The Journey

GWTTA: Porthcawl

It’s 9 a.m. and I am riding down the main road of Porthcawl on a sunny, crisp winter morning. Already, there are people walking the promenade. Outside the beachfront cafe, old ladies in decades-old winter jackets hawkishly stake out places to sit while their husbands stand in queue for milky tea and dry cakes. And in this I find myself strangely reminded of another town, some 6,000 miles away: Julian, California.

Not because Porthcawl and Julian are in any way alike. Julian is nestled in the Laguna Mountains of Southern California, whereas Porthcawl sits on the southern Welsh coast. Julian maintains a classic Americana small town feel, with a number of wooden buildings dating back to the 1860s. Porthcawl is worn and piecemeal, its architecture reflecting decades of failed attempts to make it into something more than it will ever be.
The similarity comes simply in the fact that, in both cases, just about every person from the surrounding area insists you should go there. And when you get there you are suddenly confronted with the inherent flaw in crowdsourcing for advice. Because, see, if just about every person you meet tells you that you should visit this or that town, the odds are extremely high they’ve told other people the same thing.

Julian and Porthcawl are sold to newcomers and visitors alike as quaint and charming. And conceivably they could be were it not for the fact that everyone and their uncle –– and their uncle’s uncle –– has come in search of that quaintness and charm. So, your main impression is instead of a place so overcrowded that every fibre in your being aches to get away from it. Its beauty is all but lost to the fact you are trying not to get run over by confused drivers as they dart for parking spaces. You are trying not to run over their children as they leap from cars into the road. You are trying not to kill their grandparents, who have apparently reached the age where they no longer know how to cross a road.

Pictures you take of the town will include all of these people, no matter how hard you try to frame them out of shot. If you stand still long enough, these people will literally walk into you. Because the bustle is all just a little too much for them, as well, and they’ve lost basic spatial awareness. 

Porthcawl seafront. The businesses on this end were shut, so it was less busy.

I have of late been trying to follow the riding advice of Gary France: “I like to ride my favourite roads very early in the morning, while others wanting to ride it are still in bed.”
I suppose 9 a.m. isn’t “very early”, but in the dead of winter it feels early enough. The sun has only been up for an hour at this point, and I have spent that last hour meandering my way across the Vale of Glamorgan from my own seaside town, Penarth, which is about 25 miles east along the coast.

The VOG is a damned lovely place to ride if you time it right. The A48 stretches the width of its 129 square miles, but even that is relatively relaxed thanks to the fact it runs parallel to the presumed-to-be-faster M4. Almost all other routes in the borough are B road and country lane, most of it relatively well-maintained and affording the sort of broad sightlines on corners that I prefer.

Its close proximity to the major urban centres of South Wales means you can encounter a fair few impatient and inattentive drivers during commuting times. But on a winter Sunday morning all is calm. The fields are so heavily covered in frost it looks like snow. Here and there, patches of black ice glisten in the unusually bright sun.

I have arrived at Porthcawl via an indirect and gentle route. After all, slow = warm. With my heated grips cranked to 100 percent I am able to keep feeling in my hands.

The approach to the Porthcawl seafront is an unspectacular series of roundabouts and poorly labelled roads that leave you feeling as though you’ve accidentally turned yourself in a full circle, but I keep following signs to the beach and eventually know I’m on the right track when I pass the sign famously warning drivers to keep an eye out for individuals riding giant ducks.

Caution: People riding ducks

That the seafront is crowded causes me to suffer a classic Chris moment of crippling indecision. Assuming the streets and pavements would be empty at this time of day, I had planned to ride my bike onto the promenade and take artsy photos. Or, well, as artsy as one can achieve with a Nexus 4 (Jenn has promised to get me a real camera for my birthday). But with the pedestrian walkway buzzing, and the winter chill forcing an aggressive determination into people’s gait, it seems quite possible that riding my bike onto the pavement now would result in my knocking someone down or, at the very least, getting a stern talking to.

Especially if I park up anywhere near the beachside cafe. The people sat outside it wear a look of belligerence that suggests they could not be moved even with artillery fire. I am reminded of an observation my friend, Chris Phin, once made of efforts by residents of Edinburgh to mimic a hip, Southern Europe lifestyle despite the realities of the Scottish climate: “They’re all sitting at these outdoor cafes, turning blue, with a look on their faces that’s like: ‘I will sip this fucking latte and smoke these fucking designer cigarettes if it fucking kills me.'”

