Cistercian Way: Margam-Neath

This was always going to be (one of the) tricky ones. There’s just not much room for manoeuvre: between the two abbeys in western Glamorgan there’s a very narrow coastal shelf, with sand dunes and sea on one side and steep hills on the other. The Roman road went along this shelf and the medieval road probably followed it – as does the modern main road, the A48, for much of its length. Not much fun to walk.

Back in 1998, the late and much-lamented Derek Thomas (‘We can get through that!’) and I went inland over the hills from Margam past the granges at Hafod and Penhydd to Pontrhydyfen then along the road through Cimla to Neath. Too much road walking. In 2005 we went even further inland, through Afan Argoed and Cwm Pelenna and down through the grounds of the Gnoll. A lovely walk but took two days. Now we have the Coast Path – downloadable maps at http://www.walescoastpath.gov.uk/media/1122/wales-coast-path-region-g-gower-and-swansea-bay.pdf . There’s a route that actually follows the coast, through Margam village and the industrial estate, and an alternative high-level route. To be honest it doesn’t look promising on the maps – a lot of walking along the line of the motorway. In fact, it’s a lot better than it looks. It starts well if something intimidatingly with the lake on the site of the Abbey fishponds

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and a steep climb

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up to Capel Mair.

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The chapel was built by (or more accurately I dare say on the orders of) the monks for their tenants when they had a recruitment crisis in the 14th century and had to take to letting out their land. Unlike the Benedictines, the Cistercians didn’t share their churches with lay people so they had to build churches outside the precinct for them. Then in the fifteenth century Capel Mair became a local focus for pilgrimage, with a statue of the Virgin Mary like the one at Penrhys. After the abbey was closed in 1536, its lands were bought by the courtier Rhys Mansell, who adapted the monastery church for parish use. But Capel Mair didn’t go entirely out of use. It was a centre for ‘secret’ Catholic activity in the late 16th and 17th centuries – in fact for a while its local name was ‘Capel y Papistiaid’, the Papists’ Chapel. There’s an amazing story in the Harley MSS in the British Library about a Carmarthenshire family who sent a very young baby to Capel Mair to be baptised by the priest Morgan Clynnog.

Follow the lane past the chapel, turn left on a very minor road, then when you get to the end of the trees turn left

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and follow a path along the forest edge. You really are walking along a boundary between two worlds – to your left the massive Port Talbot industrial estate,

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to your right old stone walls and upland grazing.

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This headland was heavily defended in WWII – these are 2 of the fortifications along the path.

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The path dips down into Brombil then climbs slightly to run parallel with the motorway. This was a surprisingly pleasant section

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– there is a strange secret joy in strolling through gorse and briars while 100 yards below you the rest of the world is hurrying, hurrying from one meeting to another.

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The path dips down to rejoin a side road which crosses the Ffrwd Wyllt behind the Chapel of Ease then turns right up Pen-y-cae Road. Up the hill there was a distinct lack of waymarks, but to judge from the map you take the minor road to the right off Broomhill and look out for a waymarked track to the left. This takes you round another headland and down to the Afan river. The next bit is distinctly odd – cross the river, round the back streets, back across the river, actually under an elevated section of motorway, cross the river again, motorway underpass and back up the hill. A very steep climb up Mountain Road, an even steeper track and a seemingly endless flight of steps leads to the top of the spur and more magnificent views. Over the ridge you join a wide stony track which swings down past the ruins of Blaen Baglan and becomes a road skirting the outer suburbs of Baglan.

Here again there were missing waymarks (seems to be a malady incident to new housing estates) –over the stream, turn right then follow the road round to the left through the houses, up Ascot Drive, right up Darren wen, second left and look out for the snicket leading up to the woods. But once you are through the gardens turn left and follow a very narrow track behind the houses on Baglan Heights. This eventually becomes a nice hollow way leading down to a side road towards the big roundabout and Briton Ferry.

Here I turned into Briton Ferry and down to the church to meet Steve, but you can carry on alongside the dual carriageway over the bridge (yes, this is the coast path – you have to cross the river somehow and it’s cross here or go a couple of miles up the canal to Neath and back down the other side). Getting to Neath Abbey may involve walking up to Neath or crossing the bridge and walking up the other canal – we shall see.

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