The flags are flying at the surf hire van as there is a stiff breeze blowing. Walking briskly from the car park in Rest Bay, I set out through a field of Cat’s Ear and Bell Heathers, towards the WCP. I pass “The Rest” a care home, which has now closed and the property is for sale, and the “Royal Porthcawl Golf Club”. The club was founded in 1891 and the course was on Lock’s Common. In 1865 it moved to its present location. Royal status was conferred on the club by King Edward VII in 1909. It has held many prestigious events including the British Masters in 1961, the Curtis Cup in 1964 and the Walker Cup in 1995; it also hosted the2014 Senior Open Championship which will return in 2017.
I pick up the WCP signs and follow the path which is bordered by the usual coastal flora: Ragwort, Braken, Brambles, Bristly Oxtongue, Common Mouse-ear and Common Centaury. The council have done a cracking job on the path. It is either concrete or boardwalk with hand holds all along this stretch. Consequently there are numerous walkers some with their dogs.
The whole length has been colonised by many species of plants. They seem to be growing in waves of one type followed by another, and I don’t think it is by design but that the seeds have found their preferred habitat after the disturbance of laying the excellent pathway. Sea Beet and Common Hawkweed first take up the path side growth while the rocky side of the path sprouts random patches of Rock Samphire, Sea Rocket, Shrubby Sea-blight, Sea Spurge, Scentless Mayweed, Silverweed, Sea Plantain or Goose-tongue (Plantago maritima) and Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum). Further along the path the greens and fairways of the golf club are arrayed behind a palisade fence of rough thin logs. The contours of the course have dunes and scrub areas and also hummocks of purple heather and a large sign alerting you to the dangers of flying golf balls.
Grassed areas with pink Clover, Betony, Field Bindweed, Yarrow and Dandelions: this must be the second batch as the Spring, early Summer, ones have long gone. Many of these plants escaping and finding root among the pebbles. Rock pools have been left with the outgoing tide. Ffynnon-wen Rocks, the green pools of enticing mystery, beckon me but I resist as I have a long way to go before the end of my walk and I am unable to indulge in my passion for rock pooling. A duned area emerges with a different variety of plant: grasses in seed, Ribwort Plantain, Ragwort, Bracken, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Thrift and pink Clover. These plants are being visited by a number of butterflies and bees: Gatekeepers, Common Blues and Small Whites.
The boardwalk has Curled Dock, now in its last throes of growth, Marram-grass and Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) its flowers and dried lumpy multiple seed pods growing through the hand rails. In the near distance Sker House looms ominously. It is being restored and scaffolding cocoons its façade. In the further distance the smoke and towers of TATA steel works can just be seen. The Great House at Sker was founded 900 years ago by Cistercian Monks. In the 16th Century Jenkin Turberville massively altered the dwelling. It has been tenanted since the 17th Century but deteriorated dramatically in the 19th Century. Declared unsafe in 1977 it is now being restored; scaffolding now encases the whole property. Sker House was made famous by RD Blackmore in his book “The Maid of Sker”. After the Turbervilles vacated the estate it was taken over by Isaac Williams. It was his daughter, Elizabeth, who is believed to be “The Maid of Sker”. It is claimed that she fell in love with a carpenter Thomas Evan who composed a song “Y Ferch o’r Sker” for her. Isaac, however, forbade her to see him and forced her to marry Thomas Kirkhouse. This story or legend is very similar to one that I was brought up with, “The Maid of Cefn Ydfa” and the song written by Will Hopcyn a thatcher, for Ann Thomas was “Bugeilio Gwenith Gwyn” (“The White Wheat”).
At the end of the boardwalk is a life guard hut with characteristic red and yellow flag flying. It is strategically placed to oversee both the far end of Rest Bay and Sker Rocks. Sker Point is also accessible from here. Looking back into the bay there are a few walkers on the beach and wind surfers are skidding along in the sea. Sker Point is notorious for being the site of numerous shipwrecks. Ships floundered on the rocks due to storms or to the mischief caused by “Wreckers”. In December 1753 Le Vainqueur floundered; Isaac Williams, of Sker House, was accused with others of plundering her. In April 1947 The S.S. Samtampa was one of the worst maritime disasters to occur off the south Wales coastline. All the crew and 8 lifeboat men, from the Mumbles Lifeboat, perished on the rocks in atrocious weather conditions. There is a Memorial Plaque placed on the rocks at Sker Point. Wrecking and smuggling have taken place along this coastline for centuries. Wreckers tied lanterns to cattle leading them along the shoreline to lure ships on to the rocks, misleading them into thinking it was a safe anchorage. Also the small secret coves around this area were just the job for a bit of smuggling.
