23rd – 27th January 2022
Saundersfoot – Laugharne
14 miles/2366 ft total ascent
Great, deep tunnels cut their way through the rock of the cliffs out of Saundersfoot, lit on the floor by small red lights. Walking through them, aiming towards the pinprick of light the other end, all the time aware of the huge weight suspended only in the chisel of an arch above me was, to put it mildly, just a bit creepy. Without the sort of bravado that saw Amy and I explore the mine shaft, it would be an easy place to panic.
The onwards walk to Amroth was easy enough; a promenade path and a couple small hills, then I was there on the bay by the plinth that marked the end of my journey around Pembrokeshire. I was on the Carmarthenshire Coast now.
Somehow, in my head, I had just assumed that once I got past Amroth everything would be totally flat until the end. I could blame the man I met back at the caravan park in Ceredigion who had promised me so, but really it was more like I just thought that the natural world would consciously flatten out to give me a break. Lots of people talk about becoming humbled by nature; of feeling small and realising their insignificance. Apparently I become arrogant enough that I get insulted when terrain isn’t cognizant of my needs.
No, it was quite the opposite. Even after Pembrokeshire, this morning was one of the most gruelling mornings on the whole trail for me. Sustained, steep climbs between gorse and hawthorne hedges where the boundaries of plants made anticipating their end into a guessing game. It took me and my recovering legs by surprise; I could feel the tendons in my ankles stretch uncomfortably.
I found myself obsessively checking the elevation profile on the Hiiker app, seeing how many more hills I had yet to go through. Every time I was sure that this one here was definitely that big one in the middle, I was proved wrong. I stopped guessing, and just plodded on.
I got off trail as I approached Pendine, leaving the bridleway leading down the valley slightly too early and ending up stubbornly sticking to a route that, instead, now took me all the way around the valley before dropping down to the sea level town. From here I would be following a road as the path went inland to avoid yet another military range. The coast would be a rare thing to see throughout Carmarthenshire anyway; the majority of this part of the Wales Coast Path would veer away from the sea to navigate around two deep estuaries. Once embarked upon, the coast would be gone for days.
I can’t say I was too upset by this point to be following beside the road. I wasn’t distressed at all by this lengthy interlude of flatness. In fact, by now, I rather welcomed it. Thankfully it went away from walking along the tarmac itself to, instead, follow a path designed through the pastures and fields next to it via a succession of kissing gates, footbridges, duckboards and stiles.
A couple miles on, I did have to briefly join the road as it curved up a small hill around a deeply wood, but shortly after I dropped away, further away, onto a chiselled farm track the other side of the woods. The barrier with the military training area on my right; signs were up in a warning read demanding no one touch any debris in those fields in case it exploded. I just hoped the sheep grazing around knew how to read.
The saltmarshes around the estuary of the Afon Taf came into view as another sharp ascent took me quickly to a viewpoint above Laugharne.
Dylan Thomas lived in Laugharne for the four years before his early death at the age of 39. He described it as “a timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town”. His wife, Caitlin, would describe the time that they and their three children lived in the Laugharne boathouse as the happiest years of Dylan’s life. Take from that what you will, as she also described their marriage, plagued by infidelity and alcoholism, as ‘red, raw, bleeding meat’.
He used a small shed, down the way and among the trees, as his writing retreat and the poem Over Sir John’s Hill described the view he saw across the estuary. When his addiction eventually killed him, Caitlin left Laugharne immediately and eventually left the UK entirely, taking their children to Italy, far away from the village which she now saw as a ‘permanently festering wound’
The boathouse is both a museum and a café, but was closed due to Covid when I passed it on my way up the other side of the village and into the tree-lined path that took me to the meadows and fields further on.
I set up my camp, looking down at the last piece of the sea I would be looking at for a while.
Laugharne – Carmarthen
24 miles/2561 ft total ascent
It appeared that I had camped in a wildlife nighttime hotspot. As soon as the sun was down all manner of squawking, squealing and general jabbering started. Throughout the night, hoots from owls and the scurrying of numerous quadrupeds interrupted my sleep. At one point there was a snuffling a bit too close for comfort. I retrieved my headtorch and sleepily turned it on only to see two orange eyes stare back from just the other side of the mesh. Jolted awake, I instinctively grabbed the dry bag that contained my journal and guidebook and lobbed it.
