MY 99TH walk was supposed to carry me from Aberdaron from to Nefyn. And technically it did but not quite as I’d intended. As it turned out, I abandoned the coast path after only nine miles and walked the rest of it by road. This was in no way what I had planned and I quickly resolved that I would return and complete the coast path route next time. So why did I do this?
Let me take you through it step by step…
The Best Laid Plans…
The plan, such as it was, required me to rise early and forego breakfast in order to give myself plenty of time to walk the twenty-two miles of coast that would carry me to Nefyn. This pretty much went awry from the outset when I, as I have done before, arose a good hour later than planned and stuffed my face with cooked breakfast.
At this point, I still had every chance of storming round all the planned coast route and reaching my hotel in Nefyn with plenty of time to spare. As such, I set off in the highest of spirits.
The path out of Aberdaron began (of course) by climbing up a steepish hill but, before I committed to that, I chose to head downwards onto the beach. The sand was soft and gentle ripples were lapping at my boots as I gazed along the coast to see what lay ahead.
St Hywyn’s Church
Off the end of the peninsula but hidden by it from view from Aberdaron is Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli), which was for centuries a major pilgrimage site. Aberdaron was the last village at which the pilgrims would stay before taking a boat out to the island. In consequence of this pilgrim traffic, Aberdaron’s church — St Hywyn’s — was unusually important for its size and enjoyed the ancient privilege of Sanctuary, which was twice taken advantage of by fugitive royals.
Gruffudd ap Cynan
In 1094, Gruffudd ap Cynan, the exiled King of Gwynedd, took refuge in the church having returned from Ireland in an attempt to liberate his country from the Earl of Chester and his Anglo-Norman invaders. Gruffudd (pronounced ‘Griffith’) succeeded in reclaiming Gwynedd, although he was forced to pay homage to Henry I of England in 1114, not least because Henry’s English army was supported by a Scottish one under King Alexander I.
Gruffydd ap Rhys
The following year, Aberdaron church received its second royal fugitive in the form of Gruffydd ap Rhys, the exiled Prince of Deheubarth, who was himself fleeing the armies of Henry I. The prince may have been hoping that old family alliances would prompt King Gruffudd to aid him (Prince Gruffydd’s father, Rhys ap Tewdwr, had actually helped King Gruffudd reclaim his throne on an earlier occasion in 1081). If so, he was sadly mistaken.
Having been defeated by and sworn fealty to Henry the year before, Gruffudd was obliged to hand the prince over. Add in the fact that, while staying with Gruffudd on Anglesey in 1113, the prince had eloped with Gruffudd’s youngest daughter Gwenllian, which is a pretty severe abuse of hospitality, and personal goodwill may also have been lacking.
Certainly, the King sent his soldiers to remove Prince Gruffydd by force, intending to hand him over to Henry at the first opportunity. This did not go down well at all with the clergy, who held the right of Sanctuary to be sacrosanct — well, for forty days anyway — and the local clerics belied their traditionally non-combatant status by fighting off the royal soldiers with whatever came to hand. Gruffydd ap Rhys subsequently fled south under cover of darkness, leaving the priests to face the wrath of the King.
Rebuilding in Stone
Church and King must have eventually patched up their differences though, as in 1137 King Gruffydd had the wooden building rebuilt in durable stone.
Stone has long been quarried in the vicinity of Aberdaron, this being one of many local industries. Others include mining, shipbuilding and fishing, all of which have dwindled to nothing; these days the village gets by mostly on tourism.
To begin with the path ran mostly along the open cliff top, with a brief detour down and up a billion steps in order to cross the valley of the tiny Afon Saint (‘saint’s river’).
There, I encountered a man out for a cliff-top run who, to judge from his expression, had not been expecting the steps. I nodded as I passed. I had been expecting them — I can read contour lines on a map — and I was ready to treat them will all due respect; my knee, though healed from last year’s sprain, isn’t as keen on endless stairs as it used to be. And it used to be not keen at all.
When I had regained the cliff top, I carried on…
The weather forecast for the day was once again relentless rain. And, just like the previous day, there seemed little likelihood of that rain materialising. There were some clouds, mostly over the higher ground, but they didn’t look threatening at all. I made sure to stop and apply more sunscreen.
A half mile or so after the Afon Saint, the path dropped down a second set of steps into the bay and valley of Porth Meudwy (‘hermit’s cove’). At the bottom was a small building, several tractors and two boats. There was also a handful of people milling about and one sensible chap, who unlike me had brought a sun hat, asked me brightly if I was there for the boat.
‘No,’ I said, ‘just for quick sit down.’ I sat down in order to prove myself right. The way onwards involved yet more steps back up to the cliff path and I wanted to give my knee every chance to behave.
