22nd – 26th December 2021
Aberdaron – Cilan
15 miles/2027 ft total ascent
Each day would now gain another two minutes of daylight, It doesn’t sound like a lot in isolation, but it meant that in a month’s time, when I would inevitably still be on trail, I’d have a whole other hour to walk in. I’d stopped by now trying to hold myself to some sort of schedule, I was spending too much time trying to race the sun,
I had become stupidly self conscious about my mileage, feeling irritated that the regular 20+miles obtained on trail days in summer light were harder to achieve now. Of course, getting a 20+ mile day in in midsummer was easy and could even be done incorporating a lazy lunch, a number of breaks and perhaps even an afternoon nap. Continuing to hold myself to comparison as I tried to race through subsequent weeks was not going to bode well. Mentally, but also definitely physically. No, I was not going to be able to do this in the 40-60 days most hikers did it in because most hikers weren’t stupid enough to choose to do it at the darkest, coldest time of the year.
And God it was cold. Bitterly so, into my knees and ankles and in any exposed skin of my neck. I pulled my buff far up and was grateful for my thermals. It was going to be another day with a lot of undulation so I hoped the upwards movement would kick in and keep me warm or, at least, equal out any extra chill gained through additional exposure. I hadn’t improved my technique for taking down a frosty morning tent much, but at least I was quicker about it.
I had originally hoped that there might be a skipper available to take me out to Bardsey, but with such little demand for visits to the island right now, all of the contactable boats were waiting out until summer. Instead, I followed the river inland and then lanes to avoid the forbidden coast around Trwyn y Penrhyn before rejoining the sea a mile or so further on.
More small tidal islands and islets and almost-tidal islands popped up along the shore as I walked over the cliffs. I went down into several little valleys, crossed small bridges, and made my way up again. The remnants of old mining equipment rusted among the grass. I guessed these might have been from the old manganese mines. Other mines and quarries had once laid around nearby as well, removing jasper and granite.
The sandstones, siltstones and mudstones that form the layers of the south side of the peninsula are mainly Cambrian, being built up by the volcanoes that shuddered our main mountains into being. On some of the far points and shores there are long, deep smears of gabbro; a mottled dark rock whose existence shares a geological event with the mountains of the Scottish islands. The manganese that the area is rich in is held within these rocks.
A messy contouring of the latest hill and the sea was soon lost from view as the rain started. I pulled up my hood as the greyness descended to turn the green walk into a grey-veiled haze. The green became a tarmac lane, quiet and empty the whole time I walked it. Every now and then I would pass a farm or a cluster of homes that I’m sure in the morning appeared lovely, but now were made stern and lonely in the haze and the wet as I began to pass around the back of Hell’s Mouth.
Here the weather revealed the characterisation of the shore more aptly. The crescent of sand like a wide, grinning maw with its sloped tumble of dunes being long, ridged gums. I would only see it in fleeting and menacing glimpses as the path went more inland, over a confusing and frustrating set of fields. The identical squares of pasture with their high hedges rarely had sign of the path on their grass and the exit gates would hide along the leafy edge. I’m glad the Wales Coast Path chooses to mark its footpaths along sections such as this with posts that have their tip painted yellow, so even in a grey day of relentless rain, a squint would, eventually, reveal a bright dot somewhere in the murk to head towards.
The rain was sinking in, starting to overwhelm the waterproofing of everything from my jacket to overtrousers. I was hungry. It was approaching the mid afternoon and I hadn’t been able to stop to eat; the rain and the cold would have made it far too miserable. My throat was starting to hurt and everything on my body felt really heavy.
I eventually came to a road again that took me down to a storm beach. Now the choice was the dunes or sand and I chose to plod along the empty latter before it gave way to a grassy climb. I was not in the mood for a climb. I got the headphones out, hoping that a blast of celtic punk would both motivate me and make the trudge that the day had become into something I could just grit my teeth and soldier through.
