Day 95 – Porthcawl to Ogmore

beaches and BMI, a dolls-house lighthouse and the highest dune, melting gelato and treading on ghosts, fish and chips by the fun fair

21st July 2013

miles completed: 1018
miles to go:  40

I was intending for this to be a purely writing and rest day, but I realise it will make Tuesday easier if I can walk as far as Ogmore, just seven miles away, and so cross the river into the bus routes that run to and from Llantwit Major. When the morning began bright, but with light clouds to cool the intense sun of recent days, the final decision became easy. There is something satisfying about starting from where you slept the night before, rather than having to drive or take a bus to the start. If budget were unlimited, I think I would do this all the way.

I walk the short stretch of promenade from the B&B to the breakwater and small lighthouse beyond. There are two lights, one older light, and one very small one, almost a dolls-house of a lighthouse, at the end of the equally small breakwater. A set of old crooked steps lead out of the water opposite the breakwater and a two-masted sailboat (I don’t know the technical name) passes the end of the breakwater. Towards the land a large crane is at work making a new 70-berth marina with an enormous hydraulic lock gate.

At the end of the breakwater, in the narrow gap around the miniature lighthouse, I start to chat to a man with a Siberian Husky, admiring its two tone coat. We exchange dog stories: I tell him about the dog in the stairwell at Birmingham that I took to be a husky, but turned out to be a tame wolf; he tells me about the ‘living with wolves’ man who has a pack in Devon, and I tell him about the wolf valley on Offa’s Dyke.

I only make it halfway back down the tiny breakwater before a couple, Arwyn and Sally, ask about the walk. They had spotted me earlier as I crossed on the ‘tarmac beach’ and they were at the beach café. The ‘tarmac beach’ is s small area of concrete (maybe it was once tarmac) so that those who don’t want to brave the broken rocks or walk the half mile to Rest Bay or Sandy Bay sands can still sit and soak up sun. They had seen me pass and tried to make out what was written on my rucksack with binoculars, thinking initially that maybe I was something to do with the passing sailboat.

They had walked parts of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and South West Coast Path, and Arwyn is tentatively thinking of doing a more major walk, or maybe kayaking the coast, when he retires. Sally says she would be support driver so long as she doesn’t have to walk it herself.

Years ago they had run a pub, the ‘Dirty Duck‘ (honestly) over the far side of Coney Bay. They also tell me that there had been a municipal caravan and camping site near Coney Island, which used to turn a quarter of a million pounds profit each year. However, as part of a seafront ‘regeneration’ plan, it had been closed, meaning there is no nearby site for tourers. Campervans then migrated to the prom, prompting the council to create parking restrictions. I had to park the campervan round the corner in a residential street as the prom has a ‘no overnight parking’ rule for campervans and caravans, I guess easier to police than a ‘no overnight sleeping’ rule.

Arwyn said that the council had thought to create spaces at Rest Bay, but the affluent residents near there had objected, although now there is a very small private one near Coney Beach, too small or too new to appear on internet searches.

There has been a land train running all the way from Coney Beach to Rest Bay, although it is not running at present due, according to notices, to ‘contractual difficulties’. Evidently, the driver was asked to work sunny days only, a bit like McDonald’s getting employees to clock in and out as customers come in. However, they also said that before it there was a small train on rails that simply ran the couple of hundred yards down the prom from the car park to the dock where the high street runs down to the sea front. This will be the train I recall from childhood, we rode it occasionally, but more often just parked at Coney Beach, the fun fair, and then later drove on to Rest Bay, or, when Mum and Dad were deaf to our fun fair pleadings, just to Rest Bay. At Coney Beach, we would just go on the water slide, like a one-step rollercoaster, taking you up and then once down into a water splash.

Coney Beach is the next stop, but the water slide has long gone, and the rides have not yet started, so all is still except the ice cream and hot dog stands. I am still full from breakfast, but do take a Sidoli’s Italian ice cream to get into fairground spirit. I forget that Italian ice cream always melts faster than you can eat it, and have to use up half a bottle of water washing the stickiness from my hands

The beach is busy, but still with plenty of room, no one is crowded and lifeguards keep watch from land and water. The lifeguard station is on a small rocky outcrop with another small lighthouse at its end. The next bay is backed by Tresco Bay caravan park, evidently the biggest one in Europe. I note that it does make a point of saying, on big banners, that its facilities are open to non-residents. So a Wales Coast Path-er can take a break at crazy golf while passing Porthcawl, even if they are not welcome at the visitor centre at Wylfa on Anglesey. I cannot see why more holiday villages and campsites do not realise that passing walkers and cyclists are a business opportunity rather than a nuisance to be sent skirting round the inland edges or at best hurried on.

