It’s hard to remember a time when the Welsh landscape looked more parched and this week’s circular route from Ogmore only served to remind us how many crops must have been lost this summer due to the lack of rain.
As a hiker and runner, I’ve been enjoying this summer’s endless sunshine; however, there is a darker side to the long spell of good weather. Over the past few weeks, firefighters have been battling day and night to put out a series of wildfires on our local mountains. Worryingly, the fire service believes some of the largest fires at Cwmcarn and Twmbarlwm were started deliberately. It’s hard to believe anyone’s idea of fun could be to devastate the natural landscape thus killing thousands of innocent creatures who have no means of escape, endangering the lives of fire fighters and local people and destroying much-loved local walking and cycling areas (and putting many local businesses at risk).
The increasing likelihood of encountering wild fires is one of the reasons we steered clear of the mountains again today. Oh, and the fact that the weather was once again more like the Algarve I never tire of walking the Glamorgan Heritage Coast so I had no qualms about returning to this beautiful stretch of the Welsh coastline for the second weekend running.
We parked on a dusty, potholed car park sandwiched between the B4524 and the Ogwr river to avoid the £6 parking fee which is now standard if you stay for more than an hour anywhere near the coast in the Vale of Glamorgan. The sand and the grass – now the same colour as wheat – were hard to differentiate.
In recent weeks, the Welsh landscape has been transforming in front of our eyes as the familiar lush vegetation has become ever more parched. Generally, on summer hikes, Harri and I have had to fight our way through ferns and brambles. Not this year. Here, close to the coast, the only plants that were thriving in the heat were towering purple thistles.
The dramatic – and almost unprecedented – changes to the landscape are stark reminder of what long-term climate change will mean to Wales’ flora and fauna. Because it’s not only the vegetation that is affected by the heatwave. It was barely ten o’clock and already the sheep had abandoned the common to vie for the shadiest spots against drystone walls and under stunted trees.
Soon we reached St Bride’s Major, a charming, historic village with a pond, a pub and various other facilities. It’s the kind of place we’d happily live if we were ever to win the Lottery … close to the sea but not too remote.There’s also a delightful village pond, not unlike those you stumble upon in France.
We clambered over a historic stone stile and followed a footpath through a succession of fields where the crops – mostly wheat – were in various stages of desiccation and presumably no longer worth harvesting.
The shade of Slade Wood came as a relief, though the name of the valley intrigued Harri’s semantic curiosity. Pant y Slade combines Welsh and English to produce a tautological place name, i.e. pant is the Welsh word for a hollow valley, while slade is an old English word for a narrow, wooded valley.
Of course, another drawback of this glorious weather is the increase in insects, in particular the nasty horse flies which have apparently reached Mediterranean levels in the UK. I hadn’t long recovered from a painful batch of bites on my upper arms gained on an evening walk with Harri around Rhiwderin, so I was not amused when I felt the now-familiar acute pain in my calf. Twisting to inspect the damage, I saw blood trickling down my leg.
We emerged from the woods in front of Dunraven Estate’s gatehouse, which is reasonably well-preserved considering the fate of the castle itself. Of course, it wasn’t a real castle that stood high on the cliffs above Southerndown, but a castellated manor house – and one I’d love to have seen before it was bulldozed to the ground (yes, really!) in the 1960s. There are some excellent interpretation boards dotted around the few remaining walls and staircases, with photographs showing how the ‘castle’ looked when it was a guest house. There’s an interesting article about the fate of Dunraven Castle on historian Louvain Rees’ website.
Unfortunately for us, what must once have been a busy route across the valley had deteriorated into an eight-metre wide stretch between a drystone wall full of finches and a wire fence. The ground underfoot was uneven, rocky and covered in thistles, making our progress slow. I was forced to stop every few minutes to remove prickly bits of vegetation from my socks!
At last we reached the coast and immediately joined the Wales Coast Path at Cwm Mawr (big valley), where a steep descent into a wooded valley was a welcome reprieve from the sun’s rays. We crossed a stream bed, where the only sign of water was a deep puddle directly under a wooden bridge. Soon we were back on the coast in a vast, undulating field grazed by sheep, though I was a little alarmed when I realised there was nothing to stop us (or the sheep) disappearing over the cliff edge if we inadvertently veered too close. It was quite a terrifying thought when you consider the height of the cliffs in these parts … I made a mental note to walk at least ten metres from what I could confidently define as solid ground.
