“Don’t go that way, there’s nuclear!” shouted the eight-year-old Brummie girl, hopping from rockpool to rockpool. “Nuclear what?” I asked, breaking my stride.
“Bombs and bullets and things,” she replied, darkly. “My dad said.”
Imaginary unexploded nukes are just one of the many challenges walkers will face when heading out on the new Wales Coast Path or Llwybr Arfordir Cymru – others are vast static caravan sites, pig-ugly 1970s hotels, gale force winds, industrial sites and post-industrial blight, and Rhyl (of which more later).
On May 5, the path, which runs for 870 miles from Chepstow to Queensferry, near Chester, officially opens, with inaugural events in Cardiff and along the route. The scheme, which brings together established paths such as the Pembrokeshire Coast National Trail and Isle of Anglesey Coast Path with newly waymarked footpaths, has cost the assembly government £2m a year since 2009 and a further £3.9m from the European Regional Development Fund. Criticised for slow progress (the path was announced in 2006) and for veering too far inland and on to Tarmac too often, the path is, nonetheless, generating lots of publicity, not only in Wales but overseas. It is, claims the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), which administers the path, the “world’s first continuous national coast path”. Of course, smaller countries are more able to offer walks round their entire coastline; but 870 miles is not a short distance, and no doubt other countries – not least England – will be watching to see if Wales’s coast path succeeds in attracting tourists and making the country as popular with weekend walkers as it already is with hikers, climbers and mountain bikers.
I was warned about the “nuclear” – the little girl was referring to ordnance left over from military testing during the second world war – as I rounded a headland on the mudflats of north Gower. My friend and I were approaching the last third of a 35-mile, five-day hike around the Gower peninsula. We were enjoying the easy, flat section, but decided to minimise the risk of losing our newly muscular legs. Instead, we climbed a steep dune to get to our next B&B stop in the quaint village of Llanmadoc.
Our mini challenge had begun in Swansea, walking round the five-mile curve of Swansea bay. There’s something deeply fulfilling about striding, on your own steam, from city into country. At Oxwich nature reserve, I spotted an adder (the first I’ve seen) and every day we saw waders, rapiers and gulls, as well as countless newborn lambs and hairy Welsh ponies.
We had great sunshine, bracing but rarely cold winds and, because April is low season, hardly met a soul. We wore sunglasses and daubed on factor 15 suncream every morning.
The views along south Gower were as impressive as any I’ve seen in far-flung destinations: steep limestone cliffs, white-sand beaches, smugglers’ coves, a heaving surf on the Bristol channel, blowholes, ravines, caves and crags, and some lovely pastoral stretches on the approach to Rhossili. The north, by contrast, was all serene salt marshes and shifting tides.
Before my Gower trip, I’d done some day walks on the coast around Laugharne, where a short Dylan Thomas-themed walk affords poetry-worthy views of the Taf estuary, and between Goodwick and Trefin, on the rightly famous Pembrokeshire Coast Path. All were wonderful but I am no completist even though epic trails always attract those who thrive on arduous pursuits. On May 5, CCW employee Anne-Marie Beresford-Webb will arrive at Cardiff bay having run the entire length of the path; and, as Wales already has a north-south path close to the English border, the Offa’s Dyke national trail, she has included that too, running 1,027 miles (39 marathons in 42 days) to raise money for two charities. As Beresford-Webb arrives, factory boss Dave Quarrell will set off to walk the entire route to raise funds for Cancer Research Wales. He says “the psychologically hard days will be inland legs such as the Carmarthen and Machynlleth estuaries [which cut into the coast for miles], where the finish point will be in sight at the start but I will have to walk all day to get there.”
The 870 and 1,027-milers will see parts of the path that will probably only appeal to completists. I was raised in south Lancashire and spent childhood holidays on the north Wales coast, in Colwyn Bay, Llanddulas and Rhyl. These decaying resorts boast long pedigrees in horrendous town planning, and the coast path appears to go straight through bingo halls.
Even around Gower, caravan sites and apartment blocks spoil some of the bays. My own accommodation, though, was always good or even great, and the food on offer was not merely hearty post-hike fare. If I am no fitter after my 35 miles, I blame the salt-marsh lamb, slabs of Welsh beef, Gower Power ales, Per Las cheeses and breakfasts of bacon, sausage, cockles and laverbread fried in bacon fat.
Like many walks in Britain, my trek ended on a main road – in my case, the B4295 from Pen-clawdd to Gowerton, where my taxi awaited. In the very last mile a huge grey cloud swept in from the west. It began to rain, and then to hail. It was, momentarily, a reminder of what walking in Wales, or anywhere in Britain, could sometimes be. But it was better than being nuked. The sunglasses stayed on.
For details of the Wales Coast Path, see www.ccgc.gov.uk. Chris Moss was a guest of the Welsh tourist authority, Visit Wales (www.visitwales.co.uk). He stayed at Patricks with Rooms, Mumbles (www.patrickswithrooms.com), Forge Cottage, Llanmadoc (www.forgecottagegower.co.uk), Bay View, Penclacwydd (www.bayviewgower.co.uk), Fairyhill, Reynoldston (www.fairyhill.net)