A cold, still morning in Burry Port. The sun, they say, will shine all day. The four of us are the only people in the car park without dogs to share our walk. Feeling inadequate, we hurry on to the path, joining it at the point where the huge Carmarthen Bay Power Station once stood. Nothing remains of it except a plaque commemorating its workers. Opposite, by the sea, is a skateboard park, overgrown and deserted.
Unlike last week the tide’s low. The empire of mud gleams in the low sun. As usual at the start we’re talkative – silence falls only much later, when we start to tire. But this time there’s a difficulty. Two military jets are chasing each other in circles around the empty skies overhead like twin maddened dogs, sometimes silently, sometimes with a deafening roar that makes conversation impossible. Again and again they return, over sea or land, always at the same distance from each other, the second repeating metronomically the course of the first. What should be the most placid of spaces feels ruptured and polluted. These expensive aerobatics seem a high price to pay for an illusion of world power.
The old port, created in 1836 to export coal when Pembrey’s harbour silted up, has vanished without trace, its docks now replaced with a standard marina, complete with modest red-topped lighthouse. We almost miss the waterside memorial to Amelia Earhart, described, unkindly but accurately by the author of the Carmarthenshire coast path guidebook as ‘rather lacklustre’. We pass a shut up caravan park on our right and the sullen marshland of Pembrey Burrows on our seaward side, and before long we find ourselves in Pembrey Country Park. Here’s another ex-industrial landscape so comprehensively translated that it’s forgotten the old industrial vocabulary and now speaks only the language of leisure: a dry ski slope, segway rides, miniature railway and other attractions, all deserted in December.
At last the jet pilots leave to harry other victims, and we arrive back at the coast in perfect quiet. Crossing the dunes we’re suddenly in a completely different world. This is Cefn Sidan, the ‘silken bank’, one of purest outdoor experiences possible in Wales. For eight miles to our right the sea – real sea, not salty inlet – washes over a wide strip of finest grain sand. It’s as if someone has swept a giant hoover over the whole beach to leave a pristine surface (‘sidan’ transmits exactly its textile sleekness). The sand, flat and firm under our boots, is marbled with broad brush strokes, waving in parallel as far as the eye can see. Its smoothness is broken only by a thin track of shells – razors, scallops, whelks and cockles – that crackle into brittle fragments under our feet. Even at the sea’s edge there are almost no birds. Sky, sea, beach, vertical dune wall: these simplicities are all there are here. Cefn Sidan is as near to an elemental, pre-human world as it’s possible to find.
Except that embedded in it are all too human relics. At intervals the beach holds prisoner the ribbed carcasses of three anonymous ships, uncovered by the storms of January 2014 – just a fraction of the 300 or so vessels lost over the years on one of the most dangerous shorelines in Britain, our own Skeleton Coast. Their shapes make graceful arcs in the sand, but their stories, now irrecoverable, were doubtless ones of pain and death. According to oral tradition some wrecks were not accidental but engineered by the sinister Gŵyr y Bwyelli Bach (the Men with Little Axes), who would light fires on Mynydd Pen-bre as false beacons to lure ships, and then run amok when the vessels ran ashore, cutting rings off the bloated fingers of drowned sailors with their little axes. (Could this, though, be a rural myth, invented by outsiders to blacken the good name of the people of Pen-bre, or by the inhabitants themselves to magnify outsiders’ fear of the local rugby team?)
Cefn Sidan is constantly shifting. In time these wrecks will disappear, and future storms will bring others into view, after a hundred years and more of being submerged in the sand and sea.
Ahead, at the northern end of the beach, the map shows ‘Danger Area’. We begin to wonder how the red triangles on the map translate into warnings for walkers, when we spot the familiar Coast Path sign on the top of the dune wall. We scramble up and discover another new world, Pembrey Forest. This is a sand forest, and home to many rare species of plants, birds and butterflies. Clusters of tall pines border the straight concreted track that leads inland, and beyond, across saltmarsh pastures drained by water channels. In one large field the raised track ahead has been occupied by a multicoloured gang of heifers. They stand their ground, belligerently, as we approach, gingerly. Humans and cattle are equally jittery, but the nerve of the heifers cracks first and they gallop off down the field, leaving us in control of the path.
Pillboxes and anti-tank blocks litter the fields: the Wehrmacht would have met with stiff resistance from the citizens of Kidwelly. Military industry in these parts has a long history. An explosives factory in the late nineteenth century was followed by a Royal Ordnance Factory and an RAF airfield.
Kidwelly finally comes into view, and the hills above it: Llansaint sits like an Italian village on the hill top, with its white church tower shining brightly. The tall spire of St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly looks close enough across the fields but the path takes us in every direction except straight towards the town. We go under the railway line and join the main road into Kidwelly, crossing the two Gwendraeth rivers and the Kidwelly and Llanelli canal. We all feel tired after the long straight trek on hard surfaces, and glad of the coffee shop next to the medieval gateway to the castle.
The excellent X11 bus takes us back to Burry Port, where we stroll around the marina as the sun sets. It’s been shining all this short day.