AS I sit and write this, the rain intermittently pattering at my window, a steady stream of news articles is indicating that most of the coastal towns and villages that I have visited in both Wales and the West Country are, to varying extents, underwater. We knew that more storms were coming, combining rain and gale force winds; flood warnings had been issued. And then they combined with the pull of the moon to coincide with high tides. The results look spectacular but are disastrous for the communities involved.
Between the Storms
A Brief Respite
This would, you might think, make the possibility of coastal walking in Wales this week quite remote. And so it would be, except that I got in quick and snuck a walk at the start of the week, in a narrow window between last week’s storms and this week’s. For just one glorious day, there would be sunshine and gentle breezes.
Did I say ‘for one glorious day?’ I meant ‘about half an hour.’
Aiming for Aberystwyth
I spent a leisurely day making my way to Aberystwyth via Birmingham and Shrewsbury, taking in the lush, green and incredibly well-watered countryside on the way.
The Coughin’ Path?
It was raining when I got Aberystwyth but not too blowy and I secured myself in my hotel room with a mug of hot chocolate and plans for a good night’s sleep and an early start. What I actually got was a rapidly developing and deeply unpleasant throaty cough, fresh on the coat tails of the horrible lurgy that had kept me in bed over Christmas. And what I didn’t get, therefore, was any sleep. Still, it meant I was up early.
An Adequate Forecast
According to the Met Office’s forecast there would be gales overnight, which I didn’t hear at all, followed by drizzle in the morning. This would clear up by mid-morning and then all would wonder at the fiery ball up in the sky. At least until it set when the rain would return.
As I made my way to the bus stop to travel back to New Quay the drizzle was present as promised and trying hard to edge itself up to the category of ‘downpour’. I coughed in hacking disapproval. It didn’t seem to care.
Famous £1.20 Shop
I headed down to the seafront in New Quay where I purchased some snacks and utterly failed to take a photo of ‘The famous £1.20 Shop’, one of what used to be a Welsh chain of pound shops (i.e. everything costs £1) until the chain’s owner, Colin Sharp, put the prices up due to inflation.
This is something that the other pound shop chains have studiously avoided on the grounds that it will kill their businesses but Mr Sharp is doing just fine as he’s still cheaper than any of the local competition. The thing that made me smile and take a photo of what was probably my thumb was that the shop was having a half-price sale for the New Year. It amused me greatly.
There are two routes out of New Quay with one dependent on the tide. Having checked the tide times, I knew that tide should be out and the beach route passable and so made my way towards it.
In truth the beach was just about passable if I didn’t mind a bit of wading and/or clambering over rocks. I decided that I did mind and headed inland, cutting across a caravan park until I reached a quiet back road.
A Back Road
The road was mostly made out of puddles but it still had less water on it than the beach.
Some people loathe road walking and can’t wait to get onto a precarious ledge somewhere or knee-deep in boot-eating mud. So long as the roads are quiet country lanes and not busy A-roads then I am not one of those people. I was more than happy splashing through the shallow puddles as the road snaked its way towards Cei Bach.
Cei Bach (‘little quay’) is basically just a pebbly beach under a low, wooded cliff but in the nineteenth century it was part of New Quay’s extensive but rather brief shipbuilding industry, which spanned about thirty years from about 1840 to 1870.
Immediately after Cei Bach, I found a spot where the map suggested that I needed to turn off to the left and traipse through the middle of someone’s farmstead. A footpath sign seemed to indicate that I should turn right and crash through a solid-looking hedge.
Less a Sign, More an Omen
On closer inspection it was pretty clear that someone had turned the sign around 90° and I hoped very much that it wasn’t the owner of the farmhouse because an angry farmer with a big dog is unfortunately more immediately compelling as an argument than legal right of way.
I needn’t have worried; I found the way onwards (just beside the farmhouse) without incident although it’s possible that someone may have watched me pass by and laughed. Why laugh, you ask?
