A cloudy, cool morning, but the beach car park at Llansteffan is already filling with dogs and children and older citizens tying up the laces of their walking books. Flying in the face of commercial self-interest, the Beach Shop and Tea Room won’t be open for another hour, so C, J and I set off up the path towards the castle coffeeless.
Soon we leave other people behind and enter the wooded track below the (always unseen) Norman castle. The high beech canopy bursts with sudden, vivid greenness, and it’s alive with birdsong. We pass a steel bench designed by Julia Griffith Jones, in the form of three singing women, its back cast in the form of a music stand. After Scott’s Bay and St Anthony’s Well the path begins to climb, slowly but insistently. At first it’s a broad track of beaten earth, then becomes a narrow path as it curls round the high headland called Wharley Point (Y Werle), and the broad estuary of Afon Tâf comes into sight below us. This was a spot dear to the artist Osi Rhys Osmond, who died this year (‘I’d like to jump off from here and launch myself into eternity’). The river takes a winding course into Carmarthen Bay, and beyond, in the distance, is Gower and Worm’s Head. (We wonder whether, if we had the power to walk on water, it might take a single day to make that journey, instead of the eight or nine days it’s actually taken.) Turning the eye clockwise, the wastes of Pendine marsh, and beyond them the flat miles of Pendine sands, and, clockwise again, Sir John’s Hill and the town of Laugharne across the river.
A green track descends and turns northwards. Now we find ourselves in what must be one of the greenest and most secluded parts of the entire Wales Coast Path. We come across no other walkers before St Clears. This western edge of the Llansteffan peninsula, with its grassy hills fringed by marshes, is sparsely inhabited and has few roads or even farm tracks. It yields its secrets reluctantly. It’s cow country and with their help the long grass seems to have a special lusciousness and vigour. Eiluned Rees, in the excellent audio Llanybri heritage app, claims that the cows and sheep here, tiring of their home pasture, used to wade across Afon Tâf at low tide and feed on the Laugharne shore, before returning at the next convenient low tide.
The few farmhouses tend to be large, and though some are still working farms many have been converted and extended into what C calls ‘dream homes’ and holiday cottages. First we pass Llys Hendy, then Laques Fawr (pronounced ‘lax’, from Old English ‘lac’ or stream) and Pentowyn, originally a grange of Carmarthen Priory.
Our coast guide writer Chris Moss seems to have had an unfortunate experience along this stretch. He complains bitterly about bogs, bulls and bad signing. At first we’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The first cow we meet unleashes a furious tirade at us, warning us away from her calves. She’s answered by other cows ahead. Could there be some bovine internet here, a message about alien intruders being passed from herd to herd, until a massive bull is roused from his sleep to attack us? But all is quiet, and although the cows keep us under surveillance at several points we’re left unmolested. No bogs to bother us either – though to be fair the weather’s been dry and the original path’s been redirected round the estuary of Afon Cywyn, away from the wettest areas. And Carmarthenshire Council have done their usual excellent job with coast path signage. We get lost only once.
Since we were last in Carmarthenshire the flora have changed. As we walk the narrow lanes tall cow parsley provides a constant guard of honour. Whole fields are occupied by armies of buttercups. Bluebells mass in the woods, where the birdsong resumes. Swifts cut fast curves through the air like crazed swordsmen. Later, a single buzzard hides in the air like a sniper over the Cywyn marshes.
