27th – 31st December 2021
Porthmadog – Harlech
12 miles/2027959 ft total ascent
I could see the dunes of Harlech sands as a rumpled clutch of hazy shadows across the Glaslyn estuary. This would be the estuary that began my hatred of the coast path estuaries. Where previously an estuary navigation had been a minor inland detour, there would now be several instances before the end when those inland detours were anything other than minor.
I left Porthmadog on the cyclepath beside the Ffestiniog railway that crossed the manmade embankment on the other side of the town to the one I had walked from on Christmas. The sea was back on my right, but this was far from the last encounter I would have with the railway.
The Ffestiniog and Highland railways hugs the coast here like the North Wales Expressway had done right at the start of the trail with similar inconvenience. Having been there long before the trail, the coast path was going to have a tough time managing to both navigate around it and still remain interesting.
Once over the cob, the path made the first of what would be many crossings across the tracks before sharply taking me up the oak laden slopes through a succession of wooded tracks and farm fields. Leaves dangled, wet, shining and heavy, off bushes. Whilst the ground level to the sides of the path were dense with damp, green foliage, the skinny bones of bare tree branches poked and cluttered upwards scraping into the brooding sky like pencils in a jar.
A brief, sloppy descent to the edges of Portmeirion was followed by a messy assortment of paths and fields and roads. The village of Portmeirion is a total oddity; it is essentially a tourist attraction of a village, built in a Mediterranean style in the mid 1900s. Despite numerous, very beautiful, colourful buildings and a whole considered infrastructure, no one actually lives there. The stunning colonnaded piazza, terracotta roundhouses, shaded square of shops, restaurants, cafes and ornamental gardens are literally built just to be visited. You might be able to tell from all the adjectives that it is known for being incredibly lovely, but I wouldn’t know first hand because you have to pay to enter and that just annoys me. That and how its architect, Sir Clough William-Ellis, lovingly called his creation ‘propaganda for good manners’. I think he meant this in regards to town planning and environmentalism, but it still makes him sound like a wanker.
The random route finally spilled me out at the crossroads of Penrhyndeudraeth, and I carried on along the cycleway, to the Pont Briwet; the bridge that crossed the Dwyryd.
Here is something that the general discussion of the Wales Coast Path seems to gloss over; when the trail opened in 2012, it was indeed 870 miles. Were we just taking into account the minor alterations since then to avoid eroded paths or where new permissions were granted, it would still be roughly the same. However the Pont Briwet was built in 2015 and knocked eleven whole miles, most of a day’s walk, off of the total. So it isn’t really 870 miles long anymore, but don’t let me spoil that illusion.
The crossing of the Pont Briwet was nondescript but efficient, and the Dwyryd was soon behind me. I arrived the other side to a marker for Snowdonia National Park. A place famous for its mountain ranges and home to Yr Wyddfa herself seems to be a promising space for a trail. It is, indeed, home to many incredible long distance paths – The Snowdonia Way and The Slate Trail are confined yomps exploring the whole area, and the notoriously challenging Cambrian Way concludes there after a lengthy upland journey through all the Welsh ranges. The Wales Coast Path section is not one of its prouder paths. In an area of mountains, walking the bit by the sea is like ordering carbonara at a steakhouse.
Still, at this point, I was still hoping for the best. The North Wales Coast may have been a trudge but, weather notwithstanding, the scenery of Anglesey and the Llyn Peninsula had been absolutely wonderful. Maybe that would continue? Or maybe I was due a dud.
I didn’t think the walk along the seawall raised amongst the saltmarshes was all that bad. I quite enjoyed the views over the maze-like creeks that wiggled and crawled around the thick protruding vegetation. It looked like the earth had been dropped and cracked; fine lines of blue spreading out amongst the vivid green.
The dense, low lying plants of salt marshes are those hardier stems that manage to thrive in seawater, many of which end up on dinner plates alongside fish. Springy samphire and sea purslane grow tightly together, their whole intertwined system a buffer against flooding tides. When these marshplants die, their remains fall into the mud and the system traps all of their inhaled carbon. In this they are valuable carbon sinks, much like peat, and one of our most effective weapons against climate change. If only we would stop destroying them.
Where the sea sat on my right, the mountains soared up over on my left past the motley cluster of the railway, road and numerous buildings. With the bright marshes extending towards them, and then the dark mountains themselves raised high, that strip of stubborn humanity in between looked very small.
