On the coach journey back to South Wales I found myself sitting next to Aneurin Bevan’s great great nephew. He talked much and interestingly about matters Welsh, Nye in particular. We were almost exactly the same age, having both been born several months before Nye died. It was fascinating to hear about the great Trade Unionist, expelled from the pits for organising strikes, who then became Minister for Health in the post-war Attlee government from 1945 to 1951, and whose thinking on the emerging National Health Service was derived from his experience as chairman of the Cottage Hospital Management Committee in the family’s home town of Tredegar.
Co-ordinating public transport, trains and buses, to and from the coast and my accommodation, was extremely challenging on this trip. I based myself at Tenby for three days, arriving in such thick fog that I could not even see the sea from the Esplanade! Once the fog cleared I found Tenby to be a picturesque and delightful place: a walled Norman town beside the sea, with a medieval street plan. One day I got back from my walk to find the whole town enjoying the Retained Firemen’s Carnival, a riot of decorated floats and water fights!
This being early August I was taken aback to notice the first signs of autumn. From my hotel window I could see an enormous chestnut tree, being blown inside out by a stiff breeze and looking like a great galleon under full sail on a stormy sea. Leaves were looking dry and tired, beginning to brown and curl, and in the hedgerows I noticed the first berries of autumn: hawthorn, elderberry, blackberry, rowan, and clusters of pyracantha.
Walking in the hills above the Afon (River) Tywi, and idly wondering how to pronounce Mwche, a two house hamlet I had passed through earlier, I came upon a hanging valley at Fferm-y-Coed. After the sunlight of the hills the valley, full of trees which formed a thick canopy overhead, was almost completely dark. As I crossed a stile at the top and descended steeply through the gloom between the trees to the valley floor, I heard a voice in my head asking whether I was not afraid of this place; and then another voice answered saying that no, I was not. Although not an unfriendly place the valley was cold, dark and, apart from the sound of a rushing stream, completely silent and isolated from the outside world. As I clambered down to a wooden bridge over the stream I felt a stain of fear spread in my chest. Having looked around as best I could to check that there were no aggressors or phantoms down there with me, I spent half of an hour standing on the bridge allowing my fear to come out and explore its surroundings, at first tentatively and then with increasing confidence. Once reassured I felt my fear dissolve to be replaced by a feeling of intense peace and quietude. Gradually I experienced the peace and solitude of the valley flooding into me, and a feeling of at-oneness with my surroundings, at-one with the rocks, the trees, the stream, the valley itself. At last I climbed up the far side of the valley, feeling as if I had just slipped out of the familiar world, and crossing another stile, found myself back in the sunshine in the hills above the Afon Tywi.
This part of Pembrokeshire is meant to be one of the most English parts of Wales and was once heavily occupied and fortified by the Normans. I passed Norman castles at Kidwelly, Llansteffan, St. Clears, Tenby, Manorbier, Laugharne and Pembroke which made this feel like a militarised zone. There seemed to be a deeper vein of Welshness here too: rich, rolling voices, often in basso profundo, and gales of infectious uninhibited laughter. I noticed that when I thanked people for anything or for giving me some information the invariable reply was always “it’s no problem at all”.
I spent two nights in Carmarthen while walking up and down both sides of the Rivers Tywi and Taf, there being no bridge or ferry. At Saundersfoot the coast path passed through a succession of dramatic tunnels hewn out of the rock where the hills tumbled down straight into the sea. Having spent a long hot morning beating a path through bracken on an overgrown section of the path I descended 242 steps to Pendine Sands, so flat that in the 1920’s attempts to beat the land speed record were held there. At Amroth the coast of Carmarthenshire ended and the Pembroke Coast Path began.
At Laugharne (pronounced Larne) the Norman castle, frowning and implacable, faced the river crossing over the Afon Taf. I approached the little town in the late afternoon on a high level coastal path etched into the hillside, with huge views across the river estuary. The path is known as the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk, and he lived in Laugharne and worked in a riverside boatshed. He wrote “Under Milk Wood” here and based his fictional town of Llareggub on Laugharne, although he was keen that his readers also spell “Llareggub” backwards, to see how it would read!
Finally I reached the isolated beach at Freshwater West. Part of Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows was filmed here. I had raced there along the coast for seven hours to meet one of only two daily buses to Pembroke and home. I was just in time, by twelve minutes!