It’s been two weeks since my last post and you’ll be glad to hear that I’ve washed off the mud and managed to stay upright. I haven’t fallen, slipped or sunk into a bog – mainly because we’ve stuck to local walks that we know well, and taken advantage of some gorgeous weather:The view towards Table Mountain and Pen Cerrig Calch above Crickhowell on a warm, hazy day a week ago
Across the meadows from Llangattock to Crickhowell
September always seems to be a particularly busy month, probably because of the ‘back-to-school’ feeling that makes me want to rush off to the nearest stationery shop and stack up with paper, pens and colouring pencils, even though I’ve no need of them. There’s a sense of expectancy in the air, as though something’s about to happen. It’s the time of the harvest (the Welsh for September is mis Medi, the Month of Reaping), and as such it’s a great time to celebrate the bounty of the land. The Abergavenny Food Festival is always held in the middle of the month and we’ve been going for several years, even when we lived in far off Cardiff. For some reason the sun almost always shows its face – I can only remember one rainy festival. For two days the streets of the town are given over to the worship of food and drink and a darned good time is had by one and all.
The Market Hall is decorated by large animal sculptures hanging from the ceiling – in previous years we’ve had fish, pigs and farmyard birds. This year it was owls…
while over at the castle grounds there were climbing goats…
One of the great things about Wales is its diversity. From mountain walks to food festivals, from riverside strolls to the theatre, from history to the beach. We began this month with me flat on my backside in a high-level bog then enjoyed foodie days at St Fagan’s and in Abergavenny. We ambled around our local lanes, meadows and the banks of the Usk river, before I deserted Michael for a night of tapas and opera with friends in Cardiff – which was also celebrating the centenary of Roald Dahl, who’d been born in the city. Then a few days ago we drove down to Carmarthenshire, one of the prettiest counties in the country. The weather poppets had gleefully announced that – Autumn Equinox or not – the rain would stay away and the temperatures would be gentle. Just what was needed for our final beach visit this side of the great winter divide.
It wasn’t going to be hot enough to lounge in deckchairs for hours so we decided to combine the seaside with some other attractions. What else but a castle or two? The difficulty is choosing, because ruins litter this part of the country. The Normans arrived in the final quarter of the eleventh century and quickly set about imposing themselves on the locals, as they’d already done in England. One of their first tasks was to seize control of the major river crossings, which they did by erecting earth and timber forts, later to be rebuilt in stone. Looking at the map (something I’m guessing the Normans wouldn’t have been able to do) we decided to start with Llansteffan on the banks of the Tywi estuary.At Llansteffan on the banks of the Tywi, looking north towards Carmarthen
Set high above the river mouth, the site had previously been used as an Iron Age fort and it wouldn’t have taken a military genius to recognize the location as being superb for a frontier keep. As with most of these fortresses it was attacked repeatedly and changed hands between Norman lords and Welsh princes several times, including an assault by Owain Glyndŵr. The last owner was Jasper Tudor, Welsh uncle of Henry VII, who eventually allowed the place to fall into disrepair.The inner ward of Llansteffan castle
Llansteffan’s view across the River Tywi
It’s a great place to visit on a sunny day, mainly because of its position, but if you like medieval history there’s plenty to see. I’m not a castle expert so I’ll just say that it’s possible to clamber over walls and down staircases, peer at murder holes and gape at gatehouses that held enormous portcullises and so on. And it’s also good exercise because you have to leave the car at the bottom of the hill!The view from the castle across Carmarthen Bay
From Llansteffan we made our way across to Kidwelly Castle on the other side of the river. According to my companion, the Googlemap app, this paltry 17 miles would take us 58 minutes. Rubbish, I thought. Which just goes to show that Googlemaps knows more than I do. It actually took us just over 60 minutes because I put down the phone as we arrived in Kidwelly high street. When we appeared to be travelling back out of town I retrieved the phone and realized that we’d driven straight past the castle. A difficult thing to do, given its size and central location, but we’d managed it. The imposing gatehouse of Kidwelly Castle
Kidwelly Castle was built by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, in 1106 – who was clearly like no bishop you or I can think of today. Roger was a favourite of Henry I of England (the third Norman king) who very kindly bestowed upon him the lordship of the coastal plain of south west Wales. As well as the castle, Roger founded a priory on the site of an older church, and a walled town around the castle was established by 1115. The streets and hedgerows of Kidwelly still follow the medieval plan.The remains of the South Gate of the town
This is a really impressive castle, as ruined castles go. Lurking behind the main street of a sleepy town in west Wales, it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood. People who are in the know rate this as a brilliant example of the development of fortified strongholds. I’ll take their word for it – what I can say is that it seems very complicated to me, with a much busier layout than Llansteffan.
Just like Llansteffan, ownership of the fortress at Kidwelly bounced to and fro for centuries between the local rulers and the incomers, in territories where battles were too numerous to count. One that we know about occurred in 1136 when a large force of Anglo-Normans led by Maurice de Londres arrived in the area to tackle welsh ‘rebels’. Gruffydd ap Rhys, the Prince of Deheubarth, was in North Wales and so his wife Gwenllian organised the Welsh fighters in defence of their lands. Sadly for Gwenllian she lost the encounter close to Kidwelly and was beheaded there, just outside the castle. There’s a memorial slab dedicated to her near the gatehouse and of course there are claims that her ghost has been seen walking the streets of the town…possibly searching for her head.
Time was moving on and we were getting hungry so we left Kidwelly and its bloody past in search of lunch. Another 50 minutes or so and we were driving along lanes of the north-west corner of the Gower Peninsula, before arriving at the King’s Head pub in Llangennith. Fish and chips was the order of the day and whilst we waited for our food we amused ourselves by watching a collection of cows slowly munching their way around the grass verges of the village.
Finally we made it to the beach, which is at the far end of the more famous Rhosili.
As you’d expect, with the school holidays over and the Autumn Equinox behind us, there weren’t too many other folk on the beach. Surfers, of course – how could there not be? We walked for a while, collecting shells and sidestepping some dead jelly fish. Someone once told me that the Welsh word for jellyfish is pysgod wibli wobli. I don’t know if it’s true but I really, really hope it is.The Worm’s Head Peninsula, seen from Llangennith beach.
So another day bit the dust; an hour and forty minutes after leaving the sands of the Gower we were walking through our garden gate in the Black Mountains on the eastern side of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Not that I’m smug…
Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air
Ralph Waldo Emerson