Waterlog 7: Laugharne and Pendine Sands

Rhossili from Pendine Sands

Skirting the edge of an MoD firing range, I emerged on the very tip of the Laugharne estuary. Laying my bike down in the long grass, I walked out on to Pendine sands. To my left the sea swept in to meet the river Taf as it flowed past St Clears and Dylan Thomas’ Laugharne. Ahead of me across the waters was the split pyramid of Rhossilli Down and the long, rearing line of Worm’s Head. To my right, the bare flat expanse of sands swept along the coast as far as the eye could see. The monastic bulk of Bardsey Island was an offshore silhouette. Any human figures nearby were nothing but coloured dots on the great expanse of flat, hard sand.

At least I won’t have to change into my swimming costume underneath one of those awkward towel kilts, I thought approvingly. Then, inevitably: If the beach is this deserted, do I really need a swimming costume?

It wasn’t even the most unusual thing I’d done that day.

Laugharne Castle

2014 is Dylan Thomas’ centenary year, and the whole of South Wales has been putting on events to celebrate the life of her most famous poet. I’d spent a fun weekend previously exploring the sites of his Swansea childhood, but the lack of easy public transport to Laugharne had always put me off exploring the famous house of his great late poems. I had a friend in the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, however, who’d offered to show me round, I’d been meaning to get back into doing a few long, exploratory cycle routes, and one Sunday I found myself with nothing to do. So I set my alarm clock for the perverse hour of 5:30am, and made the 7:10 train to Carmarthen.

It was a hilarious train, full of bleary drunken wrecks from Neath and Port Talbot who’d obviously gone into Cardiff to party on Saturday night and never gone to bed. They were extremely noisy, then comatose, then shambling suddenly out when we pulled into their station.

I emerged at Carmarthen, and set off promptly westward, towards St Clears. Typically of the consideration that road planners show to cyclists, there was a bike route running along the north side of the A40 for roughly three-quarters of the way to St Clears, and the Celtic trail on the south side – but did they meet in the middle? No, that would have been too easy. Instead I had the choice of a long and mountainous detour or a mile of unpleasant cycling along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway. The detour was marginally the worse option, but once I’d made it into St Clears, it was a shorter, quieter southward haul. One more nightmare hill and I was freewheeling from Cross Inn downhill into shoreside Laugharne.

The Boys of Brown’s Hotel

You know how sometimes you go to places you’ve read about, seen on TV and visited many times in your imagination? And when you get there it’s grey and drizzly and full of litter and unhappy people? Laugharne was nothing like that. Clouds scudded across the sun now and again, but the windfall light of the day was exactly that which gleams in Dylan’s poems. Sir John’s Hill, on the headland, was exactly as I’d imagined it; the Boathouse itself was exactly the ‘house on stilts high among beaks and palavers of birds’, ‘by full tilt river and switchback sea’. I went for an afternoon drink in Brown’s Hotel, one of Dylan Thomas’ favourite watering holes, and shared a pint with a group of men who appeared to have escaped from the pages of Under Milk Wood circa 1950, and defied all efforts to corral them in again. And there were surprises, too: Laugharne Castle, which no poem or memoir had warned me of, was a wonderful rambling boys-own ruin to scramble across.

Kieran and Dylan Thomas. See the resemblance?

I’m fortunate enough to have studied English Literature at University with Kieran, who works at the Boathouse. He bears such an uncanny resemblance to the Augustus John portrait of Thomas that one is tempted to enquire into the amours of his grandmothers. Thanks to him, I got to look around for free, a free espresso and a batch of welsh cakes wrapped in tinfoil. He subjected me to a Dylan Thomas quiz, which I failed miserably, and advised me to cycle further on to Pendine sands and take my swim there, rather than use the murkier waters of the estuary.

To the end of his life, Dylan Thomas was proud of his running prowess, having won the ‘Swansea Mile’ race when he was 14. It needs more research than I’m prepared to do for this blog to determine whether he was much of a swimmer, as well. One tends to imagine him with his limbs sprawling out of the bath, the typewriter plonked on his stomach and a cigarette lolling out of his mouth, not breasting the choppy Welsh sea with a strong front crawl. But his poems are full of the primal energy of the ‘tusked, ramshackling sea’ ‘that hides his secret selves deep in its black base bones,’ and in his short stories and memoirs you often find him beside Rhossilli, or Swansea Bay, exulting in the wildness of the waves or treasuring a sullen Byronic melancholy. The long horizons of Pendine Sands dwarfed and daunted me, too long and flat for my weak strain of poetry to take much purchase, but I felt sure Dylan would have struck an attitude fit for it.

