No grumbles in Mumbles

Between Swansea and the Gower peninsula lies a modest town with stout chapels and a mile of pubs. Claire Jones drinks in the atmosphere

Talkin' (Cumbria), Chatterton (Lancs) and Laughton (Lincs) are all places with connotations of conviviality that somehow elude Mumbles (West Glamorgan). Or, as the gazetteer has it, The Mumbles - which sounds like a minor complaint affecting an organ located somewhere between mouth and stomach. In fact Mumbles (the locals deny it the definite article) is located between the architectural nightmare that is Swansea and the area of outstanding natural beauty that is the Gower peninsula.

Yet the meandering roads, the modest shops, the stout chapels -and Oystermouth Castle, which sits on a hill overlooking the village - have sweet memories of sunny summers for me. I have been spending holidays there since I was born (my family is from Mumbles), so I see the place through rose- tinted glasses. But how do others find the place? The way to assess a town whose name tumbles rather than trips from the tongue was to take a cynical London friend there for a cheap week's holiday.

An unscientific survey of random Londoners reveals that none of them knows exactly where Mumbles is, but they've all heard of "the Mumbles Mile" - a series of pubs stretching along the front that overlooks Swansea Bay. A seaside pub crawl was mandatory. But being women of a certain age, with the Protestant work ethic thrown in for good measure, we felt we had to do some culture and exercise first.

We started with a stroll around the grounds of Oystermouth Castle, a beautiful Norman building with twiddly bits added by a Victorian philanthropist who didn't think it looked quite interesting enough. And then we diligently set ourselves walks of increasing length and adventure each day.

We started with the coastal path from nearby surfers' heaven Langland Bay, and made our way right round to Caswell Bay, admiring the waves crashing on the rocks below and looking out (vainly) for seals. The next day we drove to a windswept and out-of-the-way beach called Slade, where the low tide provided a chance to commune with a splurge of seaweed by the water's edge, and also a chance for my metropolitan friend to fall into some rockpools.

Finally, spurred on by one of my less distant aunts, we drove into "deep Gower", the Welsh equivalent of darkest Peru: to Rhossili, a magnificent and huge bay, renowned for spectacular views, strong winds and the odd wayward hang-glider. From Rhossili village, high above the beach, we walked to the coastguard's cottage, then picked our way over mussel-covered rocks to Worm's Head, two blobs of land which dare you to visit them before the tide cuts you off. After that we felt ready for the obligatory pub crawl. Indeed, the young lad serving in the Co-op had mumbled to us on our arrival three days before: "If you haven't done the Mumbles Mile, you haven't lived."

With eight pubs to be tackled in one evening, we started early. Number one, The White Rose, was obviously gearing up for the holiday season proper and was closed for refurbishment, so we made our way all of 10 yards to pub number two.

The Nag's Head used to be called The Oyster Catcher, since the bay was once a fertile shell-fishing area - that was before the Surfers Against Sewage had anything to campaign about. Being sensitive thirtysomethings, it pained us to see that we were older than practically all the Nag's customers by five - tell a lie, 10 - years. They turned out to be students from nearby Swansea University - who else would be out drinking to excess on a Thursday night?

I quickly put paid to my companion's suggestion of "starting with a soft drink". I knew that boy in the Co-op wouldn't have approved. Before we finished our lager, the students had downed theirs and left. The bar staff and a handful of older regulars heaved a collective sign of relief. "Feels like the end of the night," said one. "Might as well go home."

Not so for us. Out into the misty evening rain and into pub number three. Vincents used to be an oldies' singalong pub. At some point it metamorphosed into a themed tapas bar complete with singalong Gypsy kings, Spanish maps on the wall, pleasingly mismatched wooden tables and mock beams. Rebecca asked for a Diet Coke and went to the loo. I got us a couple of lagers, sat on a hessian-covered bench and surveyed our fellow customers.

Pub number four, The William Hancock, was a mere dozen paces from Vincents. But as it was already filled to bursting with those students, we leapfrogged to one of my favourite pubs, The Antelope - a handsomely proportioned building on two floors, whose other attribute is that the student clientele heads for the upstairs bar where the pool table is. Downstairs we wallowed in the presence of a few grey and receding types and relaxed over another half-pint. We should then have gone to The Mermaid, famously frequented by Dylan Thomas. But it burnt down a couple of years ago, and its remains have just been demolished. The Mumbles Mile is not what it was.

Next stop: The George, a roomy pub with a pleasing view of the arc of orange lights stretching round the edge of Swansea Bay. Some delightful sepia photos of turn-of-the-century Mumbles on the wall made us muse on the schizophrenic personality of my beloved Mumbles: full of families on holiday by day, and loutish drinking by night.

It's a cliche, I know, but the best was saved till last. The Pilot is the final pub on the Mumbles Mile and its name celebrates those heroic little boats that guide big ships through the sandbanks of Swansea Bay to the docks. I complimented the barman on the fresh flowers he had put on each table. "I'll have to put them away tomorrow night," he said. "The students will be pulling all the heads off them."

Clearly can't hold their drink, I mumbled, contentedly.

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