I MAY, as the twilight began to lighten the horizon on Saturday morning, have wondered to myself why I thought it was a good time to be sitting in Cardiff Central Station (or Caerdydd Canolog in Welsh). The answer, of course, was that it enabled me to catch the first train to Barry and so to resume my walk around the coast. It didn’t, on the other hand, do much for sating my body’s desire for sleep. But hey, it had had a two hour snooze on the overnight coach from London. That would just have to be enough…
Sunrise over Barry
The train returned me to Barry just before sunrise when the skies had lightened and reddened enough to show an awful lot of clouds. The forecast was for ‘scattered showers’, which in weatherman’s parlance can mean anything from a few drops of rain to torrential downpours with brief pauses.
Armed with both sunscreen and a cagoule, I set off along a route that was, at least initially, composed of suburban streets and parkland. The first park area I passed through was known as the Knap, near Cold Knap Point, and had previously been the site of the Knap Lido — once Britain’s biggest open air swimming pool.
Built in 1926 and initially filled directly from the sea, the Lido became a nationally famous tourist attraction by the 1950s and was surrounded by a boating lake, a ballroom, a hostel, changing rooms and the home of Barry Rowing Club.
Pretty much all of these things had diminished or closed by the mid 1980s and the lido became fully shut up and derelict by 1996. The council elected to demolish most of what was left standing and to infill the pools in 2004, converting them into open grass spaces. This aroused some (ineffectual) opposition from locals and also from the Twentieth Century Society who claimed that ‘the elegantly curved and brightly coloured buildings are a truly remarkable example of the use of early reinforced concrete.’
Twentieth Century Society
Given that the Twentieth Century Society are the bunch whose lobbying got Plymouth’s loathed and concrete cancer-ridden Civic Centre listed, at great ongoing expense to that city like an ugly, disintegrating and badly-designed millstone round its neck, I’ll not put too much store in their opinions.
From the Knap the path climbed along more grassy parkland and past a number of houses of flats. I was soon at the top of a cliff — Bull Cliff, in fact — where the path became wooded. With the sun hidden behind thick cloud and the path sodden and muddy from overnight rain, it proved a dark and treacherous path to walk.
At this point, but not for the last time that day, I wished that I’d picked up my walking poles on the way out. Alas I had not.
Porthkerry Country Park
A series of concrete steps brought me safely down from the clifftop into a delightful open area in a valley. This was Porthkerry Country Park, across which cut the magnificent Porthkerry Viaduct.
Well, I say ‘magnificent’…
It certainly looks how a nineteenth century railway viaduct should but, when it was built in 1896, a combination of insufficient foundations, unsuitable cement and poor workmanship led to problems with subsidence.
Vale of Glamorgan Railway
The Vale of Glamorgan Railway opened in 1897 but had to close the bridge, rerouting via another line, in 1898 in order to fix a slipped pier. It reopened in 1900 and has been in use since (although mostly for goods traffic 1964-2005 thanks to the Beeching Axe).
These days, it serves goods trains taking coal to Aberthaw Power Station and commuter trains travelling between Cardiff and Bridgend via Rhoose, where Cardiff International Airport is situated.
Both the rail operator hauling coal — DB Schenker — and the local passenger franchisee — Arriva Trains Wales (Trenau Arriva Cymru) — are owned by Deutsche Bahn AG, the German national railway. So for Wales at least, the privatisation of British Rail has led to another country’s national railway operating a local monopoly instead.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: a quick peek at Network Rail’s performance stats for the various franchisees shows that Arriva Trains Wales is doing pretty well in terms of reliability and punctuality so DB currently lives up to its national stereotype by running its trains on time.
Cardiff International Airport
From Porthkerry, the path led off alongside a stony beach before climbing onto a low cliff as it passed south of Rhoose (Y Rhws). Rhoose is one of the Vale of Glamorgan’s fastest-growing villages, mostly because it is home to Cardiff International Airport (Maes Awyr Caerdydd).
This amuses me somewhat because, of course, it’s not in Cardiff. True, Cardiff is only about ten miles away by road but there’s another town, namely Barry, in between them.
