1st – 5th December 2021
Chester – Whelston
15 miles/426 ft total ascent
Storm Arwen had barely completed her ice ridden scream through the country when I set off at dawn from a hostel in Chester. I honestly had not been too sure at all what sort of a winter I would be heading into and had made the mistake of googling ‘frostbite’ a couple days before. I had naively thought that if my fingers got frosted, then a surgeon would just lop them off and send me on my way. No. That is not the case. There’s a whole ‘rewarming’ process whereby an attempt is made to lessen and melt the ice crystals that have formed in the affected tissues; it can go on for weeks and by all accounts is absolutely excruciating.
I would not develop frostbite on my winter walk around Wales, but at this stage I didn’t know that. I had three different types of gloves, two different kinds of hand warmers and a mini hot water bottle because I had now added ‘rewarming’ to my very long list of things I didn’t want to happen.
The path started two miles along the canal-side cycle path, marked with large grey stones, just before the ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign, and would continue in this semi-urban riverside vein for a few more miles yet.
The Wales Coast Path (Llwybr Arfordir Cymru) seemed to take everyone by surprise when it was officially opened in 2012 despite having been in the works since 2006. The Welsh Government partnered with sixteen local authorities, two national parks, and the former Countryside Council for Wales to make it happen. The hope that it would bring tourism and revenue to some of Wales’ more rural and remote parts was not ill conceived; as well as the two national parks, the path runs through eleven national nature reserves and dozens more different reserves kept by the RSBI and other wildlife trusts. The year of launch, Lonely Planet had awarded the Welsh Coast first place in its Best In Travel category. In other words; it’s very pretty and the prettiness is very preserved.
Well. Most of it.
The North Wales Coast Path is not known for being particularly inspiring, and it was a good thing that I was buzzing off the unknown of a new adventure, because the tarmac covered beginning along the grey water did not offer a lot to look at, let alone admire.
The River Dee (Afon Dyfrdwy) has its start all the way up in the mountains of Snowdonia before this inauspicious pouring point into the sea. The blue Queensberry Bridge eventually showed up amid the rain and offered a modicum of excitement in its crossing, purely to continue the same plod down the other side all the way past Connah’s Quay and on to Flint.
The weather would alternate between dark grey drizzle and blinding bright skies which, at least, meant plenty of rainbows. They bucked up their jovial arcs above the towers of the Tata Steelworks that sourly rose over the landscape. It would be the first of a number of industrial sights along the Welsh Coast, and Flint Castle would be the first of many more castles.
The Flint RNLI station was placed just as the footpath plonked down by the castle. Unusually, there were statues scattered about of coastguards and lifeguards; some posing with binoculars and some taking a rest on benches. I couldn’t help but wonder whether if some poor sod, starting to drown out in the water, would wave desperately back at the land thinking that these bulky statues were real RNLI members just standing still and watching them drown? That would be a really disheartening demise.
Because Flint Castle was the first castle out of so, so many I would see, I gave it far more attention and love than others along the way (It only took until Caernarfon for me to become oversaturated). I wandered the pleasant grounds and sat on benches next to the weird plastic lifeguards. Edward I ordered the building of Flint Castle in 1277 and it would become the first of his ‘Iron Ring’; a series of fortresses encircling North Wales with the goal of subduing the unruly and rebellious Welsh.
It survived sieges and fires, and was where Henry Bolingbroke held Richard II prisoner; a historical titbit immortalised by Shakespeare. After the Royalists held the castle in the Civil War, Cromwell later ordered its destruction and the ruins that were left are all that remain.
From Flint, the walk started to feel more like a footpath and, as the estuary grew wider and wider, gave more glimmers of the idea of a coastal path. The tarmac was mostly gone from underfoot and it started to wind, occasionally through scratty woodland, and occasionally dipping down to the marshlands that stretched out peacefully ahead. These shoreside stretches of wet and glistening grasses never seem much to look at, but the fertile soil and all its creepy crawly inhabitants attracts a huge range of birdlife. Oystercatchers, dunlins, plovers and godwets all come here in great numbers in the colder, quieter, darker months… and their appearance attracts the Falcons and the Kestrels and, well, there’s a whole food chain of intraspecies cannibilism to potentially be witnessed.
