11 December 2020 by Oliver Wicks
Working at Ramblers Cymru is filled with opportunities to head out and explore new places. It allows me the chance to meet passionate people who want to showcase their local patch and how it brings joy to not only themselves but visitors too. One option I’d not really considered in my walking life though was how the railway could also bring places to life across Wales, and how it was a brilliant and sustainable way to travel and explore. I’d always just driven to locations for work or walked from my doorstep but suddenly through a new partnership I was going to ride the train to visit some of Wales’s lesser known walking destinations.
South West Wales Connected (SWWC) is a new community rail partnership built in the same mould as the Heart of Wales Line. Running from Port Talbot Parkway through to Pembroke Dock it includes some well-known locations such as Swansea, Carmarthen and Tenby, but also some lesser visited places such as Baglan, Llansamlet and Ferryside. The partnership between Ramblers Cymru and SWWC is built around discovering family friendly walks from every station along the rail line, all 30 of them! But what seemed like quite a mammoth challenge was suddenly going to become an exploration of smaller and less visited places that were to open my mind as to how the railway could become a fantastic way to discover Wales’s beautiful ‘hidden gems’.
Being a ‘Neath’ boy the easy starting points were the stations surrounding my hometown. I thought I knew Skewen, Briton Ferry, and Neath quite well but it turned out that I was going to need some local knowledge to bring these places to life. I tried to scour maps at first, thinking I must know these places well enough to draft a few routes, but actually what I found in trying to create interesting discoveries for walkers was that it was far more interesting when you tapped into the knowledge of local people that still live there. In the case of Skewen and Briton Ferry I turned to a close friend of mine Owen and my Great Uncle Frank.
As Owen and I left Skewen train station and headed for the locally know ‘Drummau Mountain’ I remembered walking a few of the paths we covered from when I was younger but still couldn’t visualise a walk we could offer members of the public. Suddenly though we headed up into the stunning deciduous woodland of Coed Maesmelin which is managed by the Woodland trust, and my thoughts turned to how had I never explored this place as a kid. The walk climbed through the rich woodland to eventually lead us out onto an open plateau where we were suddenly welcomed with wide expansive views over to Swansea and the surrounding woodland of the Neath Valleys. The walk continued across the open top to visit a large standing stone and then circle back on some well waymarked footpaths. As we returned to the start my mind was contemplating whether more of the stations in this project would lead me to new and interesting places.
The following day, having jumped off the train at Briton Ferry Uncle Frank took me and my colleague Amanda on an exploration of the village. I had known this place as kid due to playing rugby and, being pretty honest, had never thought of it as a destination to go for a walk. I knew where the station was situated but in a similar vain to Skewen, I couldn’t envisage where an enjoyable walk was going to come from. As we walked through a few of the streets near the station and entered the ornate gates of Jersey Park I was suddenly proved wrong as we were removed from the urban feel of the village and surround by well-manicured gardens that led us through to the start of Briton Ferry Woods. Just like up on Drummau Mountain I could see how the railway line was opening up these walking environments, and I wondered how many local people were really taking advantage of these outdoor experiences. As we continued to explore the route Frank had created, we were taken high up into the woods with beautiful views of the valleys, with Swansea Bay coming into view.
Having walked his Briton Ferry circular route Frank then led us on a linear walk into Neath. This walk led us over to Giants Grave and took us along the old industrial Neath Canal on a fairly new multiuse route. What was evident as we passed other walkers and cyclists was the passion with which my uncle spoke as he regaled tales from the area and all the general knowledge he had. As I listened intently to his stories, I realised that the best way to discover these locations was going to be through the people who had walked here through their lives and the experiences they’d had. I could easily look at maps, but there was no way I could know these locations and how suitable they were without the local knowledge.
Having arrived into Neath after a busy morning of walking we said goodbye to Frank, and I led my colleague Amanda around the town and up to Gnoll Country park. It was on this walk that it really hit home how this new railway partnership work was going uncover some hidden locations across Wales. The town of Neath is well known and dare I say lots of people have visited and seen the place. What became clear was that it was going to be locations such as Jersey Park in Briton Ferry and Drummau Mountain near Skewen that were going to open people’s eyes to what our nation has to offer. This project was not just going to be about finding accessible walks for families to enjoy but also unlocking some of these hidden gems to a wider audience. There are lots of walkers who are comfortable with grabbing a map and finding a route, I’d include myself in that demographic, but there are also the other walkers who just need that little bit of direction to gain confidence to go out and find new places to explore and experience.
From these first three locations my mindset had changed. Not only was I going to go out and find walks suitable for a family adventure on the railway, but I was also looking to highlight and celebrate some of these lesser visited locations and hope to showcase them through the project. Having explored these few places in Neath Port Talbot, next up I was headed off to parts of Swansea, including the city itself, but also Llansamlet. I knew I was also going to have to return to Port Talbot and Baglan, and also look further west, but first I needed to find the local people who could offer an insight that I could only dream of.
If you would like to get involved in the project contact us.
For further information on South West Wales Connected and the train line please visit www.southwestwales.co