1st – 6th January 2022
Clarach – Aberystwyth
2 miles/301 ft total ascent
The lump on my sleeping pad from the delaminated baffle had started to grow. It seems one going weakens others. There had been two other bangs last night and the hernia was growing. Between that and a hook snapping off my boot, it felt like me and everything associated with me right now was all starting to fray.
That was OK. Expected even, seeing as I’d been at this a month already. I had a room booked in Aberystwyth tonight. I hoped it had a bath.
Once I’d got out to Clarach Bay again, it was a short walk along the path to Constitution Hill. The climb up was not particularly welcome first thing in the morning, but it got the blood pumping and I had the view at the top over Aberystwyth all to myself.
I shook my fuel can, hearing the last of the contents give a small slosh, and made myself some tea.
Two rivers pass through Aberystwyth; the Ystwyth (which you might have guessed) and the Rheidol. The original settlement sat farther to the south, upon the Ystwyth; after control of castle had swung from the Welsh, to Edward I, to the Welsh again, it was razed, and when Edward took over again, he built his new castle where the ruins still stand today. The growth of the town continued around the new fortress’ setting.
The way down the hill was along steep switchbacks, next to a funicular railway which, I’m sure, is the far more appealing option. The town was incredibly quiet; to be expected really on New Years Day. An empty promenade rolled out in front of me. Behind me was a seemingly random concrete block with a metal bar sticking out the top.
Most student towns have an absolute plethora of strange traditions based on superstitions, new and old, that the young and newly independent population grasp on and ritualise. Here, it’s said that kicking this bar wards off bad luck. Where this story came from is anyone’s guess, but its been around for the last hundred years. The more macabre would say it is placed on the site of the old gallows, which is definitely a better tale than the ‘Edward VII once tied his shoe on it’ explanation. Or, it might have been if it actually had been the site of the old gallows but never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
What is true is that in 1939 an absolute monster of a storm roared through and completely smashed up the promenade. A young lad, Evan Moore, was only saved through clinging to this bar. So whatever the origin of the ritual, his survival cemented it.
I only had a few things to do; laundry was a must and a priority. With cleaned clothes I then went and bought more fuel from the Mountain Warehouse, along with a new backpack raincover as the old one had managed to become thoroughly pierced enough to become pretty much ineffective. The pharmacy was meant to have my prescription in, sent ahead by my GP, except, of course, it didn’t. There was a large amount of faffing and something was up; either they needed some sort of confirmation from my GP or the meds weren’t in stock, but the only bit I heard was that it would absolutely be ready for me on Monday.
It looked like it would be two nights in Aberystwyth, which was annoying, but no one wants to see me off my meds.
Of course, the day being what it was, there was very little to do. Similarly aimless people were drifting down to the promenade. None of them returned any of my greetings. I guess normal people did normal New Years things last night and hangovers were likely. I eventually found a pub to sit in until I could check in to the hotel. Once again, it was like I was invisible. It’s not like I was expecting conversation but one or two returned ‘Happy New Year!’s would have been nice. Even eye contact. I was starting to feel like a ghost.
Aberystwyth isn’t big at all. It’s not like London which is known for being unfriendly because everyone is so overwhelmed and overstimulated by the amount of everything that they develop little urban personal space bubbles and everything outside of that gets blurred and ignored. Manchester is still a lot bigger than Aberystwyth and people are really friendly. Sometimes, that’s because they’re on something, but if you’re nice back they might share. I wouldn’t want to cast the good people of Aberystwyth in an unfair light, so I’m choosing to believe it was reasonable to think that the New Year blues had just set in, and I was clearly a very strange stranger off doing something strange.
The hotel was not a particularly uplifting place. Once in the door there were signs stuck to everything declaring them broken. I never saw a single member of staff; my key was in an envelope in a tupperware by the closed reception desk. The bathroom was covered with dirty cracks and I wasn’t entirely sure the door was properly locking. Whilst the linen looked neat enough, I still chose to sleep inside my sleeping bag on top of it instead. Because a sleeping bag that has been extensively used and not washed in a month somehow seemed like a cleaner option.
I told myself that I’d been sleeping outside throughout December and have definitely slept in worse places. But I really hadn’t.
