Mumbles … not a type of speech, a place. And a very pretty one, too.

Posted: October 21, 2015 in Popular Culture et al
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The very name Mumbles sets one wondering what sort of a place is known by such a fascinating name. Now a suburb of Swansea in South Wales, Mumbles was where my relatives lived when I was a child, and the scene of a hundred happy holidays.
The headland is thought by some to have been named by French sailors, after the shape of the two anthropomorphic islands which comprise the headland, as the name could well be derived from either the Celtic, Latin and then French words for “breasts”.
Its famous lighthouse was built during the 1790s and was converted to solar powered operation in 1995. The nearby pier was opened in 1898 at the terminus of the Mumbles Railway, which in its time was one of the oldest passenger railways in the world. (The railway closed in 1960.) These days the name ‘Mumbles’ is given to a district covering the electoral wards of Oystermouth with its eponymous castle ruin, Newton, West Cross and Mayals.
mumbles panorama

Mumbles pier on the left, and the two islands with lighthouse on the right

Apart from being very pretty and a fun place to visit in its own right, Mumbles marks the beginning of the Gower Peninsula’s coastline, one of the most exquisite areas of natural beauty in Europe. A series of small coves and beaches, often relatively deserted even in high summer, offer much to recommend both the fossicker and the lazier occupant alike. The area is also well-known for a huge variety of “fresh off the boat” seafood, and has become something of a foodie’s stop off with excellent locally-created chocolate and ice cream as highlights.

 

Looking towards Mumbles from Swansea

Looking towards Mumbles from Swansea

Oystermouth Castle, which actually nestles right in the middle of the village, is well worth a visit, just off a busy shopping street. There are 600 castles in Wales, but there aren’t many which come with a better view than this one, looking out over Swansea Bay.

Over recent years the castle has undergone conservation work to ensure its structure is safe and sustainable for the foreseeable future. Now the public can explore parts of the castle that have been hidden away for centuries and learn about the castle’s exciting history.

Features include ancient graffiti art from the 14th century, plus people can come and explore the medieval maze of deep vaults and secret staircases and enjoy the magnificent views over the Bay from the 30 foot high glass bridge.

oystermouth

 

When I was a littlie, the family’s home was just around the corner from Mumbles, on a high ridge overlooking Langland Bay. Often forgotten in favour of more obviously picturesque and wilder bays both before and after it, Langland always called to me to ramble for hours with its mesmeric wide and sandy beach and Victorian foreshore, full of bathing huts and ice cream opportunities.

 

langland

There used to be a really excellent hotel overlooking the Bay, called, logically, Langland Bay Hotel, and the views from its massive picture windows as one enjoyed a dry sherry and then roast beef and Yorkshire Pud was simply breathtaking. 

I recall starched white tablecloths and napkins, and smiling Welsh waitresses squeezed into slim-fitting 1930s maids uniforms. (By the time I was old enough to enjoy a Sunday lunch sherry I was beginning to notice such things.) With a sad inevitability the hotel was turned into holiday flats which probably yielded much more money for its owners, but robbed the rest of us of a great cultural artefact.

In fact, the sea front of Langland and the adjacent Rotherslade, or ‘Little Langland’ as it is sometimes known, were once the location for three hotels: the Langland Bay, the Ael-y-Don, and the Osborne; and three further hotels – the Brynfield Hotel, the Langland Court, and the Wittemberg – were located in the immediate hinterland. 

All but one have closed over the past forty years, and have been replaced with apartments (Langland Bay, Osborne and Ael-y-don), converted to a nursing home (Brynfield), or closed down and sadly subjected to arson attacks (Langland Court and, previously, the Osborne). The Wittemberg was partially demolished and re-opened in its original Victorian core as the Little Langland Hotel.

