Regular readers will remember me being less than enamoured with the route the Wales Coast Path follows in parts of Carmarthenshire; endless churned up fields, unacceptably muddy approaches to many stiles, cow pats everywhere and, last summer at least, an epidemic of slugs.
It definitely didn’t help that we walked the official route during the second wettest summer in the UK since records began (it’s hard to believe but 1912 was even wetter, making me wonder if my great-great-grandchildren would be wise to anticipate another watery onslaught in 2112).
Fortunately, this summer has been much drier and, as our recent trip to the Carmarthenshire coast demonstrated, the lighter rainfall meant most footpaths were firm underfoot; thankfully, the squelching was confined to under-tree paths and one or two sloping fields. I still managed to get wet feet but at least the rest of me remained relatively clean.
The good news is that Carmarthenshire Council has clearly listened to people’s concerns and has changed the route in some places, e.g. hikers are now directed to walk along a quiet lane near St Clear’s rather than plod through an adjacent – and potentially very muddy – field.
With the wet weather issues resolved for the time being, my remaining bugbear with the Carmarthenshire section of the Wales Coast Path is the need to walk so far inland to cross the county’s two main estuaries.
As the crow flies, the picturesque village of Llansteffan is located directly opposite the seaside resort of Ferryside; for hikers, it’s a whole day’s walking away. There is, you see, the little question of the tidal River Towy to cross. At low tide it looks almost possible to wade from one side of the estuary to the other but the differing sand bar levels and the quick flowing tidal waters mean embarking on this short cut is complete madness.
Instead, we walkers have to grit our teeth and walk nine miles up the estuary to Carmarthen and nine miles back again to reach Ferryside. This we did last summer in heavy rain and thick mud; I still have nightmares.
The inland expedition from Laugharne to St Clears and back to Llansteffan isn’t quite as exasperating, maybe because Llansteffan lies out of sight just around the headline, i.e. there’s no tantalising glimpse of the place before you head off in the opposite direction. This time it’s a 15-mile hike up the estuary, over the bridge and down the other side.
What makes these detours so frustrating is that they take you far from the coastline you set off to enjoy. Heavily wooded slopes on the way out of Laugharne effectively block any estuary views and the route soon has walkers veering inland and across more fields. Similarly, on leaving Carmarthen, there are no coastal views to speak of until you’re almost in Ferryside.
As a result of their relatively isolated positions, perched on estuaries with no nearby road or pedestrian crossings, Llansteffan and Ferryside have a slightly abandoned feel about them. There are people around and signs of the odd bucket and spade but it’s all very muted and low-key and a far cry from the thriving tourist trade enjoyed by both resorts back in the nineteenth century.
The railway arrived in Ferryside in 1852 but the massive influx of tourists wasn’t limited to the village on the eastern side of the Towy; a ferry carried passengers across the river to Llansteffan where the village expanded rapidly to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors.
Which got me wondering… if a ferry could be responsible for transforming the fortunes of two little Welsh seaside villages over a hundred and fifty years ago, why couldn’t this mode of transport do the same again? You’ve got to admit ferries are cheaper to introduce, far more environmentally friendly and certainly less controversial than HS2.
There’s nothing most holidaymakers like more than hopping onto a boat to go… well, anywhere; it’s the act of going to sea that matters more than the destination as the itineraries of many cruises testify.
The Isles of Scilly has built its tourist trade around boat trips. St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association operates ten boats, each carrying between 72 and 100 passengers. Prices have shot up since I worked at the Atlantic and Tregarthen’s hotels in the early 1980s (I think we paid about £1.20 per ticket… and as hotel staff we often got away with paying nothing at all) but it doesn’t seem to deter those queuing for tickets.
Holiday-makers pay up to £16 per ticket to head off to the out islands of Tresco, Agnes, St Martin’s and Bryher, or take a longer trip to Bishop Lighthouse or the Eastern Isles to watch seals and seabirds. And people don’t just do one of these boat trips per holiday; day after day, tourists of all ages and abilities, embark on yet another sea crossing.
It’s exactly the same at Padstow on the north Cornwall coast. When Harri and I were walking the South West Coast Path a few years ago, the weather was generally pretty awful but did it stop people queuing to catch the ferry across the Camel Estuary? No way! These folk were on holiday and they wanted to get out on those waves, even if it meant getting wet and windblown in the process.
The interesting thing about the Padstow-Rock ferry is that it operates seven days a week, all year round and runs roughly every 20 minutes from 8am. That’s an awful lot of passengers over a year and, though each day quite a few are likely to be long-distance hikers like ourselves, the statistics suggest most people visiting Padstow will embark on a boat trip across the estuary at some point in their holiday.
In England, there are ferries everywhere. The long-established South West Coast Path requires the crossing of many rivers and streams; in fact, someone walking the entire 630-mile length will find themselves using up to sixteen ferries.
For example, the official route of the coast path from Falmouth is to cross via ferry to St Mawes. I just checked Google Directions and a very rough estimate of the journey distance by foot (without using the ferry) was nearly 30 miles and that’s following roads rather than the more meandering footpaths.
You get my drift. Walk the coast in South West England and you get to cross the estuaries on ferries; walk the coastline of Wales and you face a lengthy inland hike of dubious scenic worth.
So what’s the solution?
I say we should campaign to bring back our Welsh ferries. I’m not an expert in estuarial waters but my experiences on the Isles of Scilly where boat routes were changed depending on tidal range (and, if all else failed, tourists were more than happy to ‘walk the plank’ to reach dry land) convince me that the re-introduction of ferries would be a popular move.
The Dyfi in North Wales is another Welsh estuary which has seen its ferry disappear and yet every summer thousands of holidaymakers flock to Aberdyfi and Ynyslas which face one another across the water but are 23 miles apart by road or foot.
Imagine how exciting it would be to reach Llansteffan on a sunny afternoon, knowing that Ferryside was within your reach that very same day. Think of all those holidaymakers looking for something to spend their hard-earned cash on and the locals who’d happily swap one seaside village for another for an afternoon.
Re-introducing boats to ferry people across Wales’s numerous estuaries would be a win-win decision.
I know we’ve been here before and my innovative idea to introduce rope bridges to the hillier regions of Wales hasn’t been seized upon by the Welsh Government, but I really do think I’ve hit upon a winner this time.
Imagine how much more fun walking the Wales Coast Path could be if, as well as the walking, there were countless opportunities to indulge our very human love affair with boats.
Despite my fear of finding myself in a field with a bull, I loved this sign we passed recently somewhere near Raglan. It just goes to show that some farmers do have a sense of humour!