ON GOOD Friday, I returned to Harlech at an hour well before any shops would have opened even if it hadn’t been a bank holiday. To achieve this I had cunningly left London the night before and stayed overnight in Aberdovey.
Sadly, my cunning hadn’t extended as far as remembering either a bottle of water or my phone charger and my phone decided to register its discontent by rapidly dropping down to one bar of power. This was annoying, not least because I would be ending the day’s walk in Portmeirion, a place I wanted to take photos of.
A day of carefully eking out my phone’s battery followed, turning it on only to check the time or take a picture and immediately shutting it down again in an attempt to save power.
The sky was clear and the air was crisp and cold as I left Harlech by striding purposefully down the road (the road in question being the A496).
Fortunately, the path quickly branched off across the marshes and fields of Morfa Harlech (‘Harlech Marsh’) and the soggy ground underfoot reminded me that when Harlech Castle was built in 1289, the ground beneath my feet had been offshore sea bed.
I picked my way past some utterly unfazed sheep towards a plantation of Corsican Pine that sits in the middle of the morfa. Over on my left were the sand dunes and the beach — the dunes of Morfa Harlech form the only dune system in Wales that is actually growing — while ahead of me I could see the hills and mountains of Snowdonia.
At the edge of the pine plantation, the fields full of sheep and claggy mud gave way to a paved road on which I encountered one car, one cyclist and a man with a dog.
The dog-walker had an accent that appeared to veer wildly between Wales and Ireland as we commented on the glorious weather. He explained that he walked his dog on Morfa Harlech every morning; I explained that I lived in south-east London (which prompted a look of pure pity). Neither of us owned up to the fact that the glorious weather was more of a promise than reality — though the skies were clear and blue the sun had not got around to dispelling the icy chill.
Beyond the pine plantation, which was pretty small — a mere pocket handkerchief of trees — was a rather less picturesque landfill site. I didn’t hang about beside that, partly because it wasn’t very interesting and partly because I could hear furious barking and the voice of another dog-walker shouting increasingly futile commands along the lines of ‘let go of him this instant!’
Putting as much distant as possible between me and the out-of-control dog (which was somewhere in the nearby dunes), I set off across another field, picking my way around a fallen tree. The field led to another, and another, which turned out to be to be full of cows. The cows, as one, looked up as I entered and ran for their panic-stricken lives…
To right in front of the exit gate.
I picked my way carefully across the field, which was trying hard to convince me that the sheep fields had been positively solid underfoot, towards the gate with the cows huddling in front of it. Some of them had calves, which accounted for their skittishness, and I wondered how this would play out. Cows with calves will usually try to avoid any trouble as they don’t want to endanger their offspring but they can be unpredictable if you get between them, or indeed if cornered.
As I inched closer the cows came to a decision and ran towards me. For one brief moment I wondered if I was to become a farmyard fatality statistic but then I saw them veering slightly and staring hopefully at the open space behind me. I took as much cover as I could behind a fencepost as the cattle thundered past me to what they felt was ‘safety’. My relief, when they had all gone past, was easily equal to theirs.
They wouldn’t have meant to trample me to death. But the adults were about ten times my bodyweight and desperately trying to escape.
The gate from the field led into the yard of a farm called Glan-y-Mor (‘seaside’) from where a short track led to a house called Glan-y-Morfa (‘marshside’) and another field full of cows. These cows were far too busy eating to pay me much attention and I quickly strode past them, much preferring their (lack of) response.
By now the sun had actually started to make inroads on warming the day up and this corresponded with the first little bit of ascent of the day, as the path went up and over a low hill. As it slowly descended on the other side, it overlooked the marshes and sands of Traeth Bach (‘small beach’) and the Dwyryd Estuary. On the opposite bank, nestling in the trees, was Portmeirion although I didn’t realise this at first.
The path soon brought me to another farmhouse where, with sheep scattering around me, I set off inland along a route that should have taken me to a church on the edge of the village of Ynys (meaning ‘island’, which it would have been before the marsh drained). What actually happened was that I missed the coast path at some point and set off down another footpath, taking a roundabout route to Ynys via the estuary shoreline.
