I AWOKE last Sunday to the sound of rain and headed out into the almost-darkness of early twilight. I figured that where I had left the coast path at the southern edge of St Clears (Sanclêr) was about a mile away and so it should be just before sunrise when I actually resumed walking that path.
And it probably was. But the sun was nowhere in sight.
Downstream Along the Taf
Leaving St Clears
The road south from St Clears was partially closed due to ‘bridge strengthening work’, which if nothing else allowed me to add ‘closed / ar gau’ to my growing list of Useful Welsh Phrases on Signs. The footpath, in a valiant attempt to save walkers from being mown down by traffic on blind corners, ran alongside the road for several stretches on the way.
I looked at the first of these stretches, which was essentially underwater. The rain, picking up on the theme of excess water, doubled in its intensity. I would, I decided, stick with the road. It wasn’t as if traffic would be heavy — not early on a Sunday morning on a partially-closed road. Unlike the rain.
All in all, it should have been pretty miserable but I resolved to enjoy it anyway, even if most of the countryside was hidden in the mist. At some point, the footpath was meant to branch off into the low-lying land skirting alongside the River Taf (Afon Tâf) but I never saw any signs. I only realised I’d passed that point when I recognised a farm name as one I’d seen on the disintegrating blob of papier mâché that had been my map half an hour earlier. Oh well. The path would have been submerged anyway.
I trudged through the rain for about four miles, passing through the hamlet of Cross Inn and entering Laugharne (Talacharn).
The rain had eased off to merely light drizzle at this point and a man clutching a loaf of bread gave me hope that somewhere a shop might be open. The first one I passed had a sign in the window saying ‘ar gau’. So, clearly not that one. I ventured further into the town…
Laugharne, which is pronounced ‘larn’, has been known as such since at least the end of the English Civil War.
Major-General Rowland Laugharne, a Parliamentarian soldier who later rebelled, was a renowned local hero. He was captured and sentenced to death in 1649 but when General Fairfax decided that only one of three such rebels should be executed, he was not the unlucky man who drew the short straw. In prison during the 1650s, he was later elected as MP for Pembroke.
His nephew, John Langhorne (an anglicised version of the surname) emigrated to Virginia where his family became quite influential; the first woman MP, Lady Astor (née Nancy Witcher Langhorne) was one of his descendants.
Prior to becoming ‘Laugharne’ the town was known as Abercorran and was mainly settled by Flemish immigrants, granted refuge and land by Henry I after a twelfth-century flood inundated Flanders. The Flemings were skilled weavers and dyers and it suited Henry’s purpose to both acquire their expertise and to settle non-Welsh people in the Welsh Marches.
There was, of course, a castle — in this case established in 1116 by Robert Courtemain but soon falling into the hands of the princes of Deheubarth, who spent most of the early twelfth century trying not to let the Normans steal their whole country.
In 1171, Rhys ap Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth — commonly referred to as ‘the Lord Rhys’ — made peace with Henry II, having lost and then won back most of his lands, and the castle passed to Sir Guy de Brian, Lord High Admiral of England. The De Brians owned the castle for generations — all of whom were confusingly named Guy — before passing it to the Earls of Northumberland in 1488.
In 1571, Elizabeth I gave it to Sir John Perrot, who was probably an illegitimate son of Henry VIII and thus her half-brother. He converted it into a Tudor mansion before getting himself condemned to death for treason in 1575 and then dying of natural causes before they could cut off his head.
The castle’s last hurrah was during the Civil War, when the Parliamentarian assault that put paid to General Laugharne’s rebellion also put paid to the castle’s structural integrity.
St Martin’s Church
With this in mind, when I spotted some battlements, I assumed I had spotted the castle but no.
St Martin’s is a thirteenth century church on the edge of the town, where it occupies the site of a native Welsh church predating the foundation of Laugharne. In its churchyard lies the grave of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) who spent the last four years of his life in Laugharne.
Infamous Last Words
I’m not a huge fan of Thomas’s poetry, Tennyson and Coleridge are more my kind of thing, but I have to give this alcoholic poet some recognition for his last words, which were:
“I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies… I think that’s the record.”
