Every year, just before the Welsh national eisteddfod, the Open Spaces Society, Ramblers and other organisations receive an invitation from the chairman of the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) to join him on a walk during the eisteddfod.
We start from the maes and visit sites where CCW has been involved in work with its partners–local authorities, wildlife trusts, National Trust etc. Not surprisingly access issues generally feature and it’s a useful opportunity for CCW to show us what it is doing for public access.
Although I am the only attendee to come from England, I have been on every walk since the tradition started (inspired by the Ramblers) in 1996. Michael Griffith was chairman then, and his successor John Lloyd Jones, and the current chairman Morgan Parry have all continued with the walk. This year’s walk, on 6 August, had a sad tinge to it for it was the last eisteddfod walk to be hosted by CCW. The organisation ceases to exist on 1 April next year. It is to be replaced by a combination of CCW, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, creating a new body of 2,000 staff but, as yet, it has no name. It does have a chairman however, the recently-appointed Peter Matthews, of whom more below.
There were about 20 of us on the walk, including the chairman, chief executive and regional staff from CCW and representatives of Ramblers Cymru, Sustrans, the Farmers’ Union of Wales, Valeways and Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd (a Welsh-speaking natural history and walking group).
We went from the maes by bus to Monkash then walked down Cwm Nash to the Glamorgan Heritage Coast path. This is an incredibly beautiful and striking part of the coast, with alternate layers of limestone and shale, making it quite unstable.
Rangers Paul Dunn and Belinda Ashong told us about the coast and the new coastal path, and showed us the tuberous thistle, Cirsium tuberosum, which is rare nationally but grows in profusion on this stretch of coast.
A highpoint (literally) of the walk was the ascent of Nash Point lighthouse, under the aegis of Chris and Barbara Williams. The lighthouse, and the smaller lighthouse to the north-west, was built in 1832 to mark the sandbanks off the point at the entrance to the Bristol Channel, following an outcry after the passenger steamer Frolic was wrecked with heavy loss of life in 1830. It was the last unmanned lighthouse in Wales, becoming automated in 1998, but Chris and Barbara still have to be on call for emergencies. We climbed to the top of the 37-metre tower, on the seventh floor, and the view was terrific.
We then walked to Atlantic College at St Donat’s for lunch, in what seemed like an ancient hall, but the bursar, Paul Motte, told us that it was constructed from the ceiling and rood screen of Boston Stump in Lincolnshire!
Peter Matthews, the chairman of the new environmental body in Wales, joined us for lunch. He is English and not a Welsh speaker, but he told us that he had visited Wales on business and on holiday and he had family connections with the Cardiff/Newport area. Peter has been deputy managing director of Anglian Water Services, president of the European Water Asociation and chairman of the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation.
Encouragingly, he said that while the new organisation must be ‘evidence based, accountable, objective, focused on facts and clear decision making’ he added that there ‘must be a beating heart’, the culture must be ‘objective but passionate’, and that the common denominator of the three organisations was health and wellbeing, using the natural capital of the environment. Logically therefore, thought I, the new body should have public access at its heart.
We took the opportunity to impress upon him the importance and value of maintaining the tradition of the eisteddfod walk, to share information and experience, and to learn about what CCW (and its successor) is doing on the ground.
After lunch most people took the bus back to the eisteddfod, but Gwyn Lewis, chairman of Ramblers Cymru, Beverley Penney and I walked on along the coast.
There were fine views across the Bristol Channel to Exmoor and the Quantocks.
We returned to Llantwit Major and the train home. It had been one of the best CCW walks in this 17-year tradition, and I firmly hope that it will not be the last.