The embankment narrowed as it became separated in two by a fence. The land on the right of the fence was private. I knew this because the landowner had put up an absolute plethora of signs telling me so. There were padlocks and chains wound around any in-between gates, and then just clasped around random fence posts for good measure. Whilst all this was clearly overkill and the owner badly needed to chill out, I could definitely understand the necessity; the right of way on my side of the embankment became narrow and rather swampy, whilst on the other side a nicely built farm track followed the same direction. It was sorely tempting to just jump the fence and walk on the track for a while. To be fair, I might have done it had all those signs and padlocks not made me absolutely certain even touching the fence would trigger a button to release the hounds.*
After half climbing, half tumbling over a number of storm-damaged, wonky stiles, I came up on a grass path that would wiggle its way round to St Michael’s churchyard that sat back from the road, peacefully, in a shelter of yew trees. After a brief break, taking advantage of the available benches, I returned to the marshes via an odd assortment of overgrown steps and bracken clad slopes.
At least here, I was fairly confident that I would not have to worry about cows. Saltmarshes were the domain of sheep. Saltmarsh lamb is sought after for being richer, darker, juicier and leaner than the mountain counterpart, in no small part due to the iodine rich diet of the seaplants that the sheep graze on.
Of course, sheep are not the only things living here. Birds such as spoonbills and egrets use the tall grasses to hide their nests in, with the mud providing rich pickings of insects, molluscs and easily nabbed fish for them to eat. Fish also use the marshes as a nursery, tucking their sacs of eggs in the handy crooks of the mottled mosaic of the wetlands.
The return to the marsh was replaced by tracks and grasslands where the path was not as straight as one might assume and I had to keep an eye out for the yellow of the markers to keep myself right. Eventually a short road plod took me into Harlech.
The high town and low town of Harlech were brazenly distinct. The low town sat down here, as sea level, alongside the railway and the road whilst the high level was right up the cliff. It was a proper steep climb to get up there to the Castle and the café nearby that, I hoped, would be open. I was in luck! Despite pretty much everything else still being shut, the café was open and doing a roaring trade. I settled down for a rarebit and looked on out over the castle.
Harlech is a small place, with a population of only around 1,500, but it has been immortalised in the marching song Men of Harlech (google it, you’ll likely know it, especially if you ever watched the film Zulu) which commemorates the siege of Harlech Castle.
The siege lasted seven years and was the longest siege in British history. Unusually so far in all my relating of the history of Welsh castles, the siege had nothing to do with Edward I nor with Owain Glyndwr. It was between 1461 and 1468 and occurred during the War of the Roses when the castle was held by the Lancastrians.
It really should be noted that this siege was not a traditional siege where the attackers sit around until their target starves themselves out to surrender, it was more that the castle was under constant scrutiny and regular attack which made things a lot more difficult than they should have been, but not entirely impossible. At the time, there was no low town – the rock on which the castle was built backed directly onto the sea meaning the inhabitants were still able to get the occasional supply delivered via boat from supporters and fellow rebels.
In the last four years of the siege, it was the only place still in Lancastrian hands. Yorkist king, Edward IV, had attempted a few times to end things peacefully, offering pardons in return for surrender, but the defiant Lancastrians were having none of it. Plots continued to be made from within the castle, messengers were frequently captured. But it was when Edward launched an attack on the French, only for the French to start funding the Lancastrian cause that he got really fed up.
An army of 9,000 men were gathered and divided into two. One attack would come from the north and the other from the south, with both involving difficult and lengthy mountain crossings. The men approaching from the south met the French funded army of rebels and scattered them, before the two groups met at Harlech and began a true siege, complete with bombardment and blockade. Now, truly starved out, the Lancastrians finally surrendered and the Yorkists had full reign of both England and Wales.
It’s sometimes hard to imagine all the heightened terror, war and devastation that has occurred in a place in the past. Especially when, like now, I sat looking over the very nicely built walkway into the castle from the Visitor Information office munching on a fancy cheese on toast.
I left the castle and made my way down again via the second steepest street in the world (there’s one in New Zealand that takes the top spot). Ffordd Pen Llech slides down the cliff at 37.45% which was really pretty alarming. A family were trying to make their way down behind me and we all were zig-zagging across the tarmac like it was some perilous upland path. I was very happy I had a trekking pole.