Laugharne’s town hall is not the home of an ordinary town council but that of Laugharne Corporation, the last surviving chartered mediaeval corporation in the UK (the City of London is similar but also sufficiently old that it doesn’t actually have a charter).
Sir Guy de Brian gave the town its charter in the 1290s, permitting it to elect a Portreeve every six months in order to act as a magistrate and to receive the tolls. And it still does. He wears a chain of golden cockleshells.
Dylan Thomas or Nothing!
Perhaps oddly for a town so steeped in history, Laugharne seems to disregard most of it in favour of focusing on Dylan Thomas, who rented a boat house with his wife and who used the shed-like garage that belonged to it as his writing space. The fictional town of Llareggub (‘bugger all’ backwards) in his radio play Under Milk Wood is thought to be based on Laugharne.
But First, Breakfast
I saw a sign directing me towards the boat house but was initially much more interested in finding that open shop.
Around the corner from the castle I found a Spar which was open and able to sell me supplies for the day, such as water, chocolate, sandwiches and a hot sausage bap that was probably mediocre-shading-to-poor but which could equally have been ambrosia at that point, so delighted was I to have it. I took refuge from the rain beneath a bus shelter in order to consume my breakfast and try to tease open the remnants of my map.
I was well ahead of my schedule and saw that the official coast path should have entered alongside the river, taking in a multitude of Dylan Thomas themed things on the way. I had, I decided, time to backtrack slightly to find his boat house, there to rejoin the official path.
Oh, Go On Then…
A dull grey sky and dark grey sea suggested that the rain might just be regrouping rather than over and I hurried on my way.
Dylan’s Birthday Walk
The official path passed outside the castle walls and climbed atop a low cliff, designated Dylan’s Birthday Walk. This was a two mile muddy cliff path with a few minor ups and down, intended to follow the progress of Thomas’s Poem in October, which was about his own walk on his thirtieth birthday.
There were numerous quotes from the poem on the way and exhortations to see the view as Dylan might have done. These were the work of Bob Stevens, a local farmer and Dylan Thomas enthusiast, but the actual path was made in 1856 by the Laugharne Corporation (some fifty-eight years before Dylan Thomas was born). Rather than a stunning piece of advance tourism planning, the corporation was actually trying to enable local cocklers to reach parts of the marshes normally cut off at high tide.
Laugharne Marshes are a stretch of typical salt marsh jutting out about two miles from beneath the low cliff on which the path stands. The marshes comprise land that has been reclaimed from the sea since the Middle Ages and partially fixed by sand dunes. The cart way below the cliff can be flooded at high tide however.
The Cart Way
At the end of Dylan’s Birthday Walk the path dropped back down off the cliff and joined a muddy farm track that I assumed to be a continuation of the aforementioned cart way. The track led me past several cows, who seemed startled to see me, and then past Salt House Farm. Here I met a woman coming the other way, leading a pony behind her. She bid me ‘good morning,’ adding that it probably wasn’t ideal weather for walking. I was forced to agree with a rueful smile. The pony, which seemed unfussed by the weather, showed a vague interest in my warm, woollen hat. Not really wanting my hat eaten, I quickly moved on.
Before too long the farm track conveyed me back onto a proper road, which in turn led me onto the A4066. The Wales Coast Path ran beside it on a separate footpath in several places but, since each of these was pretty much a quagmire, I decided to stay on the road. Traffic remained light, while rain returned intermittently.
Plashett, Brook & Llanmiloe
The A4066 led me through a sequence of tiny hamlets and villages: Plashett, Brook (a different Brook to the previous day) and Llanmiloe. This last was fairly strung out along the road, with a primary school and several blocky twentieth century houses plus a few shops (two were closed, a third was closed down).
Llanmiloe grew up during WW2 to service a Ministry of Defence establishment beside it, which used the neighbouring marshes as a firing range. The MOD base is still there, now operated by QinetiQ, and access is accordingly limited.
The establishment includes a 1,500m test track, the longest in Europe, a relic of the long, flat expanse of Pendine Sands being home to motor races in the 1920s, not to mention no less than five successful world land speed record attempts by Malcolm Campbell and J.G. Parry-Thomas. A final attempt by Parry-Thomas in 1927 ended in tragedy.