Getting Cold Feet
I stood and looked at this linear pond for some minutes, vaguely hoping that it might go away if I coughed loudly. It didn’t. It was, I was pretty sure, deep enough to get inside my boots and I didn’t want that. I learned that lesson almost a year ago when I waded through icy, flooded Pembrey Forest. No, whatever I did next, I needed to keep my socks and boot insides dry. So I took them off and went for a bit of barefoot paddling.
It was cold. It was very cold. It was almost enough to make my feet quite numb. But only almost — as I discovered when I trod on a stinging nettle while trying to put my warm dry socks back on. Turns out my toes weren’t numb at all.
Little Quay Bay
On the far side of the fields lay another wood, albeit one in which the path wasn’t pretending to be a canal. This, in turn, led me back to the sea.
The path was muddy underfoot and gently undulating as it conveyed me through the drizzle in the direction of the town of Aberaeron. Before long I came to a little wooden footbridge spanning the Afon Drywi. Most days, the Drywi is a delightful little stream trickling musically from one rock pool to the next.
Gilfach yr Halen
A short while later I came to Gilfach yr Halen (‘salt creek’), which surprised me for the entirely ridiculous reason that I’d put my map away to keep the rain off it and had promptly forgotten that the route to Aberaeron first passed through a village. Well, I say a ‘village’. Gilfach is a ‘holiday village’ which is essentially the same as a caravan park but with chalets in place of the caravans.
Gilfach was mostly empty and shut with hardly a living creature to be seen. The one rather large exception was a magnificent shire horse, draped in a waterproof coat of its own, who watched me with mild curiosity as I traipsed past.
‘You idiot,’ I could almost imagine it saying, ‘don’t you know that Gilfach’s closed?’
On the far side of the holiday village, the path continued much as it had previously, with mud and grass underfoot and the occasional damp-looking sheep. I crossed two more raging torrents that would normally be streams and then, suddenly, I noticed something that had escaped my attention — it had finally stopped raining.
According to the prediction, I was meant to have enjoyed two hours of blue skies and glorious sunshine by this point. And a breeze so cold that it would make a polar bear think twice; it was still December, after all. As it was, only the breeze was in evidence.
Not long after the rain stopped, I rounded a hill and laid eyes on Aberaeron. Ceredigion’s county town.
Kingdoms and Counties
Some fourteen centuries ago, Ceredigion was a kingdom. Then it became part of Seisyllwyg, which later became part of Deheubarth. In the thirteenth century, following the English invasion, Ceredigion became Cardiganshire. Cardigan was its county town, which seemed to make sense.
In 1974, when the government reorganised the counties, they went a bit berserk with respect to Wales and Ceredigion became a district within Dyfed (which had previously been the name of a different part of Deheubarth, namely the part that hadn’t been Seisyllwyg).
In 1996, Cardiganshire was re-established and pretty much its first act was to rename itself using the Welsh form, Ceredigion. Cardigan never resumed its position as county town though. That role was split between Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, with the county council headquarters in the former.
Aberaeron means ‘mouth of the River Aeron,’ said river being named for the ancient Welsh god of battles and slaughter. Which is lovely.
The town is fairly new, having been mostly laid out in about 1805 by the Reverend Alban Thomas Jones Gwynne. He built a harbour to make the town a port and got in on the shipbuilding boom that also brought brief prosperity to nearby New Quay. The town is small and quite pretty — it has a distinct Regency style as befits its founding — and is pretty much just a seaside resort these days. I rather liked it.
I skirted round the harbour and found a welcoming pub with a roaring fire. There I enjoyed a leisurely lunch of sausage and mash, downed a gin and tonic and generally relaxed. All inbetween coughing.
When I emerged from the pub, the sun had hidden behind the clouds again and I’d not be seeing it again until the next morning. Timing-wise, I had dallied over lunch for longer than intended and I decided I would end my walk at Llanon rather than race on to Llanrhystud, which I doubted I’d reach before dark.
