Day 97 – interview at Llansteffan

salubrious places, shifting sands and broken bodies

23rd July 2013

In the guesthouse, before I leave, I pick up the information pack to find the check-out time. At the back of the information pack there is a brief history of the White House built during the growth of Swansea in the 19th century. At that time Swansea was such a big port, founded on metal working in the valleys above, that there were 25 foreign consulates here. I also learn that the Swansea and Mumbles Railway was the first passenger-carrying railway in the world. I feel I should have known that already, on my doorstep. I did read on a Mumbles information board that it was the building of the railway that enabled the then village of Oyster Mouth to grow as a dormitory town for those working in Swansea, but, I guess, wanting more salubrious surroundings.

This reminds me that as you drive through Swansea there is a modern brick building, with a sort of dome-shaped front, that has the words ‘Salubrious Place‘ emblazoned high on its frontage. I assume that while the building looks modern the name is Victorian.

The hotel has an almost boutique feel to it with lovely furniture and decoration in the front room, and attention to detail throughout, but without the four posters, chintz and snowdrift-like piles of sequinned cushions of the true boutique hotel! As I check out, Stephen, one of the proprietors, tells me that indeed he had run a boutique hotel in Turkey for many years before coming here two years ago, but here he wanted to create a more homely atmosphere.

I drive from Swansea to Llantwit Major, but knowing that I will drive back the same way as soon as I have checked into the campsite there. Earlier in the morning I had had a phone call from the London office of Ramblers about an interview with journalists at LlansteffanAndrew had mentioned this the night before, and they rang to confirm. Llansteffan is back the other side of Carmarthen, but I have plenty of time over the next few days, so decide to make this another no-walk day, although a lot of driving.

On the way to Llantwit Major, I drive the coast way to scout out breakfast possibilities for the next day. The Pelican Inn at Ogmore (‘food served all day’) does not open until 12 (‘all day’ suitably defined); at Ogmore-by-Sea, where the car park had been packed and the beach full of bathers on Sunday, the only café is closed Monday to Wednesday, and there is just a beach-side burger van that opens at 10; even further down the road at Southern Down the roadside inn does not open until 11am. So, it will be a burger-van breakfast, probably eaten on the hoof.

Acorn Campsite is a little hidden behind a small estate of chalets, but I find it with direction from a man with an Atlantic College t-shirt. The campsite is well laid out and has one of the best toilet and shower blocks I have seen. Each shower area is like two rooms, one with the shower and one with a sink and one of those white patio armchairs, and I took a peek in the disabled shower room, which is cavernous. A man is washing dishes and tells me that the current owners had been long-term campers themselves, knew how important the shower block is, and so designed the shower block first and then fitted the rest of the site around it.

I got out my electric cable and filled with water, to make the evening set up easier, then set back off through Carmarthen to Llansteffan, an odd feeling as I am ‘going back’ a couple of weeks as I drive; space and time have become so intertwined.

While waiting in Llansteffan car park, a black people carrier with darkened windows pulls in. Out of it step a family of orthodox Jews, dressed, with the exception of the three girls’ identical pink cardigans, in black, including the little girls’ black stockinged feet in the sand. I wonder how they can manage the heat, this is not the loose layered black women’s clothing you see in some countries, but jackets, trousers, skirts and waistcoats. Mind you, Goths do the same and maybe for less reason.

As I’d arrived quite early, I sit in the van reading and writing for an hour or so, peeking out of the window every time I notice a car arrives, until I see a man get out of a car with a rucksack and small briefcase. As I look more carefully I see he has a Ramblers t-shirt. I go over and we greet each other. It turns out he is Benedict Southworth the CEO of Ramblers. Although the job involves the normal round of deskwork, he also spends a considerable amount of time meeting people in beautiful places like this and getting involved in initiatives such as schemes for ‘problem’ youngsters.

He tells me about one project where teenagers who were not getting on at school and regularly truanting spent substantial periods of time in the outdoors, progressing from simple walks to full mountain expeditions. Although this took them away from school as much as their truanting, still their grades at school showed dramatic improvements.

The journalists are also interviewing a lady, Eiluned Rees, who used to work at the National Library in Aberystwyth, and retired to Llansteffan some years ago. I listen avidly to the things she is saying to the journalists and chat to her while they are busy with other things. She has such an amazing knowledge. She tells us about the miners who would come down by train from the valleys and cross on the ferry to Llansteffan for their summer holidays; before that the pilgrimage route ran through here in Norman times, and further back still there was Stone Age, I think it was Mesolithic, occupation.

