The BBC's Keeping Faith has put Wales' wild southern coast in the spotlight. Yet from Dylan Thomas' hometown to mysterious red skeletons, there's always been drama to be found here
The trolls came first. Then, a procession of pirates, princesses, ninjas and cavewomen. Next, a walking political statement on plastic in our oceans passed by, women in wavy blue dresses with bottles and wrappers stuck to the fabric. The sound of pounded drums filled the streets. A penguin threw a soggy fish-shaped sponge at me.
This is not how a normal day goes in Laugharne, on the south-west coast of Wales, which writer Dylan Thomas, who spent his most creative years living here, described as a ‘timeless, mild and beguiling island of a town’. Built around the remains of Laugharne Castle at the mouth of the River Taf, it’s usually a peaceful place. But as one local told me: “It’s very quiet and still here, but then you press the button and it just, pfffsshht… explodes. There’s a lot of life.”
My time in Laugharne had coincided, by chance, with its annual carnival, where locals parade the streets. But I’d been brought here by more serious business: a disappearance, possibly murder or suicide. Not in real life, but the plot of hit BBC series Keeping Faith, which is filmed both here and along Wales’ southern coast. Viewers have been gripped by the story, but many were also drawn to the series’ evocative backdrops, which are already having a ‘Broadchurch effect’ on the area.
Ticking off filming locations isn’t how I usually travel, though. I was drawn instead to explore, on foot and by boat, some of the UK’s most dramatic, invigorating coastal scenery, which had looked so appealing on the small screen, and along the way to check out its wildlife, forage for wild foods in rock pools, climb towers in crumbly castles, and to trace the life and inspirations of one of my favourite poets.
Laugharne’s newfound fame isn’t a first for Wales’ coast. Windswept beaches, rugged clifftops, small towns and quiet countryside across Carmarthenshire, Swansea and the Vale of Glamorgan have taken starring roles in many films and TV series. And while BBC Wales is in Cardiff, there’s more to it than that. The diverse landscapes here also happen to be world class and dramatic, making for wild backdrops.
“This is the most beautiful bit of the Heritage Coast, from Southerndown to Nash Point,” explained Paul Watmough, a ranger at Glamorgan Heritage Coast Centre, just off Southerndown Beach in the Vale of Glamorgan, where I started my trip. “As well as Keeping Faith, they’ve filmed Doctor Who here, Sherlock, Poldark. Even a Durex advert. The beaches have doubled for Normandy, Ireland, everywhere.”
From Southerndown, I walked through the old walled gardens of Dunraven Castle and climbed the Wales Coast Path up onto the cliffs of Dunraven Bay. Heading towards Monknash, it was one of the most striking stretches of coast I’ve hiked on. I passed through sheep fields and golden wheat fields where bees and cabbage whites flew around purple thistle flowers along the path. Away from the crowds of families at Southerndown Beach, the views stretched for miles, with tall cliffs consisting of stacked layers of rock, formed over thousands of years. The unguarded sheer cliffs, 40 or 50 metres high, dropped away to epic beaches where lone walkers and couples looked tiny on the massive stretches of sand.
Further along the coast, I explored the area around Nash Point Lighthouse, where cliffs look out across the channel to the coast of North Devon, part-obscured by thick blue-white sea fog. The striking lighthouse dates back to the 1830s, built after a steamer was wrecked in a violent storm, killing all on board.
“We have loads of filming around here,” Antony Britton, owner of Nash Point’s café, told me. “Keeping Faith was filmed on the cliffs. Britannica’s coming back. We just had Eddie Izzard here for the film Six Minutes To Midnight. Doctor Who, with the new doctor, was in the area last week. It’s an area of incredible natural beauty. It’s absolutely perfect.”
I drove west along the coast, past industrial Port Talbot and into Swansea and the Gower Peninsula, to spend the night in Llangennith village. In the evening, I walked through the nearby dunes to Rhossili Beach, or Llangennith Sands, as many locals refer to it. The 5km-long beach has been called the best in Wales, in the UK and in Europe by various publications, websites and organisations. Certainly, it would be high in my mind if asked to name a favourite shore, up there with the likes of Luskentyre in Harris, Scotland. Little groups were gathered around campfires, dogs ran ahead of owners, and surfers and paddleboarders rode crashing waves, but the beach had ample space to still feel remote and peaceful.
I headed back early next morning and walked the length of Rhossili’s sands, the ocean cast in silvery light. There was a cluster of surfers across from the campsite exit, but for at least one kilometre, it was just me and the gulls. I climbed a path up to the cliffs and watched sets of waves creating white lines of surf across the curving bay. I overheard a guide telling his group that a recent Lloyd’s TSB bank advert featuring black horses running wild on a beach was filmed on Rhossili, as well as scenes from Doctor Who, Casualty and Torchwood.
