LXVIII – Merthyr Mawr to Port Talbot

Hasteful MammalI WOKE up early on Sunday morning, stretched, yawned, turned off my alarm and got out of bed, ready to do some more walking. As I stood up, I almost swore under my breath but I didn’t, mostly because that breath had just exhaled itself involuntarily. I had, it turned out, most definitely got blisters on the balls of my feet.

Clearly I wasn’t going to be walking all day. Or if I was, it was going to be with pain accompanying every single step.  And that would just be silly. Right?

I reserve the right to act sillily. And also to use the word ‘sillily’, which is a perfectly good adverb (it was used by Samuel Pepys, no less).

Merthyr Mawr

Returning from Bridgend

Having got up and limped outside to find a dull, grey morning that was not so much threatening as promising to rain, I decided to buy some water of the bottled kind in case I need some internally too. I then set about retracing my steps down Merthyr Mawr Road until I arrived back at that village. On the way I passed a number of early morning joggers and a small foal in a field which watched me uncertainly as I passed, looking to its mother for reassurance.  Mother Mare didn’t even look up; that would have involved a pause in some important eating she was doing.

I returned to Merthyr Mawr half an hour ahead of when I’d planned and immediately sat down on a handy bench muttering something along the lines of ‘ow, ow, my feet’. 

Merthyr Mawr is picture postcard idyllic, with thatched cottages and a small, triangular green with a tree on it.

St Teilo’s Church

Its church, St Teilo’s, dates only to 1852 but was built on the site of a much older (but ruinous) predecessor. The saint to whom it is dedicated, Teilo, was a sixth century monk and bishop from Pembrokeshire who travelled through Wales, Dumnonia and Brittany and founded a number of monasteries. 

The village’s name also speaks to a long-held Christian connection; while it literally means ‘great martyr’, an actual meaning of ‘great martyrium’ can be implied. 

The Mysterious Martyr

To whom the martyrium would have been dedicated is not immediately obvious (not necessarily St Teilo) but an older name for the village was apparently ‘Merthyr Glewis’, which suggests Glywys, the fifth century King of Glywysing (which was named after him and later became known as Glamorgan). 

Just to be contrary, other sources claim it was ‘Merthyr Myfor’ with the personal name Myfor having been confused with the word ‘mawr’ (meaning ‘great’ or ‘large’). Myfor was an obscure saint but one who was actually martyred (in 411) unlike, say, King Glywys. But Glywys does actually have memorial stones inscribed to him somewhere in the village. Apparently.

Merthyr Mawr village green
I was feeling like a ‘great martyr’ to blisters as I sat by the green.
Merthyr Mawr Warren

From Merthyr Mawr, the Wales Coast Path followed a narrow and ultimately dead-end road that led westwards to Candleston Castle and the sand dunes of Merthyr Mawr Warren

As I walked it, a car pulled up alongside me and a cheery-sounding Mancunian voice enquired if it was ‘the way to the sand dunes’. It was, in a big way: if Merthyr Mawr Warren is taken in combination with the other dunes arrayed along the coast (give or take the odd conurbation) then they form the largest dune complex in Europe. Merthyr Mawr Warren alone covers quite an area and was apparently used to film some of the scenes in the film Lawrence of Arabia.

Candleston Castle

The road ended in a mostly empty car park, which served both the dunes and Candleston Castle. The latter was a fourteenth century fortified manor house built for the (Norman) Cantilupe family, from whom its name derives.

Although in ruins since the nineteenth century, Candleston has managed not to be swallowed by the sands on account of sitting on a rocky promontory, unlike the nearby village of Tregenllaw, which was buried.

River Ogmore

I made my way across the dunes, which seemed to be absolutely teeming with snails, and was just starting to feel that I was making about as much progress as they were when I regained the mouth of the River Ogmore (Afon Ogwr). There I paused to look across to Ogmore-by-Sea (Aberogwr) before setting off along a beach that looked sandy on my map but rather stonier on the ground.

Traeth yr Afon
Traeth yr Afon
The beach revels in the imaginative name of Traeth yr Afon, which simply means ‘beach of the river’ in Welsh. Wales, like Cornwall, prefers to stick with the ‘what exactly is it?’ school of toponymy.

The beach curved around a bay with the sea on my left and dunes on my right and water falling out of the sky overhead.  This last was neither unexpected nor particularly welcome as it rapidly turned from a shower into a fairly serious downpour against which my cagoule proved largely ineffective.  

Porthcawl

Beach Road

Fortunately, the beach soon ended on the outskirts of Porthcawl, where a number of hotels huddled for warmth and protection on an outlying coast road. 

