Gower History Timeline

The Gower Peninsula has been occupied since before the retreat of the last Ice Age (Devensian Glaciation), therefore the landscape is full of ancient sites and historical reminders.

The earliest physical evidence of Modern Man in Gower was discovered in 1823 in Paviland Cave. For this was the final resting place of Gower's very own Stone Age man. However, the excavated skeleton was notably misidentified at the time, as a Roman prostitute, by its founder Reverend William Buckley, steered by his religious beliefs. Named, and still known as 'The Red Lady of Paviland', the skeleton was eventually identified to be a man in his early twenties from 24,000 BC (Upper Paleolithic).

Twenty-two of Gower's numerous caves provided shelter for the mostly nomadic Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, following the retreat of the ice sheet. These 'bone caves' have proved a rich source of human and animal remains and artefacts. Cat Hole Cave, near Parkmill, was utilised as a shelter by Paleolithic travellers, Mesolithic and Neolithic settlers and Bronze Age communities.

Evidence of another early Mesolithic (7,000 BC) settlement in Gower was first identified on Burry Holmes in 1919, when typically small Mesolithic flint barbs (microliths) were found eroding out of the edge of the island.

Very close to the aforementioned Cat Hole Cave, Neolithic settlers constructed a large burial chamber here around 3,000 BC. Known as Giant's Grave or Parc le Breos Chamber, the cairn was the continued ritualistic burial place for over forty people spanning several hundred years.

Arthur's Stone, Maen Ceti

Numerous other Neolithic and Bronze Age cairns can be found scattered throughout Gower - especially on Cefn Bryn, accompanying the impressive Arthur's Stone. Its mighty twenty-five ton capstone was most likely a glacial erratic (a piece of rock/conglomerate carried by glacial ice some distance from the rock outcrop from which it came), which the Neolithic people dug beneath and supported with upright stones to create a burial chamber. The remains of Sweyne Howes on Rhossili Down, Penmaen Burrows Tomb (Pen-y-Crug) and Nicholaston Long Cairn are three other well-known Neolithic chambered tombs.

During the Bronze Age, people continued to use local caves as a source of shelter and for burying their dead. Bronze Age evidence, such as funeral urns, pottery and human remains have been found in Tooth Cave at Llethryd, Culver Hole (Llangennith) and Cat Hole Cave.

With the transition into the Iron Age, Gower settlements became much grander affairs with hill forts (timber fortifications on hill tops and coastal promontories) and earthworks. The largest example of this type of Iron Age settlement in Gower was Cilifor Top near Llanrhidian. Others include The Bulwark near Cheriton and Gower had finally entered the age of the castle, which would eventually lead to the establishment of churches and ultimately the development of Gower villages and the city of Swansea.

Backinstone Chapel

Best reached from the village of Pyle, following the lane to Backinstone, breaking to the right around half way down, the ruins of Backinstone Chapel can be found wrapped in ivy and bramble in a field to the left of the public footpath.

Backinstone Chapel

Beneath this thick tangle of undergrowth lies the remains of a small 18th Century ecclesiastical building, its perimeter measuring 14' 6" x 10' 6". The walls themselves, or what are left of them, measure 1'9" thick. Only glimpses of this building, however, were visible beneath the wild vegetation that enclosed it during 2006.

Backinstone Chapel

Of interest is the fact that a nearby field is named the "Vineyard", leading some local historians to wonder whether the building had any connection to a possible monastery that may have once occupied the site.

Burry Holmes

Before the water levels rose with the retreat of the ice sheets from the last Ice Age, Burry Holmes was once an inland hill overlooking a large plain. Nowadays, Burry Holmes is a tidal island and the Bristol Channel has submerged the plain.

It is thought that Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) hunters used the hill as a seasonal hunting ground, to prepare hunting tools from flint, wood and bone, oversee the movement of herds on the plain and encourage deer into the area. Charcoal found on the site suggests that the hunting community may have burnt small parts the Severn Estuary woodland to make way for new plant growth, an attractive food source to the roaming red deer herds.

