Early February, a glum cold morning. Like three dormice at the mouth of their hole, twitching their whiskers and sniffing the winter air, we emerge from our car on the edge of Kidwelly for a modest early year ramble. C. wears industrial strength gloves, J. a woolly hat advertising an Irish stout. It’s not half past ten, but already our minds are fixed on the prospect of a warm lunch.
Last time we were here we missed out the ‘Kidwelly Quay triangle’, a quirky kink in the Coastal Path, and we set off to bag it, past a sewage pumping station (always a favourable omen) and across the drowned line of the old Gwendraeth Valley railway. Two men with dogs are in conversation as we pass. We catch a fragment:
… they ate their own offspring, they say.
Like the Japanese in the Second World War …
The path soon joins Kymer’s Canal, built to transport coal from the Gwendraeth to the coast – the earliest canal in Wales to be granted Parliamentary approval (1765). Kymer, a native of Haverfordwest, seems to have been a dapper chap: a portrait in Newton House, Dinefwr has him wearing a ‘Chinese’ conical hat and pigtail. On the banks of his canal grow tall reeds, dark brown at the base but wintered to pale yellow higher up, towards their bushy crowns. At its end is the Quay, where birders watch over the silver estuary as it broadens to the west: ‘white strand’ is an apt name for the Gwendraeth at its mouth.
A minor road takes us back to the town, past a community centre, Canolfan Tywysoges Gwenllian. Its title commemorates the ‘Welsh Joan of Arc’, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, who led a revolt against the Normans. In 1136 they removed her head, ISIS-style, after defeating her army in battle at a site, ‘Maes Gwenllian’, near Kidwelly Castle.
We walk through the town, past a row of benevolent looking women waiting for a bus at the non-existent bus stop, any one of whom could have been hen fenyw fach Cyweli. Then we cross the stone bridge over the Gwendraeth Fach and follow a narrow road along the north side of the estuary towards St Ishmael and Ferryside. A tractor towing a muckspeader fails to show us the respect we deserve. But we carry straight on, ignoring the Coast Path’s curious decision to abandon the coast and head uphill towards Llansaint. On these slopes the broad green fields, with gaunt hedges, all have their gates left open. Soon the sprawling Carmarthen Bay Holiday Park comes into view. A farmer (the same one?) has considerately built a tall dung heap just a few yards from the nearest caravans. We pass Tanylan, a model farm built in 1862 for the Cawdor estate, the largest landowner in the county. Its buildings are as neat as they must have been then, but they’re holiday lets now.
The road begins to nose northwards into the Tywi estuary, and into the wind. At last we reach the church of St Ishmael, described by the authors of The buildings of Wales as ‘a delightful jumble of medieval fabric’. It sits on its own on a steep slope overlooking the sea. There’s no village. There was a medieval one, but it was washed away by the sea long ago; traces were recently excavated by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust. The church’s only neighbour, the vicarage, was destroyed by a stray bomb during the Second World War. No one’s around, the church is locked and for a short while we stand silently in the churchyard staring westwards towards Laugharne, a short distance as the crow flies, but two long estuaries away for the weary walker.
We march down into Ferryside. It’s a quiet place, its old sea-based economies long defunct. On the other side of the railway line is its great feature, the view across the Tywi to Llansteffan, with its castle, pastel houses and the white facade of the Plas, home long ago of the bibliomanic Sir John Williams. On the landward side of the lines the village exposes its social strata as clearly as any geological section: terraces with tiny gardens up against the railway line, then detached and larger houses on the other side of the street, and beyond them, at a higher level, the decorated villas of the moneyed. There’s a crazy mixture of sizes and styles, as if an ancient by-law had made it an offence to design a house that looked in any way like its neighbour. The name of ‘Gothic Villa’, on our right, suggests a Transylvanian castle, but the ‘gothic’ it refers to is the older, Strawberry Hill version and the small house is neat and playful in style. A bright red public bench of extraordinary length is waiting by the roadside for a large group of serious Ramblers to sit on it and synchronously open their sandwich boxes.
But it’s not sandwiches we have in mind, and we don’t linger. Driven to hunger by the cold and the exertion, we drive back to Kidwelly, and then via Carmarthen to Y Polyn, near Capel Dewi, where hot plates of the best sausages and cannellini beans, followed by trifle, are waiting for us.