THE storms that heralded the beginning of 2014 were followed by more storms and then more. The wettest January since records began was followed by a February that seemed to consider that a challenge. All manner of interesting coastal features were washed right away and I, not confusing ‘’suicidal’ and ‘intrepid’, remained in London and followed this on the news.
Weather for Walking
The arrival of March brought with it sunny weather and enough time since the last storm that coastal path diversions would already be in place where they were needed — I had no urgent desire to actively experience a landslip. But, just in case, much as one erects a rod to draw the lightning, when I returned to Ceredigion I did so in the company of ‘the Lemming’.
As it happened he didn’t fall off anything either. In fact the only one of us to do any falling was me, as I slipped over in some mud again. It’s almost becoming a tradition.
Llansantffraid & Llanrhystud
As the Lemming and I alighted from the bus in Llanon, I airily dismissed the driver’s query as to whether we wanted that stop or the next one. It was all Llanon, I said, and it was. It was also the next stop that we wanted. Still, at least the walk through the relative shelter of the village gave us warning of the icy, howling gale that lashed the coast in lieu of the promised sunshine.
By the time we made our way to the low cliff that overlooked where a shingle bank no longer was, we were clad in coats, gloves and
knitted tea cosies woolly hats. A miniature pony quietly ignored us as we passed it. It was too cold to notice walkers, no matter what they wore upon their heads.
Right next door to Llanon, which is named for St Non, the mother of St David, is the village of Llansantffraid which feels older and prettier. It is named for St Bride or Bridget (c 450-c 525), who is said to have founded Ireland’s first nunnery and to have been known for her mercy.
St Ffraed’s Church
Her church in Llansantffraid is a grade II* building and its stained glass windows depict both her and St Non. The windows date from the 1970s while the rest of the building spans a range of ages thanks to much rebuilding; the tower may date back to the fourteenth century. The chancel is faced with slate.
A stream called the Peris runs past her feet but that’s not the only nearby water….
Between the village and the sea lie many small communal fields, known locally as ‘slangs’. We strode out across them, braving the chill breeze, and enjoying the nice, flat terrain while we were able.
Peering over the low cliff, which was savagely under cut in places, it was clear that the only reason this low-lying land hadn’t been completely inundated by the storms was that the storm surge had been too busy washing its beaches away. Even so, we found one field trying hard to be a lake, the sea having broken through a defensive bank of shingle.
Hark! Our Heralds Sing
This was quite close to Llanrhystud, a quiet lane towards which we soon found ourselves traversing. Well, I say ‘quiet’. The lane was flanked by daffodils, snowdrops and little fluffy lambs; our entrance into Llanrhystud was heralded by the echoing bleats of dozens of panicky ewes.
Llanrhystud is named for a sixth century saint whose church is also grade II listed and was rebuilt in 1852. It was hardly the first time it needed rebuilding either; the village church was razed by marauding Danes in 987.
Not being Vikings, we didn’t raze the church. In fact we probably spent less than a minute in the actual village as the path led us straight out again towards one of Llanrhystud’s three caravan sites, where it started to climb the hillside. When we reached the top and sat down, hot and thirsty, we realised the icy wind had dropped away.
Cliff Path to Aberystwyth
Once we were into the undulating part, most of the next seven miles would be more of the glorious same. The ups and downs were plentiful but not too severe and offered excellent views in all directions, taking in the sea on one side and Ceredigion’s hills in the other. Well, excellent views of sea haze anyway.
One thing that would be lacking for the next seven miles was any kind of conurbation. Between Llanrhystud and Aberystwyth lay only the occasional farmhouse.
Flora and Fauna
We merrily roamed along watching buzzards and red kites wheel in the sky. Luckily for us, they had to keep flying; sitting in the trees was hardly an option.
Pantyrallad & Ffos-lâs
After Penderi Cliffs, the undulation continued before levelling out somewhat as we approached an isolated farm at Pantyrallad.
We crossed a small stream at Ffos-lâs prompting the Lemming to wax lyrical about hydro-electricity. We also passed a couple upon whom we had been gaining for some time. For the next couple of miles we would alternate as they overtook us or we them. Our stopping for lunch may have helped them catch us up as we enjoyed an impromptu picnic perched on high. Though the breeze still had teeth the sun was by now fairly blazing and we had spied Aberystwyth ahead.