It was nearly noon, so we stopped for elevenses on a grassy headland and lazed around watching passing yachts and darting butterflies. A young couple walked past and exchanged greetings with us before inexplicably leaving the waymarked coast path to descend steeply into the neighbouring valley (the one where there’s two scary ladders leading to the beach). As they struggled up the equally steep opposite slope, we wondered if perhaps the Wales Coast Path signage wasn’t sufficiently clear (or has been removed with malintent) because the actual coast path remains high on the cliffs with minimal amount of descent/ascent. Thankfully, I can generally trust Harri to stick to the most sensible route.
Eventually it was time to get going again. It’s quite nerve wracking to stroll along cliff tops with absolutely nothing to stop you straying over the edge … except common sense! With low tide approaching, the rocky platforms and exposed sands looked a long way down.
At last it was time to begin the steep descent to Cwm Nash. It was here we found an enormous ammonite last summer. Unfortunately, there are no definite footpaths across rock platforms and, although we kept our eyes firmly peeled, we weren’t able to spot it this time round.
Our plan was to walk along the beach all the way to Dunraven before climbing back up onto the cliffs to get around the headland. Considering there’s no car park at Cwm Nash, the pebble beach at Traeth Mawr was remarkably busy with family groups, couples and dog walkers.
It was wonderful to breathe in the deliciously, salty sea air, to feel the warm breeze against our faces as we stepped across the rocks, our feet crunching onto tiny encrusted shells. It’s impossible not to revert to childhood when you’re around rock pools and Harri and I were soon looking into the shallow waters to see what was lurking within them. The answer was mostly anemones, undersized mussel shells and tiny darting fish. The sole crab we spotted was dead, as was a star fish washed up onto the sand.
The sand along this stretch of coastline is completely submerged at high tide so we walked on wet sand, with the occasional patches of soft, warm mud, staying well away from the infamously unstable cliffs. People die on these beaches as a result of falling rocks. In 2015, a 23-year-old woman sitting 18 feet away from the cliff was killed when several rocks fell on her. The best strategy is to stay well clear and walk along the water’s edge.
Another word of warning: the stretch of beach between Traeth Mawr and Traeth Bach has become an unofficial naturist beach, which means you might well run into a naked body or two (in our case, the body count was five). Had I known this in advance, I might not have been so surprised when I spotted what looked to be two naked men walking towards me. I’m afraid I might have stared a little longer than was probably polite while I tried to determined whether they were wearing flesh-coloured swimwear … or nothing at all!
Harri went for a much-anticipated pre-lunch swim, while I was tempted into the shallows of the Bristol Channel for the first time this year (possibly this century). Incredibly, the water was as warm as the Mediterranean, though not quite as enticing.
Further along the beach, our curiosity was piqued by a moss-covered section of cliff dripping with water. There must be underwater streams running through the rock strata, because there’s little water in any above-ground streams at the moment.
With the tide still low, Harri asked what I thought about us trying to make our way around the rocky headland to Southerndown rather than ascending the steep footpath to the cliff top. If it meant avoiding a climb I was up for it! Unfortunately, our ‘short cut’ proved much harder than we’d envisaged and we hadn’t gone far before we reached an impasse. Not one to be easily deterred, Harri suggested we climbed a little higher to avoid several watery inlets. Again, it seemed a good idea until the way ahead again dropped into the sea. Halfway around the headland by now, our easiest option was to clamber up more rock strata to the grassy track above. If the plan was to avoid having to climb to the top of the headland, we failed miserably, but other than abseiling, it was the only way to reach Southerndown without retracing our steps entirely.
Southerndown is an interesting place. There’s nothing much there except a large amount of parking, an ice-cream shop and a toilet block. There’s not even a beach at high tide, but still the crowds flock here. It must be all down to the prettiness of the landscape and the ruined Dunraven Castle (and its pretty gardens) on the hill.
The stretch of coastal footpath between Southerndown and Ogmore is extremely popular and relatively easy (once you’ve climbed out of Southerndown). We queued for ice lollies at Ogmore and paused briefly to enjoy them in the late afternoon sunshine.
You can’t beat the Welsh seaside on a hot, sunny day!
The hot weather is making us lazy. Today’s walk was just under 19km. Click here for our route.