It took a lot to get me to leave Laugharne, even for a day, though I lived there for three years. The strange, special township felt like a hideaway, or a hermitage. It lies at the bottom of a steep hill on a road that doesn’t really go anywhere else, beside a flood-prone branch of an estuary that looks like a jester’s hat. The dramatic tides, the castle ruins, the shimmering mudflats, the bosky summit of Sir John’s Hill: these were enough escape from my cockler’s cottage.
But I did get out, and I did see Carmarthenshire – because if not I might have followed all too closely the boozy routines, and final destiny, of Dylan Thomas, Laugharne’s most famous former resident. More to the point, I’d never have discovered the space and quiet beauty of one of Wales’s most unsung counties.
The bypassed county
Sir Gâr, as it’s known in Welsh, is bypassed by travellers because they have been sold the half-truth that all roads lead to Pembrokeshire. I also took those roads, and visited Tenby and Saundersfoot, St Davids and Fishguard, and I liked what I found. But they should not detract from the different kind of leisure, and pleasure, to be found in Carmarthenshire.
Most people arrive on the M4, which dies at Pont Abraham Services, north of Swansea, where the A48 takes over. Almost immediately the land is greener and steeper, emptier and – wind down the windows – breezier. Urban, industrial South Wales recedes and you prepare for an older, deeper Wales. The National Botanic Gardens is just off the road. It’s full of meadows, waterfalls, fruit trees and frilly flowers, some of them even Welsh ones: saxifrages, cotoneasters, native apples. They’re not from hereabouts, though; the sheep would have eaten them.
Roman relics and mythical wizards
South, via a little a loop, lies impressive Kidwelly Castle, where Norman conquerors, Welsh princes and Marcher lords holed up, and Cefn Sidan – “Silky Back” – where the wide beach glows when the sun is up. I walked the Wales Coast Path just after it opened in 2012, from Llanelli to Ferryside, through Pembrey and on to Ferryside; it’s flat, easy walking with some history points (Second World War pill boxes; two villages that claim to be where Amelia Earhart landed her sea-plane in 1928). Over the Loughor estuary – so many estuaries around here – lie the stranded Whiteford Lighthouse and the Gower peninsula.
A brief stop in Carmarthen might surprise some visitors (ex-bypassers, especially). Of course it has a castle, but it also has the ruins of the westermost amphitheatre in Roman Britain. Carmarthen was the civitas capital, or administrative hub, of the Celtic Demetae tribe, called Moridunum (“Sea Fort”). It may well be the oldest town in Wales. The market has Welsh cakes and pies. The Oriel Myrddin Gallery always shows provocative contemporary art exhibitions. Myrddin is Welsh for Merlin; the wizard hails from this ancient county.
The ‘lost’ peninsula that inspired Dylan Thomas
From the town head south to the peninsula of Llansteffan; even more overlooked than the rest of the county, it’s a lost, lovely idyll. Fern Hill Farm, which inspired Thomas’s famous poem, is in the village of Llangain. His aunt Annie lived there. Poet Lynette Roberts, who lived at Llanybri, penned powerful surrealist verses about the Swansea Blitz. At the southern tip is a gorgeous beach, another castle.
Now, north – to a vastness of villages. Cwmduad. Cynwyl Elfed. Gwyddgrug. Esgardawe. Get a local to say the names for you. The further you go from the sea the greater the distance from the Landsker Line demarcating the predominance of English and Welsh. Newcastle Emlyn, on the border with Ceredigion, has a lovely riverside, and tea and coffee shops. A few miles to the east, at the National Wool Museum, are looms, carding engines, spinning mules and blankets and shawls you just have to stroke.
Llandeilo and Llandovery are handsome market towns. Both are well-used by local farmers. The former is also chic and aspirational, with an array of independent shops, cafés, delis and a gin bar. Llandovery has wide streets, ideal for tractors and Defenders, and old-school pubs, butchers and bakers. Welsh hero, Llywelyn ap Gruffyd Fychan, who was hung, drawn and quartered in Llandovery’s main square for supporting Owain Glyndŵr, is commemorated by a stainless-steel statue.
From summit to shore
Prince Charles has his Welsh home at Llwynywermwd, close to Myddfai, which is famous for its herbalist physicians and a Lady of the Lake legend. The possible source of the latter, the glacial lake of Llyn y Fan Fach, is inside the Brecon Beacons. The eastern end of the mountain range tapers out in Carmarthenshire, but it does so with a great flourish; Picws Du and Fan Foel are stunning escarpments to see or scale.
After all this wild, green Welsh exposure you’ll be in need of a redoubt – and so to Laugharne. Thomas called its shoreline “heron-priested” but it is also crow-cackled and curlew-called. On calm summer days, at full tide, the water of the Tâf is a mirror, reflecting the poet’s Boathouse and writing shed above it. Under Milk Wood was envisioned here. At dawn and dusk, you can still spot ghosts of fishermen and washerwomen. The town climbs away from the sea, up to the pubs, chapel, shop and cemetery; here lie Dylan and his wife, Caitlin. Brown’s, the old inn where he supped (he gave out the landlord’s phone number as his own), is now a boutique hotel with a smart bar and restaurant; you might imagine yourself a bard after a few fingers of Penderyn whiskey.
The road that didn’t go anywhere does actually continue, to Pendine Sands. It’s a static caravans and fish and chips sort of place, with warm, gentle surf and a pub with tables on the prom. Above the resort is Ragwen Point, managed by the National Trust. A 2.5-mile walk takes in clifftops, beaches, an Iron Age hillfort, a medieval field system and a cove used in 1944 for D-Day exercises. The main strand, beloved of automotive history buffs nostalgic for land speed records, has always struck me as a place for slowness rather than haste. It’s seven miles long and very wide at low tide, and you can wander for hours without a care. It’s a half day’s easy strolling from here to the beginning of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path – but why join the crowds when you have all this to yourself?
Getting there and around
You’ll need a car if you plan to see anything of the interior. There are buses between Carmarthen and Newcastle Emlyn (17 miles, 70 mins) and Llandeilo (15.5 miles, 45 mins). The West Wales Line connects Carmarthen with Llanelli, Swansea, Cardiff, London and Manchester, and with the ports of Pembrokeshire. The picturesque Heart of Wales Line connects Llandeilo and Llandovery with Swansea and Shrewsbury. The Wales Coast Path runs all the way from Llanelli to Amroth, where the Pembrokeshire Coast Path begins.
Where to stay
Glangwili Mansion (glangwilimansion.co.uk), in the Gwili valley eight miles north of Carmarthen, makes for a lovely forest retreat. It has three plush suites, and a log cabin for alfresco dining. Doubles B&B from £120 per night; two-night minimum stay.
Eating and drinking
Y Polyn (ypolyn.co.uk) in Capel Dewi in the Towy Valley, is an unpretentious but locally esteemed family restaurant. Dine on the finest saltmarsh lamb, Welsh beef and free range belly pork on plain wood tables amid discreet décor. Nearby, in Llanarthne, Wright’s (shop.wrightsfood.co.uk) is great for lunches and take-away deli grub.
Chris Moss is the author of Wales Coast Path: Tenby-Swansea (Aurum Press)