Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Birds of a feather

Low tide at Rhossili with Worm's Head in the distance

So Rhossili has been awarded third place in a list of best European beaches.

In a survey of worldwide tourists by TripAdvisor the windswept Welsh beach, popular with families and dog walkers alike, was beaten only by Rabbit Beach at Lampedusa, Sicily, and Playa de las Catedrales in Ribadeo, Galicia, Spain.

In the unlikely event that any reader hasn’t visited Rhossili, this magnificent three-mile stretch of sand lies on the tip of the Gower peninsula.

Thousands visit Rhossili annually to stroll along the beach, surf its waves and splash around in the sea.  As a tourist destination, Rhossili offers everything: miles of white sand, (at low tide) several shipwrecks, a public house, cafes, a National Trust shop, toilets, two small tidal islands and, most important, a large car park.

Two miles to the north, and tucked just behind Burry Holms, lies an equally beguiling stretch of sand but here the similarity ends. 

Whiteford Sands is largely ignored by the crowds
Unlike its buzzing, tourist-friendly, cash-grabbing neighbour, Whiteford Sands has no amenities and requires a ten minute walk from the nearest car park at Llanmadoc. 

Wild ponies graze the mud flats near Whiteford Sands

Our preferred route around Whiteford Point takes a good deal longer but passes some of the Gower’s most contrasting scenery and provides plenty of photographic opportunities, e.g. wild ponies grazing on the mud flats.

Now Rhossili has been crowned one of the top European beaches it’s likely to encourage even greater numbers to explore its attractions, leaving the peace and tranquility of Whiteford Sands to the locals and ‘those in the know’.

It’s the same story in the Brecon Beacons. The National Park's own website claims it is visited annually by ‘some 3.8 million people who spend around 4.2 million days there’.

So are the mountains thronging with hikers, trekking in convoy over the ridges?  The mere thought makes me chuckle.

Last spring and summer, Harri and I completed over 20 walks for inclusion in Harri’s forthcoming book on the Brecon Beacons for Vertebrate Publishing

Most days we saw hardly saw anyone at all, except when we ventured into villages and towns. Occasionally, we might pass a couple of hikers, or even more rarely, a small group of walkers, but more often we had great expanses of Welsh mountain all to ourselves. 

The truth is that the only places in the Brecon Beacons where you can reasonably expect to encounter large groups of walkers are on the well-walked trails leading to the twin peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du and in the popular waterfalls area at YstradfellteHike anywhere else in the Brecon Beacons and it’s quite possible, and very probable on drizzly, grey days, that you’ll not pass another person all day. 

That’s right. No-one. Anywhere. There are more sheep than people in this part of Wales. 

I recall watching a television programme several years ago which rated the ‘must-see’ places in the world. No prizes for guessing which large American gorge came top of the list. Tourist after tourist gushed over the Grand Canyon – almost to a person describing it as ‘awesome’ – though few had done much more than gaze across the mile-wide chasm before turning their attention to the man-made attractions which line the cliff top.

Bryce Canyon, Utah with not a cafe or shop in sight
A few months later, we were there ourselves, having first visited the rather more accessible and equally stunning (if far less frequently raved about) Zion and Bryce Canyons in Southern Utah.

‘There’s only so much red rock you can look at,’ Alanna pronounced, at eight clearly unimpressed by this geological monster of nature.

Flicking through an old guidebook recently, I read that almost all visitors to the Grand Canyon visit the South Rim (the hotels, cafes, gift shops, 3D cinemas, etc, are located here) where they spend just 40 minutes of their two-three hour visit looking at the canyon. North Rim is apparently just too far off the beaten track for the majority.

It’s exactly the same story in Madeira, where coach loads of tourists flock to Monte for the toboggan run or to Raba├žal for the waterfalls. Not that either of these places isn't beautiful and well worth seeing, of course, but so is the magnificent and largely deserted high plateau of the Paul do Serra. 

St Ives: the most visited resort in Cornwall
In Cornwall, the big draw is St Ives, where on a rainy day in August, we were hard-pushed to find standing room in a pub. 

In Pembrokeshire, it's St David's that attracts the madding crowds (Harri will never forgive me for having to queue twice in a heaving beer garden for two halves of cider because, as I maintain, ladies don't drink pints!). 

Everyone, it seems, flocks to the same places for no reason other than these are the places that people flock. In our hundreds, we swarm into the pubs, cafes and gift shops that spring up in response to demand, though in some instances the natural landscape is so inaccessible, the commercial landscape now appears to be the main attraction, e.g. Cheddar Gorge, Tintagel. 

It often makes me wonder if humans really are birds of a feather… or just sheep?

 Birds... or just sheep? 

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