‘I’m shackled here.’
– Neil, St. Clears.
Breakfast is ready!
I’m woken by a friendly shout and the smell of frying bacon in the other room, after a lovely deep night’s sleep in Tenby. Everything is good: the friendly company of Declan and Dorie, who have kindly put me up through the Couchsurfing website, which I strongly recommend to any travellers considering a similar journey. Then there’s the small town of Tenby, dotted on the south-west Welsh coast, a delight of a place to pass the time. And then there’s the prospect of a full Irish breakfast this morning. This is the start of a good day.
Matt and Morgan rouse too, and we rub our bleary eyes at the sight of a feast: scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, baked beans, mushrooms, slices of warm buttery toast, avocado (there must be something healthy here…), black pudding, bacon and sausages for the meat eaters. There’s fresh coffee and tea too. Wonderful. We talk about the tricky business of living together with other people, of moving in as couples, and the complex etiquette of domestic work between house-mates. Everyone round the table has sufficient experience to draw on, much of it humorously negative. We’re laughing and eating together, and I wish this was the start and end of the day’s activities, but there’s some distance still to travel.
Declan offers to fix the back wheel on the bicycle, but after peering at it together we’re still none the wiser why it keeps becoming misaligned. So instead we cycle around Tenby town. He shows me its four different beaches, and the five arches by the town’s walls used locally as a major meeting place. From the promenade we gaze at the remains of a fort on St. Catherine’s island, and another nearby island islet used by monks. We cycle through its surprisingly large town centre, a place filled with fish and chips, pubs, sticks of rock, and other shops competing for the already-taxed attention spans of holiday-makers. We pass tourists eating breakfast outside coffee houses or dressed uncomfortably in wedding garb. It’a a wonderful Victorian seaside resort whose charm remains. It seems to be faring better than Morecambe without conceding too much of itself, like Blackpool. Its costly-looking architecture reflects a Victorian boom in tourism, much of it through investment by railway companies building the lines out to these resorts and properties around them. I wonder about this awe it evokes. Some day, will concrete become so costly and environmentally unsustainable that future generations will look at the dated Sixties and Seventies’ resorts of the Mediterranean with a similar wonder?
‘That’s where you’re heading’, Declan says, gesturing at the very distant headland. I would’ve guessed it was Bristol, but alas, it’s only the Gower Peninsula, a beautiful stretch of coastline close to Swansea. I’ve a very long journey ahead of me. Declan shows me the road out of Tenby, consisting of a truly steep hill climb up into the cliffs, and we part ways.
The road is steep and tough. I’m following national cycle route 4, something I’ll be chasing over the course of the day. Fortunately it’s a route that’s well sign-posted and thought through. There’s some steep climbs up to Saundersfoot, another seaside settlement not far from Tenby, where the road dips through a tunnel before, heading up a very steep hill into some forests and back down again into Wiseman’s Bridge. The village is not particularly pleasant, its buildings horribly dated in some places, and its car park obsessively filled with security cameras. From there it’s another steep climb via a batch of holiday homes up to Amworth, then another descent back down into a pebbly seafront and some seaside settlements, the castle here little more than some crumbled walls.
The route is zigzagging up and down along the cliffs, and it’s tiring stuff, but with the sun out and the afternoon heat at least there’s no rain to contend with. After Amworth beach it’s another steep climb, eventually passing through the odd field of caravans and the occasional tent into farmer’s fields of sheep and cattle. The roads are narrow and steep and it’s becoming even hotter, wonderfully so I guess, but unpleasant when wearing a shirt, jeans and battling the close weather. I curse the hill, give up several times, changing into a tee and shorts, and carry on, eventually reaching the top of some kind of hill by Pendine, wind turbines and lovely views of the sea in the distance. It’s lovely and quiet here. From the top, the views of the serene bay are a salve to the soul. One could stop time completely in the sleepy village of Marros, and sit by the monument to the town’s sons, brothers and fathers, fed into an industrialised killing machine just under a century ago, and count the butterflies and the sparrows, the wildflowers by the kerb, and hear in the sigh of the breeze the beginnings and end of a new kind of music.
There are roads to Laugharne (pronounced Larne), another haunt of Dylan Thomas, and a delightful sounding place called ‘Red Roses’, but I take instead a delightful rollercoaster ride through a series of thick forests that eventually lead to St. Clears, a small village over a small stream, marked out by a front garden filled with an excess of gnome and other fake animal tat. There’s a small row of takeaways, homeware stores and the odd pub.