The path is now on rough grassed areas with dry-stone walls to one side and the rocks of Sker point on the other. Pockets of Sea Holly grow in a sandy region above the rocks, with Heathers and Cat’s Ears sprinkled in the short tufty grass. Sker House gets ever closer. The WCP is well sign-posted; the path swings inland for awhile.
Your eyes are treated to a unending vista; an expanse of grassland, blue sky and billowing clouds, interspersed with patches of Bracken and Ragwort. The grassed areas here are covered with small or tiny flowers: Clover, Yarrow, Common Mouse-ear, Self-heal, Common Restharrow and Cat’s Ear. Let us hope there is no argument between the Cat and Mouse Ears. Tucked in amongst the clover was an exquisite little plant Common Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). Common blue butterflies are flying around partaking the nectar from the Bird’s-foot Trefoils. There are also some mushrooms sprouting near a few molehills, possibly Fairy Ring Champignon (Marasmius oreades), although they do not look like they are arrayed in a ring. As I am pondering the name of the mushroom I hear some loud screeching. Here is a surprise. An Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) floats down onto the grass in front of me, about 20 meters away, a large black and white bird with a long red beak and pink legs, broad white stripe along each wing and its rump is also white. A lovely looking creature.
Just before entering the Kenfig Warren via a swing gate are clumps of Burnet Rose with berries and Ladies Bedstraw. At the gate views of Kenfig Sands, Margam Steel Works and further afield Swansea and the Mumbles appear. Through the gate and you are faced with the sand dunes covered in Sea Holly in flower, Marram and other sea grasses. Loads of plants peep through these: Common Restharrow, Bracken, Burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga), and Dewberries (Rubus flagellaris) with fruit are running amuck. Another life guard hut sits on the top of a dune overlooking the Kenfig Sands and once again there are horses and their riders enjoying the gallop across the sand.
The paths are now sandy, followed shortly by gravel ones, which are speckled with Clover, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Common Stork’s-bill and Silverweed; these take you along the edge of Kenfig Warren. You need to cross the dunes to get into the heart of them. Dried Thrift, Sea Spurge, Vipers Bugloss, Sea Rocket, Fleabane, with Evening Primrose, Yellow Rattle and Irises in seed, all growing in profusion. In fact you can hear the Yellow Rattle as great swathes of their dried calyx are blown by the wind, the seeds within begin to rattle, thus its common name.
A signpost with a map indicates where you are and you have a choice here, wheather to continue following the usual blue and yellow WCP Shell-dragon or take the alternate WCP by following an orange and yellow Shell-dragon. I decide to take the alternate path which will lead me through Kenfig Warren over the dunes towards Kenfig Pool.
Much of this path runs parallel to a bridle path upon which are a few horses with riders. This habitat introduces me to a whole different set of plants. First up is the Lesser Sea or Sand Spurrey (Spergularia marina) a dainty pink flowered plant with fleshy leaves. Then some Burnet-saxifrage followed by delicious mats of Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus) whose pink and red flowers are nestled in close to the fleshy leaves. The narrow sandy paths, which are often dug into the dune, lead past dried or nearly dried marshland. Here Reed Mace or Bulrushes (Typha latifolia), Curled Dock, Fleabane, Water Mint (Mentha aquatica), Sharp Rush (Juncus acutus, Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris)and more Burnet-saxifrage edge flat open spaces of wet sand. While the whole dune system is an undulating carpet of colour and texture, it is covered with grasses and punctuated with all sorts of wild plants: Agrimony, Rosebay Willowherb, Great Willowherb, Yellow Rattle seed heads, Viper’s Bugloss, Bittersweet with red berries, Goat’s Beard (Tragopogon pratensis), Imperforate St. John’s Wort (Hypericum maculatum), Autumn Hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis), Agrimony in seed, Knapweed, Hemp Agrimony, Bush Vetch, Ragwort, and bushes of Burnet Rose, Blackthorn with and without berries. The creeping Dewberries are everywhere, lots of tasty berries to eat. There are Wayfaring bushes with berries, Ferns both Male Fern, Polypoidy and Hart’s- tongue and, swaying in the wind are small Popular Trees (Populus species).
