THIS weekend’s walking adventure was something of a triumph. Not a triumph in the Roman sense, nor even remotely like it unless the victorious general’s processional route was first inundated by the Tiber. Nor in the sense of an old British motor marque, now owned by BMW, whose vehicles would quickly have been mired.
What I’m trying to say here is that it was successful despite being ever so slightly muddy.
Choices Have Consequences
I knew this would be the case before I went. I was, after all, choosing to walk during two days of ‘light rain and showers’ sandwiched tidily between torrential downpours and possible snow. The ground was always going to be a bit boggy underfoot. And I could, I really could, have waited for better weather. I have, on occasion, the patience of a saint. This weekend I had to give it back; I was instead a Most Impatient Mammal.
Returning to Carmarthen
I stayed overnight in Cardiff and caught the first train to Carmarthen, where grey skies greeted me with lightly spotting rain, a good deal of which I caught on a pair of new glasses. My hope of seeing everything in excitingly crisp detail was therefore quickly reduced to trying to see further than my nose.
But I persevered, applying a near-universal fix to my problems, namely chocolate. There are few things that chocolate can’t make better (having eaten too much chocolate being one of them) and it duly raised my spirits.
Something else that raised my spirits was Carmarthen’s idiosyncratic approach to civic art, with which it has chosen to adorn its roundabouts and junctions.
I was initially confused by the fish because, as you approach the traffic island around which they are swimming, you initially spot only their metal fins and wonder what the hell they are supposed to be.
I may have shouted ‘it’s a fish!’ aloud when I got to the appropriate angle to see that, thus startling a woman out walking her dog. Fortunately, she seemed amused by my outburst and opined that the fish needed a bit of a trim. She may have been right or it may have been brilliant camouflage.
Shortly after I left behind the all-knowing gaze of the fish, the paved path gave way to the first squelchy mud of the day. It would by no means be the last. In this particular case the mud ran alongside the banks of the Towy before cutting away to drop me onto the B4312 beside the farmstead of Dyffrynhafod (‘summer pasture valley’).
Plenty of small Welsh farms and hamlets have names incorporating the element hafod, which indicates seasonal summer pastures as opposed to the more permanent winter farmstead or hendref.
Downstream Along the Towy
Llansteffan Road (B4312)
The footpath ran on the road for a short way and then alongside it, give or take some variable elevation. Given the mud and the rain, this was tricky underfoot and I seriously wondered if I might just be better off taking my chances with the blind bends on the road.
A particularly significant corner in the road lurked just ahead, beside which were the ruins of Castell Moel, a sixteenth century fortified manor house built by the Rede family. The ruins are overgrown and on private land but I hoped to get at least a glimpse of them. My hope, alas, was thwarted.
Instead, I found myself crossing the road onto another footpath made of mud, leaf mould and very steep gradients (most of them down, which was potentially an easy direction to go in so long as I didn’t mind too much about dignity or control). The path was delightfully wooded and graced with a curious bench, which at first glance was intriguing with carvings of owls worked into its design.
This was no doubt meant to be evocative of local wildlife. It was also more than a bit creepy to anyone old enough to remember Twin Peaks, which tied together woods and owls with the warning that ‘the owls are not what they seem.’ But that was set far away in America, not in Wales. Unlike say, The Owl Service by Alan Garner, a children’s book set in Wales and pretty much guaranteed to scar any children who read it for life.
With that in mind, the bench was suddenly terrifying.
Beware of the Bull
The path dropped down into a valley and then climbed out again to end at a gate with two signs on it. One was a waymark for the Wales Coast Path, indicating that the way ahead lay across the field. The other was a note warning that there might be a bull in it. Marvellous.
I peered ahead through my new glasses, trying to spot any movement. Yep, for a fleeting moment I could just about see the top of something pale and moving, hidden for the most part behind the brow of a hill.
Now what do I do? I wondered. I didn’t really want to go back. Nor did I want to risk an encounter with a bull. I’m generally okay with cows but bulls are a different story.
Also, Cows and Calves
Glancing at the sign again, I saw that it warned of a bull, cows and calves in the field. This made me even less sure.
On the face of it, a bull in a field with cows is a safer bet than a bull on his own — so long as you give them all a wide berth he’ll usually stick with his ladies unless you make them feel threatened, whereas in a field on his own he might just choose to defend his territory — but I wasn’t sure about calves in February…
That made me think that the sign was up all year round. In which case I couldn’t tell if what I’d seen was a bull on his own or a cow or something else.
‘Bulls’ That Go ‘Baa’
I decided to enter the field as cautiously and unthreateningly as I could and hoped that if it was a bull, he’d not care. Or that he’d at least give me some warning signs so that I could go back again (they don’t normally charge without warning, except when they do). Slowly, and with an indirect gaze, I peered over the brow of the hill…
…And breathed a big sigh of relief. It was full of white fluffy ‘bulls’ which all went ‘baa’ when they spotted me. The sheep scampered away in alarm even as my own stress faded.