Trains and Planes
Rhoose is served by a railway station — Rhoose Cardiff International Airport — which was opened in 2005. The town had previously had a station (It was closed in 1964) but that was just called ‘Rhoose’ since what is now the airport was then still an RAF base. It remained so until 1965, when the Ministry of Aviation handed it over to Glamorgan County Council as Glamorgan (Rhoose) Airport. Which might have been more useful if you could still have travelled there by train.
South of Rhoose is Rhoose Point (Trwyn y Rhws), which is apparently decorated with spirals and other shapes that you can only see from the air. This is a nice touch if you’re on a plane coming into, or taking off from, the airport. But I wasn’t doing either so I didn’t even notice they were there. What I did notice was this:
I didn’t realise at first that the chimney I could see was Aberthaw Power Station but it became obvious as I crept closer. Much of the intervening space seemed to comprise a caravan park, with the path squeezed between the cliff-edge fencing and the caravans.
Aberthaw was the first point in Wales I was able to recognise from Somerset (although, admittedly, only because a helpful Welshman pointed it out to me and told me what it was).
Looking back across the Bristol Channel, England kept disappearing behind a screen of cloud and rain butI realised that in the clearer moments I could make out landmarks there. In particular I could recognise three things: Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station, Quantoxhead (where the Quantock Hills meet the coast) and Minehead.
The path now passed along and over what would once have been a wide and bustling estuary, that of the River Thaw (Afon Ddawan), which at about 12½ miles is the longest river entirely within the boundaries of the Vale of Glamorgan.
The Thaw once bustled with industry and shipping but silted up in the late eighteenth century. Today it is a small stream that reaches the sea via an artificial channel, dug to service the needs of Aberthaw Power Station.
Aberthaw Power Station
Aberthaw is a coal-fired power station, opened in 1966 and at that time the most advanced in the world. They built it on the site of a golf course, which leaves me feeling conflicted about which is more unpleasant to walk past. On the whole, I think I prefer the power station.
As seems to be the rule with power stations, there were actually two: Aberthaw A was the one built in 1966 and was subsequently closed and demolished in 1995. Aberthaw B was built in the 1970s and continues to operate.
As I perambulated along the outside of the site I spotted a bored looking man in a hut on the road in and out of the complex. At first I thought he must be a security guard but then I watched a couple of lorries pause by the hut to be blasted from both sides with high-pressure hoses.
The wheel wash is compulsory for site traffic and makes perfect sense as a precautionary measure. Coal dust, like any flammable dust, is explosive when suspended in the air; indeed, many of the worst coal-related disasters were caused or exacerbated by coal dust explosions. The spraying is meant to stop the wheels from kicking dust into the air.
Gileston & St Athan
As soon as I had passed the power station the path led me inland, through the tiny hamlet of Limpert (literally three or four houses) and along a narrow road to the not much larger village of Gileston (Silstwn).
No Shop in Gileston
I had drunk all my water by now, possibly because the thought of coal dust had caused a psychosomatic dry throat. Gileston was way too small to have a village shop but I spotted a man in the street with a pint of milk in his hand and chose to assume he’d just bought it rather than, say, he was taking it out for a walk.
My assumption proved to be correct, which was a relief — I attract enough random nutters as it is without making an effort to seek them out — and I learned that the nearest shop was a half mile inland in the village of St Athan (Sain Tathan).
Drinking Water Detour
This posed a quandary in that I was already planning to walk 23 miles plus another 2½ to reach my hotel in Bridgend. Did I want to add an additional detour of a mile round trip to St Athan and back. Yes, as it happens, I did.
Named for either an Irish saint who landed accidentally in Wales, or for the daughter of a King of Gwent, St Athan boasts a thirteenth century church, two pubs and a significant MOD base. It also has a Londis convenience store, which provided me with water, snacks and a wry observation that the Londis franchise has long outgrown its origin as ‘London District Stores’.
Coast Path near Llantwit Major
Glamorgan Heritage Coast Path
Suitably replenished, I returned to Gileston and set off along a farm track that soon turned out to be quite badly waymarked as part of the coast path. So much so that I soon found myself in a field with no obvious way onward. The field had held a cereal crop but had already been harvested, leaving only stubble, so I figured I couldn’t do any damage if I just marched across it.