Over eighty small shards of flint (microliths) were discovered on the island between 1923 and 2001. These flint razors were probably embedded in rows onto the tip and shaft of wood, bone or antler, making effective spears for both fishing and hunting.

Later in history, the island was used by Iron Age people to build an impressive earthwork, then later still used as a hermitage/ecclesiastical site during Medieval times.

Gower Caves

Gower's natural caves are particularly fragile environments that can and have been seriously damaged in the past century, from both recreation and other land uses. Physical damage to our caves destroys vital wildlife habitats and steals away rare clues of our ancient history. The effects are very serious and are usually irreversible. These include:

  • Disturbance of cave soils.
  • Damage to cave formations.
  • Litter.
  • Disturbance of wildlife, such as bats and badgers.
  • Removal of artefacts, bones etc.
  • Vandalism of grilles and doors.

It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) to wilfully disturb bats or badgers, both of which may inhabit some caves. Destroying birds, nests or eggs, or damaging limestone pavements can also lead to criminal proceedings. It is illegal to knowingly disturb, injure or kill bats. It is also illegal to seal the access to any cave or disused mine known to house bats. Gates or mine shaft covers fitted to the entrance of such sites must contain gaps large enough to allow the passage of bats.

Only accessible at low tide, this cave can be found in the cliffs east of Burry Holmes. The narrow entrance leads to a roomy chamber. During excavations in 1924 and 1931, the skeletal remains of over 40 humans were found in the main chamber alongside the fragments of at least 11 Bronze Age burial urns. Other finds included Iron Age pottery, Romano-British coins and a brooch and brass ring dated from the Dark Ages. 

The twin entrances of this small cave were discovered during quarrying work in 1839. Later in 1849 and 1933 the remains of Ice-Age animals, fragments of worked animal bone, pottery and human bones were found leading to the suggestion that the cave was first occupied by Palaeolithic man and later for domestic and funerary use during Roman Times. 

Before this cave was quarried away, Colonel Wood excavated the fissure in the limestone rocks of Nottle Tor in 1869. Here he found evidence of upper Palaeolithic occupation, including some worked flints alongside other unworked flints, now on display at Swansea Museum. 

This cave delves 12 metres into the cliff rock above Fall Bay and is fronted by 3 entrances, one of which is sealed with natural deposits. The main entrance is 2 metres high by 1 metre wide, but it is believed that when fully excavated, this opening will double its current size. An excavation of the cave in 1986 revealed the remains of hyena, reindeer, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Today, the cave is often used as a shelter by climbers. 

Above the raised beach platform and the small, but noisy, blow hole located in it, are three unconnected caves. The eastern cave is blocked by cobbles deposited by the sea. The central cave measures over 3 metres high, 2 metres wide and is 5 metres deep from which Dr D Maling unearthed the bones of a bear, during an excavation in 1962. The western cave has a much smaller entrance and is again blocked by sea tossed rubble. 

This disused quarry has three caves entrances of negotiable size. A report has stated that human bones were found here within the last century. It was excavated by Cwmbran Caving Club in 1985 during an attempted extension, but this has since been filled with domestic rubbish. The largest cave is partly blocked by a large boulder and is known to hibernate bats during the winter months - metal grills are placed over the three entrances over winter to protect the bats. 

Sheltered within a sycamore wood, the caves, nonetheless, are frequented by locals youths giving rise to a certain amount of domestic debris and glass. The main shelter has produced some archaeological evidence during excavation, including a hacked bone fragment from an animal such as an ox and patches of stalagmite. 

Called Mansel's Shelter by Mr J. G. Rutter during an excavation with Mr E. E. Rutter, there is no record of archaeological interest found. The floor of this small cave is bare rock, but is thought to have been covered in loose rock fragments fallen from the roof at one time. These fragments are likely to have been cleared during past archaeological investigations.

This shelter was used frequently by sheep until human bones were found during an 1985 excavation. The site is believed to hold more archaeological finds, such as the flint implement, charcoal, and shells found within, and has been protected from sheep damage by placing large boulders upon the floor. 

