The castle walls glow in the morning sun. Below, the shoreline car park is almost full, with a small market selling bric-à-brac and small plants. But within minutes the four of us are on our own, on the path round Sir John’s Hill.
This is an old trail, but the local marketing experts have rebadged it as Dylan Thomas’s Birthday Walk, and every few yards along it successive stanzas of Poem in October appear on panels. The story is that Thomas wrote the poem on his thirtieth birthday after walking this route round Laugharne’s southern headland. At some points the path is steep, and it’s hard to imagine the poet, already overweight and toxic with booze, leaping like a faun through the high beech wood.
‘Poem in October’, written in 1944, is a curious piece. Hobbled by its intricate verse form, it seems almost a parody of Thomas’s early works, with its orotund delivery and facile assonance (‘And I rose / In a rainy autumn / And walked abroad in shower of all my days’). Its theme, lost childhood, resembles that of the contemporary ‘Fern Hill’, but lacks that poem’s taut urgency, and gives way to easy nostalgia (‘Through the parables / Of sunlight / And the legends of the green chapels’). Any resonance it has comes not from within the poem itself, apart maybe from its famous phrase ‘heron priested shore’, but from our hindsight that Thomas, with few birthdays still to come, was indeed not very far from the state he foresaw (‘It was my thirtieth year to heaven’).
But forget Dylan Thomas and lift your eyes to the sea below. Beyond the town Afon Tâf wanders back up the valley. The tide is in retreat and the waters in the river’s mouth seem becalmed. Some passages, across under Wharley Point, look smooth as glass. To the south below us stretch Pendine marshes (the sands beyond them are almost invisible), a great expanse of grass-topped mud separated by worm-like runnels of salt water, and to the west an earth wall protecting low, lush grassland fields cropped by a herd of Friesians. In the seventeenth century, a golden age for drainage and reclamation, the waters here were partly domesticated and rich farmland brought into cultivation. Farms sprang up, including Salt Marsh Farm, which we bypass once we’ve come down from the wood, avoiding a kennelful of yelping dogs.
From here a farmtrack leads west, past hayfields already packed into cylindrical blackplasticked bales, towards a broad yellow-toned limestone cliff, half eaten away by excavation. This is Coygan Quarry, whose lumbering lorries swish past us on the short lane leading to the main road. Before it was a quarry Coygan contained an extensive cave system, at a time when what is now the Bristol Channel was a flat plain, and for a short time there lived in one of the caves, during the last Ice Age in the Middle Palaeolithic (over 50,000 years ago), a group of early humans. Excavations uncovered a ‘hyena den’, with the bones of animals like mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and bison, and Mousterian hand axes, tools associated with Neanderthals. Later still the outcrop was used as the site for a prehistoric and Roman-age defended enclosure, Coygan Camp, dug by Geoffrey Wainwright in the 1960s. It may have been the source of the Cyngadle hoard of bronze Roman vessels of Celtic design now in the National Museum of Wales. Both cave and ‘camp’ have long been extinguished by quarrying. Now all that emerges from Coygan is dust, and the raucous din of limestone being smashed and ground.
From this point to Pendine the coast path has no option but to follow the busy A4066, mainly in fields parallel to the road but in places along the road itself. The reason is that all the land between the road and the sea was requisitioned by the Ministry of War during the Second World War as a weapons testing site, and it still remains the property of the Ministry of Defence. In these privatised days it’s managed by a company called Qinetiq, a baleful name even the most dystopic novelist could hardly have invented. The approach road to the base does not look inviting. In happier circumstances the path, instead of being a featureless trudge, would have followed the six grand miles of sandy dunes from Ginst Point near Laugharne all the way to Pendine, home to many rare species of plants and birds. But the missile owners apparently can’t allow a path to link the shore path, often open at weekends, with Laugharne.
When the military first arrived a local gentry house, Llanmiloe, was given over as accommodation for the officers, and soon a whole new village of single-storey houses was created below it for the other ranks. Social amenities grew up, including a cinema, to serve the troops. Echoes of them survive, but Llanmiloe has the air of an out-of-time, slightly forgotten, temporary place, as if it was located in America.
Before long Pendine proper announces itself as capital of speed (‘Home of the world land speed record’). The long flat firm sands attracted speedster heroes like Malcolm Campbell, the son of a diamond merchant who later flirted with the British Union of Fascists. On 4 February 1927 Campbell broke the land speed record for a third time, recording 174mph in his car Blue Bird. A Welsh driver from a humbler social background, J.G. Parry-Thomas, competed against him on the same sands, and for a year held the world record himself. But on 3 March he was killed in an attempt to surpass Campbell’s new record, and his car, Babs, was buried in the dunes.
In 1969 Babs was exhumed. It now sits, restored, near the beach in a grim-looking ‘Museum of Speed’. J and I recall seeing on television two years earlier, repeated over and over, the film of the death of Donald Campbell, Malcolm’s son, on Coniston Water, as he aimed to beat the water speed record. Blue Bird‘s fatal somersault and its cartwheels across the water seem to have left a lasting imprint on both our youthful minds.
Behind the sands lower Pendine looks neither fast nor heroic, just a collection of dowdy shops and fast food outlets, and an uncontrolled rash of caravans. As with the military housing there’s a social hierarchy among the caravans: cheap ones near the road, larger and more ornate types back towards the hills.
The older village lies up the hill by the church. Before the coming of speed and mass holidays it was a quiet place, more aware perhaps of its ancient past. Before the First World War a collection of antiquarian friends would meet at the Green Bridge Inn – they called themselves the Inn and Out Club – to plan their local activities, including digs. Their members included G.G.T. Treherne, responsible for the model restoration of the remarkable church at Eglwys Gymun, John Ward, the pioneering Cardiff archaeologist and curator of Cardiff Museum, who excavated the Roman ‘villa’ in nearby Cwmbrwyn in 1905-06, and the eccentric Carmarthenshire historian George Eyre Evans.
We reward ourselves for enduring the route march to Pendine with a Spanish meal at Ultracomida in Narberth and ice creams back in Laugharne. We’re still licking the latter in the sun below the castle when we’re besieged by a coachload of tourists. They’re addressed by their leader on the history of the Normans in south Wales. It’s an exhaustive talk. By the time he’s arrived at the thirteenth century and Sir Guy de Bryan, the castle’s builder (‘just think of him as Guy Brian’), we call it a day and head for our cars.