Day 94 – Port Talbot to Porthcawl

a beach under threat and childhood memories

20th July 2013

miles completed: 1011
miles to go:  47

2013-07-20 13.41.46I start the day at Aberavon and the Best Western Beach Hotel. I have never managed to get the WiFi to work, but they do a good breakfast. The man on the table next door asks about laverbread. The waitress, I think Trixie, is a German lady who has been married to a Welshman for eighteen years and lived in Wales for eight, and so speaks in a curious mixture, where some phrases come out solidly German, some Welsh, but nothing in between. She goes to the kitchen, but there is none. She explains that they used to keep it in regularly, but that few people ate it and so it was always wasted.

From Aberavon, I drive through Port Talbot past the station where I finished the night before, and then am directed up the most unlikely side street to join the M4, which takes me to Porthcawl.

The ‘cawl’ in Porthcawl is Welsh for soup, referring to the appearance of the sea, boiling soup on a stormy night. However, there is no sign of that, nor of foam, when I arrive at the Foam Edge Guest House. I don’t suppose there is much surfing either at Rest Bay, just ten minutes’ walk further along the sea front, although the land in front of the car park is evidently a Gypsy camp now according to Helen, the Foam Edge landlady.

{{Helen} also tells me the way to the bus station. I would have walked back along the sea front and then up the high street, but in fact the main streets of Porthcawl, forced by the sea, form a triangle, and I walk there, through the Porthcawl suburbs, along the third side of the triangle.

I pass a large house with construction work in progress, a lady is peeking through the windows, and we discuss it.

"Maybe it is going to be a bed and breakfast," I suggest.

"No, this area’s too posh for that," she replies, "out of my league."

It is 1930s-semi posh, not Kensington posh, but it would be fascinating to compare house prices here, with similar semis on the main street of Margam, where I will walk later, or in the Gower.

In the gutter I spot half a pair of false teeth and the day suddenly takes on a surreal air, but, down to earth, someone is going to be very unhappy when they realise they are missing.

I have half an hour to wait for the bus and, while I wait in the shade of a tree, Kathy, one of the Save Morfa Beach campaigners, rings me and we arrange where to meet in Margam.

On the bus I learn that today is the day of the Porthcawl carnival, the buses later in the day will be diverted as the procession goes up the high street and ends up at a playing field where a fair has already been set up. I’m sorry to have missed the carnival, if Id realised I could have taken this day as my writing day and walked on Sunday; however, I think that maybe I could visit the fair that evening and eat fair food for tea.

The bus goes inland through various small villages, and then joins the main road through Margam to Port Talbot, where I will be walking in a few hours.

The houses of Margam start off as 1930s semis and I spot the Twelve Knights, where I am to meet Kathy and Nigel. I note where it is as the official Coast Path route passes slightly behind the main street and so I’ll need to make sure I come up on to the main street at the right point.

Margam is a ribbon development, a few streets either side of the main road. The normal reason for ribbon development is the road itself, but here I think it is more that there is only a narrow strip of land between the massive Margam Steel Works and the hills rising behind.

As we travel further west though Margam, towards Port Talbot, the semis give way to Victorian terraces, reminding me that the industry has been here for a long time. South Wales was the powerhouse of industrial development for hundreds of years. The Swansea area was ‘Copperopolis‘, when copper, to line ships’ hulls, was one of the crucial materials, making international trade, conquest and colonisation possible. Later tin and steel production became more crucial for railways and for war.

The terrace looks so familiar with its small bay windows and vestigial front yards.  My own street in Cardiff, Bangor Street, had clearly been slightly superior in Victorian times, as the houses were slightly bigger, but this looked just like all the other streets clustered around Roath Park when I was little, and indeed across much of Wales. There is a very slightly green-grey gritstone that was used as a cladding, which you can find elsewhere in the UK, but is particularly ubiquitous in Wales, even as far north as Harlech. I am sure I heard something about its origins, but can’t recall.

However, there are also local variations, due, I guess, to different architects, and different constraints of sites.  The bus passes an old lady standing outside her house, and through the open door I see a china-covered dresser, almost as if I were looking in on a cottage from centuries back.  As I pass more houses I see that the gap between front door and the start of the bay is slightly larger than I am used to, allowing a wider hallway, wide enough for a dresser.

