Like many coastal settlements on the Bristol Channel Goldcliff still remembers the disastrous year 1607.
Behind the Farmers Arms in St Mary Magdelene’s Church – a shady avenue of limes leads to its porch – a brass inscription, now about three feet above ground level, reads (the dates refer to the old Julian calendar) as follows:
On the XX day of Ianuary even as it came to pas it pleased God the flvd did flow to the edge of this same bras ˖ and in this parish theare was lost 5000 and od pownds besides xxii people was in this parrish drown[d] ˖ Goldclif John Wilkins of Pil Rew and William Tap chvrch wardens
But today’s a bright, sunny summer day, and the waters are still and stagnant in the reens. The four of us set off from the church along the road eastwards and turn down a track toward the sea, past a long revetment bordering a nature reserve. On the seawall anglers sit, their fishing lines dangling in the sludgy Channel water. It’s the summer solstice and the tide is high.
The signs are inadequate; we soon stray from the path. As we cross a stile at High Farm a farmer strides towards us and tells us, in a West Country-tinged accent, that we’re on a ‘unauthorised path’. But once he concludes – strangely, since J and I both are wearing disreputable hats – that we’re not what he calls ‘riff-raff’, his attitude softens and he lets us carry on, presumably now ‘authorised’, past the site of Goldcliff Priory.
It’s hard now to imagine a religious foundation in this desolate and lonely spot, but Goldcliff’s human origins go far further back than medieval times. In 1882 the local antiquary Octavius Morgan reported a Roman inscription, found close by in 1878, recording construction work by the 2nd Augusta Legion: direct evidence of military interest in defending the Levels from the sea and exploiting its agricultural potential.
A little further on, at the end of a lane, we make another unlikely but welcome find, the Seawall Tearooms. ‘Deserves to be visited often’, says a TripAdviser enthusiast. Its owner breaks off from clipping her hedge and serves us coffee and homemade coffee cake. We ask how many serious coast walkers call in. Not many is the answer, it’s mainly anglers and cyclists.
From here the path on top of the seawall berm is set into a pattern that continues for many miles.
To our right, the muddy sea, directly up against the wall, or later on fringed with a grassy foreshore. In the distance, the gentle curve of the Second Severn Crossing (why has it not developed a better, less bureaucratic name?) and across the Channel, Avonmouth and the Somerset shore. The wall itself is uniform and concrete-faced, the path on top indistinct. Further east it’s slow going: we have to tread down thick clumps of rich grass (this is not part of the Coast Path that attracts many walkers). At one point, for no apparent reason, an employee of Natural Resources Wales is using a remote control to guide a small mower along the wall bank: it looks precarious but he says it seldom topples over. Here’s one quango, it seems, that’s yet to feel the cold wind of ‘austerity’.
To our left, a continuous track, interrupted by gates where gangs of Friesian heifers loiter. They look up a bit nervously as we pass, as if we’ve caught them smoking. Then the reen, and beyond it grassy fields, some of them already mown and black-baled. The few villages on this part of the Levels are sited well to the rear of the seawall, and we pass only a few isolated houses.
For some reason we develop, unconsciously, a fifty yard gap between each of us. We lapse into our private thoughts, mesmerised by the monotony of the path and the continuous stereo sounds: from the left the rustle of long grasses on the banks of the reen, moved in Mexican waves by the south-easterly breeze, from the right the gentle ripple of the Channel waters, and above the song of skylarks. We meet almost nobody, just one walker and a few anglers, one of whom tells us, without much conviction, that sea bass and Dover sole are there for the taking in the opaque, gloopy seawater. A sign threatening us with prosecutions and bailiffs if we stray from the path on to private property loses some of its authority by misspelling the word ‘foreshore’.
We stop for sandwiches – there aren’t any pubs or cafés within miles – and the other three stare in admiration at my doorstop-sized cheese and salad filled slices. Then on again, until the path is chased away from the coast by what the map calls a ‘danger area’. A red flag flies ahead. We can hear shooting. A sign apologises for the diversion, justifying it on the contradictory grounds that birdlife needs to be preserved and that the rights of shooters (presumably to slaughter birdlife) must be respected.
Now, back in pylon-land, we follow a narrow trafficless lane parallel to the coast until the roar of the M4 drowns the birdsong. Brambles and wild roses flower in the high, untended hedges, broken by occasional gates. In one gate, a large bent-double mattress lies like an art installation; through another two spectral white horses stand, one in profile, the other frontal. We cross the motorway on a bridge near Rogiet, with a view of the toll barrier below.
There are plans to construct an M4 relief road to the south. It’s easy to see, just by walking the way we’ve come, how this road, if it’s ever built, will destroy the delicate and unique environment of the Levels, more surely and permanently than the kind of flood that overwhelmed the land in 1607. A gloomy thought, as we emerge by Caldicot railway station. C. and H. take the train home, and I drive J. back to his car in Goldcliff. I’ve meetings to chair in Cardiff, back in what we like to call the ‘real world’.