Boats to Bardsey
As I sat there, I looked at the boats, which were yellow, and the people waiting patiently to board one.
Port Meudwy was the traditional embarkation point for pilgrims taking a boat to Bardsey Island and, while pilgrims are these days in short supply, the tourist boats to Bardsey still sail from this point. They are run by a local family, members of which have been sailing to Bardsey for over seventy years.
The Gull Islands
Having rested, I climbed the steps back up to the cliff top and found that the path was now much narrower and bounded by gorse and brambles. No sooner had I got used to this, than it was open and grassy again. It would continue to alternate between the two for some time.
Far below me I heard a noise like a motorbike; one of the yellow Bardsey boats was making its way out to the island. Meanwhile, due directly east, I could see some smaller, closer islands in the form of Ynys Gwylan Fawr and Ynys Gwylan Bach.
Kicking a Rock
It was about this time, perhaps because I was looking at the islands / watching the little yellow boat become a dot in the distance, that I managed to accidentally kick a rock.
The rock, which had been entirely minding its own business, retaliated to this unwarranted aggression by making itself immovable and hard. To say that I stubbed my toes and it hurt would be an understatement bordering on an actual lie of omission.
It is true that I stubbed my toes. It is also true that it hurt. It hurt sufficiently that I saw coloured lights for a moment. I didn’t just stub my toes a bit. I stubbed them so hard that I managed to split two toenails. I bruised my toe knuckles badly enough that they’re still bruised a fortnight later. I can only assume that my boots are to thank that my toes are not actually broken. Thank you boots.
Needless to say, this curtailed my walking for a few moments. It pretty much curtailed standing up. Or indeed doing anything apart from sitting down in stunned silence until I felt able to swear. I swore a fair bit.
When I eventually regained my feet I found to my surprise that I was still able to walk. Not particularly quickly, I grant you, but I could still walk nonetheless. This was very good news for two reasons:
One was that I was out enjoying a walk and I wanted to keep doing so if possible. The other was that my hotel was in Nefyn, which was still a long way off. On a Bank Holiday Monday, when no buses would be running, even if I could find a bus route.
Porth y Pistyll
Determined that I was out Having Fun Walking, I half-stomped, half-limped onwards. The path snaked around the rocky outcrop of Craig Cwlwm, which was once a granite quarry, and above the almost inaccessible bay of Porth y Pistyll. Inaccessible from the landward side that is, approaching it from the sea one finds the remains of an old harbour.
Porth y Pistyll was a small quarry port, associated with two quarries — one right beside the quay and the other on Graig y Cwlwm. The stone was hewn from the cliffs, shaped and shipped out for use as paving sets on streets and thoroughfares.
The quarrying began in 1907 and lasted only until the 1920s; an attempted revival in the 1930s failed to take off and merely bankrupted the quarry company. In its heyday, though, it was a thriving operation and even had a small quarry railway, conveying stone from the rock face to the ships. The construction of this is all the more impressive when you recall that anything not brought by boat would have to be carried down a ladder.
Shortly after Port y Pistyll I found myself entering National Trust land on Pen-y-Cil itself. The discordant sound of another motor vessel reached my ears and I glanced down to see a small boat in high visibility orange heading for Bardsey at top speed.
‘Oh dear,’ I said to myself. There is pretty much only one organisation I know of that paints its boats in that migraine-inducing orange and they use that colour for good reason, which is that you can’t fail to spot it even in the worst conditions. That organisation is the RNLI and that meant the vessel was a lifeboat. Someone was potentially having a far worse time than kicking a lump of granite and I vaguely hoped it wasn’t the people I’d seen waiting at Port Meudwy.
The Pwllheli lifeboat’s website doesn’t list any callouts for 26th May, so I guess they were probably just training.
Pen-y-Cil and the end of the Llŷn Peninsula are open, grassy and rocky and offer a multitude of opportunities to re-stub an already painfully stubbed foot. Despite that being so, I really enjoyed wandering around it, following the well waymarked path and avoiding the inevitable ponies (The NT does love its ponies).
Now, for the first time, I could get a proper view of Bardsey. It didn’t look particularly large but appearances can be misleading. The island is about a mile and a half in length and about half a mile wide and its sole hill, Mynydd Enlli, is 167 m high. It looks smaller than it is because it’s two miles offshore.
St Mary’s Abbey
St Mary’s Abbey, which lies secluded from prying mainland eyes on the far side of Mynydd Enlli, was founded in 516 by the Breton missionary, St Cadfan. Thanks in part to its remoteness, and the sense of spirituality that this inspired, it soon became an important pilgrimage site and three trips to Bardsey were said to be equal to a pilgrimage to Rome.
For centuries, the abbey prospered from the pilgrimage trade until it ended abruptly in 1537, when Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act (passed the previous year) closed the abbey and confiscated all its assets. Its buildings were demolished and only ruins remain.
