I have now completed the Wales Coast Path and this is the first of 4 blog posts covering the entire 870-mile route from Chepstow to Chester, completed in stages over a year as time allowed.
The Wales Coast Path is currently the longest single continuous coastal way marked walking route in the world and regularly appears in Top-10 lists in the press. It is the only route that encircles an entire countries coastline and can be linked up with Offa’s Dyke (another Top-10 regular) to circumnavigate Wales. Once completed you now have an understanding to that cliche – “It’s about the size of Wales”.
I decided to start from Chepstow and walk west in October 2018, intending to keep going until something told me to stop: a call for work; injury; weather; darkness; or lack of accommodation. I alight at Chepstow station and walk a few metres to a delightful independent hostel, which will be a base for 2-days. I am going to use the rail network to link stages as I go.
I wake early and thread my way through the school run and a few fields to reach the seawall that leads under the huge motorway bridges that cross the Severn estuary. I walk alongside the Gwent wetlands and marshland are at risk from the M4 relief road, which fortunately was rejected by the Welsh government in 2019. I can’t wait to cross the famous Transporter Bridge, but find it is closed. A local theatre group are staging a performance of Moby Dick of the platform!
School runs are replaced by homeless people waking from their tents as I leave Newport and head for Cardiff. The dockside has been redeveloped with student accommodation which eases as I reach the seawall and the marshlands again. I can see the Devon coast across the Bristol Channel and the island landmarks of Steep Holm and Flat Holm, but these disappear from view as enter the Cardiff suburb of Splott, unintentionally, as someone has decided to bend the WCP shell way mark signs in random directions.
Eventually I reach the YHA, which is charging £7 a night in the week. I walk to Barry Island the next day and return by train for a second night. Cardiff is also farming students, with huge new residence blocks – a commercial development bubble that is sure to burst soon.
It is a huge disappointment to be suffering from blisters and sprained calf muscles and I return home after only 3-days walking. The trail running shoes initially held great promise, but something is wrong and I cannot continue. (See Blog Shoes or Boots)
It is not until March 2019 that I return to Barry to continue the walk, this time wearing my dependable Meindl boots. A good decision as the paths are muddy. I pass under the approach runway for Rhoose Airport, just as a British Airways 747 lands for its major service overhaul. A farmers sheepdog has no difficulties with grip on the muddy clawing clay paths, where my walking poles work overtime to keep me upright. I’m glad to reach the campsite and delight to find a superb pub next door, which serves Faggots, Mash and Peas and draft Bass Ale.
The weather forecast is dreadful, high winds and driving rain. Even the seagulls are flying backwards as I can barely stand on the cliff path, which fortunately is sufficiently inland so as to avoid the risk of falling into the sea. Water starts to leak through my waterproofs as I reach Ogmore, but there is no short cut across the river, at the entrance to the sea or across the stepping stones. High tide and weather insist I walk inland to Merthyr Mawr village and across the huge extent of dunes to Porthcawl.
The amusement arcades are closed and only the bravest dog walker is outside. A cafe refuels a weary walker before the route continues over Kenfig Burrows to Port Talbot. Skylarks fill the air, more than I have ever seen, as the weather eases and the sun makes an appearance. The steel works ahead let off an occasional mushroom cloud of steam, manufacturing white fluffy clouds that drift inland. The stark contrast between beautiful seascapes and the industrial architecture is dramatic, testifying to the ability of man to change the landscape.
The Grand Hotel provides accommodation. A bit of a misnomer as the run down property is due to be sold and the only other guests are the surveyors for a prospective purchaser. I am glad to be walking on Aberavon Sands the next morning, the only pleasant section that day, until I reach the Mumbles. Swansea has also succumbed to student farming, the new industry of South Wales it seems, replacing a decline in coal, copper, steel and heavy industry.
I remove my boots at the B&B to reveal awful blisters. It is such a disappointment to conclude I must return home. These are not minor spots, but huge buggers covering the ball of my foot and heels. Something is not quite right here, but I cannot work out what it is.
I return as soon as they have healed and set out to walk around The Gower Peninsula. I sneak my first wild camp at Pennard Burrows, unable to cross the Pill at high tide to a campsite opposite. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the site was closed. In fact it seems the whole of the Gower doesn’t open until April. Owls and gently lapping waves lull me into a deep sleep, resting for a long day ahead. The route now enters the Welsh coast proper, dramatic cliffs and remote rugged coastline. This is what I have be waiting for.
I round Worms Head, unable to explore the headline at high tide, to the huge expanse of Rhossili Bay. The vast stretches of sand will be a prominent feature for the coming days, but for now I need to find accommodation. The hostel only takes bookings for 2-days or more and the campsites are closed. I contemplate another wild camp, but the workmen at Hillend preempt that thought with statements about farmers with dogs and guns! They are joking, but clearly there has been a problem with wild campers in the dunes. I find a hippie-surf themed B&B in Llangennith, which provides a very warm welcome. They have a wealth of knowledge about the tides and conditions, meaning I can time a huge beach walk tomorrow around Whiteford Point to see the unusual cast-iron lighthouse, stranded in a desert of sand in the huge estuary of the River Loughor.
The surfers know their tides too, the headland at Burry Holms reveals a sea of seals – wet-suited enthusiast up at 0700AM for the best conditions. I could watch them for hours but I have a long walk into Gowerton. The sand changes to marshland and I’m grateful of an ebb tide, revealing a muddy salt marsh path that clings to the outer edges of the the high water mark. I can wash my boots at Crofty and follow a road to a campsite, but unfortunately the receptionist announces “No Tents” – “We are not insured”.
I ignore that white-lie and ask for alternatives. It seems I have to walk another 3-miles to another industrial campsite, that is farming holiday makers instead of students. I seem to arrived in the middle of a darts tournament, but I get a warm welcome and they fuss over me to make sure I can find a dry level pitch away from the noise.
I join up with a dog walker, who walks with me for 5-miles or so the next morning. I get an education about Llanelli and Burry Port, spoken with a pride and passion about their heritage and community. It is striking that I cycled this same route a year earlier and met up with a cyclist who also spoke passionately about the area. The Millennial Park development is certainly welcome and well used, as is Pembrey, another huge expanse of beach I spend an hour or so walking along.
My prayers for a good cafe in Kidwelly are answered before I climb above the huge estuaries of the rivers Taf, Tywi and Gwendraeth. The vast expanse of meandering sands is an awesome sight from the heights of Llansaint. I can see the headlands ahead, which will take several days to reach via long estuary detours. The new amphibious ferry at Ferryside is not running, but I have a long conversation with the captain at the sailing club about the new service. I camp nearby, only to discover again I have horrendous blisters. This injury really is getting tedious. What am I to do?