It’s always nice when your birthday falls on the weekend as weekday birthdays generally mean postponing the celebrations for a few days. With an unfavourable weather forecast persuading us to abandon our original plans (a few nights on Gower) earlier in the week, we were now facing wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures higher than in Albufeira. There was only one thing for it … head to the coast.
A year ago, on an extremely hot June day, we’d parked our car in Barry, caught the train to Llantwit Major and walked back. Harri suggested we do the same route in reverse, this time adding a complete circuit of Barry Island before heading west towards the wonderful high cliffs, rock platforms and pebble beaches of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast.
We parked on the street and headed across a railway footbridge to emerge close to Barry Pleasure Park, which opened in 1929 and is (according to its website) currently for sale. The sight of the big wheel immediately brought back memories of the time I went on it with my dad and screamed so much the operator had to stop it mid-ride to let me off. Fast forward to my early teens and I recall two friends and me making ourselves quite nauseous by staying on the waltzer for ten consecutive rides. We didn’t mind parting with the 10p fare time and time again because the teenage operator was a dead-ringer for Bryan Ferry, whom we were all crazy about. Back then, we couldn’t care less about the beach or the sea, we’d just bide our time until our parents – their hired deck chairs forming a huge half circle on the sand – finally gave in to our pestering and handed over a few quid for the funfair.
Harri’s first trip to Barry Island was a Sunday school outing; however he was little and doesn’t remember specific details. But there wasn’t time to dwell on our memories, we needed to get going if we were to cover the 16 miles to Llantwit Major.
Jackson’s Bay is a small sandy cove protected by the causeway which heralds the entrance to Barry Docks. As we crossed the beach, the tide had only just turned and several children were splashing around in the shallow waves while they still could. I’ve probably mentioned this a million times, but the Bristol Channel has a huge tidal range of 43 feet (13 metres), second only to the Bay of Fundy on the eastern coast of Canada. You have to seize the moment if you want to bathe or swim along this coastline, otherwise it’s a long old hike before you even get your feet wet.
Turning our backs on the industrial landscape, we joined a raised concrete path to follow the rocky coastline around Nells Point and past the coast watch station. It was surprisingly busy with lots of couples, family groups and dog walkers taking advantage of the warm, sunny weather.
Its proximity to Barry Docks meant Nells Point played an important role during wartime, when it was crucial in protecting the commercial ports along the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. During the early days of the First World War, the territorial artillerymen stationed at Nells Point were tasked with stopping all passing ships … and, if a ship failed to stop, to fire at it.
Of course, when I was a child this whole headland was dominated by the single-storey chalets of the Butlins holiday camp. Billy Butlins built his holiday park here in 1966 and, though Butlins itself closed in 1986, there was a holiday camp on the site until 1996. Now an upmarket housing estate sits atop the headland, while grassy slopes spill down to the coast.
As we rounded the headland, we passed an interpretation board indicating that we were now approaching Whitmore Bay. Whitmore Bay? I’ve been going to Barry Island for over fifty years and I’d always thought its wide beach was called … well, Barry Island beach. Not so.
The topography of Barry Island has always fascinated me. As its name suggests, what is now a peninsula was a small, tidal island until Barry Docks was built in the 1880s. Day trippers reached it on foot at low tide (much like nearby Sully Island) and by boat at high tide. Everything changed in Victorian times with the construction of the new docks. The docks themselves filled the gap where Barry Sound once flowed and ebbed, while the railway causeway built on the far side of Friar’s Point intrinsically linked the ‘island’ to the mainland forever.
Most people are aware the popular comedy series Gavin and Stacey is set in Barry; however, it’s a lesser-known fact that the ashes of serial killer Fred West were scattered in the seaside resort (apparently West was a regular along these shores and his children, when left with the decision about what to do with their father’s remains after his cremation, opted to pour them into the Bristol Channel).
To the west of Whitmore Bay is another headland, this one open and undeveloped with the exception of the wide path which runs around its perimeter. Soon, we were passing through Barry Island’s main car park, just a stone’s throw from our starting point. See, that’s the trouble with walking around islands – even ‘manufactured’ ones – you always end up back where you started.
The great expanses of sand appearing in Barry harbour provided evidence of the waning tide. In a few hours’ time, it would be easy to walk from the quay on this side to the old harbour house opposite (remember to always check the tide times before you set off). On this occasion, we were sticking to the coast path and crossing the causeway.
Harri had earlier expressed his concern about the lack of Wales Coast Path waymarks, so he was delighted when they finally made an appearance at Knap Gardens. The Knap, with its harp-shaped lake, is one of my favourite areas in Barry. There’s a wide promenade along the top of the pebble beach with steps leading down to the actual lake and surrounding gardens. The lake is shared by swans and model boat enthusiasts who direct their remote-controlled ships across the water. The swans, it must be noted, seem completely unperturbed by the close passage of scaled down steam ships and paddle boats.
One of the saddest things about society’s more responsible attitude to health and safety is the loss of so many outdoor pools. According to a BBC Wales article, there were once 57 outdoor pools in Wales, including a very popular lido here at the Knap. The Knap lido opened in 1926 and was one of the largest open-air swimming pools in Britain (here are some amazing photographs of the lido in its heyday). Despite its popularity and widespread opposition to its closure, it was left for many years to become derelict, until eventually, in 1996, it was filled in and landscaped. When the renovated lido in Ynysangharad Park, Pontypridd opened a few years ago, a campaign was launched to rebuild the lido at Knap; however, with councils as cash-strapped as they currently are the project is only likely to go ahead with private investment.
