Jamie's Blog: Pendine to Laugharne

Jamie Owen walks the length of the Wales coastal path as his series returns to Radio Wales (Saturdays at 1 PM, repeated Sundays 5 PM). In his blogs he shares his experiences along the way, and tells us what we can expect to hear in the programme.

It was my granddad who told me about Bab’s and the World Land Speed record attempts on Pendine Sands. He’d been there as a little boy to see Malcolm Campbell and Parry Thomas, two larger than life characters who’s names dominated his childhood and then mine. 

I was a lazy child not much taken with reading in school and then a chance conversation with my Grandfather about these heroic men and their superhuman endeavors - all unfolding just a few miles from our house - was enough to spark a life long love of reading and a rather more ruinous interest in old cars. 

When he was older, Grandfather went back to Pendine to watch them dig Babs from her sandy grave where – after the tragic accident that claimed the life of her driver Parry Thomas – her mangled body was entombed in the beach, where in front of crowds of motorsports fans - she had tipped over.

Growing up in Pembrokeshire over the border from Carmarthenshire we never went to Pendine much – there were closer albeit smaller beaches closer to home. I read about Pendine more than I visited. But I’ve put that right at last walking the all Wales Coast path – one year old this year – between Pendine and Laugharne.

There are few better places to begin a walk than in a café serving black coffee and bacon rolls and that’s how I started my journey at Barnacles Beach Cafe perched on the top of the high tide mark. It's a good place to watch the world go by.

There’s been a considerable investment in the beach top promenade at Pendine - the day I visited, the place was packed with JCBs, pneumatic drills and generators digging up old concrete and laying new paving slabs and railings. By the time you read this it’ll be spick and span ready for the summer holidays.

If you’re an engine fan you’ll find yourself irresistibly drawn to Pendine’s Museum of Speed overlooking the sand. The opportunity to sniff ancient engine oil, look longingly at vintage motorbikes and lose yourself in the romance of motorsport is just too much to pass on, but too long a diversion at the museum is probably the cause of a number of divorces too.

I think Carmarthenshire is missing a trick here. The story of World class motorsport taking place on this vast beach in West Wales; the legends who risked and lost their lives and the enormous crowds who turned out to watch cars, planes and motorbikes in the golden age of transport is a unique story for Carmarthenshire to own and tell. The museum is delightful but modest - Bab’s is on show for only a few months a year – Carmarthenshire needs to get some replicas built of Campbell’s cars and Babs too - and while we’re at it - a computer simulator to inspire a new generation of young petrol heads like me. The county needs to shout loudly from the rooftops of Pendine’s rightful place in the world’s story of speed. And it is a story of interest to a wider audience not just Wales. Carmarthenshire suffers from the Welsh disease; modesty.

The joy of a stretch of sand so long as Pendine’s is that the beach can be whatever you want it to be. At ten o ‘clock in the morning, the shore is busy with dog walkers, fishermen and dozens of children in canoes experiencing - judging by the squeals of delight - their first sea adventure.

Its not always a good idea to approach a fisherman lost in thought but he was a great interviewee for our radio documentary. Constantly moving his two fishing rods, Marcus was on Pendine for the day in the hope of catching a few bass. He was on holiday and couldn’t believe his luck – he was visiting Wales on a day when he would be basking in the sunshine.

I’ve been walking a number of stretches of the Coast path since it opened, trying for the most part to visit places that are largely unfamiliar. My plan today is to walk from Pendine to Laugharne. I’ve visited both places before a number of times, but never walked between them.

My hiking plans along the coast were short-lived for my weekday walk. Pendine’s red flags flying high on their poles means one thing for the walker; military activity on the range closing part of the coast path and a detour around the road – at least for part of the journey.

If I’d walked on a weekend I’d have had the thrill of walking more of the route along the cliff tops but instead as on some other stretches of the Wales Coast Path - where there’s military activity you’ll be seeing a lot of the road and not much sea, for a few miles, at least.

The military’s relationship with Pendine goes back to the Second World War and Westminster’s need to position critical operations bases away from the danger of the South east of England and its proximity to enemy bombers. Pendine’s work goes on - wars never go out of fashion and the base’s work is in demand now. My wanderings nearby were punctuated with the boom of distant explosions followed by a plume of black acrid smoke reaching high into the blue sky. Pendine’s speciality this particular afternoon seemed to be blowing things up and studying how and why bombs work.

My detour around the roads through Pendine did at least offer the opportunity for a good nose round the caravan sites and camping parks. This is holiday mecca for the tourists who come here and the local businesses which depend on the trade. As a West Walian, I completely understand that the only ingredients you need for heavenly bliss are a view of the sea and a walk on the beach. Many of the people I met are Pendine-lifers – they’ve been coming here for decades and wouldn’t go anywhere else. The caravans have changed of course – no more outside loos and al fresco cooking - these days they are centrally heated and double-glazed. One lady I talked bemoaned those glory days - now she didn’t know her neighbouring caravaners.

My diversion along the alternative path follows the main road through the back of Pendine for a few miles before diving behind a hedge and marching across flat farmland.

There are few places in Britain that can match the majestic splendour of the walk above the estuary into Laugharne, on a warm day in spring, with the woods in light canopy, you won’t need much imagination to understand why Dylan Thomas was inspired by this landscape. Just when you think you’ve seen every corner of Wales - a new destination offers up its charms and wins your heart.

The shoreline below the castle is home to half a dozen vintage yachts, plastic dinghies and fishing boats stranded like ducks straining on mooring ropes, waiting for the high tide to float from their muddy moorings.

Laugharne Castle is sometimes overlooked by the time-tabled tourist belting to get to the Boathouse, but it is worth a diversion for a good while.

Dylan Thomas’s writing shed perched precariously on the cliff was getting a repaint the day I visited. It must be looking better now than it ever did when the writer sat inside and looked out across the water. He wouldn’t get much work done these days of course, a steady stream of chatter outside followed by noses pressed to the glass then a flash lighting up the gloom.

Every man needs a shed and Dylan’s is the shed to surpass them all – far beyond the noise of the house, an outstanding view, comfy chair, desk and typewriter; something to keep the chill off in a bottle out of sight and when a day’s work is done – a short walk to the pub.

Jamie Owen’s Wales - BBC Radio Wales Saturday 1 PM, repeated Sunday 5 PM & online after for seven days.