Although I have been in houses with wide hallways, I don’t recall any Cardiff terraces with halls wide enough for furniture, even those with more substantial houses, like Bangor Street, or the three-storey houses facing the parks of Roath Park. I wonder if this was a whim of the architect, or whether it reflected a local concern of the time. Maybe the people would have preferred a slightly more spacious front room.

Thinking of those front rooms, I recall that we used our front room as a living room, with the settee and television. This may have been because we used the house for half-board guests and so used the back room as a dining room, albeit with small armchairs by the fire as well. However, in many of the houses I visited, especially those of older folk, the front room was reserved for special occasions. Traditionally this would have had the best furniture, the best pictures and ornaments, and be kept spotlessly cleaned, but only used a few times a year for weddings, funerals, or very special guests.

I recall especially Mrs Jefferies‘ house, on one of the smaller terraces, but still, like these Margam houses, one with a vestigial front yard, not one of those opening directly onto the street. Over time, and as lives changed, the front room became slightly less pristine, and filled with her husband’s post-retirement artwork, initially painting-by-numbers, but later his own compositions. However, we never used it for sitting in when we visited, instead going into the tiny back room that housed armchairs as well as the dining table and acted as thoroughfare between hallway and back-kitchen.

Thinking about it, I see the same pattern today when I have visited Nadeem‘s mother’s house in Birmingham, part of the Kashmiri community there. I think the very first time I visited, Nad and I were given a meal in the front room, served by the women of the household, as I was the visiting professor. But later, as I became more familiar, I have always gone straight to the back room.

The driver gave me directions to Bath Street as I got off the bus, and I set off there to visit Margaret, the aunt of my Canadian nieces. I hadn’t worked out the exact relationship before and only talked on the phone when Janet and Sian (two of the nieces) had visited. It turns out Margaret is the sister of Glenda, my half-brother Robert‘s wife; Glenda and Robert both died some years back. Robert was from my Dad‘s first marriage and more than 20 years older than me. Glenda had her first child only a year or so after Mum had Jackie and me, and she and Mum were close friends until the family emigrated to Canada when I was five. I recall being heartbroken at their leaving, which in those days was far more complete separation than today with budget airlines, cheap phone calls and Skype.

Margaret‘s house is another terrace, of the opening onto the street kind, but relatively substantial inside, with an unusual curved corner wall to prevent a sharp corner where the passage goes round the stairs. We go into the back room (of course) and Margaret gives me a mug of tea and a chocolate biscuit and we talk partly about family, and how she can remember seeing me as a small boy (almost certainly four or five years old). She also starts to give me the background on Morfa Beach.  The beach is part of the childhood of everyone from Port Talbot and Margam, in days past.

The plant would have originally been in private hands, until it was nationalised when the steel industry collapsed, I think in the 1960s, then privatised by Thatcher in the 1980s, because she didn’t like any government including her own, and then was taken over by Tata, the Indian steel giant, a few years ago. As a multinational, Tata is seeking to make the most of its assets, and, so it is rumoured, would like this to include open mining the exposed coal seam below the dunes behind the beach. Restricting access to the beach by seeking to close a public footpath is one step towards this.

We could have gone on talking for ages, but I have arranged to meet Kathy and Nigel at 2pm, and not too long after 1pm I leave.

2013-07-20 13.34.15Port Talbot high street on  a Saturday lunchtime is not heaving with shoppers. I pass the Gateway Bookshop, and notice a booklet about the Aberavon 1893 ship disaster, so nip in to add to my piles of books and pamphlets to read. I also nip to walk through the car park behind the high street as there had been a street market, but clearly just a morning market as only a few stalls still open.

Port Talbot high street continues along the main road, which eventually stops being Port Talbot‘s main road and becomes Taibach and then Margam. The Coast Path is signposted along alleyways and lanes behind the main road and I swap back and forth. On one hand the main road gives a sense of progression, the different styles of housing. But the alleyways have their own interest, just as you can see people’s washing hanging colourfully from metal posts with pulley systems, that I recall so well from my own backyard on Bangor Street, in some way it is as if all the dirty laundry of life is exposed in the backyards.

