It was off to pastures new this weekend, or more specifically to Kenfig where Harri had loosely planned a level, circular walk close to the coast.
We parked (free of charge) at Kenfig National Nature Reserve, where the visitor centre looked as though it had closed some time ago. (I’ve since checked and the centre appears have been closed in 2015 due to council cutbacks. In October 2015, a sign outside explained that a warden still looked after the reserve, but that staff cuts had forced the closure of the reception area and shop [and presumably any on-site toilets].) One wonders what will be left of our public services by the time this Government is toppled.
The fine weather had brought people out in their hoards and the car park was already busy when we pulled up. I was intrigued by a tall wooden figure and took a stroll over to find out more. The sculpture was one of Bridgend’s Nature Keepers, a series of figures dotted around the county’s green spaces to celebrate its diverse landscapes and to encourage an emotional connection with the environment. It seemed I was gazing up at the Keeper of the Dunes,
Harri was eager to get going. For once, he didn’t have a definite route planned but more of a rough idea of where we were heading with various points where we could shorten or lengthen our walk, depending on how energetic – or not – we were feeling.
Though we’d be following the Wales Coast Path later on, the morning’s walking would see us heading in an easterly direction towards Porthcawl. We set off along a sandy, bracken-lined stretch of footpath, occasionally emerging onto Pyle and Kenfig Golf Course where the putting greens provided a splash of colour in the otherwise parched landscape.
If you’ve not been there, Kenfig is a fascinating area. The sand dune system was once much larger and stretched from the dunes at Merthyr Mawr to Gower peninsular. There was a castle here, established by the Normans in 1140 as they sought to exert control over the local Welsh population and secure the crossing of the River Kenfig. The medieval town and borough of Kenfig grew up around the castle with an estimated population of around 1,000.
Kenfig features on the excellent Abandoned Communities website. As the site explains, ‘For two hundred years between the middle of the twelfth century and the middle of the fourteenth century the town of Kenfig was a thriving community. Then the sand started to arrive’.
Kenfig survived another century before eventually succumbing to the encroaching sands. The site was excavated back in the 1920s/30s, but nearly a century later, all that’s now visible above the sand dunes is the top of the Norman keep. The area is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Now Sker House was looming on the horizon. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from this imposing mustard-coloured house, not least because the property and its barns stand quite separate from any other dwellings. The so-called Great House began life nine hundred years ago as a monastic grange (the ghost of a small monk is reputed to haunt a secret passage in the house), although little of the original building remains. The current house dates back to the late 16th century; however, many alterations have taken place over the centuries. The property is now privately-owned and admits no visitors, which is a shame as I’d love to explore the old turrets and towers (the wing on the left looked decidedly lopsided and I’m certain it wasn’t my eyesight) and perhaps run into Elizabeth Williams, who died of a broken heart after her father ended her relationship with a local harpist and forced her into a loveless marriage. Nearly 250 years after her death, Elizabeth’s ghost is allegedly still seen in an upstairs window.
Perhaps it’s because I’m mildly claustrophobic, but I love walking in wide, open landscapes where you can see for miles in every direction. The coastal strip near Kenfig is just about perfect, with its drystone walls, vast fields and huge skies. At Cornelly, we crossed the road and joined the quiet country lane which would take us to Nottage.
It wasn’t long before we were passing another antiquity, this time St David’s Well. The Celts believed the well’s water had healing properties and people would leave rags and pieces of cloth hanging from nearby trees in the belief this would cure them of their ailments. There were no rags here today, just plastic bottles and crisp packets tossed thoughtlessly into the ancient monument.
At Nottage, we climbed a stile to cut across the corner of a field and found it surprisingly green and full of rams. Unfortunately, our ‘escape route’ across a nearby stile proved impassable leaving us with no choice but to walk the full length of the field pursued by unnervingly belligerent rams.
We passed Nottage Court where high stone walls prevented us from seeing anything of this Elizabethan Manor, which like Sker House was built on former monastery land, is now privately owned and is not open to the public.