I home in on the town’s chip shop, seeking sustenance. Neil’s is bustling with trade, and the queue is long. It’s surprising that there’s still such a trade in rare and expensive fish like cod, despite the decline in stocks. Chippies very rarely sell anything else beyond that, haddock or skate. Neil spots my bicycle, and we get talking. He enjoys his work here, his body language affirms it, and he has a lot of friends and connections in the village. But at times it can feel entrapping. He’d love to travel like me, not venturing too far but exploring the contours and contents of landscapes deceptively familiar. But… ‘if I left for three months I’d lose all my business. The kebab shops and takeaways round here…’. He’s made some plans to cycle though. A friend of his is planning to cycle the entire coast of the country, ‘his missus is gonna follow him in a van. He’s doing it for charity. … I’m gonna join my mate in Scotland, for the best bit!’
I eat my chips outside and other locals make friendly banter. ‘Best of British luck to you’ shouts one elderly lady, pushing in equally senior gentleman in a wheelchair.
I leave St. Clears and follow a major A-road towards Carmarthen. I’m still following route 4, naively as it turns out, and after riding along the roadside pavement for a little while realise it’s taking a totally different course of its own. So with a bit of reckless momentum I rejoin the hectic A-road and cycle in a fast flurry the nine miles to Carmarthen, which pass in a blur. I count the bloody, squished and sun-rotten remains of small mammals embedded into the hard shoulder, but there’s little else for the eyes to rest on.
And here is Carmarthen. At first one’s impressions aren’t too positive. It’s ringed in speedy and overly-functional traffic management roundabouts and whizzy lanes that might induce apoplexy in the more faint-hearted of cyclists. The outer padding of the town, its suburban semis, pebbledash Non-Comformist religious halls and penny-pinched bus stops do not inspire. But venture in, and there’s a small but pleasant market town here. And really it isn’t always about the buildings…. It’s the people, their stories, and the collective experience or absence of a feeling of community and cooperation. In Carmarthen it’s there, it’s warm.
The accent’s changing, becoming slightly stronger and more jagged in its intonations. It’s certainly not the singsong Valleys’ accent that’ll I’ll encounter a few miles ahead, but there’s hints of that, you hear it. And there’s no Welsh to be heard. ‘You see the army, its rubbish. The marines they’re good. I did bog standard infantry. Rubbish’, one young man tells an older man and woman. Judging by the expressions on their faces it’s a totally different answer to whatever question they’d asked.
It’s a historic market town, and there’s a series of pedestrianised streets with familiar and independent shops making a good trade from them. It’s a pleasant place to pass the time, particularly in Nott Square, site of the town’s old medieval market and retaining that feel with its plethora of benches and persons chatting amiably amongst themselves. There’s the remains of an old castle here which gives way to a 19th century prison, now used as the county hall. I ask one young man about the place, his arms and chest coated in colourful and artistic tattoos.
‘Carmarthen is like Spain… how do I explain it? You see Swansea, people are in your face. Here… there’s a niceness about it, it’s slower, I’d like to live here, but I just can’t afford it’. He points me further into the town, and I cycle by more old shops, enjoying the atmosphere of this place more than the average small town I pass through. People living here enjoy it, and there’s a feeling of community suffused about the place. But, for a Londoner the town feels a little too small. A village seems conceivable as a place to live, as does a major city: but somewhere in between, where people know your life story? It should appeal to me, it should tick all the I Heart Community boxes, but it still leaves me feeling strange. There’s the possibility of anonymity and privacy in both. That desire, that need, I need to explore.
So the people of Carmarthen are staying here, right, but where will I stay? It’s the late afternoon and once again looking pretty unlikely that I’ll reach my ambitious destination of the bottom edge of the Gower peninsula. ‘Had we but world enough, and time’, dear Albion, I’d spend a day in each place I stop. Were I on some carbon-fibre bicycle with a ‘missus’ in a van behind nourished by protein injections and glucose soup, then reaching such a place in a day might be feasible. As it stands, my only performance-enhancing drug is a pint or two of warm hoppy beer. There’s a youth hostel on the edge of Gower in an old lighthouse at Port Eynon, but it’ll be dark by the time I reach there. Fortunately, after days without success, I receive a last-minute couchsurfing invitation for Swansea, a little nearer to Carmarthen. The details are sketchy, but a little relieved, I accept, and plot a new course.
I’ve provisionally booked a youth hostel bed at the bottom tip of the Gower peninsula, but whilst in Carmarthen I’m offered a bed through couchsurfing which I take instead. Unsure if it’ll work out in time, I cycle out, taking a busy road past the obligatory mess of an out-of-town retail park, then bucking along a quieter country road south through to Kidwelly, Pembrey, Burry Port and Llanelli. It’s a warm and sunny afternoon, and the route is a little featureless. The chips from St. Clears seem to have been covered in some kind of rocket fuel, and I power away, quickly passing the now very flat scenery, the cows in their fields and the odd warehouse. I pass Kidwelly in the distance, a sleepy residential town, then later Pembrey, where a large forest grows and where I had, in an original plan for this trip, intended to wild camp.