For most of this, the coast path was only a hedge or a copse or a fence away from some noisy human labour; drills, shouts, revs and dragging would make muffled aural appearance regularly. Dark started coming down fast and I wasn’t entirely sure I would reach Mostyn; the point I had hoped to camp. Instead I made my way down the bank outside of Whelston, away from the path and set up where a great jutting piece of land would shelter me. The tops of a huge whirring wind turbine spun above the backdrop.
Facing out to sea, it was the nighttime end of the first day. At only four in the afternoon.
Whelston – Abergele
23 miles/773 ft total ascent
I had watched ’14 Peaks’ in the Chester hostel before I set off. This amazing tale of Nirmal Purja succeeding in his quest to climb the 14 tallest peaks in the world within six months, whilst incredibly inspiring, set me off on an extremely stressful dream last night wherein I attempted a similar sort of insane challenge except I really sucked and was the object of worldwide ridicule and probably had to go and be a hermit somewhere for the rest of my life (I don’t know, I woke up before I observed the long-term consequences). This really wasn’t the downer I wanted. Thanks Nirmal.
It turned out that today’s nemesis would not be the ice fields or exposed ridges or sheer drops of the 8,000 metre mountains. No. It would be static caravans.
Many hours before the static caravans, I made my way in the crisp clear morning towards Mostyn, passing the grounded HMS Lancaster. This ship was among the last of the passenger-only steamers and was in action for twenty years before being intentionally beached up here in North Wales. After a brief life as a ‘fun ship’ filled up with arcade games, she was left to rest and rust and has now lived an afterlife on ground far longer than she ever spent in the sea. Supposedly the interior is still in impressively good nick, but you can’t sneak in. I know. I tried.
Can you still call it a ‘shipwreck’ if the wrecking was intentional? Do you think she has a complex about it?
A brief blip on another cycle path burped inland before emerging again and turning north along the marshes up to the lighthouse at the Point of Ayr and Talacre.
Now, this isn’t the first ‘Point of Ayr/Ayre’ that I’ve been too. It seems the only etymology I can find nervously indicates that it refers to a shingle beach or sand bar. Maybe. It would make sense that lighthouses are placed on edges of coast which tend to be either sand or shingle, but I really was hoping for something a bit more mystical.
The point would mark the end of the Flintshire Coalfield, from where coal was exported off the estuary from 1593 to 1986. Many of the towns here are old mining towns that flourished until the coal became uneconomical. The odd march up to the point took me past the old colliery, as well as the present gas terminal, all set about by waving yellow coastal grasses that petered out to the marshes.
Dunes rose up around the lighthouse, all sombre as the winter air kept away the punters that might consume them in summer. It’s an area of Special Scientific Interest due to having a fairly decent population of natterjack toads. The dune walking ended at the Prestatyn promenade taking me around the coast further to Rhyl.
The holiday camps and static caravans had started to crop up, but once I passed the Marine Lake in the shoddy, sad, and somewhat dodgy town of Rhyl, they took over. Camps of caravans side by side by side. For miles. Like a copy paste of functional rectangles all the way to the horizon. Right up to the path on the one side, on the other, a gravel beach. Whilst the gravel would give way to sand, the relentless blocky landscape of caravans would not. After eight miles of this I started to panic. Dark was going to come in soon and I’d had no indication it would be this built up.
In slight alarm, I pushed on along the cycle path. Which may have been a mistake as first the railway, and then the North Wales Expressway swerved in making appearances alongside the caravans. Motorway, trains, and caravans on one side; beach with super long tidelines on the other.
Eventually it was dark and I had to make a choice. I was sorely tempted to just put on the headtorch and fire on through the dark to Llandudno which I had hoped to reach the next day, but I hate nighttime headtorch hiking (even if this was hardly hiking anymore) so I slammed to a halt in the first place that made even the tiniest reprieve: a small flat piece of land beside the cycle path at a point where the motorway and the caravans were risen above it on a high bank.
It was probably the worst wildcamp choice I’ve ever made and broke pretty much all the rules. It wasn’t even a wildcamp. It was a stealthcamp. And a very bad one at that. But I was tired and I figured most cyclists would stop soon now it was dark and maybe, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.