A little further down the road and at the end of Pendine Sands lay the village of Pendine itself. An arty tyre-tracks-on-sand embankment design flanked a sign taking proud ownership of all those nearby land speed record attempts. Immediately beyond the sign, the waterlogged marsh had overflowed onto the road.
Pendine (Pentywyn, ‘dune top ’) consists of an old hill-top settlement, centred around the parish church, and a smaller harbour settlement on the shore. Although it’s only really smaller if you ignore the vast expanse of caravans and holiday homes through which you approach it.
I found a café in Pendine, which furnished me with tea and a ham and cheese panini. While I consumed these, the skies opened again but conveniently stopped raining just as I finished. Now, refuelled and rested, I was ready for anything.
Or so I thought.
Gilman & Ragwen Points
The path out of Pendine was largely made out of steps, as it climbed from sea level to the top of Gilman Point, which is about 90 m up. The steps were muddy, as was the path. And no sooner had it finished climbing than it made its way straight back down again into a valley. There I found a diversion sign, warning that the path had been shifted inland a bit.
‘Inland’ so far as I could tell, meant straight up the 100+ m Ragwen Point side of the valley
I really wasn’t too impressed with how muddy the path was. The path apparently misunderstood this and thought it had to try harder with its muddiness. The result was that for the next few miles the path was almost entirely like this:
I say that it was only ‘almost’ all like that because there were some bits that were worse. Five minutes after taking that picture, I found a boggier stretch on a slope, unsure if it was a path or a river. At the bottom of the incline was a boardwalk, ending at least a hundred metres short of anywhere useful.
‘Okay,’ I said to myself, ‘I have walking poles, I have waterproof boots. I can do this.’ I carefully picked my way down…
About halfway down I put my foot on what looked like a good spot only to find that it wasn’t. My whole foot disappeared beneath the mud and I felt a little splodge of it slip down inside my boot.
‘You bastard!’ I shouted aloud, snapping at the universe in general. ‘Yes, thank you. That is about the worst thing you could do to me right now.’
I knew it was a mistake the moment the words left my lips. So did the universe, which begged to differ with my opinion. I raised my foot from the squelching, sucking mud and all of a sudden the rest of the mud jumped up to hit me in the back.
‘Why am I looking at the sky?’ I wondered. ‘Ah.’
As I carefully stood up again, I had to admit the universe had a point. Falling over backwards had been far worse than getting mud in my boot. I conceded the point.
Marros Beacon & Teague’s Wood
Thereafter the path reverted from ‘muddy water’ back to ‘watery mud’ and I found it much easier going now that it no longer mattered that much if I stayed upright. I resolved to enjoy the rest of the walk no matter how squelchy it was.
I followed the semi-liquid trail past the heights of Marros Beacon and down into Teague’s Wood, where the last wild wolf in Wales was supposedly killed. Mind you, the last wild wolf in Wales was also supposedly killed in a bunch of other places too, which suggests a somewhat theatrical farewell tour by the dying wolf.
First Sight of Tenby
Looking ahead, I suddenly realised that I could see Tenby — in theory at least. It still looked a long way off, insofar as I could make it out at all.
Not long thereafter, I reached Telpyn Point and then the boundary with Pembrokeshire. From here on in I would not only be following the Wales Coast Path but simultaneously the Pembrokeshire Coast Path (the latter is now part of the former). The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a National Trail, which meant I would be seeing the familiar acorn-shaped waymarks in addition to those of the WCP.
I picked up my pace, pleased to have reached another county, and remembered with amusement the quiet insistence of the previous evening’s hotel receptionist (Pembrokeshire born and raised) that her county was best. Picking up my pace, it turned out, was absolutely necessary. The mud had made things very slow going and I’d burned up my lead and was now running late. I would not be stopping to rest in Amroth as planned.
Amroth is the official start (or end) of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. It is a small village with a long beach on which, at extreme low tide, the petrified remains of a submerged forest can be seen. The forest was drowned by rising sea levels about seven thousand years ago.
Amroth’s name means ‘on the [brook called] Rhath’. It has no connection whatsoever with the hill and city of Dol Amroth, a principality of Gondor in Tolkein’s Middle Earth, and has never dispatched an army of Swan Knights to assist in defending Minas Tirith.