I was followed for some of the way by a number of curious sheep, which appeared to be playing a bizarre game of What’s the Time Mr Wolf? Every time I turned around the sheep froze in position, staring at me from about ten metres away.
Having shaken off my ovine shadow, I sat for a rest on a bench near Ynys and looked out across the marsh towards the tidal islet of Ynys Gifftan.
There is, or rather was, a cottage on Ynys Gifftan but it is now sadly derelict having been abandoned since the 1960s. The islands name means ‘Anne’s Gift Island’, which commemorates it being given as a gift from Queen Anne to Lord Harlech. The current Lord Harlech still owns it and indeed is not allowed to sell it according to the terms under which his ancestor received it in the early eighteenth century.
Much of the next couple of miles involved walking atop a an embankment or dyke beside a drainage ditch. On my right were fields full of sheep while on my left, on the far side of a fence, were the undrained marshes of Glastraeth (‘green beach’) with Ynys Gifftan beyond them.
Actually, the sheep did not restrict themselves to the fields on my right but also somehow managed to cross the drainage ditches and place themselves directly across the path. With a few exceptions they were pretty calm about sharing the top of the dyke with me and moved aside the barest, grudging minimum required to let me pass.
Eventually the path led me out of the marshes and across the railway line.
From the crossing, I could see much activity to the north where workmen had completely demolished Llandecwyn Station (which lies in the middle of nowhere a good half mile from Llandecwyn). The reason for all the activity and the closure of the railway line was not, in this case, storms, although they had hardly helped. The cause had been Pont Briwet, a wooden, Victorian road and rail bridge which was getting pretty run down and needed repairs.
Given that the road part of the bridge was a single-carriage toll bridge with no pedestrian walkway, it was reasonably decided that it would be better to build a brand new bridge and keep the old one, which dates to 1867, as a pedestrian bridge only.
With much fanfare, a £20m joint project between the Welsh Government and Network Rail duly commenced in March 2013 and proceeded well enough until November when the piling work for the new bridge caused the old one to shift. Hurried inspections revealed the old bridge to be in a much worse state than anyone had ever suspected — many of its timbers were completely rotten and it was pretty much just sheer luck that it hadn’t already collapsed under trains or traffic.
The net result of this is that the bridge is now completely closed and the nearest crossing of the Afon Dwyryd is at Maentwrog, four miles upstream.
Between the railway line and Llandecwyn village I somehow slightly mislaid the path but a helpful man gave me directions over his garden wall that soon put me back on track.
The village of Llandecwyn is named for St Tecwyn, a sixth century missionary who accompanied St Cadfan from Gaul and who is said to have founded the church in the village; his father was Ithel Hael, a prince of Armorica.
St Tecwyn’s Church
As is usual in these cases, the current Church of St Tecwyn (Eglwys Sant Tecwyn) dates only from the 19th century but it does incorporate pieces of a mediaeval predecessor. It is grade II listed.
I remained in Llandecwyn for all of about three minutes, which was how long it took to walk into it, through it and out of it again.
The route out started on a side road but soon branched off onto a footpath that was clearly an old farm track or similar. This picked its way between steep hills, accompanied on the way by a relentless line of electricity pylons towering overhead and a gurgling stream to one side. That familiar Welsh landmark, an abandoned, ruined building, was also in evidence although this one was even more ruined than most.
The path ran more or less straight up the valley and not only formed part of the Wales Coast Path but also the Ardudwy Way, a 24 mile route between Barmouth and Llandecwyn.
Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf
The two paths parted company near the shores of Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf (‘upper Tecwyn lake’), a lake created by damming in 1896 and raised further in 1926. The lake is a reservoir for Penrhyndeudraeth, Porthmadog and Ffestiniog and is also well-stocked with trout.
Dorti the Witch
In the early 17th century, the valley was home to a woman named Dorti who was accused of witchcraft after the deaths of some livestock.
Naturally, the only possible solution was to shove her into a barrel, seal it, drive six inch nails into its sides and then chuck it into the stream to be brutally chucked about until she died. Well, obviously.
