Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 2 Wet feet (St Clears-Carmarthen)

Come on Carmarthenshire, what about some boardwalks?
It’s official – Carmarthenshire is the muddiest, boggiest county in Wales. And the council officials who have spent years devising the Wales Coast Path are so proud of their fertile, green and wet land that they want to share every last squelchy inch of it with visiting hikers.

This isn't what it said on the packet!
After yesterday’s dismal final miles, we desperately needed decent scenery to lift our spirits this morning. Shod in clean boots (yesterday’s were just too sodden to put on again), we walked out of St Clears on a tarmac cycle path. So far so good...

Four long hours later, we sat down for elevensies at 2.30pm. For almost four hours, we’d ploughed through some of the muddiest fields I’ve ever experienced, watched by hundreds of mildy interested cows as we daintily side-stepped thousands of soft, fresh cow pats (maybe a tiny exaggeration but you get my drift). Some fields were virtually impassable but pass through them we did – Harri has to stick to the official route for his book though he is allowed to recommend ‘alternative’ routes on occasion. On the evidence of the first two days’ walking, my recommendation would be to bypass Carmarthenshire’s ‘coast’ and head from Pembrokeshire straight to the spectacular Gower.

Walking the Wales Mud Bath 
Unfortunately, as author and photographer of one of the official guides, we were honour-bound to walk every single inch, which is how we found ourselves meandering around the heavily cow-populated fields of Carmarthenshire on a convoluted inland detour which provided few glimpses of the estuary waters below.

The highlight of the morning was the ruined St Michael’s Church, tucked away in an eery, wooded glade (the reasoning behind the long detour inland perhaps?). The sight of medieval pilgrim graves with their stone vaults curving around long buried bodies was strangely unsettling.

Medieval graves at St Michael's Church
Finally, after a miserable morning’s walking during which we fantasized considerably about future commissions in hot, dry climates, where coastal paths meandered along stunning coastlines rather than between cow pats, we were rewarded with a glimpse of Laugharne across the estuary.

All those hours spent traipsing through fields and we were pretty much back where we started, albeit with a narrow stretch of water between us and the picturesque Laugharne. Years ago, the two communities were linked by a regular ferry but nowadays, unless you fancy taking your chances and swimming across, there’s no alternative but to walk up the estuary and back down the other side.

There must be a strategy behind this intriguingly
placed section of board walk
The views improved considerably shortly after we passed a National Trust car park and we ate lunch on a bench high above the estuary, looking down at the MOD land we’d been unable to access the previous afternoon.

Llansteffan is a pretty little village, with a wide, sandy beach but nothing much other than a busy tearoom to recommend it. The sun had come out, however, so, in contrast to the morning’s solitude, we were suddenly surrounded by lots of people strolling around.

We didn’t linger – we had 18 miles to cover and progress through the fields had been slow – and were soon climbing up a steep sunken lane out of the village.

I’d persuaded Harri that the only way I’d ever learn to map-read was if he occasionally relinquished his hold on his OS map and let me take charge of directing us. He (sort of) agreed, which was how I found myself gazing up at electricity pylons (in OS language ‘electricity transmission lines’), counting field boundaries and getting unusually excited about a ford.

The afternoon’s walk was a marked improvement on the morning section – clearly defined paths, lots of lane walking – however, for a much-publicised national coast path it would have been nice if we'd been able to enjoy some coastal views.

The final haul into Carmarthen was endless, taking us through steep, narrow lanes, a very saturated woodland, along a busy main road and finally, through school playing fields and a tarmac path into town centre.

This kind of hiking isn’t the stuff that memories are made of – if I wanted to wade through mud and cow pats, along slippery woodland paths and tarmac cycle paths, I could do it much closer to home.

Wales is the first country in the world to open a continual coastal path; the launch, in May this year, was accompanied by much fanfare and, as such, expectations are high.

It’s true the weather has been abominable this summer, turning normally passable paths into mudbaths, but I have other issues with the chosen route.

At the outset, I’d expected clearly defined, walkable paths, amazing coastal views, yomps across beaches and cliff-tops, sunsets on a distant horizon, picturesque seaside villages and colourful fishing boats bobbing in a harbour.

Harri walking the Wales Cowstal Path 
As I took off my boots at the end of Day 2, my abiding memories will be of cows, cows and more cows. Oh, and did I mention cow pats? And slugs?

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