South Wales: Swansea – Barry

31st January – 3rd February 2022

Image from the Hiiker app

Day 62

Swansea – Margam

16 miles/525 ft total ascent

Swansea Bay was beautiful in the morning sun, with orange skies over the softly waving grasses sliding down to the sands. Wind turbines on the far horizon gently spun their turbines and, if you squinted, you could pretend they were giant windmills instead.

It seemed to take quite a while to remove myself from the city, but eventually the path turned up by a long empty playing field and started to follow the canal. I was really angry to see the amount of litter dumped absolutely everywhere. The canal path here was short, there were bins barely a mile apart and no excuse for this sort of destructive, pointless, self-absorbed arseholery.

Whilst much of what I saw here was the sad, usual suspects of tinnies and crisp bags and wrappers, unfortunately there seems to be an idea that some form of littering is acceptable; that because fruit cores and skins decompose, it’s fine to chuck those out. An orange peel will take up to six months to decompose, a banana skin up to two years. Animals won’t eat them because its not part of their natural diet, and if they do then they shouldn’t because its not part of their natural diet. Leaving no trace doesn’t just mean leaving no trace, it means leaving no impact. Ideally it means leaving everything better than you found it.

I packed out as many of the tinnies and packets as I could into my rubbish bag. It barely made a dent in the sheer volume of the litter carpet around the woodland. The whole canal path section made me really sad. I just don’t get why, in 2022, it’s not just instinct for everyone to do the most basic environmentally friendly tasks, especially for those who, one way or another, are clearly enjoying the outdoors.

From the canal path to tarmac to main roads to walking alongside a motorway. Under a thundering overpass and turning to cross the long bridge over the Afon Nedd. It was a high bridge, and in the winds we had been having, I imagine the blasts to a walker would feel rather perilous. Boatyards and industrial estates spread out underneath it, clanking, banging and clattering away. It was already gusting up when I crossed and was definitely only on the very seam of being comfortable.

Down the other side, the main road eventually became a cyclepath and then a footpath again as it went towards Aberavon Sands by way of a chemical plant. Discarded, broken concrete blocks lay smashed in the grass. A pipeline ploughed across the landscape. It was all quite desolate. To the point that I have no memory of the start of Aberavon Sands because it was so hard to redeem this dystopic, industrial trudge.

I do remember the ice cream kiosk further down on the promenade where I stopped for a scoop and a break, but that memory is made fuzzier by the really odd sight afterwards of the Port Talbot steelworks on one end of the beach, while a few families gathered happily on the sand below it. It just seemed like a sight completely at odds; people enjoying the sea and the sand whilst these great, grim towers rose like huge snouts pierced upwards from the underworld, bellowing great plumes of black into the air.

Honestly, it’s not like I had high hopes for Port Talbot. I remember a Reddit thread once asking what the most depressing town was in the UK. Once people had finished giving cliché, somewhat outdated answers of places they had never been (Hull, Bradford, Slough etc.) the most upvoted and commented on answer had been Port Talbot. Residents and former residents chimed in to say how it was known as ‘Port Toilet’ because of the smell, and there were numerous anecdotes of commuters always rolling up their car windows as they passed by the town. Truly, it didn’t sound at all like this place under the black, rolling smoke of the steelmill could be anything other than awful.

And yet, it was nowhere near as shite as Milford Haven. In fact, possibly because I had been to Milford Haven, I found Port Talbot had some charm to it. The residents that, by all means, should have been pretty miserable, were a chatty and friendly bunch and the path that took me through the town didn’t quite suggest the slump into total hopelessness and soullessness that I had been primed to expect. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a holiday getaway, but, suffice to say, anyone that thought Port Talbot was the most depressing town in the UK hadn’t been to Milford Haven.

A long wind took me through urban stutterings along a main road, under a railway, onto a cyclepath next to the the constant stream of cars. I was starting to have flashbacks of my second night, what felt like a million years ago, beside that cyclepath under the motorway after eight miles of static caravans. Was I going to end up doing the same thing tonight? Between the storm and this busy cyclepath, South Wales was starting to feel like a repeat of North Wales.

I thought maybe if I continued on around the reservoir rather than heading back across the railway close to steelmill territory I’d have more luck. Reservoirs tend to be quite grassy right? Not this one. I ended up going quite far off path to find a space to camp, by which time, if I had carried on the path, I’d have been in the nature reserve and not had this trouble. It seems I brought it on myself.

