HAVING reached the northern coast of Wales, I have also put myself into the vicinity of another of the few railway lines that Richard Beeching didn’t have torn up in the 1960s. This is excellent news for my travels as the London to Bangor journey time is considerably less than that of London to Pwllheli, even without the railway replacement buses on the latter line. With this in mind, I was keen to return to north Wales and actually get some walking in on the same day that I travelled.
So I did.
Off the Rails
Caernarfon, sadly, is not connected to the national railway network (or at least not directly — the Welsh Highland Railway runs a heritage line down to Porthmadog, which I used as part of a very scenic journey home after my last walk). There is talk of possibly resurrecting the 7 mile stretch of track between Caernarfon and Bangor but it hasn’t happened yet and Gwynedd Council has proven decidedly conflicted about the idea — simultaneously supporting it and agreeing to sell off bits of the track bed.
Thus, to return to Caernarfon I was forced to alight at Bangor and complete my journey by bus, which was easily accomplished and deposited me in the ancient, walled city just in time for lunch.
Caernarfon grew up around the Roman fort of Segontium, which was founded around the year 80 as part of the Roman conquest of Britain. Its purpose was simply to awe and subjugate the Ordovices, which tribe dwelt in the region.
Y Gaer yn Arfon
Segontium remained an important regional post of the Empire until the Romans quit Britannia in the fifth century, at which point the province fragmented and the town became part of the kingdom of Gwynedd. Its Welsh name derives from ‘Y Gaer yn Arfon’, meaning ‘the fortress in the land opposite Môn’.
Ynys Môn is the Welsh name for Anglesey, which island can be seen from Caernarfon and was where the kings of Gwynedd made their capital.
William the Conqueror
In time, the old fort fell into ruin but the town gained a new fortification in the late eleventh century when William the Conqueror decided that he wasn’t content with just conquering England and that he’d like to have Wales as well. He built a motte and bailey fort (to awe and subjugate the descendants of the Ordovices) and set about failing to seize control of Gwynedd, whose armies had not conveniently exhausted themselves by fighting the Norwegians beforehand, and so did not suffer the same fate as the English.
Still, the idea that England ought to own Wales (mostly on the basis that it was next door and therefore begging for it) persisted and William’s own descendant, Edward I, was back in the 1280s intent on conquering Gwynedd. His legal justification for this was that Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales and ruler of Gwynedd, had refused to pay homage to him.
Edward’s reasoning was simple: if England owned Wales then he was Llywelyn’s feudal overlord and homage must be paid. Llywelyn’s reasoning was similarly simple but irreconcilable with Edward’s: namely that, if Gwynedd didn’t belong to England, then Edward could go boil his pompous, arrogant head.
Edward won, thanks in part to an unlikely alliance with the Scots (with whom he was taking a very similar attitude) and stomped all over Gwynedd, making a point of demonstrating that he had conquered it by force of arms and that, even if he hadn’t before, then he damned well owned it now.
Edward built a frankly massive and formidable castle and extensive town walls with eight towers and two gatehouses.
The castle and most of the town wall still stand today, despite having been sacked not long after construction when Llywelyn’s relative Madog ap Llywelyn raised a rebellion in 1294. The rebellion was crushed and repairs were made, after which the castle had a fairly glittering record of withstanding sieges — once by Owain Glyndŵr in the fifteenth century and three times by Parliamentarians in the English Civil War.
In 1660, its demolition was ordered but no one ever got around to it, a piece of tardiness that was much appreciated in 1911 when it was used for the formal investiture of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII). It was again used for this purpose in 1969, when the current Prince of Wales was invested.
Following Edward’s conquest of Gwynedd, he divided that country into the new counties of Anglesey and Caernarfonshire, with Caernarfon being (obviously) the county town of the latter.
In 1955, when the question was raised as to which town or city could rightly claim to be the capital of Wales, Caernarfon made a bid for the title but failed to win many backers and so lost out to Cardiff. Today, it has to console itself with being the administrative home of Gwynedd Council (Cyngor Gwynedd) instead.