A trig point appeared. These pillars must be the most, and possibly only, loved pieces of concrete in the UK. Huge amounts of people set of to bag as many as they can, but with over 6,000 of them still standing it’s a task to fill a lifetime. Or about 14 years. That’s how long it took Rob Woodall who bagged his final, 6,190th trig in 2016 at Benarty in Fife becoming the first completist. At the same time he had become the first person to bag all the Marilyns and had started on the HuMPs so it seems the calibre of outdoorsmanship and, probably, eccentricity needed to get through the list is pretty high.
I was going to have to stop soon. The journey today had been slower than I would have liked with the weather and the hills and the mud. Oh yes, there had been a fun amount of mud. I was also now so hungry that my stomach hurt. I wasn’t feeling so great in general. Any other time I might have just said it was a cold starting, but with the events of the last two years and the escalation of the Omicron variant recently, Covid couldn’t be completely written off. Whilst my interaction with people had been sparse, I had still brought along a bunch of lat tests in my bag to use before going to resupply or into towns. Unfortunately I had used the last one up at Penllech.
I could figure things out in the morning. Right now, I needed shelter and food. I turned on the headland hoping to find somewhere less exposed, and thankfully came across a cluster of trees and boulders to hide away in and feel sorry for myself.
Cilan – Pwllheli
12 miles/1244 ft total ascent
I had changed into dry camp clothes last night as soon as I put up the tent, though putting it up in the rain had made the inside more wet than I might have liked. Despite the warmth of my mini hot water bottle, plus a few disposable handwarmers plunged into my clothing, I still shivered throughout the night. I was going between hot and cold, my head felt full and heavy and my throat hurt. I really wasn’t well.
I decided I had to get to Pwllheli and get a lat test first and foremost. I hadn’t actually made any sort of plan in the case that I got Covid; finding somewhere to isolate indoors for ten days would be expensive, but staying static in a tent for that period would be miserable and probably impossible, yet going home on a train would defeat the entire purpose of isolation. I just had to hope it wasn’t Covid.
Just in case it was, I was still going to walk to Pwllheli rather than find a bus. Even if it was by the lanes and roads rather than the coast; I wasn’t going to expose anyone else to possible-Covid and, also, I didn’t really want to miss out a section even if this version of the section wasn’t on path.
This all sounds like sensible thinking but I was behaving like a toddler. Lots of sniffling and whinging to absolutely no one but the grass and the deep blue sea. Every slight inconvenience brought about a whine; the pack was heavy, my socks were itchy, this bit was muddy, there was a puddle, that sheep clearly hates me.
Finding myself onto the roads. it was just the sort of dreary trudge you might imagine. Occasionally I passed a few houses, twinkling about with Christmas lights, decorated Christmas trees visible through windows. Why was I doing this stupid walk now when I could be back home, inside, where it was warm and dry, with my cats and a tree of my own and a toaster to toast stuff in and a reliably flat bed? I just felt very lonely and stupid and self-pitying.
It took about three hours for me to walk to Pwllheli. Probably way longer than it should have done seeing the direct route I was taking, but I had insisted on dragging my feet pathetically the whole way as if one of those divine beings that sent angels to carry St Gwenfaen off into heaven might see my patheticness and send angels to carry me to Pwllheli. If this was my goal then it didn’t work.
The clusters of houses eventually became streets and, eventually, the town. I had rung around pharmacies from a brief shelter in a bus stop and headed for the one that said they had tests in stock. The test was negative, but the pharmacist looked at my drizzle-drenched, sad appearance in concern.
“Are you OK?” she asked
“Oh I just feel a bit minging”
“No, I mean, is this a choice?” I must have looked completely confused.
“You’re not hiding or running from anything or anyone?” I couldn’t work out if this was a joke or a serious comment and thus didn’t know whether to make a jokey answer and risk being taken seriously or make a serious answer and make her feel stupid for trying to make a joke.
“Only my dignity apparently.” That should do it right? Decent in between. I felt pleased with myself.
“Do you have a home?” Oh. Right.
“You’ve read ‘The Salt Path’ haven’t you?” She had. I went on to assure her that, yes, I definitely did have a home, that all this was a choice. She asked me where I was going tonight or what I was doing. I hadn’t really made any concrete plans but now I hoped I could book a few nights at the Porthmadog Travelodge and use that inside space as a base for the next few days to utilise creature comforts in tending to my (probably overblown) illness. She seemed very relieved.