To my relief, there was a gate in the hedge nearest to the coastline and I managed to find my way onto the Glamorgan Heritage Coast Path — an overgrown path that I guess didn’t quite make it into the Wales Coast Path in its entirety. It certainly had its share of hurdles.
Well, maybe not actual hurdles but it did have a big burning pile of vegetation, like someone’s forgotten bonfire, shrouding the path in smoke. It also had some very rickety stiles and a wonderful bit where the path just petered out into brambles. I thus picked my way along the pebble bank that marked the top of the beach.
On the Beach
The beach should have been fine except there was soon a massive bank of thorns and nettles between me and where I thought the path should be and no clear way to get through. This was less than ideal as the beach’s large stones were difficult going and I didn’t want to get stuck there, unable to rejoin the path.
And Off It
In the end, I spotted whet looked like a likely overgrown tunnel of a path through the vegetation and forced my way through, collecting nettle stings on my hands, arms, legs and chest as I went, my clothes somehow failing to protect me.
And On Again
On the far side of my ordeal of nettles and thorns was the actual Wales Coast Path, which allowed me to bask in the warm glow of success, which differs from the warm glow of all over nettle stings by dint of bloody self-satisfaction. With a spring in my step, I followed the Wales Coast Path as it passed alongside a couple of fields and spat me back onto the beach. About twenty yards further on. Great.
For all that I had water and chocolate, I was about ready for a nice sit down and a cup of tea about now. Which was unfortunate, because I wasn’t going to get one. I had vague hopes for what was described on my map as the Seawatch Centre near Summerhouse Point. That sounded pretty touristy and my pace quickened as I spotted a sign to pointing to it.
The Seawatch Centre turned out to be nothing more than a converted coastguard hut with no beverage facilities even when open, which it wasn’t. Ah well.
The path was now away from the beach though, running along the edge of several fields, initially with a high hedge between me and what turned out to be a cliff edge. In the distance, across the fields, I could see the town of Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr).
Llantwit Major has been inhabited since Neolithic times although it takes its name from the post-Roman period when St Illtud, a fifth century Breton, founded a monastery and attached college that would last until 987 when the Vikings burned it down. They were rebuilt in 1111, surviving until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.
Its alumni are said to include St Patrick, St David, the bard Taliesin and the historian Gildas. Llantwit himself was allegedly a cousin of Arthur.
St Illtyd’s Church
While the monastery no longer exists, the town’s thirteenth century church — St Illtyd’s — is a Grade I listed building and one of the oldest parish churches in Wales.
20th Century Growth
Llantwit Major grew rapidly during the twentieth century on account of the RAF base at St Athan (now MOD St Athan). A new railway station was opened there in 2005, reversing the 1964 closure of the old one. The town also has more than one tea shop.
Rain and Mud
My ability to see Llantwit Major was curtailed considerably when the skies decided to open and dump some surprisingly heavy rain upon my head. I now found that if I had thought the path muddy before, I had clearly been mistaken. It now endeavoured to elevate ‘slippery’ to a whole new level. Once again I wished that my walking poles were not warm and dry in London.
This would prove to add a particularly challenging element to the path’s sudden and steep descent into my first cwm of the day.
This was Cwm Col-huw, the narrow valley of the River Colhuw (Afon Col-huw), which runs through Llantwit Major to the sea.
The entire valley is a Scheduled Monument and it ends at Llantwit Major Beach, which is stony now but used to be sandier. About 200 m offshore lie the submerged remains of a port dating from between 1400 and 1600 but long since abandoned by not only its populace but also the eroding land.
Llantwit major Beach Café
I stood at the bottom of Cwm Col-huw in the pouring rain and watched various day-trippers running for cover. Several of them were running for a café — a café! — and I endeavoured to do likewise before it ran out of room. I thus was able sit down, albeit damply, with a nice hot cup of tea and a filling baked potato. Yes, a baked potato. Sometimes even the bacon sandwich must give way to other foods.
The rain had stopped when I emerged from the café, although the mud hadn’t got any less slippery. Climbing back out of the cwm and making my way along the cliff top path proved quite tricky, with every step threatening to treat me to a mud bath. After a while, there was more grass than mud, but the two continued to alternate without warning.