I did start to think, as I went to sleep, that if so many hundreds of thousands of people are so passionately into static caravans, maybe I’m missing out?
Abergele – Llandudno
10 miles/852 ft total ascent
The gravelly, dry earth hadn’t been very accommodating to my tent pegs so I was in and out all night readjusting and regrounding them. I was immensely grateful to have a freestanding tent; it wouldn’t have been standing at all otherwise.
As I expected, the cyclists had petered out soon after I’d set up my tent, apart from one lone ranger that tore down the cyclepath at two in the morning as I was out in my thermals sorting out pegs for the umpteenth time. I’m really not sure who was more surprised. Whilst I hadn’t expected a midnight bicyclist, I think it’s fair to say he had not expected to come across a woman in winter underwear mucking around with a tent; her polyester clad arse in full beam of his headlight.
By four in the morning, I was fed up with this situation. I packed up and grabbed the headtorch knowing it would be dark for three hours yet. The map showed the day’s path to be sticking true to the cyclepath and promenades for the most of it so I had figured there was only so much that could go wrong.
In the dark, the looping of the cyclepath up to and then away from and then up again to the zooming and constantly busy motorway was very unsettling. Especially when it ducked between tall wire fences and through graffitied tunnels. The static caravans, you’ll be delighted to hear, carried on for at least four more miles. I started to consider, in my sleep-deprived state, surrounded by the strangeness of torchlit walking and the constant movement one side or another of traffic, that maybe there had only ever been one static caravan but now my mind was now just replicating them all over the place.
Over in the distance, across in Colwyn Bay, I saw a faint faraway green glow. Over the next hours curiosity would consume me. What was it? What would I find? What magic did it herald? Would there be doughnuts?
Eventually I plopped down onto the promenade; grim and grey in the very early light, consumed by shadows cast from unforgiving streetlights. There had been an attempt to upgrade this promenade of yet another former seaside resort town; I hadn’t realised that part of this effort involved placing yet more statues. In this case it was of people doing ordinary beach things and, frankly, I thought they were real and couldn’t work out why they were frozen until I was close enough to be both embarrassed and annoyed by it.
During WWII, Colwyn Bay was home to the Ministry of Food and housed the Cocoa and Chocolate division. I would surmise that it was very wise to place the oversight and storage of this very important food group somewhere so nondescript. There was no way the Germans would waste fuel bombing around here, especially as the wartime saw the ceasing of the carefree seaside holidaying and the town was far from its best or most relevant. Apparently, I’m told, Colwyn Bay is better in both the light and the summer, so I’ll concede that I did not see it at its best, but also my salty, sarcastic judgement is hard to shift.
The green glow beckoned and beckoned until its full form was revealed. I was absolutely furious. There was no magic. There was no doughnuts; it was just a tree wrapped in what must have been the most superwatted lights known to man. Not even any other colour or any decorations; just the glowing green.
In full daylight, the Great Orme that dominates the headland of Llandudno would have been clearly visible. As it was I saw it slowly take shape as the light came in hours after I had started out. I would walk through two more seaside resorts on pavement, wiggling around urban intrusions and day had fully arrived as one big climb took me up to the Little Orme and the start of a view. Looking back, the in and out of the bays of North Wales I had already covered swerved back to the far horizon.
Eventually, the final wide promenade took me into Llandudno. Llandudno has an ancient history, growing from the Neolithic settlements that once scattered along the haunch of the Great Orme. It hadn’t taken long from there for the settlements to turn into a group of towns and then into one big one as the Orme was mined extensively for copper and other ores until the accessible quantity was exhausted. Fortunately by then the Victorian passion for the seaside had swung in with full force and the town was intentionally developed into a holiday resort by Lord Mostyn.
From here it absolutely boomed and somehow did not suffer the same fate of rapid economic deterioration as other seaside towns. It maintains an old fashioned charm with wide pedestrian spaces, wrought iron balconies and proud little columns outside shaded shop fronts. The town is named after St. Tudno; one of the seven sons of the useless King Seithenyn whose drunkenness’ and general incompetence lead to the loss of his kingdom as it was consumed by the sea. Personally I’m not convinced that a town being flooded can really be blamed on a king being a lush, but either way Tudno studied at a monastery for most of his life in order to recompense his father’s actions. Once again, I’m not sure how that helps things, but I guess religion isn’t really there to make sense. He journeyed to the towns around the Great Orme to spread the word of Christianity…but then went and lived in a cave as a hermit. I have a feeling Tudno was well meaning but not particularly smart.