Rest Day: Aberystwyth
There’s not a lot to say – I managed to eventually get a seat at a highly recommended breakfast place. Since it was one of the only things open today, the wait for a seat was a long one – an hour in the rain. The pancakes sucked and the waitress communicated in annoyed grunts. Some students had brought their dogs in. Which is normally fine because normally people that bring their dogs to dog friendly establishments have their dogs trained to not behave like arseholes. These dogs just wanted to bark at each other and chase each other around the tables while the owners laughed and giggled, only slightly embarrassed, about how they were ‘sorry, she’s just a puppy’. At one point I went to the loo and returned to see the one dog being held back from my half finished plate by her amused human. Suffice to say, I did not finish my dog-may-have-licked-it plate of pancakes which were flat and hard anyway.
Maybe I’d have been communicating in grunts as well if my employer was OK with that kind of bollocks.
I didn’t want to spend a second night in the dodgy hotel where slams and shouts had kept me awake all night to the point I eventually got a chair and jammed it under the doorknob just in case it really wasn’t locking. I was reasonably sure it wasn’t a crackhouse, but that was the best I could say about it. I went down the street to the Premier Inn. I wanted their predictability, I wasn’t interested in finding a quirky nook of a guesthouse with ‘character’. I wanted to be somewhere where I knew exactly what to expect.
Rather than continue moaning about my Aberystwyth experience, I’m going to finish off this day’s write up with some folklore and ghost stories, because those are a lot less grim.
The first one is not so much folklore, as it was a newsworthy event from my childhood that I remember chatting animatedly about in the swimming pool changing rooms at school with other over-imaginative nine year olds. It is the story of The Beast of Bont.
In 1997, fifty sheep were killed in Pontrhydfendigaid, about half an hour from Aberystwyth. The vets that examined the carcasses were bewildered, as they claimed the damage was clearly done by something far bigger and stronger than a fox or a dog. The sheep had been deeply clawed and had their bones smashed. Whatever it was would take out six to ten sheep at a time, sometimes only leaving fragments of bones and wool. Numerous sightings described a large, puma like creature that would bound away upon being seen, in the leaping, long gait of a large cat.
It didn’t make a reappearance, and many assume it escaped into the wild Ceredigion countryside where the forests and mountains provided more than sufficient cover. Other, more reasonable, people say the whole thing was a hoax. Either way, the Beast of Bont easily claims the title of the most feared predator in Wales.
The most haunted place in Aberystwyth, however, is Nanteos Manor that sits within woods on the outskirts of the city. The woods themselves are already haunted by the music of a drowned harpist and the building is supposedly home to a plethora of lost souls.
A wandering woman with a candlestick is said to be searching for her concealed jewels, and a murdered groomsman lurks in the shrubbery by the entranceway. Most famous of all are the ghosts of the monks that took refuge here after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, carrying with them the Holy Grail itself. No word yet on whether the Holy Grail might still reside there, or how it came to be held by monks over in Wales, but I’m sure someone somewhere has an elaborate tale to tell.
Lastly, no discussion of mysterious happenings in Aberystwyth would be complete without the story of The Mermaid.
The report came from 1826 and tells of a man who saw a woman washing in the sea. Initially, to preserve her dignity, he looked away (because of course he did), but then realised that where she appeared to be standing would be six feet deep. He did what any reasonable person would do, and ran back to his house calling out that he had seen a mermaid. All the inhabitants of his house; family and servants alike, ran down to the water (some, apparently, still in various stages of half-dress) to watch the odd water-woman.
Eventually the mermaid became aware of their presence, and swam off down the bay, being followed on land by the excited and dishevelled household. She was described as having short dark hair and very pale skin. Occasionally, they could see the black tail attached to her waist. Her face was said to be ‘handsome’ and, get this, the man trying to preserve this lady’s dignity described her breasts as ‘blameless’. Ew.
No mermaids have been reported since. Nor any big cats, which was good news for me as I looked forward to getting out and getting on after a decent night’s sleep in the Premier Inn, finally collecting my prescription, and getting out of town.
Aberystwyth – Craiglas
12 miles/882 ft total ascent
The exit from Aberystwyth was a long and pleasant walk along the edge of the harbour, under the old castle ruins, over the Rheidol, until, eventually everything petered out to a quiet shingle track that headed up to the Allt-Wen, black against the early sky.