One of these boasted an open café of the sort described as ‘family run’, which in this case meant one teenage lad from that family, desperately trying to catch up with himself as the place filled with people escaping from the rain.  It took him a while before my tea and cooked breakfast arrived but I could hardly hold that against him, in truth he wasn’t doing too badly considering he was on his own.

Trecco Bay

By the time I had finished my breakfast the rain had ceased and I had dried off to merely uncomfortably damp, drying out further in the gentle breeze as I passed the large caravan park —Trecco Bay (Traeth Trecco) — that dominated the eastern seafront of Porthcawl. 

On the far side of that I found the actual town and I stopped to buy an ice cream from a kiosk near the harbour. It wasn’t really ice cream weather but I was determined. 

Porthcawl Harbour

Porthcawl’s harbour is a remnant of its days as a busy nineteenth century coal port, before competitors such as Barry and Cardiff took away its trade. Porthcawl recovered somewhat as a holiday resort, and thus has no shortage of hotels, but the harbour remained a grim, mostly empty rectangle with its ladders and railings all twisted or rusted away. 

A huge, colourful hoarding nearby showed that there are plans afoot to change this however; a £3.2m dockside redevelopment will soon see it transformed into a marina for pleasure craft as Porthcawl tries to reverse the slow haemorrhaging of its tourist trade too.

Porthcawl Harbour
It will take a bit of prettying up.
Lighthouse & Jennings Building

On a stone pier next to (and part of) the harbour stands a lighthouse built in 1860 and a warehouse, the grade II listed Jennings Building, built in 1832. The latter is the oldest maritime warehouse in Wales while the former was the last coal and gas powered lighthouse in the UK, not being electrified until 1997.

PS Waverley

If this gives the impression that, the marina project aside, Porthcawl is a little resistant to change perhaps I should also mention PS Waverley, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world, which steams down from the Clyde and calls into Porthcawl in the September of each year.

Promenade
Porthcawl promenade
Who needs change? With its hotels, Victorian promenade and dull grey skies full of rain, Porthcawl has mastered the essentials of being a seaside resort in Great Britain.

I strolled along the promenade, built in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, and it actually became quite busy as the threat of further rain diminished. 

I passed the Grand Pavilion, a theatre and concert venue etc. built in 1932 (the low domed building in the centre of the above photo) and several more hotels until, after a while, most of the buildings stopped but the road continued with the path alongside it. Ahead, I saw this:

The Rest
The Rest
I reckon the other Porthcawl hotels are just too intimidated by it to spread out in its direction.

The large building ahead was the Rest, a hotel originally established (in 1878) by Dr James Lewis as a convalescent home for adult male patients, mostly sick and injured industrial workers. 

The Rest opened to women in 1893 and to children in 1901. These days it is both a convalescent hotel and a straightforward ordinary one and is run as a charitable trust. It has excellent views over Rest Bay.

Rest Bay

Rest Bay turned out to have a wide sandy beach, overlooked by low, rocky cliffs and overseen by not just the Rest a but also a lifeguard station. The path dropped down to the top of the beach where it followed the course of a wooden boardwalk, erected in 2010 to make the beach more accessible to wheelchair users and people with pushchairs. 

Rest Bay boardwalk
The boardwalk made for easy going but I feared that wheelchairs and pushchairs would make short work of the unsuspecting snails that were making their way across it.
Like this one, who has just made it to safety. It’s a white-lipped snail (Cepaea hortensis), as opposed to the slightly larger brown-lipped snail (Cepaea nemoralis), the lip in question being that of the shell, not the actual animal. I think it’s quite pretty. For a snail. Apparently C hortensis is edible, although not all that tasty.

Sker

Ffynnon-wen Rocks

The boardwalk conveyed me as far as Ffynnon-wen Rocks, accompanied for much of the distance by a young family ambling along a few paces behind me.  The thin, whiny voice of one of their boys cut through the air as he complained about his brother.

‘Daaaaaad,’ he whined, ‘He won’t play with me. I said “shall we have a swordfight?” and he said, “no, I don’t want to have a swordfight.” Tell him.’

‘Eh?’ replied the bemused father. ‘I don’t want you to have a swordfight. Give me that stick…’

Sker Point

After Ffynnon-wen Rocks, the path became a mere track, leading me to Sker Point.

Sker Point
Here the sand was now mostly underwater and rugged rocks were left exposed.
Kenfig Burrows
Ahead however were the dunes of Kenfig Burrows and beyond them the River Kenfig and Margam Steel Works.

