I WAS aware that Britain was expecting snow when I made the arrangements for my latest jaunt around Wales. At that point, however, the Met Office were mostly predicting that the snow would fall on the eastern half of the island and that Wales would be largely untouched. As the weekend drew closer, however, the forecast shifted until South Wales was given the first severe weather warning (‘red: take action’, as opposed to ‘amber: be prepared’) in two years. Obviously, the only thing I could do at that point was cancel. Obviously.
But I am not the Cancel Mammal.
Method to my Madness
My decision to go anyway was not in fact the madness that it first appeared.
I knew that the bulk of the snow would fall inland on the valley heads on Friday and that there would be no actual snowfall on the weekend itself. The coast was outside the red area and could expect much less snow on the ground and, importantly, there weren’t going to be any cliffs.
I resolved to go carefully though, just in case.
Thus, I found myself standing on the platform at Llanelli Station a little after sunrise, about fifteen minutes later than planned due to, not snow, but a straightforward, traditional signal failure.
I availed myself of a nearby café in order to begin my day’s walk with a bacon sandwich already in hand and set off down a treacherously icy street, paying as much attention to remaining determinedly upright as eating my sandwich would allow.
Stepney Spare Wheel Works
On my way I passed a building of utterly unremarkable appearance but which was, according to its blue plaque, the site of the Stepney Spare Wheel Works, where the world’s first practical spare wheel for motor vehicles was manufactured.
Stepney Spare Motor Wheel Ltd grew out of an ironmongery business set up by brothers Thomas and Walter Davies in 1895 and which was located in Llanelli’s Stepney Street. In 1904, they patented a spokeless wheel rim and tyre of slightly greater than normal diameter which could, in the event of a puncture, be attached to the afflicted wheel by clamps and thus get you home.
In 1906, they moved to a larger site in Copperworks Road (the building outside which I was eating my bacon sarnie, in fact). The following decade saw worldwide success for Stepney Spare Motor Wheel Ltd until the introduction of replaceable road wheels after WW1 made their product obsolete. Thomas Walter died in 1952, his brother in 1961, their fleeting international fame having long since faded.
Siloah Independent Chapel
A little further along and also somewhat faded was the grade II listed Siloah Independent Chapel, built in 1840 to pair with the architecturally similar Bethel Baptist Chapel (also 1840), which is sufficiently close by that each is visible from the other.
Siloah Independent Chapel is very much a traditional Welsh chapel, holding around five to six hundred people and including a pipe organ and seating gallery. It is currently being renovated by 21st Century Church, a local Christian organisation.
Millennium Coastal Park
Not very many moments after passing the chapel, I found myself back at the point where I ended my last walk, namely standing beside the edge of the Loughor Estuary on the Millennium Costal Park footpath.
I set off with an air of excitement. Or was that just that the biting cold of the air? I also set off with due caution as it was icy underfoot.
The icy path climbed over a railway tunnel and took me past one of those needle-like coast park markers I saw last time, causing me once again to wish I’d acquired a small model camel to pass through the eye and back. I would pass several of these markers as the morning progressed and would regret my insufficiency of camels every time.
In the meantime, I got over it by peering at the view ahead. The railway curved off into the distance while hills rose sharply to my right. The snow was thin and patchy but the footpath was still slick with ice.
For all that my schedules are usually nominal, except where transport links are concerned, I was very much aware that I’d set off about half an hour later than I’d planned. I therefore resolved to check my progress on reaching the next settlement, namely Pwll. It turned out I’d gained twenty minutes, and was now just ten minutes behind.
Pwll, or more accurately that bit of the Loughor estuary adjacent to it, was where Amelia Earhart landed in 1928, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Although this is slightly less impressive when you realise that she didn’t actually fly the plane during the crossing (that was a man named Wilmer Stultz), or even co-pilot it (that was Louis Gordon) but was in fact essentially a passenger, although she did update the flight log.
Having landed in the estuary, the plane (fitted out as a seaplane) made its way round to Burry Port (Porth Tywyn) where she disembarked to a heroine’s welcome.
Pembrey & Burry Port
I made my way around to Burry Port in a rather more pedestrian manner, passing on my way a couple of warning signs about the lurking danger of root vegetables. And I’m absolutely serious about that. The plants in question are wild parsnips, the greenery and sap of which, in common with that of their domesticated siblings and of their rather more delinquent and menacing cousins, the hogweeds, can cause deeply unpleasant chemical burns (phytophotodermatitis) to unprotected skin.
Normally, faced with some unpleasant substance, I’d find some way to accidentally rub it into my eyes. On this occasion I thankfully failed to come in contact with the offending chemical (furanocoumarin), which was a good thing; chemically-induced blindness would have put a real downer on my walk. Not to mention my life.
Burry Port Beach
After navigating a particularly slippery bit of path I found myself on a stretch that was mostly ice free and sufficiently close to the shore that I could see across to Llanmadoc Hill, which was hiding coyly in a faint mist.
