I’m back with C and J in the King George V Field, St Donat’s. The morning’s not as bright as the weather forecast promised, but there’s no wind, and it’s not cold. So off we march down the field to join the coast path, and turn east for Rhoose.
We’re high above crumbly sandstone cliffs, with large open fields to our left. Llantwit Major’s beach wins no prizes for its buildings, but at least they’re all closed for the season. The cliffs look like layered cake lying on a bed of cream limestone. And they’re as impermanent as cake, constantly losing ground to tides and rain.
The rains have turned the path treacherous. Vibram soles can gain no grip. We become experts in the taxonomy of mud – on one stretch it’s a violent shade of yellow – and our cloths are so spattered we start to resemble trench soldiers of a century ago.
Soon the cathedral of the Vale appears on the horizon far ahead of us – Aberthaw power station, with its triple facade and tall fat tube of a chimney. Now we’re down on the pebbly beach. The path suddenly veers off left into a field, and then just as suddenly steers us back to the beach – but via a gate completely submerged in deep rainwater. We’re at a loss, before C pioneers a new arse-shuffling technique and saves us from a watery fate.
It’s not clear where the coastal path goes next. It’s easy to become obsessed with what is the ‘true path’. Is it the dotted line on the Ordnance Survey map? Is it the red line that appears on Natural Resources Wales’s Coastal Path website? Or has the route changed since? Sometimes you just have to accept that paths, like many things, are relative entities. (This might suggest that C, who is by nature a short-cutter, has more reason on his side than me, an instinctive purist and completist.)
As we approach the power station the landscape darkens. Curlews cry over the sea. Monstrous concrete cubes march in rank along the beach, diamond-wise, still waiting for a Nazi seaborne invasion, except where someone has lowered their dignity by clustering them together. The path skirts the seaward side of the power station on a concrete curtain. To our left, a vast black estate of coal, tended by a small number of workers, to the right the grey waves of the Bristol Channel, dominated by an offshore ‘island’. Sometimes mistaken for a fort built against Napoleonic invasion, this is in reality a ‘caisson’, a watertight domed concrete cylinder built in the 1960s (?) to pump cold water to cool the power station. It looks elegant, and sinister.
Aberthaw B power station began operation in 1971 and belongs to RWE nPower, one of the notorious ‘Big Six’ energy companies. It’s coal-fired and should have been shut down by now, but was reprieved and equipped with technology to reduce sulphur emissions and later capture carbon. Much of the coal comes from Welsh sources, and arrives by rail.
Beyond the River Thaw (humiliatingly channelled down a long concrete culvert), huge coal piles and an ash plant, the landscape continues industrial but shifts back two centuries. Across The Leys, an area of saltmarsh and lagoons, a ruin is reflected in the still water. It’s an old lime works, operated between 1888 and 1926. It looks even older and resembles a renaissance palazzo: a stone kiln block topped by a handsome tall brick chimney. It seems that Aberthaw lias limestone was always prized for its quality as the base of a cement specially suited to wet environments. The tradition continued in the form of the huge modern cement works a little further inland.
We turn off the path and climb to East Aberthaw village, past the railway and the freight wagons of coal waiting to be unloaded, and to the famous Blue Anchor Inn, with its fine (and dangerous) thatched roof. Alas, we’re too late for lunch and have to settle for beer and crisps. The consolation is that the interior, which dates from the 14th century, is so dark that our mud-caked uniforms attract no critical attention.
Back on the coast path we soon reach Ffont-y-gari. A giant caravan park occupies a broad strip over quarter of a mile long between railway line and sea. It’s a town in itself, with a centre that includes an Indian restaurant. Caravans are close packed in suburban streets (but without the suburban gardens). Red Calor gas canisters stand in idle groups on street corners, the only residents in late autumn.
The end of the walk brings a fine stretch of high cliffs in a gently curving line, limestone at its base, next dark, then golden stone, topped with a continuous fringe of green foliage. The path treads on a thin berm of land between the cliffs and, to our left, a huge shallow quarry, its level floor empty but for a few dog-walkers and lines of stray stones. To finish we leave the path and cross fields towards the tall lampposts of the ‘Rhoose Point Transport Interchange Car Park’. This grand location consists of a railway halt, two bus stops, a car park and a superfluous roundabout. More to the point, it’s the site of C’s car, and marks the end of one of our most absorbing days of walking this part of the Welsh coast.