Wednesday, 27 May 2015


One day in 1925, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was leafing through a copy of Country Life magazine when he came across a 12th century Welsh castle overlooking the Bristol Channel which was up for sale.  He decided to buy it and set about modifying the structure of the castle by adorning one part of it, Bradenstoke Hall, with a roof brought across from Bradenstoke Abbey in Wiltshire - as one does.  The castle in question was St Donat's Castle in the village of the same name - named after the 6th century saint Dunwyd - and during his 12-year tenure Hearst brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to this quiet corner of the South Wales coast by inviting such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to come and stay there, as well as a young John F Kennedy and the playwright George Bernard Shaw.

The castle, which has curtain walls dating from around 1300, holds the distinction of being the longest continually inhabited castle in Wales.  For many years it was owned by  the Stradling family, and the village church includes monuments to them.  After Hearst sold it in 1937, the castle was requisitioned for use by American and British troops during the Second World War.  Today the castle houses an international secondary school called Atlantic College and an Arts Centre.  Not surprisingly, given its long history, there are a number of ghosts reputed to haunt the castle, including one of Lady Stradling in a long flowing dress and high shoes.  Her appearance, usually in the Long Gallery, is said to be a portent of impending doom.  An old witch-like woman is often seen in the Armoury, while the animal kingdom puts in an appearance in the form of a phantom panther which has been seen in a corridor.  The makers of the recently shown TV series Wolf Hall made use of two of the castle's largest rooms for filming, one of which was the aforementioned Bradenstoke Hall.   

Map of the area. 

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Sea wall at St Donat's Castle. Photo by Peter Wasp, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Ogmore-by-Sea lies at the mouth of the River Ogmore, an interesting estuary for birdwatchers who may spot egrets or kingfishers.  Bathers, however, should beware: the proximity of the estuary makes bathing unsafe from the nearby beach, although good bathing places are found further along.  There are large caves by the mouth of the river, which is where the village gets its name, 'og' being the Welsh word for cave.  Fossils are also present in the ancient sedimentary rocks along the shore, and many are clearly visible to fossil hunters.  This stretch of coast, which forms part of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, has been a hotspot for shipwrecks over the years, as the west facing shore is regularly battered by fierce gales coming in from the Atlantic.  A particular flashpoint is Tusker Rock, a dangerous reef which is submerged at high tide.  A short walk along the estuary to the Ewenny River, which flows into the Ogmore, leads to Ogmore Castle, a ruined Norman Castle originally erected by the Londres family in the early 12th century.

Those who have been following my sister blog, Britain On Page And Screen, will already have encountered the neighbouring Southerndown Beach, which has been used several times in the filming of Dr Who, most memorably in the heartbreaking scene where the Doctor says goodbye to Rose and disappears before her eyes. The beach, which forms part of Dunraven Bay, was meant to represent a Norwegian beach called Bad Wolf Bay.  It is popular with surfers and at low tide there is a large expanse of sand and pools. There used to be a castle on the headland to the south, albeit a relatively new one.  Dunraven Castle, which was built in 1803 but demolished just 160 years later, was used as a Red Cross hospital during the two World Wars.

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Mouth of the River Ogmore. Photo by John Goodall, via Wikimedia  Commons

Sunday, 10 May 2015


Since his death in 1977, there have been many reported sightings of Elvis Presley - shopping in Walmart, grabbing a drive-thru cheeseburger, downing a cold beer in a remote desert saloon bar.  However, I can reveal that all these sightings are false and that he can actually be found in Porthcawl.  Oh wait, there's another one...and another!  OK, I'll come clean, they are not really the King himself: each September Porthcawl hosts its annual Elvis Festival during which thousands of fans descend on the town to see a variety of Elvis tribute acts, with the main focus of the action in the Grand Pavilion, while on the streets visitors are met with a white-suited wonder around every corner. 

During the 1800s Porthcawl was responsible for large amounts of iron and steel being shipped out to the four corners of the British Empire.  However, it was also during this century that the promenade was built to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The Welcome To Porthcawl website has some lovely old photographs from the town's earlier days.  Now the town is a popular resort, with local attractions such as the Coney Beach fairground for families, while for the golfers there is the Royal Porthcawl Golf Club.  The Porthcawl Museum is small, but houses some interesting exhibits relating to the locality.  The museum is currently displaying a fascinating exhibition about World War I.  Rest Bay Beach has attracted some glowing comments on Tripadvisor, such as 'stunning watersports beach'.  The beach is popular for surfing, and there is a vast expanse of sand and rock pools for the kids, though care should be taken at high tide. Trecco Bay, meanwhile, is known for its huge estate of mobile homes.

Aside from the Elvis Festival the town holds a number of other popular events, including the International Jazz Festival and Pro Surf Uk.  For a list of events see here.

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Photo by Ron Speed, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 2 May 2015


If you are driving along the M4 towards the Gower Peninsula and Pembrokeshire dreaming of stunning coastline and rolling moorlands, you may be brought up short by the sight of the coastal plain at Port Talbot with its expanse of industrial plants and smoking chimneys.  The local economy here is dominated by the steelworks, and Industrial Gases plant, a biomass power station and a gas-fired power station. However, there is one local attraction not to be missed: the Baked Bean Museum of Excellence.  Started in his own home by an orange-clad super hero who calls himself Captain Beany, the museum houses over 200 baked bean related displays.  On his 60th birthday earlier this year, Captain Beany celebrated by having 60 baked bean tattoos.  A true British eccentric!