The path had sneakily crossed the railway line via another tunnel, bringing me to a beach beside Burry Port. This too was bedecked with warning signs, in this case concerned with mud flats and fast incoming tides. I was now at the very mouth of the Loughor and able to see the sea. I took a good long look; I knew I wouldn’t be seeing it much during the rest of the day.
Burry Port Outer Harbour
On the far side of the harbour was a café, which supplied me with a warming cup of tea and the information that one of its owners intended to cycle from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, emphasising that it would be in that direction so that it would be (on average) downhill.
West of Burry Port lie the dunes and marsh of Pembrey Burrows and the beach of Pembrey Sands. The latter was a historical haunt of wreckers, known locally as ‘Gwyr-y-Bwelli Bach’ or ‘The Men of Little Hatchets’, which sounds rather more romantic than the grim reality deserves.
The marsh surrounds a creek and stretched off to my left as I left Burry Port, while grass-covered sand dunes towered to my right. Ahead, in the distance, I could see the trees of Pembrey Forest.
Far across the marsh to my left, I could see a sliver of estuary and beyond it, almost indistinguishable from the mist, both Llanmadoc Hill and Rhossili Down, marking the end of the Gower Peninsula. My camera, on the other hand, could see only mist so I continued on my way, passing the first of what would be many WW2 pill boxes that day, just before a junction that sent me off towards Pembrey Forest.
The Name ‘Pembrey’
The marsh, sands and forest all take their name from the village of Pembrey (Pen-bre), which in turn takes its name from the hill (pen’ being ‘head’ or ‘top’ and bre meaning ‘hill’).
The forest is a sand dune forest, a fairly rare forest form and not a little artificial, having been planted by the newly-formed Forestry Commission in the 1920s.
The Forestry Commission still manage Pembrey Forest and there was plenty of evidence of ongoing logging, ranging from side paths closed for safety reasons to huge stacks of felled tree trunks. The path into the forest was a dirt track, dotted here and there with icy puddles. Off the track, the ground appeared to be soft and boggy rather than sandy and in several places was actually rather flooded. Once again, I considered how very much I didn’t want to go paddling in icy water.
As I made my way deeper into Pembrey Forest, I suddenly found myself knee-deep in corgis, which was an unexpected development. One moment I was minding my business and the next it was ‘let there be dogs!’ The corgis (about half a dozen of them) turned out to belong to a couple who hurtled past me at a rate of knots; possibly they wanted to get their dog-walking over and done with quickly, so as to go somewhere warm.
Soon enough, the couple and their veritable corgi pack disappeared from view and I was left in solitude. But not for long…
Man Heading the Other Way
I soon encountered a man heading the other way who approached me and stopped, asking how far I planned to walk.
‘Ah,’ he said sagely, his voice a deep Welsh baritone. ‘There’s a hell of a lot of water on the path a mile up. I had to go right around it.’’ He indicated a significant detour with his hands; it looked like three sides of a square. ‘A hell of a lot of water.’
A mile or so later I found out what he meant.
The Hell of a Lot of Water
I made an attempt to go round it. It didn’t succeed. Off-track the ground was equally waterlogged but with the addition of undergrowth and thorns. My foot sank deeply into some moss, allowing a trickle of icy water to seep into my boot. I sighed. I really didn’t want to wade through it. I wanted even less to turn back. I would, I decided, ford through it when Hell freezes over.
I looked at the water, which was several inches deep. It had patches of ice on top. It was a (frozen) hell of a lot of water.
I sighed. The only question now was should I take off my boots and socks to keep them dry-ish? No — that, I decided, would doubtless lead to my cutting my shins on the ice. Besides, my boots were pretty waterproof. Perhaps I’d reach the other side with dry feet?
Hell’s Icy Paddling Pool
I splashed on in, accepting the inevitability of that paddle I didn’t want to have. Splash. Splash. Splash…
My boots are quite impressively waterproof. They kept the icy water out right up until it was deeper than they were and topped them. Then they kept the icy water in.
I would have sworn loudly. As it was the cold quite stole all my breath.
On the far side of Hell’s Icy Paddling Pool, I briefly wondered if I should try to empty my boots and put on new socks. I decided to wait, just in case there was more flooding. Such as another five iced water footbath experiences. The final one topped my boots again, refreshing the cold just in case my feet had warmed the water slightly.
A Forest Road
Eventually, thankfully, the track climbed slightly to meet another at right angles, a long, straight and mercifully dry road that carried me out of the forest. I squelched down it at quite a pace.
Beyond Pembrey Forest
The forest ended at an open gate, on which I leant as I took off my boots, tipping out the water and using my socks to sponge them out as much as I could. Even so, when I put on a dry pair of socks they became instantly damp when the boots went back on. I had, I thought to myself, best not hang around. I set off apace, following the path along a side-track that skirted the edge of more marshes.