Church House Farm
The fields led me onto a farm track and past an enclosure full of cows beside what I took to be a milking shed. The track became a country lane and carried me onwards to what seemed to be a church without a village. The farm I had passed through was named Church House Farm in its honour, the church in question being this:
St Cain’s Church
The Cain to whom it is dedicated is not the Biblical murderer, who would have been an odd choice, but instead a fifth century princess of Brycheiniog and the founder of the parish’s original church. Cain, a daughter of King Brychan, went to live in what is now Cornwall, where she also founded the church and village of St Keyne between Looe and Liskeard.
Bouncy Black Dog
I continued along quiet country lanes, skirting around the edge of Llangain village without seeing it, when I heard the sound of scrabbling claws behind me and turned to find a mid-sized black dog bounding joyously towards me.
The excitable dog bounced up and down in greeting, ran round me several times and then set to half following me and half bounding ahead of me as I walked down the road. This caught me somewhat by surprise. I really hadn’t reckoned on acquiring someone’s dog, no matter how keen it was to join me for ‘walkies’.
The dog and I kept company for maybe a half a mile before it found something interesting to sniff in the hedgerow just as car came up the road. The dog, as surprised by the car as I had been by the dog, turned and stood in the middle of the road to stare at the vehicle in amazement (the car stopped).
I kept walking, screened by the car and so, having become out of sight, out of mind. I quickly left the dog and the driver to resolve their impasse as best they could. I had other things to claim my attention:
Also, I realised, it had stopped raining. It had probably stopped some time earlier and somehow I just hadn’t noticed.
Brook & the B4312
At the end of the lane was the hamlet of Brook, where I was reunited with the B4312, although not for long. I had only walked along it a little way before a footpath sign diverted me off to the right to take a more scenic route into Llansteffan via (to begin with) some more muddy fields and an equally muddy farm track. At the end of the latter, I took entirely the wrong turning and found myself back on the B4312 not all that far from where I had left it.
I took this as a sign that I would be best served by sticking to the road, which was not muddy, being made out of tarmac. Traffic was fairly light on a wet February Saturday, which made the blind bends slightly less hazardous.
Thus, I approached Llansteffan (also spelt as ‘Llanstephan’ in English) along the main road, which favoured me with an excellent view of the Towy, with Ferryside on the far bank. Up ahead loomed Llansteffan Castle, onetime master of all it surveyed, dominating the estuary with its romantically ruined silhouette.
Like most of the ‘Welsh’ castles, Llansteffan was actually ‘English’, which means it was in fact Norman. It served as a base for the marcher lord, from which he could subjugate the country and facilitate strict Norman rule.
St Ysteffan’s Church
Llansteffan is named for Ystyffan ap Mawn, the sixth century founder of the parish church and a scion of the royal house of Powys, which also makes him a descendant of Vortigern.
The current church’s nave dates to the thirteenth century, while the tower and transepts are two centuries younger.
The village prospered because of its position at the mouth of the Towy, where ships had to wait for the tide before they could sail upstream to Carmarthen. It was also an important transit point with one ferry eastwards — across the Towy to Ferryside — and another nearby to the west, crossing the River Taf (Afon Tâf) to Laugharne (Talacharn). This route was favoured by pilgrims heading to St David’s.
Over time, and partly in consequence of the strategically-placed castle, the village became an important port and borough, albeit much of its growth comprised Anglo-Norman settlers rather than Welsh. After the end of the Wars of the Roses, when Henry VII became king, the castle was officially abandoned and Llansteffan’s importance declined.
The Tourist Trade
In an early grab for the tourist trade that so many coastal towns were later to rely on, Llansteffan capitalised on its beautiful bay and now-ruined castle not long into the eighteenth century, drawing those wealthy individuals who dared not go on the European ‘Grand Tour’ on account of the various wars.
Turner visited and painted the area, as did many others. They were later followed by Victorian bathers and a greater mass of tourists until cheap foreign holidays started to bite in the 1960s. The village remains tourist-oriented, something not exactly hindered by the late poet Dylan Thomas’s family connections with the area — one of his aunts lived in Llansteffan, another owned a farm just outside Llangain.
In the metaphorical shadow of the castle, I found a café that served me an excellent bacon sandwich and a warming cup of tea. Had it been later in the day, the shadow might well have been literal too but, as it was, I was making good time. So much so, in fact, that I decided I had time for a brief diversion, in the form of climbing the hill to the castle.
Llansteffan Castle History
Llansteffan Castle was built on the site of an Iron Age hill fort during the twelfth century Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales. Initially constructed in wood, it was rebuilt in stone and held by the FitzGerald family.