The winds were going to pick up again the next few days. I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate it. The next couple days would be away from the hubbub, but after that it was pretty urban until the end. I couldn’t quite believe I was able to start anticipating an actual end, that there was an end point in reasonable sight. It seemed like years ago I’d stepped out the hostel in Chester. Supermarkets that had been selling mince pies and advent calendars and tinsel in my first week out, were now pushing Valentines Day cards and had stacks of easter eggs on display.

I was starting to feel like some sort of timeless vagrant, where the world and its events are moving at one speed in one direction but somehow I’m at another heading somewhere different. Not in any sort of deep, philosophical way like I’d achieved some sort of meditative nirvana brought on by toil and weatherbeaten by the hardships of winter; no, as if I’d gone into that Narnia cupboard and was preparing to spill out again but my timeline and the timeline of the world I was preparing to rejoin were not the same at all. I’d aged twenty years, but the Christmas trees that were just being decorated when I left had only just gone to the tip.

Day 63

Margam – Merthyr Mawr

13 miles/431 ft total ascent

My route back to the coast path took me through the very back of the steelworks land, and a dodgy route around the end of the railway tracks. There was a big, red sign up on the gate saying trespassers would be fined £1,000 but I could see the yellow tipped post of the Wales Coast Path in the trees fifty metres away. Hoping that anything relating to fines and trespassing referred only to the rails themselves, I decided to continue.

It probably would have been hard to defend myself seeing as the high gate was padlocked twice and, in order to bypass it, I’d had to squeeze myself and my bag and then my tent separately through the small gap beside the post – a feat only achievable if you have the dimensions of an eight year old child.

I raced across to the post; that would be safe territory, still imagining dozens of unseen cameras suddenly awaking and whirring and simultaneously turning to track and zoom in on me. That probably didn’t happen. Instead, the path took me quickly down to the marshes, over duckboards and footbridges, to the dunes.

Glamorgan, the area of Wales that stretches through Gower and then all the way to Cardiff, was under attack in 1090 from both the Normans and the Prince of South Wales. The Prince of Glamorgan, Iestyn ap Gwrgan, made the decision to ask Robert Fitzhamon, a Norman, to help him defeat the army of his other enemy and Fitzhamon could expect lands as a reward. Glamorgan was successfuly defended, but Iestyn’s dancing with the devil did not pay off; he was defeated by the Normans themselves the next year.

By this time though, Fitzhamon had already comfortably established himself with his new lands which now extended through all of Glamorgan. He brought with him an equally vicious and competitive household, one of which was a noblewoman called Matilda. Legend has it that Matilda was a beautiful and extremely cruel woman, who loved hunting so much she was heard to say ‘If there is no hunt in heaven, I never want to go there’. She didn’t have to be too concerned, as after she died and came face to face with Arawn, Welsh God of the Otherworld, she was stripped of her beauty, turned into a crone, and cursed to hunt through the sky for all eternity.

She became the Mallt-y-nos, and souls were her prey. It is said she didn’t always wait for a person to be fully dead before setting her hounds on them. She was the subject of a poem by Taliesin Williams who wrote of her chase after the soul of the pirate, Colyn Dolphyn.

…Her evil eye

Was never rais’d to greet the sky

She never sought the mirthful plain;

Nor moved in joyful Hymen’s train;

But mutter’d oft, in voice morose;

And peasants called her Mallt-y-nos

She is supposed to be at her cruellest and most efficient on these dark, midwinter nights. I took the fact that she hadn’t arrived for me yet as a sign that, despite what I was feeling, I must still be a bastion of excellent health and likely wasn’t near death yet. Though I was definitely looking to go the other way if I heard dogs ahead.

Avoiding dogs was not going to be easily achievable. Three or four times walking along the track behind the dunes, I crossed paths with dogwalkers. Dog walkers as in people who are professional walkers of dogs with up to ten long leads and dogs of every shape and size, occasionally in little coats, spread out across the path. At least I assume these were professional dogwalkers; it seemed like an awfully large amount to have as pets. I certainly couldn’t have ten cats. They’d gang up on me. It’s already hard to have dominion of my own home with two of them.

The path crept briefly into the path of the coast winds at Sker Point, but the blast that came in now I was no longer protected by the dunes nearly had me blown onto my back. I fumbled myself away, on through kissing gates and through fields, with the yellow walls of Sker House, a historic monastic grange, behind me; bright against the green fields. Somewhere, buried, in the dunes I had just left, were the ruins of Kenfig Castle and the original town of Porthcawl; overwhelmed by the sand sometime in the 1400s now buried in a dry and gritty grave.