Naked I plunged into the greyish, leek-and-potato sea, and did a few strokes out and back, secure in the opaque waves as a dog-walking jogger grew from a dot to a pin to a person and shrank back again to a dot. Once I was safe, I emerged and jogged speedily towards my clothes, foolishly left a good way out of the water’s reach, and part-buried in spindrift sand. After I’d shaken the sand from my cycling shorts, pulled on a t-shirt and munched a few welsh cakes, I set off back towards Carmarthen. As I left Laugharne behind me once again, I heard three shrill skyborne cries, and twisted my neck to see a hawk hovering above me. Like everything in Laugharne, it seemed to have leapt straight from Dylan Thomas’ imagination into the modern day.

Over Sir John’s Hill
The hawk on fire hangs still;
In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls to his claws
And gallows, up the rays of his eyes the small birds of the bay
And the shrill child’s play
Of the sparrows and such who swan sing, dusk, in wrangling hedges.


Waterlog 3: Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula, South Wales

WaterlogRecently, I’ve been reading Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, a potent and poetic defence of our right to swim anywhere we please – in ponds, in rivers, in the sea – anywhere that looks cool and inviting, and several that look downright perishing! I now know to ignore the omnipresent threatening signs warning of the risk of Leptospirosis (chances of actually catching it – 1 in 33,000) and take my dip anywhere I please. In fairness, I ignored them anyway – but it’s nice to have some expert backing.

In that vein, I thought I’d write up some of my favourite bathing places throughout the British Isles.

Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula 

English: Worm's Head, Gower. Taken by me flyin...

The Gower peninsula is an extraordinary place. A big comma on the South Wales coastline between Swansea bay and Cardigan bay, it offers largely untouched countryside, one of the many candidates for the grave of King Arthur and the best surfing beaches in Wales. The favourite place both for swimming and surfing is Rhossili beach, at the far end of the peninsula, a long straight stretch of sand facing out directly to the west, flanked at either end by two small islands with tidal causeways: Burry Holms to the north, and Worm’s Head to the south.

One of my great regrets about leaving Cardiff was that I never, in three years, managed to get to the end of Worm’s Head, a long, snaky ribbon of bright green grass extending out into sea. Once I got as far as the inner head, a ludicrously steep dinosaur spine of a hill that confronts you as you cross the causeway. Then, however, the tide came back in, and we had to rush back across before we were cut off. The far end of the peninsula remains a mystery to me, fitfully illuminated by long hours gazing at Ordnance Survey maps, or re-reading Dylan Thomas’s classic short story ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’.

I’ve swum twice off Rhossili beach. The first time was on May 3rd, 2010 – I remember this particularly because it was 200 years since Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, the tumultuous Turkish strait dividing Europe from Asia. He was in good, romantic company – the legendary lover Leander is supposed to have swum across each night to visit his lover Hero, swimming back the next morning, until his amorous career was cut short by a tragic, but entirely predictable, death by drowning. Byron survived the feat, which he immortalised in a witty minor gem of a poem. I was not out to do anything so staggering, but a commemorative swim seemed in order, and the weather was most propitious. It was a warm day, and lunching on Rhossili Down I saw my first swallow of the summer. By the time we reached the beach, I was very keen for a swim – and it just so happened that the tide had come in far enough to cut Burry Holms off from the mainland. I swam out through the cool salt water in a Byronic breaststroke, and managed to land on the island without losing any skin to the rocks, which is always the trickiest part. I wandered up and down, waving at my friends back on the mainland, trying to avoid stepping on stinging nettles and wondering how it would feel to have swum the 3 mile distance from Europe to Asia, and swum back again, enjoying the small act of homage to my favourite poet.

Eighteen months later, in November of 2011, I wasn’t expecting to go swimming at all. I had no towel, no swimming trunks, nothing. It was too cold, I told myself, and I was a solemn third year undergraduate now. I was leading walks, armed with map and compass, instead of faithfully following on behind. A little Byronic posing on exposed pinnacles was all I could expect. But fate brought me two people equally as crazy as I was, keen to make the most of the fading Autumn warmth. With Rob I shared a tendency to sandpaper stubbliness, and a love of intrepid, broad-brimmed hats. On the way up, I nicknamed him Ragdoll for his habit of flopping forward bonelessly whenever I applied the brakes. Then there was Lauren, who had proposed the swim at lunch, as if sea-bathing in November was the most natural thing in the world. Before her slow, mischievous smile all the practical difficulties seemed as nothing. As we plunged together into the icy November sea, jumping and splashing and spluttering, I bethought myself of the words of J.K. Rowling:

There are some things you can’t share without liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

This, I decided, was another.