In 1146 Maurice FitzGerald, Lord of Llanstephan, briefly lost it to Maredudd ap Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth. This began a sequence of capture and recapture, with the FitzGeralds reclaiming it in 1158, only to lose it in 1215 to Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd (and later Prince of Wales).
While the FitzGeralds never held it again, it was retaken by the Anglo-Normans in 1223, captured by Llywelyn the Last (the final Welsh Prince of Wales) in 1257, recaptured in the 1260s and taken twice by Owain Glyndŵr in the early to mid 1400s. In English hands again by 1408, the accession of Henry VII in 1485 saw it abandoned, as mentioned above.
Having retraced my steps to the path, it now led me across a wooded hillside which was mostly only moderately muddy and which commanded an excellent view of the beach. Here the rivers Towy and Taf both spill out into the sea over a broad, flat expanse of soft sand and mud. This was beautifully demonstrated by virtue of the tide being out.
Towy and Taf Estuaries
Many a Winding Turn
The path soon joined another country lane, which snaked out across the lush green, gently rolling hills. There are walkers who consider any walking on a road to be some sort of awful chore, presumably taking them away from more enjoyable stretches of steps, extreme gradients and mud. I am not one of them; I find it depends very much on the road. When they’re like this I quite like them:
The Beautiful Sheeple
Some of the sheep who stared at me in what was presumably horror at the strangulated noises emerging from my throat, looked as if they’d be more at home with a bit of Marilyn Manson. These were the highly distinctive Welsh Mountain Speckled Face breed, whose white faces are marked with black around the eyes and muzzle.
Moments later, the sheep all fled, which I assumed was my doing until a quad bike roared out of nowhere and pursued them, its driver expertly herding them towards a gate.
This was new to me. It lacks the tradition of using a sheepdog but it seemed to be pretty efficacious. Also a quad bike seldom bites walkers for the fun of it. Plus you can hear it coming from much further away. If you’re not mangling the Hollies at the top of your lungs, that is.
The lane met another, indicated by its signage to be a dead end. I was expecting this, for while the lane leads to a farm called Pentowyn, there’s nowhere else for it to go after that. It does in fact still gamely continue, however, heading past the farm to end abruptly at the banks of the Taf. Because it can.
Pentowyn Farm was a 120 acre grange granted to St John’s Priory, Carmarthen, between 1115 and 1130 by the lord of the Manor of Llangain. After the Dissolution, the Lloyd family of Llansteffan held it. It is now owned by the National Trust.
Upstream Along the Taf
A Little More Mud
To my shock and surprise the next part of the walk led me across some muddy fields. And when I say ‘shock and surprise’ I do of course mean ‘none at all’. Instead, I reserve my shock and surprise for the amazing extent to which ground can get waterlogged when it’s at an angle of at least thirty degrees. You’d think it would all run downhill but no, not when its thick, cloggy soil that clings to your boots like its hoping to bite off your feet.
The path, which was pretty nominal at this point, took me to a farm called Mwche, which lies at the edge of an area of reclaimed salt marsh, now known as Mwche Marsh but called Mundegy Marsh in Mediaeval times. There, I joined another lane which carried me onwards for a while. Scattered, sheltered groups of snowdrops brightened up the roadside on the way.
At a farm called Cwm-celyn (‘holly valley’), which was the home of one of Dylan Thomas’s friends, the public road ended, becoming instead a rough farm track on the edge of the aforementioned salt marsh.
This track was not muddy. But only in the sense that ‘muddy’ isn’t remotely adequate to convey how it was. This track was entirely uncertain whether it was water or earth. It was one long, curvilinear quagmire.
I now know the intermediate sound that falls between ‘squelch’ and ‘splash’. Now – only now – I grasped the quality of mud. Although not literally. That would have been icky.
Mercifully, just as I wondering if swimming the Taf might not have been easier and dryer after all, the path climbed up onto a wooded bank the better to carry me on to Pilgrim’s Rest: a farm with cows and sheep and, somewhere out of sight but well within earshot, a dog sounding dead keen on demonstrating why quad bikes are such a great idea.
The farmhouse is a Grade II listed sixteenth century affair with a vaulted undercroft, while somewhere close by lie the remains of the late mediaeval church of Llandeilo Abercowin, dedicated to St Teilo.
Sticking to the Road
The path onwards was also the road although I fully expected it to veer off to my left at any moment. Certainly there was a footpath that did so, at exactly the point where my map suggested the Wales Coast Path would do likewise. The waymarks told me to stay on the road though and I readily obliged; the footpath might well have proven too muddy for hippos.
A Country Crossroads
I now pressed on with a newfound sense of adventure, it being clear that the Wales Coast Path on the ground no longer matched the map I’d downloaded from the official website. Soon, I came to a crossroads with fingerpost signs pointing in all four directions. I peered at my map. And suddenly, at considerable speed, an enormous tanker lorry charged across the junction and lurched to a stop.
