I check my map. Today’s walk looks straightforward, and I’m worried it might be boring as it follows tracks and roads up the estuary. But the day turns out to be surprisingly eventful.
It’s a damp and dull morning when I set off from the beach at Ferryside. Across the river the pretty village of Llansteffan seems tantalising close.
Once you could simply have taken a ferry across the Towy (this formed part of a pilgrim route to St David’s), but the ferry stopped running years ago. Now you have to hike miles up the estuary to Carmarthen in order to cross the river.
I stop to take a photograph of Ferryside’s railway station, and decide one day I really, really must travel along this line. I can imagine the wonderful views as the train hugs the coast, following it more closely than the path does.
I walk up the main street, heading northwards.
This collection of ramshackle wooden huts look like a series of neglected allotment sheds, but turns out to be the Mariners Surgery – a genuine NHS branch surgery. I’m shocked.
Reaching the end of the village, the Wales Coast Path leaves the road and follows a series of farm tracks. I would prefer to be walking closer to the river, but my track is separated from the water by fields of cows and the raised bank of the railway line. In the distance I can see the ruins of Llansteffan Castle.
When planning today’s walk, I intended to take a little diversion along a footpath that crosses over the railway line and then follows the bank for half a mile, before rejoining the official path. (This is yet another example of a public footpath that runs closer to the coast than the official Wales Coast Path does!)
But I’m not a morning person and it takes some time for my brain to wake up. So I manage to forget all about this plan! I even take a photo of the place where the footpath branches off and goes over the line (with the Stop, Look, Listen sign below). By the time I remember, I’ve gone too far to turn back.
The farm track is undulating enough to keep the views interesting, but the walking is easy. I get tantalising glimpses of the river.
At one point I see a speedboat on the water, towing a couple of water skiers.
Sometimes the banks are high, crowded with flowers, and my view is restricted to the immediate road ahead.
I walk past isolated farms, and at one point have a nasty incident when a couple of dogs – a tiny terrier and a yellow Labrador – race out of a farm-yard and begin barking and growling furiously at me.
The terrier is the more aggressive of the two. I’m horrified when he takes a mouthful of my trousers between his teeth. If I had my poles, I would have hit him. I try talking to the Labrador – usually a friendly breed and one I’m very fond of. But the Labrador has been thoroughly wound up by the terrier, and refuses to respond to my voice. He is barking and snarling too, teeth bared. A bite from him would be worse than from the terrier.
The terrier takes another bite of my trousers. I back away and slowly side-step around the dogs. But, to my horror, they follow me – keeping up a relentless yapping and growling. I continue backing down the lane, telling myself not to run. As I get further and further from their gate, the terrier stops attacking my ankles and, eventually, they both stop pursuing me, but keep barking horribly as I go round a bend in the track.
It’s been a nerve-racking experience and my heart is pounding. Although I can no longer see them, I can still hear the dogs barking, and I’m relieved to see the path leaves the track. I quickly climb over a style and into the safety of a field.
I’m out of the frying pan and into… a field of cows and bullocks. They decide to charge over towards me. This would normally terrify me, but I remain remarkably calm when faced with the stampeding herd. I even manage to take a photograph. At least cows don’t bite.
The cattle stop charging just before they reach me, but they continue to mill about in an agitated way. One of them even has a ring through its nose. Not a good sign. So I’m anxious to get out of the field as soon as I can. But I can’t see a path. And I can’t find a way out.
Eventually, by walking around the perimeter of the fence, I come across a metal ‘kissing gate’. It’s down a slope and not visible from the top of the field.
Through the gate, and the footpath drops down into a narrow, wooded valley, with a stream running along the bottom. It’s lovely. The air smells damp and deep green. But there’s a steep climb down to a ramshackle bridge. A fallen tree lies at one end of the crossing, its roots in the air, its trunk forming an ancillary railing beside the bridge.
The fallen tree should have been a warning. On the way down, just after I take the photo above, I lose my footing. Wet earth has slipped away from rock, and my boots skid over the smooth surface. I fall backwards, saving my camera from injury by raising my arms. And I land heavily on my shoulder and elbow.
I lie on my side, feeling dazed. Then, worried. I’m down in a deep valley, hidden from view, with no phone signal. What if I’ve broken something? I could be here for days!
Carefully I sit up. So far, so good. Then I lever myself up onto my feet, nearly losing my balance again on the slippery rocks. But I am relieved to find nothing is broken. My elbow hurts, and my shoulder aches, but my legs are fine. I can walk.
Well, I’m uninjured, but it’s not been a good day. What next? I’m feeling seriously rattled and rather paranoid. The world is set against me. I just want this walk to be over. Why am I doing this?
I climb out of the valley and into the next field – and I meet a horse. It comes towards me, picking its way delicately over the ground, coat as white as an angel and with pale lashes framing gentle eyes. It stands a few feet away and snorts hopefully, maybe looking for an apple or a carrot.
I’m not particularly fond of horses, but this horse is both beautiful and friendly, and I give its nose a rub. Immediately I feel much better.
The footpath takes me through a hedge and into a back garden, across a neatly clipped lawn and past children’s play equipment. It’s surreal. A patch of suburbia within the wilds of the countryside.
Back on a road, and I’m looking forward to reaching the next place marked on my map. Towy Castle. A castle means dry stones to sit down on. And I plan to stop here for a drink and a snack.
But Towy Castle turns out to be hugely disappointing. There’s a farm and a collection of holiday lets. And an old people’s home, I think. But no castle.
More dogs bark at me, but they are behind a glass window. Their owners sit in window seats, drinking coffee and having a lazy Sunday brunch. I try not to stare with envy. I’m really hungry now, bruised and tired.
I leave the houses and – with the sound of barking dogs following me – walk down a field. Ahead the path goes through a gate, with a pretty view of the river framed by the gap in the hedge.
On the side of another deep valley, beside some ruined buildings, in a place called Cwmyrarian, I sit on damp grass and eat my snack. An apple and a chocolate bar.
After the break I feel better. I always do feel better after eating chocolate!
Now I follow farm tracks across sloping fields. I love the roll and tuck of the land, with hedges everywhere, mixed with trees. And in the distance the gleaming line of the river. It’s so much nicer than the flat, prairie fields of my home country, Lincolnshire.
The track joins a tiny lane, lined by flowers and threaded with telegraph poles.
And I walk through the pretty village of Croesyceilog, where I come across my first walker of the day. In fact, my only walker of the day. He won’t meet my eyes and doesn’t greet me, which seems odd. I take a photograph of his back.
I must say, he seems very neat and tidy. Clean boots. I, on the other hand, am covered in mud. There are brown smears all along my left side (where I fell), I have a soggy green patch across my bottom (from my snack break), and – if you look closely – you will find doggy tooth marks on my stained trousers (made by the terrier from hell).
No wonder he ignored me. I look like a tramp.
The road leads onwards. On my map, it changes from yellow to orange. I’m moving towards civilisation. Towards Carmarthen.
At a roundabout I join the familiar A484. And walk on a cycle/walk way running alongside the busy road.
I’m meeting my husband in Carmarthen. We are having a late lunch there, and I will be finishing my walk, because I’ve had enough for today. At least, that’s my plan…
[To be continued…]