THE LATEST two days of walking almost didn’t happen. I decided not only to wait until my feet were fully healed from the last sole-destroying misadventure but also to wait until I had bought some new walking boots. Which a distressing lack of inward cashflow promised to postpone indefinitely. And then…
Just as I did a year ago, I realised that it was going to be the anniversary of my first coast walk — Monday 3rd September was two years to the day since I set off from Gravesend to Strood. And so, again just like last year, I decided I really ought to go walking even if it might not be entirely sensible.
So, I did.
Last Sunday thus saw me return to Port Talbot sporting a new pair of walking boots courtesy of my credit card, deferring any consequent financial strain to the short-term future. In deference to the more pressing uncertainty of new boots I chose to limit myself to shorter walks of about thirteen miles apiece. Because if they decided to eat my feet while wearing in I only wanted to hobble painfully so far.
Port Talbot Parkway
Bootwise, all was very comfortable, and not a little bouncy, as I set off from Port Talbot Parkway Station. The tall hills, such as Mynydd Dinas, which overlook Port Talbot were hidden in low cloud as I began my day’s walk but the low cloud was behind me while ahead, to the west, were patches of blue sky.
I crossed the railway via a level crossing that had been closed to vehicular traffic, but not pedestrians, and headed down a dreary road of ghostly ex-industrial buildings forlornly awaiting demolition. On another day, this might have been slightly depressing. On a New Boots Day, it spoke of hope for the future.
And so, full of optimism, I ducked through an underpass under the A48 and suddenly found myself walking alongside the River Afan (Afon Afan) while it splashed pleasantly over a weir.
The path, which was also a cycle route, crossed the Afan on an old iron bridge that had presumably once carried traffic to the docks but now had been blocked to motor vehicles at both ends. A sign at one end indicated that it had been erected in 1903 by the Aberavon Corporation, as the local council was then known.
The path continued alongside the Afan until it reached the sea. Here the river spilled out past the docks and harbour while the path turned right and became a long, broad promenade which initially passed many modern flats built in brick. The flats soon gave way to something actually flat, namely a park-like green which endeavoured to keep Port Talbot at arm’s length from me.
On my left were vast expanses of sand, the tide being out in Swansea Bay (Bae Abertawe) while ahead, across the curve of the bay, I could see the day’s destination, which was Swansea (Abertawe). What I couldn’t see was that promising blue sky and sunshine, which had hung about just long enough for me to put on sunscreen before mockingly hiding behind cloud.
A number of other people were out pretending it was sunny, determinedly walking dogs on Aberavon Sands (Traeth Aberafan) or building sandcastles or kitesurfing. Those doing the latter were wrestling with the two quite opposite but surprisingly interchangeable problems of not enough wind and suddenly far, far too much of it.
Day of the Dog
The beach was one enormous and complex pattern of interweaving canine paw prints, which made me wonder of the entirety of dog-owning South Wales had been there ahead of me in order to walk man’s best friend. A good dozen of them remained, dashing up and down in excitement, tails wagging, ears all perky, immune to all pleas from their owners not to shake themselves dry within touching distance.
Doom of the Cat
By contrast I saw one single cat on the beach. A beach isn’t really ideal cat territory, as was grimly underlined by the cat in question being very much dead. It looked as though it had drowned.
Since I adore cats but don’t really care much for dogs, I resolved to take this personally. Although probably not as personally as the cat, which must have been pretty ticked off that none of its nine lives could swim well.
A coast path waymark sent me inland before I ran out of beach. The River Neath (Afon Nedd) makes its way out into Swansea Bay between Port Talbot and Swansea, having snaked its way down the Vale of Neath over sufficient a number of cataracts that the upper reaches are called Waterfall Country (Coed y Rhaeadr).
The Neath’s estuary is composed of dunes shading into salt marsh, necessitating my inland diversion to the town of Neath (Castell-nedd), where I would find a bridge or two.
This? It’s a walking stick
On the way into Neath I passed an industrial plant and ducked under a huge pipe labelled ‘live water’ which ran from the plant to the river.
I also passed two youths of about fifteen, one of whom was carrying an air rifle which he self-consciously tried to conceal. There’s not a huge amount of scope for concealing a rifle-shaped object when you’re wearing a hoodie and jeans rather than, say, a trenchcoat.
St Illtyd’s Church
Neath dates back to Roman times when, as Nidum, it was a fort and a site for crossing the River Neath (by ferry or by ford, depending on the state of the tide). Later, it was visited by St Illtyd, and a Norman church dedicated to him still stands.
The equally Norman castle that gives the town its Welsh name stands rather less, with not a huge amount of it remaining. Such ruins as remain can be found in the town centre, where I didn’t go.
The Industrial Revolution saw Neath change from a rural market town to a centre of mining and manufacture, producing iron, steel and tinplate. It also saw, in 1861, a floating dock constructed in the town of Briton Ferry (Llansawel), which though technically separate, is essentially part of Neath’s wider conurbation.
The dock comprised a tidal outer basin and a non-tidal (i.e. ‘floating’) inner dock with a lock gate built to a design by Sir Marc Brunel, the brilliant French-born engineer who was father to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The dock closed in 1959, a hundred years after the younger Brunel’s death and is now largely filled in. Very little remains to show how it was once was.
It was actually in Briton Ferry and not Neath town proper that I was to cross the river, taking advantage of the 1955 A48 road bridge, known as the Cleveland Bridge after the contractors that built it — the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Co Ltd.
Immediately downstream, a mere stone’s throw away is a second bridge, built in 1993 to carry the M4 Motorway. This is an appropriate place to cross the River Neath as Briton Ferry’s name derives from the Roman-era ferry crossing mentioned above.
