The first coast path to outline an entire country officially opens today: the Wales Coast Path. This 870-mile trail runs from the Welsh border near Chester all the way to Chepstow in south-east Wales. It connects certain existing coastal paths, such as those on the Anglesey coast and Pembrokeshire. The resulting continuous route forms and joins up the 177-mile Offa's Dyke Path national trail along the Welsh-English border to create a complete circuit of Wales.
To be accurate, today's official opening does not mean it is complete: some sections are a work in progress with more waymarking needed on the Llyn Peninsula and detours because of access disputes on Anglesey. But the majority of the path will be complete for the grand opening, celebrated by three ceremonies in North, South and Mid Wales.
To test it ahead of the official opening, I opted for a weekend walking sections of the lesser-explored Carmarthenshire path. The 68 miles from Amroth to Llanelli connect the walkers' hubs of Gower and Pembrokeshire but, given sections of treacherous salt marsh, include some deviation inland.
Culturally it's a particularly rich walk, showcasing the landscape that inspired the writer Dylan Thomas to produce some of his best-known work. Based in Laugharne, where Thomas lived in the late 1940s, my plan was to walk out each day, returning each night for rest and recuperation.
I start walking at Pendine beach, the seven-mile sweep of sand opening up in widescreen on a blustery spring day. Tenby lurks round the headland and fishermen are digging for lugworms. The beach was the scene of successive world land speed records in the 1920s and the rivalry between Malcolm Campbell and John Parry-Thomas who was killed here in 1927. His car, Babs, was salvaged from a sand-gritted grave and is now exhibited in a small, wind-lashed museum just behind the beach.
The walk into Laugharne leads me inland around the Pendine Sands military base, following the road before veering back coastward and over Sir John's Hill into town. Georgian Laugharne inspired Llareggub, the fictional location for Thomas's 1954 radio play Under Milk Wood.
Waiting for me at Laugharne's ruined castle on the main square, the Grist, is a smiling Bob Stevens of Salt House Farm. Stevens has devised a two-mile, linear Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk around the estuary, overlapping with the coast path, with each of five new benches carved with a line from Thomas's "Poem in October". Complete the walk on your birthday and present your birth certificate or driving licence at a local pub, and you can claim a free birthday pint.
"The trail follows the walk Dylan documented in his poem," explains Bob as we stand on a hilltop outside Laugharne, views across the salt marsh and ringed plover wading below. "I don't like much of poetry but I really feel the essence of the man by walking this trail each year on my own birthday."
That night, before supper, I take a look around the Tin Shed Experience, an offbeat anti-war museum/ performance space on the town's pastel-painted main drag. The venue recently hosted events for the annual Laugharne Weekend arts festival, including Howard Marks and John Cooper Clarke.
"Laugharne is a time slip in the best possible sense," says co-founder Seimon Pugh-Jones, as a life-size fibreglass figure of Captain Cat from Under Milk Wood stands guard at the door. "The quirky, bohemian atmosphere of Laugharne has inspired people since Thomas's time," he adds.
The next day, I transfer ahead by taxi from Laugharne, avoiding tricky twin estuary crossings across the Taf at St Clears and the Tywi at Carmarthen. Instead, I pick up the trail at Kidwelly, making good progress along the muddy path to the town's 13th-century stone castle, before joining the coastal path towards Llanelli.
The final leg of the walk joins the Millennium Coastal Park trail, a 10-mile man-made path through a former industrial area on the outskirts of Llanelli. It's a flat, straight stretch, ideal for biking, with views west towards Pembrey Country Park and east towards the Gower peninsula.
I finish my walk with a slight detour to the National Wetland Centre Wales. A stampede of wading birds, red-crested pochards and endangered marbled teal greet my arrival, all determined to claim a share of the birdseed I'm clutching in a tiny paper bag. Spring is in the air, with dragonflies and butterflies surveying the grounds of the Millennium Wetlands, while the flamingos are perfecting their wing salute for breeding. Families are cooing over fluffy-bundle hatchlings parading in the late-afternoon sun as part of Duckling Day events.
Before leaving Laugharne, I take one last walk, a circular loop past the writing shed where Dylan Thomas worked, and past the Boat House where the family lived before Thomas's departure on an American lecture tour in 1953, during which he died.
I find refurbishment work at an advanced stage at Brown's Hotel, the watering hole where Thomas ran up a bar tab as sizeable as his talent in those most productive final years. (The hotel reopens in late June with 14 period-styled rooms and a literary-themed lounge.) Across the road, George Tremlett, the owner of Corran Books and biographer of Dylan's wife, Caitlin Macnamara, is making plans for the centenary of Thomas' birth in 2014.
"Dylan was a keen walker," says George, blowing dust off a first edition of 18 Poems valued at £600. "He described the tides, the estuary and the view from the Boat House in the poem "Prologue" with its 102-line wave formation" (This day winding down now/At God speeded summer's end/In the torrent salmon sun/In my seashaken house.)
The path leads me to St Martin's Church, where both Dylan and Caitlin are buried in the graveyard. The graves are marked with a simple white cross, which looks out across the rolling hills of Carmarthenshire. In the cold stone interior of the church itself, a plaque to Thomas bears an inscription from one of his most evocative poems, "Fern Hill".
"Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."
The nearest station is Carmarthen, served by Arriva Trains Wales (0845 606 1660; arrivatrainswales.co.uk)
Seaview, Laugharne (01994 427030; www.seaview-laugharne.co.uk). B&B from £115.
Discover Carmarthenshire has plotted eight walks each between three and 13km distance with attractions, food and accommodation along the way so that all levels of walkers can experience the villages, wildlife and coastal views along the way (discovercarmarthenshire.com/wales-coast-path. See also OS Explorer map 177 and visitwales.com
Walk around Wales
The opening, today, of the final section of the 870-mile path from Chester in the north to Chepstow in the south officially carves the longest continuous route around any country in the world.
Split into eight parts, it moves from North Wales and the Dee estuary, around the Isle of Anglesey offshore, then passes the Llyn peninsula where it kisses the western edge of Snowdonia. Next, it courses south down a majestic sweep of Ceredigion Bay, on to the rugged cliffs of Pembrokeshire, and then strides past Carmarthenshire where it hops over the Tywi and Taf estuaries.
Here, the route curves around the Gower, where some of Wales's most stunning and isolated coast is laid out in long stretches of seamless sand, before rounding into Swansea Bay.
The route loops towards the seaside resort of Barry Island, tips its hat at the Welsh capital, and races towards the final flashes of this constantly changing coastline, where a stone marker in Chepstow – carved with the Welsh dragon – denotes the path's end.
Obviously, this route can be done in reverse, but it's probably best to rest weary limbs at the Coach & Horses Inn first, before attempting the 870-mile walk once again (walescoastpath.gov.uk).
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