North Wales Coast Path, day 1

May 1, 2017 0 Comments

Caravans and coasts go together like Morecambe and Wise.  It’s seldom that we walk a day on the Wales Coast Path without seeing at least a few caravans.  But the coastal strip between Pensarn and Rhyl, our gentle afternoon introduction to the north Wales coast, is so caravan-saturated that, on the top of a double-decker bus back to Pensarn, you could screw up your eyes and imagine you’re passing through the endless Cape Flats townships outside Cape Town.  The Golden Sands park is gargantuan.  Most of its caravans are cheap ‘statics’, squeezed tight together, with just a narrow strip of grass or tarmac separating them.  At some points the palisades surrounding the park are topped by sloping barbed wire.

The residents, mostly from the north-west of England, come for the sands.  A generous, broad slice of fine sand runs for miles, west to the Little Orme and east to Rhyl and beyond.  But it doesn’t draw the crowds today.  Though it’s sunny, a cool, strong wind’s blowing from the north.  Few people are about.  One defiant family sits it out on the shore on sun chairs, but most people are sheltering, on the landward side of the thick concrete sea wall.  We catch a brief sight of the legs of some of them, as the arm of a giant aerial ‘grabber’ wheels round in a funfair hidden behind the wall.  In the other direction, out to sea, are more wheels – wind turbines, scores of them.  The early machines – the first farm was planted in 2004 – look as if they grew up haphazardly.  The latest, further from land, are ranked like forestry plantation conifers.  If you’re precisely aligned with a row of them, you seem to see a single tower with dozens of whirling arms, like the Hindu god Kali.  Yesterday, we’re told, was the first day when the National Grid had no need to rely on coal.  These windfarms, shining bright on the horizon, form one of the biggest arrays on the world and are part of the reason why.

The three of us eventually tire of walking on the ridged sand.  We retreat to the concrete path.  Soon the caravans, tiered like the turbines but far more of them, hem us in.  Then they’re replaced by modest post-war bungalows, built round rectangular spaces, each space filled with a long artificial sand dune.  At Kinmel Bay are the fragile remnants of what was once a continuous line of natural dunes, before erosion and human destructiveness put paid to them.  And now we’re at the mouth of the river Clwyd.  The river creeps to the sea guided down an ignominious mud channel, but before that it’s given the honour of a small basin for boats and a new lifting pedestrian bridge, itself built like a boat. 

The bridge, along with the harbourmaster’s HQ, café and bike shop, and lots of other landscape improvements at Horton’s Nose, make this small area an oasis of well-designed modernity in an ocean of decaying tat.  Three neat metal sculptures recall three of Rhyl’s greats, the footballer Don Spendlove, the musician Mike Peters and the environmental scientist Sir John Houghton.  Naturally most of the money for all this came from the Europe Regional Development Fund.  The inhabitants voted strongly to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.  Neglect and dereliction will soon resume.  Traditionally boats came to this harbour, the Foryd, to die.  An information panel tells us that ‘for boats like the Alice, the Foryd is a graveyard.  Aground and abandoned, they rot in the accumulated silt’.  Another panel reminds us of the pioneer Victorian submarine, the Resurgam, which sank and, despite its name, never rose again, off Rhyl harbour in 1880.

Rhyl has a large centre, with some respectable buildings and a few confident ones, like the Town Hall, dating from the town’s late-Victorian heyday as a holiday resort.  Now its streets are full of tattoo and nail parlours, pound shops, vaper lounges and bingo clubs.  One of the latter is dedicated to the god Apollo, leader of the Muses. The seafront offers slot machines, gourmet burgers, McWalter’s Café and a branch of the Samaritans.  The public toilets contain bins for ‘sharps’.  When we open the pages of the Daily Post, murder, assault or some other crime committed in Rhyl is reported on the front page.  The town is home to some of the poorest communities in Wales, itself one of the poorest regions in western Europe.  It’s a place that needs help.  The chances of receiving any now seem slim.

At least the handsome railway station is still in place, and staffed.  A helpful railwayman tells us the next train is late and recommends the bus.  This is not as uncommercial as it sounds, since both rail and bus services are owned by our old friends Arriva.  We race to the top deck to bag the front seats for the ride back to Pensarn.  As we move off an automated voice announces the names of forthcoming bus stops with exaggerated enthusiasm, as if he’s a bingo caller and we’re to expect big prizes.  Most of the stops are the names of caravan parks, which run uninterrupted, except for a single green field, for five miles, to Pensarn.

Abergele and Pensarn railway station is derelict and for sale.  The main building stands high above the platform, its windows blacked out and chimneys dark against the clear sky.  Tall grasses wave below it.  It’s the perfect location for a horror film.

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