Knights of a non-swan variety were once in residence though, in the inevitable Norman castle. The original is long-gone, replaced by an eighteenth century house; these days it is a privately-owned holiday centre.
Amroth has several shops and a café, which sold me a bottle of water — I’d had so much all over my outside that my insides were feeling left out. It also has a sixteenth century pub called the New Inn, which is where I would have stopped if I’d had time.
The path onwards from Amroth was also a cycle-path (NCN 4) and could therefore be expected to have manageable gradients and something approaching solid ground. It turned out to be properly metalled and pleasantly leafy and I clawed back some vital minutes as I made my way to Wiseman’s Bridge.
Wiseman’s Bridge is a tiny hamlet beside a rocky beach. The beach was used in 1943 for a rehearsal of the D-Day landings and Winston Churchill visited Wiseman’s Bridge to oversee it. In a nice bit of tying things together, however spuriously, Churchill and Lady Astor (a descendant of the Laugharne-family, remember) loathed and despised each other.
Wiseman’s Bridge originally depended on the mining of coal, specifically high-quality anthracite. This was mined at Stepaside in what was then the Merrixton Valley and is now called Pleasant Valley. After attempts to build a canal failed in the 1790s (the gradient was too steep — it would have needed to be entirely made of locks), horse-drawn trams were used to transport the coal to Wiseman’s Bridge and then on to the harbour at Saundersfoot.
Steam replaced horses in 1874 and continued until 1940 when the exhausted pits closed and the track was torn up. The old rail line or ‘dramway’ has now been resurfaced as a footpath and cycle path and the section between Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot was where I next needed to go. It includes three old railway tunnels. The first was quite long and an excellent chance to try out my new LED torch.
The tunnels and path conveyed me to the harbour of Saundersfoot.
Saundersfoot’s harbour was built in 1829 by the Saundersfoot Railway and Harbour Company and handled coal and iron ore from nearby mines. The village grew up around it to serve the port ,which had expanded by 1837 to have no less than five jetties.
While the coal tramways are gone, replaced by footpaths, the town is still served by a mainline railway, with its station about a mile from the village centre.
Rest and Review
I paused in Saundersfoot for a brief rest and to consult my map and the clock on my phone. I had three miles to go to Tenby and could make my train so long as I kept up a reasonable pace. If I missed my train, I’d be looking at either a hectic and expensive taxi-dash to make my connections or else a hotel room for the night and new tickets in the morning. A workday morning no less, which would mean trying to get back to London before 9am. All in all, catching my train would be best.
Invisible Bike Time
On their way out of Saundersfoot the footpath and cycle path parted company. The footpath clung to the coastline, no doubt enjoying the first proper stretch of Pembrokeshire’s spectacular coast. The cycle path diverted inland, initially following a typical suburban street. I very much wanted to follow the coast path but I knew that it would be more difficult going — if it were easy, the cycle path would have followed the same route. Mud and/or steps would cost me valuable time…
The suburban street was pretty dull and went on for longer than I expected, with very few signs for NCN 4. I was confident I was going the right way but unsure as to the extent of my progress when I found a sign that predated the cycle route by quite a while:
St Anne’s Church
The suburban road joined the A477 for a while, which is a proper primary route although not a dual carriageway. That while turned out to be mercifully short and soon I was heading up a narrow, tree-lined lane. But not before I’d passed this:
Tenby Town Cemetery
The leafy lane led me to an equally leafy bridleway, which carried me into Tenby. On the way it passed the gates of the town council’s cemetery and I found myself wandering in. I was making good time on the cycle route but I didn’t have long to waste. What I did have was a large, empty cemetery to myself, with many benches to sit on, affording me a five minute rest in peace.
Renewed, I bounded down into Tenby (Dinbych-y-pysgod — ‘little town of the fishes’), a place I’d not been to since I was a boy. It’s a lot prettier and more colourful than I remember, mostly because I don’t really remember it.
Still, I liked what I saw and when I asked for directions to the station five people tried to help at once.
I made the station with twenty minutes to spare, giving me time to find somewhere to change my muddy clothes. My train, when it arrived, was a rail replacement bus service, just one of many on my way home. It took three such buses and three trains but I got there eventually.
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,259 miles