The green fields started filling with cows. I had less trepidation around these, as they weren’t fully formed evil yet; it was fields of only calves. Small, black, fluffy things, tripping about and headbutting each other and curiously snuffling away. Half the height of me, if they started anything I was reasonably sure I could take them. However, there was no interest from them whatsoever, barely a raised head. It seemed they were primarily interested in eating. I called it a win.

The path became flatter and more ordered before it joined the boardwalk at Porthcawl. The wind was whipping something fierce but I found if I walked at a slight angle then its effect was less forceful. I looked like an idiot; but I wasn’t going to faceplant in front of anyone crossing the golf course.

The path went briefly into Porthcawl itself. Whilst on my visit there seemed to be building and maintenance work going on absolutely everywhere, leading to big construction screens placed fully down many streets, there was a fish and chip stand open in the midst of it all. Chips were just about the right thing right now. They would ease all ills and take the pain from my joints surely. The fact that they didn’t I blame on the current shortage of gravy.

Porthcawl may be best known for its amusement parks, holiday resort, and Blue Flag beaches, but it is also home to The Elvis Festival. Every year Elvis Presley tribute acts and devotees flock from all over the world to create the biggest gathering of Elvis fans in Europe, perhaps the world. The schedule is already out for 2022; be there or be a hound dog.

The trail continued along the dunes out of town. My angled walking technique was far harder now I was back on sand and it was a struggle. When blasts came, they would shower me with grit that would find its way into every layer of my clothing. I dropped to the back of the dunes, taking out my compass since it’s ridiculously easy to get disorientated in these great sandy hills. A woman approached to cross in front of me, and as she turned to go the way I had come and went up onto the dunes, she was thrown down and tossed for a few rolls along the sand. I helped get her down.

“Wow” she said “It was a lot easier walking back here” she seemed more embarrassed than shaken. Though why anyone should feel embarrassed in front of someone like me with food stains all the way down their jacket and sunburn in January is beyond me. I said so much to her. She laughed.

“It’s like if an artist sees you make a really crap painting, you make a tit out of yourself in front of a professional”

I reassured her that I definitely was not a professional, but it was absolutely a huge ego boost. I think it’s the pole. It adds a certain illusion of wisdom to my stance.

She proceeded safely down the back of the dunes and I carried on to turn at the mouth of the Ogmore. Now I knew exactly where I was. I did not have the same reservations as I had had the previous evening because this time, I was on familiar territory.

Many years ago, amongst love stories gone by, myself and my ex boyfriend got tipsy one New Years Eve and watched Role Models. For those too young, too old, or far too cool to remember, Role Models was the 2008 comedy that told the tale of two men sentenced to community service and, somewhere along the way, they became involved with Live Action Roleplay and building up the confidence of all the fantastic little nerds that participated through their own ineptitude and good intentions. Well, the ex and I drunkenly decided that being a fantastic little nerd looked amazing and woke up the next morning with hangovers having impulse bought tickets to go to a three day LARPing event. We continued going to these events for years, and they were held at the Candlestone Campsite by the castle that the Wales Coast Path went by.

I knew exactly where I would sleep tonight.

The castle was inland, up the estuary and behind the dunes. It wouldn’t be possible to camp inside due to the floor still being stone, but I made my way to the back of it to the slope the castle was built into. With 50mph winds forecast, I wasn’t going to be too careful and even with treecover, the protection of the ruins and the fact I was inland, I still wedged the tent between two trees. Retrospectively, probably not the cleverest thing if the winds had been much stronger.

It was all good. I heard the last of the dogwalkers emerge from the dunes to the small carpark underneath the castle and make off. I was pretty confident, until I saw a Jack Russel come sniffing round the castle ruins right down below me. It kept going round and round in circles, clearly confused because it could definitely smell me. It was followed by the owner, a woman, that watched her dog quizzically.

I decided to walk around and introduce myself before she did raise her eyes up and see me and got the fright of her life. I pointed out my tent to her and she laughed and said, yeah, she would definitely have had a heart attack if she’d looked up and seen me standing there. The dog was one gifted to her before lockdown by a group of Travellers she knew as a support worker. She didn’t really want the dog at the time, but when lockdown came he was a godsend. She invited me back to stay in her spare room. I said it was absolutely fine, that I’m all set up here now and thank you very much, plus I’d be leaving early.