It was somewhere around this part of the afternoon that I also spied the blokey half of the couple we kept overtaking was somewhat caked in mud, having clearly fallen over. I may have noted this smugly, which uncharitable decision soon returned to bite me in my own mud-covered arse.
Trying to navigate a muddy path down towards the caravan site at Morfa Bychan (‘little marsh’ — one of Wales’s more common place names), I put a foot wrong on a slippery slope that was more stream in places than path. As I ruefully regained my feet, now liberally splattered with my own muddy layer, the Lemming passed comment that he’d watched me lose my balance and had decided just to let me get on with it.
I hold no rancour. I’d only have tripped him over too.
Lunch had put new energy into our stride and we duly powered along, me drying muddily out in the sun. The path managed one last climb onto a ridge just south of Aberystwyth and suddenly that town was revealed before us.
Whether or not the giant Maelor Gawr ever terrorised the area from atop Pen Dinas, there was certainly an extensive Iron Age hill fort on top of it which flourished until the Romans arrived in 74.
Given the size and steepness of the hill and that it would ,have had further defensive ditches and palisades around the actual fort the Lemming and I were pretty much agreed that neither of us would relish being ordered to attack it in the name of Rome.
A monument to the Duke of Wellington (erected c 1858) now stands where the fort once did.
If Pen Dinas would be steep to march up, Allt-wen (‘white hill’) now proved equally steep to come down. This was probably the slowest part of the day’s walk as we struggled to make our way down the precarious path off Allt-wen in a controlled manner, carefully placing our feet in the footsteps of those who had descended it before. I for one was relieved to reach the bottom safely.
A short walk beside the beach later, we crossed the mouth of the Ystwyth (via a bridge) and entered the town that is named for it.
The Ystwyth is about twenty miles in length and its valley was the scene of silver, lead and zinc mining from the Bronze Age until the early twentieth century. It was deadly work, with acute lead poisoning claiming the lives of the miners. Even today, when none of those metals are mined in Cwm Ystwyth, the river carries high levels of them, still seeping out of the mines.
Despite the town being named Aberystwyth, the Ystwyth actually flows to the south of the town while the Rheidol flows directly through it. The Rheidol is of a similar size and length to the Ystwyth and quite why the town isn’t named Aberrheidol, I’m not sure.
Apparently, Aberystwyth’s original castle was actually called Aberrheidol Castle but that makes no sense at all because it was sited overlooking the Ystwyth. A later castle, whose ruins can still be seen, is called Aberystwyth Castle but is actually closer to the Rheidol. Oh, I give up.
Keeping our eyes open for a tempting-looking tea shop, we made our way around the harbour, which showed some signs of storm damage along its edges. The Lemming and I looked at one building with mild surprise, coming simultaneously to the conclusion that it looked like an oast house, a structure more readily associated with Kent or the English Midlands.
Soon enough we came to the ruins of the later castle, built in 1277 for Edward I as part of his general policy to subjugate the Welsh. It was only partly successful — rebels under Owain Glyndŵr held it between 1404 and 1408 before surrendering to the future Henry V.
Beside the ruins of the castle (which was razed by Parliamentarian troops in 1649) stands the war memorial, listing the names of 189 local men who died in the two world wars. From the back it looks like many of its ilk, a stone pillar topped by a winged Nike. From the seaward side however one can see another figure, that of Humanity emerging from the Horrors of War. This figure is amazing.
It is true that Humanity is a naked woman and the Horrors of War appear to be some sort of thicket, but she is not a classical statuesque beauty. Her proportions are actually human, her stomach not quite flat. Her expression actually has one. She is both lifelike and genuinely quite attractive and this is sadly amazing in a statue.
Rutelli also made a statue of the future Edward VIII, the only one remaining in the world, which stands in front of the Old College building.
Aberystwyth has had an association with academia since at least 1872 when University College Wales was founded with Thomas Charles Edwards its first Principal. This later became the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (the UOW had a federal structure). In 2007 it became independent again as Aberystwyth University (Prifysgol Aberystwyth), the UOW having become a loose confederation. The Old College building is absolutely lovely and I’m surprised I didn’t think to take a picture of it.
The Earth Without ‘Art’ is just ‘Eh’
Not far from the college is the Royal Pier, the first pier to open in Wales (in 1865). It survived the recent storms intact partly because it’s made of solid cast iron and partly because the most breakable bits were already demolished by previous storms, such as one in 1938 that made this year’s look like nothing.
