ONE week ago (as I write this), I awoke sprawled across a bed in the descriptively named Kidwelly B&B to realise that the previous evening I had just sat down for five minutes, ahead of getting food, and accidentally slept for twelve hours. I guess I was running a bit of a sleep deficit; too many late nights and early mornings will do that for you.
I cannot praise the proprietors of the Kidwelly B&B highly enough. A couple from Birmingham, they are most definitely doing what they are doing out of a love of it, and of Kidwelly and Carmarthenshire, rather than purely as a business.
I had already been greeted on arrival with coffee and cake (something which had only ever previously happened in the award-winning Blackmore Farm in Somerset); breakfast I had booked for eight, having had my ‘when is breakfast?’ query answered with ‘when do you want it?’ Apparently they don’t like to set rules and time limits unless absolutely necessary.
Indeed, the only downside I could find is that they can’t always hear their doorbell — a sign in the window tells you to phone them if they fail to open the door. And my phone was having trouble finding a signal, which led to me doing that weird, pseudo-balletic Dance of the Signal Quest, in which I successfully made the requisite phone call standing on tip-toe shouting to my phone, which clutched in a hand extended high above my head. I probably could have just shouted.
Suitably filled up on a Carmarthenshire breakfast, which is much like the full English kind but with the addition of a potato and leek cake, I bade them farewell and set off back to the top of Station Road, there to resume my walk. It was a cold, crisp morning but there had been no further snow.
The path turned into Bridge Street, which proved well-named, and thus I crossed the Gwendraeth. Waymarks then led me through a small car park onto a footpath that ran next to the river.
Glancing over my shoulder, I could see the dark, lumpy shape of Kidwelly Castle peeking over the buildings but was rapidly distracted from this by a man who appeared to be wrestling with two dire wolves on leads. Or they might have been Alsatians crossed with bears. Giant, mutant bears. They were excited, rather than bellicose, and I bid their owner, whose efforts to control them were demonstrably futile, a cheerful ‘good morning’ even as I gave them a wide berth.
The path led me to a road, of the quiet, country, unclassified kind, which also ran alongside the Gwendraeth, curving around on its way to Ferryside. Admittedly, Sunday morning was unlikely to be its busiest time but I saw only one vehicle, namely a beaten-up looking Land Rover towing a trailer full of farm stuff.
I could have followed the road all the way to Ferryside (about three miles), skirting the bottom of a hill. I could have but I didn’t.
The map and the waymarks were sending the Wales Coast Path (Llwybr Afordir Cymru) off at a right angle, straight up the hill, and I elected to stick with it. The point at which the footpath left the road was the farmstead and dairy farm of Penallt (meaning hilltop).
Penallt includes on the edge of its complex the ivy-covered ruin of a mediaeval building, once the home of the Dwnn family.
A John Dwnn ‘of Pennolth’ is recorded in 1393 and fifty years later his relative, Gruffudd Dwnn — described as a ‘nobleman, esquire, lord of the place of Penallt in the demesne of Kedwelly’ — received permission from the Pope to have a portable altar installed at his home.
Gruffudd Dwnn, who had held the post of High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire from 1432 to 1435, had previously fought with the armies of Henry V in France, a real-life version of Shakespeare’s character Fluellen. His son, Sir John Dwnn, also became High Sheriff in 1463.
Wars with France aside, Penallt also has a much earlier association with violence, in that St Oudoceas (Euddogwy in Welsh), a late seventh century Bishop of Llandeilo Fawr, was attacked by men from ‘the rocks of Pen Allt’, when travelling in the area.
Not being a seventh century bishop, I wasn’t attacked by any men. There was however a dog running about in the yard and, farm dogs tending to be a bit territorial about their farms, I forewent invading their space to ask if I could peer at the ruin. Instead, I pressed on.
The footpath led up an icy unmade track that I assumed was purely a farm access track until I saw that my Ordnance Survey map has it marked as ‘other route with public access’, suggesting that anyone can drive up it providing they own a tractor or a Land Rover or other suitable vehicle.
The icy track turned left and became a seriously muddy track along the hill, before resuming its icy path upwards along a now metalled road. This was a narrow road linking a farm called Parc Cwm and the village of Llansaint. I paused beside the entrance to Parc Cwm to take in the view across the Gwendraeth Estuary.