After skirting the northern shore of Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf, the path joined a forestry track running through Coed Felinrhyd (‘ford mill wood’), which is owned by the Woodland Trust, a conservation charity founded in 1972. The wood is mostly a 20th century conifer plantation although patches of older, deciduous woodland occupy the hillside as it descends towards the Dwyryd.
A certain amount of felling had been underway, with logs piled high beside the path. The coast path soon split off from the main path and descended through the aforementioned deciduous woodland, with occasional glimpses of hills peeking though the foliage—
—before spitting me out onto a road right at the valley bottom.
The road in question was my old friend the A496 but I was on it for even less than the time that I’d spent in Llandecwyn: just long enough to cross the Afon Prysor (a tributary of the Dwyryd) by road bridge and to walk past the gates of Maentwrog Power Station before turning right up an unclassified road.
Maentwrog Power Station
Even so, this was long enough to be somewhat surprised by the power station, on account of it being owned and operated by Magnox Ltd, a company whose purpose is decommissioning old Magnox nuclear reactors. Maentwrog is a hydro-electric plant, so this seemed a little bit odd.
As it turns out, Magnox have inherited the fully operational Maentwrog station as a consequence of decommissioning the defunct Trawsfynnydd Nuclear Power Station, which lies about four miles to the south-east.
Trawsfynnydd used the waters of Llyn Trawsfynydd for its cooling system, that lake being created as the header reservoir for Maentwrog Power Station in 1928. The Prysor is the main spillway from the reservoir but water also travels to the Maentwrog Power Station via a series of pipes.
Due to a quirk of the Wales Coast Path (and presumably a desire of its creators not to kill walkers on the A496 unless necessary), I was now heading from Maentwrog Power Station to Maentwrog village by heading in the wrong direction entirely.
Maentwrog lay about one mile north-east and I was heading there via a roundabout two-mile route that began by heading directly east. This first led along a country lane which conveyed me up a hill and past the aforementioned pipes. Then, when the road been going on for ever and I was sure that I must have missed the turn off (but had not) it sent me up and over a hill on which the waymarks were almost non-existent.
Over the Hills
It took me two attempts to find the correct path off the hill although I don’t know why — I should have known that the route with the deepest, squelchiest mud was the only possible option.
As I eventually found my way down onto the road to Maentwrog, the whistles of steam trains echoed up and down the valley. This was the sound of the Ffestiniog Railway, a narrow gauge heritage railway that runs between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog via woodland and mountainous scenery. It is a major tourist attraction and so it was hardly surprising that it should be running on a bank holiday weekend.
I dropped down into Maentwrog (maen Twrog, ‘Twrog’s stone’) along a country lane on which I encountered a man whose dog was far keener to go walking with me than it was to keep walking with him. I suspect I was heading ‘homewards’ from its point of view. From my point of view, I was heading towards lunch, which took the form of a ham sandwich and a gin and tonic.
The Twrog in the village’s name is St Twrog, another son of Ithel Hael who showed some definite missionary zeal by throwing a large stone down from the top of Moelwyn (‘white bare hill’ — a nearby mountain) to smash a pagan altar in the valley below. The stone in question is said to be one in the churchyard of St Twrog’s Church in Maentwrog and a further legend attests that if you rub the stone then you will be fated to return to the village.
I did not rub it. I shall return only if I feel like it.
Pryderi fab Pwyll
Sticking with legend, Maentwrog is a busy place as it’s also the last resting place of Pryderi fab Pwyll, King of Dyfed, the only person to appear in all four branches of the Mabinogion. After a successful reign in which he had incorporated Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and Morgannwg into his kingdom, Pryderi invaded Gwynedd.
Admittedly he had good cause — Gwydion, a warrior and magician from Gwynedd, had stolen some enchanted pigs from him by trickery. Unfortunately, what he didn’t have was a victory. Gwynedd’s king, Math fab Mathonwy, defeated his army in three battles at which point Pryderi agreed to resolve the dispute by facing Gwydion in single combat. He lost that too and thus his life.
Naturally, the stone in the churchyard is also said to be the stone that marks his tomb.
