Llansteffan: the greatest hits in one striking coastal Carmarthenshire hike

Walking on mirrors © Kerry Walker

Distance: 7.25km (loop) or 13km (with 5.75km out-and-back extension).

Carmarthenshire, being next-door neighbours with beach-perfect Pembrokeshire, often gets its 70-odd miles of coastline unfairly overlooked. But the county is no seaside flop. The estuary-indented seaboard embraces Wales’ longest beach (eight-mile-long Pembrey Sands), the shores where numerous land speed records including Malcolm Campbell’s got set (Pendine Sands), the spot where Amelia Earhart touched down to become the first lady to fly the transatlantic solo (Burry Port), the town made famous by Dylan Thomas (Laugharne) and… Llansteffan.

If we were to alight anywhere along the coast between the Gower and where Pembrokeshire’s strands become seriously lovely at Tenby, Llansteffan would most definitely be the place. Its fat, flat band of golden sand is up there in the pantheon of South Wales’ finest beaches. The sands are adjoined by a gaunt ruined castle, the village is served by a very agreeable pub, tearoom and fish-and-chip takeaway and the coastal walking is the Carmarthenshire Coast Path’s most diverse and dramatic. All the ingredients, then, for a superlative seaside hike that leaves us little choice but to give it pride of place on the site because for all its qualities, Llansteffan is also an undiscovered gem.

Pembrokeshire’s beaches? You’ll be travelling a lot further west for what is not necessarily superior strand. Tenby’s Castle? Not a patch on Llansteffan’s. Laugharne’s Dylan Thomas connections? Admittedly more extensive than Llansteffan’s, but this community has links to the booze-loving bard too.

What to do

The beach. The castle. The pub, the tearoom, the fish and chips. Strolling through the staggering combo of estuarine, coastal and clifftop scenery. And encountering all this and more on the below seaside circular (no annoying out-and-back-the-same-way as is the bane of most coast-hugging hikes).

The route

Splendid isolation

© Luke Waterson

Six other cars in the beach-abutting car park: not quite packed, then, but not as quiet as Llansteffan sometimes is. We often hypothesise why this likeable seaside village is so seldom-visited. The insalubrious approach, perhaps, which more or less forces you through a dismal Carmarthen industrial estate and a swathe of unappealing suburban sprawl, with no brown signs to point holiday-makers along the way. Tourists arriving at Carmarthen are normally Hell-bent on reaching Pembrokeshire as swiftly as possible, too: their big loss, of course, and the gain of the few who do choose to explore the forgotten, half-cut-off lands between the estuaries of Rivers Tywi and Taf, the somnolent scenery snaking from the county town to the Pembrokeshire border, the precise course of this walk.

Aside from the dearth of other beach-goers, itself enhanced by the hugeness of Llansteffan’s sands, I remember why we love this place best. It is the light. The light manages to be sensational even on an otherwise dreary winter’s day. Today the slate-grey clouds dogging us since we left home here, for the first time, peel back into a dazzling fiery yellow-white gleam that radiates low on the horizon out where the Tywi, Wales’ second-longest river, broadens into Carmarthen Bay. The tidal island of Worm’s Head on the Gower, a short distance as the crow flies but a mighty long way by land because of Carmarthenshire’s drastically riven in-and-out shores, is where the light is most intense, but it seeps across the water and illuminates the beach in front of us. The beach that, visit after visit, never fails to pull off some brilliantly incandescent magic trick with sky and sun and sea and sand. You do not need to be a good photographer here to take magnificent pictures. At Llansteffan, nature has the lighting just right.

Walking over a mirror past a coastal castle

The walk starts of course by a saunter down onto that sand of Llansteffan Beach by the yawning mouth of the Tywi. It is not so often you get to see the transition from river to estuary to sea, and Carmarthenshire, and still more specifically this hike, is one of the best spots in Wales to observe this. Sand that seems like a mirror most days with the water abandoned by outgoing tides or recent rains. Roam anywhere you want, but if you wish to follow this walk, generally bearing right (the direction you would want to naturally incline towards anyway, left is upriver and the sands soon become mud). Down to the water’s edge, which is sometimes very far, to look out across at candy-coloured Ferryside, the strung-out village over the estuary. Along Llansteffan’s unassuming waterfront, because this is a place without any big resort razzmatazz, along to the end where in normal times the last house in the row is a beach cafe and the wooden sheds at the side of the second car park serve succulent fish and chips. Beyond the village up on the right as you stroll, the cliffs pin-cushioned by knurled trees rise to the remains of Llansteffan Castle. Stay on the beach: you will get the chance to clock the castle later on. And the marbled swirls and smudges of blonde sand and glittering water keep on getting more abstractly artistic, more startling. This can be one trance-inducing trail. With an emptiness that means even other passers-by are not necessary to consider because they pass so far to one side or the other. Drift on through in a dream: this is the kind of place for dreaming. You may look seaward as a rule but consider the cliffs too: ruptured, corrugated and carved out by a cave at one point. Before long on your right you come to a rose-pink house facing out to the estuary that you will most probably fantasise about buying. Whilst you can wander on around the beach for a long way when tides are out, our route lurches in here up the beach ramp to swing across in front of the garden of the pretty pink house, passing through a white gate (and then another, just up from here and very shortly afterwards), on the coast path heading west in the direction of Laugharne.

