We join J. at Swansea station, on the two-carriage train to Carmarthen. A British Transport Police officer paces our carriage. Maybe coastal walkers, with their clumpy boots and aggressive waterproofs, rank only just below Cardiff City fans on the BTP Travelling Troublemakers Index. But we reach Ferryside, a request stop, without challenge.
It’s a cool, cloudy and blustery day, with less sun than forecast. Spring is ready to bounce, but it needs warmth, and winter’s reluctant to relax its hold. We walk north past the primary school, an original building designed by Richard Kyrke Penson, with modern additions. On one of the walls are inscribed the words
Mi af i’r ysgol ‘fory
Â’m llyfr yn fy llaw
Heibio’r castell newydd
A’r cloc yn taro naw.
Buoyed by the thought that children here still walk to school with books in their hands (and arrive on time) we clear the suburbs of the village and follow a lane along the railway and the river Tywi, past fields of mud and morose cattle, and fluorescent-blue tattooed lambs and their mums. The lane begins to climb, veering slightly east. We pass a regular succession of farms: Cwmburry, Blaengwastad, Trelymsi and the strangely-named Hampstead. We’re grateful for the high clipped hedges that shield us from the north-westerlies. Occasional gates give us glimpses of the Tywi meandering below.
At each farm at least one dog comes to meet us. We send J., the only dog owner among us, ahead to calm each Cerberus with soothing words. But it’s an unneeded precaution: they’re only softie labradors, well used to eccentrics like us. The last farm is called Pentrecwn (the OS map has the more mundane ‘Pentrecwm’), which suggests a whole canine battalion. But this one’s strangely devoid of dogs; its yard, with its bright blue doors, lies silent. Here the path escorts us away from the farm into a field, and abandons us there. We’re left to the mercy of the small arrows on spasmodic Coast Path posts. By this stage in our coastal walking we’ve become fearful of big fields. Thanks to one badly aligned arrow it takes us quarter of an hour, amid mounting frustration, to find our way out of this one, through a gate well hidden from view, into a steep wood.
The path runs close to Gellilednais, a handsome yellow-washed gentry house with many chimneys, the home of Peter Williams, an eighteenth century Methodist famous for the popular biblical text-with-commentary ‘Beibl Peter Williams’. Past Bryntowy, and then half-way round Towy Castle, a rambling old home for old people, with big views west across the river. C. imagines white-coated warders rushing out from its doors to intercept us as we try to make our demented escape downhill towards the river, and escorting us, gently but firmly, back to our rooms in the Castle. We assess the chances of us ending up in a place like this. Not high, but good diets and regular coastal walking may shorten the odds.
Thoughts of mortality induce hunger. We eat our sandwiches on a bank sheltered from the wind, just after an abandoned farm. Its ruin was not too long ago – glass still stands in its upstairs windows. We’ve not see a walker all day, but suddenly a man and woman in their fifties come into view on the path. They’re carrying heavy packs and are clearly Serious Walkers, rare birds in our experience of the Coast Path. We ask them where they started from, expecting them to say ‘Llanelli’ or ‘Swansea’, but the answer turns out to be ‘Poole’. They began walking the South West Coast Path, and having completed it decided to carry on into Wales. They don’t seem to rate the Wales path very highly, in particular the urban edgelands we find so appealing. But then they come from Stockport, and if you lived there you wouldn’t want to find more of the same on your holidays. We shadow them all the way to Carmarthen. They must be tired, because their pace is no faster than ours. Just short of Croesyceiliog we catch up with them as they stop to marvel at red kites fighting with a band of guerrilla crows above a copse. We observe to them smugly that in Wales these days red kites are as common as buzzards.
Mr and Mrs Poole may have averted their eyes as they passed under the twin rows of pylons that stride across the river. If so they would have missed the graceful catenary curves of the power lines, bowing low in homage to the god of the Tywi. The river, meanwhile, eases by on its broad grey loops, sensing the sea not far away.
Croesyceiliog, despite being so close to Carmarthen, is still an attractive, compact village strung along the road as it crosses Nant Cwm Croes-y-Ceiliog. The bus stop looks like a wayside temple in India: someone in the village has painted it bright red, arranged a set of flower planters around its base as offerings, and decorated its interior with pennants.
Now, though, we’re on the main Llanelli road and the southern outskirts of Carmarthen, a grim mix of roundabouts, swirling traffic and out-of-town drive-ins. A melancholy plaque attached to a dark wall under the main roundabout commemorates the centre of Pensarn village, sacrificed long ago to the forward march of concrete and cars. We cross the river on the new footbridge and go in search of a consolatory coffee.
The sun is out at last as we set off back on the train. This is the journey we wish the Path could have taken. It’s one of the best short rail journeys in Britain, tracking the Tywi closely all the way to its mouth, the low sun flashing on the water and the emerging mudlines, and greening the hilly fields of the Llansteffan peninsula opposite. Before long we’ll be tramping down the riverbank on this western side, back to Carmarthen Bay and the coast.