Part of an RSPB Coastal Trail, I saw many choughs (black birds with an orange beak) along the cliff paths, as I made my way to the headland where a tidal causeway leads to Worm’s Head. I took another look at this unusual area from the ocean later in the day, when high tide had covered the causeway and separated the ‘island’ from the mainland.
“Worm’s Head was named by the Vikings,” onboard guide Lizzie Hobbs explained as we sped down the coast from Oxwich Bay in a bright-yellow inflatable boat. “‘Wurm’ was their word for ‘serpent’ or ‘sea monster’, which they thought the landscape resembled. Over time, it took on the more down-to-earth ‘Worm’s Head’.”
We stopped at a teardrop-shaped cave in the cliff face. “That’s Paviland Cave, where they found a really unique skeleton in the early 1800s,” Lizzie told us. “It was a small skeleton, with bones stained red by ochre, so they called it the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’. They assumed she was a Roman prostitute, but scientists later worked out that it was from 33,000 years ago, and actually a 20-year-old male’s skeleton. They say he was a tribal leader of cavemen who’d been ceremonially buried. It’s the oldest known ceremonial burial site in Western Europe.”
At Worm’s Head, kittiwakes were nesting in the cliffs, adults feeding their chicks. Cormorants stretched out their wings to dry. Atlantic grey seals snoozed, their snouts poking out of the ocean. On the journey back to Oxwich Bay, we even spied a harbour porpoise.
The next day, on the drive to Carmarthen to see the city’s Guildhall, which also doubles as the court building in Keeping Faith, I stopped at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Here, there are 500 acres of ponds, waterfalls, flowerbeds, gardens and enormous greenhouses.
“That’s my baby,” Alison Berry, one of the moth breeders, exclaimed as I walked through the Butterfly House, pointing me towards a huge moth. “It’s an atlas moth, also known as a ‘snake’s head’ moth. You can see the tips of the wings – they look like snake’s heads.”
Equally impressive were the winged creatures inside the new British Bird of Prey Centre, which opened this June. It’s home to more than 20 species, including three red kites (Saffron, Chilli and Salsa) and a giant white-tailed eagle (Atlantis). A few of the birds were brought out for meet-and-greets: Hector (a noisy orange-eyed eagle owl), Midas (a young golden eagle) and Oak, a small, half-asleep tawny owl, struggling to keep eyes open, so he looked like he was winking.
“This is the only owl that actually says Twit-Twoo,” Emma Hill, one of the birds’ keepers, told me.
I arrived in Laugharne that evening and spent the night at Brown’s Hotel. Dylan Thomas spent so much time in its accompanying bar that he regularly gave its phone number out as the best way to reach him.
“This was his favourite bar, contrary to the claims of The Black Lion in New Quay,” receptionist Nia Cole told me firmly. “He was famous here. People say that he didn’t drink as much as others perceived. He just loved the place and the people. He was one-of-a-kind.”
In the evening, I sat in the bar, much as Thomas would have done, drinking local ales, listening, observing, chatting. There were prints of Thomas’ books, poetry collections and album covers on the walls, as well as black-and-white photos.
Early next morning, I asked around and located ‘Faith’s house’ (from the TV series) on the hilly backstreets – the balcony looks out over the estuary and the castle, although the interior scenes were actually filmed in Cardiff. From the castle, I walked along the estuary. Sandpipers waded in the mud, as waves gently lapped against the shore. I reached the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, where he and his wife, Caitlin Thomas, along with their three children, lived from 1949 to 1953, during which time he produced poetry and his classic play Under Milk Wood. Inside, there was the smell of freshly baked Welsh cakes.
Thomas knew Laugharne from his childhood; his mother’s family came from across the river, in Llanybry. As he wrote: he ‘got off the bus, and forgot to get on again’. There’s a rivalry between Laugharne and New Quay, where Thomas also spent time, as to which was the basis for Llareggub, the fictional town in Under Milk Wood. Most likely, Thomas drew on both locations as well as other people and places, argued Toby Nottage, an attendant at the Boathouse, as we sat in the parlour, close to Thomas’ desk, which looks out of the window and over to the estuary and hills.
“Thomas had the ability to absorb everything that went on around him – people, conversations – and he’d collect them all and use them,” Toby explained. “His life was incredible. This young lad from Swansea had a talent that took him around the world. He was an amazing wordsmith. Perhaps not always the best person – he was a man without barriers. But on the other side, he was very generous. His love letters are absolutely amazing. People have lost the ability to write that intensely.”
But it’s not all about Thomas. “Laugharne is a very special place,” Toby continued. “It has incredible history; Cromwell came here, and there was the siege of the castle. There’s an amazing community. Laugharne is wonderful. It should be in a book.”
Keeping Faith has brought people’s attention back to the town, yet something always draws you to the past here. Along the estuary, I stopped at Dylan’s Writing Shed, his window also looking out over the water. The writing desk here is the original, the rest a recreation. There’s a mess of papers, notes, pens, teacups, cigarettes and beer bottles on the desk. Thomas’ jacket is hung over a chair, pockets stuff with scraps of paper. The relics of a remarkable man.