I looked up at the driver. He looked down at me. He looked at the signpost. He glanced at my map.
‘Are you lost?’ he asked me, his accent sounding quite local.
‘Not any more,’ I answered, having worked out where I was.
He nodded approvingly and slammed into reverse, executing a three point turn to send him off another way. It looked like he’d initially overshot the junction. Either that or the steep descent ahead of me wasn’t one he wanted to risk. For me, on foot, it was easy.
The road took me past some more snowdrops and, off on my left and hidden in a field the remains of a prehistoric chambered tomb and two standings tones known as Meini Llwydion (‘grey stones’).
I crossed the Afon Cywyn, a tributary of the Taf, on a low stone bridge called Pont-ddu (‘black bridge’), which wasn’t all that much to look at. Directly after Pont Ddu, the footpath should have sent me off to Trefenty. Once again, however, the Wales Coast Path decided to stick with the road while a local, Carmarthenshire path branched off to stick in the mud.
Trefenty House, which I therefore didn’t actually go near, was home to the Perrot family in the 16th century, and is where the amateur astronomer Sir William Lower and a neighbour, John Protheroe, used one of Britain’s first telescopes in 1609 to study Halley’s Comet and the craters of the Moon.
A Hill Near Trefenty
I might not have been able to see quite that far, new glasses or no, but the road led me slowly up a low hill atop which I looked back down the way I had come.
The top of the hill sported a T-junction, from which I set off down the lane to Trefenty. I went only as far as the farm of Foxhole, where two curious but friendly-looking dogs came out to meet me on the road.
One of the dogs came up and sniffed me, quickly deciding I wasn’t all that interesting after all. The other, his tail wagging spasmodically, limped along behind me giving the occasional bark. The spacing between the barks was exquisite: just long enough to make me relax so that the next one was startling.
The path left the road just past the farmhouse, carrying me onwards and upwards across the farm’s muddy fields. In the distance an army of pylons gathered, weaving a giant net of power cables within which to trap us all. Ahead, silhouetted on the skyline, was an overly melodramatic tree.
My doom, as it turned out, was to cross more boggy fields before I could reach the farm of Pant-dwfn (‘deep hollow’) and a hardened farm track leading up to the outskirts of St Clears. Two sheep were ambling about on the farm track, unlike the rest of their flock who seemed to be in a field.
A Merry Game of Sheep-Chase
The sheep looked up as I approached; they then ran off down the road. I kept walking and we repeated the experience. And again. And again. I watched them cross a low bridge, heading for the farm gates
‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘I don’t particularly want to drive them out into the road. They might get hit by an overshooting tanker lorry.’
I crossed the bridge myself, noting that it had a cattle grid across one end. ‘How,’ I wondered, ‘had the sheep got across that?’
On the far side of the bridge was a large enough space for me to step to one side and allow the two sheep to run back towards their flock. As I stepped aside, I made sure to watch what they did about the cattle grid. The answer impressed me no end:
They simply looked down and placed their feet carefully, hardly even slowing as they trotted right across it. The bars of the grid were shaped not unlike railway tracks — smoothly chamfered but not quite rounded on top — and that gave the sheep just enough flatness to balance their little ovine hooves on them. The cattle grid, it turned out, was rather more species-specific than might be expected.
Entering St Clears
With no more than half an hour of daylight remaining, I made my way into St Clears (Sanclêr), passing as I did so an old water pump and yet another identikit Methodist chapel.
Roads and Rail
The town sits astride both the A477 and A4066 and a railway line passes about a mile to the north, although no trains have stopped since the 1960s. A campaign is underway to get the old station reopened.
While well-blessed with roads at the moment, St Clears has not always been so fond of them — a toll gate was destroyed there in 1842 during the Rebecca Riots.
St Clears Castle
St Clears is a small town but was once a Marcher Borough complete with castle. Built in the twelfth century, the castle successfully resisted Owain Glyndŵr (unlike Llansteffan). Nothing now remains of it except the castle mound though. The cattle market, once important, is also consigned to history.
Food and Board
One thing St Clears does have, thanks to those roads, is a Travelodge, which provided me with a cheap and cheerful hotel room for the night and the heartfelt opinion of its receptionist that the best part of Wales is neighbouring Pembrokeshire.
I couldn’t be bothered to go far to hunt down my dinner and ended up the sole occupant of the Happy Eater next door, eating something equally cheap and cheerful to the slightly surreal musical backdrop of the theme tune to Button Moon (a 1980s children’s programme). I don’t know why they were playing that but it made me laugh. At least until I tried to go to sleep with it still buzzing round inside my head…
We're off to Button Moon
We'll follow Mr. Spoon
Button Moon, Button Moon...
This time: 19 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,239 miles