The road from Parc Cwm into Llansaint was very icy indeed and I literally watched my every step.
Llansaint is a village now mostly comprising a huddle of nineteenth century houses, built beside the Grade II listed All Saints’ Church. The relative modernity of the houses belie the village’s age, it is said to date back to the fifth century, when it grew up around a cemetery.
All Saints’ Church
The earliest mention of the church is in 1115, when it was a chapel belonging to Sherbourne Abbey in Dorset. The nave and chancel are probably twelfth century, with the tower having been added in the fifteenth. The church as a whole underwent restoration in 1862.
I carefully picked my way along Llansaint’s treacherously icy streets, passing dozens of snowmen on my way.
The footpath left the road along a farm track and then, at Parcmaenllyd Farm, it left even that, striking out into a field. For the first time that day, I would be walking in snow.
Allt y Fran
At the bottom of the hill I crossed a road and a small stream before climbing up an equivalent hill to the one I’d just come down. This was surprisingly warm work and I paused at the top to reduce the number of layers I was wearing by one. Somewhere in the distance, a dog was barking, which sounded very like the Mother of All Mutant Bear-Wolves, its booming cry echoing down the valley.
A gate led me onto an unclassified road, which in turn led me to Pengay Farm. In the eighteenth century, this was the seat of Bevan family, who were prominent supporters of Methodism; the farm buildings date from about that time.
In keeping with an earlier theme, one of the Bevans, John Howell Bevan, was High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire in 1822.
The way onward from Pengay Farm was not immediately obvious, not least because many of the waymarks were obscured by snow. Indeed, I got quite adept at spotting likely candidates so that I could brush off the snow and confirm I was going the right way.
Having found the path, I struck out over more snowy fields and discovered the not unmixed pleasures of climbing over ice-covered stiles. These led me to a leafy path, which in turn led me on towards Ferryside.
The footpath led me along above Ferryside for a while, before dropping down into the centre of the village.
Where the footpath met the road I passed a metal pole, painted in flaking black and white paint, which I recognised as the post of a pre-Warboys road sign. The finial and actual sign were long gone, although the bracket to hold the finial was still in place. I took a picture but later deleted it; a signpost without a sign on it is hardly thrilling.
Ferryside (Glan y Fferi) was originally just a landing-place for the Llansteffan Ferry. The ferry was ancient — in 1188 it was used by the mediaeval chronicler Gerald of Wales — and a small fishing village developed around it. It grew significantly when the railway arrived in 1852, since it now had good transport links to Carmarthen and Swansea as well as the ferry service across the Towy to Llansteffan.
‘Battle of Alma Bank’
These days, it is mostly a popular place for retirement and is much quieter and more peaceful than has been the case in the past: in its fishing village days there was much friction between the seiners of Ferryside and Llansteffan (using fishing boats and dragnets) and the coracle men of Carmarthen. This came to head in 1864 with a running battle between them, known as the ‘Battle of Alma Bank’ after the first battle of the Crimean War, which had occurred ten years earlier.
‘The Cockle Wars’
Fishing, of a sort, became contentious once again in the twentieth century when rival cockling gangs, taking advantage of the fact that cockling in the Towy was unlicensed, took great umbrage at each others’ presence. Gangs from the Gower, Liverpool, the Dee Estuary and Glasgow fought running battles known locally as ‘the Cockle Wars’ during 1993.
In the centre of Ferryside stands the station, a post office, two pubs and a general store, the latter of which furnished me with snacks. I sat for a while in the village square, watching a tractor amble slowly past and thinking on the history of this unremarkable-looking place.
Napoleonic-era General Sir Thomas Picton lived near the village on an estate called Iscoed. The general was famously killed at Waterloo wearing a top hat and civilian clothes because his luggage (with his uniform in it) had failed to arrive in time for the battle.
Another resident of historical note was Hugh Williams, a nineteenth century lawyer and Chartist who played a key part in the Rebecca Riots, a series of violent protests by local farmers against high taxes and tolls. The riots were so named because they disguised themselves in women’s clothes
Rotten Pill Farm
Had the ferry been running, I could have crossed the Towy to Llansteffan and cut out a long inland detour to Carmarthen, where the lowest bridge can be found. Unfortunately, I had missed the last ferry by about sixty-five years and so I followed the road out of Ferryside, before branching off onto a smaller side road that took me past the large stone house of Rotten Pill Farm.