Back on flat land, I went to see if the corner shop was open and ran into a chatty and dishevelled Irishman. He may have already been slightly drunk. I guess for those not walking some massive path right now there’s not a lot to do. He pointed at my tent held to the back of my bag and said that if I was looking to wildcamp, he knew just the place and started giving excited directions and indications to a certain dune somewhere across the golf course.
I went off to check it out, but thought along the way that maybe it wasn’t wise to go camp somewhere where the only person who knew exactly where I was was a drunk strange man. I hate that I have to consider these things. Even more so because the chance that he was being friendly and helpful was significantly more likely than him going off to plot anything malicious. And when I got to the spot it was, indeed, a very nice spot. But I figured that the dunes would hold other nice spots and, just to be safer, to go off and find one of those.
Luckily, there were a number of decent hideyholes amongst the dunes and I set up my camp with a view over the castle that lit up as the sun went down. I held the guylines down further with heavy stones, knowing that my pegs would likely slide out of the sand at annoying moments otherwise. Thankfully it was not going to be a windy night.
*Having looked at the Cicerone guide I used, Paddy Dillon actually appears to recommend using this track. Paddy and those that obeyed him might actually be responsible for the owner’s wrath. As the parallel track did not show up on my map as a right of way, I think Paddy may have been rather naughty.
Harlech – Barmouth
16 miles/689 ft total ascent
I had sat on my sleeping pad last night and was startled by a loud bang. It was loud enough that I thought I had popped the whole thing, but on inspecting it and pressing it, air did not seem to be being released from anywhere. It was only in the morning I saw the lump up by the head and worked out that I had delaminated an interior baffle, probably by overinflating it and then sitting heavily on it whilst the tent was cradled in a not completely unnoticeable land hammock. The damage appeared to only be quite small. I hoped it would be OK.
I lumbered ungracefully down onto Harlech beach that stretched far ahead to the base of a distant, dark cliff and started making my way along the empty sand towards it. At some point the path was meant to divert left before the sands gave way to boulders at the cliff base, but I ended up taking the wrong track in between the dunes and found myself heading half a mile back towards Harlech before finding my way back to pull myself up a steep lot of steps in the rocky slopes, over the railway line, to eventually follow the grassy edge to the road at the top of the cliff.
Paths by the side of a lane, and then a few fields took a more gradual descent down to more marshes, and I’d now be sent on a wide, wiggly scoop to get around the estuary of the Afon Arto and avoid the most sinkable parts of the marshes. The huddled, dark wetland scrubs spread out far towards the sea, the pools within them shining like dropped diamonds in the morning light. Boats rocked and creaked in the bay, grounded on the mud until they were needed.
A long grass field passed by a church and soon I was on embankments again. I could hear another walker a short while behind me, loudly having a phone call, distracted from his dog that kept running up next to me and trying to grab the swinging ends of my adjusted hipbelt. It was a very annoying dog, and I was glad when I came to the fetching black and white bridge that it had gates on either side. I closed the dog away behind me and he tried that whole sad-dog look but, jokes on him, I’m a cat person.
I came out at a small car part and was instantly ambushed by a family asking for directions. I’m not sure the massive bag or journey-worn exterior gave the impression that I was a local, so I can only assume that I looked like I knew what I was doing. They asked whether the quickest way to the beach was from the direction I’d just come or down the path ahead of them. Beach? I told them there was no beach from where I had just come, but the next beach I knew of was a couple miles ahead.
They consulted amongst each other. I could hear the man walking behind me end his phone call and him and his annoying dog approach. I suggested that the group ask him because he definitely seemed like more of a local.
I had no idea whether he was a local. I just wanted to get a headstart away from the dog.
The tarmac path crossed the railway tracks, and then became a quiet road that lead all the way to a disused RAF airfield. This airfield is now a testing space for unmanned vehicles (I’m assuming this means drones and those little bomb disposal robots rather than, like, space probes). Once around the perimetre of the airfield, a small entrance track dipped down to the peninsula beach of Shell Island.
The proper name for the beach is ‘Mochras’ but the colloquial name continues in equal use. The beach, as you may have guessed, is known for the surprising variety and colourful array of shells found on the sands. I wasn’t here to hang around long though, I had a different beach to aim for. A gate at the back of the peninsula cut across the scrubby land at the back of the dunes on a raised concrete platform with various associated parts of the airfield off to my left. This walk got boring very fast and seemed to go on for ages. I started singing ‘The long and winding road’ as I continued on the concrete. I only knew about two lines of the song and soon I was annoying myself with it as much a the path was doing beforehand.