The cafes in Porthcawl are not hip, nor their clientèle, but the spirit is the same. They are trying to imagine themselves as being somewhere else. Like almost all British seaside towns, Porthcawl has at least two abandoned hotels and a crumbling concert venue advertising a DJ Spoony gig from about 5 years ago. 

It is the cycle of British seaside towns that the country will get two good summers in a row, so some have-a-go investor will set up a cheaper, half-assed version of a thing he saw while on holiday in Spain, telling himself: “This’ll really pack ’em in.” Then the reality of British non-summer will return for several seasons; the business will decay, flounder and shut. The cycle repeats every 7-10 years.

It’s hard to tell where Porthcawl is in its cycle. Enough people come from the nearby area to keep the cafes busy on sunny days, but no one stays overnight. Well, usually, no one does.

The town’s main claim to fame is that it is home to an annual Elvis Festival, which sees literally thousands of Elvis impersonators and tribute acts pour into the town for a few days each September. I’ve found no particularly good explanation as to why this happens: why it got started, why an Elvis Festival takes place in Porthcawl. If you ask locals, it’s clear they’ve given it no thought: “I don’t know, to be honest. He had some sort of Welsh connection, didn’t he? A grandmother or an aunt, like.”

This hardly seems like a viable reason to me, but then, local newspapers regularly report anything and everything about Australian pop star Kylie Minogue because her mother was from Maesteg.

Like almost every place along the South Wales coast that isn’t a cliff, Porthcawl once served as a coal port during the Industrial Revolution. There are thankfully little signs of that today. Indeed, there is little sign of anything that would employ a person outside of the day-tourist trade. To that end, the bulk of Porthcawl’s residents are retirees or commuters.

Just to the north (or west, depending on how you think about it) of the town’s main seafront area lies Rest Bay, which is apparently renown among local surfers. I know this because there are always surfers there, regardless of conditions — which are frequently atrocious. I suspect surfing in Wales is something akin to religious self-flagellation: the serenity of it comes through pain.

Looking over Rest Bay. I had to crop several people out of this photo.

I park my bike overlooking the beach. On a rare warm and sunny summer day, it would be crowded with literally thousands of people. Today, just a few hearty souls wander the coastline, throwing balls to their dogs or kicking at stones. In the water, a handful of fully wet-suited learning surfers try and fail to stay upright against the cutting winter winds.

From here I can see clearly across the Bristol Channel to the Exmoor coast of Somerset and Devon. Each time I’m afforded a view like this I am reminded of a story Jenn told me once of her mother, from the days when Jenn was attending Cardiff University. When her parents would drive up from Devon to visit, her mother would phone as soon as the road afforded them a view of the coast.

“I can see you,” she’d say. “I can see Wales.”

With U.S. shores so impossibly out of view, I have partially adopted Jenn’s home county as my own. From here I can see Devon and I feel vaguely homesick. In a content sort of way. In Wales, they call this feeling “hiraeth.”

I am still wearing my helmet because it helps keep my head warm, but it is only after I stomp some 150 metres across a field to a public restroom and stand there at the urinal do I realise how odd I must look. Coming out of the toilet I pull off the helmet and, out of habit, my gloves. By the time I get back to my bike, my fingers and ears are stinging with cold.

I fire up the bike, turn the heated grips to 100 percent and slip my gloves over them for heat. Then I crouch down to hide from the wind and and place my bare hands on the crankcase. Honda efficiency and winter cold mean it is only warm.

The bike, I see from this close vantage point, is filthy. Salt and sand and manure from the road is caked on the bike’s exhaust pipes. I decide that I need to get home and spend my afternoon cleaning off the crap picked up in the morning’s ride. But first I will spend another hour or two drifting through the VOG’s lanes.

I loop back through the seafront area as I leave Porthcawl. I stop at a crosswalk to allow an a middle-aged woman to cross the road. When she is directly in front of me, she pushes back her windblown hair and says: “Lovely day for it.”

Then I am off and moving away from the place that everyone will tell you to go to.

Winter muck


This visit to Porthcawl was part of the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure, my attempt to fall in love with Wales again through visiting some 66 places listed on a tea-towel-based map.