After much ball throwing for the excitable dog, now pleased that he had driven out his target, we said goodnight as the sky became very dark and I made my way back to my tent.

Day 64

Merthyr Mawr – Llantwit Major

13 miles/1433 ft total ascent

Getting around the Ogmore Estuary was not quite as straightforward as it looked. My tent had stayed still with barely a rustle, despite hearing the wind scream all around, so I had managed to be fairly well rested and can hardly blame my faculties for my lack of observation come morning.

Once out the access road and through the village of Merthyr Mawr, I slung myself over a footbridge and onwards, assuming it would lead me to a crossing. It just lead me to a completely flooded tidal plain. I walked back on myself; the last waymark was at the footbridge, but the only visible alternative route was going way, way back to the very busy main road and that surely couldn’t be right. I checked the map and saw the path took a sharp left after the bridge – over a stile that had been bricked up, with a ghostly circle where a dragonshell waymark once sat. I could see that across the clear, albeit wet, field was a bridge over the Ogmore.

Clearly here was a landowner that wasn’t too happy about having a right of way through their place. I think the advice is, if you’re an insanely private person, don’t buy land with a right of way going across it because you’re just going to stress yourself out. Too bad my friend, I jumped over the bricked up stile and sauntered across the fields towards the bridge, waving at the horses that flicked their ears as they watched me.

The path the other side followed the road for a mile or so, before dipping down to the path below it. Ruins of the Norman fortress that once was Ogmore Castle sat low by the bank. It was supposedly owned for a while by one of the “Twelve Knights of Glamorgan”.

When Fitzhamon had conquered Glamorgan, he brought with him a group of ruthless mercenaries. This group has a whole hazy story of their own, much of which now is far more legend than fact, encouraged by lyrical and embellished accounts of Fitzhamon’s invasion. Were the Normans trying to write a story to counter the popularity, devotion and pride that the Celts gave to the tales of King Arthur and his knights? Who knows. I doubt it would have ever worked seeing as King Arthur must be our most popular monarch ever, and he wasn’t even real.

Once I was finally down at the coast again, the path started taking on a whole new character. Whilst the other side of the river was dunes and windswept beaches, here was grassy hills, tumbling to meadows, falling to cliffs. Long stretches of beautiful dry wall marked the end reaches of Ogmore-by-Sea, the village up on the slopes, as the Wales Coast Path markers started to share space with markers for the Glamorgan Heritage Coast.

The cliffs are packed with fossils. At the base of them is a dense Carboniferous Era layer of grey limestone that compressed aquatic fossils like crinoids and brachiopods within it. Subsequent freezings and floodings disrupted the layers and removed evidence of many, but the Jurassic era arrived and deposited layers of shale amongst the limestone, with gryphea, gastropods and ammonites now amongst them. The thaw of the last ice age removed much of the softer shale, leaving mainly the limestone. Whilst notoriously nutrient poor and acidic, there are plants that thrive in those conditions; hardy rock roses and wild thyme grip at the edges and thorns, sea carrots and buck’s-horn plantain creates a dense barrier at many points.

I passed through Dunraven Park. It was odd seeing the gothic mansion complete with its former deer park, an Edwardian summerhouse and walled garden out here on these cliffs. I’m more used to seeing these sorts of buildings around the Cotswolds or Richmond, not on the storm battered rocky outlands of our Island.

The walking along the clifftop meadows was easy, but the drops to the valleys and out the other side were often steep and trying. I was soon running low on energy and stopped by a bench to heat up some food. Benches were delightfully abundant on the fourteen miles that made up this Heritage Coast Walk. I have said it before and I’ll say it again; to a long distance hiker, a bench enabling you to sit like a proper human is a blessed thing.

The lighthouse at Nash Point crept into view, from a needle out in the distance, to a great, white tower right ahead. The building of this lighthouse wasn’t just spurred on by shipwrecks, but also by a scourge of shipwreckers; gangs that would lure ships towards the rocks in order to wreck and loot them. A trick apparently used was to attach lanterns to sheep, knowing that the movement it made might trick other ships into thinking that the light was a ship bobbing close to land making them believe there was a safe channel between them.

Goods from a wrecked ship were considered common property so there were no legal repercussions for the looting. However, it was illegal to claim the goods if anyone was still alive and on the ship, and this law essentially condemned any survivors of the wreck to death. It was a grisly type of smuggling that eventually became illegal itself, but not before a whole reign of destruction and murder.

