On the trail of Richard Burton

Wednesday 1 February 2012, 12:39

Rachael Garside Rachael Garside

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At one time, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, he was married to the world's most beautiful woman and had one of the most recognisable voices in showbusiness - he was of course, Richard Burton.

Despite the glamour and success of his later years, his remarkable life began in far humbler surroundings - in the small village of Ponyrhydyfen in the Afan Forest Park near Port Talbot.

Last year, the local community decided it was high time their most famous son was honoured and came together to create the Richard Burton Trail, a 3 mile walk, taking in some of the places which were important to the man himself.

Today, I've been to the area to walk the trail and was greeted with the sight of the Afan Valley bathed in winter sunshine, with a sprinkling of snow on the surrounding trees and on the Foel, the second highest peak in the Afan Forest Park.

The old mineral line viaduct spanning the Afan river.

The old mineral line viaduct over the Afan river.

My guide was Jonathan Price, a ranger with the Forestry Commission, working in the Afan Valley. We began in the Rhyslyn car park and walked across the aqueduct, high above the Afan river.

The house where the famous actor was born is under the aqueduct, backing onto the river - a lovely spot, but hard to imagine that a family of fourteen once lived there.

Richard was the eleventh of twelve children and his younger brother Graham Jenkins who still lives in the area, has been involved with the trail project, helping to piece together interesting facts about his older brother's life.

All along the walk, there are special way markers with information about Richard Burton, his life and career.

The first we passed told us that he was born on 25 November 1925 in Pontrhydyfen weighing twelve pounds. This was accompanied by a photo of him in his rugby kit, posing with the team as a youngster.

We passed Penhydd Street where many members of Richard's family lived and on to the Pontyrhydyfen viaduct, another reminder of the area's industrial past.

We joined the Connect2 cycle route to continue on the trail towards the portrait bench and the amazing sight of three life-sized metal sculptures of three local celebrities - Richard Burton, Rob Brydon and Richard ('Dick') Wagstaff, who was the area warden for the Afan Forest Park until he retired last year.

Sculptures of Richard Burton on right, rob Brydon in the middle and Richard Wagstaff on the left.

Sculptures of Richard Burton on right, rob Brydon in the middle and Richard Wagstaff on the left.

He was voted in by local people and by all accounts is quite a character. Next to the sculptures is a metal box with a dial.

If you wind the dial, you can hear the unmistakable sound of Richard Burton reading extracts from the works of Dylan Thomas, including 'Under Milk Wood' and the poem he wrote after his father's death, 'Do Not Go Gentle....'.

It's a great idea to 'illustrate' a walk in this way and brings the person and their landscape to life.

It's just such a shame that already, only a few weeks after the trail's official opening, many of the way markers along the route have already been vandalised - many of them have been sawn off, leaving a metal 'stump' behind where the information about Richard Burton would have been.

Jonathan Price, Ranger with the Forestry Commission with a vandalised sign.

Jonathan Price, Ranger with the Forestry Commission with a vandalised sign.

Why would anyone want to do this? Jonathan Price was also at a loss to explain this and pointed out that those signs will have to be repaired at considerable cost.

This innovative project has been overseen by Neath Port Talbot County Council and hopes to bring tourists to the area, proving once again that 'green tourism' is the way ahead, but also that increasingly, the tourism industry needs to provide and extra something to draw people into an area.

The trail ends back in Pontrhydyfen, passing Bethel chapel, where the local memorial service for Richard Burton was held after his death in 1984.

Today, the chapel is boarded up and for sale but it stands in a prime location, overlooking the river and the aqueduct where we began and where Richard Burton would have spent much of his childhood.

For more information about this walk visit www.visitnpt.co.uk/richardburton

BBC Wales Nature blog: Richard Burton walking trail opens

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