Of cliffs and resting places… and a cold blow   

Distant marbled sands © Luke Waterson

Your path is now hemmed in by trees, but these reveal glimpses, every now and then as you ascend, of the estuary overview: dripping branches framing an immensely epic sand- and seascape: perhaps one of the greatest in South Wales. It is a long and often muddy climb onto the gorse-emblazoned moor, but there are a couple of benches breaking up the journey (we always smile at these benches and invariably sit on them, because the walks we generally do in Wales only have rocks or tussocks for resting places!). Through a gate and onto the open scrub comes our favourite section of the route. The views that have been improving culminate in some seriously expansive panoramas and you start to see not just the one estuary (Tywi) but the beginnings of the second (Taf, and beyond it Laugharne). At the moorland entrance an intriguing sign points the curious down from the main path in the direction of ‘Cold Blow’. We have investigated a way down this overgrown little path but never determined whatever ‘Cold Blow’ might be: a joke, a blowhole, a smuggler’s hideout? We would like to know, some day! This part of the path feels wild beyond the deceptively gentle contours of the land but, sure enough, another bench awaits a way along for a drink were you forward-thinking enough to bring one. After you duck down to pass through another gate you turn away from the sea for a while on a muddy enclosed track to promptly descend to a metalled lane.

Optional extension from here to the old Laugharne ferry

Remnants of the old ferry?! © Luke Waterson

The Llansteffan circular heads right along the lane from here, but a long (although enjoyable) extension whisks you right on down to the edge of the Taf estuary for superb views across to Laugharne (better than you get in Laugharne itself actually). It’s about 2.75km one-way (5.5km return to this point). Just stay on the charming little lane left past a car park and farm track turning to a cross-junction of metalled lanes. Swivel left and downhill here, continuing beyond where the coast path branches off to the lane’s cul-de-sac at a holiday cottage and farm. From here a decent farm track ventures further out towards the estuary water’s edge which begins to close in on the tapering spit of land along which you are walking. The surrounding terrain is flat, reedy, otherworldly. The farm track peters out in the reeds and mud and water by the site of the former Laugharne ferry, voyaged in by famous names such as celebrated chronicler Gerald of Wales back in the 12th century and by Dylan Thomas and family in more recent times when they lived across the water in the Boat House you can clearly see from here. It almost looks as if you could walk across the mud to Laugharne from here but do not do it: the oozy gloopy mud and abrupt hidden gullies of deep water make it treacherous. It is strange to contemplate this marooned byway being the onetime lead-up to an important ferry crossing (the bridges further inland were not always there, remember). Now nothing remains in this empty place besides sky blurring into sea, occasional driftwood, an old farm shed and the bleached skeleton of an old boat embedded in the silt – perhaps the ferry itself! Still, it makes a great picnic spot here. Return the same way to rejoin our Llansteffan circular trail.

Dylan Thomas’ Boat House – but you probably don’t need us to tell you that! © Luke Waterson

Walk another hidden valley back to Llansteffan Castle

A right turn on the metalled lane (or straight on if you have just been busy on the hike extension) brings you along the left side of a gorgeous whitewashed old farm with signs aiding you onto a muddy track hogging the upper edge of a hedge which walks you down a small tucked-away valley more or less parallel with the coast path. Llansteffan Castle is directly ahead on the next rise but still looks dinky at this distance. Soon enough the route curves right, through a wide gate, and drops down alongside the garden of the afore-mentioned pink house to rejoin your outward route. Return through the two gates to beach level but instead of going back onto the sands continue straight ahead on a solid path that clambers up into the castle woods again (you are bearing up the cliff you saw from the beach). Follow this some way past a shelter useful for cowering from the elements and noticeboards informing you about local nautical history to a division of ways, where keeping left (up) delivers you around to the junction with a lane. Hard left again, a smart surfaced track spins you between trees (the refined parkland kind) to Llansteffan Castle grounds.

© Luke Waterson

The castle’s bulky shell, with its especially impressive gatehouse, still remains, and although the inside is now in the main a large grassy space you are left in no doubt about this Norman stronghold’s awe-inspiring former size. Return to the lane junction and carry on down along Church Street over open farmland to reach the welcoming pub Inn At the Sticks (you can stay here, too). As the pub name implies, Llansteffan is quite content being a backwater but pause for a drink in here and you will find it a lively one! To quaff a beer, so to speak, in the footsteps of Dylan, save your pint for the Farmers Arms in the village just up the hill, Llanybri: the writer definitely drank here. Continue a small way down the High Street to take the tarmac path at Maesgriffith down to the intersection of Glan-y-Mor and Water Lane. The latter you will recognise, hopefully, as the lane you drove down to park your car.

And there we have it: one cracking coastal hike and all of the greatest hits of Llansteffan well and truly experienced!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Llansteffan, it is 27 miles west and then south around the coastline to Pembrokeshire’s delightful beach duo of Church Doors and Skrinkle Haven or – choice time – wend 17 miles northeast to one of Carmarthenshire’s most drama-charged inland fortresses, Dryslwyn Castle.

At a glance…

How to get there: From Carmarthen follow the B4312 7.5 miles through Johnstown south to Llansteffan. When you arrive in the village, at the first crossroads, the car park for the start of the walk is the first, quite sharp, left.

Parking: Very good and lots of it. Two car parks at either end of the ‘front’ of Llansteffan, one with public toilets too and one with takeaway fish and chips!

Refreshments: Llansteffan has more than enough to keep the wolf from the door, with a cafe and fish and chips down on the front and then, up on the High Street conveniently situated at the end of the hike above, The Inn At The Sticks

Best time to visit: Any time really. Llansteffan is not a swimming beach (you have to walk out so far, and tides in the estuary are quite dangerous) so you are not beholden to summer for a dabble and the light is dazzling all year round.