I came to work out later that, despite the waymark and map leading me on this weary and boring trek away from anything interesting, there was no reason for me not to have just turned left on Shell Island and continued across the shingle until I reached sand again.
Eventually I came out at Morfa Dyffryn and the long, yellow band of beach underneath the pale and grassy dunes. This secluded beach, half an hour from the nearest car park, is a naturist beach. Maybe unsurprisingly, considering it was midwinter and really quite cold, there weren’t any naturists out today and I wasn’t about to become one – do you know what a hassle it is getting a backpack on again once you’re taken it off? In midsummer though, several hundred happy nudies can be out on any given day with naturist visitors coming all the way from far warmer European countries to enjoy this gorgeous and peaceful slice of sand.
The glare of the sun caught the edges of the dunes, casting them dark and the sand ahead bright. The beachwalk was long and lovely, a welcome reprieve to the concrete path beforehand. Apart from one woman, it was a few miles before I saw any other people and as I approached the southern end a boy with a red kite made it sail and dip and skim the water and go up again. I climbed over the shingle that now formed a strip at the back of the sand, and left the beach through a boardwalk lined path through the dunes.
Another mess of stuck together rights of way made up a link to the main road. These random assortments of farmland, lanes, muddy grass tracks and seawalls were starting to define the area more than the regular saltmarshes or the silhouettes of the mountains. In fact, I would often forget about the mountains being there as I messed around making sure that the next fifty metres were the right fifty metres and then the one after and so on. It was all too easy to just lose a waymark.
Not that, I suppose, it mattered here too much. As long as you eventually ended up on the side of the main road for a final, long joyless tarmac walk into Barmouth that made the concrete track behind the dunes of Shell Island seem like a divine wonderland.
I took a break in a pub, making a beeline for the radiator. I had a sandwich and a hot chocolate bought for me by a couple that I seemed to have misled into thinking I was the most interesting person in the world. They asked my advice on hiking and camping related things and it was only afterwards, I headed up off trail to the hills behind Barmouth to find a place to camp, that I started worrying they might follow my advice, which might turn out to be wrong, and then they might die and it would be all my fault.
Barmouth – Tywyn
14 miles/1746 ft total ascent
The rain started in the night. I usually quite like the sounds of rain on the tent at night. It makes me feel smug and secure; me and my little bubble against the elements. However, I don’t like it so much if it is continuing close to the time I’ll be needing to pack up. Packing up a tent in the rain almost guarantees the next night you’ll be sliding around a wet interior and it will get miserable very fast.
The rain did not stop as the sky slowly started to change from an inky blackness to a dark blue. It didn’t seem to have any intention of stopping, and the forecast confirmed this. I unhappily started packing up, trying to be as fast as possible as I broke it down but still ended up sliding a very wet bundle into the bag. In summer this isn’t an issue; even if the next dry moment only lasts an hour, you can hang the tent up somewhere; on a tree, fence, or just lightly on the grass, and it will dry in half that time. In winter, even in dry periods it’s unlikely to be warm enough to dry off with any sort of speed, and hanging around waiting for that to happen is just going to chill you to your bones.
I resigned myself to tonight being a wet sleep.
Down from the hills, once out of the shelter of the trees the full force of the rain hit me. It hit everything so hard it only took me crossing the Barmouth Bridge halfway for my phone to decide it had had enough for the day and it wasn’t going to work until it was dry again. So I wasn’t going to be able to just power on through this with the aid of 80s power ballads or podcasts about internet mysteries.
The town name of Barmouth is a corruption of the welsh Abermaw. You might have gathered by now that the prefix ‘Aber’ refers to an estuary and the other parts of the word reference which river the ‘aber’ belongs to. In this case, it is the river Mawddach. The town grew rapidly in the late 18th century around the shipbuilding industry, eventually requiring the building of Barmouth Bridge once the railways took off, in order to transport in materials more efficiently.