Bookings were made and I waddled down to the supermarket to stock up for the next few days. The timing was annoying; because Christmas and Boxing Day fell on a weekend, the Monday and Tuesday were also holidays which meant four days in a row of unusual or no opening hours whatsoever. The same pattern would repeat with New Years Day.
Supermarkets become incredibly overwhelming when on trail. Not because of the people, but because of the choice. If that abundance of choice is coupled with me knowing I’m going to be staying inside and therefore don’t need to consider things like weight or fragility in mind, I find that I end up buying a lot of food, but not a lot of actual meals. This was the case now. I felt that I had to get all the Christmassy things because this was the last opportunity and I would be in a Travelodge, so mince pies and stollen and Malteser reindeer got thrown in the basket, as did some of those cheese footballs that only come out this time of year and two bags of clementines. Also some carrots, just for the missing nutrition. It was a ridiculous assortment. On top of all the cold based medication I could legally buy at once.
From Pwllheli, I was able to take the bus to Porthmadog (now I knew I didn’t have the plague), check in at the £25 a night hotel on the edge of an industrial estate, take a hot shower and crawl under the covers of the bed. I wish I could say that I sensibly just napped, but the new series of Witcher had been released and it turned out the Henry Cavill, not a cold, would be my undoing the next day.
Pwllheli – Criccieth
11 miles/501 ft total ascent
Amy had contacted me on Instagram saying that she would be in Pwllheli visiting her parents for Christmas and asking if I wanted to meet her while I was based in Porthmadog? I’d enthusiastically replied and we’d agreed that I would contact her when I got the bus back to Pwllheli today in order to go up to Criccieth together.
Except it turned out that the bright lights of civilisation had spurred me to overindulgence and I hadn’t stopped watching Witcher after one episode, no, I’d gone and binged it, fallen asleep in the early hours and then only just woken up in time to get the bus to Pwllheli. In the morning’s mad scramble I had grabbed what I had thought was my phone but was, in fact, my power bank, and only discovered that I had the wrong black rectangle after I had thrown myself onto the bus.
As it was I would spend the morning walk starting to approach all young, blonde women with dogs before realising that I was looking like a strangething, whilst she just got on with things and did a bigger walk that we would have done together. We would make plans to meet on Boxing Day instead.
Fortunately, though moving on not enough sleep (due to my own bad choices), I was stuffed to the gills with as much cold medication as my body would allow with all manner of warm things wrapped around me. This would be an intentionally short walk, so I could do an even shorter walk as a circular tomorrow when the buses weren’t running.
The next couple days would be mostly low on the beaches and marshes with the odd rocky interlude, headlands made of silica-rich rhyolite making them dense and firm and foreboding. Apart from a couple road stretches it would all be very pleasant, aided along by an absence of rain. From the harbour at Pwllheli, I was soon on Abererch Sands and, despite the static caravan park perched above it, the stretch was long and lovely. Over a mile of easy walking over tidal sands, interrupted briefly by the headland, until the detour onto the road came about.
Back out, it was boardwalks over marshland which I personally always find quite nice. I like walking on the raised wooden platforms, safe enough from the wetlands below to admire them. Whilst the headlands up at Criccieth and beyond are strong, the interludes between them are far less hardy. There are seawalls shown here as early as the first Ordnance Survey map of the area and these defenses have been rebuilt over and over in numerous different forms since then.
In fact these wetlands were really the vestiges of a submerged forest; consumed by the sea and buried in the sand. Once this coast was densely forested all the way back to Hell’s Mouth and beyond.
The castle at Criccieth sat high on the headland; an imposing position as even its turreted silhouette came across as a warning. Originally built by Llewellyn the Great, it was eventually captured by Edward I in 1283. Rather than destroying it, like he had done with Flint and Conwy Castles, or rebuilding it like he did at Caernarfon; he liked the original work and just decided to have it pimped up a bit, adding another tower because apparently it didn’t have enough already. Rebels besieged it during this time and somehow the English residents held out throughout the brutal winter with their attackers retreating come spring.