Upstream Along the Towy
Startled Men with Shotguns
This road ran alongside the railway line and I passed a parked van next to where a side-track crossed the line. A few feet further on were two men, looking out over the fields with shotguns in their hands. They seemed startled by my sudden appearance, which I imagine is not a good thing to be when handling a firearm. I greeted them cheerily and they replied likewise before I hurried away from them, following the path as it veered slightly inland and started climbing a hill.
The path led me further up the hill to a farm named Bronyn, which was purchased by General Picton in 1812 along with other large tracts of land in and around Iscoed.
The general was an efficient soldier but not the most wonderful human being, with a tendency towards gratuitous brutality and bullying behaviour, not to mention a staunch pro-slavery outlook. He only got to enjoy owning Bronyn for three years, though, before meeting his maker at Waterloo.
Ninety-nine years later, as a new war broke out in Europe, his inheritors sold off Bronyn along with half the family estates. Mostly they were sold to sitting tenants.
The path became a metalled road again after Bronyn, for which I was grateful as it made it easy going while continuing up a hill.
Cwmburry Honey Farm
I stepped out of the road and paused in the entrance to a driveway to consult my map and check my progress. As I did so, the first, and indeed only, car that I saw on that road approached before slowing to a stop. Its driver wanted to turn down the driveway that I was now blocking instead of the road. Of course he did.
I stepped out of the way and he thanked me without rancour or sarcasm, which I thought showed a surprisingly calm and patient temperament. And then my map showed me where I was.
Blaengwastad, Trelymsi and Hampstead Farms
From Cwmburry, the path continued along the road for some distance, passing farms with names such as Blaengwastad, Trelymsi and Hampstead.
At Trelymsi, there was a T-junction which had no waymarks at all. I was pretty sure I needed to go straight on and was just about to consult a map when a bloke reversed out of a shed in a tractor and whistled to get my attention. I looked over and he pointed the right way. He then whistled sharply again, a short, sharp whistle, quite different in sound, which stopped his dog halfway between me and the tractor and brought it to heel beside his wheel.
I gave him a huge thumbs-up and shouted my thanks over the racket of his tractor; his combination of unsolicited helpfulness and excellent dog control demanded that at the very least.
The road ended at a farm called Pentrecwm, whose courtyard was all whitewashed buildings with painted blue doors.
The footpath slipped around the side of the farm complex and into a field made entirely of ankle-deep mud, cunningly hidden beneath a thin veneer of snow. And that was at the top of the hill, God knows how boggy it must have been at the bottom. I do feel that if a field is going to be covered with snow then the mud underneath should have the common decency to freeze solid. But no.
Anyway, from here on in, ankle-deep mud of the thick, cloggy, boot-stealing kind would be a significant feature of the afternoon.
I got lost in the next field for several minutes as the waymark arrow was only pointing vaguely in the right direction and the field was at about forty degrees off horizontal.
A Surfeit of Mud
When I found the way onwards, it led me into a little wooded valley with a delightful splashing stream and paths of thick mud. Beyond this lay a field containing three horses and ankle-deep mud, another stream and then some more mud, although this was — for variety’s sake — more like shin-deep.
I wasn’t surprised therefore, when a stile led me out of a field into a farm track made of pure mud. I was, however, very surprised when the next stile led me into someone’s well-tended garden. Initially I thought I must have gone astray but no, it was indeed the path, cutting through onto a road.
The garden in question belonged to a farm house called Gellylednais. It appeared to have an old water wheel in its grounds, which I glimpsed through the hedgerow from the road.
The road led me to a farmstead called Bryntowy and then to Towy Castle, an eighteenth century mansion (and never a castle) which is now a residential care home. There, the path struck out across fields again, keen to explore the further squelchy possibilities of mud. Fortunately those came to an end at a farm called Cwmyrarian.
From the ruins of Cwmyrarian, I was now back to walking on a farm track, which quickly became a proper road. This led on to a bridge over stream, on which I rested, beside a house called Felin Plas-gwyn (‘white mansion mill’). A little further on, the narrow road joined a slightly larger one, and that led me on towards Croesyceiliog.
Croesyceiliog means ‘cockerel’s cross’ in English (croes y ceiliog, ‘cross of the cockerel’) which could mean exactly what it says, or could equally mean a weather vane.