Having had my lunch, I weaved my way through the narrow streets within Caernarfon’s walls, somehow acquiring an ice cream on the way. Outside the walls on the seaward side of town, I found myself perambulating a broad promenade with views across the Menai Strait to Anglesey.
Lôn Las Menai
The promenade led me past a dockside development and then, as it left town, became a long, straight cycle and foot path. This was the Lôn Las Menai which runs beside the Menai Strait most of the way to Bangor.
For most of the way it was delightfully leafy with sunlight dappling the tarmac through the trees. Here and there it was crossed by old bridges despite the map showing nowhere a bridge might need to go. It was, of course, the course of the old railway that they may or may not want to reinstate.
Bangor and Caernarfon Railway
The Bangor and Caernarfon Railway was founded in 1851 and opened for passengers the following year. It closed in 1970, just six months after a special Royal train had conveyed Prince Charles to Caernarfon for his investiture.
Most of it is now cycle path but some tunnels on the route were turned into what was supposed to be a mushroom farm. What they were actually turned into, it was discovered in 2012, was a highly illegal cannabis factory, merely masquerading as a mushroom farm.
Approaching Y Felinheli
Like most foot and cycle paths converted from old railway lines, there was no discernible gradient and the going was incredibly easy. I therefore made excellent progress. Again, like most foot and cycle paths converted from old railway lines, it was also lacking in variation. I’m reluctant to describe it as ‘boring’ because it was lovely and there are definitely worse places to walk but one half-mile stretch of it was very much like any other.
Thus, I was pleased almost beyond words when I caught sight of the village of Y Felinheli.
Y Felinheli either means ‘the salt (i.e. seawater) mill’ or ‘the mill on the Heilyn’, depending on which etymology you believe; it used to be known in English as Port Dinorwic, which doesn’t mean either of those things.
There certainly was a mill on the Afon Heilyn but it was rebuilt closer to the sea in 1633, so the village’s name could still have either origin. Or both. It is fitting that it has two possible etymologies for its name as the village itself was formed from two hamlets, Tafarngrisiau and Aberpwll.
An agricultural settlement, Y Felinheli switched to slate quarrying in the nineteenth century, a move not unconnected with both the quarry and most of the village being owned by the Assheton Smith family, whose seat was the nearby Vaynol Estate.
Narrow Gauge Railways
In the 1820s, Thomas Assheton Smith and his fellow investors constructed a narrow gauge railway, the Dinorwic Railway, to link the quarry with his shiny new harbour at Y Felinheli. This turned out to have some limitations, so it was replaced in 1842 with the Padarn Railway, operating a wider (but still narrow) gauge along a realigned route.
As is the inevitable history of such things, the Padarn Railway closed in 1961 and was torn up. The furthest 2½ miles of its track bed now forms the heritage Llanberis Lake Railway, on a gauge even narrower than the original.
Y Felinheli Dock
His railway might have vanished but Thomas Assheton Smith’s dock, built in 1828, is still going strong and my route took me straight past it. It certainly seemed to be popular with yachtsmen and other leisure sailors.
Pubs Present and Past
Something else that Y Felinheli had, to my inexpressible joy, was a pub and I gleefully played to English stereotype (with my Home Counties accent and double-barrelled surname) by ordering a gin and tonic. The day had turned out to be rather hot and the cold drink was very much refreshing.
On leaving Y Felinheli, I passed the boarded-up carcass of another pub, The Halfway House, which sat on the exact halfway point between Caernarfon and Bangor on the old turnpike road. This pub appears to have closed last year and a chalked blackboard propped up outside was still exhorting customers to sample delights it could not offer. It seems that its days as a hostelry are truly over as planning permission has been given to turn it into six houses.
As I passed this disused pub and rejoined the footpath along the abandoned rail route, I could have easily fallen into melancholy thoughts of obsolescence and decay. But I did not; it was far too sunny for such gloom!