2013-07-20 13.42.46They remind me of the lanes I used to walk with Jackie every day through infant and junior school. In the first years we walked with Mum. I still recall the day I got confused and left school at the afternoon break with a long, long wait by the gates. However, at an age that would seem negligent nowadays, Jackie and I walked together through the lanes that could be dim even at four o’clock on a winter afternoon, across three roads to school, with only a lollypop lady on the very last crossing.

I pass Port Talbot Arts Centre, which does not look very active, the substantial parish church, the memorial gardens and a vast disused chapel that looks perfect for a horror movie film set. I ignore the large painted words ‘snack bar’ with arrows along the walls; is this vestigial signage, or is the snack bar still there serving sausage sarnies? Maybe if I wasn’t late for a meeting …

Then a car pulls up and a lady says, "Alan?".

It is Kathy, she had guessed Margaret and I would have chatted on a bit, so was just taking a quick spin down to Taibach where she had been brought up: "a trip down memory lane," she says.

Into Margam I pass a motorcycle shop, with toddlers’ push bikes in one side of the window, the Catholic church, houses with wonderfully Italianate porches, the police speed camera van and two extremely battered four-by-fours. As I photograph an interesting patch of wall (well it had little ferns growing out of it), a man sees my backpack and asks about the walk. I tell him that I’m about to meet the Save Morfa Beach people.

"I used to be in that," he said, "but it was all talk and no action."

I will learn more later, but I guess the slow grinding process of public enquiries must be frustrating. However, he does care about it as he tells me about how he used to go down when he was little, and how much it is part of his life.

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He also tells me about another local issue that I had heard mentioned before, pollution from Tata. As a child I recall the stench passing Port Talbot.  Nowadays the sulphur and other smells have been greatly reduced, but since Tata have taken over, the residents feel that sooty emissions have grown. He points out an air monitor across the road. It is a nondescript grey metal box and I would have passed it by without noticing.

The man points to his dog’s off-white feet.

"I wash them every day and within a few hours they are grey," he tells me.

I take a photograph of a small dog’s paws as evidence.

2013-07-20 14.18.55A few minutes later I spot the sign of the Twelve Knights and below it Kathy and Nigel waiting, their boots pushed forward as if to take a large step as I photograph them, the pub sign above and steelworks in the background.

Nigel suggests a Welsh liquid lunch and I do not disagree, so we sit a while in the Twelve Knights as they tell me about the history of the campaign to save the beach. Evidently Tata can be heavy handed with employees as well as the local community, but are a large local employer, well really the local employer, so have a lot of leverage with the council and government.

The footpath in question cuts for a mile directly from the main road to the beach, and is not only an official public right of way, but is also well used, and has been for generations, as I’ve already found, a part of the childhood and adult memory of every one I speak to.

However, it is not just the footpath itself, but Tata would like all access to the beach below the plant to be restricted. Indeed, the Tata security patrols often intercept people walking down the path, and have been known to ‘bring people in’, which is strictly kidnap, but evidently many of the security guards are not licensed and do not wear name badges, and so are either not aware or don’t care about the niceties of the law.

At a time when the Wales Coast Path is being promoted as the USP of Welsh tourism, it seems unbelievable that shutting off two miles of beach could even be considered. Yet, due I guess to Tata‘s economic leverage, it is. There is a public enquiry soon. Of course Tata‘s legal muscle will far exceed that of the campaign group and, for that matter the council, so the unbelievable may not be impossible, and yet I hope sense will prevail.

After a while Kathy goes to pick up her husband Rob, who has been walking that morning, and he joins us for a while. It turns out that Rob worked for CCW until two years ago, and was responsible for implementing the Wales Coast Path.  Now he works for a charity to promote the coast, from what I can gather, enjoying working wholeheartedly for the good of walkers, community and local business, outside the politics of government.

While we are talking one of the bar staff, Amber, approaches. When we’d first come in the lad behind the bar had heard us talking or seen the bag and I’d given him a leaflet. Amber asked if she could take a few more. It turned out her mother used to be a director of Tenovus and is now a director of a charity in Merthyr Tydfil promoting literature and poetry.

Nigel has to leave to pick up his daughter, so Kathy, Rob and I set off to follow the path down to the sea.