The sea had been agitated and grey, tussling around the beacons, pier and seawalls of the harbour, often crashing just over the balustrades and alarming the odd walker or cyclist. It was a cold and moody morning, but the way ahead looked beautiful.
Just like Constitution Hill on the other side of the town, Allt-Wen was a steep-sided climb, but it would be just the start of a relentless day; there would be almost 2,000 ft of total ascent over the next eleven odd miles. It doesn’t sound overwhelming, but when that total ascent is calculated over a constant hilly ride where one is always either going up or down, it soon adds up.
The Ceredigion in general would be quite a clamber. From here down to New Quay, the sandstone cliffs were crumpled together like a discarded napkin, the land squashed through all the shifting that shot up the mountains behind it. The main fault line runs parallel to the coast with more minor lines cutting through it at an angle which had become seams of huge deposits of manganese, zinc, barium, and silver. Mining, particularly of the silver, was the big business here in the 1800s, but now it is nothing but heritage.
The path swung from clifftop field to clifftop field, often filled with sheep. Long stretches of bright green grass, enlivened by all the rain, ran seamlessly down the hills and under my feet on the flanks to the very edges of the rounded cliff edges. Nothing was disjointed or jagged here; it was a rhythmic and lush serenity even in the morning drizzle that then thought better of things and had stopped by the time I’d reached my first caravan park.
Thankfully, the caravans were passed quickly (not a 12 mile long horrorshow like the endless nightmare on the North Wales Coast) and, to make up for it, there was plenty of hawthorne trees and gorse bushes growing before and after. One hawthorne lined path was particularly striking, looking like something grown as an entrance for somewhere magnificent and regal rather than to direct hikers over the hills and the cliffs. It made me feel quite special.
In the course of my research for this I, like most, came across and read Charles Hawes’ blog. Charles started walking the Wales Coast Path northbound the day that it opened in 2012 and completed it in small sections and day walks over the next three years. He also had taken a picture of this hawthorne lined walkway, and a comparison of the pictures from when he passed by in November 2013 (left) and when I went through in January 2022 gives some idea of the effect that the wind can have.
The trunks of the trees on the upper slope had buckled considerably since Charles had been here, their crowns of clenched and cluttered branches swooping up to the side. Wind was due to hit reasonably hard tonight, hard enough that it might get dicey in the tent, so I was aiming for a specific place I believed would give me adequate shelter. But first, I had to finish today’s hills.
Not that I wanted to wish them away; since the drizzle lifted it had been amazingly bucolic. Spread out flocks of woolly sheep were grazing, from high and away dots of white up high on the slopes to the far too curious individuals nibbling right at the cliff edges. They weren’t the only things that nibbled the cliff-edges. Evidence of landslips and erosion showed up in the occasional chomp out of the otherwise smooth line of their edge.
After a few lovely hours, going up and down over this graceful and green piece of coast, I was ready for a break, and, for once was happy to see the next caravan park because that probably meant there would be a bench nearby. And, once I’d descended down, there was.
An older man walking his dog came by and struck up a conversation. A very sweet gent, and I was so happy to speak to someone friendly after all the cold shoulders in Aberystwyth. He had, of course, read ‘The Salt Path’. His daughter had given it him to read because she wanted to go do the South West Coast herself. She was a marathon runner. I told him she’d be absolutely fine with that level of fitness; I can’t run to save my life.
“But what do you eat?”
“Mainly noodles and instant mash”
“Oh” he thought about this “That’s what they were eating in the book”
“There’s lots of those dehydrated expedition meals but they can be four to seven quid each and that’s just really expensive if you’re out for more than a night or two!”
“At least it’s pretty flat for you once you’re past the Ceredigion.”
“Yes, I spent most of my life down in Llanelli so I know you’ll be flat from there to the end”
“But isn’t there the whole of Pembrokeshire first?”
“Oh. Oh you’re very right. It’s not flat, it gets a lot worse, sorry about that.”
He walked on with me a mile or so, wandering around the edge of the caravan park to where the path went onto the shingle beach. He asked for my name, so he could have a look out for my memoirs one day. All embarrassed I told him about this girl called Emma, and how she was the one actually doing something far more brave and amazing.
“She sounds great” He said “But I didn’t meet Emma, I met you.” He thought on that for a bit “Oh! She was the girl Tracey was talking about! Very young one?”