If I recall there used to be a large Butlins here or a similar holiday camp and it is that site that has been converted into the current caravan park. I recall one holiday at a Butlins when I was small, I think maybe Minehead. I remember that the swimming pool had a glass side by the cafeteria so that you could watch the swimmers; the science-fiction-like monorail to the beach; the gnats amongst the bushes on the walk back; the night Mum and Dad went to the ‘entertainment’ while Jackie and I were left alone in the chalet with the camp babysitting service keeping an occasional eye; and another day playing on the grass while they went to watch the wrestling.  Leaving children alone – never nowadays! However, the only danger was not when we were ‘holiday alone’, but at the beach, which had pebbly storm shelves. I evidently was wearing a straw hat and paddling, and then the next thing Mum and Dad knew there was just a hat bobbing in the water, I had stepped over the underwater edge of one of the storm shelves. Dad plucked me out, none the worse for my ducking, but I assume somewhat shaken as I have no recollection whatsoever.

Looking at these last two beaches, I wonder whether anyone has ever compared demographic statistics between beaches: age, social class, and, not least, BMIPorthcawl and Aberavon would definitely weigh in on the last measure compared to the beaches near Swansea and Gower, although I would guess it correlates strongly with the second metric. Even within Porthcawl, there would be a definite BMI trend between Rest Bay and Coney Beach.

Beyond this there is another small rocky headland, Newton Point, and after that a the short prom of Newton, with a lovely looking beach and a shop partway down. I see that a family have a tray with tea cups on the prom wall opposite the shop – the real seaside tea experience still exists.

And from there the beach stretches uninterrupted towards Ogmore-by-Sea, with just the diminutive Ogwr between; the river that cuts the deep Ogmore Valley in the mountains inland, hardy more than a wide brook, maybe its waters have been sucked out to provide for Bridgend and industry, or maybe they leach down into the limestone below.

Approaching the Ogwr River the beach becomes more busy, but by this I mean handfuls of people, not crowds. Across the river at Ogmore-by-Sea it is more busy still, and the car park there is clearly full, but again we are not talking Blackpool. The feel is very different here, with some people wild camping, cooking fish over driftwood bonfires … I say ‘fish’ because I could smell cooking fish, and one of the barbecue fires was flanked by an angler’s rods.

It would be possible to cross the Ogwr here, either ankle deep near the sea, or thigh deep at the high-tide mark, but as I have few miles to go, I do not take the shortcut, but instead walk upriver to the footbridge, a mile or two upstream.

For the first half mile, the path follows the riverside, looking across to a green flood plain with the occasional tent, probably not the best place to camp when it rains. The river itself is wide with grey mud banks liberally dotted with algae-swathed tree trunks, car tyres and a few shopping trolleys. The latter must have washed down stream, but I struggle to work out how so many car tyres have been washed down.

Some of the time I walk on firm pebbly sand at the water’s edge, sometimes cross a meander on green channel-fissured salt marsh, although the latter are not ‘official’ route as this hugs the high water mark. Taking the low-tide line, you do have to keep a sharp lookout for where the path cuts inland across the dunes.

According to the information board, this is the highest dune system in Wales, with sand piled on top of limestone giving a unique ecosystem. By ‘highest’, I assume it means greatest depth of sand as the clifftop dunes in the Gower must surely be higher in altitude. The dune system once ran continuously from here to Mumbles including Kenfig Burrows and the dunes behind Morfa Beach, but over the years it has been fragmented with residential and industrial development, and, if Tata have their way, open-cast mining.

The sand is hot underfoot, seeping into my sandals, between my toes and under the soles of my feet. Evidently parts of ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ were filmed here; I can feel as well as see why. I am glad when, for a short distance, a parallel path runs in the shade of a small line of trees, although after following it for a while, I realise it is in fact a dry stream bed.

I recall Merthyr Mawr from when I was little and we would come here, sometimes on the way to Porthcawl. We would park, and then play in the sand, I would guess safer than by the sea and certainly quieter; we were always on our own there. I recall once climbing to the top of the dune at the base of which we were picnicking. I looked and beyond this dune there was another. I recall feeling a fresh sense of scale, realising that the world is far bigger than it seems. I think Dad said that there was treasure out there somewhere. I never found treasure, but once lost one of those moulds for making sand patties with. There were tears at the time, and, with a wry smile at my own fancy, I imagine that maybe, as I walk today, I will see a corner of bright coloured plastic peeking from the sand.

I found no sand toys, but did get to the car park, somewhat bigger nowadays and with, not marked on any map I have, a public toilet. Beyond this the path follows the access road, a quiet country lane, leading only to this car park and a few houses. For the first quarter mile, it is through woodland, refreshingly cool after the heat of the sand. On one side the plants are drooping, and I realise many are Himalayan Balsam (or maybe Japanese Knotweed, I always struggle to tell the difference), including some that have seeded into old decaying tree trunks, and the area must have been sprayed with herbicide to try to stop their spread.

At the far end of the small road is the village of Merthyr Mawr itself. The dune system is strictly Merthyr-mawr Warren. To confuse me more, on the Wales Coast Path mileage chart there is an entry for ‘Candlestone‘, which I coudn’t locate, but looking again, I now see that, at the car park, there is an antiquity marked ‘Candlestone Castle‘, so the mileage point is presumably the car park.