2013-07-20 15.22.56However, first of all I need a little non-liquid lunch to eat along the way and so pop into Tambini’s Express Café. I choose a pie, from a local butcher, which the proprietor, I assume Mr Tambini, does not let me pay for when he learns about the walk. As I wait for it to warm I see a yoke hung on the wall, which looks unusual; I ask if it is an ox yoke.

"Yes," he says, "it was my grandfather’s, he brought it with him from Italy".

Many Italian ex-POWs stayed in Wales after the war, but Tambini‘s grandfather came over far earlier than that, maybe simply for economic reasons, or maybe after the rise of Mussolini.

As I start to eat my pie, we pass a church. It is evidently from a small village that was flattened during the building of the M4, but the church was preserved and taken brick by brick and reconstructed here.

A short way further is a roundabout, and the Wales Coast Path is signposted towards the sea, initially following the same route as the disputed footpath. We cross the railway. I have crossed railways many times during the walk, and have got used to the ‘stop look, listen’ signs on unmanned and ungated crossings, but then realise that this is the main line, with high speed trains.

2013-07-20 16.10.01One of the arguments that Tata raise for the abolition of the footpath is safety. However, this crossing, the dangerous part, would not be shut off and indeed is part of the Wales Coast Path. As I have seen, the WCP route is extremely risk averse, keeping off even minor roads whenever possible. Back at the Twelve Knights, Nigel told me that there have never been any serious accidents at this crossing in all the years that people have walked it and, in the past, even driven cars down the path to the beach.

Just after the rail crossing, the Wales Coast Path route turns left to skirt around the back of an area used by Tata for industrial landfill, and Nigel leaves us to follow this as his car is in that direction from his previous walk.   Kathy and I continue to the beach.

Just before the beach the path goes round a small building, which was built directly in its line. Evidently Tata did obtain permission to divert the path around it, but this may have been retrospective. Given there are large tracts of land either side of the path, the site seems a little perverse to say the least.

The beach stretches for two miles to the north-west below the plant and for another mile, the route I will follow, to the south-east until it meets the SSI of Kenfig Burrows.

At this point Kathy tells me more stories and reminiscences about the path, but then has to turn back herself, leaving me to walk the coast.

2013-07-20 16.43.06For the first few hundred yards south-east of the footpath, Morfa beach is backed by sea defences, huge boulders placed there in British Steel time, to protect the land behind, but beyond that there is just dune and sand.

Again, I cannot believe that closing three miles of long sandy beach is even considered.

2013-07-20 16.45.41The sand high on the beach is very dry, only the very highest storm tides sweep right up the beach, but I guess to run the Coast Path along here would have needed permission from Tata for a path just above the sea defences and high water mark, which of course they wouldn’t have given. However, in other places there are high and low water routes, so I wonder if the local council, who are responsible for the Coast Path in the area, simply positioned it to avoid conflict.

The previous day, on Aberavon beach, I had seen my first washed up cuttlefish bone. I had seen them before, but never actually found one in the sand. On Morfa beach it is almost as if a cuttlefish fish bone boat had been lost at sea spilling its cargo along the waterline.

2013-07-20 16.55.12At the river between Morfa Beach and Kenfig, a family are camped on the beach, mother and father, or maybe grandparents, simply taking in sun and a boy in a makeshift tent of driftwood and flotsam covered in towels. On the river itself a lone swan swims downstream and out to sea; I have never seen a swan at sea before.

I could wade the small river where spreads not the sea, even now at high tide, but instead head along the riverside, to find where the official Coast Path route meets the river and crosses it at the newly made footbridge.

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Going upriver I catch glimpses of the large area of churned sand where there is industrial landfill from the plant, but then see this much more clearly as I meet the Coast Path as it has been taking its scenic route skirting the landfill on its north-eastern edge.

Once over the bridge, the path follows behind the dunes along a well-used track.  However, I cut across the dunes to the sea from where you can walk virtually the whole way to Porthcawl on the beach.

2013-07-20 17.42.26I see my first nudists, or maybe just skinny dippers, of the trip, despite walking at least two nudist beaches that I know of. They are two men, in their 60s, one, facing me, had been putting on shorts as I approached, the other, with his back to me, stood bare cheeked.