I was lucky, if you can call it that, with the Barmouth Bridge; the timber railway viaduct and footbridge lying across the estuary. It’s 150 years old, grade II listed, and badly in need of restoration. The restorations are being carried out slowly due to an ongoing fight over who is going to fund it. Despite Network Rail finally pledging in 2020 to spend 25 million pounds over three years on the project, that likely will not be enough. Because of the restoration efforts, the bridge closes for long periods of time requiring a very lengthy, day and a half long detour inland for Wales Coast Path walkers.* I had somehow managed to get here for a sliver of a week in which it was open.
On the other hand, if everyone just says sod it, and leaves this fragile, old bridge to rot, the Wales Coast Path would confidently be able to say it is 870 miles long again with no word of a lie.
I walked amongst the high-vis clad restoration workers like a total oddity. Many kindly greeting me with a ‘hello!’. The bridge ended 900 ft later at an embankment through the marshes to the seafront at Fairbourne. The rain howled in, and my eyes were firmly downwards, looking at only the ground a foot or two in front of me with my hood pulled low over my eyes to stop the frontal wall of rain from attacking my face completely.
Large concrete blocks sat in lines along the shore here. Not as some sort of flood defence or land reclamation device though; these ‘dragon teeth’ had been installed in WWII to deter any German beach attacks. Now they remained, half the size of trig points and without any of the character or charm. I shall concede; it was hard for anything to appear charming when the weather was intent on being so disgusting.
The coastal area up from Fairbourne became rammed with the main road and the railway and, as a result, the path went inland yet again. Thankfully this was up into woodlands that offered some shelter against the downpour, up past disused quarries to the, usually lovely, Llyn Glas. A surreally blue lake sat in a drowned quarry.
The manmade sides of Llyn Glas slid a sheer drop to the water. It would not shine vividly for me today and just moodily tantrummed as rain thudded into its surface. A more exposed track continued on through the hills; a low level walk amongst the rise and fall of little summits that I would have loved to have walked on a clear day. As it was, my head was down again, and the wind and rain had me fully wishing the day to be over right now. I was informed there were standing stones and the remnants of a Bronze Age settlement here. Don’t know, wasn’t looking. I was just trying to remind myself of the part of me that had chosen to do this as a personal challenge. Well here was a very rainy challenge, and I didn’t have to be happy about it but maybe I should accept that it sucks and commit to positive action rather than being a little brat about it? I failed. I remained a brat.
I went down and up again over country lanes and then was ordered on the map to go through a messy trudge of saturated farmland for apparently no reason whatsoever other than to briefly get slightly closer to the actual sea. I opted to skip it and continue on the lane that it would rejoin again later.
I thudded around the contours of a hill. Hungry now. Tired now. This section was Meirionnydd’s coast path highlight (despite almost none of it being on the coast) but the weather was awful and my attitude had gone just as sour. Everything was wet. I was sure the water was going to cause blisters from my underwear four layers underneath the raincoat that had now utterly given in to the elements.
Eventually I got to the footbridge and looked up at the Broad Water where I intended to camp tonight. A brief look; I decided it would do, but first I needed to go into Towyn, get something hot to drink, find several radiators to press myself against, change my clothes, charge my power bank, and, it turns out, have a massive omelette.
*Or those doing the sensible thing and walking in summer can take the ferry across to Fairbourne.
Tywyn – Machynlleth
17 miles/2220 ft total ascent
At least I had resigned myself to a wet night yesterday morning so that ending up in a small pool of water inside the wet tent was not an additional disappointment. I had pulled out the bivvy, mainly to waterproof the bag as much as possible from the inescapable wetness. The rain continued throughout the night and my sleep was hugely disturbed.
I often got asked how I managed camping on the long nights. I think people considering it are hopeful for some magical answer that isn’t going to arrive. It is with great anguish that I can’t make the night shorter through anything other than waiting a few months. The long hours of dark are one of the most testing and trying things I have found about winter camping; being in there for more hours than you’re walking, alone with your thoughts and your demons and your only distractions are whatever your pack weight allows.
I had a journal which I wrote voraciously in, and I wrote and sent many, many postcards along the way. I started to find things that required any mental application incredibly difficult to keep to, and had discarded the puzzle book I had brought back in Porthmadog. I would be hesitant to listen to podcasts or music because I didn’t want to use up my batteries. I had gone out on The Dales Way in November, in part to see how I might be able to deal with the darkness, and had found that I simply slept in three stages.
I’d be asleep by six, waking up around nine and then making and eating dinner. The next sleep would see me wake at two or three and I would write my journal and postcards and the third would have me awake between five and six with a couple hours before light came to look over what the day might bring. It was rarely enjoyable, but it was accepted and soon just became something to zone out over and tolerate rather than fear.