“Sure” Emma is 28, but somehow everyone that talks about her seems to think she’s a teenager. Maybe she’d look her age by the end of her circumnavigation. I already felt like I’d aged a decade.
I said goodbye to the man, and he wished me lots and lots of luck, and carried on with a big happy smile on from having a nice conversation with a nice person. The low shingle beach became long fields, but ahead I saw the a cluster of trees as the light started to dip. A short wiggle around and into them revealed three solid limekilns, hidden behind the hedge. This was where I had been headed all day.
There are plenty of old and hidden ruins of limekilns around Ceredigion. The soil here is thin and acidic, and the application of quicklime would neutralise the ground, allowing it to become more fertile and suitable for arable growth. In order to make quicklime, limestone, which contained high amounts of calcium carbonate, would be heated to up to 900 degrees to liberate the calcium dioxide molecules and leave only the calcium oxide, or quicklime.
Despite sounding scientific and modern, this process has been used since the 1500s. Now alternatives to quicklime are preferred and the old kilns sit as abandoned relics.
These three handsome limekilns had been protected from the crumble of erosion that many others suffered, protected by the high hedges grown around them. If it was good enough to protect them, it would be good enough to protect me. I set up my tent in the shadow of the kilns and settled in.
After my first sleep, I woke up ready to make dinner, only to come face to face with one of my nemeses. No, not a cow, it was a slug. It has taken a fair amount of practice to reign in my phobia enough not to absolutely lose it in the small space of a tent when one happens to be on the outside of the mesh. I have to keep reminding myself that it cannot squeeze through the mesh, and I am completely safe. It cannot get its gooey, gross, completely useless self anywhere near my person. It’s OK, I will not die today.
Many hikers place their boots outside their tents at night. I have no idea how anyone can do this knowing there is a decent chance that, come morning, one or two or sixty slugs might have found their own bed for the night inside the empty boots. Why would you even risk it?!
This slug was on the mesh of my door though. So in order to not go anywhere near it, I was going to have to hold off on opening the door to go and heat up my stove. I closed my eyes tight to stop looking at the slug and drifted off again. When I woke up, the slug was no longer on my door. It was on the floor, inside the tent.
To call what happened next a ‘total freak out’ is putting it mildly. Any house within a two mile radius would have heard my screams and assumed someone was being murdered. Between tears and violent anxious shaking I messed around in my food bag, dropping it several times until I found the plastic salt shaker (good for protection against both slugs and demons) and tossed it so viciously and completely over the hapless (but definitely evil) creature that the lid came off. The slug didn’t stand a chance and my foe was vanquished. I got lots and lots of wet wipes out of my toiletries bag and threw them all over the liquified corpse. I still absolutely did not want to touch it with my shaking, naked hands and sacrificed a sock to gather up the mess and discard it. The sock, and all of the contents, were sealed in a ziploc, and buried in the rubbish bag.
It must have been inside all along and had been on the interior of my door the first time I saw it. Had it come in on my shoes? Just to be sure, I searched the whole of the mesh with my headlight, making sure there was no hole bigger than the end of a large needle and managed to reassure myself.
I was safe now. I wasn’t going to die. I could finally eat.
Craiglas – New Quay
12 miles/1400 ft total ascent
The fight against the slug last night had meant my delicate treatment of my sleeping pad had been abandoned, and with a few more bangs, the herniated interior baffles were now one massive protrusion out the top of it. It was wildly uncomfortable.
I’d read of other hikers, upon similar predicaments, being driven to trying to confine and reduce the bulges by winding everything from paracord to duct tape around it, or to sleeping the other way round so that their feet end up lifted rather than their neck. The Thermarest was mummy-shaped so, upon trying to turn myself around, I ended up with my head resting on an area far too skinny to keep the cold of the ground from both my head and shoulders. I ended up deflating the pad considerably so that my head could actually press down the massive bulge. Even if it meant that I could feel the ground.
It was a flat start, continuing on low at the shoreline. The high tide lapped round the edges of the grasses, fields and meadows that rose slightly higher as I started to approach the village of Llansantffraid. The fields became very muddy farm fields where no amount of careful footwork or leaping could prevent the slodgey sink. The signage directed me to a track. The track had wire pulled across it and a ‘no entry’ sign. Beyond that I could see it run past the church into the village. I had no idea why this was here but decided to behave and went looking further in the sloshy field for an alternative gate. There wasn’t one and, completely mud covered to my knees, I decided that was the first and only time I obeyed a stupid block on MY right of way.
