What a triumph for Welsh topography. The two biggest things on our screens at the moment, Harry Potter in the cinema, and Torchwood on our TVs, both feature tranquil seashore hide-outs where the main characters seek sanctuary from some seriously worrying threat. And they’re both in the principality.
To be more precise, the higgledy-piggledy house in the opening scenes of the final HP film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two (it also features in the first part) was built for the film, then taken down, leaving not a trace, and will now only have a digital afterlife.
The lonely white house, The Old Rectory, where we find two of the main characters in Torchwood hiding out with a whole arsenal of guns against some serious and present danger is a much more real place. The Rectory stands alone on a grassy plateau raised above the huge, stupendous Rhossili Bay, in South Wales
The Harry Potter producers could afford to build Shell Cottage from scratch, just in from a great, wide welcoming beach in Pembrokeshire, Freshwater West. It serves as a safe house (it’s the home of the newlyweds Bill Weasley and Fleur Dilator ) for Harry and his chums.There is no sleight of camera in a film otherwise full of special effects. In those opening scenes Harry really is among the empty sand dunes for those contemplative moments. That golden sweep of strand behind him, with the tide far out, is there just as you saw it.
The two mile wide beach, swept by huge, tumbling breakers, is divided by streams running off the Pembrokeshire heights. Go there outside the summer peak, and you could well have the place to yourself, apart from some distant figures in wetsuits rising on the crest of a wave and disappearing into the crashing foam. The beach is a big draw for surfers.
We visited in October, 2010, and walked the huge empty strand in the creamy autumn sunlight, as waves swept in trailing plumes of spray, and a lonely peregrine hunted over the rocks. There was nothing to show that the Harry, Ron and Hermione characters, or the cottage, were ever here. But the “constant ebb and flow of the sea, like the breathing of some great, slumbering creature”, that Harry could hear in the book, endures. Pembrokeshire was very lucky to be chosen as the location over Cornwall, where JK Rowling sets the cottage in the book. But that was rather a long way for the film makers, based in studios close to London. The West Country’s loss is Wales’ gain.
And maybe you’ve seen the beach somewhere else, too. Freshwater’s other Hollywood starring cameo was as a setting for a battle in the Ridley Scott film Robin Hood.
The Old Rectory’s setting is equally magnificent. (You can stay in this National Trust owned property, although be prepared to join a very long waiting list.) It stands at the tip of the Gower Peninsula, on a three-mile sweep of golden sand studded with shipwrecks, framed by hills and the promontory of Worms Head. It takes location, view and seclusion to a level very few places can match.
Poet Dylan Thomas almost lived in the house, but turned it down because it was too far to the pub, three-quarters of a mile away. The beach is popular with surfers and while there is a track for cars, it’s so steep that guests are advised to arrive in daylight. Or you could turn up on horse back. One 19th Century vicar who lived in the house used to dash to services along the sand on a horse, cloak billowing in the wind.
The house has a massive table for serious feasting next to a roaring wood-burning stove. Upstairs there is room for eight people in four bedrooms. From every window I caught that same breathtaking view far out into the Irish Sea.
We took a long walk along the immense beach, where locals once vied for the best pickings from the frequent wrecks, and then it was back up the steep path for a well deserved drink in the hilltop pub.
Both places are accessible by car. To reach Freshwater West, go to the utter end of the M4 in West Wales, and then it’s about 40 miles further on, along the A48, beyond Tenby. Rhossili is about 20 miles from Swansea