Carmarthen town: a sunny morning at the end of a spell of hot spring weather. The three of us walk from the car park, along King Street and down Quay Street, with its blue plaques commemorating the eccentric historian George Eyre Evans and the young Egyptologist Ernest Harold Jones. Two hundred years ago Quay Street would have taken us to a quayside alive with ships and the business of shipping. Today the riverside’s neglected and quiet (or would be if not for the thundering road traffic). The Tywi slides by, grey and sullen.
The coast path follows the river, for the first and only time before it reaches the sea, under the railway line bypassing Carmarthen station on its way west. The line crosses the river on a bridge that once lifted to allow river traffic to pass. It was built in 1911 to replace Brunel’s original wooden bridge, traces of which can still be seen. It used to called the White Bridge and because it belongs to a rare type, the rolling bascule, it’s a Grade II* listed building. Elaborate gearing mechanisms on the west bank were used to raise the rail lines into the air, something that hasn’t happened, it seems, since 1950.
The path crosses a flood plain, with banks of tall bleached reeds and browsing horses, until we’re guided up behind a secondary school and sports centre at the edge of Johnstown. At several points on this stretch you can reconstruct the efforts the path’s designers had in negotiating a course, in the absence of an existing right of way. Sometimes they succeeded in persuading the farmer to sacrifice a thin sliver of land on the field side of the road hedge to carry the path. Sometimes they failed, forcing walkers, as here, to walk on the roadside, past a sewage works,the finely named Parc-y-Splott, and a golf driving range.
Our reward is to leave the road and enter the magical surroundings of Green Castle woods – hay fields and ancient deciduous woods now owned by the Woodland Trust. The leaves of oak and birch are still to awaken but there are flowers all around us: anemones, violets, primroses and celandines. The path meanders through several different woodlets and fields on either side of the main road, sometimes diving down towards the river, then regaining ground. We sit on a bench with a view back north to Carmarthen, munching apples and watching a women pass by with a dog (we see no real coast path walkers all day). Green Castle, its ivy-covered walls invisible to us, was a large late medieval house (rather than a castle) belonging to the Rede family; it was already abandoned by the sixteenth century.
We’re issued out of the last wood into a large grass field. This time we don’t suffer from our usual navigation problems, and find our way out without trouble: as usual Carmarthenshire Council’s coast path signing is hard to fault. Before long we pass Llangain church (1869-71), a standard Victorian pile that stands apart from the community it serves, and divert from the path to seek Tafarn Pantydderwen in the village centre. The pub turns out to be as undistinguished as the church, but we’re happy enough that it’s there and that it’s open at lunchtime for a pint and a bite to eat. We sit inside, listening to the easy listening music and watching two men endangering their lives by lopping branches off trees in the garden outside. Llangain is a sprawling village of almost entirely modern houses and bungalows. There seem to be few older houses, and we wonder where the people lived who once crowded by the hundred into Smyrna, the massive and gloomy Independent chapel across the main road. One possibility was the old farmhouse where the young Dylan Thomas visited his auntie Annie and uncle Jim – the farm remembered and transfigured by the poet in Fernhill.
The path carries on along a sunken lane and then follows a road until we branch off to skirt Pantyrathro. On its west side the old house wears a necklace of holiday chalets, scattered across the steep hillside like a Brazilian favela (though a shade more suburban). One of the fields contains newly born calves, and we scuttle towards the next stile before the lowing mother becomes too protective. Beyond Dolau we join a small road that looks at first like a standard farm lane – it passes the large Lan farm – but turns into a straight track of obvious antiquity, making directly for Llansteffan. At first it’s deeply sunken; then, as it gains height, with views over the estuary and Llansteffan Castle in the distance, it seems to rises above the big arable fields on either side. High banks are topped with squat hedges that have just been violently barbered, so that our path is littered with sharp clippings. In the bare fields are mangels, arranged in neat rows and columns almost as far as the eye can see. The decapitated vegetables stick out sinisterly from the red earth, like planted dragon’s teeth. Many of them have been nibbled and gouged by unknown animals.
Finally the lane drops down quite steeply and we’re soon in Llansteffan, a village that’s kept its architecture and its character with great success. Despite eating C’s anti-fatigue welshcakes we’ve been harbouring dreams about coffee and chocolate cake for some miles, and the Beach Shop & Tearoom does not disappoint.
I’ve been coming to Llansteffan for forty years and it’s a familiar and comfortable place, but this is the first time I’ve approached it on foot. Doing so makes you realise that despite its nearness to Carmarthen the peninsula it occupies is a still a place apart. Its narrow roads, ancient tracks and scattered farms hide a local, secret history not, I suspect, easily penetrated by outsiders. On the next stretch of the path we’ll be marching further into its interior.