Come the slivers of morning light, the rain had finally faded to a drizzle and I exited the tent to thick mist. I followed the shore along to Aberdyfi where one of the longest estuary diversions would now have to be endured. Here there was no bridge. Now there would be almost two days walk before I went down to the sea again. It seems so odd that there wouldn’t be a bridge anywhere closer to the coast; it must even take cars a whole hour to get around. Sources I find keep pointing to the unstable terrain being unsuitable for a bridge and the volume and weight it would hold which is likely true since even the current Dyfi Bridge that does exist, way back at Machynlleth, is having to have construction work done regularly and the span of that is far less than it would be here.
When I had reached the back row of houses in Aberdyfi, I clicked out a gate to a footpath that climbed up rapidly through farms and woods along the river all shrouded in a thick and ethereal haze. I hoped navigational points would remain because, even though I had my compass, this felt like it could get disorientating very fast.
Gorse bushes lurched out the fog like fat, grubby ghosts and eventually I left the sounds of the river for a farm track which, thankfully, would guide me through the hills. It would be a long plod. I have seen pictures of others walking this route with achingly beautiful views over the peaks and valleys around them. My visibility was so limited that I had barely any notion of the hills other than the steady, slow ascents and descents and the contours I traced. Slopes that were swallowed into the surround just metres away. I had no idea how tall they looked or how my progress was in relationship to the landscape. All I could do was stay on the track, and not startle too many of the sheep.
They would hear me before I would see them and scramble madly and suddenly like fluffy balls across the path. It may have been Wales, but it was all getting very Bronte inspired with the mist and the endless grass and the rain. If a man had appeared out of the thick haze and taken me off to his isolated manor and attempted to manipulate me into becoming an image of his former wife, right then I didn’t think I’d complain too much. Sounds warm.
Now this track went on for a fair long way and I can only say so much about my experience because there was little for me to see and you would, instead, just carry on hearing about how cold and wet I was and occasionally about another sheepbomb attack. Instead, get a brew, and I shall tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there lay another kingdom out across the shores of Cardigan Bay. It stretched from Bardsey Island at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, all the way down to Cardigan, and was called Cantre’r Gwaelod.
It was a happy and vibrant land made wealthy by the rich, fertile soil, and the towns that stood upon it were magnificent. The towns of this low lying island were protected from the sea by high sea walls with sluice gates that were opened at low tide to allow any water to drain out, and then shut again when the water rose again. One awful night, a spring tide and a terrible storm hit the island together. The knight and watchman, Seithenyn, responsible for the sluice gates that night was absent from his post, having chosen to go attend revelries elsewhere. His incompetency sealed the island’s fate and the kingdom was doomed. Whilst a few managed to sail away, the once magnificent Cantre’r Gwaelod sank beneath the waves without a trace.
Sometimes, on a quiet night, you might be able to hear the faint sounds of the town bells ringing from beneath the sea.
Whilst there is little physical evidence that this Welsh Atlantis ever really existed, the submerged forests along this coast can easily be seen as the inspiration. It can also be understood as a story based around the extensive work throughout so many centuries put into reclaiming the long flat marshes from the sea and the huge efforts in the embankments, groynes and seawalls to prevent the ocean from swallowing the land. It could easily be a story of what might happen one day, rather than a story of something that already has.
Back on the foggy hillside, I had started a final descent out of the hills. The rain was picking up and up again, soon reaching the volume of yesterday. As the descent got steeper, the ruts on the track filled with water pouring from higher up in strong, angry streams downhill. Some of these rut rivers were so ferocious I half expected to see alarmed sheep being carried away in them. Maybe it would be me being alarmed, swept underneath the uncaring eyes of the sheep.
I got to a road and then into woods and, finally down to the exit onto the main road. Oh God I was so wet and so miserable and so utterly fed up. I looked upwards at the plantation lining the ridge at the other side of the road knowing I was heading to a similar one further down this side. It all looked foreboding and dark and utterly uncomfortable. I did not want to be in places like that. I did not want to walk in this rain anymore today. And, to be honest, I really, really did not want to spend another wet, long night in an absolutely soaking and sad tent. I plonked myself on the side of the road utterly dejected.