I went into a café for well deserved breakfast and some sort of extremely fluffy cream and marshmallow covered hot chocolate creation. I managed to bump my bag into everything and must have apologised to everyone in there at least once. I probably should have gone to the launderette before rather than after as I was already pretty stinky. I was miffed I wasn’t able to find more instant mash when I went to resupply, and there weren’t any instant noodle options; only couscous. But that’s what I guess you get for trying to resupply at a Marks and Spencers. Fortunately I found the good backpacker fare later at Londis.
I had found a cheap guesthouse for the night and indulged in a decent scrub and a takeaway fish and chips. Even though the chippy had misheard my request for ‘cheese’ on the chips as ‘peas’, I counted the whole Llandudno experience as a win and miles, miles better than the static caravan hellscape of yesterday.
Llandudno – Llanfairfechan
19 miles/2388 ft total ascent
The winds were due to pick up today and reach a steady 28m/h with gusts of 40. Fortunately the morning would be sheltered by the walk along the east side of the Great Orme.
The name is a Norse word referring to a sea serpent, likening the bulbous limestone rise out of the waves to the rearing of a monster’s head. The Welsh name, Y Gogarth, means the same. The layers of limestone and dolomite were formed in the Early Carboniferous age under the compression of far warmer sea and was carried northward as the landmass moved. The violence of the Carboniferous era thrust the Orme up above the waters as volcanoes and earthquakes shook and formed some of the world’s greatest mountains. Snowdonia took the brunt as all the land underneath the sea was shot up to great heights. The Orme rose up its serpent’s head above the water, sheltered from the worst by the impact on Snowdonia, and then froze in the next ice age. The retreating of the glaciers exposed the layers on the sides and the ragged limestone pavements.
The relatively small nature reserve of the Great Orme, is also protected as a site of Special Area of Conservation, Heritage Coast, Country Park, and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Warden services patrol the area and the whole preservation of the headland is taken extremely seriously. I guess it makes up for how entirely the rock was ravaged during all that mining.
The path is the pavement along the road that goes all around the head so I followed yet another tarmac trudge, at least this time with something exciting to look at. The layers and caves exposed and carved in the steep, looming stone sides are home to many small and rare alpine plants thriving off the lime rich soils. Around 200 Kashmir goats also call the Orme home. These are all descended from a pair gifted to Queen Victoria in the middle of nineteenth century. I don’t want to cast aspersions on Vicky, but I’m guessing she wasn’t too chuffed with this gift which is how they ended up abandoned on a random Welsh headland.
I did not come across any goats, and as I rounded the north head, the wind I had so far kept away from smacked me full force, pushing me sideways until I had to grab the railing of the pavement to readjust my stance. At least I wasn’t in the situation of the two cyclists that followed soon after that were blown in an instant across the tarmac, wheels spinning and completely unseated, tumbling like tissues in a breeze. Unfortunately for all of us, the headland café was shut.
It was a battle to walk along the north curve; every time I thought the one corner was the end, another appeared. The wind in my face as it blasted in from the west, the force of it carrying on for about half a mile until the road dipped far enough for the land on the other side of the bay to block the attack.
The west side of the Orme was very different to the east. Where the west sat empty but for the scenic road (little used in winter) and footpaths, the east began to fill with homes and I took a brief break in a small shelter which had been designed as a memorial to a sixteen year old boy.
Having rounded the Great Orme, I was now in West Llandudno, and headed down to the seafront where the sand path through the small dunes was being blown all over the place and the water frothed and churned angrily, spitting further across the sands that it would on a calmer day. In midsummer, this stretch is lovely and very busy, but being winter the businesses that flourish in the sun have shuttered down and hibernated. Just before the dunes, a dog took an instant dislike to me, growling and blocking my path. I called to his owner who was looking out to sea a few metres away but he couldn’t hear me over the wind. Even when he did so, and got the dog back, I had to follow at a distance because if I came within twenty metres the dog would start frothing rage again. Of course, according to the owner, he was ‘never normally like this’.