Only accessible at low tide, the chamber contains a red-coloured western wall from hard sandy deposits. The cave contains no evidence of animals but may have been used at one time in search for lead and was blasted to remove calcite. 

This cave is heavily blocked by large boulders, some of which were removed by the Cwmbran Caving Club in 1985 and 1989. Although access to the cave is restricted, a strong spring of fresh water is released from between the boulders. The source of the spring has not been found and it tends to stop flowing in very dry weather. 

West of The Knave, this cave has an impressive 15 metre high entrance, but only penetrates the rock after a climb of 10 metres. The chamber is used as a pigeon loft. 

Bronze Age pottery was uncovered from the clay earth floor of this cave in 1982. There is evidence of badgers using the shelter as a set and some unauthorised digging since the 1982 excavation.

A cave with two entrances, found to have archaeological artifacts in a 1974 excavation. A large quantity of animal bones were found but most were unfortunately thrown away in error by the Glamorgan/Gwent Archaeological Trust. Initials of previous explorers are scratched on the wall of the largest chamber along with an inscription in memory of E. C. Cunnington who was killed in the First World War. 

Also known as Deborah's Spring, this caves issues forth an exsurgence of fresh water. It is not known where the source of this water is, despite searches of up to a mile inland. The cave is dangerous to explore and has been blocked by a large boulder. 

A small bone cave, found below and to the east of the Knave. The narrow entrance leads to a small chamber in which animal remains from the Pleistocene epoch and a possibly Upper Palaeolithic flint blade were discovered by Colonel Wood in 1861. The cave can be accessed by the larger middle entrance or the smaller east entrance, but the entrance on the west is no more than a crack. Some dates have been carved on the wall of the cramped chamber, the earliest believed to be an authentic 1734 inscription. Greater Horseshoe Bats have hibernated in the warmer second chamber on occasion, so winter exploration is forbidden. 

There is some evidence that this cave had been excavated in an undocumented event some time prior to 1943. There is a mound of earth near the entrance of the cave, containing fragments of animal bones and pottery, which is thought to be the excavator's debris. Whatever was found during this excavation may have been mistakenly reported as found in the nearby Deborah's Hole. 

Llethryd Swallet contains an active streamway and is hydrologically connected to the nearby Tooth Cave. However, no one, i.e. cave divers, has made the connecting dive from one to the other. The Llethryd caves (including Tooth Cave) are on private land at Llethryd Barns.

Tooth Cave is the longest cave in Gower and is listed as an Ancient Monument. It was occupied during the Bronze Age when it was also used as the burial place for at least eight people (six adults and two children). Tooth Cave is dangerous on account of the flooded sections within the cave and because of its tightness. For safety reasons, the cave entrance is protected by a locked gate. Cavers are welcome to visit the caves at Llethryd, but must adhere to guidelines set out by the South Wales Caving Club who oversee the cave system.

Easily found by following the private road/footpath that leads from The Gower Heritage Centre in Parkmill, through Parkwood, Cat Hole cave is also the easiest of Gower's caves to reach by foot. The entrance to the cave can be accessed by following a stony dirt track that rises steeply from the main footpath (150 metres past the nearby Giants' Grave). This cave was first used as a transit hunting camp during the Ice Age and was later used as a burial site during the Bronze Age. An excavation during 1958 revealed scattered human remains, a bronze axe and shards of burial urns.

Ravenscliff is a large cave, located in the rock at Pennard Cliffs some 12 metres above sea level. Its entrance, measuring 5 metres wide by 5 metres high, and unfortunately graffiti-ridden with gloss paint, narrows inside to 1.5 metres wide by 0.5 metres high and continues some 7 metres into the cliff rock. Excavated around 1860 by Colonel Wood, his finds here included the bones of a hippopotamus, straight-tusked elephant, slender-nosed rhinoceros, horse, bison, hyena, cave lion and cave bear.