I passed by Tresilian Bay, which takes its name from a fourth or fifth century Prince Silian. The cliffs at Tresilian Bay are riddled with caves and are said to contain secret tunnels made by the smugglers and pirates who used to frequent them. One fifteenth century Breton pirate named Peter was supposedly drowned in one of the caves by local landowner Sir Henry Stradling (1423-1476), who had taken severe umbrage at being previously kidnapped by him.
King George’s Field
I passed alongside a large, open, grassy field and then through a gate in a wall. Flanking either side of the gate for anyone walking the other way (i.e. into the field) were a unicorn and a lion. The unicorn was looking a little worse for wear but the lion seemed pretty cheery.
The lion and unicorn plaques indicate that I’d just passed through one of King George’s Fields, a number of public open spaces dedicated to the memory of King George V. When the King died in 193,6 the Lord Mayor of London wanted to come up with a memorial idea that was more useful than just putting up statues. His answer was to put up one statue in London and then to establish playing fields across the country ‘for the use and enjoyment of the people’.
While the King George’s Fields Foundation was dissolved in 1965, the 471 King George’s Fields that were established were transferred to the National Playing Fields Association. Each is marked by plaques like that in the picture and subject to strict covenants and conditions.
The lion was right to laugh, incidentally — it became very muddy. It was also delightfully wooded and a little more up and down than I’d expected. I have no idea how I remained upright.
St Donat’s Bay
My next descent from the cliff top was at St Donat’s Bay, where thankfully there were once again stairs down (and up again on the other side).
St Donat’s (Sain Dunwyd) is a small village containing a twelfth century castle.
St Donat’s Castle
Built by the De Hawey family, it passed by marriage to the Stradling family in 1298. It remained in the hands of the Stradlings, who enlarged and modified it, until 1738, when it passed to Sir John Tyrwhitt.
The Tyrwhitts didn’t look after it and it fell into disrepair before going through various owners between 1862 and 1962, several of whom carried out restorations. One of these owners was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who owned it in the 1920s and 30s.
In 1962, it became the home of Atlantic College, an international Sixth Form college and part of the thirteen-strong United World College movement, which favours the International Baccalaureate curriculum. It can claim the Queen, Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor of Jordan as its (co-)presidents and the Crown Prince of the Netherlands (Willem-Alexander) as one of its alumni.
Nash Point Lighthouse
I re-ascended the cliffs from St Donat’s Bay and then everything changed. The wooded path opened back out into fields and the clouds parted to patches of blue and intermittent sunshine. Ahead, I could see Nash Point Lighthouse, which was erected in 1832. Designed by James Walker, Trinity House’s chief engineer, Nash Point Lighthouse wasn’t electrified until 1968 and was automated as late as 1998, at which point it was the last manned lighthouse in Wales.
I considered stopping at the lighthouse visitors’ centre but the slippery mud had been slow going and I was now running quite late, so much so that I didn’t know if I would reach my hotel in Bridgend before sundown.
The path onwards became a road leading to a car park, at the edge of which sat a veritable herd of walkers. These turned out to be two walking groups, one heading in my direction and one going the other way. The walkers had paused to rest and take advantage of a small kiosk selling drinks and snacks, and I did likewise.
The way on from there dropped down into a cwm and then climbed out again. As I drank my drink, applied sunscreen and looked at my map the two groups of walkers departed, leaving me alone. I soon passed the one going my way though, bounding past them on the steepish and stepless ascent from the cwm. Since they had walking poles and I didn’t, this cheered me greatly. I’ve obviously improved at climbing gradients.
The way ahead would continue to be flat, open fields atop rocky cliffs, interspersed with narrow, steep cwms for some time. I passed down, through and up from Cwm Nash, Cwm Bach and Cwm Mawr (the latter two meaning essentially ‘small cwm’ and ‘big cwm’). The path was still treacherous in places but I somehow stayed on my feet.
To my left were the similarly descriptively-named beaches of Traeth Mawr and Traeth Bach and I remembered that this stretch of coast was used by the BBC when filming Doctor Who; it had been both ‘Bad Wolf Bay’ in The Parting of the Ways and the planet Alfava Metraxis in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone.
