HAVING had a three-month break in my coastal perambulation forced upon me by various factors including but not limited to biting financial constraints and, thanks to the wettest summer in a hundred years, much of the country being inconveniently underwater, I firmly resolved to begin walking again as soon as was feasibly possible.
That possibility arose just five days into 2013, when a lull in the ongoing downpour coincided with my finally receiving some actual income again. And so, as quickly as I could prioritise booking tickets over saying ‘Jack Robinson’, I organised myself into making the journey back to Llanrhidian via an overnight stop in Cardiff.
A friendly and helpful local bus driver dropped me off at the bus stop above Llanrhidian and I made my way down the hill into the village. The sky was overcast but there was no sign of rain and the temperature was surprisingly mild.
I paused by the standing stones on the green to take off my coat and stow it away in my bag. And count my walking socks.
A Local Legend
Fortunately the Fair Folk of Llanrhidian have better things to do than antagonise me with footwear, as recounted in a particular local legend of which I’ve found two slightly different versions.
In both, a local priest learns of a nearby secret cave containing vast treasures protected by a mighty iron door. Having learned the trick to opening the door, he takes his manservant and finds the cave and holds the door open (either by playing a harp, the door being enchanted, or else by simple force) while the manservant quickly and quietly collects up the gold. The reason why he has to be very, very quiet is that two dwarfs are fast asleep in the cave (and thus failing to guard the piles of the gold that they sit beside).
In one version, the manservant emerges with the gold at which point the priest lets the door slam shut with a sound like thunder; no-one else ever finds it again.
In the second version, the priest is so overcome with greed that stoops to scoop up more of the gold and accidentally lets go of the door/stops playing his harp. Again, the door slams but this time both are locked inside with two rudely awakened dwarfs.
I like the latter version best, I think, but it raises that familiar old question — if both men were trapped and the cave never found again by others, who is it who afterwards told their tale?
Incidentally, I gather more than one of my friends has had the idea of visiting the route of one of my walks ahead of me and liberally strewing it with walking socks. As yet they have resisted the urge, or at least failed to put it into practice. Which is good; that would be littering. Also it’s not funny.
Well, maybe it is. But no.
A Grey Day
Looking downhill, Llanrhidian Marsh (Cors Llanrhidian) and the River Loughor (Afon Llwchwr) were hazy and indistinct. Carmarthenshire, on the far shore, was barely visible at all.
The Marsh Road
I followed the road back through the village until I spotted the first Wales Coast Path sign of the day. This was pointing down a narrow country line, lined with cottages and trees, at the entrance to which was another sign which read:
‘Liable to flooding during high tide. Perygl llifogydd yn ystod llanw uchel.’
It was just before nine in the morning. High tide would be about quarter past eleven. Although, given that most of South Wales had been generally flooded anyway in recent months, there was a good chance that the road might be underwater anyway. I shrugged and decided to find out.
Traffic was almost nonexistent on the Llanrhidian Marsh Road, comprising one cyclist, one car and a pickup truck. Other than that, it was quiet, with birds wheeling overhead and Gower ponies trotting about on the marsh. I’m always surprised that with all their weight bearing down on the relatively small surface area of their hooves, they don’t just sink right up to their knees and get stuck. Altogether better suited for trotting about in a marsh was a heron, which took off as the ponies approached.
The marsh road carried me, more or less at sea level, alongside the foot of the slopes up to Cilifor Top and Welshmoor. Hidden away on this wooded hillside are the buried remains of a long-abandoned village called Llanellan (or Llan-Elen). including the site of a twelfth century church.
Tradition has it that Llanellan fell victim to its own hospitality, for it took in survivors from a ship that foundered in the Loughor, unaware that the sailors brought the plague. The entire village died or fled and two stones from its church are incorporated into the gate of Llanrhidian’s.
Another church, relatively more modern and not especially pretty, indicated that I had reached Wernffrwd, which is one of those lovely Welsh names that looks unpronounceable in English (it’s more-or-less ‘wern-frood’; wern is ‘alder’ and ‘ffrwd means ‘stream’).
Originally a medieval farming community comprising three farms (two of which still exist today), this tiny hamlet expanded to gain its church and a neighbouring terrace of houses — inevitably named Church Row — in the late nineteenth century and hasn’t really done much expanding since.
On the opposite side of Marsh Road from the church were two benches, looking out across the marsh, and I decided to sit on them and eat a late breakfast consisting of a sandwich that I’d bought while passing through Swansea.
A number of Gower ponies trotted about between me and the Loughor, keeping me entertained. As I was merrily finishing my second sandwich, a small car, emblazoned with prominent L-plates, made its way down the marsh road to pick up a nervous-looking youth beside the church.
I decided that my watching would in no way help him with his driving lesson (or his nervousness) and so stood up and turned away from Wernffrwd, ready to continue on my journey. My next destination was Crofty.