There is, however, one surprising survivor from the days of the abbey: In 1998 a stunted, twisted apple tree — the sole surviving descendent of the abbey orchard — was found to be an otherwise unknown cultivar. The cultivar has since been propagated by grafting and is now commercially available under the name Bardsey Apple (Afal Enlli). The initial batch of 175 trees sold out almost immediately.
Approaching Mynydd Mawr
No trees of any sort, stunted or otherwise, adorned the windswept, salt-burnt, rocky coast that I now found myself traversing. Heading northwest, I had about two miles to go before I would turn around another headland and turn northeast. The far headland was hilly and, according to my map, I would need to climb up something called Mynydd Mawr, which means ‘large mountain’. Oh what joy. But looking ahead I was rather pleasantly surprised…
I ambled slowly along the path, ignoring any protest from my toes. Midway to Mynydd Mawr, I passed the bay of Porth Felen (‘yellow cove’), where a Roman anchor was found by divers in 1974. The rocks in this area are rich in veins of jasper, and the mining of it is another vanished industry.
The path took me through a flock of singularly unconcerned sheep and climbed the sloping sides of Mynydd Mawr. From this vantage point I could better see the lop-sided topology of Bardsey, which is almost flat apart from the ridge of Mynydd Enlli.
The path up Mynydd Mawr became steps and these conveyed me past the concrete foundations of buildings long-since vanished but which were almost certainly WW2 fortifications. At the top of the hill was an old coastguard lookout point, which was regularly manned until budget cuts in 1990. During WW2, it served as a signal station for the RAF and employed around 70 workers — hence the now empty foundations that I’d passed on my way up.
I sat down for a bit and rested my foot, which was aching, and took in the view.
The path branched away from the road in the photo and conveyed me along a narrow track that curled around a hill. This soon dropped back down to almost sea level and I crossed a tiny stream that flowed into the bay of Porth Llanllawen.
On the far side was another hill, Mynydd Anelog, after which the path began to level out.
Dinas Bach & Dinas Fawr
The path hugged the coast for a while now, taking me past the site of an ancient hut circle and rocky promontories with names like Dinas Bach and Dinas Fawr (‘small fort’ and ‘big fort’ — usually a dead giveaway that Iron Age hill forts once stood there).
The weather was hot and the sky was blue and I had drunk all my water. I was thirsty, sunburnt and my foot hurt and still having a wonderful time.
The clifftop path ended at a wooden gate with a bench beside it, on which I sat for several minutes. Below me I saw this:
The beach in question is Porth Oer or the Whistling Sands, so named because the dry sand squeaks due to shear stress when you walk upon it. I didn’t spend enough time on the sand to experience that — although most of Liverpool seemed to have got there first anyway — instead, I made my way directly for the café to purchase some more water, cold drinks and snacks.
The sand may have squeaked when I collapsed on it but I was too busy filling my face to pay attention.
Porth Oer was certainly popular and I can see why; it is indeed a lovely beach. It is owned by the National Trust who, for some reason, have called it ‘Porthor’ in their signage. Both my OS map and Gwynedd Council’s road signs consider it to be ‘Porth Oer’. Everyone I spoke to just called it the Whistling Sands (but as mentioned, they were almost all from Liverpool).
Well Behind Time
Having rested, refreshed and replenished myself, it was now time to press onwards. For the first time since Pen-y-Cil, I consulted my largely theoretical schedule. I had planned to reach Porth Oer by twelve thirty. The time was actually four pm. Oops. Injuring my foot had had a severe impact (pun most painfully intended) upon my timing.
Also, it still hurt.
I wrestled with this problem for some minutes, which naturally only served to make it later still. The facts were unassailable: I was running very late and walking very slowly. My hotel was still about 13 miles away in Nefyn. I had no way of getting there except walking. The sun would set around half nine.
I was going to have to do the rest by road.
So I did.
The Road Route
A Pleasant Perambulation
Actually, the road walk was not at all unpleasant. It allowed me to do a much better pace and I still didn’t reach the hotel until after nine pm. On the way I saw flowers, cows, sheep — I had to wait at one point while a flock was driven along the road — and several carloads of lost Liverpudlian tourists looking for Porth Oer. The sea was visible from the road almost all of the way; a road which mostly looked like this:
On any other day I’d have sighed and accepted it but I resented being forced onto the road by an injury. I resolved that I would return to Porth Oer and resume my walk as planned. This had the slightly odd effect that it meant my ‘official’ coast walk was only nine miles, while getting to my hotel at the end of it took at least four miles longer than that. And it also meant that I actually walked twenty-two miles. But thirteen of those just don’t count.
Maybe next time I’ll start by making Porth Oer’s sands squeak…
This time: 9 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,609 miles