I AWOKE from a deep and restful sleep to discover that the electronic beeping I could hear was not in fact a bumblebee reversing — it’s funny how something that makes perfect sense in a dream makes none at all when you wake up — but rather my alarm clock telling me that it was an hour that no sane man should see.
Given the bumblebee thing I probably deserved it.
I went in search of breakfast, which was served in a room atop a winding staircase that nearly claimed me twice on account of my poor sense of balance being even worse when half asleep. The breakfast room boasted an excellent view of the marshes which were, as Welsh tradition demands, being drizzled on by grey and miserable skies. I vainly hoped that the rain might be simply a continuation of my dreaming but the young woman who brought me my breakfast soon disabused me of the notion.
Thanks to some work on the sea defences, heroically maintaining a largely fictional distinction between the sea and the land, I would not be squelching around the far edge of the marsh as my map suggested but would instead be following a road along the southern edge, at least until the turn-off for Morfa Mawddach railway station.
This meant that the village of Fairbourne would be entirely missed out but I decided to omit the omission by popping into a Fairbourne shop to buy water and snacks for the road.
And so with my mouth full of chocolate — I was on the road, exactly the circumstances the snacks were meant for — I headed east, more or less parallel to the Afon Mawddach, dodging the intermittent traffic as I went. After a while I reached the tiny turn-off towards Morfa Mawdach Station, where I passed through the equally tiny hamlet of Ynysgyffylog, the name of which means ‘woodcock island’.
The boats are actually ferry boats operated by the Barmouth Ferry. This runs between Barmouth’s harbour and the end of a peninsula that projects partway across the mouth of the Afon Mawddach.
The ferry, which was once part of a Royal Mail route and which has carried such luminaries as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Darwin, and William Ewart Gladstone amongst others, has long had its fortunes tied to the railway for better or worse.
The coming of the Cambrian Line boosted its fortunes temporarily until the railway company constructed the Barmouth Bridge, which then all but killed it. These days, the ferry operates on the same days as the Fairbourne Steam Railway, a narrow gauge tourist railway that itself only runs from Fairbourne village to the ferry.
Morfa Mawddach Station
I encountered the actual railway a bit further on in the form of Morfa Mawddach station.
The station is well-named as it sits in the marsh (morfa) of the Mawddach estuary without any sign of an accompanying village (unless one counts the four or so buildings of Ynysgyffylog a quarter of a mile away).
This seems like absolute madness until one realises that the station was originally called Barmouth Junction and served to allow passengers to change trains until the Dolgellau branch line was closed in 1965. In its heyday, the station had four platforms and a substantial station building; these days, it has just one unstaffed platform and a simple shelter. The course of the Dolgellau branch line is now a cycle and foot path called the Mawddach Trail.
Approaching the Bridge
The path ran alongside the railway atop an embankment that essentially formed a nice solid causeway through the marshes. This led to Barmouth Bridge (Pont Abermaw), a wooden railway viaduct constructed in 1867 by the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway.
State of Repair
Although it underwent significant repairs about ten years ago the bridge feels less robust than it might and it’s probably best not to pay too much attention to either the odd wobbly plank or the holes in the railway trackbed that have simply had plates bolted over them. Nor to dwell on the fact that a similar bridge near Porthmadoc was recently found to be rotten and unsafe.
Crossing the Bridge
The far end of the Barmouth Bridge ends at a tollhouse where pedestrians and cyclists were formerly charged 90p towards the upkeep of the bridge. The married couple who used to live in the tollhouse and collect the toll left their jobs last summer and Gwynedd Council decided that paying for new toll collectors was actually less cost effective than just not collecting tolls at all. This is good news for the individual bridge-crosser but not so great for Gwynedd Council, which now has to find around £40k a year from its own budget to pay Network Rail for public use of the bridge.
The Universal Panacea
Being now in possession of almost a pound more than I expected to be (I didn’t know that the tolls had ceased), I decided that I should spend it towards getting myself a nice cup of tea in Barmouth. This I quickly accomplished and, through the magic of tea — the universal panacea — the rain stopped falling and the sky immediately brightened.
Barmouth is formally Abermaw in Welsh from aber + Mawddach, meaning ‘mouth of the river Mawddach’. Informally, the locals call it Y Bermo ( a shortened form from Abermawddach). The English name Barmouth is also a shortened form of the original Welsh — Abermawddach — with the latter part then corrupted to an English word that seemed to make sense in context.
In 1565, a survey for Elizabeth I listed Barmouth as comprising just four houses. It remained a tiny backwater until the eighteenth century, when it expanded into a thriving shipbuilding centre and wool port.
The railway arrived in 1867 bringing tourism as an additional industry and sadly that’s the only one it still has. Still, it make a pretty good seaside resort, It has the right sort of small, crowded streets, the seafront cafés, the tacky amusement arcades and so on…
It also has a handful of interesting historical buildings.