For some time I’d been thinking how suspiciously light my rucksack was feeling today; however, it was only when Harri popped into the gents that I decided to check that I’d packed everything I needed. My fleece was in there … always vital on a balmy June day. And a book, my sunglasses and a carrier bag stuffed with food. The only thing I hadn’t brought with me was a drink! Knowing it was likely to be hot today, I’d filled two one-litre bottles with orange squash … and then left them on the kitchen worktop. My instant reaction was panic … Harri had already expressed his concern that he hadn’t brought sufficient water and he meant for one. I knew he wasn’t carrying enough for two of us. Fortunately, there was a mobile snack bar parked just metres away so, resisting the £1 bags of candy floss (so cheap), I bought two cans of Pepsi. It wasn’t ideal as you can’t re-close a can once it’s opened but there was no alternative. Unless I wanted to repeat our awful near-death experience while walking the Via Algarviana three years ago.
We climbed past some lovely houses, through woodland and then down into Porthkerry, where we stopped for elevenses on the pebble beach. The receding sea was like a mill pond, while the mist was beginning to lift so that we could make out some of the high tors of Exmoor.
Coastal walking is probably my favourite of all hiking terrains, not least because you generally have a landmark miles ahead that you can focus on reaching and when your enthusiasm/energy is waning, you just look behind and get an immediate boost from seeing how far you’ve already walked. From this point on our landmark would be Aberthaw Power Station.
We don’t always bother with a pub stop – and it’s not always an option in rural parts of Wales – but as it was my birthday Harri suggested we stop at Fontygary. With only one can of Pepsi left, it also seemed like a good way of eeking out my rapidly dwindling liquid supplies.
It was clearly going to be one of those days, because at Rhoose Point – the southern-most point in Wales – I realised I’d lost one of the arms of my sunglasses rendering them pretty useless. There was worse to come.
After enjoying first one, and then a second, drink on the huge outside terrace of the Shoreway Bar, we set off through the very pleasant Fontygary caravan park. At one time, Harri and I toyed with the idea of buying a mobile home, perhaps somewhere on Gower, but then we started hiking more in Europe and changed our minds.
Anyway, we were busy admiring the decking and landscaped surroundings of the seafront homes when I spotted what looked to be a cute little Boston Terrier (I apologise if I’ve got the wrong breed but it was something along those lines). Two halves of lager had clearly made me reckless, because I reached out to stroke its dear little face – and got the shock of my life. The nasty little brute bit my forefinger – and bit it flaming hard. Its owners rushed out to apologise, clearly mortified. Harri scolded me for my foolishness. I waved off their apologies and acknowledged my wrongdoing – I’d poked my hand through the spindles and their pet had understandably attacked what he’d taken as an intruder. Unfortunately, as well as my drink canisters, I’d also forgotten to pack our first aid kit so I spent the next hour or so holding tissues tightly around my finger to stem the flow of blood.
Glamorgan Heritage Coast really is one of the loveliest places for coastal walking, despite the proximity of the power station. We followed some steep steps down to East Aberthaw Nature Reserve, where the little rivulets and tiny islands reminds me of the Algarve’s incredible Ria Formosa but on a much smaller scale. At Aberthaw, you’ll find one of only four saline lagoons in Wales. It’s also a popular spot for families because children can play safely in the sheltered waters. Harri had hoped to go for a dip here, but unfortunately the tide was by now too far out.
After idling for too long over lunch, we realised we still had 12km to cover and only a little over two hours to do it in. Undeniably the ugliest section of the day’s walking, the concrete paths around the perimeter of the power station nevertheless enabled us to maintain a decent speed for the next few kilometres.
Thankfully, we were soon crossing the canalised River Thaw and leaving the industrial landscape behind. For the next few kilometres, we mostly walked along tracks and footpaths through arable fields. We were making good progress, although a short stint along the top of a pebble beach slowed us down considerably. Harri spotted a fossil in a foot-sized rock. It wasn’t as impressive as the huge ammonite we spotted near Llantwit Major last summer, but certainly worth a look. I’m in no doubt some people might have taken it from the beach as a ‘souvenir’ but we left it there for posterity.
We hate being forced into ‘marching’ mode, when we are battling against the clock and barely have time to notice our surroundings. However, on occasion it is necessary; if we missed our 6pm train back to Barry there wouldn’t be another for two hours.
The footpath became undulating and briefly narrowed as we fought through fast-growing undergrowth; in one place, we were forced onto our knees to pass under a low-lying branch laden with heavy vegetation. The notion that individual councils would adequately maintain the Wales Coast Path always seemed idealistic (aka crazy) to us. It’s obvious that when a local authority is struggling to pay for statutory services like education and social services (as they all are nowadays), then non-essential services like footpath maintenance are likely to fall by the way (excuse the pun!).
We were also surprised and saddened to see foot-high vegetation growing across the entrance door of the Sea Watch Centre, suggesting it’s no longer operating as an information point for visitors to the Glamorgan Heritage Coast. Sometimes, often, I wonder what be left when the British electorate finally wakes up and rids itself of this Conservative Government and its cruel and totally unnecessary austerity agenda, which sees everything most people value disappearing (including public toilets but don’t get me started on that one!).
With an hour left before our train was due to depart, Harri gave me the option of taking a short cut. The idea of slowing our pace was appealing; however, on this beautiful June afternoon, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the coast a moment before it was absolutely necessary. A few kilometres and several vast fields later, we finally waved a sad goodbye to the sea and headed inland. It was tough but we had a train to catch.
You can follow our route from Barry Island to Llantwit Major on Viewranger.