I made my way through and out of the village after ducking under the wire and finding no reason for its presence at all. The path carried on, kept by fences to just by the edge of the green coast before the drop a couple metres to the high tide. When it got to steps that, at a different tide, would lead to the beach, it was time for an alternative route.
Normally the high tide routes on affected areas of the path are marked with a red dragonshell rather than a blue and yellow one. There was no sign here right now so I looked at the map. The map was telling me to go all the way up to the main road and then walk along it for several miles. That looked very wrong.
I know pedestrians have right of way on A roads, and it isn’t unusual for them to share with brief sections of trail, but the lengthier sections of trail on these roads tend to only be on ones where there are pavements. On coming out to the main road here, the pavement ran out pretty sharpish after the village. Different maps were giving different indications of where other footpaths went and how they linked up. In retrospect, I realise I should have taken the time to get the Cicerone guide out of my bag because the route guide went into great detail about how to get about the high tide. And it did not involve going several miles along the A road.
I didn’t know that. With no confirming marker, the only thing I had to go on was the map telling me to walk along the A road. I decided to trust it, figuring that surely it wouldn’t tell me to do so if a pavement wasn’t going to appear soon.
A pavement did not appear soon, and I ended up hugging a hedge all my way into Aberaeron. I wouldn’t say the traffic was treacherous or anything, but when there’s not even a grassy verge to get out the way onto, it just takes one local having a daydream to squash me. The old advice about always wearing matching underwear in case you get hit by a bus sprang to mind; my underwear definitely wasn’t matching. My granny would turn in her grave if I got hit by a bus now.
I was a very dishevelled sight on emerging into Aberaeron. Sticks and leaves had affixed everywhere. The velcro had burst on one of my gaiters attracting all sorts of debris and creating a sort of wreath around my foot. Together with the mud, I looked a right sight. Ice cream. Ice cream for breakfast. That should make things better. A parlour sat amongst the colourful buildings and I sat on my own between two groups of families with many, many kids and told the server I wanted a sundae, and the frilliest hot chocolate he could muster. I think he enjoyed the challenge and I was served up a hot chocolate covered in cream and all manner of ice cream toppings – hundreds and thousands, silver balls, marshmallows, a chocolate flake. I was instantly happier.
Once I had finished, and de-leafed myself, I carried on through the harbour, up to a grassy path that ambled through much of the same lovely scenery as the day before. Lots more hawthorne trees, bent and gnarled to the wind, handsome and stoic, and the gorse bushes, tightly bound in balls with early bursts of mustard coloured blooms.
Down to a valley, and up into a wooded path, skirting fields and one big farm where sheep scattered from it in all directions. I eventually found my way into New Quay, and the statue on a small shore-side green.
The statue built to look like a living ship figurehead, sits back on her knees, hair blowing behind, blowing a kiss of protection out at the water blessing all those that sail it and, also, all those that walk by it. She marks the centre point of the Wales Coast Path.
I had made it half way! I was half way there! I didn’t know whether to be delighted at my progress, or absolutely exhausted at the thought of doing all those miles all over again. I chose the former and went into the pub to tell anyone that would listen
Of course, this was probably something that any regular at the pub heard a few times a year, being positioned right next to the statue and all, so it would hardly be a novel boast. But the pubgoers were all very nice about it and clearly keen to be celebratory. I don’t often drink, even when at home, but today I wasn’t going to say no when I kept being offered bevvies.
I was in a town strongly associated with Dylan Thomas after all, and what better way to celebrate than to follow the example of an infamous lush? The town of Llareggub in Under Milk Wood was strongly inspired by New Quay, and many of the characters are believed to be inspired by real people he lived amongst in his brief time here after Swansea was bombed.
It is said that he absolutely loved his time here, after all he produced huge amounts of work in that time. Though maybe looking at the word ‘Llareggub’ backwards really revealed what a city boy thought of this small harbour town.
I treated myself to a room at the pub, in part because the sleeping pad was a total nightmare and, in part, because after several drinks I really was disinclined to go set up a tent. And also, I was celebrating.