Vale of Ffestiniog
The path out of Maentwrog was initially less than inspiring, following, as it did, the A487. This didn’t last long, however, as it soon split off up the driveway of Plas Tan-y-Bwlch, now an environmental studies centre but for centuries the mansion home of a local land-owning family (they were forced to sell it in 1961 due to the cripplingly high level of death duties).
Coed Llyn y Garnedd
This marked the start of the next phase of my day’s walking, namely another woodland amble. The next three and a half miles would involve delightfully leafy tracks through the oak woodland of Coed Llyn y Garnedd (‘cairn lake wood’).
There was indeed a lake, Llyn Mair (Mary’s Lake), an artificial lake built by the 19th century owner of Plas Tan-y-Bwlch, William Edward Oakeley, as a 21st birthday present for his daughter. The path conveyed me past the lake and then crossed over the tracks of the Ffestiniog Railway, which it then more-or-less shadowed the rest of the way to Penrhyndeudraeth.
Approaching the Village
As they approached the village of Penrhyndeudraeth, both railway and footpath burst free of the trees and one could finally be clearly seen from the other. They got even closer on the outskirts of the village by virtue of a level crossing but I didn’t see any of the trains.
By now in need of a rest and a drink, I plodded into the village centre where a shop provided the second of my requirements. The first was slightly hampered by every single bench I could find being broken. I plodded on…
How Many Beaches?
Penrhyndeudraeth means ‘peninsula with two beaches’, which seems a bit optimistic for a village that faces onto one stretch of marsh.
The peninsula on which the village sits does — or rather did — deserve the name, however for its south-eastern side faces onto the Dwyryd Estuary and Traeth Bach while the north-western side faces what was once the estuary of the Afon Glaslyn, known as Traeth Mawr (‘large beach’).
Prior to 1852, where most of the village now stands was basically a malarial swamp except at its southern end, where it was a stagnant lake. This was drained and the village laid out by a local landowner, Mr David Williams of Castell Deudraeth.
Trekking next to Traffic
Penrhyndeudraeth is or was the northern end of Pont Briwet and was suffering some pretty appalling traffic problems on account of the diversions in place. I got every opportunity to see the traffic crawling along as the next mile of coast path was back to running alongside the A487. On the way, this carried me past a house that once belonged to Ednyfed Fychan (1170-1246), warrior and seneschal of Gwynedd under Llywelyn the Great and an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty.
A mile down the road was the village of Minffordd (‘roadside’), where I got my rest on the platform of the Ffestiniog Railway’s station. Here I actually got to see one of their steam trains, which was lovely, although the sun was in entirely wrong position for my phone to be able to photograph it. Or maybe I was inept. One of the two.
Just after Minffordd I took a side road and then a footpath and then the wrong footpath but a very nice little old lady put me back on the right one after I’d helped her chase a sheep out of her garden.
The correct path brought me to Castell Deudraeth, a mediaeval castle first recorded in 1188 by Gerald of Wales and now part of the Portmeirion Estate. Here my photographic ineptitude continued and I was in no mood to try again as my phone was now perilously low on battery. I was also in no mood to follow the coast path, which I was worried would carry me past Portmeirion without my noticing. I thus followed a local path that soon led me to the village. Or rather The Village.
Famous as the setting (‘the Village’) of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner, which was fantastic, Portmeirion is also completely awesome in its own right.
It was built by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis over a period of fifty years starting in 1925 and its style is deliberately Italianate. He wanted to show that a new development did not have to mar its location and drew his inspiration from the Mediterranean while incorporating bits of demolished buildings to create a bizarre bricolage.
Disliking the estate’s original name of Aber Iâ (‘ice estuary’) he renamed it as Portmeirion from porth (port) and Meirionydd (Merionethshire).
Castell Deudraeth was bought from his uncle in 1931 to be incorporated as part of the hotel but there were various complications which meant that this was not realised until 2001, some twenty-three years after his death.
Although there is a hotel building down on the waterside the hotel at Portmeirion is actually the entire village. Day visitors can purchase entry tickets to look around but they have to leave when the gates shut at seven thirty. After that the village belongs to its guests. Well, actually it belongs to a charitable trust but you understand…
I am Not a Number!
My phone battery finally died on me shortly after my arrival but not before I’d got at least a few pictures:
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,558½ miles