Historic Gower

The peninsula of Gower is an undulating arm of limestone stretching for over 20km into the Bristol Channel between the estuaries of the River Tawe and River Loughor. For such a relatively small area of land, Gower contains an astonishing variety of sites and monuments reflecting every phase of Man's existance in Britain for the last 70 millennia or more.

 

Rhossili

The coastal scenery between Rhossili and Port Eynon is arguably the finest in all the peninsular with a succession of sheer limestone cliffs and rocky valleys culminating in the sinuous rock of Worms Head. Geology and elements have conspired to create a dramatic landscape which is not only admired by present day visitors, but once attracted the attention of far earlier inhabitants of this land. Large areas of the coastline are owned by the National Trust and there are several waymarked footpaths leading along the cliffs to Rhossili, starting from Port Eynon village, Overton, and Pilton Green.

Rhossili is the western most village in Gower, a guiet outpost of cottages and houses lining the road that passes the parish church of St Mary. To the north-east the village is overlooked by the bleak ridge of Rhossili Down, while northwards stretches the great expanse of Rhossili Bay, the graveyard of many ships. The village lies on the clifftop overlooking the bay, but the original Medieval settlement was establshed in the burrows close to the beach. During the winter of 1979-80 storm water eroded the topsoil, exposing bones and fragments of masonry, and a team from the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaelological Trust began excavating the affected areas. They found the remains of several houses and exposed the foundation walls of a large building, oblong in plan but with rounded corners. Not far away to the north-east the archaeologists investigated a large stony mound which turned out to be the buried remains of the old church. A chipped stone tool is the earliest piece of evidence to indicate the presence of Man in Gower. The primitive implement is a hand held axe archaeologiests believe was made some time in the Lower Palaeolithic period - over 75,000 years ago.

 

Worms Head

About 1km beyond Old Castle the footpath reaches the channel separating the mainland from the rock of Worms Head. For a few hours either side of low tide it is possible to cross a natural causeway to the headland, but it is strongly advisable to check in advance the tide times. There is a small Iron Age fort on the inner hump of the Worm, and around 1910 a stone mould for casting metal ornaments was discovered here. On the gentler slopes beneath the fort are several ruined stone buildings which may be sheepfolds or cottages. There is a story that one of the buildings had a false cellar where smuggled liquor was hidden during the Napoleonic Wars.

 

Rhossili Down

Behind the village the gorse and bracken covered slopes of Rhossili Down rise to a height of 193m above sea level, providing a dramatic backdrop to the sandy sweep of the bay. Today the area attracts ramblers, pony trekkers and hang gliding enthusiasts, but between 3000-4000 years ago the ridge was a sacred burial site for the Bronze Age hierarchy of Gower. Around a dozen cairns lie dotted along the ridge and the gentler eastern slopes. Most are the usual round type, but there are one or two rings, and a very good platform cairn with a prominent kerb of stones, located about 300m north of the OS pillar on the summit.

 

Weobley Castle

A substantial Medieval castle open to the public and carefully preserved for posterity by CADW - the Welsh Historic Authority. One of the rooms contains an exhibition of the archaelogical sites and monuments of the Gower peninsula. Weobley is usually described as a fortified manor house and is perhaps the best example of such a building in Wales. Architectural evidence suggests that the builders started to construct a large and by no means insignificant stronghold, and that the original design was never carried through to completion. The small lordship of Weobley was one of the earliest Norman territories established in Gower, though the actual site of the castle is believed to have been acquired at a later date by the De la Bere family.

The earliest dateable masonry belongs to the late 13th centry and consists of a two storeyed hall block, with high battlemented walls surrounding a central courtyard. The fact that the defensive perimeter was never completed suggests that either the builder ran out of money or, more likely, decided that there was no longer any pressing need for strong defences.

At the beginning of the 15th century the national uprising led by Owain Glyndwr hit Gower, and the castle was in all probability captured and damaged by the rebels. A John La Bere is believe to have been killed in the fighting. Once royal authority had been re-established the castle was repaired and the De la Beres were back in possession. But by the end of the century the manor passed to Sir Rhys ap Thomas of Dinefwr, the most powerful Welsh magnate of the early Tudor period. Rhys carried out renovations and improvements on his various estates and here at Weobley he built a porch and ante-room to create a more prestigious approach to the hall. By the middle of the 16th century Weobley was no longer the abode of wealthy and powerful lords, but merely a tenanted farmhouse, and by 1666 it had degenerated to the unenviable status of a decayed castle.