It hit the mesh and shook the tent pretty violently, but the fox on the other side scarpered out of the vestibule sharpish. He spent the rest of the night screaming and shagging away somewhere so I’m pretty sure he was fine.
The path was absolutely terrible from the off. The deep and sloshy mud of fields gave way to the churned up bridleway running alongside the main road with no area for detour or shortcuts. It was miserable and tiring for miles as every time I placed down a foot , it would get sucked down above the ankle and, on the next step, require a great heave to pull free.
The long bout of bright skies and clear weather had finally broken. Drizzle started as I went on along from the muddy deathpits to intensely dull and wet paths that passed under pylons and slightly too close to beehives for my comfort.
Field to field, with a hedge on one side and absolutely nothing of note on the other, the ground either puddled or muddy or with puddles of mud. It was a chore, and what felt like a completely unrewarding one at that.
By the time I waddled my mud covered legs into St. Clears I had decided I absolutely had to get through as much of everything as I could today. I was going to get to Carmarthen. 24 miles in limited daylight would require nighttime headtorch walking but I didn’t really care right then. Any enthusiasm I had for navigating the estuaries of Carmarthenshire was totally depleted. There wasn’t much there to begin with.
So I slammed on a podcast, tossed back six proplus, and set on out. More power lines, industrial sized farms and fields of nothing. Every now and then a gap in the scenery would reveal a flash of a view of the estuary; grey and dulled under equally grey and dull skies. At one point along an access road the driver of a farm-working vehicle waved me down. As I approached his window he handed me a bottle of tizer and a pork pie.
“Coast path?” he asked
“It’s shit round here” he admitted “especially after Pembrokeshire, but I promise you the people are grand”. He offered a lift to the farm boundary. I assured him I was alright; that the pork pie and soft drink were a welcome pick me up.
Slosh, slosh, slosh. More mud. Neverending mud. Apart from the breaks for tarmac. I eventually made it down to the end of the Afon Taf estuary. A brief gorse covered crest of a hill gave me a view with a glimpse of the coast, slipping away quickly into the murk. Now I was turning up again to follow the Afon Tywi.
A castle signalled the village of Llansteffan. In summer months there’s a ferry that runs straight across the estuary to Ferryside, eliminating the need to go all the way to Carmarthen and back for those so inclined. If it had been running, I would have been sorely tempted. The landscape wasn’t picking up, and I didn’t really expect it to.
The estuaries did, historically, have their use. Providing an inland trading port at Carmarthen for the Normans; French food and wine came in, and leather, wool and lead shipped out. Unfortunately all those busy boats carrying in new people and their textiles and whatever rats lay in the holds made Carmarthen very vulnerable to plague. The Black Death of 1347-1949 absolutely devastated not just the city, but the whole of Carmarthen. It spread quick, and huge gravepits are still being discovered now.
The wizard Merlin was supposed to have been born near where I was walking. Apparently the Welsh name for Carmarthen – Caerfyrddin – mean’s ‘Merlin’s Fort’ in homage. I couldn’t imagine a drearier space for a man of such great power to enter the world and be inspired to such longevity. But then, like the farmworker said, no one could fault the decency of the people.
I was offered many lifts by chatty drivers and each one became more and more tempting. I did have to start refusing snacks because I very quickly ended up with the whole brain of my bag stuffed with an assortment of haribo, crisps, apples and, and even some tinned pineapple.
The sky started darkening as I passed Llangain, entering a wood and then back on the road, picking up speed as the urbanisation increased. I got the headtorch out for the final burst until I was under the streetlamps of Carmarthen. I hadn’t really planned this far in advance, but headed, exhausted, for the long, suspended footbridge across the river realising tonight’s camp was going to end up being more of a stealth camp than a wild one.
Fortunately the banks of the river that stretched towards the bridge were full of bushes and trees. Not too easily accessible, but that was fine. I didn’t want to be too accessible if I was camping, essentially, not quite on the edge of a busy town. No streetlamps down here, so it was very easy to set up the tent in the darkness in a bundle of bushes knowing no one would notice me. I just had to hope that my tiredness wouldn’t see me sleep too late. It had been a very, very long day, but I had marched out a good deal of miles and, hopefully, tomorrow I could leave the estuaries behind.