The recent storm tore up many of the paving slabs along the seafront and demolished a grade II listed prom shelter which many news reports described as Victorian but was actually built in the 1920s and had survived the 1938 storm intact (unlike everything around it).
Rest and Wrongness
At this point the Lemming and I located a tea shop and stopped for tea and a bacon sandwich for such are the Ultimate Foods of Walking. The rest and sustenance did us good and we were soon ready to continue. From here on in the route would be flatter, I said. Mostly because I was confused and quite wrong.
It certainly didn’t start off flat. No it started off with Constitution Hill, which you can see at the far end of the promenade in the previous photo. Fortunately though, Aberystwyth was home to the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway (Rheilffordd Y Graig Aberystwyth), a funicular railway built in 1896 and then the world’s longest at 237 m. Originally driven by water balance, it was electrified in 1921. It operates 7 days a week.
The climb up Constitution Hill was hard work and the path zig-zagged over bridges across the railway as if mocking us that it was closed. 100 m of ascent later, the view was well worth the effort.
Cliff Path to Borth
The path carried us gently around the seaward side of Constitution Hill and then down through Cwm Woods into Clarach Bay. This pine wood suffered badly in the stormy weather and downdrafts from the hurricane-force winds snapped thousands of trees like matchsticks. The capricious winds destroyed swathes of trees but left their neighbours standing and, for a moment, as the Lemming and I surveyed the damage tracks we wondered aloud if there had been an air crash instead.
Clarach Bay is the mouth of the Afon Clarach, another stream tainted by historic lead and silver mining. The bay is dominated by holiday sites such as Glan-y-Mor (the name of which simply means ‘seaside’).
We quickly left it behind us and strode purposefully along the undulating path, said undulations being pointed out by the Lemming, who was noticing that the path lacked the promised flatness.
Sarn Gynvelyn is one of several sarnau, which are glacial moraines stretching out to sea perpendicular to the coast. They can be walked on at low tide for at least some of their length (although doing so is a good way to drown if you’re not careful as the tide can easily cut you off).
Sarn Gynvelyn extends some six miles out to sea and it’s easy to see why people thought them man made.
The Lemming, who studied geology at university, was pretty delighted as he’d never seen a sarn before. I was similarly delighted, partly because it was something new and partly because Sarn Gynvelyn marks the southern extent of the Cantre’r Gwaelod or Lowland Hundred.
This is a legend concerning a sunken kingdom, comparable (and extremely similar) to other tales of sunken Celtic lands such as Lyonesse or the Breton Ker Ys.
As is typical of legends, there are many versions but the basic theme is of a kingdom ruled by King Gwyddno Garanhir, which was protected by massive dykes (of which the sarnau were assumed to be part). One of two princes entrusted with care of the dykes was the drunkard Seithenyn with predictably disastrous results.
So far so legendary. But what is undeniably true is that this stretch of Cardigan Bay contains the remnants of submerged forests, with tree stumps preserved and visible at low tide. And, thanks to the storms, they were currently more visible than normal, as most of the sand that concealed them had been washed away.
I would be making a point of looking at those on the following morning. For now though, we had a coast path to walk.
A spot of serious undulation followed with easily the steepest paths we’d walked all day. But these soon brought us our first sight of Borth, just as the sun slipped behind the horizon.
Another rather steepish descent brought us to a caravan park just as the light began to fail. We looked up at another big hill with a monument on it and decided that this would be folly. No, instead, we used the access of the caravan park to reach the road and enter Borth that way.
A Linear Village
Borth (Y Borth, meaning ‘the Port’) is a surprisingly linear village spread out along the B4353 and sandwiched between the sea on one side and the peat bog of Cors Fochno on the other.
The Sunken Forests
The beach is sandy but the sand also overlays ancient peat, which is what preserved the tree stumps that emerge at low tide. There are an impressive number of tree types — oak, pine, birch, willow and hazel — and they died around 1500 BC. This sounds old but it’s nothing; a couple of miles further up the bay, at Ynyslas, the submerged trees are two thousand years older, victims of an earlier inundation.
Since it was dark and not low tide, we saw no long-submerged trees as yet. To our distress we also saw no railway station, which was a good mile further along Borth than we were. This was a problem as we had a specific train to catch. Putting on more speed than at any point previously that day, we raced on in search of it, eventually stepping onto the platform a mere two minutes too late.
The train was three minutes late. We had made it.
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,475 miles