While I had pretty, snow-topped hills on one side, I had a rather dull and tiny-looking airport on the other although this did offer a couple of minute’s excitement as a helicopter came in to land.
Created in 1939 as RAF Pembrey, the airport played host to the likes of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, leader of the famous Dambusters raid. It also saw some direct action on the ground when a German fighter plane landed in 1942, the pilot having made a pretty huge mistake of navigation after a Bristol Channel dogfight.
Not only had Oberleutnant Arnim Faber landed in the wrong country (he thought it was France, apparently) but he had done so in Germany’s very latest fighter, the Focke-Wulf 190A, so far uncaptured by the British. RAF Pembrey’s astonished duty pilot grabbed the only weapon to hand — a flare gun — and ran out and jumped on the aircraft’s wing, demanding Faber’s surrender. And he got it.
The Airport Today
These days the RAF still uses Pembrey in order to support Pembrey Sands Air Weapons Range, a bombing range taking up a sizeable chunk of the eight-mile beach. The airport is also a small civilian airfield, with plans afoot to enlarge it as ‘Pembrey West Wales International Airport’.
I left the airport behind and passed under a very low bridge under the railway, adorned by the instructive outline of a duck. I did as I was bid and found that it was very necessary — and I’m only 5’ 8”.
On the far side of the bridge was the A484, which led me across the Gwendraeth via the Commissioners’ Bridge, built in 1842 to replace an ancient ford. Its Welsh name remains Pont-y-Rhyd (bridge over the ford).
Burry Port and Gwendreath Valley Railway
I just about touched the outskirts of Kidwelly before the path led me off again, just before a bridge across an overgrown and partly flooded railway line.
This was the long-disused Burry Port and Gwendreath Valley Railway, a colliery line opened in 1859 and which ran until 1996. The line was always prone to flooding, being built partly along the line of the canal that preceded it. It was also officially misnamed, with Gwendraeth misspelt as ‘Gwendreath’ in the Act of Parliament that authorised its construction.
The canal that it superseded was built by local coal magnate Thomas Kymer in 1766 to link his collieries with a quay he built west of Kidwelly. Its final kilometre (0.6 miles) was restored between 1988 and 1990.
The Kymer Canal (Gamlas Kymer) ends at Kidwelly Quay, which is pretty much a dead end (although a sluice lets out the water), next to another quay facing onto the river. It served well enough for the first three decades but then, as is often the way, navigation became both difficult and dangerous as the waterways silted up.
From the quayside a road led me up towards Kidwelly Station, formerly the junction with the Burry Port and Gwendreath Valley Railway. The road became, somewhat inevitably, Station Road as it carried me from the station into Kidwelly itself.
Kidwelly (Cydweli) is a name of uncertain etymology, recorded by Nennius as ‘Cetgueli’ in the ninth century.
The town has a Norman castle and church, the former of which was first constructed in 1106 for Roger, Bishop of Salisbury but later rebuilt on several occasions. Its current remains date variously from between 1200 and 1476 with a significant redesign having been order by King Edward I of England (reigned 1272 to 1307). Longshanks evidently knew what he was doing because the castle successfully withstood a siege by Owain Glyndŵr in 1403, even while his French and Breton allies occupied the town.
The Great Revolt of 1136
Roger, Bishop of Salisbury had been granted Kidwelly by Henry I of England. Upon Henry’s death, an uprising erupted, as the Welsh understandably took advantage of the ensuing civil war between his daughter Matilda and her cousin, Stephen of Blois, to try to regain their lands from the Norman Marcher Lords.
Gruffydd ap Rhys, the Prince of Deheubarth, joined the revolt and travelled north to meet with his father-in-law, Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd. With exquisite timing, Maurice de Londres chose this moment to launch a raid. He was the son of William de Londres, Lord of Ogmore, who had been one of the Twelve Knights who conquered Glamorgan. With the Prince away, Deheubarth was undefended, except…
Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd
Gwenllian, wife of Gruffydd ap Rhys and daughter to Gruffudd ap Cynan, took to the field against Maurice in her husband’s absence. Unfortunately, she suffered a brutal and crushing defeat near Kidwelly Castle. Maurice then had Gwenllian beheaded to make sure she properly got the message.
I passed a community centre named after her in Station Road. Her brother, Owain Gwynedd, went on to become not only Prince of Gwynedd but also the first Prince of Wales.
Visiting the Castle
I had reached Kidwelly well over an hour earlier than scheduled and still had plenty of daylight left, which seemed to me an excellent opportunity to take a proper look at the castle.
Alas, like Owain Glendŵr, I was unable to penetrate its inner defences, which in my case took the form of an apologetic lady who worked for Cadw (the Historic Environment division of the Welsh Government).
The castle was closed she explained, because of the icy conditions. I was suitably disappointed. They were probably right to close though; I wouldn’t trust me not to slip off the battlements either.
Defeated, I slipped away to the B&B in which I was staying, whose lovely owners greeted me with ginger cake and coffee.
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,207½ miles