 

Langland Bay - UK

 

By far the most dominant building on the Bay, built in the mid-nineteenth century and backing on to the Newton Cliffs, was originally known as Llan-y-Llan. Built in dramatic Scottish Baronial style by the Crawshay family, the Merthyr Tydfil Ironmasters, it was used as their summer residence. In the first part of the 20th century it later became part of the Langland Bay Hotel, and later again, when I was a child, it was the Club Union Convalescent Home for coal miners. I would sit on the tables outside chatting to the hoary old miners, nursing their pints and coughing up black bile from their lungs. For a nicely brought up middle-class kid their stories were eye openers, and induced in me a horror of the social effects of coal mining that has never left me. After a period of closure it has been renamed Langland Bay Manor and has also been converted into luxury apartments.

 

Siseley's painting, "On the cliffs, Langland Bay". I have walked that very path a thousand times, at the top of which was my Aunt and Uncle's home, Kylemore.

Sisley’s painting, “On the cliffs, Langland Bay”. I have walked that very path a thousand times, at the top of which was my Aunt and Uncle’s home, Kylemore.

I was by no means the first to become enchanted by the area. In 1897 the French Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley made two watercolours of Langland Bay, while on honeymoon, staying at the Osborne Hotel. Over twenty paintings resulted from his visit to Penarth and the Gower and two of them are now in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

As well as the beach huts that still exist, Langland Bay was famous for its ‘community’ of green canvas beach tents. These were erected annually, usually between April and early September, on the stoney storm beach in front of the promenade. A much-loved local spectacle was the early September ‘spring tide watch’ when rough seas would occasionally cause the loss of one or two. Somewhat safer and more sheltered on the higher ground of the Langland Bay Golf Club, a magnificent course which abuts the Bay on the western side, where a further two rows of tents were permitted. All sadly succumbed to vandalism in the 1970s.

Langland Bay has always been a site of sports innovation. Every year in the early 1960s local teenagers becoming amongst the first in the country to take up American innovations such as skimboarding, and surfing,

You can checkout the essential idea in the video.

Whilst I never took up surfing, I enthusiastically embraced skimboarding on the vast flat beach over which the sea would roll in and provide a perfect environment with hundreds of metres of calm water just an inch or two deep. Those who are still aficionados of skimboarding and surfing  (unlike your near-retired correspondent, Dear Reader) will enjoy checking out the live webcams of the area which are here during local daylight hours.

Anyway, forgive us for wandering down memory lane to no great purpose. If you’re ever near South Wales, we warmly recommend you to visit this area.

 

lava bread

 

And if you do drop in, make sure you taste the local delicacy, called laver bread, which is essentially stewed seaweed. Not only is it an authentic memory of the folk diet of the area, it is also delicious, and incredibly good for you. Try it warmed through in the fat from the bacon which you just cooked yourself for breakfast.

If you can, chuck on some of the local cockles, too – but don’t forget a healthy slosh of dark malt vinegar on them, without which they are only half as good.

Laver cultivation as food is thought to be very ancient, though the first mention was in Camden’s Britannia in the early 17th century. It is plucked from the rocks and given a preliminary rinse in clear water. The collected laver is repeatedly washed to remove sand and boiled for hours until it becomes a stiff, green mush. In this state, the laver can be preserved for about a week. Typically during the 18th century, the mush was packed into a crock and sold as “potted laver”.

Laver and toast

 Cultivation of laver is typically associated with this part of Wales and further along the coast towards Pembrokeshire although similar farming methods are used at the west coast of Scotland.

Laver is excellent eaten cold as a salad with lamb or mutton. A simple preparation is to heat the laver and to add butter and the juice of a lemon or Seville orange.

Laverbread (Welsh: bara lafwr or bara lawr) is a traditional Welsh delicacy made from laver. To make laverbread, the seaweed is boiled for several hours, then minced or pureed. The gelatinous paste that results is then rolled in oatmeal and is generally coated with oatmeal if it is to be fried.

Laverbread can also be used to make a sauce to accompany crab or monkfish, etc., and to make laver soup (Welsh: cawl lafwr).

The most famous actor ever produced by the area. Richard Burton, was quoted as describing laverbread as “Welshman’s caviar”.

Yum!

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