Carmarthen – Kidwelly
13 miles/1343 ft total ascent
I started packing up before any of the sun came up. The last thing I wanted to be doing was be faffing around in any sort of pale light exposing this stealthcamp to the people passing the river up the bank.
That’s not to say I didn’t surprise a cyclist as I emerged from the bank to rejoin the street. He laughed at himself after his initial sound of alarm and my swift and garbled apology, and cycled off to get on with his day.
Over the bridge, then by the railway line and onto the cyclepath that lead down the side of the main road. I quickly visited the Morrisons as I passed it for a resupply and to check if the doughnuts were out yet. Morrisons makes the best supermarket doughnuts, but I wasn’t in luck today.
I always feel really conspicuous walking alongside great, thundering, multiple lanes of traffic. I wonder if people think I’m really lost. They probably just thought I was homeless.
Eventually I turned away from the main road and all the cars to head down a quieter lane and drop down into a valley. The lane eventually became a track which I would follow through woods and fields and farms and across small streams for a while. The presence of the track lessened the appearance of mud, and today was far easier going though the sky still slung low and grey and the drizzle came in fits and starts.
I passed a couple houses between the hedges, when I saw a dog up ahead on the street. The dog started barking madly. I rolled my eyes. It’s owner would surely appear now and tell me how calm he normally is. That didn’t happen, no owner appeared, and as the dog started launching its way towards me, with a great growl of attack, I realised it may be one without an owner. I certainly didn’t see a collar. I struck the ground repeatedly with my pole and yelled at it. The dog stopped, but was clearly ready to go again. I backed away from it slowly, but it came it at another gallop and growl and I yelled and bashed again. I carried on yelling and bashing as I backed away. The dog kept stopping and starting as soon as I let up again. It couldn’t work out whether it should be afraid of me, but it definitely wanted to take a chomp out of me.
Suddenly a high pitched ‘TIMMY!’ was screamed from one of the cottage doorways and an old lady hobbled out, leaning heavily on a walking stick. The dog was suddenly alert to her but, also, was reluctant to let me go, She painfully made her way, yelling fire and fury at the dog, until she was between me and it.
“So sorry about him”
“Is he not normally like this”
“Oh no, he’s an arse” The dog tried to get around her feet to get at me, but she smacked her own stick on the ground, almost losing her balance, and the dog thought better of it and, after a brief final growl, made its way back to the house. She, slowly, hobbled in after it and started releasing an angry tirade once the door shut.
I guess she wasn’t able to walk him and, it not being busy at all round here, just let him out for a while not expecting a backpacker to show up mid January because that would just be ridiculous.
There were more fields, woods and farms to go, but I got into Ferryside just after midday.
I sat on a bench in the park for a break, and was passed by a lady in a high necked coat walking three curious Pomeranians that flittered busily around her feet.
“Where you off to?” she asked
“Probably Kidwelly, started Carmarthen”
“Coast Path?” I confirmed this. She invited me to the pub down the way and, as my power bank badly need a charge, I thought that sounded like a great idea. She bought me a drink and we talked as the fluffy dogs sat under the table, occasionally yipping at each other.
“There was a boy I met a few years back walking the Wales Coast Path” she said “Heard he’d written a book about it so I went out and bought it. He said the people round here were miserable!”
“Really?! I’ve found the people around here have been great!”
“I was really hurt when I read that. What a little cunt”
I told her the most miserable people I’d met were back in Aberystwyth. She said she’d never met anyone as miserable as those in Rhyl. Remembering the sheer dilapidation of Rhyl, I think it would be hard not to be miserable there. I said I probably wasn’t going to be writing a book, I have no idea who would even read it apart from my parents, but that if I ever did, I had no reason to cast such unfair judgement on the people of Carmarthenshire. What it lacked in actual coast, it made up for in human character.
“Does seem a bit of a joke having to keep walking so many days away from the sea. Would be more helpful if that ferry was up and running” she said. She offered me her spare room for the night, but I was really hoping to get a bit further on so I turned down her kind offer and said goodbye to her and the Pomeranians.
I turned up a lane taking me out of the village and climbed the steps up through the woods. More fields, more farms, more lurches into valleys, then another track took me down, down, to the road at the side of the estuary.