I later visited Laugharne Castle, the site of dramatic battles and heavy bombardment in 1644, during the English Civil War, then made my way out of town to visit St Martin’s Church, where Thomas is buried with his wife Caitlin. Even his grave stood out among the rest, a white cross among the other grey headstones.
In the afternoon, costume-wearing locals, from Donald Duck to Harley Quinn, gathered in the central square and marched through the town. So strong is the community spirit here that I later saw arch enemies Cruella de Vil and several dalmations happily drinking pints together outside a pub. As the carnival continued, I met up with local food enthusiast Craig Evans and drove to the coast for a quick course in foraging.
“The south coast, around Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, has fantastic biodiversity,” Craig told me, as we made our way down to deserted Morfa Bychan beach. “I’m a proud Carmarthenshire boy. I’ve got to show people what you can find here, don’t I?”
Craig’s golden retriever, Llew (“It’s Welsh for ‘lion’”), ran excitedly ahead, as we scrambled over barnacle-encrusted rocks. Craig picked ingredients for me to sample, such as rock samphire (“It tastes intensely like carrot for a few mouthfuls, then bitter, like kerosene.”) and gutweed (“It looks like intestines.”)
We moved to Pendine Beach, famous as the site of various British land speed record attempts. The vast stretch of sand, cliffs and caves were also used in Keeping Faith. Craig has been coming here since childhood. “My dad used to take me picking cockles when I was a boy,” he told me. “Since then, I’ve been obsessed. Not just with edible stuff but everything and anything you can find along the coast.”
Craig waded into rock pools and showed me how to look under rocks and shelves to find hiding life, from prawns to crabs. Elsewhere, he pointed out laver, the dark seaweed used in Welsh laver bread.
Taking a few ingredients we’d found and some he’d foraged earlier, Craig lit a ‘Swedish candle’ (a split log) and set prawns, mussels, samphire and more cooking in a pan of butter and wild garlic. Could he live off the beach? “Oh yeah, easily.”
Our tasty meal finished, Craig left, as the tide rapidly swept in and washed away the embers of our fire. I wandered for a while along the beach, braced against the wind. Heavy rain came and went, sunlight punching through dark clouds. Giant waves crashed and thundered. With or without mysterious small-screen disappearances, there’s plenty of drama to be found on this coast.
‘I’ve been living now for fifteen years, or centuries, in this timeless, beautiful, barmy (both spellings) town, in this far, forgetful, important place of herons, cormorants (known here as billy duckers), castle, churchyard, gulls, ghosts, geese, feuds, scares, scandals, cherry trees, mysteries, jackdaws in the chimneys, bats in the bellfry, skeletons in the cupboards, pubs, mud, cockles, flatfish, curlews, rain, and human, often all too human, beings; and, though, still very much a foreigner, I am hardly ever stoned in the streets any more, and can claim to be able to call several of the inhabitants, and a few of the herons, by their Christian names.
Now, some people live in Laugharne because they were born in Laugharne and saw no good reason to move; others migrated here, for a number of curious reasons, from places as distant and improbable as Tonypandy or even England, and have now been absorbed by the natives; some entered the town in the dark and immediately disappeared, and can sometimes be heard, on hushed black nights, making noises in ruined houses, or perhaps it is the white owls breathing close together, like ghosts in bed; others have almost certainly come here to escape the international police, or their wives; and there are those, too, who still do not know, and will never know, why they are here at all: you can see them, any day of the week, slowly, dopily, wandering up and down the streets like Welsh opiumeaters, half-asleep in a heavy bewildered daze. And some, like myself, just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again.
Whatever the reason for our being here, in this timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town with its seven public houses, one chapel in action, one church…, here we just are, and there is nowhere like it anywhere at all.’
Taken from ‘Laugharne’ from Quite Early One Morning (New Directions), with permission from David Higham Associates.
The author travelled as a guest of Visit Wales, self-driving for four days along the south coast of Wales. Gower Coast Adventures run boat trips from Oxwich Bay to Worm’s Head. For more information on half-day and full-day foraging trips with Craig Evans, see coastalforaging.co.uk and check out his Youtube channel ‘Coastal Foraging with Craig Evans’.
The King’s Head Inn (Llangennith) in the Gower Peninsula, close to Rhossili, has spacious, modern rooms behind the lively pub of the same name, where friendly staff serve good pub grub and local beers, including Shipwreck, Smuggler’s and Lighthouse.
Brown’s Hotel (Laugharne) is a colourful, classy boutique hotel attached to Dylan Thomas’ favourite pub, with past guests including Mick Jagger, President Jimmy Carter, Pierce Brosnan and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. You can eat in the bar or at the more ‘fine dining’ Penderyn restaurant.