There’s an old water pump beside the road near the centre of the village but if there’s a shop or a pub then I didn’t see it.
The village has been around since at least 1840 (I’ve seen it on an OS map dating to then) but scouring the internet for some history about it (as opposed to, say, the other Croesyceiliog in Torfaen) suggests strongly that it (a) doesn’t exist and yet simultaneously (b) every house in it is for sale. Sometimes the internet is quite annoying.
I left Croesyceiliog no better informed about it than when I arrived. Ahead of me, in the distance, I could see Carmarthen awaiting my arrival.
I now passed, firstly, a disused quarry site and then the very much in use Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Bro Myrddin (Myrddin Borough Welsh Comprehensive School), a Welsh-language school founded in 1978 on the site of a former boys’ grammar school.
It is named for Myrddin Willt, a sixth century prophet and madman from Welsh legend who was said to have been born in Carmarthen but who lived in exile in the Caledonian Forest in Strathclyde (where, at that time, the same Brythonic language was spoken as in Wales).
Geoffrey of Monmouth
When Geoffrey of Monmouth took the old legends and embellished them, he renamed Myrddin as ‘Merlin’ and placed him a century earlier — in the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus and (possibly) Arthur. He also gave him a chunk of Ambrosius’s history plus a bunch of other stories he seemingly just made up.
Meanwhile, poor old Ambrosius — one of the few people explicitly named by Gildas — had his name garbled into ‘Aurelius Ambrosius’. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who essentially invented the Arthurian Legend as we know it, annoys me more than the internet .
After the school there came a big roundabout, with an exit to Pibwrlwyd, one of the campuses of Coleg Sir Gâr (Carmarthenshire College). I took another exit, which carried me into Carmarthen proper by way of a retail estate and a road with more tyre-changing establishments than one street can possibly need.
I reached Carmarthen Station (built 1902, the third station to serve the town) with an hour to spare before my train and so sat and had a restful cup of tea before seeking out the castle.
Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin) claims to be the oldest town in Wales. It was certainly the most populous between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Carmarthen is much older than that though, having been a Roman civitas under the name of Moridunum Demetarum, meaning ‘sea fort of the Demetae tribe’. It was the capital of the Demetae.
The fort in question lasted from about 75, when it may have replaced an earlier hill fort, to 120 when the town was demilitarised. Its name became Caerfyrddin in Welsh, which may have helped bring about the legendary association with Myrddin (or Merlin).
Black Book of Carmarthen
A number of poems connected with the legends of Arthur and Merlin are recorded in the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin), which is the earliest surviving manuscript written entirely in Welsh. It dates from about 1250 — about a century after the death of Geoffrey of Monmouth — and also contains poems on a variety of religious subjects. It is stored in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
Carmarthen remained a town within the mediaeval kingdom of Deheubarth, at least until it was overrun by invading Normans. One such Norman, William FitzBaldwin built a castle in about 1094, which was then destroyed by Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn Fawr), Prince of Gwynedd, in 1215.
Rebuilt in 1223 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, it was once again taken and sacked by the native Welsh, when Owain Glyndŵr took it in 1405. By 1456, it had become a possession of Edmund Tudor (Edmwnd Tewdwr), the father of Henry VII.
The castle’s end came after the English Civil War, during which possession of Carmarthen changed several times. It was slighted after the conclusion of the war and later used as a gaol. Today little remains of the once massive structure, with only part of the keep, the gatehouse and a section of curtain wall surviving.
Mission Almost Impossible
I wandered idly round the castle before heading off to try to find a shop that might be open at half past five on a Sunday afternoon in a small town in Wales. I eventually found a Co-op that was open and chose to buy white chocolate cookies in lieu of actual food.
Munching my cookies, I passed back through the old market square and beneath the statue of General William Nott (1782-1845), hero of the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Nott was born in Neath but lived in Carmarthen, at least when he wasn’t in Kandahar, routing the Afghan armies. Given that our troops are currently fighting in Afghanistan (our part of which conflict we are absolutely not calling ‘the Fourth Anglo-Afghan War’) the General’s presence had rather more resonance than one might have expected.
Most services from Carmarthen Station are Arriva Trains Wales services between Swansea and Milford Haven or Fishguard. There is, however, one train a day run by First Great Western, which goes directly to London Paddington. That, of course, was the train that I caught; still munching cookies I let it speed me home.
This time: 12½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,220 miles