An Impressive Gateway
A mile or so later the coast path left the leafy track bed and ran alongside the busy A4087 (and then the A487). As I plodded along beside the traffic, I became aware of a wall to my left, which sported a rather impressive gateway. I was immediately curious…
‘Who would live on an estate like this?’ I asked myself. The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Thomas Assheton Smith and his descendants, at least until 1984 when it was sold at auction.
The Vaynol Estate (Y Faenol, ‘the manor’), which was once much larger, was purchased in the sixteenth century from the Bishop of Bangor by Thomas Williams, High Sheriff of Caernarfonshire. The Williams family then continued to be wealthy, powerful and canny (or dysfuctional) enough to fight on both sides of the English Civil War.
In 1696, Sir William Williams died without heirs and the estate reverted to the Crown but in 1723, it was given to an Englishman with the spectacularly stereotypical name of John Smith and he left it to his nephew, the aforementioned Thomas Assheton Smith.
Thomas Assheton Smith rapidly became one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in North Wales and, in a political echo of the estate’s first secular owner, was appointed High Sheriff from 1774 to 1775. Although the estate decreased in size over the years, the core of it remains — a thousand acres (4 km2), containing thirty listed buildings and surrounded by a seven mile wall. It is now an outdoor events venue.
Skirting the Edge of Bangor
Capel y Graig
Having passed the gate of Vaynol (which sounds like a location in a fantasy novel), I then progressed along the rather more prosaic A487 before branching off through the hamlet of Capel y Graig (‘chapel of the rock’) in order to avoid the roundabouts and flyovers of the junction with the North Wales Expressway (the A55).
I just brushed the edge of Bangor, or more particularly its suburb of Penrhos Garnedd (‘moorhead cairn’). As its name suggests, the ground there was slightly higher than most of my walk had been and, as I reached the turning that would send me back to the shoreline, I was able to glimpse the mountains of Snowdonia, hiding rather badly behind some pylons.
Turning my back on the distant hills, I set off down a narrow street that quickly became a quiet country lane, with leafy trees and fields of cows and sheep. It was hard to believe that the busy A55 with its roaring traffic was just metres away on the far side of those fields.
The lane became more of an access track, plunging deeper into the trees then, almost without warning, it suddenly gained a companion in the form of a railway line. Immediately thereafter, the A55 joined the party, but it would not be content with merely running alongside. Oh, no.
I was, I realised, looking at the approach to the Britannia Bridge (Pont Britannia), designed and built in 1850 as a wrought iron tubular railway bridge by Robert Stephenson. Robert was the only son of George Stephenson — who was of course the engineer famous for ‘Stephenson’s Rocket’ and the father of the railway — and he followed his father into the railway engineering business.
Britannia Bridge was built to provide a railway link to the ferry terminal at Holyhead, a road link having been established in 1826 (The Menai Bridge) and basically took the form of an elevated tunnel made out of box girders, an innovative design that could support its own weight.
Damaged by Fire
Unfortunately, in 1970 after 120 years of excellent service, it was accidentally set on fire by two boys trespassing on the line who dropped a burning torch and brilliantly illuminated why topping it off with a tarred, wooden roof was, if admittedly a bright idea (in an orange, flickery sort of way), not the best.
When the fire, which refused to be brought under control, had eventually burnt itself out, the stonework was found to be intact but the heat had weakened all the box girders, which all had to be removed and scrapped. One stands nearby like an industrial take on the standing stone; keeping vigil in lonely memorial to Stephenson’s original design.
When the bridge was rebuilt, it was as a more conventional open railway bridge with concrete and steel arches now providing support between the original stanchions. By this time, the road bridge was struggling to cope with a volume of traffic that no one could have foreseen when it was built. The opportunity was therefore taken to build a second road bridge by putting it right on top of the railway bridge. The bridge reopened to railway traffic in 1972, while the upper roadway opened in 1980.