A bit further on, (far enough not to be in clear sight!) two teenage girls are manhandling vast inflated rings in dayglo colours. The beach here is backed by the dunes of Kenfig Burrows, but then, before the sand, shelves of storm-tossed stones. It is this pebble assault course that they are negotiating, but by the time I get to them they are sitting on the edge of the pebbles. I wonder if the rings are for swimming or as seats if the stones get too uncomfortable. They say that they are for swimming later, and I am tempted to warn them of dangers of currents, offshore wind, etc., but realise that out here, they must be locals and well used to the sea. However, as I write I also realise it is the kind of thing my Dad would have said.

As the steelworks recedes behind me the first signs of Rest Bay, the western end of Porthcawl, appear, a scatter of houses, the large building, ‘The Rest‘, that I thought was the golf club house, and before that a low rocky headland.

2013-07-20 17.55.07Gradually they become closer and as I get to the beach close to the headland, Sker Beach, more people appear, sunbathing, splashing in the water and, some, positioned at a distance from the splashers, with rods on the sand, lines cast out to sea.

The path then runs across flat grassy headland, with the Royal Porthcawl Golf Course in the dunes behind. I see yellow painted Sker House and its sister ruinous house nearby and ‘The Rest‘ about a mile away ahead. I chat to an angler who tells me Sker Beach is his favourite place for fishing, but he hadn’t been lucky this day. He also tells me about Rob Bowen who runs, a local history site. I double check the name as it was Rob Owen who I had been with earlier in the day, but clearly different people.

As I get closer to Rest Bay, the path becomes more constructed, with decking to prevent erosion on a sandy part and tarmaced closer still, until eventually I come to it, scene of so many childhood memories, except it is so much smaller than I recall. I think this is partly because the tide is in, so that its boundaries are set by the rocky outcrops below the golf club house, a substantial wooden structure, but not the vast edifice of The Rest. However, while I have visited Rest Bay once or twice since, my main memories will be as a small child. I recall, when cycling the coast to coast with Miriam, when we passed a familiar place from her childhood, her main remark was how small it was now.

2013-07-20 18.51.01Rest Bay is all waves and rock pools and on the far flung edge of Porthcawl. There was always a large grassy car park behind the beach, and we would park and often picnic near the car where Dad would bring out a little Gaz stove with a tin box that acted as windbreak, and brew tea to go with chicken drumsticks and bananas (both treats). If the day was not as warm or dry as expected, there was a plank that fitted on brackets he had made either side of the back seat so that Jackie and I would sit with our own private table at the back of the car, while Dad and Mum ate in the front.

I recall one day, on the other side of the channel, I guess having visited Burnham, when Dad suddenly remembered he hadn’t put the plank away. He had taken it out, popped it temporarily on the top of the car, and then driven off.  Presumably somewhere along the way it had flown off onto the road. He had been wondering why people had been flashing their headlights at him. The Gaz stove went a similar way, we had been having a picnic on the way back from a holiday in St Ives, and he had made tea as usual; it was only at the next tea stop he realised that the stove had been left at the previous car park.

The final part of the Coast Path leads into Porthcawl proper along the cycle route beside the road to the prom. However, there are multiple sandy paths along the grass-covered limestone heath and rocky sea edge. For once, I was not in a hurry, so took the most meandering route to Foam Edge and then on into town where I had an Indian meal (the only thing open for food). On the way into town I passed four young tourists taking photographs, jumping up with arms outstretched, then on the way back, somewhat darker, at the same spot, the same group, doing similar hands stretched photos. I asked if they had been there all along. They were foreign, maybe even Latin American, so it took a while to communicate, but when they understood I left them laughing loudly at the idea.

One thought on “Day 94 – Port Talbot to Porthcawl

  1. many thanks for the mention in your blog… Re. Rob Bowen who runs local history site.

    My name is Rob Bowen and yes I own & operate – this is a comprehensive website documenting the entire history of Kenfig & its surrounding areas from prehistory to the present day. The project is operated as a not for profit organisation part sponsored by Welsh Govt & Bridgend County Borough Council.

    The National Library of Wales recognised the project in 2005 & it is being digitally archived through the national library networks in Wales, London & France.

    The website is heavily used by the academic world as an online educational resource.

    Not sure who the fisherman was on Sker Rocks who mentioned my name & website but again many thanks for the mention.

    Kind regards, Rob Bowen
    Owner/Author Kenfig – The Complete History (e-Resource)

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