A cloudless, still mid-April morning in a miraculous week of constant sun. We’re in St Clears, four of us, for a short and gentle stroll down afon Tâf to the sea at Laugharne, castle to castle. The castle at the southern end of St Clears is a toy one just off the road – a small round early Norman motte, Banc y Beili, and bailey. And it’s hard to believe that biggish ships used to moor near here as late as the nineteenth century: today the Taf is a sluggish grey current, winding its lazy course between grey-green muddy shores.
Near the bridge over the river a whole garden is given over to a jamboree of flowerpot men. One of their leaders happily urges passing motorists to vote for Delyth Evans, the Labour candidate for the marginal constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. Along the busy road south compliant landowners have allowed the Coast Path planners to set the path on ‘over the hedge’ routes, which keep us away from the traffic until we can divert from the road left, down towards the river. A buzzard scowls around a copse to our left. Across the Tâf, beyond the reed beds, we can see the Llansteffan peninsula, gently sloping, roadless and mysterious. Under our feet the fields are ablaze with dandelions, surely good candidates for world domination when our own species finally self-destructs. Our old friends the electricity pylons march in twin rows across the fields and river. The spark a debate on the merits of their newly announced successors, the ‘ear-ring towers’ – hardly less conspicuous than their ancient parents. We wonder, too, whether the electricity flows mainly west-east or east-west.
The path rejoins the road, but leaves it again for good a little way ahead, taking us back down hill towards the river, on a boardwalk through a small wood. We walk along the bottom edges of fields. Between us and the river is a tangle of shrubs and trees, which give only a few clear views to the opposite shore. Blackthorns blossom in clouds, high above our heads. As we pass a farm called Brixtarw – a curious mongrel name – across a high hedge the heads of cows, lined up like soldiers in a Flanders trench, anxiously watch us pass.
Turning sharp left we find ourselves in a deep sunken holloway that falls gently, and to the right. In the hedges: primroses, violets, ragged robin, celandines and, a newcomer, bluebells. For the first time for many miles we meet a pair of ‘proper’ walkers, their pilgrim’s badge being a plastic covered Ordnance Survey map hung round the neck. We come to a house called Delacorse, perched by the waterside and surrounded by fine gardens open to the public. Beyond, a series of grassy glades, with outbursts of brilliant gorse, until the path enters a wood that leads up into Laugharne, past the Boathouse and Dylan Thomas’s writing shed. By now the thin river has suddenly grown into a wide estuary, Dylan’s ‘heron priested shore’.
Laugharne is one of the handsomest of small Welsh towns. Samuel Lewis, in his Topographical dictionary of Wales (1833) calls it ‘one of the cleanest and best built in South Wales, embosomed in an amphitheatre of verdant hills and ornamented with the venerable remains of its ancient castle’. Its old Norman shape and character are intact. It still seems a place separated from its hinterland, and remote enough to have avoided massive change and over-extension. We eat in Dylan Thomas’s haunt Brown’s Hotel, well restored to its former self. The sun still shines, so we stroll down to the foreshore for cones from the Cambrian Ice Cream kiosk and eat them under the castle walls. The old medieval fort was turned into a model Tudor mansion by Sir John Perrot, a ferocious west Wales plutocrat. His aim seems to have been to cow the inhabitants as much as pile up comfort and extravagance for himself, but the old bruiser fell foul of Queen Elizabeth I and he ended his days in the Tower of London in 1592, before he could be executed for treason. His costly building work at Laugharne was wasted and the castle was soon stripped to a ruin.
We’re about to leave the town when we spot that Corran Books, the second-hand bookshop on King Street, finally has its door open. But the selection is as eccentric as the opening hours, there’s a musty damp smell throughout, and the prices seem more New York than west Wales. A nice original edition of B.S Johnson’s House mother normal is on offer, but for £65. We retreat empty handed.
In starting from St Clears we’ve skipped a ten mile section of the Carmarthenshire coast, from Llansteffan to St Clears. In his book our guide Chris Moss issues a dire warning about it: ‘… probably the least interesting in this guide. Much of it is boggy and waterlogged, often grazed by uncastrated beef bulls (not generally dangerous but very curious and frisky) and the stiles , bridges and boardwalks – and there are too few of these – are in a state of poor repair’. It has all the signs of being a classic section of the coast path. We can’t wait.