I eventually crossed the wide bridge that brought me to the shadow of Conwy Castle, another of the ‘Iron Ring’. Despite suffering the same fate at the hands of Cromwell after sheltering Royalists, and later being pillaged for metals, it has had a grand restoration and looms tall and proud above the town.
In its shadow is Great Britain’s smallest house. A tiddly red-painted nook, measuring just 72 inches across, 122 inches high and 120 inches deep and has only two rooms – neither of which have a toilet. The upstairs is a small bedroom whilst the downstairs attempts to fit in all the other living necessities. Recently it was furnished with its first sofa after a furniture company decided they would take on the challenge of making a sofa that would fit. The company, fittingly, was called ‘Snug’.
It has been in the ownership of the same family for over 100 years. It’s worth noting that this family seems to constantly produce a lineage of people that are over 6ft tall. Suffice to say, none of them have actually lived in it for a very long time.
Through the town halls, along the path and through the marina, I found myself back in the dunes and back in the blast of the escalating wind. The wind managed to throw enough sand in my face to obstruct both my eyes and throat having me gargling, spitting and clawing my sandy eyes with sandy fists. It wrenched and twisted my body so, come evening, absolutely everything would hurt. Eventually I tumbled out of the dunes and was now faced with a lengthy trudge down another cyclepath besides the same awful motorway that I had briefly escaped.
Thankfully Penmaen-bach blocked the worst of the wind now as I miserably made my way alongside Wales’ busiest road. Props to the civil planning here; making the road around the mountains and, occasionally, through them must have been an almighty effort but I can’t say I appreciated it much as a pedestrian. Lumbered out to the narrow path, cars thundered past and the sky was grey and negotiating through this isn’t really what most people have in mind when they think of a coast path. But in an effort to be as true to the Welsh Coast as possible, I guess it had to be done.
I put my head down and soldiered on for the next few miles, pressing against the wind and trying to ignore the beeping and roaring of the vehicles thundering by me. Eventually I crossed on a tall footbridge and the former coach road gave a breather of a tiny bit more nature as it made its way around the Pen-Y-Clip headland.
Finally the Expressway was out of sight (though not out of sound) as I came down to Llanfairfechan as the sky started to darken and, thankfully, the wind started to drop. I fumbled into the small nature reserve around the saltmarsh and, thankfully, easily found a spot where the trees blocked any renegade winds that would start up again from the west, in a dry hollow away from the path.
After pushing against the wind all day, everything ached. Tension knotted in the base of my back, my knees felt all creaky and the top of my back kept spasming with pain. It was only day three. And as lovely as my surroundings now were in this tranquil little reserve, I could still hear that bloody road.
Llanfairfechan – Beaumaris (Anglesey)
17 miles/1476 total ascent
My back was absolutely killing me. Between yesterday’s wind-whipping and the long, long hours that winter forced me to spend inside the tent on the sleeping pad, it was in a burning ache all over. I wasn’t about to give myself time to think too much about it, necked a couple ibuprofen and a couple paracetamol and then pulled myself together and carried on. Albeit slightly weepy.
I was so grateful that the day’s walk wandered away from the Expressway. Long grassy ridges along lovely banks, the dark swathe of Anglesey across the water. Looking inland, the Carneddau mountains rose purple and magnificent in the morning light behind the fields of sheep. Finally, finally, things were starting to feel somewhat wild.
I more blissfully plodded through the greenery and, as more light started to show, watched the colours of the mountains shift as their shadows twisted. It all came to an end around the Penrhyn Estate where the landowners had not consented to the coastal path going along their coast, forcing the path inland.
Here I briefly met up with the Snowdonia Slate Trail which I had done back in August. It was like meeting an old friend as I got off the lane to venture through the riverside woodland, and under viaducts to the Slate Trail’s start. Last time I had stood here I had no idea that the week ahead would see a breached tent and a near-death experience in the Migneint Marshes. It was all very well me sitting here feeling both wisely reminiscent and smug thinking back to what little naïve August me didn’t know yet about the Slate Trail, but I realised there was a hell of a lot more that little naïve December me realised I didn’t know yet about the remaining 800 miles ahead of me now. That took the smile off my face sharpish.