I carry on, past Dhaka to Bombay, and pass Burry Port, a small town facing the Gower peninsula, and then Llanelli, an uglier town. It’s preceded by Pwll, and a kind of ugly suburban conurbation is starting to appear, suburban housing treacling together into a gloopy syrup of homogeneity, lacking the start (cottage), middle (church, war memorial, post office) and end (another cottage, or closed down petrol garage) that marks the average village. I’m told by people I’ve met that Llanelli is only known for its large Tesco Extra, but I see some old factory warehouses, a traveller site and some skate ramps. I choose instead to take the scenic coastal road next.
My road passes along the millennium path, through a series of new-build houses built over an old industrial mine and complex over the small island of Machynys. Over the course of the 19th century this sleepy bay would’ve been a noisy and sooty machine for living in, just about. A large coalfield was discovered in the early 19th century, and St. Davids Pit was dug into the mud. ‘New Dock’ was built close by to export the coal, and soon after the South Wales Foundry was built to work with iron, steel and tinplate. A brickworks, iron foundry and chemical works followed suit, and the village of Bwlch y Gwynt was built to house workers, providing them with essential amenities like a gospel hall, football team, phone box and bus stop. International competition, silting and obsolete technologies all rendered each unsustainable by the 1930s, and the village was bulldozed by 1931.
There are some great views of the Gower peninsula and estuary, and the clouds are extraordinary this evening over the bay, exploding out onto the horizon like a solemn cortege marking the slow death of a star. I follow this route round, passing the occasional dogwalker, and spend a while picking some blackberries for my last-minute couchsurfing host, Sarah. Eventually the route rejoins the road, and I reach Gowerton, another bland suburban spread with a Tesco where I get some granola, famished after what will become seventy miles in the saddle. The language is changing with the urbanised, industrialised scenery: Welsh ‘araf’ no longer takes priority over English ‘slow’. Bilingual signs become fewer and scarcer, and where they appear, take English as the first tongue.
I need to reach Swansea for 8.30, and it’s around 8. I aim to take a shortcut into Swansea centre but the road signs are so confusing, and I end up on a massive diversion following the main car route, a thick and speedy main road through difficult and heavy traffic. It’s become so dark that I require all my lights, and the journey into Swansea is dangerous! I pass two large bland retail parks, then enter a largely-residential and underwhelming town, passing up a couple of steep hills through residential suburbia before tumbling down another, with the lights of what I think might be Bristol in the distance. Here in Uplands, the student area of Swansea, I reach my destination.
Some people are always late. They don’t even intend to be, but things get in the way, stuff happens, wheels come loose, hills appear out of nowhere, they get lost among the city ring-roads… Sarah’s standing outside her house when I arrive, wondering if I’d get lost. She’s a second year Psychology student at the university here. She’s fascinated by the behaviour of other human beings, and watches them intently, wanting to become fully qualified to work with and treat persons with criminally antisocial behaviours. When I arrive, quite late after my diversion, a small house party’s in full swing. I’m warmly welcomed in, then come down and drink with her friends, students at the local university, in subjects varying from biology, medicinal neurochemistry, zoology to illustration. Some work in call centres, others struggle to an extent, selling a small amount of drugs to supplement their income.
There’s a welcoming and hedonistic feel about the place. I practice twisting illuminated poi balls around my shoulders, an activity that consumes most of the young males’ attentions, but my balance is poor and I’m no good. The blurring of the colours is remarkable though, particularly so when under the influence of certain stimulants, I’m told. There’s plenty to drink, eat and discuss with these fun-loving, intelligent young people. We talk about psychology, a subject that makes its students feel more divorced from others than they really ought to be. Nature vs nurture comes up, and Sarah’s fed up of it being one or the other. Some nuanced perspective, a synthesis is needed, she feels. One biology student heavily emphasises genetics in a discussion of mental illness, regaling opinions with the kind of stony and unthinking conviction that suggests indoctrination. If such things are hereditary then there seems little hope of therapy. Prescribe Ritalin and Prozac for the youth from birth, right? But by the same token he’s a well-read student of world religions and philosophy, subjects he wished he’d studied instead, and speaks with knowledge about Taoism and Islam, as well as on the various ways of getting out of it. This mix of ideas with hedonism is superb.
Guests arrive and leave, the next door neighbours come round for a drink. It’s a fun place. Everyone here also seems to have a deep fat fryer, and they’re surprised that I find this unusual. I’m told by one guy about all the mines, castles and military history of the area. Each person has something to add to my knowledge, some tip of assistance to this project. It’s fascinating. People are very friendly here, and also off the cuff, and good to talk to. It’s a proper student drink up and will no doubt finish late, so a little tired after my endeavours, I make my excuses around 2am and head up to sleep, the sound of one fellow vomiting in the back garden not too far away.