Kenfig

Kenfig Burrows

Kenfig Sands and Kenfig Burrows together form a massive expanse of dunes, another part of the aforementioned largest dune complex in Europe.  Somewhere beneath them lies the walled town and former borough of Kenfig (Cynffig) and the stubby, protruding remains of Kenfig Castle

The Other Kenfig

There is also a current village of Kenfig but it is further inland than the old town. Nonetheless it is a direct continuation of the mediaeval town, formed when the remaining townsfolk fled inland, having realised that they could not keep the sands at bay.

Kenfig Footbridge

I followed the path along the edge of Kenfig Burrows for what seemed like an age, albeit an enjoyable age — I like dunes and I love the romance of lost towns beneath them. I wasn’t yet sure what to expect ahead, however.

The Wales Coast Path is intended to cross the River Kenfig (Afon Cynffig) via footbridge near its mouth, the main problem with this being that they haven’t built it yet.  I was hoping against hope that they might have, given that the last target date for completion was in June, two months previously.  If not, it meant a big detour inland followed by some dull roadside walking.  Surely, it must be in place by now?

Wales Coast Path diversion notice
Guess again.
Diversion through the Dunes

I followed the arrow on the diversion post with my eyes, taking in the diversionary route. A mile and a half of trail led across Kenfig Burrows to the tiny village of Mawdlam.

Kenfig Burrows
There are worse diversions.
Mawdlam

Mawdlem or Maudlem derives its name from its church, St Mary Magdelene, which was built around 1255 for the people of Kenfig (who needed a church not being swallowed by the dunes, unlike St James’s in Kenfig).

St Mary Magdelene
St Mary Magdelene, Mawdlam. Remaining successfully above ground for seven hundred and fifty-odd years.
Kenfig Castle

From Mawdlam, another path led me back into the dunes, cutting across a corner of the burrows. There, I passed within a stone’s throw of Kenfig Castle and thus presumably over the old town, not that you could tell from the path. 

M4 Motorway

The path emerged from the dunes near a railway line and, following the railway’s example, ducked under the busy carriageways of the M4 Motorway.

M4 motorway bridge, Kenfig Burrows
Is this what’s meant by the ‘high road’?

Pyle

Doubling Back

The path now led me across a road, under the railway and along a track past a farm that trains racehorses. I then crossed a couple of fields and a foot bridge over the Kenfig before another farm track led me into the village of Pyle (Y Pîl). 

Pyle is pretty much due north of Porthcawl, which I had left heading north-westwards, meaning that the diversion had led me to double back on myself, which was annoying. 

St James’s Church

In Pyle I joined the A48 not far from the village’s church, St James’s, whose construction included stones taken from St James’s church in the original Kenfig.

A48 Trunk Road

A handy garage furnished me with drinks and snacks and then I set off along the A48 towards Margam and Port Talbot.  I had at least three miles of walking beside a main road ahead of me, which wasn’t exactly the highlight of the day, but the Bridgend District Turnpike Trust had apparently had the foresight to make it a little more interesting by erecting these at one mile intervals in 1841:

Milestone: Pyle 1. Neath 11. London 184
Distances to London are measured to Charing Cross, so I was 194 miles away from my flat.

Port Talbot

Approaching Margam

After a while large hills began to loom up on the right hand side of the road, while on the left the tall the big hedges gave way to low fencing.

Margam Steel Works from the A48
Annoying as the diversion might be, I was grateful for one thing: I didn’t need to get much closer to the steel works than this.
Margam

The A48 met the M4 at a large roundabout just outside Margam and the footpath joined a cycle route that led off into the back streets of this Port Talbot suburb. 

An old abbey community (the parish church is the nave of the old Margam Abbey), it later became an important coal mining village before its own industrial estates and docklands merged with those of nearby Aberafan and turned into Port Talbot. 

Margam today sits in the literal shadow of the sheep-strewn hill of Mynydd Margam and the metaphorical one of Port Talbot. The cycle route and Wales Coast Path stuck resolutely to the back streets and alleys, which meant I really only got to see one side of it.

Margam backstreets
Namely the side that looks like this.

These days, Margam’s principal exports are steel and Sir Anthony Hopkins, which is an interesting combination.

Port Talbot Parkway Station

More-or-less where Margam and Aberafon meet is Port Talbot Parkway railway station, which is misleadingly named since it isn’t a parkway (an out of town station with a large car park, with the intention that you drive there but take the train into town, where there’s nowhere to park).

I only had to wait ten minutes before a train to Cardiff arrived, whisking me back to the Welsh capital with ample time for a gin and tonic and some dinner before I caught my coach home.

My feet, as promised, had hurt every step of the way.


Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 17½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,120½ miles

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