Port Talbot, Tai Bach, Margam: for J. and me this is new territory, but it’s home turf for C. and H. So we’ve the luxury of expert commentators as we take to the streets and move east.
We parked in the centre of Port Talbot, near where H. grew up and C. went to school. Here’s the cafe where C. and his mates hid from the eyes of their teachers at lunchtime. That’s where there used to be a fish and chip shop, where you could get a tastier alternative to school meals. North of the railway line all the inns were alcohol-free, by command of the Talbots, including the castle-like Grand Hotel. As we walk east we pass a bewildering number of religious foundations, including an enormous Anglican St Theo’s.
Past the YMCA, where Anthony Hopkins learnt his craft. We wonder why it is that the Port Talbot area has produced such a stream of remarkable actors – Richard Burton, Hopkins, Rob Brydon and Michael Sheen. There seems no obvious answer.
Almost everyone we pass says ‘hello’ to us here, in this narrow strip between steelworks and hills. The Tata works may be global, but most of the other institutions are small and intensely local, including Ron Evans Pies. It’s curious how pie and ice cream companies in South Wales are as fiercely jealous of their borders as Greek city states. In Tai Bach, on our left, a fine chunky Carnegie Library, sadly reliant now on volunteers to keep it open, and ‘Twll-yn-y-wal’, a handkerchief-sized park
In Margam we stop for coffee at Tambini’s Express Cafe. The coffee magically retains its fierce heat, as if the big mugs it came in are vacuum-sided. Nothing much seems to have changed in here since the 1960s: the lace curtains, the counter with its empty sweets and chocolate display, the strip lighting and the plastic tablecloths. As we all sip our huge drinks we silently allow our surroundings to take us back to our separate 50s and 60s childhoods.
After several miles of street we finally get to the end of the steelworks and turn off south. This road takes us past the entrance to Margam Crematorium – recently reopened, we’re relieved to hear – towards a gleaming white biomass energy plant and the tall rusting towers of BOC. How do they make liquid oxygen, we wonder, and where does it go to? In retrospect it would have paid for us to have recruited an engineer or chemist to join us for the day: we have no answers. (Apparently, I discover later, liquid oxygen is blue and is delivered in cryogenic tankers, to fish farms among other places.)
Amazingly the path allows us to walk directly over the main Swansea-London railway line, and then a series of old freight lines, once busy but now occupied by rusty wagons. We suddenly find ourselves in the country, on the edge of Kenfig Burrows. This huge area, which once included a sizeable Norman town, was gradually overwhelmed by sand from the 13th century – when John Leland visited in 1538 he saw the town ‘in ruine and almost shokid (choked) and devourid with the sandes that the Severn Se ther castiith up’ – and is now a mass of sand, scrub and water, and the home to many rare plant species.
It’s midday and the sun shines. On the path ahead lies a snake. We almost stand on it, but it takes fright and squirms into the undergrowth. Later on, parts of the path disappear under white sand blown from the shore, invisible on our right.
Across the Burrows we can see the relocated village of Kenfig, where the old Prince of Wales pub waits for hungry walkers. Then we make a strategic error. We deviate from the coast path on a ‘short cut’ to our lunch. Before long we leave the dunes and their wild orchids and blackthorn and become lost in the boggy ground south of Kenfig Pool. Each apparently firm track ends without warning in a small lake, as if it expects us to be carrying kayaks, and we’re forced to take ever wider diversionary loops. At last, after what seems hours of aimless stumbling and several wet feet we reach the road like grateful pilgrims. C. skips on ahead like a hare to make sure the Prince’s kitchen hasn’t closed down.
More composed after our fish, chips and peas, we head back to the sea at Sker, the lonely, well-defended house that began as a Cistercian grange and became the setting for R.D. Blackmore’s triple-decker novel The maid of Sker (1872). Tough black cattle are scattered over the coastal plain. Winter storms have tossed a curious pattern of debris far inland over the short-cropped grass: stones, bones, nets and unrecognisable fragments of sea-worn plastic.
Nearer to Porthcawl the same storms have submerged the new pseudo-wooden walkway in a sea of stones. Two excavators are at work trying to create a breakwater out of them and to restore the path. Strings of sea-view houses litter the coast as we approach the town and its welcome ice-creams.