Sadly, as the bridge soared over the Menai Strait my path descended to the shoreline and the majesty of the bridge was for now lost in the trees. But before we vertically parted company, I spotted a side trail heading back up to the railway and knew it could only be leading to one thing:
Robert Stephenson was not without the Victorian flair for the dramatic. At each entrance to the box tunnel he placed two stone lions, guarding the bridge with patience, solemnity and, for some reason, expressions of mild disgust. The lions remain in situ, casting their limestone eyes over each passing train while the A55 passes above them, the majority of road users not even suspecting their existence.
Treborth Botanic Garden
After I left the semi-secret lions, the path led me down to the shoreline and under the spans of the bridge before leading off along another delightful woodland walk. Admittedly, for much of the time I couldn’t actually see the Menai Strait for trees, but still it was very pleasant as indeed it was meant to be — this leafy stroll was deliberately landscaped by the Chester and Holyhead Railway as part of extensive tourist-drawing park and garden development that never really got off the ground. Much of it is now owned by Bangor University under the name of Treborth Botanic Garden (Gardd Fotaneg Treborth).
I didn’t divert into the actual botanic gardens, which are open to the public, but stuck with the path through the woods. This eventually became the road out of the Treborth Estate and then finally joined the public road network beside the Menai Suspension Bridge (Pont Grog y Borth).
The Menai Bridge was designed by renowned civil engineer Thomas Telford and opened in 1826. Prior to that, the only way to cross the Menai Strait was by ferry or, if you were one of Anglesey’s cattle farmers, forcing your livestock to swim it.
The crossing could be pretty dangerous as the tides cause dangerous eddies and whirlpools in the narrow strait and the direction of flow is subject to change — differences in tide height at either end of the strait cause fierce tidal currents in first one direction and then in the other without the overall flow of the tide (in or out) having changed.
Since cattle and whirlpools don’t mix (or, more accurately, they mix rather better than the animals are likely to survive) and perilous ferry rides were likely to discourage the Irish traffic via Holyhead (to successfully cross the Irish Sea only to drown in the Menai Strait would be embarrassing), Thomas Telford was engaged to build a bridge instead. Which he did. Okay, so it needed strengthening in 1840 and again in 1893. And 1938. And 1999. But the bridge is 188 years old, which is impressive for a structural design that we tend to think of as ‘modern’.
I crossed the bridge; it didn’t fall down. Well done, Mr Telford. I was now on Anglesey (Ynys Môn).
As the island of Mona, it was a significant power base for the British druids and thus a thorn in the side of the Romans, who didn’t look kindly on indigenous religious figures fomenting rebellion against their rule.
Their solution was typically Roman: the Governor of Britannia, Gaius Seutonius Paulinus, marched his legions up to the island and somewhat surprised the druids when his Batavian contingent (from the lower reaches of the Rhine) scorned the dangers of the Menai whirlpools and made a successful amphibious assault.
Paulinus was about as magnanimous in victory as one might expect from a Roman Governor faced with rebellious barbarians and not only executed as many druids as possible but also burnt the sacred groves to the ground.
Meanwhile, Down South
If the fate of Mona was meant to be an example to the Britons, it came too late for the Iceni tribe of what is now East Anglia, whose queen, Boudicca, launched her own revolt while Paulinus was up north killing druids. She had some pretty legitimate grievances but, by the time Paulinus got back down south, she had massacred Londinium and massively overplayed her hand. Ultimately it worked out for her about as well as it had for the druids.
Anglesey and Gwynedd
Four hundred or so years later, when the Romans packed up and left, Anglesey became the heart of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. It remained so, sort of — Kings of Gwynedd would often leave it to their younger sons as an autonomous sub-kingdom — until Llywelyn the Last’s fateful run-in with Edward I of England. Thereafter, Anglesey was a county of Wales, at least until 1974 when it, Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire were merged to form the new but historically-named County of Gwynedd. This lasted until 1996 when Anglesey became its own county once more.
