Kenfig Pool (Photo: Public Domain)
I was thinking about places in the countryside that I remember from my childhood and thought I would like to tell you about Kenfig Pool and the sand dunes there. My parents used to take me to this amazing place when I was a boy. We used to go on lots of days out, visiting the countryside. My dad had a blue Vanguard car and this is what we would go out in. Mum and Dad were always encouraging when it came to my interest in nature and they used to buy me lots of books. I had most of the Observer’s Books.
Observer's Books (Photo: Wikipedia, Fair use for illustrative purposes)
I had the Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers, and the book on fungi and British birds, and wild animals, and freshwater fish, and even the Observer’s Book of Mosses and Liverworts. That last book was given to me when I was only five, and I know that because it has survived and is at my Dad’s house still, I think, and it is signed to me in the front for my “Fifth birthday.”
Anyway, one place we used to go which I really used to love was Kenfig. It is near Porthcawl but much wilder. There is a big lake called Kenfig Pool and miles and miles of sand dunes.
These dunes have rough paths through them and eventually you can get to a long sandy beach by the sea. It takes well over an hour, as I remember it, to get from the carpark to the beach. But the walk is the real fun of it all. There were so many wild flowers I could look out for and insects and newts and frogs and toads, lizards too.
There were temporary pools that formed in the dunes and they had boggy bits around them with sphagnum moss and bog myrtle. I used to love the smell of marshy ground, especially if there was water mint that added its aroma if you stepped on it or brushed by it as you were walking. In these pools there were newts and water beetles and other water insects. I was always fascinated by water, by ponds, streams and rivers, and rock pools when we went to beaches. I used to wear my Wellingtons so I could investigate the watery places without getting my feet wet, though often I did get water in my boots and my Mum used to get mad at me because of this.
Part of the fascination was I never knew what I would find. I was exploring. It was like it stirred some sort of instinct to hunt for life; I was a hunter-gatherer boy. In those days, I was forever turning stones over, looking under boards and corrugated iron on waste ground, wading around in muddy ponds, seeing what I could catch in rivers and streams, and exploring the railway bank behind where we lived. Nature was my world. It meant much more to me than people and the human world and I hated school.
Viper's Bugloss (Photo: Public Domain)
But getting back to Kenfig, one of the reasons I was so excited by the place was because there were rare wild flowers to be found there. I used to like looking up plants in my wild-flower books. I used to always be on the lookout for new species and hoping I would discover something really rare. Wintergreen, hound’s tongue and many types of orchids were some of the rare plants that grew at Kenfig Dunes. I used to find blue viper’s bugloss and pink centaury and also we used to look out for dewberries, a type of blackberry that grew in the dunes. We used to collect them and take them home so Mum could make pie which we used to have with custard. I used to love eating blackberry pie and custard or just stewed blackberries and custard.
Often I used to go on ahead of my family, or be lagging behind them, as we made our way over the dunes. I was always investigating some marshy ground, turning over any boulders or rubbish I found or searching in the vegetation. I remember there were some parts where you could find common lizards. They would bask on bits of discarded iron sheeting and on boards and other rubbish that littered the dunes even then….this was back in the early 1960s.
Great Green Grasshopper (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)
I used to try and spot great green grasshoppers too. These insects are, as their name suggests, very big, the size of locusts. They lived in some parts of the dunes and you could hear them singing but they are really difficult to find. The insects blend in so well with the vegetation and they stop singing as soon as you get anywhere near them. Most frustrating!
Often I found young toads and they seemed happy in the sandy soil. I remember thinking about natterjack toads I had read about in my books. They liked habitats like this but were very rare and didn’t live in South Wales but that didn’t stop me dreaming I would find them there.
Six-Spot Burnet (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)
There were lots of butterflies too. Wall butterflies, meadow browns, common blues, small coppers, small heaths and the colourful day-flying moths known as burnet moths. Many of these types of butterfly you hardly ever see in Britain today. It has always depressed me to watch wildlife vanishing. I never thought it would happen when I was younger. I mean, you don’t think about these things. You think everything will always be there somehow.
In spring though it was amazing because that is when there were most wild-flowers in bloom and the ponds were full of water. At this time too, if you happened to get there at the right time, it was possible to see thousands of adult toads making their way to Kenfig Pool. They used to use the lake to breed in and I remember seeing these amphibians all over the ground on the shores of the lake and in the water around the edges. many of them were mated pairs, in what naturalists call amplexus, where the male toad grasps the female with his arms round her and rides on her back.
Common Toad (Photo: Public Domain)
I used to like the idea of how wild it felt once you got away from the road and ‘civilisation.’ It was just miles of sand dunes covered in marram grass and other plants that tolerated the sandy soil, the sky above and hardly a soul ever in sight. Most people stayed in the car-park, few ventured into the dunes and were prepared to make the long trek.
When we were getting near the beach area you could tell. There were visible signs if you knew what to look out for. The sand got more so, less covered in vegetation, and new plants appeared. The weird and prickly sea holly and sea spurge, food-plant for the rare spurge hawk moth. It was a moth I always hoped to someday see but never did. It is funny how we can live in expectation of some dream coming true, even though it is very much against the odds. It seems easier to do this when you are younger.
Gatekeeper on Sea Holly (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)
In this part of Kenfig it was like a zone, a border between the dunes and the beach, a place where different plants would grow. Then there was the top of the beach proper with rotting seaweed, bladderwrack with sandhoppers underneath it. I always used to enjoy moving the weed and seeing the hundreds of little crustaceans jumping about and seeking cover. It fascinated me how they all lived under these piles of seaweed.
Footnote: This is the slightly edited first chapter of an unpublished book I began writing. More chapters will appear in future blogs.