Kidwelly: a well-kept Welsh secret

by Fifties traveller

Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbours, the little Welsh town of Kidwelly has plenty to offer anyone in search of a few days' total relaxation - including a magnificent Norman castle

Driving through South Wales to the well-known tourist haunts of Tenby and Saundersfoot, you would be forgiven for bypassing the little-known town of Kidwelly (spelt Cydweli in Welsh). The streets look tired and the buildings drab, but unsuspected treats await the curious looking for an overnight stay in beautiful countryside.

Located on an arm of the star-shaped estuary formed by the three rivers of Carmarthen Bay, Kidwelly sits on the eastern bank, opposite the pretty villages of LLanstephan (pronounced Clanstefan) and Laugharne (pronounced Larne), made famous by Dylan Thomas. Like most Welsh towns, it is littered with chapels and churches and in the centre, on Lady Street, is the magnificent church of St Mary’s. Regardless of your religion, this building will impress with its marvellous architecture and historical curios.

The High Street may be dull, but an old pub in the castle wall has been transformed into a very inviting cafe, called not surprisingly, Castle Wall Cafe. Kidwelly council has improved the area for wildlife by creating two nature reserves on disused ground. The first is near the railway station and has been created at the site of an old quay, from where ships used to sail to Ireland and France. The second, Glan yr Afon, is a riverside walk near the old bridge. Reclaimed from a landfill site and exhibiting a restored slaughterhouse, the area is now enjoyed by a wide range of wildlife, and is a pleasant place for an early morning stroll. It is excellent for spotting marsh and sea birds wading along the estuary and after 9 am you may be fortunate to experience another kind of air display, as RAF fighter jets fly in for a bit of target practice (at a safe distance) on the nearby marsh flats.

On the other side of the main road, the riverside walk takes you past an antique shop to where the castle towers above you out of the early morning mist, in Pythonesque grandeur - it features in the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The castle is well preserved and has a fascinating little gift shop and a long history that I will leave to Cadw Wales to relate when you visit.

For the dog-lovers among you, I recommend taking a walk along Ferry Road, where you will find Burns Pet Nutrition on the right. I took my dog there when we stayed with relatives in the area and was impressed by the friendly and professional advice I received from one of their nutritionists. Unless you leave carrying a heavy bag of their holistic dog food, continue along the road and on the left, you will see another entrance to Glan yr Afon, via which you and your friend can walk back to the centre of town.

Where to stay

There are several bed and breakfast places in the town. Along the road to the coastal village of Ferryside is Carmarthen Bay Holiday Village, where you can rent a caravan or chalet yards from the beach. I stayed at the Gwenllian Court Hotel, just outside town on the road to Mynydd Y Garreg (pronounced Munev er Gareg). This hotel, so the story goes, was built near the site of a battle led by Princess Gwenllian in 1135 against the Normans; the fair princess lost and was decapitated!

What to do

This area is perfect for outdoor pursuits.  Just south of Kidwelly at Pembray, a world war two airfield has been transformed into The Welsh Motor Sports Centre providing racing for cars, motorcycles, karts and trucks.  Further along the coast is the 100 year old Royal Ashburnham Golf Course Burry Port. Tel: - 01554 832466. Even closer in Trimsaran, is Glyn Abbey Golf Tel. 01554 810278. If that is not enough, visit Britain’s newest horse racing stadium Ffos Las  at the site of what was  europe’s largest open caste coalmine. Why not have a flutter surrounded by rolling hills and a view of peaceful Carmarthen Bay.

Where to walk

The Gwenllian doesn’t take dogs, which is a shame, but if you like to walk nonetheless, there are plenty of footpaths in the area, and the castle is a pleasant 20-minute amble away. Turn right on leaving the hotel and go down the lane past the Kidwelly Industrial Museum. As you cross the Gwendraeth River, look to your left: you will see a sign on a tree that says “admission free but the bull charges”. Pass the pond on your right that served the Tin Works and is now a magnet for anglers (hence the sign), and continue on up the lane a short way until it bears right. In front, you will see a grassy track known locally as Old Tin Works Lane; this is the track that the men from the village followed to work each day. It now runs between fields of sheep, interrupted only by the easily crossed A484. At the end of the lane, turn left and you will find the castle a short distance on your left.

How to get there

Take the A484 that runs between Carmarthen and Llanelli, and follow the signs that indicate the way to the ancient town of Kidwelly, portrayed by a picture of a black cat. In true Welsh tradition, everyone will give you a different reason for the black cat on the coat of arms, the most popular being that it was the first creature to be seen after the great plague – though no-one says by whom!