Loughor is a frontier town. Now just an extension of ‘greater Gorseinon’, it was once a place of more importance. The Romans planted an auxiliary fort on its headland, commanding the mouth of the river. The Normans built a small castle on the same spot, with the same intention – securing the invaders and depressing the natives. In 1852 Isambard Kingdom Brunel ignored both fort and castle and drove his South Wales railway rudely past both and straight across the river. The Roman fort was excavated in the 1990s and the tower of the castle survives, complete with garderobe (polite Norman French for shit sluice), but nothing remains today of Brunel’s original timber trestle except a short reconstructed section, stranded high in the air on the western shore.
Heedless of all this history the four of us gather for a photo at the end of the road bridge before crossing to Carmarthenshire. A new county, a new spring in our step, and when we finish, in Burry Port, we find we’ve been in the warmest spot in the whole of the UK that day.
Straight after the bridge the path disappears down steps to the right, past a mysterious factory (Schaeffer, makers of metal bearings), a new housing estate and vanished tinplate and steelworks, before crossing road and railway by a long pedestrian bridge to regain the coast. It’s high tide and the saltmarshes of the Burry Inlet are invisible under water. Sun gleams on what remains of the mudflats and glints on the watercourses. The path, gravel then tarmac, hides below a continuous seawall, so that our only view is landward, over scrub and caravan park.
We reach the wildlife and wetland centre. It used to call itself by its proper name, Penclacwydd, but perhaps the Welsh word frightened monoglot visitors and it’s been expunged from the centre’s signs and publicity. We’re allowed into the café without paying, and sit in a line on a sofa, watching through a large picture window exotic ducks and geese tailing each other like randy aristocrats on the pond.
Next the path passes the huge Trostre tinplate works, owner by Tata, and then a golf course, which has obliterated the two industrial hamlets of Machynys and Bwlch y Gwynt. Now the path climbs at last to give views of the Inlet, and north Gower beyond, with the gaunt shape of Whiteford Lighthouse off to the west. The coast here has been colonised by new houses and flats, the land around now comprehensively cleared of the industrial detritus that once dominated it. On the seaward side of the path mud dominates: mud as sleek as the paint on a new car, except where water rivulets snake their way across it, or where a solitary godwit leaves its footprints as it scans for food with its long metal-detectorist bill.
We’re now approaching the North Dock of Llanelli, all modern flats and start-up companies instead of the heavy industry of the past. We shelter from the east wind in a ‘sheep pen’ kindly provided by the coast path authorities, and eat our lunch. Two hours of sun remain and we decide to press on, beyond Llanelli towards Pwll and Burry Port. At Pwll we spot a small sewage works – no coast walk should be without one – and a plaque commemorating the place where Amelia Earhart landed on 18 June 1928 after her famous transatlantic crossing from Newfoundland. After her seaplane landed in the Inlet near the village she was mobbed by fans, celebrities being nothing new, and had to take refuge from them in the Ashburnham Hotel. A story has it that she asked a local where she was and received the reply ‘You’re in Pwll Slip’. Poor Amelia may have been none the wiser, especially if the language of the local was Welsh. Nine years later she disappeared without trace while flying over the Pacific Ocean.
All this stretch, from Bynea on, is part of the Millennium Coast Path, incorporated wholesale into the Wales Coast Path when the latter was designated in 2012. The path then becomes part of the Millennium Park. The land on either side of it has been remodelled and landscaped in as comprehensive a way as any of Capability Brown’s creations, so that all hint of previous use of the land is unguessable. The path itself has now turned into a virtual motorway for walkers and cyclists, its surface as smooth as the mud. It’s hard to tell now that from 1836 Burry Port was indeed a busy port, with two docks and an outer harbour, for exporting Gwendraeth Valley coal.
The tall spire of Burry Port church guides us to the railway station, where we wait for a Llanelli train. Opposite are useful shops where, with a longer wait, we might have used our time eating fish and chips, drycleaning our shirts or decorating our skins in Nebula Tattoo. When the train comes no one seems interested in coming to take our fares, and we enjoy a free journey, not for the first time on Arriva Trains. Could it be that some of the company’s employees are less than loyal to the interests of its well-paid directors?
The sun slants through the carriage windows as we reach Llanelli and walk through the town to catch the bus home, after a day of warmth and disappearances.