We pass by the diversion to Black Scar, where a ferry once carried people across to Laugharne, and follow a hedged track to Mwche farm, the site of a proposed and much contested wind turbine. Then to Cwm Celyn, mentioned in Lynette Roberts’s verse, including her most famous poem, Poem from Llanybri, and the family home of the poet and novelist Glyn Jones. Here we’re met by a sign advertising ‘good fishing’ and a crowd of geese and dogs, easily pacified by J. Then another wood and the farm at Llandeilo Abercywyn. Few traces remain of the medieval church there. It seems strange that two churches faced one another across the Cywyn – the other is Llanfihangel Abercywyn – but the population may have been larger in the middle ages, and Afon Tâf was then a busy waterway, at a time when roads were primitive and slow. By the nineteenth century parishioners were scarce. In his book on historic Carmarthenshire homes Francis Jones tells this story about the tenant of the farm there, Mr Harries:
… very few people attended the parish church hard by the farmhouse, and no-one went to morning service. On Sunday mornings the vicar would call on Mr Harries and say, ‘Harries bach, we ought to go into the church and have a little blessing whatever.’ Mr Harries, though a Methodist, obliged, accompanied always by his faithful sheep-dog. The vicar’s prayer, which never varied by a single word, was:
Arglwydd trugarog bendithia ni’n tri,
Harries Llandeilo, a finnau, a’r ci
Merciful Lord may blessing be found,
Harries Llandeilo, myself and the hound.
In his classic book Crwydro Sir Gâr Aneirin Talfan Davies writes of his disillusioning visit to Llandeilo Abercywyn in the early 1950s. You can feel the pain of his offended Anglican soul (my translation):
I saw the sign ‘To Llandeilo Abercywyn ½ ml. I have to admit I thought this place was a small village, with a small church, where Gruffydd Jones once preached, at its centre. But a shock awaited me. After turning off the road I found myself on a bumpy cart track, running between the open boundaries of a hayfield; before long I found myself in a farmyard. I enquired, thinking that somehow I’d lost the way.
‘Where is Llandeilo Abercywyn?, I asked the farmer in the yard.
‘Where’s the church?’
‘Over there’, pointing to the far end of the yard, towards a building surrounded by trees and untidy bushes. This was the saddest sight I saw in all my travels round the county. The building is on its last legs, nothing but a dirty stall for animals of all kinds. On the old triple-decker pulpit, where Griffith Jones preached the Word, hens chatter and roost; the filthy-looking font stands solitary and lonely; and where the altar once was, where the ministers would offer sufficient sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the pigs lie stretched in the mud.
Does the memory of Gruffydd Jones mean so little to us that we have no will to save at least his pulpit and the font from desecration?
We need to walk far inland to cross Afon Cywyn, minor though it is, on the road at Pont Ddu. We sit on the bridge wall to eat our sandwiches, legs dangling, to the amusement of the occasional van driver, then walk down towards the coast on the north bank. The redirected path now fails to take us to the ivy-covered ruined church of Llanfihangel Abercywyn and the six medieval stones in its graveyard. These have been mis-named ‘pilgrim graves’. Though we’re near the route of travellers to St David’s, there’s no evidence they mark the resting places of prematurely expired pilgrims.
The final stretch is across large grassy fields far from Afon Tâf, climbing and then descending towards another river, Afon Cynin, and the southern outskirts of St Clears. St Clears is a town with a strange shape, as if it’s been stretched like an elastic band. The Norman settlement of around 1100, with its motte and bailey castle and church, lies at the confluence of the Tâf and Cynin, but the later town is some distance to the north. The two halves are split by the roaring traffic of the A40. It’s hard to believe now, but in its earlier years the town was an important shipping port, and shipbuilding there continued into the nineteenth century.
The townspeople are justly proud of their history, and you come across explanatory panels every few yards. The town’s badge, apparently commissioned by Hugh Williams, the radical lawyer who supported the Chartists and the Rebecca rioters, features a wild boar, often particularised as Twrch Trwyth from the medieval tale Culhwch and Olwen. Visually the boar is ubiquitous: as an articulated wooden statue, as the central part of the corporation badge on the old Town Hall, and on decorative ironwork by David Peterson adorning a bridge.
Before collecting our second car at Llansteffan we catch up with our much delayed coffee and cake in the Beach Shop and Tea Room, and leave in sunshine and a state of verdant satisfaction.