I continued for the rest of the day over the broad clifftop meadows, interrupted by the steep valleys. I had circled a point on the map that had at least seemed like I might offer me shelter from the winds tonight. I could feel them start to pick up already.

I made my way down to Tresilian Bay, became briefly annoyed at yet another beachside café being shut (you would think I’d be used to it by now), and went up the other side. About a mile further was the triangular field I had seen on the map supposedly surrounded on the two back sides by trees. But it wasn’t quite what I imagined.

Not only were the trees just small, thick, thorn covered growths of a gnarled hedge, but there were two horses in the field. I really wasn’t sure how the horses were going to feel about a tent. I went slowly around the outside of the field looking for gaps in the hedge. I knew that, on from here, it just stretched in open grass for a fair long way and that there were probably sheep there. I found a gap and squeezed into it. I optimistically figured that there might be just enough space in this tiny space behind the hedge for me to set up the tent.

It took about twenty minutes of me sitting on the edge of the field, looking at the horses, feeling the gathering winds, to realise that this was a stupid plan. Which was about twenty minutes longer than it should have done. Footpaths lead back from the field, so I went along them and was delighted to find that this was supposedly a small nature reserve. At one point there was a break at shoulder height in the earth slope on my right and I scurried over to find the most excellent, wide, clear hollow, nestled between high banks and actual trees. More than big enough for my tent and very flat looking. I kissed the ends of my fingers and flung the kiss out around me.

The trail provides if you understand it, and trust it to.

I didn’t really realise then, not properly, that this would be my last wildcamp on the trail. I wish I had, and allowed myself to fully appreciate all that I love about sleeping outdoors. But I’m incredibly grateful that my memory of that last wildcamp was in such a lovely and unexpected place and not shoved behind a thorny hedge in a field of horses.

Day 65

Llantwit Major – Barry

12 miles/948 ft total ascent

Whilst it absolutely was a lovely place to camp, I forget sometimes that nature reserves tend to be home to a lot of nature. A lot of squawking, easily alarmed birds that chattered and warbled as the wind started knocking down stones and flinging sticks around outside of my hollow. They seemed to find better shelter for themselves and eventually quietened down.

I started the day with a fondant fancy. It was my birthday. I had originally anticipated being home and celebrating somewhere normal, looking somewhat normal, not munching on a posh cupcake in mud covered clothes with hair that had looked like it had been combed by ferrets. Maybe, if I’m honest, this version was more appropriate, though it would have been nice to have some mates around.

One thing was definitely fortunate; my birthdays are historically, far more often than not, plagued with snow. If you want to put a bet on a singular day of the year when there might be snow, chances are it will be February 3rd. This year, however, looked set to be a snow free day.

As I had suspected the previous evening, the fields following on from where I had left the coast path were wide and exposed and full of sheep. I trundled over them, from one gate and onto the next,

I descended through hedgerow to a storm beach and looked up the coast to the Aberthaw Power Station sitting across the tidal pool in the distance under streaks of sunny gold trying to bleed through the grey sky. I walked too far along the pool after the storm beach, and had to turn back on myself to climb up the farm fields through Gileston and down again to where the power station towered overhead; a grizzled, sad giant that was soon left behind as I climbed the seawall and disappeared into another nature reserve. Static caravans laid like out like bricks soon after until I came to a rocky bay.

As I neared Rhoose, past quarrying had shaped the cliffs into an oddly stodgy wall of chiselled stones. At the point ,rubble lay around and small pools sat, their surfaces interrupted and shimmering as splashes of drizzle made impact. I’m told larger, lovely lakes like here off path. Unfortunately, because it only takes a few to ruin it for everyone, the large lagoon is off limits to swimmers until people stop thinking jumping ‘tombstone’ style into it is a good idea.

Not long after, I found myself in Barry. I, and many other non-Welsh people, were primarily introduced to Barry and the island through the sitcom ‘Gavin and Stacey’. Admittedly the sitcom omitted the extent of the local substance abuse problem, but it captured a lot of the charm about the island now full of arcades and the whirring, whizzing and clattering sounds of the machines as bright lights popped and spun from every doorway over the sea front.

I did my pilgrimage to Marcos Café and played games at Nessa’s Slots. To be honest though, as much as I had hoped to go out on the town for some bevvies and a slap up meal, I was really very tired. So like the old person I now was, I checked in to my room as soon as I could with some takeaway fish and chips and watched documentaries called things like The Mysteries of River Monsters and Australian Goldhunters until it was time to sleep.

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