined to think that all 3 of us are still missing something technically, which I guess is where lessons would be useful! But one thing we all agreed on is that surfing is so much fun to do, even when you’re failing, which can’t be said about many pastimes.
As tiredness set in, we lugged the heavy boards back up the hill before dropping them off. For our last night we’d decided to try and find some nightlife, only too aware that this would involve a considerable journey. Another walk into Llangennith preceded an hour-long bus ride to Swansea. Despite knowing that a city of its size must contain some potential for nocturnal fun, our impression of the parts covered by the bus route weren’t inspiring. We were also concerned about costs for getting a taxi back and so boarded another bus, incidentally back in the direction we’d just come from, to a tried and tested seaside town called The Mumbles. A few years before we’d had a night out there when camping elsewhere in the Gower and it had ticked all the boxes – a sufficient number of lively pubs, one nightclub with an ample supply of local talent, and several fast food joints to round off the night appropriately. However on this occasion it resembled more of a ghost town, apparently the result of the students being on vacation. This lacklustre environment, combined with our mounting tiredness, led us to cut our losses and call it a day to the left of midnight. The ride back proved to be the most entertaining part, as we shared a minibus with a quirky group of middle-aged locals. Not only did they live in the direction we were heading, but they all shared the likeable habit of dipping further into their pockets than necessary, reducing our remaining fare to virtually nowt.
Hillend Caravan and Camping Park is the perfect destination for anyone who wants to get away from it all and lose themselves in a truly beautiful, secluded environment. The coastline views are simply breathtaking, as is some of the surrounding countryside that we didn’t even get to grips with. In a wider sense, the Gower peninsula contains many more hidden treasures including several other beaches, some of which are even more idyllic and untouched than the one we felt so privileged to have on our doorstep during our stay.
The nightlife leaves a bit to be desired, although the one pub within walking distance of Hillend does the job if you get desperate. Some of the other villages in the Gower region are slightly better equipped in this regard, although for a proper night out you need to travel a fair distance. And even then you’re hard-pushed to find anywhere decent. All in all, it makes more sense to ensure your on-site alcoholic supplies are sufficient, else look for somewhere else.
And last but not least, the surf! Let’s not kid ourselves; this is what it’s all about! To ride, or at least try to ride, the reliable and plentiful waves that grace this incredible region is simply exhilarating. With beaches that can accommodate the beginner and advanced surfer alike, together with a friendly surf shop and surf school available, this is a must destination for all keen surfers. We entered the arena as 3 complete beginners, and left as, er, well, still beginners, to be honest….but 3 beginners that can’t wait for their next surfing trip – all thanks to the quality of their experience in The Gower!