Crofty is a small cockling village, which is much how it started out in the fourteenth century.
There was a hectic period during the mid to late nineteenth century when it expanded significantly fuelled (pun intended) by the coal industry. But coal is no longer the big business it once was and Crofty has gone back to cockling; Crofty is the chief site of the North Gower cockling industry. Cockles thrive in the Loughor, apparently.
I’m led to believe that delicious Crofty cockles can be purchased in the village but as I’d already just eaten a sandwich and the Wales Coast Path signs seemed to be skirting round the village, I never found out for sure.
Walking or Wading?
The marsh road having ended, I was now walking on an unmade road which might well have been able to support a cockle population itself. Certainly, in places it seemed to be mostly made of water.
The path took me out to Salthouse Point, a low-lying marshy peninsula once used for salting and which was, until recently, festooned with WW2 gun emplacements and other buildings. It being mostly salt marsh, after a while the water and gravel underfoot gave way to thick, squelchy mud before this was in turn replaced with a crunchy but well-drained road surface, constructed from a material of which Crofty had no shortage.
‘That’s just genius!’ I muttered to myself as I crunched along it. ‘A path made entirely from cockle shells! Sheer genius!’
Crofty Industrial Estate
The path soon returned me to a tarmac road, which appeared to run through the graveyard of industries past. This was Crofty Industrial Estate, seemingly a single short road on which almost every building or unit looked to be closed and abandoned. Several were also in disrepair and on the brink of collapse. It was quite dispiriting. Sufficiently so, that then joining the B4295 was uplifting by comparison.
The B4295 carried me into neighbouring Penclawdd (Pen-clawdd meaning ‘bank-head’) where it had been somewhat ambitiously named ‘the Promenade’. It was true that it commanded a broad view across the Loughor estuary. It was also true that it might well have looked better in sunshine. But still:
I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and promenaded further along the road into Penclawdd.
The path soon gained grass verges and trees, which helped enormously. I passed a rather lovely Presbyterian tabernacle (built in 1911), various B&Bs, a fish and chip shop and a post office (Swyddfa’r Post). A side channel from the estuary formed a small creek, which had boats on it. All in all, the village was looking up; I resolved to ignore an empty, boarded-up pub as I sat by Penclawdd Creek and had a brief rest.
Penclawdd is one of the Gower’s larger villages and up until the end of the nineteenth century it used to be a thriving sea port. The decline of local industry and the silting-up of the river channel have put paid to that.
In its heyday, Penclwadd was home to coal mining, tin, copper and brass industries with a particular line in smelting copper shipped in from Angelsey (Ynys Môn). The prosperity of both Penclawdd and Llanelli (on the northern bank) depended on the Loughor remaining navigable but the deep channel drifted from side to side over time.
In the late nineteenth century, the Llanelli Port Authority constructed a training wall intended to keep the channel in place in the north of the estuary. What it actually did was dissipate the flow and accelerate silting, choking up both Llanelli and Penclawdd. Oops. Penclawdd’s only remaining industry is cockling.
Penclawdd wasn’t entirely reliant on sea transport though, it also had a railway from 1866 in the form of a branch line of the Llanelly Railway. In a surprising turn of events, this was closed around 1958, i.e. before the Beeching Axe. The station site has since been built over.
The path out of Penclawdd looked as if it was going to run alongside the B4295 (which itself runs from Llanrhidian to the outskirts of Swansea and is called Gowerton Road at this point), but it actually dropped onto a separate, slightly lower, cycle path — the old railway trackbed — for the first mile or so.
When the cycle path ended I should, according to my map, have crossed over the road and followed a slightly further inland route towards Gowerton (Tre-gŵyr). But I didn’t do that. I figured that since the B4295 had pavement beside it I might as well stick with that. So I did.
Its Numerous Names
Often known as the ‘Gateway to the Gower’, Gowerton was originally a village named Ffosfelin (meaning ‘mill ditch’) but its position on a main route into the Gower led to it also being known as ‘Gower Road’. Later, to avoid confusion with the Gower Road in Sketty (Sgeti), a suburb of Swansea (Abertawe), it was officially renamed Gowerton.
Rise and Fall
Like many south Welsh towns and villages Gowerton grew in the nineteenth century with the coming of various heavy industries, all of which have since gone again. It has managed to hang on to one of its two railway stations but only as a request stop.
The line through Gowerton was singled in 1986, a ghastly mistake which badly affects all train services through it and which is now being rectified.
I only touched on the edge of Gowerton before veering off to the left (or north, if you prefer) on a single track road towards Loughor. This road was also a cycle route, with marked cycle lanes on both sides of the road although, since the car lane was only one vehicle wide, cars mostly drove over the whole road unless the cycle lanes were occupied. By me for instance.
