I’d walked into Swansea in June 2018 expecting to return later in the year, but it was March 2019 before I returned to the coast. After the glorious Gower it was quite a culture shock to find myself heading into the industrial heartlands of Port Talbot.
The route took me above the factories on the coastal plain to the small town of Baglan. Litter lay in windblown drifts and plastic bags blew lazily along the deserted streets like tumbleweed. Below, the massive industrial sites belched noxious fumes from tall chimneys, and the day was heavy with an oily stench.
Beyond Baglan I climbed high onto the slopes of Mynydd Dinas, where a chill wind blew welcome blasts of fresh air from the distant hills and a soft path led towards tall white wind turbines which whirled on the far side of the Afan Valley. In the geometric waters of the docks tankers were moored, their engines adding to the background hum of machinery and traffic.
After the brief respite on Mynydd Dinas it was unpleasant to find myself back amongst the litter and fly-tipping of the urban jungle. Dank subways caked in graffiti led under the M4, its roar adding to the unnatural cacophony. A lone blue-clad fisherman stood in the rubbish clogged waters of the Afon Afan directly below the motorway, which soared above perched high on a forest of tall columns. I passed under the columns, crossing the river twice to reach another hillside path above the motorway. Given the noise and the fumes it was a surprisingly pleasant track which brought me to the abbey ruins of Margam Country Park.
Much of the coast path runs through areas of wilderness and great natural beauty, but back on the coastal plain I found myself in a wilderness of a different kind. I was amongst a maze of train tracks, both abandoned and in use. To my right the massive edifice of the steel works blocked out the view and to my left a huge reservoir was held behind towering dams.
It was an unsettling landscape strewn with detritus. Shrubs and wild flowers struggled to gain a foothold in the polluted ground. Men’s harsh voices could be heard shouting in the distance and occasionally I glimpsed hi-vis jackets and heavy machinery. At one point the path was closed, and one of the few people I’d seen all day directed me back into abandoned sidings, where wide open spaces held ancient containers stacked high, their sides gaping black. Rusting rolling stock lurked half hidden among buddleia and stunted elder trees. It was eerie and unnerving.
It would take me six days to walk this final stage, spread over two long weekends in March and May. This first day finished in the beautiful Kenfig dunes and I returned to a wooden ‘lodge’ I’d rented for the weekend at Rosedew Farm, Llantwit Major http://www.acorncamping.co.uk. The following day my husband returned me to Kenfig and I set out through the huge dunes of Kenfig Burrows to reach the coast. I passed hardy surfers close to Porthcawl, where one college summer I had worked in pubs in the town and on the enormous Trecco Bay Caravan site. It didn’t seem to have changed much in the intervening forty years.
Beyond Trecco Bay lay the wide sands of Traeth yr Afon, backed by the Merthyr Mawr Warren. I could see Ogmore-by-Sea not much more than 100 metres away across the Ogmore River, but it was too deep to wade so my path led inland through the shifting sands of the dunes to cross the river close to the ruins of Ogmore Castle. The river was too high to use the stepping stones beside the castle so a swaying suspension bridge led me over to the oddly named Pelican in her Piety pub – and lunch.
Ogmore-by-Sea is a small settlement of ubiquitous coastal bunglalows, but there were new buildings in the latest coastal style sporting huge windows of blue-tinted glass set in tall gables. Beyond the village the land rose to low cliffs topped with springy turf leading to Dunraven Bay with its small visitor centre and unusual fortified walled garden. Inland the woods were filled with dancing daffodils; Wordsworth would have been happy here. I could hear larks singing and the mournful cries of curlews.
It was mostly easy walking now, despite a vicious headwind, along level clifftops to reach Nash Point close to Marcross. The path intermittently dropped down into steep-sided narrow valleys filled with stunted ash trees, before ascending back onto the clifftops. Across the Bristol Channel I could see the heights of Exmoor and Minehead in the clear evening light. The following two days would take me along remote clifftops back to the industrial centres of Barry and Cardiff.
I set out on the third day into another chill wind, past an old lighthouse, a row of keepers cottages (now holiday lets), a low building bearing two large foghorns on its roof, and finally past the tall tower of the new Nash Point light.
The previous day I had met three women runners training for an ultra-marathon whose route follows the coastal path, and today I would meet many more. Those who had done the event before told me I was lucky to be walking in relatively dry conditions as the mud of previous years had been horrendous.
I passed the ramparts of St Donats Castle, the home of Atlantic College. A swimming pool was visible in the fortified courtyard. More modern fortifications appeared at regular intervals in the form of WW2 pillboxes. Below the crumbling cliffs wave-cut platforms stretched out like pavements towards the low tide mark and although the weather had been dry recently I still found myself slithering about in thick glutinous mud all the way to the bay below Llantwit Major, where I took refuge from the cold in a welcome café.
More slithering took me to a neglected seawatch centre in the remains of an iron age fort, past the massive ramparts of Abertawe Power station and to an area of abandoned pits now designated as Abertawe Biodiversity Area. Beyond the attractive lakes and ruined industrial buildings the path climbed steep steps up to cliffs lined with caravans: people’s dreams in serried rows. Yet more steps climbed to the edge of a massive quarry fringed on its inland side with newly built houses. The trail balanced along a rough-hewn ridge between the cliffs and the quarry edge and led to Rhoose Point, an unattractive setting for the most southerly point in Wales.
I was now back amongst houses, passing through Porthkerry, with more evidence of Iron Age settlements and down to the remnants of a Roman villa close to the ornate Italianate gardens at Cold Knap Point. At Barry I walked across the sands to Barry Island where my husband – also Barry – met me.
After a wild and windy night I was pleased to have sunshine for the final day. The sea gleamed silver in the low sunlight and foam-topped breakers crashed onto a stony shore. Spouts of spume washed the rocky rim of Sully Island and beyond its low profile the twin islands of Flatholm and Steepholm lay black against the sun. In the far distance I could see the grey outline of the Somerset coast.
Mud clung to my feet slowing my pace. At Lavernock Point I discovered the concrete remains of a WW2 anti-aircraft battery and in the tiny settlement of Lavernock a plaque beside its small church recorded the moment when, in 1897, Marconi and George Kemp transmitted the first radio signals to cross water out to Flatholm Island. Spring flowers were appearing: violets, Alexanders, daffodils, coltsfoot and primroses.
Shortly after Lavernock Penarth came into view with the docks of Cardiff Bay beyond. The path descended to pass Penarth Pier, very similar to the ornate Clevedon Pier on the opposite side of the Bristol Channel. As I approached the Penarth Marina and the Cardiff Bay Barrage black clouds began to appear, massing over the city. The wind, which had been strong all day, gusted wildly, sweeping my legs sideways as I staggered along the barrage.
Beyond the waters of the Bay buildings, which had been sunlit white against a jet black sky, disappeared as hail struck, stinging bare flesh and driving me to the welcome shelter of a Public Toilets. When I emerged a short while later the hail was just a memory and the sun was shining again from azure blue skies.
Close to the magnificent Welsh Assembly building I treated myself to a pizza before walking back across the barrage to my car, and the long drive home. I reckoned two or three more days of walking would bring me back to my original starting point at Chepstow. I felt both excited and a little sad at the thought of completing a project begun almost five years ago.