Where Edward hadn’t destroyed it, Welsh uprising eventually did in the fifth century. As part of his 15 year long revolt, Owain Glyndwr had the walls torn down and burned. The ruins and ash lay for another five hundred years until an extensive remodeling was commenced. Now rebuilt, it tops off the town like a crown.
I took the bus back to Porthmadog and did some much-needed laundry and ate far too many mince pies. The streets eventually started closing down to a shuttered emptiness they would maintain over the next few days and I set off in the hunt for a fish supper. There were three chippies in town; the first hadn’t mentioned online that they were closed (surprise), the second had run out of fish, and the third only had ‘small fish’ left. It was only six pm but it seemed everyone had wanted their Christmas Eve takeaway in early. Small fish it was.
Criccieth – Porthmadog
6 miles/543 ft total ascent
Christmas morning arrived like just another day. Today I wouldn’t be able to get a bus up to Criccieth so, instead, I was going to walk up there from Porthmadog with the sea on my left rather than my right for a change, and then walk back.
For whatever reason, Christmas Day is often the day when even the people that don’t enjoy the outdoors much go for a walk. I started early enough to avoid the family groups trying desperately to avoid intergenerational squabbling, but I hadn’t counted on Christmas morning being the time for all the couples to go down to the beaches to get all smoochy. There would be some awkward ‘Nadolig Llanwens’ exchanged.
Yes. Thanks to the awesome Tom of ToxTravels guiding me through the phonetics, I could now confidently ‘Merry Christmas’ in Welsh like an almost-native. It was only when the other person tried to continue the conversation that I ran into problems.
The winter sun scattered a low glare over Porthmadog harbour. Unlike previous towns I had passed for with long and usually ancient histories, Porthmadog had only sprung into existence in 1811 after a seawall was built along the wetlands to reclaim the area for agriculture. In doing so, the Afon Glaslyn was diverted and created this deep harbour where the masts of the boats clattered. Thankfully, the rain was holding back and the sky was a shade of bright blue I hadn’t seen in a few days. I trundled around the back of the harbour and the sandy, cove-studded front of Borth-y-Gest.
After heading upwards, and then down through a number of the secluded bays which consistently held couples that believed they were alone, an awesome collection of boardwalks and bridges were built in the woods that descended to the beach. They momentarily gave the feeling of being in a jungle-based video game, or some foresty Hogwarts, where the wooden slats could creak, swing around and head elsewhere at any moment. Thankfully, they were not as sentient as my imagination liked to consider, and I eventually found myself down, past a coastguard’s hut, at the Black Rock Sands beach at Traeth Morfa Bychan.
The sands aren’t actually black, much to my disappointment, but the rocks and rockpools were beautiful. The beach stretched ahead for two miles, backed by rolling dunes and is also unusual in that cars are allowed to drive on it. Whilst this is mainly in allowing parking in the far end, the prints from wheels extended the full way.
Back when I was a teenager, the album ‘This is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ by The Manic Street Preachers was slid amongst all the hundreds of CDs that made up any pre-iPod era teen’s collection. The cover art displays the Welsh band standing on, what I now know to be, Black Rock Sands beach. Looking now at the cover, the vehicle tracks are evident under their feet. Released three years after Richey James Edwards’ disappearance and, presumed, suicidal plunge from the Severn Bridge, that album was their first Number 1 placement. I’m sure many other 30 and 40 something year olds had ‘If you tolerate this your children will be next’ on repeat at some point.
The Christmas Day family walkers had started to emerge. Big clusters of grandparents, parents, teenagers that would rather be elsewhere and young children wandering off. Many had brought dogs along which would run along the edges of the water and only shake themselves dry once they were close to people again. I had stuffed as many mince pies as I possibly could into my bumbag and chomped them one by one. The only solitary walker amongst all these groups. I exchanged lots of Nadolig Llanwens.
My therapist, who I adore and I have learnt enough from to change so many parts of my life, has a really over-romaticised idea of what this sort of hiking entails (and he’s never even read ‘The Salt Path’) and was absolutely certain that, come Christmas Day, I would inevitably be invited to join someone’s table for dinner and sit, a stranger amongst a family crammed around a table, being treated as if I was one of them. I had pointed out that he would never in a million years invite a stranger off the street (or beach) into his home for any dinner, let alone the most over-organised, highly stress-filled dinner of the entire year. He said he absolutely would if the person looked both sober and pathetic enough. (For the record, he absolutely would not.)