 

Swansea Castle

The above picture shows Swansea Castle in 1840 and bears no signature, date nor title. Sotheby's have attributed the painting to Joseph Murray Ince (1806 - 1859), who was a native of Presteigne in Radnorshire. The painting has been described as a 'street scene with figures and a horse and cart' (Sotheby's catalogue, 1996). Until the 1820's the area was known as Market Square because it had been Swansea's market-place since the twelfth century. The tall building, to the left of centre, was the premises of Messrs. Moyse and Sibbering - grocers. In rooms over this shop were the first museum and meeting-rooms of the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Society (later The Royal Institution of South Wales). The society remained there until the present museum opened in 1841. To the right of the castle is Daniel Davies, the linen and wool-draper and the bank of Messrs.Walters, Voss and Walters. These commercial premises were not demolished until 1996. The focal point of the painting is, of course, Swansea Castle, viewed from the Round Tower at the West end of the Great Hall.

The history of Swansea really begins around 1106 when Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick arrived here and built a castle to defend the territory and act as the administrative centre of the Norman lordship. What was here before the 12th century is less certain. According to tradition a Viking named Sweyne founded an outpost in the 9th century, giving rise to the place-name 'Sweyne's ey' - meaning island or islet, and there may also have been an Early Christian church here dedicated to St Cenydd. But the impetus for the growth of Swansea as a town was clearly down to the Normans.

Earl Henry's castle was completed by 1116 when a Welsh army attacked, but the garrison put up strong resistance and only the 'outer castle' was burned. This either refers to the early town enclosure or, more likely, the bailey of the earth and timber castle. Another attack took place in 1192 when Swansea endured a ten-week siege, but the Welsh were more successful in 1215 and 1217 and the castle was destroyed. The defences still relied on deep ditches and earthworks topped with palisades, but at some time in the early 13-centruy a stone wall with a least one square flanking tower was built, and this in time became known as the Old Castle. Nothing of this work survives above ground today, but the masonry foundations and remains of the mound were noted during clearance in 1913.

There were two further recorded attacks in 1257 and 1287 when the town, and perhaps the castle as well, was burnt. Within a few years the Lord of Gower, William de Breos II began to constructed the 'New Castle' in the south-east corner of the bailey, and this now forms the surviving part of Swansea castle.

 

 

Swansea Old Town

The Medieval town surrounded the castle on all sides except the east, where the land sloped down to the river and quay. Modern harbour developments have affected the course of the River Tawe, and the river no longer flows beneath the castle walls. Murage grants were issued by the Crown in 1317 and 1338 which enabled tolls to be collected to meet the cost of replacing the timber defences of the borough with stone walls. The line of the town walls has been deduced from early maps and from buried foundations noted in modern excavations and comprised a stone wall fronted with a ditch with three or four gateways.

In St Mary's Street will be found the only remaining domestic building in Swansea, the Cross Keys Inn, which has recently been extended in a mock-Medieval style. Thw twin gabled facade is a 1950 restoration of the early 17th century frontage, when the building was divided into two ground floor shops, but around the back of the inn are three 14th century windows which reveal the real age of the Cross Keys.

In 1332 Bishop Henry de Gower founded a hospital or almshouse for the support of other poor chaplins and laymen deprived of bodily health and the Cross Keys Inn is the only surviving part of that worthy establishment. The original function of this building is not known for certain, but the fireplace on the first floor and an open roof with carved beams suggests that it was a domestic hall, perhaps the residence of the chaplain or attendant priests. At the Reformation the hospital was suppressed and the property purchased by Sir George Herbert who is thought to have removed materials from the site for use in building his 'New Place'.

 

Gower's Bronze Age Standing Stones

Just across the road from the turning to Wobley Castle is a signposted public footpath to Manselfold. Follow this for approximately 400m and in the second field on the right, after passing Windmill Farm, will be seen one of the largest Bronze Age standing stones in Gower. This is Sampson's Jack a 3.2m

 

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