Anglesey Coast Path
After another refreshing gin and tonic, which I purchased from a pub close to the bridge on the very edge of the town named after it (Menai Bridge), I set off along the Anglesey Coast Path, maintaining my usual clockwise direction of travel. This took me west along the shore of the Swellies (the most turbulent and whirlpool-afflicted stretch of the strait, which lies between the two bridges).
The going was initially very easy as it formed a broad concrete promenade. This came to an end and downgraded to a simple footpath shortly after I passed the causeway that leads out to Church Island (Ynys Dysilio), a small tidal island that houses a fifteenth century church and little else.
The church on Church Island dedicated to St Tysilio, hence the island’s Welsh name.
Tysilio was the second son of King Brochwel Ysgithrog of Powys, but princely life turned out not to be what one might hope and he fled his father’s court and begged the Abbot of Caer-Meguaidd to let him become a monk instead. The Abbot somehow convinced the king’s warband that this was a much better idea than, say, slaying everyone in the abbey and dragging Tysilio home by force.
Tysilio, having become a monk, was afraid that his father might yet change his mind and so removed himself to what is now Church Island — a tiny, uninhabited island in a different kingdom — and founded the church for which it is named. Not that the current church is the same building; Tysilio died sometime around the year 640.
Ynys Gored Goch
Turning away from Church Island, I followed a looping path around some areas of salt marsh and then inland onto the A4080 for a while. Thankfully, the footpath soon diverted again and took me back to the shoreline where I soon passed another island surrounded by the turbulent waters of the Swellies. It had a house on it.
This is Ynys Gored Goch (‘red weir island’) and access is only possible by boat. The island has been used for fishing since at least 1590, when the Bishop of Bangor leased it to Mr Thomas Fletcher for the sum of ‘three pounds and besides one barell full of hearinges at the tyme of the hearing fishinge’.
The island’s freehold remained in the hands of the church until 1888, when they sold it off; it has since had a succession of private owners and is currently let as holiday accommodation with very limited ferry access included in the price.
Britannia Bridge from Below
Just beyond Ynys Gored Goch I got my first decent look at the Britannia Bridge as it loomed above me.
The path diverted inland at its base, leading up towards the road and the village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. On the way I had another opportunity to see one of Stephenson’s lions. If anything it looked even more disgusted.
Llanfairpwllgwyngyll is ancient, with a settlement on the site dating back at least four thousand years to Neolithic times. For much of its history, it was a small and unimportant farming community and then, in 1850, the railway arrived and overnight it became instead a small and unimportant farming community… with a ridiculous name!
A victim of Victorian advertising, the village — which had already laboured under the mouthful of Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll (‘St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel’) — was rebranded with a somewhat forced and artificial new name to give it the longest station name in Britain. And it worked, sort of. Tourists show up every year to photograph the station sign or be photographed standing next to it.
And so, while locals simply call it ‘Llanfair’, ‘Llanfairpwll’ or ‘Llanfair PG’ depending on preference and the Ordnance Survey map and local road signage both valiantly persist with the old form of ‘Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll’, Network Rail sees no reason to contradict its forbears in the Chester & Holyhead Railway. To them the village is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the longest single-word place name in Europe and second longest in the world (after a hill in New Zealand). The name translates as ‘St Mary’s Church in a hollow of white hazel near the swirling whirlpool of the church of Saint Tysilio with a red cave.’
Quite what St Tysilio would say is anyone’s guess. ‘No! Don’t tell my father I’m here!’ most likely. Only in Welsh or Latin.
Mad Dash at the End
The station is about a mile from the bridge, which was unfortunate as I’d considered my walk as ending at the latter and, because I had dawdled, now had to race to the station if I didn’t want to wait another two hours. I made my train with four minutes leeway and was soon whisked off across Anglesey to the pub where I was staying. The following morning I would be back…
This time: 10½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,658 miles