After a while I came to a point where I should have turned off according to the signposts although a notice showed a diversion continuing along the road on account of the railway redoubling work affecting a bridge across the footpath. I wasn’t entirely sure if the diversion was in place yet but it looked a lot less likely to be ankle deep in mud so I diverted anyway. And thus I arrived in Loughor.
Fort and Castle
Loughor (Casllwchwr) was the site of the Roman fort of Leucarum, poised on a hill near a narrow stretch of the Loughor. Indeed, it was such a commanding strategic position that the Normans followed suit and built Loughor Castle there in 1106. The town then developed around the castle, first as a port and then, for a brief stint in the early twentieth century, as a home to the tin and steel industries. These days, most of its inhabitants commute into Swansea or Llanelli for work.
Steak and Stereotypes
I paused in Loughor to have a sit down and some lunch, which came in the form of lamb steak washed down with a gin and tonic. Although when I ordered the latter with my Home Counties accent, I fear I may have appeared like some kind of walking English stereotype. Again.
Having refuelled my legs, it was time to press on and cross the Loughor:
Current and Historic
Having reached the far side of Loughor Bridge I had also entered a new county, namely that of Carmarthenshire (Sir Gaerfyrddin). In a triumph of tradition over political tinkering, the modern principal area of Carmarthenshire has almost the same borders as the historic county.
For ceremonial purposes it is part of the preserved county of Dyfed. Which is slightly odd. Because historically, Carmarthenshire was part of the region of Ystrad Tywi, which was part of the seventh century Kingdom of Seisyllwg.
In 920, Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) united Seisyllwg with the neighbouring Kingdom of Dyfed (of which he was also king) to form the Kingdom of Deheubarth. So, when they decided to create a bunch of new Welsh super-counties in 1974, calling the one that covered the old territory of Deheubarth ‘Dyfed’ was a really weird choice, given that that was the old name for just part of it and there was already a perfectly good name for all of it, i.e. ‘Deheubarth’. I guess that would be the political tinkering then.
As well as being in a new county, I was also now in ‘Welsh-first’ country, meaning that from now on I could expect road signs to be in Welsh first with English second; the reverse of what I’d encountered so far. At least that was the theory.
What actually happened was that the Wales Coast Path routed me off the roads pretty quickly, steering me through an industrial estate and onto a long tarmac cycle path. My initial encounter with the favoured use of Welsh over English actually came at the head of this path where a sign in Welsh faced onto a car park, while the English version was out of the way on the back.
As it turned out, I could recognise ‘Parc Arfordirol y Mileniwm’ as ‘Millennium Coastal Park’ without needing to look at the back after all. Basically they’ve taken the mangled, poisoned derelict riverside site of vanished industry and cleaned it all up to make a park. An awesome plan…
Millennium Coastal Park
The Millennium Coastal Park footpath started off by crossing the road and railway via a bridge.
As the Millennium Coastal Park occupies ten miles of coastline and I only had about left six to do, it was pretty clear that I would be walking the park’s cycle/foot path all the way to Llanelli. This wasn’t unpleasant and it was easy going, if perhaps a little unexciting.
Beasts and Birds
On the way I passed more ponies and a pond full of ducks, swans and coots. I, in turn, was passed by a number of cyclists and a random man whose dog couldn’t have been more excited to see me if I’d dipped myself bodily in aniseed. The ponies were less excited to see me — three of them walking down the path gave me as wide a berth as possible. I, not particularly trusting ponies, gave them a similar courtesy.
Some miles later at a point called Penrhyn Gwyn (‘white peninsula’) the estuary opened out a bit and the shore became more of a beach. I was now approaching Llanelli but first came the isolated development of Machynys.
The community of Machynys initially grew up around the site of an island monastery dedicated to St Piro. The nineteenth century saw it become the home to a sprawling tinplate works, which lasted until the 1960s when the works closed and the housing was emptied. The derelict site was then demolished in the mid 1970s and transformed, becoming home to a golf club and a development of shiny (and expensive) new homes built in an out-of-place New England style.
From Machynys the path led me to Llanelli proper. Once nicknamed ‘Tinopolis’ on account of its tinplate industry, Llanelli has seen its industries diminish but not entirely vanish. There are still tinplate and steel works in the town and also a brewery.
The Welsh language remains strong in this rugby-loving town, although the proportion of speakers has declined, slipping from over 50% in the mid twentieth century to about 30% by the millennium. Several of my fellow passengers, waiting at the station for a train to Swansea, seemed happy to slip in and out of Welsh and English at whim.
A train arrived to whisk me back to Swansea, from where another train carried me almost all the way to London before some annoying little oik decided to trespass on the tracks near Hayes and Harlington, bringing services to a halt. There may have been a bit of a cheer when we heard he or she had been found and removed, meaning we could travel the final twelve miles into Paddington.
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,192 miles