Ready to Mumble?
Breakfast at The Great House involved a number of courses, and was as memorable as dinner. I wanted to reach the farthest point on the Gower Peninsular before the end of the day, a distance of nearly fifty miles, but I felt a stone heavier by the time I was back on my bike.
Porthcawl is a five-mile downhill freewheel from Laleston, where I arranged to meet up with Matthew and Suzanne for a quick family photoshoot and farewell. They were following in their car. There is a lighthouse at the end of the stone breakwater by the harbour, which we decided was a fitting landmark to meet up at. Built in 1860, it has a tapered, hexagonal tower that is thirty feet tall, and is made of cast iron, one of only two iron towers in Wales. It is painted white, with a black band at its base, and has a simple, domed lantern that displays a fixed white light, visible for six miles. It also shows red and green sectors to the sides. Originally coal fired, it was converted to mains gas in 1974 and electrified in 1997.
We managed a series of hastily taken photos before the rain fell and we headed to the Grand Pavilion Cafe. It has a stylish art-deco interior and boasts fine sea views. However, when we got there the tall glass windows were completely steamed up, which focused our attention on the display of cakes and biscuits.
Porthcawl harbour light. My old friend Huw Jones had a Great Uncle Ivor, who was harbour master here. A toast to him? pic.twitter.com/m4GXfRSLTc
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 21, 2015
Back in the car park, I was fighting back tears once more. I really didn’t want them to leave. I’d seen more family members in the last seventy-two hours than I had since the last week of May, and I was unlikely to see any more until August. I used to mock contestants on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here for their inability to cope for more than a week without their partner, their mother or their children. It felt feeble that a one-sided note from their children, telling them how proud they were, would cause so many tears. But at this moment, I understood completely.
I’m not sure whether the condensation on my glasses was caused by the rain or my tears, but I cycled out of Porthcawl unable to see further than my front wheel. I felt bloated from the two pots of breakfast coffee, and the three pots of tea we’d shared at the Grand Pavilion Cafe. I felt lonely and, if I’m honest, a bit lost. Right now, this morning, this whole expedition just didn’t seem fun anymore. All a bit silly, and perhaps time to return to my normal, family life.
But I didn’t, of course. I’m not a quitter, and I kept telling myself that this would pass. Once again I returned to my tried and tested counting method as I pedalled – 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 – and I probably covered seven or eight miles in this way.
It helped that this stretch of National Cycle Route 4 was reasonably flat and fast. It got close to the M4, but stayed south of it, on decent dedicated cycle lanes. I diverted briefly to see a pair of range lights marking the entrance to the Tata Steel Works in Port Talbot, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I found them easily enough, from the safety of a residential street alongside the River Afan, but I understood straight away why they hadn’t even merited a mention in any of my guidebooks. In fact, the taller, rear range was hard to distinguish from the electricity pylons close by.
Approaching Swansea, I made straight for the redeveloped Maritime Quarter, where the splendid Light Vessel 91, known as ‘Helwick’, is now moored permanently. It had served first close to the mouth of the Humber on the east coast, but spent the last six years of service off the Helwick sand bank in the Bristol Channel, south-west of Swansea. As a light vessel (as opposed to a lightship), there was no on-board propulsion and the ship had to be towed into place. Diesel generators powered the electric light and the pneumatic foghorn, and the light was maintained by a crew of seven. These days, Helwick is fully restored, and a prize floating exhibit for Swansea Museum in the Marina.
I’ve always rather liked Swansea, having visited several times during late-summer family holidays on the Gower Peninsula as children. We had stayed in a house in Llanmadoc, owned by my aunt and uncle, where sunny days were spent on a white, sandy beach that seemed to go on for miles, and was invariably deserted. I discovered years later that this was because of the possibility of unexploded shells and mines that had gone undiscovered after the war. On rainy days, we drove into Swansea to look around the shops and market. Even now, all these years later, I could find with my eyes shut the indoor market stall selling loose sweets in jars.
Dylan Thomas was born here, and described Swansea as the ‘ugly, lovely town’. But the Swansea of today is very different from the city where he was born, with much of it rebuilt after suffering heavy bombing during the Second World War. My own affection for the city is largely due to the manager of Radio Rentals in about 1979. One particular Gower holiday had been so wet that my father had gone from store to store, in what we all thought would be a futile attempt to hire a television set for ten days. Radio Rentals duly obliged, and the following morning, the manager himself arrived in Llanmadoc with a portable television, set it up for us, and duly returned a week or so later to reclaim it. I think he charged my father £8 all in.
If nostalgia helped to mask the sadness I had felt that morning, then the Swansea Bike Path to Mumbles served to renew my enthusiasm and positivity. It’s a wide, flat cycle path that hugs the coastline for the entire stretch between the Swansea Observatory and Mumbles, and runs the length of the old Mumbles tramway that carried the world’s very first railway passengers. There are wonderful views across Swansea Bay to Mumbles Head, which marks the start of the Gower Peninsula, and where an interesting lighthouse is located.
Mumbles Lighthouse was commissioned by the Swansea Harbour Trustees in 1791 to guide vessels into Swansea Bay, past the hazardous Mixon Shoal and the Mumbles rocks. After an initial structure collapsed, the lighthouse was finally completed in 1794.
Originally, the lighthouse displayed two open coal-fire lights, one above the other. However, these proved both expensive and difficult to maintain, so were replaced with a single oil-powered light inside a cast-iron lantern.
It has an unusual, two-tiered, octagonal stone tower, fifty-six feet tall, which is painted white. A gallery surrounded each tier of the tower in 1799. In 1860, the War Department built a battery surrounding the southern side of the lighthouse – another of the Palmerston’s Forts like the ones in the Solent at Portsmouth.
In 1905, the lighthouse was changed from a fixed to an occulting light pattern. It was converted from oil to mains electricity in 1969, and its lantern was replaced in 1987. It was converted to solar in 1995, when halogen lamps were also installed. Further alterations and maintenance upgrades were carried out in 2017, including the installation of LED lanterns and solar system upgrades.
Trinity House assumed responsibility for Mumbles Lighthouse from the British Transport Docks Board in November 1975. It currently provides a group flashing white light, visible for sixteen miles.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 21, 2015
At the Beach Hut Cafe on Mumbles Pier, I devoured four teacakes with a large pot of tea, while I searched online for somewhere to stay. I found a room at a B&B in Llanmadoc, the village where I had spent a handful of family summer holidays as a child. It was an ideal location, although it meant cycling on another sixteen miles, and this had already felt like a very long day.
I persevered, and by eight o’clock I was showered, in clean clothes, and walking down to The Britannia for some supper. I was hoping I wouldn’t be recognised. The last time I had been here, the previous summer with Emily and the children, I had fidgeted and toyed with the wax candles on our table and set fire to the tablecloth.