For a while the path ran along impacted shingle at the top of the beach, but it soon reverted to a trail of mud and grass. In next to no time, I found myself in Aberarth, a tiny village dating back to the Anglo-Norman invasions.
The Normans built themselves a castle — Dineirth Castle — further up the valley of the Arth in about 1110. This was promptly razed by Gruffydd ap Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth and then again in 1136 by Owain Gwynedd, the King of Gwynedd and first ruler to style himself ‘Prince of Wales’. And then, just to make sure the Normans properly got the message, Gruffydd ap Rhys’s son and successor, Rhys ap Gruffydd (popularly known as ‘the Lord Rhys’) destroyed it in 1164.
They didn’t really get the message; Deheubarth got conquered anyway by 1283.
The footpath took me into Aberarth and across the Arth on another little footbridge, downstream of (and within sight of) the stone bridge carrying the A487.
The path onwards was mostly flat with fields to my right and the sea to my left but it did experiment with a bit of undulation in the vertical plane. It also experimented with trying to turn streams into obstacles by providing one such, cascading down to the sea, which had slightly overflowed its banks — just enough to need jumping over instead of simply stepping over it as the path-builders had clearly intended. Still, so far so good.
The Way to Llanon
The path dropped back down toward sea level and became surprisingly easy going. Too easy. I came to a point where a stream reached the sea, spilling over a farm track to make a ford. Looking at where the path led down to this stream and where it led up again, I assumed there were probably some stepping stones drowned beneath the torrent. The patterns on the churning surface certainly suggested it.
Accepting the Inevitable
I looked at the stream. I looked for another place to cross. I looked at the stream again. It was too wide to jump — I made it to a central island but the next bit was still a tad too far. It was deeper than my boots, mid-shin depth at least. It was fast and it was cold. I really didn’t fancy taking my boots and socks off and paddling through it. But what choice did I have? Not a lot.
It really was bloody cold. It also tried to sweep my feet from under me but I had walking poles. I was glad of those warm dry socks and boots when I reached the other side though.
Beating the Sunset
Walking quickly now — as much to get some blood flowing into my toes as anything else — I strode the final distance into Llanon, reaching it just before four. That was ten minutes to sunset, about half an hour to the bus.
I decided to kill some time by wandering through the village. Twice. There isn’t very much village.
The Orange Cat
As I wandered, I spotted a red-haired woman who, from behind, looked a lot like a friend whom we shall call, for the purpose of this post, ‘the Orange Cat‘. As the woman turned around, I saw two things: firstly that she wasn’t all that similar to the Orange Cat and secondly that she was on the phone.
This prompted me to look at my own phone to see how much time I had killed. Not much, it turned out, but I did have a missed call, one that I had missed by less than a minute. The call was from the Orange Cat, who had apparently been calling me at the exact moment I looked at this other woman and thought ‘she looks just like her from this angle’. Weird.
Away to Aberystwyth
The bus showed up bang on time and conveyed me back to Aberystywth, where I found myself some dinner, a drink or two and a little more sleep than I’d managed the night before.
The following morning I took a stroll along the promenade and then began the long, slow but verdantly pretty journey home; it was blazing sunshine all the way and not the day-long downpour predicted by the Met Office.
Thus ended my last walk of 2013.
On Came the Storms
A couple of days later the storms came back in earnest, hence my opening comments to this post.
Waves have ripped up the paving from Aberystwyth promenade and scattered it and evacuation alerts have been issued for various streets in Aberystwyth and Borth (the next village up the coast). Waves 6ft above normal sea level are predicted for tonight. In Aberaeron, the harbour, which looks so harmless in my photo, overflowed.
Advised to Avoid
The full list of places flooded, about to flood or otherwise damaged reads like a summary of this blog. Walkers are currently advised not to attempt to walk the Wales Coast Path. Well, not unless they want to end up in the middle of the Irish Sea anyway.
Needless to say, I shall be taking that advice. I shall resume when things have calmed down a little…
This time: 12 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,455½ miles