Within sight of the industrial expanses of this stretch of coast is the quiet beach resort of Aberavon, with a long stretch of sand backed by a park, making it popular with families.  If you tire of the sight of the nearby industrial landscape, you can always look the other way for lovely views to Swansea and beyond.  The actor Michael Sheen hails from these parts, and in 2011 he starred in a performance of The Passion, which lasted all weekend.  The action started on the seafront and moved on to other parts of town, with thousands of onlookers and a large cast including hundreds of local residents.

To the south of Port Talbot and inland a bit is Margam Country Park, free to enter and with lovely grounds where deer can be seen.  There are also nature trails to follow and activities for the kids.  The Margam Stones Museum, which is attached to the 12th century Margam Abbey, has a collection of stones from pre-Roman times onwards.  Another landmark in the park is Margam Castle, actually a large Victorian country house.  Mynydd Margam, a mountain which rises up above the coastal plain, contains evidence of human habitation from 4000BC.  

Map of the area. 

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The promenade at Aberavon. Photo by David Lewis, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


During the 18th and 19th centuries Swansea, the second largest city in Wales, was a major industrial centre, with copper smelting an important economic activity, in fact the city was known as 'Copperopolis' during that time.  A title well-earnt, since 90% of all copper-smelting activity in Britain was based within 20 miles of the city, which was regarded as the world centre for such activities, and for metallurgy in general.  Much of the impetus for all this came from Bristol-based industrialists who financed enterprises such as the White Rock copperworks of 1737. 

Fast forward to 1914, when another event occurred which was to put Swansea on the map: the birth of the infamous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.  This momentous event took place at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the suburb of Uplands, and the house is now open to visitors who can view it fully restored to its 1914 condition.  However, the city's celebration of the life of its most famous son does not stop there: the former Guildhall in the Maritime Quarter houses the Dylan Thomas Centre.   The Centre was opened in 1995 by no less than US President Jimmy Carter and has a permanent exhibition on the life and work of the poet as well as a range of other facilities including a theatre.  Each year in late October/early November the Centre hosts the Dylan Thomas Festival.

Today, the historic docklands that played such an important role during Swansea's industrial years have been turned into a vibrant Maritime Quarter with a mixture of museums, cafes, bars and restaurants.  The NationalWaterfront Museum takes a hi-tech approach to history, with interactive exhibits telling the story of Wales' industrial heritage.  Across the way is Swansea Museum, with a range of exhibits including artifacts from Ancient Egypt and exhibits from the city's 'Copperopolis' days.  Next to the waterside is the city's marina with its bobbing boats.  Then there is the shopping, the highlight of which is Swansea's famous covered market selling local delicacies such as laverbread. 

For a list of events in the city see here.

Map of the area. 

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The Maritime Quarter. Photo by Pam Brophy, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 13 April 2015


Mumbles is more or less a suburb of Swansea, but it has its own seafront, known as the 'Mumbles mile', with a variety of restaurants, pubs and other attractions, making it an ideal base for exploring the Gower Peninsula.  The town's transformation into a resort came with the arrival of the Swansea and Mumbles Railway in 1804.  All that is left of the railway now is the pier, along with its pavilions and a lifeboat station.  The pier used to be visited by the White Funnel paddle steamer that brought daytrippers along the Bristol Channel.  Adjoining the 'Mumbles mile' are quaint little streets with colourful cottages.  On a hill above Mumbles lie the ruins of Oystermouth Castle, where graffiti dating from the 14th century can be seen along with the magnificent views over Swansea Bay.  The lighthouse on Mumbles Head got off to a shaky start in 1792, with the collapse of the structure during the first year of building.  However, it was completed in 1794 and has been guarding the entrance to Swansea Bay ever since.  The present-day lighthouse is unmanned and solar powered.

Map of the area. 

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The seafront.  Photo by Trevor Rickard, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 6 April 2015


The violent storms of winter 2013-2014 had a terrible effect at the time, causing untold damage to buildings and seafronts.  However, some places are still feeling the after-effects now.  Caswell Bay on the Gower Peninsula has lost huge amounts of sand, leaving a stony surface which is difficult and painful to walk over in bare feet, and experts have warned that the beach could take years to recover.  A shame, because it is one of the loveliest bays on this stretch of coast.  A report on this subject in the local press drew an emotive response from those commenting, with some suggesting that dredging activities in the Bristol Channel are more to blame than the storms.  I am no expert on the subject, but I hope the bay recovers sooner rather than later.  Visitors to the bay, which is easily accessible from nearby Mumbles, have the use of beach shops geared up for families and there is a lifeguard on duty during the summer months.  From Caswell Bay, a coastal path one and a half miles in length and offering wonderful views across to North Devon leads to the neighbouring Langland Bay.  There are parking and refreshments within easy reach of the bay.  Dog owners should be warned that dogs are banned from the beach from 1st May to 30th September. 

Streaming webcam view of Caswell Bay (and other Gower webcams).

Map of the area. 

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Langland Bay. Photo by Colin Smith, via Wikimedia Commons