The Wales Coast Path often shared parts of its journey with other trails, and most of the eight ‘coasts’ of Wales that it was divided into had their own coastal trails. The waymarks would sit alongside other until the regional one would bid adieu and be replaced by the next. I had barely noticed the North Wales Coast sign because it was in a completely useless shade of mid-green and blended entirely into the background.
One thing that little naïve December me thought standing at the Slate Trail post, was that Bangor would be a quick and easy thing to cover and had barely glanced at the map for the area. This was absolutely not the case at all. Easy, yes, but quick? It took ages and ages. I had stopped at a petrol station to get something for lunch – it was the only place open at this point on a Sunday – and just carried the plastic bag in my hands because I would obviously come across a bin soon.
No, I ended up carrying that bag through a whole damn set of hilly woods that I had somehow glossed over in my preparation the night before. I didn’t want to stop to put it inside the rubbish bag in my backpack, and I wasn’t going to just discard it because plastic bags kill turtles (all those forest turtles), so it was only when I plopped out at the start of the Menai Bridge what felt like half a day later (it wasn’t) that I was able to discard it and stop rustling around.
It was glacial erosion that carved out the Menai Strait. The strait itself is one of a series of bedrock hollows caused by a slow succession of ice sheets moving across Anglesey when it was still part of the mainland. And when I say slow, I mean really slow; these dents were created between 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago, one by one across a weak line in the land from northwest to southeast. The strait just happened to be the last and the deepest, and flooded as the sheets receded making Anglesey an island.
Four daily tides flow in two directions within the strait, causing dangerous and unpredictably strong currents, yet until 1819 there was no bridge. It’s not like Anglesey was a reclusive place where the need for a crossing was uncommon or only required by a minimal amount of people either, no, it was full of cattle farms that sold cows up and down the country. The only way for the farmers and drovers to get their beasts across the water to market was to drive them into the water and encourage them to swim. Needless to say, profits never ended up being what they should have been. Currents that regularly sank ferries plucked off cattle like we might pluck berries off a hedge; en masse and with enthusiastic gluttony.
It was only after the Act of the Union in 1800 brought Ireland into the whole UK equation that a bridge was proposed. Holyhead on Anglesey was now the obvious stopping place for boats travelling between Great Britain and Ireland, so Thomas Telford was set to work on what would be the world’s first suspension bridge. Sixteen massive chain cables, each weighing 121 tons* were strung across limestone towers to support the 176m span. Tall enough so boats could pass under and sturdy enough to withstand the winds that channelled through the strait.
Due to how impressive this feat was at the time, the bridge pops up in popular culture titbits from the era all the time. It is worth noting that what the White Knight says to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is wrong:
“I heard him then, for I had just
completed my design,
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.”
In fact, the chains were kept from rusting by soaking them in linseed oil before painting them. It would have been a terrible waste of wine.
It was here I finally left the North Wales Path and all the caravans and the constant noise of the Expressway and crossed the world’s first suspension bridge to continue my walk around Wales. Once across, the path went down to the seafront and I could see across to the coast I had just covered though, all too soon, I was yanked away from the coast by yet more ‘forbidden land’ where the owners had refused the path. Eventually, after a brief walk upwards giving views wide over Snowdonia, I descended into Beaumaris and found a pharmacy to stock up on pain pills to assuage all the tension and spasms in my back. There were so many long nights yet to come, and it was already so twisted around.
Whilst there, I didn’t really have an answer for the other customers that asked me why I was doing this in winter. Sure, there was the charity angle, and the ‘personal challenge’ angle, but to be honest I wasn’t entirely sure myself except I knew I hadn’t wanted to stop doing my favourite thing just because it was cold and somehow ended up taking it up a few notches in the process. As hardcore as I might have sounded, when one wonderful lady offered me a bed in her annexe that night, I absolutely was not going to say no.
*Specifically long tons. I went down a whole rabbit hole of understanding all the many tonnes/tons and trying to find a more useful and relatable measurement as I didn’t believe a long ton was the sort of ton/tonne we normally reference but, honestly, I gave up so it is what it is.