It was a fair plod to the nature reserve that sat before Kidwelly and I nabbed a bench by the water. I soon attracted the interest of an old man and his dog. It transpired that the man had been a scout leader back in the day and interacted a fair amount with the mountain rescue teams of Snowdonia. He was incredibly excited by my winter walk and said he wished he was still young enough to be doing things like that.
I said it made me sad when people said things like that because I hated the idea that there was an end date for all this hiking that wasn’t death. He said people these days took care of themselves and their bodies far better than he and his contemporaries did. With all that and how much lighter the kit was these days, there’s probably no reason for me not to keep going until death.
I was uncomfortably away that I had currently had two knees that had been complaining for over a week that I had just kept on at. It might be wise for me to rethink this approach in the future if I wanted them to last.
I suggested that he might not have a long distance trail left in him, but he could definitely squeeze out a few more wildcamps. He suddenly looked elated and said he’d been trying to think of new ways to bond with his grandchild since they were now a teenager. He paused and explained that his genderless address of the grandchild was because they’d come out as non-binary. He’d struggled with the pronouns at first, but was finally getting the jist of it. He was annoyed by anyone making a big deal of it because what did it matter to anyone else whether someone was a boy, girl, both, neither or somewhere in between?
This was a very progressive and socially aware old man. He continued to surprise me after I’d gone to the chipshop and returned whereupon he excitedly presented me with a list from what3words. He’d scouted out the nature reserve and listed a bunch of good spots. He said he knew that a solo woman might feel uncomfortable going somewhere advised by a man, so he hoped having lots of choice would put my mind at ease.
Truly, the people of Carmarthenshire were definitely the best. It might have been scenically completely uninvigorating, but I was definitely going to miss it.
Kidwelly – Llanelli
14 miles/1588 ft total ascent
The walk away from Kidwelly was by the Kymer’s Canal. It had been built to link the pits of anthracite coal and transport it away to the coast. It was with the Industrial Revolution that the need for coal really ramped up as the blast furnaces for the steel and copper industries demanded a continuous and huge supply. It grew even more so when steam vessels started to be used for worldwide trade.
Despite the South Wales Coalfield being one of the largest coalfields in the world, demand started to dwindle as oil began to replace coal. By the 1980s, most of the pits were closed. It had been brutal work for those that mined here, with the miners of South Wales having a far shorter life expectancy than any other coalmining area in the UK due to negligent health and safety considerations, and the long term affects of inhaling the dust underground. That being said, the closure of all the mines put thousands of men out of work, and the economic status of the areas that had grown around the industry went rapidly into decline.
Now there are only a handful of small mines, focussing on extracting the high quality anthracite.
This canal was quiet today, but a century ago would still have been a hub as boats pulled up to Kidwelly Quay to haul away the spoils of the mines. The parks laid out beside it were wide and green and lovely now, and I had many chats with early morning walkers, obtaining many well wishes along the way.
Crossing the railway, and after another short stint along the main road, I headed out on a long, concrete path through the marshes to get around the Pembrey airfield. Whilst not entirely disused, for much of the time the airfield is given over to agriculture. Once I had passed the ruins of small pillboxes and other tumbledown buildings on the grey and quiet path, I came to the gate to cross beside the airfield only to find the field ahead overrun with cows.
I believe my last encounter with cows had been the nightmare on the Llyn Peninsula. I had no idea if I was ready for cows again. They all stared at me standing on the other side of the gate. I waited for them to stop staring. When about half of them had lost interest, I opened the gate and the squeak re-gained their attention. I took a couple slow steps towards them. A few took less slow steps towards me. This was enough for me already, and I took those steps back as more started coming forward, and closed the gate back between us.
The detour was long and, arguably unnecessary. Maybe a little more patience and a little more nerve would have seen me past the cows, but, honestly, I was so, so tired. Bad sleep for a few days now and with everything over the last however many weeks just catching up with me. Most of me was just waiting to finish for so much of the time and I didn’t have the energy to figure out the correct exposure therapy for the, now quite embarrassing, fear of cows.
I finally made my way down through Pembrey Forest, finding myself on coastal sands again. The sea out front, suddenly back in a familiar space, there would be no more lengthy estuaries. It would be the real coast all the way to the end.
