Days Out: Millennium Coastal Park, Wales

Turning the wheels of industry green

It's been a while since I pedalled any distance on a bike. But as I potter along a red Tarmac track that winds across manicured grassy hillocks, the sea to my left glistening in the sun, it's hard to imagine that I'm on the site of a former power station, tin plate works and numerous steel mills.

It's been a while since I pedalled any distance on a bike. But as I potter along a red Tarmac track that winds across manicured grassy hillocks, the sea to my left glistening in the sun, it's hard to imagine that I'm on the site of a former power station, tin plate works and numerous steel mills.

A short hop by car or train from Swansea, on the other side of the Gower Peninsula, is Llanelli. Once it was the heart of steel production in Wales, and until the 1980s it was a massive concentration of heavy industry – so much so that much of the coastline was effectively a no-go area. When the steel works closed, everything else followed.

But from the despair of 30 per cent unemployment, Llanelli has recovered and unemployment is below the national average. Plus, the hideous scars of the heavy industry that lined the coast have healed, revealing a gem of rare beauty.

The Millennium Coastal Park stretches for 14 miles from Loughor Greenway, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre, past Llanelli to Burry Port Harbour, and on to Pembrey Country Park. The WWT was set up in 1946 by naturalist Sir Peter Scott to promote the conservation of rare wetland birds and their habitats. The Llanelli reserve has been here for a number of years, but the recent addition of the 200-acre Millennium Wetlands has expanded it into one of the most important wildlife habitats in Wales.

You might think that most hides for birdwatching are not much more than lap-timbered sheds with a flap in one side. The new hide here is far from that. Built from Welsh oak in a distinctive heron shape, it stands on stilts in one of the lakes, providing visitors with a commanding position from which to view the birdlife.

The Machynys Peninsula next door is now home to an 18-hole links-style golf course. Designed by Jack Nicklaus to US PGA standards, its setting provides golfers with dramatic views across the Loughor estuary, with water features which provide a habitat for wildlife as well as a challenge for golfers.

The cycleway is a wide, Tarmac track for bicycles and feet only. Peaceful and safe, it's the longest off-road part of the 186-mile Sustrans Celtic Trail. In a few places, you cross the railway line that follows the coast to Fishguard without even realising it. The landscaping crosses the line in land bridges, one of which – at 110 yards long – is the largest structure of its kind in the world.

The impressive central section of the park between Llanelli and Burry Port has a 16-acre water park, which attracts anglers from across Wales. This, believe it or not, is on the site of the Duport steelworks. Next door is an outdoor arena, built for the 2000 National Eisteddfod, now the venue for concerts, exhibitions and funfairs. The transformation is ongoing. The North Dock has been turned into Millennium Quays, home to a sail training and water sports centre.

The park's motto is "giving the coast back to the people". The locals love it, as do people from further afield. It makes the achievement of the Millennium Coastal Park all the more remarkable when you think that it wasn't that long ago that this was one of the most polluted coastlines in Britain.

Millennium Coastal Park (01554 777744; www.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/coastal_park/).

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