Letter from Llangennith
Next year will mark my 50th year as a resident of Llangennith, Gower’s most north-westerly village.
During that time I have lived in four different houses with two different husbands so have survived many shifts in personal circumstances as well as witnessing many changes in village life here.
In 1973 it was Crossways that became my first home with husband number 1. It was a dormer bungalow with a panoramic window and views out over the Atlantic.
It was why we bought it (for just under £14,000 from a Mr. Walter Cross) so that husband number 1 could check the surf that Llangennith is famed for, from the living room.
Soon after, he wanted to change the name to Windansea, a name he’d seen in a Californian surfing magazine. At the time, my mother told me it was unlucky to change the name of a house. Looking back, perhaps I should have listened to her.
It seemed to have rained on the horizontal all that winter, lashing those panoramic window panes and caking them with salt.
I soon learned that Llangennith was a very different proposition from November to April than that which I’d enjoyed through ‘endless summers’ as a teenager, in my parents’ caravan at the site at Hillend.
When the rain came, and sometimes the floods, it seemed a village far more remote than the fifteen miles it is from Swansea’s city centre.
But the winters were milder here because of the ameliorating effect of the sea, and it shocked my nineteen-year-old self that frosts were few and snow rare.
Times gone by
I was almost the only young girl in the village then, most people were coming here to retire rather than to have babies.
The as-yet ungentrified Village Hall was run-down but the heartbeat of the village: the traveling GP (they were called family doctors then) would operate surgery once-a-week behind the drawn curtain on the stage; the WI would convene on a Monday, once-a-month, in the small back kitchen around a Calor gas heater, drinking tea with the water boiled in an urn; the Harvest Supper used to see the whole village turn out, bringing their own cutlery, to enjoy food cooked by ‘the committee’, where villages sat in long rows at trestle tables, and then would enjoy innocent performances (such as dressing up as the Gary Glitter band) on stage by the WI and the children of the village.
Harvest was important, as were the farmers, who were many back then.
Pulse of the village
The Kings’ Head pub was the pulse of the village all year, and in November when surfers and tourists did not stand five-deep at the bar, they’d put on a fireworks’ display in the car-park out back for Guy Fawkes.
There’d be hot dogs and jacket potatoes and after-hours, secret drinking when the door was locked and the thick, blue velvet curtain behind it was drawn in the ‘top room’, reserved for locals. Sometimes the police used to come for a pint after hours.
There’d be a village children’s Christmas Party when local councillor, Eric Gibbs, dressed up as Santa. Everybody knew it was Eric Gibbs. But no-one would ever say. Nor would they say who it was who was into swopping keys and wives.
This was the time of 3-digit phone numbers (mine was 251) and when the village had its own exchange and the telephonists listened in.
Escape from the country
Things changed. Soon the older people who’d thought they would escape to the country, retreated back to the cities. The final straw for one, was when an intoxicated youth vomited over his fence into his prize roses en route from pub to camping site.
Another disillusioned soul left sharpish as the village had not met his social ambitions: he’d tried to impress at a party (or soiree as he termed it) by saying he was ‘in television’ when in fact he worked for Rediffusion (a brand that rented televisions as people did back then).
He learned quickly that Llangennith was not a leafy, middle-class suburb, but a village where people wouldn’t stand snobbery.
This was, remember, the north of Gower, to where at one time, under the rule of the Normans, those from the south of the landsker of Gower’s spine, Cefn Bryn, were banished.
Mr Rediffusion might have been more suited to the ‘rich purloined lands’ of south Gower that the Normans made their own, than the wild west.
In the long, hot summer of 1976, my family expanded and baby number two was born. We outgrew Windansea and literally moved house next door, taking our belongings over the fence to Well Rocks (the house name taken from the limestone outcrops standing directly behind it on Llanmadoc Down.
The family there were escaping back to London as the ex-model who called everyone daahling and shouted ‘Melon on the lawn, children’ in an over-loud voice, was finding village life a little boring.
This was the time when we still had a Post Office with a red phone box, and a letter box in the wall outside.
Eva, the fearless Postmistress lived there alone, and one night saw off an intruder with a loaded shotgun.
A lot of people had guns back then; the farmers would use them to shoot rabbits and foxes and pheasant and would fire them into the air outside the church of St Cenydd to celebrate weddings, when the lych gate would be tied with ribbon (or often baling twine) and the happy couple would be prevented from exiting until they paid money to the local kids.
Moving house – again
The years passed. In 1981, a friend of mine who was married to a surf fanatic desperately wanted to move to Llangennith from the near-by village of Burry Green, where she ‘only saw anyone when there was a funeral.’
She bought a large house, far too big for her, she said, which needed a lot of work but had fantastic views over Rhossili Bay and Rhossili Down. Well Rocks would be far more suitable for her, she said.
It was those few words that prompted move number three to Glenmead the house we swopped with her for Well Rocks. Though Glenmead was only about two hundred yards east from Well Rocks, the talk in the village was that our family had decided to move a bit closer to town!