New Quay – Gwbert
22 miles/5092 ft total ascent
I had set off before morning with a headtorch on, determined to get as close to Cardigan as I could today. I needed to send the mutated Thermarest over to Ireland to get replaced under warranty and source a new sleeping pad. I knew it was unlikely I’d make it all the way there, but it I was close enough then tomorrow wouldn’t be a race to get that, and my laundry, done as I passed through. This would already have been a hard start to the day anyway, since I really do not like headtorch walking, but add in the effects of yesterday’s alcohol and I was being a right git.
The path lumbered upwards and hugged the cliffs. I wouldn’t say I was hungover, but I wouldn’t exactly say I was unaffected either. I was affected by that tired, heavy, very irritable aftermath that made the gently elevating terrain that I was so besotted with the previous few days into something completely rubbish, and clearly out to get me. It had drizzled through the night and the paths were wet, leading to a few sudden plonks which were only slightly heart-stopping due to the proximity of the cliffs. Which was muchly proximal. This wasn’t fun. Why wasn’t it fun? Wasn’t alcohol meant to make things more fun?
The green carpet of grass from the hilltops, swooping down past sloping fields to the rounded drop of the cliffs was now just boring, and the flankside wanderings up and round and up some more were just arduous. I sat down onto the wet grass in the field of sheep only an hour or so after starting, when the sky was light again, and dug around for some electrolyte tabs and pro plus. If I downed that with about half a litre of water I should perk up again.
Finding water so far along the path had been incredibly easy. With the exception of the North Wales Coast, some little fast flowing source had appeared pretty soon after I’d kept an eye out. On the North Wales Coast the whole stretch had been so busy that there was always a tap nearby somewhere. Of course, right now, I’d forgotten to fill up the water bladder so muttering to myself, cursing everything but my own bad choices, I swallowed the pills whole, dry heaved a little, and wrenched myself to my feet with only a moderately sized groan.
The trail provides of course. Sometimes far more graciously that it should do. I dropped into a valley where a footbridge crossed a stream sized estuary pouring in a merry dance out to the ocean. I mentally apologised to the trail, and filled up.
Over the course of the last ice age, when the glaciers formed, Ceredigion was affected by glaciers pushing in from both the land and sea. The amount of snow that tumbled down off the mountains behind pushed their icy formation into the county, whilst glaciers originating in Ireland crunched up against them from where the ocean once had been but where now sat a giant frozen plain. The retreat of these glaciers made or modified many of the rivers and channels that pour downwards to the coast, hills are pock marked, and semi-circular bites are taken from the edges of the land. Many landslips occurred in the newly destabilised terrain in the aftermath.
The smoothness and roundness of this coast shares a similar charm and history to the Yorkshire Dales, where the evidence of the glaciers leaving the wide U-shaped valleys has also left the mesmerising swoops that area is known, and loved, for.
Ramparts of an old fort, Castell Bach, lay on the path above, and a limekiln soon after. I started to perk up. Who doesn’t love a nice little ruin? I might not have done an hour ago, but that was past me. I was on the way back to being me me.
Ruins and ramparts marked distance as I carried on, winding down to quiet, secluded beaches, and going up high again. The sandy bays started to become more rugged coves in a less smooth set of cliffs. Things were hotting up now, preparing for Pembrokeshire. Maybe the last of the sweet and lovely, cursive landscape was behind me.
The ruins of another hillfort sat out on the Ynys Lochtyn headland. This one far more exposed, beaten by the winds and stern. The banks around it were defensively built, as from its vantage point any lookout sees in any direction for miles. The water below it was choppy now, roughed up by the craggy scatters of a far darker rock below than what I’d seen a while back. Gone were the sedimentary slides, we were in igneous territory again.
I continued on high to Aberporth and grabbed a few apples and a milkshake from the small shop to sit and consume before carrying on. It had already been a heavy walk; usually a full day’s section. But I had miles more to go. The first couple here being an entirely insulting, incredibly steep slog up a lane with barely any space to squeeze out of the trajectory of any cars. Not that there were many cars, and not that they were going fast, but I was sad saying goodbye to all the green, swoopy hills and this wasn’t the in between I’d hoped for.
The MOD site wasn’t much more pleasant to walk beside, but I soon went into woodland and emerged to walk on the edge of a valley. Then back up to the clifftops. Yes, the mood had changed now; the headlands were ragged and frequent, and stacks piled up in various stages of erosion out from their edges. The undulations were becoming more rough as well, more frequent. Many small valleys were crossed with footbridges and businesslike marches took me upwards rather than simply determined saunters.
