It was hard for me to leave Laugharne, even for a day, even though I lived there for three years. The strange and special township felt like a hideaway or a hermitage. It sits at the bottom of a steep hill on a road that doesn’t really go anywhere else, next to a branch of a flood-prone estuary that looks like a jester’s hat. The dramatic tides, the castle ruins, the shimmering marshes, the wooded summit of Sir John’s Hill – all this was enough escape from my cockle hut.
But I did go out and watch Carmarthenshire, because if not, I might have been following too closely the drunken routines and ultimate fate of Dylan Thomas, Laugharne’s most famous former resident. More to the point, he would never have discovered the space and quiet beauty of one of Wales’s least recognized counties.
The overlooked county
Sir Gâr, as he is known in Welsh, is overlooked by travelers 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 liked what I found. But they shouldn’t detract from the different kinds of leisure and pleasure to be found in Carmarthenshire.
Most people arrive via the M4, which ends at Pont Abraham Services, north of Swansea, where the A48 takes over. Almost immediately, the land is greener and steeper, emptier and, roll down the windows, windier. Urban, industrial South Wales recedes and you prepare for an older, deeper Wales. The National Botanical Garden is just off the road. It is full of meadows, waterfalls, fruit trees and frilly flowers, some even Welsh: saxifrage, cotoneasters, indigenous apple trees. Although they are not from around here; the sheep would have eaten them.
Roman relics and mythical wizards
To the south, through a small loop, is the impressive castle of Kidwelly, where the Norman conquerors, Welsh princes and lords of the march took refuge, and Cefn Sidan, “Silky Back”, where the wide beach shines when the sun rises I walked the Wales Coast Path just after it opened in 2012, from Llanelli to Ferryside, through Pembrey and onto Ferryside; it’s flat, easy to walk with some historical landmarks (pill boxes from WWII; two towns that claim to be where Amelia Earhart landed her seaplane in 1928). Above the Loughor Estuary, so many estuaries around here, are the beached Whiteford Lighthouse and the Gower Peninsula.
A brief stop in Carmarthen might surprise some visitors (especially former passers-by). Of course it has a castle, but it also has the ruins of the westernmost amphitheater in Roman Britain. Carmarthen was the civitas capital, or administrative center, of the Celtic tribe Demetae, called Moridunum (“Fort of the sea”). It is quite possible that it is the oldest city in Wales. The market has Welsh cakes and pastries. The Oriel Myrddin Gallery always shows provocative exhibitions of contemporary art. 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 Llansteffan peninsula; even more overlooked than the rest of the county, it’s a lost and enchanting idyll. Fern Hill Farm, which inspired Thomas’ famous poem, is in the village of Llangain. His aunt Annie of his lived there. The poet Lynette Roberts, who lived in Llanybri, wrote powerful surreal lines about the Swansea Blitz. At the southern end there is a beautiful beach, another castle.
Now, to the north, to an immensity of towns. Cwmduad. Cynwyl Elf. Gwyddgrug. Esgardawe. Have a local say the names for you. The farther you go from the sea, the greater the distance from the Landsker Line that marks the predominance of English and Welsh. Newcastle Emlyn, on the border with Ceredigion, has a beautiful riverfront and tea and coffee shops. A few kilometers to the east, at the National Wool Museum, there are looms, carding machines, spinning mules, and blankets and shawls that you just have to caress.
Llandeilo and Llandovery are beautiful market towns. Both are well used by local farmers. The former is also stylish and aspirational, with a variety of independent shops, cafes, delicatessens and a gin bar. Llandovery has wide streets, ideal for tractors and Defenders, and old school pubs, butchers and bakeries. The Welsh hero, Llywelyn ap Gruffyd Fychan, who was hanged, quartered and quartered in Llandovery’s main square for supporting Owain Glyndŵr, is commemorated by a stainless steel statue.
From the top to the shore
Prince Charles makes his Welsh home at Llwynywermwd, near Myddfai, famous for its herbal doctors and a Lady of the Lake legend. The possible source of the latter, the glacial lake of Llyn y Fan Fach, is within the Brecon Beacons. The eastern end of the range narrows at Carmarthenshire, but it does so with great flourish; Picws Du and Fan Foel are impressive cliffs to see or climb.
After all this wild and green Welsh exposure, he’ll need a holdout, and so will Laugharne. Thomas called his coast “priest of herons”, but he also laughs at crows and is called a curlew. On calm summer days, when the tide is full, the water of the Tâf is a mirror reflecting the poet’s boathouse and the writing shed above it. under wood milk was planned here. At dawn and dusk you can still see the ghosts of fishermen and washerwomen. The town rises from the sea, to the taverns, chapel, store and cemetery; here lie Dylan and his wife, Caitlin. Brown’s, the former inn where he dined (he gave the owner’s phone number as his own), is now a boutique hotel with a stylish bar and restaurant; you could imagine yourself a bard after a few fingers of Penderyn whiskey.
The road that went nowhere actually continues, to Pendine Sands. It’s kind of a static caravan and fish and chip place, with warm, gentle waves and a pub with tables on the waterfront. Above the complex is Ragwen Point, managed by the National Trust. A 2.5-mile hike takes in cliffs, beaches, an Iron Age hillfort, a medieval field system, and a cove used in 1944 for D-Day exercises. The main thread, loved by nostalgic car history buffs of land speed records, it has always seemed to me a place for slowness rather than haste. It is seven miles long and very wide at low tide, and you can wander for hours without worrying. It’s an easy half day’s walk from here to the start of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, but why join the crowds when you have all of this to yourself?
How to get there and get around
You will need a car if you plan to see anything of the interior. There are buses between Carmarthen and Newcastle Emlyn (17 miles, 70 minutes) and Llandeilo (15.5 miles, 45 minutes). 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 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, is a beautiful woodland retreat. It has three luxurious suites and a log cabin for outdoor dining. Doubles B&B from £120 per night; minimum stay of two nights.
eating and drinking
Y Polyn (ypolyn.co.uk) at Capel Dewi in Towy Valley, is an unassuming but locally esteemed family restaurant. Dine on the best saltmarsh lamb, Welsh beef and free range pork belly at simple wooden tables amidst understated décor. Nearby, in Llanarthne, Wright’s (shop.wrightsfood.co.uk) is great for lunches and takeaways.
Chris Moss is the author of Wales Coast Path: Tenby-Swansea (Aurum Press)