We reached Porthcawl and joined the bustling promenade next to the Grand Pavilion. From the large cranes in situ (though not in operation on this Sunday lunchtime), it was immediately obvious that some major building project was underway on the lower promenade. A little research revealed that the town’s ‘tarmac beach’ – the main feature of Porthcawl’s 25-year-old sea defences – is getting an overhaul with a newer, more attractive stepped structure.
Porthcawl holds a special place in my heart. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, money was tight. My grannie’s best friend – my Auntie Min – owned a caravan at Trecco Bay. It was nothing grand; there was no running water, no toilet and no electricity (just gas lamps above the seating) but she was happy to rent it to us for next to nothing. The only downside in my mother’s opinion was that Auntie Min had a son with four children and they’d invariably stayed in the caravan the previous week. This meant my poor mother spent the first day of our holiday down on her hands and knees scrubbing every surface. On 19 June 1976, we travelled to Porthcawl in torrential rain and I remember my mam saying we’d be going home again on Monday if the weather didn’t improve. The following day the sun came out … the rest, as they say, is history. I went home with such a great sun tan everyone at school thought I’d been to Spain!
It was well past noon so we found ourselves a bench overlooking the rocky coastline opposite the Fairways Hotel and enjoyed some nibbles and a nice cold beer (Harri has continued carrying little bottles of continental beer with him throughout the heatwave). We lingered for a while, agreeing that all these level, easy walks are playing havoc with our stamina.
Just beyond this point, another bewildering Wales Coast Path decision has been made. The waymarked route directs hikers to stick to the pavement and walk slightly away from the coast alongside a busy road, which is odd when there’s a wide, grassy footpath meandering along the actual coastline.
Rest Bay is like Southerndown in that the beach disappears at high tide, only to reappear when the water recedes. High tide had been an hour or so earlier, so there were lots of people waiting around on the rocks and the grassy slopes. They wouldn’t have to wait long now … slowly and surely a strip of sand was emerging from the depths. At the far end of Rest Bay, we joined boardwalks (those bouncy, plasticy ones which I rather like) and carried on following the coast, passing more than a few bare-chested and beer-bellied men.
Kenfig Burrows was far busier than we’d anticipated so we walked a fair distance before settling down on the sand to eat and then immerse ourselves in our books. Harri went for his usual dip but I’d forgotten to pack my swimwear (honest!) so was limited to paddling in deliciously warm water. Having inadvertently found ourselves on a naturist beach a few weeks ago, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a rucksack-carrying man stopped a few metres from where we were sitting and stripped off all his clothes. Assuming he was going for a naked dip, I was a bit taken aback when he heaved his rucksack back onto his shoulders and continued walking along the beach in the direction of Port Talbot steelworks as naked as the day he was born. What is it about this stretch of coastline that incites men to tear off their clothes?
If it was peace and quiet we were after on the beach, we were sorely disappointed. First, a light aircraft appeared overhead and started doing aerobatics above our heads. There’s no denying the various climbs and dives were impressive stuff, but it’s a little unnerving to be sitting directly underneath them. When you watch a Red Arrows display you marvel at the pilots’ skills and take it all in your stride. Why then was the soaring and plummeting of this single plane above our heads so scary?
And if that wasn’t enough excitement for one lunchtime, several motor bikers had found their way onto the beach via the dune system and were now whizzing along the hard, damp sand a few hundred metres up the beach.
Finally, the various noises quietened and we were at last able to enjoy the hot sunshine in relative peace. I could have stayed there on the beach all afternoon – I nearly did because I fell asleep and only woke when Harri spoke to me – but eventually it was time to make a move and head back to the car across the dunes. We hadn’t stopped at Kenfig Pool on our outward route but now we paused on its sandy shoreline and watched the children and dogs splashing around in the water. There’s just something magical about a hot summer’s day.
Visit Viewranger for an online map of our 16km route.