St John the Evangelist
One of the latter is Barmouth’s rather splendid Grade II* listed Anglican Church of St John the Evangelist, which was built in the 1890s and largely paid for by the Dyson Perrins family, co-founders of Lea & Perrins, the Worcestershire sauce manufacturers. The church perches on a rocky precipice above the town as if trying to rise above the sins of rampant tourism.
The path out of Barmouth initially led along the seafront, past sandy beaches lined with groynes.
North of the town, construction work was evident upon the railway line, which was badly damaged by the recent winter storms, closing the line between Barmouth and Pwllheli. The path led over this now-closed line and then climbed steeply to meet the A496 as it snaked along the hillside above the coast.
For the next few miles I would be walking on the pavement beside this busy main road which was mostly characterised by rising sheep-covered hills on my right hand side and more sheep on fields below my left above a trackless and half-rebuilt railway line. First though, the road took me through Llanaber, a small village whose settlement long predates Barmouth, though the latter has now swallowed it up.
An Unclear Path
After a few miles of plodding alongside the A496 the footpath veered off through a field to bypass the village of Tal-y-bont. Or, at least, it did so on my map and a coast path sign by the side of the road seemed to agree with the cartography. The field had other ideas and I wasn’t sure quite where I should be heading.
What I was sure of, though, was that I needed to buy some more water, having drunk all I was carrying, and that according to my research Tal-y-bont had a shop.
Okay, I thought. I’ll stay on the main road. So I did.
The A496 thus carried me towards Taly-y-bont and across the river Ysgethin, a delightfully splashy and gurgling stream. On the way I passed a field in which was a pony and a couple of odd-looking sheep. They were too big, for one thing. And they looked oddly stretched. Not sheep then. I looked again. Alpacas. This was unexpected.
It turns out there are quite a few alpaca farms in Wales, branching out from the more traditional sheep-rearing. But then, from a distance they both look like fluffy clouds with legs.
The alpacas carefully kept just far enough away that the pitiful zoom on my phone camera doomed any attempt to take a recognisable photo. I can only assume that this is an innate ability they possess. Impressed, I left them to it and went in search of the shop.
There was no sign of the shop. A teenage girl, who was minding her own business at a bus stop until I accosted her with questions, explained why the village shop was being so evasive:
‘There was a shop,’ she told me, ‘but it was recently bought by a couple who are no longer running it as a shop. There is one in Dyffryn though.’
This was less than ideal; Dyffryn Ardudwy (‘Ardudwy valley’) was the next village along but one which the path would definitely be bypassing. I glanced around forlornly and spied instead a sign indicating a nearby pub. It was only half eleven so the pub might not yet be open but it seemed like the best bet. I set off to find it…
The pub was open but empty and the barman seemed absolutely shocked to have a customer.
A few minutes later, someone else stuck their head in, looked around and — despite the fact that I was right there being served a bottle of water and a soft drink (it was too early for beer, I decided) — came to the conclusion that the pub was closed and promptly left. Five minutes later, he was back again, possibly having failed to find the nonexistent shop.
The footpath that I hadn’t followed earlier had been forced to come and find me or, at least, we both needed to cross the Ysgethin by the same bridge.
The path then headed seawards along the river’s north bank and I followed it, letting it lead me into another squelchy marsh. Ahead I could see sand dunes with their pointy, scratchy marram grass. What I couldn’t see was the actual path and I was forced to pick my own way through the marsh, bitterly cursing the surprising lack of waymarks.
Mouth of the Ysgethin
The non-path led me through the dunes to a shingle beach where the Ysgethin flowed into the sea. A helpful combination of river meanders, dunes and fences meant that I had to cross the water twice before crunching along the shingle, which was hard going and just about my least favourite terrain.
I considered my options — I could stay on the shingle beach in the path of the rising tide. Or I could try to navigate the dunes, which were up and down like a yo-yo and horribly lacking in paths. Or I could head back to the marsh and hope to find a dry path.
Morfa Dyffryn & Shell Island
The Right Option
I chose the latter and a dry path duly presented itself. This led me north between dunes and marshland until it deposited me in a car park. There I was perplexedly trying to fix my position when a helpful holidaying couple from Buckinghamshire pinpointed it on my map.
This was where I was supposed to reach the beach. I was at Morfa Dyffryn (‘valley marsh’), parallel to Dyffryn Ardudwy. From here, the beach would be glorious sand all the way. For a considerable distance it would also be a naturist beach but that didn’t faze me in the slightest, I don’t really have much of a nudity taboo. It was by no stretch warm, though, so any naturists would need to be pretty determined.
The cold, wind-blown sand continued for a couple of miles while the tide reduced the beach to a narrow ribbon. Eventually, the sand became more of a coarse grit that on closer inspection was actually tiny bits of seashell.
This was Mochras, also called Shell Island, a peninsula of high ground with the sea on one side and marsh on the other. Its current situation has the estuary of the Afon Artro directly to the north, lying between it and the village of Llandanwg. This is an artificial state of affairs, however — the Earl of Winchelsey diverted it in 1819. Before that, the river flowed south of Shell Island and one could walk there from Llandanwg.