Either I did not look sober or I did not look pathetic. Carrying a backpack for so long had given me a wide and wandering walking stance which may have contributed to the former, and the fact that I was freshly laundered and didn’t smell today cancelled out the latter. There were no invitations to Christmas Dinner for me. Note for future long distance hikers out on Christmas; don’t go to the laundry beforehand and be able to walk in a straight line if you’re hoping for an invite to turkey time. Merry Christmas! Everyone!
At the far end, after numerous chats which were very welcome (even if I didn’t get a roast out of it), I made my way around the back of the holiday park on the knobbly, gnarly head of Graig Ddu and plonked down to a field, then a railway line and then back into Criccieth.
You know how when you go to drive in a different country that drives on the other side of the road and every now and then your brain panics because you’re on the wrong side and you need to check yourself? That’s what it was like walking with the sea on my left. I’d got so used to having it on my right as the very basic part of all my navigation that suddenly having it on the left had felt very, very wrong.
I turned from the town, following the lane down to Morfa Bychan village and then the pavement along the main road that conveniently took me all the way back into Porthmadog.
It was probably a good thing I didn’t get a roast dinner, seeing as I still had an absolute horde of Christmas snacks to get through. It took some perseverance, but I’m proud to say that by night-time, there wasn’t a single mince pie, Malteser reindeer, or carrot left.
The stollen and clementines though, they were my failure.
Off Trail Hike: Aberglaslyn
I was that annoying person waiting right outside the shop on Boxing Day waiting for it to open. To be fair, it was hardly the Next sale; it was a Millets and I needed new gaiters. I have yet to find gaiters where the sole-strap lasts longer than 300 miles. The strap on my current ones had worn out two days ago.
When Amy drove by the Travelodge (sans dog) and picked me up, I was wearing shiny new gaiters. I pointed them out proudly. She said that she was only just conceding that gaiters were, perhaps, a necessity after years of saying no because they looked ugly. I might have been offended but, to be honest, I was only a convert myself within the last year and had also only recently, in preparation for this trip, bought my first pair of overtrousers that cost more than a tenner and actually worked. Overtrousers look ugly too.
We drove up to Aberglaslyn Pass, a deep-sided gorge to the edge of a fast flowing river that I had previously visited on the Snowdonia Slate Trail. When I was there back in August, the trees on either side of the steep valley were lush and full and thick and a picture taken there could easily have been mistaken for Canada rather than Wales. Whilst the density of the trees had held, many more were bare now, and the frontline along the water was cluttered with a number of fallen trunks. Presumably Arwen and Barra’s doing,
The river itself was just as fast flowing and ravenous as I remembered it. Tearing and howling over the rocks of the river. Amy and I made our way up the rocky path beside it before both deciding, very coolly, that a mine tunnel should be explored. This maybe was not a decision either of us would have made on our own but new company brings out bravado.
Bravado that decreased very rapidly when we reached the point where outside light no longer reached. We could hold the lights of our phone torches either ahead to see the distance of the walls and roof, or at our feet to check the water. Not both. The walls glistened in the dark and our feet sloshed through the uncertain depth of the pooling water.
We commented consistently to each other about how dark it was, possibly to hide our own feelings that perhaps this was a bad idea. It was with some relief we met a dead end and made our way back, now both able to brag, but also no longer fear being lost beneath the hills of Snowdonia.
Up at the end of the pass, we skipped over the bridge at the bottom of Beddgelert and across the common the other side to find Gelert’s Grave. This is a story I’ve told before, so humour me if you’ve heard it;
Llewelyn the Great had a very loyal dog named Gelert who was by his side through all things. One day Llewelyn returned home to find the room of his infant son completely thrown about, blood everywhere, and no baby anywhere. When Gelert came running to him with blood all over his body, Llewelyn assumed that disappearance of his son was the dog’s doing and, in his grief, killed his faithful hound. It was only then that he heard a cry and found his child in the furthest corner, next to the body of a giant wolf. Gelert had slain the wolf in order to protect the child.