I can only assume that this what pathetic and sober enough looks like because a car screeched up, stopping right by me, and a woman called out the window asking if I wanted a lift to Machynlleth?
Sod it. Of course I did. I don’t even feel the need to make excuses here.
I had barely blurted out my gratitude before I was in her car sloshing water all over the place. She was German and had come over for love, fallen out of love with the man, but also in love with Wales. As we approached Machynlleth whole fields were submerged in the rising river, branches of trees only just breaking through the water. She worried that the Dyfi Bridge might be closed, as it tends to when the water gets too high, but thankfully we managed to get over. I later found out we were one of the last cars able to do so that day.
She dropped me off outside a pub and, once inside, the Landlady instantly parked me next to the fire as I started shivering violently. I peeled off the wet outer layers, but I didn’t have many dry clothes left in the bag. I was just shedding water like some mythical monster all over the place. My mind made up, I made a reservation at a hotel nearby and was suddenly filled with the utmost relief. I was so tired and absolutely everything was so, so wet.
The hotel was one of those converted buildings that used to be grand once, where they try and imprint this historical grandeur onto the guests with things like odd paintings of birds and bedpans hanging off the walls. Where corridors go off creaking in all directions over slightly threadbare carpet, and none of the lightbulbs are ever very bright, but it was absolutely the hotel room I remember fondest on this journey. At just the pinnacle of my misery the small single room brought me an unexplainable amount of joy. I hung up absolutely everything anywhere that I could to dry out and, miracle of miracles, there was even a bath.
I was ready for a good night to set me straight for tomorrow. The Meirionnydd Coast hadn’t at all reached the height of loveliness and wonder that the previous two coasts had done. In my memory, it is just framed by mix and match paths, railway crossings, fog and a lot of road. I’ll grant that the fog might likely be confined to just my experience, but the others remain. It was over now.
Machynlleth – Clarach (Ceredigion)
15 miles/3451 ft total ascent
The market town of Machynlleth calls itself ‘the ancient capital of Wales’ due to being the seat of Owain Glyndwr’s Welsh government in 1404 after he had begun his fifteen year revolt and, despite Henry IV still technically ruling Wales, been crowned by his loyal supporters. Supporters so loyal that he was never betrayed and even the date and manner of his death and his burial site remain a secret to this day. Information supposedly only known by his descendants who still guard the knowledge as a family secret.
Sadly, in our much more modern times, Machynlleth hit the headlines in 2012 when five year old April Jones disappeared. 16 specialist search teams from across the country came to Machynlleth to search for the child; mountain rescue teams, coastguard teams, urban search and rescue teams, and specialist dog units along with aid from 45 police departments. Every day of the search involved around 150 police officers, 10 search dogs, 100 mountain rescuers, two RNLI vessels, kayakers and helicopter support. She was not found alive, and her parents had no closure of a body other than fragments of bone found in her abductors fireplace. Her abductor and murderer, Mark Bridger, is spending his whole life in jail. For years afterwards the town would be decorated in pink ribbons, April’s favourite colour.
This inland trip to Machynlleth would be the only stop in Powys. Here the Meironnydd Coast ended and the Ceredigion begun as I headed up the other side of the Dyfi estuary to the sea again.
I left Machynlleth via the Roman Steps. The steps are not Roman, the word was simply used to infer that they were old. It’s actually unlikely the Romans ever had much to do in this area other than pass through. The path went high again before slowly heading down, not quite in the hills this time, but the wooded fields overlooking the river. The rain held off and the haze kept back, but the last couple days had cursed this to an awfully muddy effort and all those drenched fields were a slog.
The woods became a conifer plantation with a far firmer track, the evergreen trees covering the sky and keeping me in shadows that jiggled around the border of being unsettling and reassuring. The sound of running water came trickling from tributaries I could not see. It was calming and, all too soon, I was spat out of the Llynfant Valley for a half a mile roadwalk before I got to disappear down forested tracks again.
Between the trees would sometimes sit rejected mining equipment, rusting and grown over like they were being pulled into the earth they once disturbed. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I was once more caught in a muddy trudge on from Furnace. The road could frequently be seen below which was more disheartening than anything else.
I should have known better than to already be moaning about the mud. Because then came the bog.
