It’s a warm midsummer morning and we’re back, the same quartet, in the centre of Port Talbot.
By coincidence Radio 4 is broadcasting a programme called Playing the skyline in which the musicians Kizzy Crawford and Gwilym Simcock are taken on a boat to study the profile of Port Talbot from the sea and then compose short pieces of music suggested by the skyline. To be truthful, both pieces sound more like typical pieces by each composer than pieces that evoke the contrast between rolling hills and gritty steelworks. When one of them tries to say that Port Talbot is the most polluted town in the UK the presenter feels obliged to interrupt and suggest this may not be true – presumably terrified of an angry backlash from the inhabitants.
We ignore the allure of the Gossip Café, strangely shunned by Jean-Paul Sartre, and head south towards Aberafan and the coast. Past the cemetery where the bones of Dic Penderyn lie, and across one of Port Talbot’s many blue bridges. C. points down various terraced streets towards the homes of aged or deceased relatives and in-laws. One of them stubbornly refused to move house to a fancier address, determined to died in the house he was born in (he succeeded). As we move down Victoria Avenue – excitement would mount as the nostrils of his youthful self caught the smell of the sea – C mentions more echoes from the past: the vanished seafront funfair of Miami Beach, and a shady character somehow mixed up in the shooting of Jeremy Thorpe’s dog.
Today Aberafan beach and prom look very different. Instead of the big Valleys crowds on the sands, locals stroll amiably in small groups along the EU-airbrushed prom. Sculptures punctuate the straight path, including scattered groups of penguins, most decapitated, and a large, flattened grinning whale. Behind us are the dramatic cranes of the docks, where iron ore is offloaded; ahead, the long sweep of Swansea Bay, ending in the Mumbles lighthouse, lacking its usual profile from this angle. A stop for coffee in Café Remos, Port Talbot’s half-price answer to Verdi’s in Mumbles. Local entertainments include an ex-policeman on ‘the world’s worst serial killers’, and wrestling with a very special guest (‘meet and greet Dai Ling Ping £1’). A little further along, H. leaves us to bowl her aunt, nearly 101 years old, along the seafront in her wheelchair.
Then we leave the prom and walk along the beach. The seawall, concave in a 1970s way, has big white numbers painted on it. C. recalls his brief employment as a beach attendant, collecting deck-chairs and returning lost children to their parents using the numbers as meeting points. Finally the prom gives way to dunes. Beyond them a whole petrochemical industry grew up, then died. Now the Baglan Bay Energy Park attempts an industrial revival: the tall cylinder of a power station (gas-powered, 2003) pokes its head through the dunes.
Now we’re approaching the mouth of the Neath river. The sand develops a dirty crust that cracks under our boots. The grey water slides by, quick and lethal, between navigation poles – though there’s no shipping to be seen today: the dismantling of ships at Giants Grave in Briton Ferry has ceased. Yellow signs on the bank warn the incautious of death by drowning and bodies washed far out to sea. No one else is here, and we’ve drifted away from the track of the coastal path, more littoral than literal. Godwits and oystercatchers picnic on the Swansea shore. Beyond them the University’s new Bay Campus is rising: big blocky buildings surrounding an incongruous yellowstone Roman temple – the Great Hall – directly influenced, it seems, by the Charles Windsor school of architecture.
Now what looks like the remains of a railway track lead us north up the estuary, past an old pipeline carried across a wasteland on concrete stilts, and on to a tarmac path – another EU’d reclamation project? – past the large Italian-owned paper tissue-making plant and a Neath Port Talbot Council depot. Small groups of people are returning from lunch. These are not the manual workmen of thirty years ago but officer workers, their neck-hung nametags tucked inside their shirt pockets. Now we’ve left the main stream of Afon Nedd and we’re alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s shipping dock, intended as a port for Neath. The old cigar-chomper designed a huge dry dock, but failed to live to see it completed (in 1861). All that remains is an outer dock, a filled-in inner, floating dock and a stone ‘accumulator’ tower, a hydraulic device invented by William George Armstrong and used to power the dock’s gates and appliances.
Now the Path cuts under the M4 bridge (1993) – we hear the familiar sinister crump of lorries over our heads – and crosses the river on the ‘old bridge’ (1955), its iron walls and bolts rusting badly. Far below us, islanded between motorway, roads and river like abandoned locations in a J.G. Ballard novel, are: the Briton Ferry marina; a vast household waste recycling site; the Ferry Boat Inn, an underage haunt of C., long closed; a travellers’ site with grazing ponies; and a fire station, where black clothed firemen rest in the sun.
It’s impossible to comprehend today how Briton Ferry was once a magnet for travellers in search of the picturesque. Paintings by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century artists such as Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Paul Sandby, John Varley, JMW Turner and William Daniell show idyllic rural scenes with ferry boats, daring travellers and charming natives.
Across the bridge, we trudge down the main road, past the unpastoral Swansea Bay Golf Club, towards Amazon’s vast warehouse. Its official title, ‘fulfilment centre’, suggests a haven for Buddhist self-realisation. The reality is different, as I discovered on a visit a few years ago. ‘Delighting the customer’ is achieved triumphantly, but at a heavy price to Amazon’s workers: low pay, oppressive surveillance, minimal control over their own work, and a Gradgrind management philosophy.
We reach Jersey Marine, an odd settlement facing Pant y Sais bog. To our left the Towers Hotel incorporates an octagonal brick folly built in the nineteenth century to house a camera obscura. We turn off the road westwards along the bank of the Tennant Canal. Its water stands still and glassy in the placid afternoon, amid tall reeds, bindweed and loosestrife. After a while we lose the canal, its place taken by the southern flank of Crymlyn Bog, home of the rare fen raft spider. At last our prayers for somewhere suitable to eat are answered by a picnic table. Then we carry on a lane to Port Tennant and beyond, through SA1, past the blue cranes of Swansea Docks, over the Tawe by the sail bridge, to the centre of Swansea and the Queens Hotel, with its fine selection of ales. With their help we celebrate the completion of the Coast Path from Chepstow to home.