It was as I was making my way across the A48 bridge that my boots decided to hurt me. Not by giving me blisters but through subtle pressure on my left shin that built up to cause slow, deep bruising. It really hurt; the sneaky little blighters. Although not enough to make me decide that limping the second half of the walk would be folly. Oh no.
A483 (Swansea to Chester Trunk Road)
Across the river, the footpath stuck with the main roads, following part of the A483 This made for a fairly dull section of walk but also ensured that I walked straight past a petrol station, where I could buy water and snacks.
In theory I was walking next to Crymlyn Burrows, a dune system that is one of the last places on the Swansea Bay coastline unmodified by industrial development. It’s also home to the rare Fen Orchid, which sounds lovely. Except of course you can’t see any of this from beside the dual carriageway. Ah well.
I was pretty pleased when the path veered inland again at the next junction and took me to the curiously-named village of Jersey Marine.
Having passed this monument to accidental Victorian voyeurism, I then found myself beside an earlier work of engineering in the form of the 1817 Tennant Canal, built by William Kirkhouse for Lancashire-born landowner George Tennant.
A Private Endeavour
Unlike most canals, this one was built without an Act of Parliament authorising public subscription and compulsory purchases. This meant that where the canal ventured outside his own land, Tennant had to negotiate with other landowners to buy or lease the land privately.
The Tennant Canal is considered the most important canal built without an Act of Parliament, linking the docks and River Tawe at Swansea with the docks and river at Neath. Another canal, the 1795 Neath Canal, already linked Neath with the mining town of Glynneath (Glyn-nedd) 13½ miles upstream in the Vale of Neath.
The Swansea end of the Tennant Canal ended with a sea-lock in an area which Tennant named Port Tennant. Because he could.
Access and Ownership
The canal footpath has been the cause of some argument in the past, with locals arguing that it’s obviously a public footpath and the Port Tennant Navigation Company Ltd insisting that no it isn’t and ‘get off my land!’ However, the Wales Coast Path now uses its route so those issues must have been resolved.
The canal ceased to be used in the 1930s and fell into some disrepair although the Neath end has been partially restored.
As you head west though, while the path becomes delightfully wooded, the canal becomes choked with reeds as it passes the south end of Crymlyn Bog and, on maps at least, a branch heads off north into the bog. This is actually the derelict 1790 Glan-y-wern Canal, the southern part of which Tennant incorporated into his own canal. On the ground, bog and canal are rather tricky to distinguish.
Ahead, I could see Kilvey Hill, a 193 m high hill that towers over Port Tennant. Or at least I could see most of it most of the time; its summit was playing peekaboo in the low cloud.
Soon enough, I drew level with it, reaching the end of the canal where the long-closed sea lock keeps it separate from the docks. Which is just as well.
The path now led me past a large and empty park & ride car park (it was Sunday of course) and back over the A483 via a bridge before spitting me out amid Swansea’s docks.
Like many docks in post-industrial Britain, they were mostly lined with modern and presumably expensive flats interspersed with bars and restaurants (this was not a bad thing as it furnished me with a break and a gin & tonic).
Also there was this:
Swansea’s Norwegian church is more migratory than most. This grade II listed structure was actually built in Newport to cater for sailors from Norway’s massive Victorian-era merchant navy. In 1910, it relocated to Swansea, where it sat on the banks of the Tawe until 1966, when the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission wanted to close it.
A local effort kept it going voluntarily until 1997, when the then pastor retired and the lease expired. It had been the last working Seamen’s Mission Church in Britain.
The building was not to merely sit and moulder though, for it was in the way of a programme of redevelopment. The answer was simple if unexpected – the building was dismantled and moved, rebuilding it on its current site where it now exists as a jeweller’s gallery. This struck me as oddly amusing, and demanded to my mind a slight change of lyrics to the hymn Daisies are our Silver by English writer Jan Struther (1901-1953):
Silver is our silver
Actual gold our gold
This is all the treasure
You can have if sold.
I crossed over the Tawe via a swing bridge, breaking into a bit of a run as the siren sounded and gates began to close so that moments later a tiny little yacht could pootle through.
Swansea’s name is actually thought to derive from Old Norse Sveinsey (‘Sveinn’s island’), having initially developed as a Viking trading post. By the time it gained its first charter in the twelfth century it had become ‘Sweynesse’.
While the mediaeval town traded in wine, wool, cloth and skins, it became a coal and copper port with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. The ready access to local coal, handy position to trade with the West Country and its ample port all combined to propel Swansea to become the centre of a thriving copper smelting industry, so much so that the town became nicknamed ‘Copperopolis’.
Its population increased fivefold across the eighteenth century so that by 1801 it was significantly larger than Cardiff and second only to Merthyr Tydfil amongst the Welsh towns. Even today, Swansea is the second most populous local authority area, although now it plays second fiddle to Cardiff, which eventually overtook it.
Tower of the Ecliptic
I made my way along the Swansea seafront until I found my hotel , which one might best characterise as ‘cheap and cheerful’. Having checked in, I went back to the seafront and looked out towards Mumbles Head — which I knew I would pass the next day — and watched the sun slowly set. Then it was time to find food.
I headed back towards the town centre where I endeavoured to find something to eat at eight o’clock on a Sunday evening. I might have had an easier time of it looking for unicorns. Not that I found any unicorns, but I did find Swansea Castle (built in 1106 by Henry de Beaumont) lurking mysteriously in the dark.
This time: 13 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,133½ miles