Glenmead had been built by the Beynons, a Llangennith farming family that went back generations and were now dispersed across Gower and the older members still in situ at the glorious, old farmhouse built in the vernacular, Belle Vue, next door.
The name, Glenmead, which we proudly displayed in gold lettering on the garden gate, was made up of the initial letters of the names of that family: Glyn, Lizzie, Ernie, Nicky, Marjorie, Elizabeth, Alison and David.
A house of endings
It was in this house that I survived the ten days of power loss and being cut off by ten-foot-high snow drifts during the blizzard that befell us in January 1982.
This was the time of soup being offered in the King’s Head and loaves of bread and bottles of milk being dropped from the helicopter that hovered over the field behind the house.
The then, Prince Charles, paid an unexpected visit to the nearby, inland primary school at Knelston by helicopter to see how the children were managing. Our village felt cheated that he didn’t drop in here.
Later, when my son was a teenager, the 7.40 school bus to Gowerton on its way down past the house was the alarm call to get him out of bed in just enough time to catch it on its way back.
It was around this time (my son assured me) when the bus driver no longer allowed the kids to take turns driving the bus while sitting on his lap at home time!
This was also a house of endings: my chicks flying the nest as adults, they had outgrown the house and the impressions of their tiny feet in the concrete in the drive. It was also the house that witnessed the final chapter in a marriage.
Fast forward to 2001, when I moved into Channel View, my fourth in the village with my then soon to be husband number 2.
It was known, ‘the last house on the road to nowhere’ as it stood at the end of a no-through, single-track road that stopped abruptly close by and one could only go further to the beach at Broughton on foot.
The once proud farmhouse was built in 1899 by the Grove family of Llangennith. Old Land Registry documents show it at one time to have been called Môr Awelon (Sea Breezes). I like that. But having had the experience of changing the name of house number one with husband number1, I wasn’t going to tinker with renaming again.
It was rumoured to have been built from the stone ruins of the abandoned old village of Llangennith at Coety Green (said to have fallen victim of typhoid which killed off all inhabitants), and carted to this so-called apology for a road known as Cock Street.
Channel View was a house nobody wanted: the estate agent said it was a ‘heap of rubbish’ such was the neglect it had suffered over the years when it was only seasonally loved as a holiday home.
It had been ‘modernised’ – the fireplaces boarded up, pitch pine ceilings covered up with Artex, the chimneys obliterated and the carbuncle of a dormer roof stuck onto the original farmhouse.
But I could see it made a home again, standing as it does full-frontal to the Atlantic – the first of its kind in the village to be built like this instead of cowering side-on to the prevalent South-Westerlies.
The house has been used as many things in its one-hundred-and-twenty-three year history: a farm which was also home to the village cabinet and coffin maker; a bed and breakfast establishment; and a holiday home.
Now it is alive and loved again as a home, a place of work for the design business, NB:Design, I share with my husband, in the attic space born out of the three, neglected bedrooms. And a space for me to write.
A changing rural economy
Things are changing here in Llangennith. Today it’s not simply farming and low-end tourism that are the mainstays of the rural economy.
A few small-acreage farms and one large farm survive and the farmers (mainly sheep and beef cattle) continue to moan; but they don’t put their produce on wooden tables to sell on Saturdays any more as they have diversified into providing holiday lets, or pitches for campervans and touring caravans – more lucrative cash-crops.
The caravan sites are still here at Hillend and Broughton and to some, they might be thought an eye sore, but they are communities of people who love this place as much as I do and do not – as the 20% of second home owners here – take housing-stock out of the market and away from the financial reach of locals.
The rural economy has taken hold here: designers, writers, interior designers, architects, IT specialists, film directors, artists, mobile hairdressers and chiropodists, the list goes on.
There’d be even more activity if fibre broadband speeded up connectivity with the rest of the world, and mobile phone reception negated often having to hold the phone out of a window.
Time moves on
The Village Hall has benefitted from almost a £1million Lottery Funding and today is the social hub of the village, offering a 365-day-a-year gym; yoga; a professional drama space; sports hall; a computer suite, a large kitchen for full-scale catering, and a monthly film club.
It also has a sports’ field, where the many children of the village can now play.
Sadly, we’ve lost two chapels to sympathetic housing conversions, our Post Office, Olga’s hairdressers and Hywel’s village shop.
Instead we have the lovely surf-legend PJ and his surf shop on the village green, a five-star boutique B&B, Blas Gwyr, which has grown alongside what used to be, Plenty Farm, and of course home-delivery services from the major supermarkets.
Water pressure is low and sometimes a trickle when the visitors throng to local campsites; but it’s a small price to pay.
Time moves on. Things evolve. Some for the better; other for worse.
I will continue to have a love-hate relationship with this place I have called home for the last half-century, a place that is so much part of me, that I think I would cease to thrive if I was transported elsewhere.
I hope I can enjoy another decade or so in Channel View, until I finally leave the coffin maker’s house in my own coffin.
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