I now left the beach and once again failed to spot the necessary waymarking, although I did figure out exactly where I was on the map.
There is one road out along a causeway, with everything else being salt marsh that floods at high tide and the road was closer than the footpath, so I took that instead. The footpath caught up with me on the far side, joining the road to skirt an abandoned air base where Qinetiq used to test unmanned drones until 2004 (which is now done at Aberporth).
The road then carried me across a level crossing at Llanbedr Station, on which I knew there was no chance of meeting a train thanks to the rail repair works along the coast.
Llanbedr Station lies a good half mile from the village centre and so I never saw the actual village, which grew up around the slate industry and which has a grade II* listed church. Instead, I got to see a path along an embankment of the Artro, which led to a footbridge with a stylish gate at each end.
Arrival by A-road
On the far side of the footbridge were some excitable sheep and my old friend the A496, which carried me on to Pensarn. This is a small village to the east of the A496 with a railway halt and wharf to the west of that road.
Pensarn Wharf was the shipping point of Llanbedr’s slate and it was purely for the wharf’s benefit that the Earl of Winchelsey diverted the Artro in 1819. The path would now follow the estuary’s northern shore, carrying me round to Llandanwg.
How Closed is ‘Closed’?
While there were no official coast path diversion signs, the sign tied to the gate was unmistakeably the sort of sign that the rail contractors were using. I looked about for someone to ask but could only find a hesitant visitor who thought she’d ‘heard someone say something about flooding’.
I ummed and ahed for a bit before deciding to take the sign at face value — chances were that the path would be blocked with rail contractors’ machinery, trying desperately to fix flood damage. Or maybe by actual flooding — everything that wasn’t an embankment was pretty much marsh at this point.
And so I continued up the A496 a bit more.
‘Closed’ Means Closed
A quarter of a mile on, I encountered a local footpath that headed off towards the path to Llandanwg and which I vaguely hoped might have skirted the blockage. This led down to a pedestrian crossing of the railway but the gates to the crossing were firmly padlocked shut. This was more evidence that the path was closed for railway repair reasons and I stomped back up to the A496 feeling that at least I had tried.
Taking the Side Road
In the absence of railway-related closure, the official coast path would have led me through Llandanwg and then back towards the A496 via the road from that village, meeting the A-road just outside Llanfair. I would not now being going through Llandanwg but I did come across a side road that led me right through Llanfair (the A-road bypassed it). The village being much quieter, I took that route.
Bus Stop Bench
Llanfair (‘St Mary’s’) is a characterful village of stone cottages with a grade II* listed church dating from the 12th century. It is pretty small and lacked a shop or a pub so far as I could tell but did possess a bus stop with a bench upon which I rested, looking down upon the mouth of the Artro.
From the bus stop it was a short walk back down to the A496 and another quick nip across the railway, which ran beside it at this point. On the far side of the tracks steps led down to a beach.
A mile and a half of beach walking followed as the tide crept out and the wind tried to stir up the sand.
The beach was deserted apart from a handful of dog-walkers, which grew greater in number the nearer I got to the access road by which I’d be heading inland. My walk was drawing to a close now and the heavens chose to mark the occasion with a celebratory resumption of the drizzle that had marred the start of the day. It was, if you like, book-ended by rain.
The poor visibility meant that my first glimpse of Harlech Castle was uncertain but as I made my way along the road from the beach the castle’s grey bulk was unmistakeable.
Harlech Castle was begun in 1283 by Edward I as part of his largely successful campaign to subjugate Wales. In terms of design, it’s a masterpiece and when it was finished it would have sent a clear signal about who held the power. Many of its architectural details betray a Savoyard influence — things like the shape of arches, the design of the garderobes, even marks that show where the scaffolding was placed.
One wonders what craftsmen from sunny Savoy would have made of the prevailing Welsh weather.
The castle is in ruin now, though a surprising amount of its structure remains intact. When first built, it was right next to the sea, the mile or so of modern road from the beach having still been underwater in 1283.
Though the castle was captured in battle — most notably by Owain Glyndŵr — it also withstood several lengthy sieges, one of which is celebrated by the song Men of Harlech. First and foremost, though, the castle was a symbol of Edward’s dominance and it would have been pretty hard to miss. Not only is it unavoidably prominent but, when intact, it was rendered and whitewashed, making it a message that was visible for miles.
The town of Harlech is mostly atop the hill right next to the castle, which meant a climb up some 20% inclines before I could find my hotel. I was staying in rooms attached to a restaurant and, though not cheap, the quality of both rooms and food was quite excellent. Desert included liquorice ice cream, which might just be the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten.
The Future Foreseen
The following day I caught the one and only rail replacement bus of the day, taking me to Barmouth and the first of several trains home. But not before I’d visited Harlech Castle and caught a glimpse of the future…
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,539 miles