Resurgence Cave is located between the high and low water marks on the rock, the cave is only accessible at very low tides. Flowing from the cave is the Westcliff Spring, which is unfortunately polluted and exudes a rather offensive odour here. Entering the cave, a passage can be followed for 10 metres at which point the spring can be seen to well up from a narrow fissure in the rock. Past this point the passage continues to a narrow shaft which rises to a slender opening higher on the cliff face.

Spurge Hole in Southgate was excavated by J.G. Rutter & M. Davies during 1985-86 and found it to be the burial place of at least two adults of Neolithic date.

Named after the man who excavated the site in 1919, Forester's Cave measures 12 metres high by 10 metres wide by 8 metres deep, and is washed at high tide by storm waves. The only find of any archeological significance was a bone of a woolly rhinoceros. This now lies in public view at Swansea Museum.

Devil's Hole, which is also known by the name of Bowen's Parlour, is a decent sized cave which is divided into two by a horizontal partition of rock some 0.5 metres thick. Its entrance is over 6 metres high, but only the lower portion, some 3.5 metres high, is accessible from the exterior of the cave. The partition extends well into the cave before finally being undermined by sea-erosion. From here, the upper portion of the cave can be explored. The floor of the cave is covered in stalagmite which extends to the full 12 metre depth of cave.

Ogof-y-Cregyn Cave was only discovered in September 1986 and is located at the foot of the cliff 6 metres below High Pennard Promontory Fort. With a rectangular cave entrance measuring 2.3 metres by 1.1 metres high, it penetrates the cliff face to a depth of three metres. The remains of sheep, goats and humans have already been uncovered here despite the fact that the cave has yet to receive a thorough excavation.

The area of Bishopston Valley contains a few caves, with 'Guzzle Hole' being the easiest to reach. The sound of water rushing underground from the partly subterranean stream can make some rather unusual sounds, hence the name 'Guzzle'.

  • Foxhole Cave- SS 4383 8601 
  • Spring Squill Hole- SS 4393 8578 
  • Blackhole Gut Hole- SS 4415 8558 
  • Upper Blackhole- SS 4422 8557 
  • Rockrose Hole- SS 4488 8519 
  • Stonecrop Holes- SS 4493 8514 
  • Longhole- SS 4513 8505 
  • Wilbower Cave- SS 4558 8492 
  • Ramsons Hole- SS 5039 8508
  • Double Arch Cave- SS 5452 8728
  • Crow Hole - SS 5577 8681
  • Pwlldu Bay Cave- SS 5739 8700

Giant's Grave

Parc le Breos Chamber

Easily found by following the private road beside The Gower Heritage Centre, through Parkwood, Giant's Grave is a Severn/Cotswold style long chambered cairn, dating back to the later part of earlier Neolithic times.

Giant's Grave

It was discovered by workmen removing stone in 1869 and was subsequently excavated, then re-excavated in 1960-61. The remains of around forty people were found in the 1869 excavation, together with some shards of Neolithic pottery. Some of the bones buried here showed signs of weathering which suggests that the bodies were maybe ritualistically exposed to the elements (excarnation) before the bones were added to the chambers. It is also thought that the cairn was continually used over several hundred years as bones found in the passageway of the tomb were dated hundreds of years later than those buried in the chambers.


Smuggling became a significant and widespread industry around Britain's coast during the late 18th and 19th century, when a heavy and very unwelcome customs duty was imposed on such items as spirits, tobacco, tea and silk, etc.

Gower's coastline, with it's coves and desolate bays, was ideal for the covert smuggling operations that had almost become accepted common practice for the majority of Gowerians during this period.  Connections to smuggling rings and their activities were widespread throughout the community, and there is evidence to suggest that even the clergy turned a blind eye to the illegal trade.  For instance, a large hiding place for smuggled goods was discovered in a stream bed behind the Old Rectory at Rhossili, which was only accessible by diverting the stream, a procedure that surely could not have been unnoticed by the rector.

Small remote bays such as Pwlldu and the aptly named Brandy Cove were undoubtedly used more than any other location to land 'the goodies', and it was at the nearby Great Highway Farm that Devonshire-man and illicit trader William Hawkin Arthur lived.  Ideally located, Arthur soon gained the reputation of being Gower's smuggling king.