Resting or flying or jumping amongst the vegetation or upon the sand are Grasshoppers, green and brown ones, and a number of Butterflies which were not easy to catch on camera. There were Common Graylings (Hipparchia semele), Gatekeepers and Wall Browns (Pararge megera) flitting about.
The Vastness of the Dunes
The Dried Bog Areas
Veering away from the proscribed path I headed towards Kenfig Pool. Kenfig area is surrounded by myth and mystery and a local legend is associated with Kenfig Pool. It is said that a city lies beneath the waters and a bell can be heard tolling when a storm is imminent. There were many adults and children playing near a sandy section that gave access to the pool. Surprisingly there was also a horse up to his withers in water. Signs warn people not to walk through the reed-beds between March and July for fear of harming the wild-life. Large stands of Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and Sea Club-rush (Bolboschoenus maritimus) congregate around the pool, creating another habitat for a wide range of other plants and animals. There is a Hide on one section of the pool where you can observe the wild-life without disturbance. Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) and Rosebay Willowherb flowers make a striking contrast to the vast stretches of reeds. In shadier places some Redshank (Persicaria maculosa) are proliferating together with Fleabane and Hemp Agrimony. Near more boggy ground there are large quantities of fluffy white heads of Cotton–grass (Eriophorum augustifolium) blowing in the breeze. It looks like as if someone has thrown a giant bag of cotton wool balls across the area. The flying fauna was also varied with a number of Dragonflies and Damselflies, Butterflies and Fowl. I saw blue Damselflies, a yellow Four-spot Chaser (Libellula Quadrimaculata), a blue Skimmer (Libellulidae),a brown Dragonfly, a beautiful Common Blue (Polyommatus icaris) and I think a Lesser Marbled Fritillary(Brenthis ino). On the lake and in the air were Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), Seagulls, Swans and a Grey Heron(Ardea cinerea). In the clear water were small brown fish swimming amongst the detritus and mud.
The Pool and Reed Beds
Much as I was reluctant to leave the Pool, I then walked towards the Nature Reserve Visitor Centre. Nettles, Mugwort and Ragwort stood out along the path as did a splash of red which turned out to be Crocosmia Lucifer. What an unusual sight. Somebody must have planted some corms. Hidden in the undergrowth were Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill, small Common Mallow, Hare’s-foot Clover and Bird’s-foot Trefoil. The Nature Reserve Buildings were opened by Iolo Williams in September 2007.Disappointingly the Visitors Centre was closed due to Council budget cuts; the toilets were open though. An imposing wooden carved figure stands outside the centre.
The medieval town of Kenfig has now vanished. Founded by Robert Earl of Gloucester about 1145, it was abandened in 1439 due to the encroachment of the sand and persistent flooding. Kenfig was one of the largest towns in Glamorgan in the middle of the 14th century. It was an important trading and manufacturing centre people sold their wares at a weekly market: leather working, Cordwainers and Glovers.
The flora and fauna of the area were destroyed by the Settlement of Kenfig. The rough pasture used for livestock and a commercial rabbit warren damaged the fragile vegetation allowing the encroachment of sand. The coastal flooding and abnormal high tides, in the 14th century, accelerated the sand movement and led to the the final demise of the town. To halt the relentless movement of sand, rushes (Arunda arenia)were planted over a number of years. Kenfig Pool and the Dunes were thus estabalised in the 17th century. This allowed the vegetation to flourish; few areas of open sand now exist and movement of the Dunes has ceased.
I then made my way to the Prince of Wales for some light refreshment. You guessed, a half of cider, but only crisps were available as the cook had left; they would not serve food until the evening. The Prince of Wales is a very old watering hole. It was originally called Ty Newydd, but in 1769 it changed name. It was the Town Hall where manorial courts were held and its use as a schoolroom can be traced as far back as 1672. Not surprisingly for this area, the place is said to be haunted. I look across Kenfig Pool as the light was diminishing – eerie. So it was homeward bound after another interesting day.
Wales Coast Path Region H map 98