The last footbridge saw the little white speck of the Mwnt church all alone on a hill in the distance, and out from the edge of the curve of the land before it went back into the wide estuary of the Teifi, was Cardigan Island.
There has been a church here at Mwnt for as long as Christianity has been around in Wales. Mwnt had become a stopping off place for all those walking, wandering, freeloading saints and it wasn’t long before someone built a church here. Even today it is more a place of pilgrimage than home to a parish. As well as travelling saints, it provided services for transient sailors that passed through. For some reason, in 1155, Mwnt was the target of a Flemish invasion. The invaders were defeated though there’s not much information on how – I find it unlikely that soldiers were stationed here on this remote headland, but does that mean the local fisherman, visiting sailors, and possibly the odd hermit, monk or saint saw off the Flemish Navy?
The whitewashed stone walls of the tiny church underneath the dark slate roof are alarmingly adorable. It adorns many a postcard, has featured in many a documentary; it is very, very pretty. It was then with confusion that, as I got nearer, I saw the entrance covered in police tape and the windows boarded up.
Sadly, only a few days before I arrived, the church was extensively vandalised and repairs were estimated to require £20,000. There was nothing in the church to steal – not even a candlestick. It was a pointless act of destruction for which the perpetrators are unlikely to be caught.
Such is the hold that the small church has on anyone that visits is that the £20,000 was raised from donors both nearby and internationally in only a couple of days. The renovations of the church are likely to include some sort of new security, to allow it to remain open to the public, but also safe from vandals.
I carried on through Mwnt, dropping to a path by another limekiln and continuing through inland fields around the slab of forbidden coast away from which Cardigan Island floated. My day was drawing to a close now and I was approaching Gwbert, with Cardigan (or Aberteifi) just a couple miles further. I was tired. It was time to make camp and rest up.
Gwbert – Cardigan
4 miles/284 ft total ascent
It was a short walk through farm fields, the estuary lying behind hedges and glinting through gaps in the foliage. Cardigan approached by the banks of the Teifi. It was said to be around here, by this river, that the ancient kingdom of Ceredigion was founded by Ceredig, a Scot. He had arrived here with his father’s family after being called to help ward off the Irish. As a reward for his bravery, he was granted the southernmost tip of the recovered land. There’s not an awful lot known about him, but the boundaries of his ancient kingdom still align almost exactly to the borders of the county today.
I had only just entered town when two large burly men started crossing the street towards me.
“Hey! You!” one shouted. Oh crap, of course I’d get mugged. They arrived, one stood either side of me. I mentally thought out what I could and could not part with, decided there was nothing I was willing to part with. I’d have to hope my plans of wildly smacking around with the hiking pole and getting away to a doorway somewhere would be effective enough. I’m only just over five foot tall and under fifty kilos but I figured I had this covered. Maybe.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?”
Oh. This might be worse.
“We’re Christians” one of them said helpfully.
“It’s not my thing” I said “I should be going, I hope you have a lovely day”
“What have you been doing with a bag that big?”
“I’ve been doing the Wales Coast Path.”
“Shit! That’s so cool!” The conversation turned from God to trails and all the logistics involved and by the end the two were starting a massive discussion about doing Offa’s Dyke together. I didn’t quite get away scot-free though, they still insisted on blessing me at the end which was all sorts of awkward standing on the pavement, grubby and clearly out of place, having two large dudes call loudly to Jesus to protect me.
I doubt Jesus would have done better than ‘hit them with a stick and run’ if he was getting mugged. Actually, I’m not sure Jesus was the hitting type.
After extracting myself from the evangelists I went to the post office first to send off the bloated, useless rag that the sleeping pad had become, before going to Mountain Warehouse. It emerged I probably should have held onto the bloated, useless rag because the Mountain Warehouse stock was equally as useless and the staff even more so.
I told them I needed a sleeping pad with an R value of at least 3.5, but preferably 4 and they looked at me like I would look at someone talking about cricket; completely and utterly bewildered. I tried again, saying I needed one with really good insulation and one of them took me over to their sleeping pads.