Arthur's smuggling gang would set to work as soon as a vessel had sheltered secretly within the dusk of a secluded evening shore.  The illicit goods would then be swiftly unloaded and hauled by pack horses halfway through the deep valley at Bishopston to the quiet lane (today known as Smugglers' Lane) leading to Highway.

With Arthur's 'business activities' booming, the two Gower farmhouses at Great Highway and Little Highway soon became the headquarters for a 100-strong smuggling workforce, using the farms' outhouses as storehouses for contraband and distributing centres for the whole of Gower.  The smugglers were so successful and confident in the face of ineffective control from Swansea customs officials, that they almost became a law unto themselves, showing nothing but contempt for the poorly paid customs officers who attempted to confiscate any contraband they discovered.

Customs had been trying to catch Arthur's gang red-handed for some time when, one day in January 1786, they were tipped off that a French ship was to unload it's cargo that afternoon.  The 14 customs men decided to lie in wait until after dark before surprising the Arthur family's farmhouse with a search warrant and a sharp rap on the door.  However, finding the farmhouse in total darkness, nobody answered their call.  The men persevered, knocking harder until a sleepy voice finally answered the officials by instructing them to go away.  Suddenly the door was flung open and the customs men, caught off guard, were attacked by the masked gang who beat them and rolled them around in the farmyard muck, shouting with glee.  Battered and bruised the officials retreated empty handed.  Thenceforth, the smugglers continued their operations quite blatantly, often in broad daylight, undoubtedly with a feeling of power at being above the law.

Another rather amusing story of Arthur's gang outwitting the customs officials, involves a keg of spirits which customs discovered in the loft of Great Highway Farm.  The chief officer, cautious of the gang's ability to evade arrest, decided to sit upon the keg to prevent the smugglers making off with his evidence, while his assistant fetched a horse.  William Arthur instructed his men to create as much noise as they could muster outside the loft.  The officer, believing that the noise was just a ruse to entice him away from his discovery, kept firmly seated, guarding the keg.  Meanwhile, Arthur set about drilling a hole through the timber floor of the loft and into the keg, successfully draining all of the liquor into another container ready to be rehidden.  With an empty keg as the only evidence against him the raid resulted with no arrests being made and once again customs left the farmhouse both empty handed and embarrassed.

But finally, many years later, on April 13th 1804, customs achieved their goal.  Just by chance, that afternoon Lieutenant Sawyers of the Sea Fencibles (the Home Guard of Napoleonic days) was strolling Oxwich sands with the local customs officer, Mr. Francis Bevan, when they saw a cutter come into the bay and anchor.  They watched as two men rowed ashore to approach them, and unknowingly ask the whereabouts of Highway.  Sawyer and Bevan calmly replied that it was just around the headland to Pwlldu Head, but knew excitedly that there must be a smuggling operation organised for that very night. 

They decided to keep this information to themselves to avoid the gossip which would likely ensue, and to gather the customs men and members of the Sea Fencibles in the early hours of the morning, to descend upon the Highway farms en masse.

Searching both farmhouses proved fruitless until one of the men noticed that the earthen floor was uneven and disturbed.  Upon closer inspection of the area they discovered a trap door leading to a cellar.  A similar find in the other farmhouse led to the ultimate collapse of the smuggling stronghold in Gower - the gang were arrested after 420 casks of spirits (nearly 3,000 gallons) were uncovered from the hidden stores.

The farms at Great and Little Highway still exist today near Pennard Church on the way to Southgate.  Great Highway Farm has been greatly modernised, whilst Little Highway Farm was rebuilt nearby.  The original building of Little Highway Farm, after being used as a roadside barn until eventually becoming derelict, was developed, around 10 years ago, into three dwellings presently called "Little Highway Mews".  Curiously, there is no sign of the infamous cellars at either site, and if it were not for the detailed report on the raid which was submitted by Customs & Excise on 31st July 1804, their very existence may never have been validated.

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