Merthyr Mawr village is Miss Marple land, thatched cottages and a country church with a small, but a very unusual bell tower, that stands pert, half offset from the gable end of the wall, like the tail of a little Scotty dog about to wag.

The footbridge across the Ogwr is here, and as I cross the river is full of teenagers on some sort of field trip, one up to his chest holding a flow meter in the water, others with tiny fishing nets, others with clipboards recording finds. It is a Sunday, but maybe nowadays, with overfull timetables and ministerially imposed curricula, the only way you can do field trips is at weekends.

The ruins of Ogmore Castle would dominate the view down the valley, except that also, in the flat fields by the riverside, stand two tepees making it look as if we have ventured into a Hollywood time-slip film set: ‘Sitting Bull at Camelot’.

So, across another field and another footbridge over a tributary, the Ewenni, then a few hundred yards along a surprisingly busy road takes you to the Pelican Inn, which looks like it has a good lunch menu, but where I only have time for a quick pint while waiting for the bus back to Porthcawl via Bridgend.

Weirdly, the road has a cattle grid near the footbridge. One side of the cattle grid is a large gate for horses and cattle, on the other side is a small pedestrian gate, so I crossed to use the latter only to find it had been wired shut.

I recall visiting Bridgend once to see my aunt and uncle. Gerald was an Anglican priest at Bridgend and Avril had had health problems, I think related to diabetes. I recall these things, but whether from the time or afterwards, I cannot tell, but I have no memories at all of the visit itself, or of my cousins Nicholas and Shauna on that visit, although I do from later Christmas parties. In fact, my only recollection is that the car broke down, but luckily not long after we had passed an AA box, so Dad had to walk back to ring the AA roadside rescue. This was still in the days when AA motorbike patrols would scour the roadways for members in distress, and I think still salute when they saw the AA badge on your radiator grill.

This visit was no more memorable, a move from stand 1 to stand 5 in the bus station.

At Porthcawl, I go straight to Rest Bay, to sit for a while in the beach café. This was not there in my childhood, and is a classic surf-style café, where even the tables are made surf-board shaped, as if the café is ready for the next big wave that will inundate Porthcawl. It would be good to visit in winter as they have a wood stove (not lit this day!) and I can imagine sipping hot tea and watching the crashing surfer-tipped waves from the warmth of the café.

I have not had any lunch, so with my cup of tea I also order a cheese and ham tortilla toastie, as it sounded an interesting variant on the classic toastie. I sit with laptop on my knee, and whether it was the stuffy heat, having just eaten, or the beer at Ogmore, but I write very little before I find myself nodding off over the keyboard. I do not know whether I snored before I woke.

Walking back, the beach is beginning to empty as it is after five, but still the water and grass are dense with bodies. I have an odd sense, it is like nostalgia, but it is not exactly that, more like walking over my own ghost. Throughout this trip I have been a voyeur, looking in on others’ lives, and now it is my own that is under scrutiny.

Back to Foam Edge, and I do manage to write for a few hours, by which time it is eight o’clock and virtually everywhere has either stopped serving food or doesn’t serve food at all on Sundays. At the Porthcawl Hotel, the boards outside suggest they have some good deals (burger and beer for £4.95), but finish food at 4pm on Sunday. However, they are able to direct me to Beales, they tell me voted the number one chip shop in … I can’t remember … it may have been Wales, Britain or simply Porthcawl.

On the way I pass Sidoli’s own café, with the name in tiles beside the door and a stone Madonna set into the brickwork.

Beales is certainly popular, the queue stretches out into the street. In front of me a young girl tries to kiss her little brother in his mother’s arms, but the little boy wants none of it and wipes each kiss away as fast as they are given. A poor woman driving a large estate car, I think maybe feeling hassled by the police car waiting to pass, drives forwards into a small space and with no amount of driving back and forth can get closer than a yard from the kerb. I miss the end of the saga, as it is my turn to be served, so don’t know whether she gave up and drove away, left the car slightly erratically parked and continued with her business, or maybe is still there manoeuvring back and forth for ever like Sisyphus in Hades.

I am just beyond Coney Beach, so head there. The fun fair, or I think formally something like ‘entertainment complex’, ‘amusement park’, is open and the rides are lit, but there are few people riding roundabout horses, or throwing hoopla over teddy bears.

Down on the beach, I sit on a set of huge steps marked ‘private, keep off’, with a small shipping container and closed kiosk behind me, maybe deckchair hire in peak season, and eat my fish and chips. In front of me a few last beach wanderers, families and couples, walk on the deserted sand, far away a small boy runs in and out of the waves, or is that a ghost of me, and a few folk, like me, are eating takeaways on the sand; behind the sounds of fun fair rides and Abba; and above the clouds and sun paint patterns in the sky.

Again I feel that odd sad sense, a bit of nostalgia, a bit that my self-sufficiency in the wilder parts of Wales slips into a sense of being alone in a place made for families, and part the way in which this coming back to the familiar makes concrete the ending of this unique experience.