The cliffs in this part of Wales comprise strata of limestone, shale and sandstone and have an appearance that makes it seem as though they were built by some insane but inspired bricklayer.
The path led me down to Dunraven Park, which sits on the shore of Dunraven Bay (Bae Dwnrhefn).
The Wyndham family, Earls of Dunraven, built themselves a castle there in 1803 but it was demolished in 1963. Its walled garden survives, now owned by Vale of Glamorgan Council; annoyingly it closed twenty minutes before I arrived.
There was also an old ice tower, which just put the thought of ice cream in my head. Fortunately, Dunraven Bay is popular with surfers and swimmers and, in addition to being watched over by lifeguards, it has a kiosk selling cold drinks and ice creams, which allowed me to fulfil that desire.
The Wyndhams’ wasn’t the first house or castle on the site: Iestyn ap Gwrgant, Prince of Glamorgan, had his home there burnt down by Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of Deheubarth, in 1080. A new castle was built by an invading Norman knight, Arnold Botiler, in 1128. This too was destroyed, although not until the fifteenth century at the hands of Owain Glendŵr.
The path out of Dunraven Bay led through the edge of the village of Southerndown and then along an unfenced cliff edge with occasional warning signs and frequent sheep. The sheep watched incuriously as I dashed past them, trying to pick up my pace with tired, blistered feet.
I don’t normally get blisters but my boots are worn out and no longer waterproof, which led to wet socks and then blisters. Ouch.
I passed by the village of Ogmore-by-Sea (Aberogwr) at arm’s length, since I was on the cliff edge and it was set a little further back. The village sits at the mouth of the River Ogmore (Afon Ogwr) and is now considerably larger than the tiny village of Ogmore about a mile and half upstream.
Ogmore-by-Sea looks out over Tusker Rock, a jagged, rocky platform exposed at low tide, which has wrecked many a ship and which is named after Tuska, one of the Vikings who colonised this coast.
Not all of the ships that struck Tusker Rock did so by accident; this part of the Glamorgan coast has a guilty history of wrecking.
I now turned inland, following the course of the Ogmore.
I knew I had to cross it at some point and saw what I thought was a bridge up ahead. It was but only if I wanted to visit a sewage plant, which I didn’t.
The path led me through tiny Ogmore and past the ruins of Ogmore Castle.
The castle may well have been built just before the Norman conquest of Glamorgan but was held by Sir William de Londres, one of the Twelve Knights of Glamorgan, in 1116 when he had to abandon it in the face of Welsh resistance. One of his servants defended the castle in his absence and was knighted and given Dunraven in reward — this was the previously mentioned Sir Arnold Botiler (i.e. ‘butler’).
Ogmore Castle was damaged in the revolt of Owain Glendŵr but was rebuilt and remained in use, becoming a court and a prison, until the nineteenth century when it became disused and fell into ruin.
The path ran alongside the B4524 for a bit but then branched off as a tiny footpath across some fields which led to the equally tiny village of Merthyr Mawr, whose name means ‘great martyr’. This was the official end of my day’s coast path walking but not the end of my actual perambulation. I now had two and a half miles to walk to Bridgend. For most of the way this was a tiny country lane, which became Merthyr Mawr Road as it entered the town of Bridgend.
Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr) developed at a ford on the Ogmore, which was later bridged; it grew as a Norman stronghold with a castle forming a strong defensive triangle with those in Ogmore and Coity.
Having become a small market town, it remained so until the late twentieth century, gaining a railway station in the nineteenth century but then losing it again in 1964. Bridgend expanded massively from the 1980s onwards and regained its railway station in 2005; its growth and development continue.
No Wonder My Feet Ache
I spent a good ten minutes getting lost in Bridgend town centre, more because I was tired than because it was particularly confusing. When I finally found my hotel and had been directed to my room I collapsed into a chair, my feet protesting greatly and, to be fair, they had a point.
I had walked 23 miles of the coast path plus a mile detour to St Athan and back and another 2½ miles to Bridgend. That’s 26½ miles in total, much of it walked quite quickly with insufficient rests and with wet feet thanks to the mud and the rain.
I’m only counting the coast path miles though.
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,103 miles