Walk of the Month: Welsh whispers on the Burton trail
Audio posts enhance the experience of walking among the actor's childhood haunts in South Wales. Mark Rowe listens in
Sunday 03 March 2013
There's a jarring contrast to the often breathtaking landscapes of South Wales. I'm standing 600ft high on the side of Mynydd Emroch, an aesthetically pleasing dome-shaped mountain that overlooks Port Talbot. Other similar-sized lemon-drop hills bounce away into the distance, their steep, russet gorse flanks bathing in the first real sunshine of the year. Yet far below me sprawl the chimneys, blast furnaces and angular factory frames of the town's steel works. The M4, curved and elevated, sweeps its way between the two worlds.
I'm at the mid-point of my walk and I'm alternately thinking Blade Runner, then Watership Down. Either way, this is perfect territory for a film shoot, perhaps a scene involving a life-changing decision, elopement, separation or darker deeds.
Film themes are on my mind because I'm walking in the footsteps of Richard Burton. One of the 20th century's most charismatic actors and – with five wives (if you count Elizabeth Taylor twice) – among Hollywood's most cherished and archetypal figures. Burton hailed from these parts and this walk connects the haunts of his early years.
The publication of Burton's diaries last year revealed a thoughtful, patriotic side to a man who scandalised Hollywood, caroused and womanised as much as it would seem humanly possible to do in between starring in Cleopatra, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and other full-blooded classics. Now, two separate guided trails invite you to delve into Burton's life and times, the first focusing on his birthplace of Pontrhydyfen, a small village three miles north of Port Talbot, deep in the narrowing Afan Valley.
It's a charming place to nose around. Burton's house is here – though the owners are fed up with visitors peering through windows, so it's not singled out in the guide. There's the Miners' Arms, frequented all too often by Burton's father, a hard-drinking miner who was left to cope with Burton, one of 13 children, after the early death of their mother.
At the top of the village is Bethel Chapel, now in disrepair, scene of a memorial service for Burton after his death in 1984 when mourners filled the surrounding streets. The most striking feature is the two 19th-century viaducts that zigzag Escher-like across the confluence of the Pelenna and Afan rivers, two vantage points that offer dreamy views of wooded valleys and tumbling streams.
Reaching the childhood trail involves a four-mile walk down the valley along an easy shared path above the Afan River. The water is flowing fast and it's a delightful stroll, punctuated by birdsong and tumbling weirs. Along the way, I pass an audio post where I take a moment to listen to Burton reading Dylan Thomas – Burton was buried in Switzerland with a copy of Thomas's Complete Poems and wearing a patriotic red suit.
This area was important to a man whose companions assert never forgot his roots. By the audio post are three cast-iron, life-sized figures – Burton, Rob Brydon (another local boy made good) and a former forest park ranger Dick Wagstaff, widely credited with driving tourism to revive the post-coal economic fortunes of the area.
But here's a surprise. Later on, at a crossroads in the lee of the motorway, I come across waymarkers for the Wales Coastal Path, the new footpath that runs for 870 miles around the country's fringe. It leads me up some steep steps and on to Mynydd Emroch. As I contour around the mountain, the haze lifts and I can see across the Bristol Channel to Devon and Somerset, while across Swansea Bay are the headlands of the Gower peninsula. It is very pretty.
The trail leads to a country lane where I drop sharply downhill, under the motorway and into Taibach to pick up Burton's childhood trail.
It's hard to work out where Port Talbot's sprawl becomes that of Taibach, but it has a distinctive enough identity to warrant a rugby club and its social club, a double-fronted building that kept drawing Burton back. He once arrived there in a Bentley with Liz Taylor: they were able to enter and even drink in a low-key way – so I'm told – before being noticed by the regulars. The childhood trail meanders between his schools, the former co-op where he worked, and Talbot Memorial Park, where there is a display of his poetry. (Burton was a frustrated writer.)
There's also time to walk past Burton's last home in South Wales, where he lodged with his schoolmaster, Philip Burton. So influential was this inspiring teacher, that Burton, whose original surname was Jenkins, adopted his name and became his legal ward of court. Burton wrote of him: "I owe him everything." This was a man prepared to push Burton up the hills behind Taibach, bringing them to life with the sound of formal voice lessons as he strengthened his voice projection and improved his elocution. Even though he and Julie Andrews co-starred in the Broadway version of Camelot, let's all be thankful that Burton was never auditioned for The Sound of Music.
Distance: Seven miles.
OS map: 165 Swansea
Directions: The birthplace and childhood trails can be found at visitnpt.co.uk/richardburton. To walk between the two, continue past the audio post (point 5 of the Birthplace Trail) along the cycle/walkway, following blue waymarkers for Port Talbot. After Cwmavon and a brief pavement walk by the road, you take the blue bridge to the east bank of the river (grid reference: SS771909). Follow this footpath to a bridge and pick up Wales Coastal Path waymarkers up Mynydd Emroch. After one mile enter farm and follow lanes to, and under, the M4 to pick up the Childhood Trail. Port Talbot Parkway railway station is a five-minute walk.
Port Talbot Parkway is on the First Great Western line between London Paddington and Swansea (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
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