Bogs, at the best of times, are boggy. After days of voracious rain they turn into the sort of quagmire-like horror that all those children’s cartoons of the 90s warned us about. Cors Fochno was no exception. It boasts being the largest expanse of ‘primary near-natural raised bog in an estuarine context’ which sounds so specific I would assume it doesn’t actually mean very much had it not been been a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve for forty odd years.
For over six thousand years the slow formation of peat has taken place here. When the forest submerged, swallowed by the sea, the consumed vegetation sprouted reed grass marshes which eventually slowly decomposed to form peat. Nothing that becomes peat ever really dies, it is suspended and utilised and just becomes one of a whole other living system greater than it. Occasionally stumps of trees that have been covered for over a thousand years are revealed, persevered in a limbo state by the peat they nourish.
Peat, like the saltmarshes, is an extremely valuable carbon sink. So maybe I should have been more grateful to it as I tried to cross the bog.
The path tried to keep me to the top of a drainage ditch, but with even that level somewhat submerged after the last few days, I would half step off it every now and then, jolting me back to a heightened awareness. The ground puckered around my shoes and pulled with every step. Fortunately my tolerance for bogs has been raised greatly after a horrendous experience in the Migneint Marshes had me half thinking that I would genuinely be pulled under. This? This was annoying, but in comparison it was a trifle.
If the water had been less, maybe I would have seen the rust like tapestry of the sphagnum mosses more clearly; dark red and rusted gold glimmering in the dark ground.
It was a a long haul into Borth, and as I made my entrance I was surprised and delighted to be called over by a family whose house I passed for some tea and mince pies. The young daughter had made the mince pies and she sat across the table sternly, awaiting my judgement. I chewed slowly before declaring they were wonderful and her face broke out in a giant grin. She then changed the subject onto the one that was clearly on her mind. How did I wee with the backpack on?
I managed to get off on a tangent from my own methods (the whole falling over mid-wee in a sheepfield in the storm thing was not my crowning moment) and started to wax lyrical about the shewee. Whilst he mother was also very interested, the father, knowing he had little to contribute here, had gone quiet. Meanwhile the young son was fiddling with my hiking pole.
“It’s my wizard’s staff” I told him. He looked at me very skeptical. “It’s true. If I have that it means I can climb really high really easily and never fall over, it means the backpack doesn’t weigh anything, it can even split water”
“Or so I’m told. I haven’t tried it yet because that feels like cheating.”
He looked up at his parents with huge eyes “I want one for Christmas!”
“You’ve just had Christmas”
The family offered to do all sorts for me – did I want a lift to the shop? Did I have laundry I needed to do? Did I have enough water? I told them, really, I was fine. Then paused and asked if they had a couple laundry tabs I could take with me?
Refreshed and newly stocked with laundry tabs, and with a much more pumped up ego that I started the day, I set off along the coast out of Borth.
Oh, this was instantly so much nicer. I went up to the memorial at the edge of town and looked down. Here I was at the sea again! And the coast was an undulating and beautiful mass of cliffs and waving grass. If this is what the Ceredigion was going to be like, it was instantly a million times better than the Meirionnydd.
I felt so revitalised the next few miles. I grinned like a madwoman at other passing walkers, and even grinned at their dogs. Even with the skies still holding a tinge of greyness, this was absolutely lush. I loved it. Though the muddy and boggy trip before had worn me out and now these hills would wear me out more, I embraced that sort of anticipated exhaustion so much more than the miserable type that comes just from very wet slogs through not very much at all.
Down at Wallog, the pebble bank marks the remains of a glacial moraine; the deposited debris left by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. The moraine, Sarn Gynfelyn, becomes part of the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, being the causeway between Wales and the lost kingdom. It extends ten miles offshore before giving out to the depths of the ocean.
It wasn’t long from here to Clarach Bay. I was well aware that it was New Years Eve and I had made my plans.
I really am not a fan at all of New Years Eve at all. I didn’t want to be in a town surrounded by the noise and reminders of it, but I also didn’t want to be off on some hidden and invisible wildcamp. I had found a campsite, open all year, nearby to Clarach Bay and, though I could be reasonably sure I would be the only one there, it was still close enough to Aberystwyth to order pizza.
I was indeed the only person there. It would have been nice if there was someone else but I can’t expect everyone to share my idea of a good time. The owner just pointed to the field and disappeared for the evening, which was fine but he neglected to tell me where the ablutions were. No matter. I set up my tent, ordered my pizza and looked forward to what the Ceredigion Coast had in store.