We also talk about the little shack community at Ferry Point. She said it started as tents for some taking more substantial summer holidays, and gradually some of the tents became makeshift corrugated iron structures, which developed in complexity and began to be occupied more continuously, until the local landowner realised he could charge rent and the community became, in a sense, normalised. At one point there was an old bus there. I had noticed, when I walked through, that there were some very ‘developed’ properties, although still made of modern steel section. She knows one person who has had one of the shacks there for many years, and feels it is becoming too upmarket.

Evidently the area of land there used to be much more extensive, with several farms and a small borough of its own, but gradually the shifting path of the river eroded the land away, so that the many farms became one, houses were lost to the water, and so, by the time of the campers, there was little more than the strip of land between hillside and sea that there is today.

While we wander round the headland looking for good places for photographs and talk, across the bay smoke rises and at first we think the helicopter is putting out a bush fire, until, above the distant chatter of helicopter rotors, we hear a louder rattle and realise this is a live firing exercise at the firing ranges near Kidwelly.

It has been a lovely evening, meeting Benedict, the journalists and people from Llansteffan, but a long one, and it is nearly nine by the time we finish, with an hour or so drive back to Llantwit Major still ahead of me – I am very glad I’d sorted out the campsite earlier!

I need to stop in Bridgend to get food and had been told that there were several 24-hour supermarkets here. Roadworks make the road system in the centre of Bridgend more complex and I know that both supermarkets and also fast-food places tend to be near the edge of the centre, but not at the very centre of a town. A semi-random skirting of the town takes me down a two-way street that is temporarily one way due to traffic works, with fast-food shops lining one side and cars parked on the double yellow lines. For some reason my law-abiding gene forces me to a car park and I have to walk back past the lines of yellow-line-parked cars to a kebab shop that also tells me where to find a Spar for milk.

Walking back down the fast-food street I also notice it is the home of multiple money shops of various kinds. At a time when interest rates are so low, still, if you are poor or vulnerable, then you end up, even at the legal end of the market, paying the equivalent of several thousand per cent APR in pay-day loans or those sell and buy back later stores. It was heartening to see, a few days later, that the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to get Anglican churches to set up credit unions; it is sad that it is necessary, but a promising initiative.

Amongst the fast-food and money shops, there is ‘DASH‘ the ‘Drugs and Alcohol Self Help’ group, a church youth centre and the Bridgend food bank. I think also about the food bank at Bangor Cathedral, and the cross-church project I know about in Halifax organised initially by the St Augustine Centre. It is heartening to see these initiatives, the way people give so generously of their time, but they are also shocking in their prevalence.

Although there will have always been food needed at centres for homeless people, and various last resort charities, the common need for food handouts is not something I have seen in my lifetime until the last few years. It is as if we are unravelling fifty, maybe one hundred years of social development.

It is easy to say "it is just the recession, it is hitting everyone", but this is not the case, the high-end ‘executive’ housing is still clearly being built, house prices down the west of Wales have hardly fallen in the areas favoured by second home buyers, and, while the car industry has slumped, luxury cars have never had such huge sales. We are creating a brave new world that is not only unjust, but ultimately unstable.

I am reminded of the opening scenes of ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ where the French aristocrat‘s carriage runs over a young child, but the occupant is worried only at the delay in squeezing past the inconvenient morass of poverty. Although the bloody bodies are not there literally, still with childhood rickets and scurvy on the rise, we are already seeing children’s health sent back to a time before the Second World War, young bodies are being broken and young hearts wrung dry daily, permanently and directly by current public policy.

Update – Newsnight

The mysterious ‘journalists’ above were Rajesh Mirchandani (@rajeshmirchand), Alex Milner (@GkOlive) and a cameraman, whose name I’ve forgotten (sorry!), who were filming for a Newsnight report about the English Coast Path, the progress of which is being set back by funding cuts. They were looking at the Wales Coast Path to see how important it is to have a complete coast path rather than simply focus energy on a few selected places.

The Newsnight report was aired on 5th August. The report is available on iPlayer starting at 26:40 (as long as the BBC keep it available), but only includes a glimpse of me walking … the interview with me hit the cutting room floor as did much else, hours of filming for a few minutes on screen.

I was fascinated by the whole process; they need to make sure they have anything they could possibly need, from images of our feet walking to out of focus shots of flowers, as they cannot come back for more once they are in the cutting room. Digital filming has advantages as they can take more than they would have once done using analog film or tape, effectively leaving many editorial decisions until later, but it has disadvantages. On the way back, Rajesh bent down and picked up a bright yellow envelope, it was one of the storage cards that had slipped out of Alex‘s pocket – you could never drop a carton of celluloid like that!