Llewelyn’s relief at finding his son unharmed soon gave way to intense grief and guilt at having killed his faithful companion. He not only gave his dog a grand grave, but a whole town was founded upon it – Beddgelert.
Now, may I remind you that cows are twice as deadly as wolves. It could easily have been a killer cow, but then oral tradition changed the offending animal to a wolf because I bet that sounded more menacing. Even if it isn’t.
Amy and I looked at the OS Maps app and she indicated the route she had thought we could go on. It started with a 200 metre climb and I, of course, said this was fine because 200 metres never sounds like very much, and then ended up trying not to look out of breath. Thankfully Amy was doing the same and confessed that when her ex boyfriend would take her out hiking (overestimating the difference in stamina between himself as an army man and her as not an army man) she would often stand and pretend to be taking pictures in order to get her breath back without looking like she was suffering. This sounded like a clever plan.
We were then due to hug the edges of a ruined wall until a footpath lead us down to the woods. Except the ruins of the wall ended up leading us inside a large drywall that appeared to never end and we ended up having to climb over to get on the right side. Which was fine for Amy; she was an actual climber, whilst I have the balance of a corkscrew. She kindly found the ‘best’ place to climb, neatly and gracefully hopped over, and then told me where I should be putting my feet from the other side.
Where the footpath was shown on the map might well have been a public right of way, but it sure wasn’t a footpath. We waded over tussocks as round and firm as footballs, making a right journey of it as we kept attempting to avoid them and ending up extending our route. Eventually we found our way into the woods and the clearer path therein.
Stumbling down the soft forest track underneath all the trees we came across a clearing with an elaborate firepit and a log cabin. The whole place looked abandoned. The thing was, I had seen this place on a few forum posts online and knew very well that inside the cabin was a secret bothy not shown on the map. Amy did not know this. So I looked very fearless going up to front door and creaking it open while she hung back, nervous that I was intruding into someone’s private space.
Inside were bunks built solidly into the space with drying lines strung out with paracord. Previous visitors had left their fuel cans and other debris (do not do this). Above the door someone had carved the words ‘Woman Cave’. Both of us were instantly sad that we didn’t bring all our kit with us and couldn’t spend the night.
When we had finished messing around at the bothy, we headed on for what was meant to be the final stretch down the side of the hill to the carpark. Except the paths kept petering out to dramatic drops and edges and none of them made sense. Eventually we saw a post with a public footpath waymark on it and ran simultaneously to hug it, before finding what must be our position on the map again. The turn we kept missing had, in fact, been a series of steps covered in so much water we had mistaken it for a small waterfall. We splashed down them.
A path seemed to go left, but then disappeared. Now the road that lead to the carpark could be seen directly down the slope but we apparently had no path to get us there. We decided to just go for it. Amy opted for a far more deft approach, keeping her balance as she zig zagged carefully down the slope, reaching for the trees to steady her as she passed. I just sat on my arse and shuffled straight down for the most part. We emerged by a house and may or may not have actually been in their garden but didn’t hang around to find out, shaking off all our accumulated leaves and twigs from our clothing and our hair as we made our way back to the carpark.
Looking down the bank of the road towards the forest on the other side where the river rushed in between, we saw an equally dishevelled man emerge from the trees and look at the river with the last glimmers of hope fading from his face. His companions clattered down soon after him. It seemed we weren’t the only ones to get lost in the woods, and both of us are proficient hikers (though this tale might tell otherwise). We waved in solidarity at the man.
Back at the car, Amy gave me a slice of the fruitcake she had saved from yesterday and I was absolutely delighted. She dropped me off back at the Travelodge to continue her journey on into Lincolnshire.
It had been so nice to have company and just as nice to have someone else navigating. It was also excellent to have fruitcake and I returned to my room a very happy hiker, glad to have made a new friend.
The Llyn Peninsula was over. From here I would cross the bridge to the start of the Meirionnydd Path that lead down the coastline of the Snowdonia National Park. I would enjoy my bed; it was back to the tent tomorrow.