I booked a room for when I arrived in Llanelli. I was exhausted and I needed a comfortable nights sleep. The life of my power banks had also depleted rapidly over the last couple weeks as the cold started to affect them despite being kept inside a hat, inside my sleeping bag at night. Together, they barely charged for two days and both needed a recharge.
I got to Llanelli pretty soon after Burry Port. It was a run down and shuttered up place where the average age appeared to be 80 years old, but it wasn’t like I was here to party. I was here to sleep.
Llanelli – Landimore
18 miles/402 ft total ascent
On yet another grey and gloomy morning I made my way out of Llanelli. At least I was better rested and had dried out my tent because with the drag of the miserable weather and the completely uninspiring path that passed right to the side of the motorway I might have just crumbled under the weight of a trail that, at this point, had just been so unrewarding for days.
It was taking me around the Llanelli wetlands but without actually allowing me to see much of the wetlands. As I went away from the roar of traffic down the footpaths, there was a wall, presumably a sea wall to stop the tide, blocking the view over the marshes to the sea.
A lady stopped me and asked where I was walking. I think my answer sounded completely dead and vacant as I told her I was doing the Wales Coast Path.
“Oh! A boy passed through here the other way a couple weeks ago doing a whole walk around the UK, isn’t that amazing?” Great. Now I not only have the Legend of Emma, there’s some boy taking all my compliments because they got here first. I’m ashamed to say the ‘Good for him’ that I answered was absolutely dripping in sarcasm.
“Oh yes! You probably bumped into him?”
“No. The only person I crossed paths with was Emma Schroeder, who’s also doing a UK circumnavigation. And I’ve met loads of people who have met Emma, but this is the first I’ve heard of this guy”
Hang on. If I’ve gone this far and not heard a word about him, I’ll bet he dropped out and went home. This realisation made me feel worlds better about myself. Her next comment made it even more so.
“He camped over there” she pointed over the wall. I stared at her.
“He camped on the other side of a sea wall?” She laughed.
“You’re far smarter than he was. He was drenched.”
I should hate that another person’s misfortune and probable failure to complete their own challenge brought me so much joy and extra energy to carry on, but, what can I say? You take what you get.
The other side of the wetlands saw a few footbridges over the mudflats as the road came into view, and the bridge that crossed above it. The cars now passed below me. A short turn on the other side and I was up to another bridge that crossed the Afon Llwchwr. Signs cable tied to the bridge advertised a flounder fishing competition. I was clearly still slightly mind-addled since I kept reading it and understanding that there was a first place money prize…but then £250 for each entry of any other species. Why didn’t someone just bring eight herrings then and walk off with two grand?
I’m ashamed to say, it took me the best part of a week to work out that that £250 was a first place prize for any other species, and not just a payment per fish. Maybe I wasn’t as smart as the lady at the wetlands said I was.
I turned several times on roads, lanes and footpaths to get orientated correctly to return to the proper coast past the salt marshes. A lengthy, farm track, covered in loose stones, and a cyclepath eventually took me through the woods and then along a main road into Pen-Clawdd.
At the next village over, I looped around the promenade and then dipped in through an industrial estate, emerging at the sea-edge meadows where the Carmarthenshire Path ended and Gower began. As if on cue, the sun came out and the heavy grey clouds just went away. In minutes, it was like they had never been there at all.
It was a long, lovely, entirely restorative walk along the grasses of the marshes and the green grass that reached the trees. Channels cut through to the great, blue sea and tall trees sat up on the slopes on the edges of the plain.
It was an exhale. Since Laugharne it had just been such dreary and dull landscapes that I felt not even summer could have inspired any sort of additional beauty to it. Now here was something effortless again.
It was a lazy walk down the sides of the marshes. A black cat slunk out of the grass, presumably from a house the other side of the trees, and kept me company for a while. Past Llanrhidian. the path turned stony as it wound up the sides of a slope before opening up to fields where horses grazed and opened up views of Gower beyond. An abandoned stile sat, the fence long gone, oddly pristine. A layered cross of wood suspended above the grass.
Continuing between the gates, I eventually dropped down beside the trees to a small meadow underneath Weobley Castle. A hedge blocked the wind from the sea and the marshes and a fallen branch created a natural bench. I decided this was where I would stop.
A day of two halves, but I was delighted to be back somewhere lovely.