There were only three. One single inflatable, one double inflatable, and one foam. And they were all huge. This stock was obviously more for the holiday park campers; the kind that boast to me about their eight man tents, bunkbeds and full kitchen setup which gets me sweating because they think in portable home-comforts, whilst I automatically add up the grams.
The shop assistant pointed at the foam one and declared that it was obviously the best because the one side was reflective. This wasn’t a closed cell foam mat, this was just a yoga mat with foil on one side. I politely asked what the insulation ratings were on all of them but neither the tags nor the website gave any information. Seriously.
Mountain Warehouse has no business using the word ‘Mountain’. None of its stock is ever for anyone going up into any mountains. It’s not for anyone that wants to venture further than a camp set up right by their car with shops a five minute drive away and showers, toilets, a games room and a playground all on site. No shade, that’s how most of us started camping as kids (good luck bringing six year olds wildcamping), but for crap’s sake call it “Leisure Park Warehouse” or “There’s a Fridge Nearby Warehouse”, not sodding “Mountain Warehouse”. Absolutely none of any of the stuff could survive on the fells, let alone be comfortably taken up there.
I felt my only option was the inflatable single which, despite the shop assistant’s protest, was almost certainly better than the foam and foil combo. It was so big, and I had no idea how it was going to fit, but I’d have to find a way. Jesus had now blessed me after all.
At the laundromat, I took everything out of my bag and tried to work it out as my clothes whirred round in the machine. I tried every combination. I even gained a helpful audience from a woman that appeared to be washing the clothes of a whole street (it turned out she was. They apparently all thought she was kind and doing everyone a favour, but really it meant she could get away from all the kids for a few hours), and an older man with a long ponytail who had trekked through the Pyrenees just before Covid; his intentions for an onward hiking journey towards Turkey called off by lockdowns.
All our efforts came to nothing. The pad was, after all, probably a third of the size of my entire bag. I had no idea what to do. I thought I might cry. I would have to swallow my pride here.
The next hour was spent going between calling my dad and calling my shrink. My shrink would attempt to get me to a place so I could speak to my dad without having a breakdown and causing intense concern, whilst my father, efficient, effective and businesslike, got onto sorting things out. It’s worth mentioning that I’m not 17, or even 23. I’m well on my way to mid thirties here. I tried to tell myself it was OK to call my dad because if I was a person in a relationship I’d be calling my partner, but I didn’t have a partner, I just had cats, and cats aren’t very good at this sort of thing. My dad, meanwhile, is very good at this sort of thing.
He was so good, he had not only found somewhere with a Thermarest in stock, but had it arranged for next day delivery to a hotel I booked for the night. Over the last year, camping and hiking stock has seemed to be at a constant low. In part because a number of people have taken it up as a new hobby, but also because of the difficulties that both the Covid ‘pingdemic’ and Brexit have caused manufacturing. On the Instagram hiking community there was always someone sending out a desperate plea asking where had fuel in stock because there was never, ever any of the small cannisters available and we were all buying in bulk when we found any.
I told the Pyrenees Man and the Runaway Lady the outcome. Pyrenees Man said he had had to ring his brother during his last trip when his tent was destroyed by the winds and snow (he would have called his dad, but his dad was dead), whilst Runaway Lady said all her grown up kids rang her all the time whenever anything broke, even if they were just venting about it. My shrink rang back to find out the outcome and said he still rang his mum for help all the time in his forties. He has a partner again now you see, so now the partner gets the calls.
The general consensus was that I wasn’t a rubbish kid for asking my dad for help at the age of 33. I suppose even Jesus asked his dad for help quite a lot at the same age. They all made a good argument, and they all seemed like very grown up individuals, but it was hard not to feel like I was failing at self-reliance.
Pyrenees Man and Runaway Lady gave me a recommendation for lunch and I made my way over once my laundry was clean, carrying the stupid, huge sleeping pad. The waiter saw my bag and started asking if I knew Emma? How brave and amazing was she? Yeah, I said, Emma had left Wales now and was on her way towards Liverpool and was being incredibly competent. I then stopped. No, wait. Emma’s tent had broken in the wind near Bangor and she’d taken some days off at a nearby family friend’s place to get it sorted. Even brave and amazing Emma was at the mercy of the weather after all.
I hoped she was OK, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel slightly better. I’m not Jesus after all.
I wasn’t to know that this was just the start.