An ode to South Wales’ spirited seaside towns

Every summer, my two sisters and I would ask our mother, “Where are we going on our summer holidays?” Every year came the same reply: “South Wales.”

“Not South Waaaaayles!” we would cry in unison, hoping our collective distaste would be reflected in the length of our vowels.

While our friends were disappearing to the south of France via catamaran, we were loaded up in the car and driven half the length of the M4 to Porthcawl, a seaside town with a population of 15,000 that lies almost halfway between Swansea and Cardiff. For my mother, who grew up there, this was an annual homecoming of sorts, but it was also her way to connect us to a part of our history.

Our lack of enthusiasm was understandable: The Porthcawl we knew (and, spoiler alert, grew to love) was well past its heyday. What had its pinnacle as a 1960s holiday town for miners working in neighbouring towns had become as rusty as its boardwalk by the early ’90s, when demand for British seaside holidays declined because the mines were gradually closing and flights to mainland Europe becoming more affordable and accessible.

The older I get the more I realize how much there is to love about this place. The people there have such showmanship

But the history of this spritely seaside town was rich and vast. Nearby Kenfig Castle, which pre-dates the Norman invasion of the 11th century, is now surrounded by sand dunes and is great fun for adventuring and spotting wildlife from birds to bunnies. And another Norman conquest is Ogmore Castle, with its giant stepping stones begging to be jumped on to cross the river beside it.

Of course the real way my mother won us over was easy. “The fair is open,” is all she had to say, which meant that the amusement park of rickety roller coasters, jumbo slides and arcade games had pulled up its shutters for the season. It certainly wasn’t the most upmarket — or safest — of operations, but nothing got us more excited than the smell of candy floss and the sound of simulated lasers mixed with Elvis Presley blasting from the bar at the entrance to the fair. (Elvis has not yet left that building, or any, it would seem, in Porthcawl, which continues to draw crowds of thousands each September for its Elvis festival.)

The older I get the more I realize how much there is to love about this place. The people there have such a showmanship in their sense of humour and it feels like everyone takes the time to stop and have conversations with each other. Add to that, Porthcawl has seven beaches, two of which hold blue-flag status: the rocky Rest Bay, which is great for rockpool fishing, and Trecco Bay, where a stationary caravan park operates. And thanks to the influx of Italians who arrived in South Wales after the Second World War, there are tastes of more exotic places to be found downtown. Popular Italian cafe chain Fulgoni serves the creamiest scoops of ice-cream you’ve ever tasted, in stainless steel bowls amid a 1950s diner-style setting. The other local delicacy no summer would be complete without: fish and chips with mushy peas from Beales Fish & Chips, or faggots and chips, if you’re old-school. There is no place in the world where fresher fish is served by friendlier people. I know — I’ve looked.

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