WHEN I awoke in Beaumaris, I found that the glorious sunshine that had accompanied the previous two days had quite vanished; the skies were grey and clouded and the weather forecast confirmed that rain would arrive sometime around mid afternoon. This called for drastic action, if unpacking my waterproof jacket from the bottom of my bag can be called ‘drastic’, which it probably can’t.
It could rain if it liked, I was going to walk anyway.
Ye Olde Bull’s Head Inn
Initially I was going to walk the wrong way. By which I don’t mean using my hands instead of my feet or anything else so inventive. Rather I mean that I headed back up the high street in the direction of Beaumaris Castle. For part way along was this building:
Actually, Ye Olde Bull’s Head Inn is pretty ‘olde’ as the core of the current building was built in 1617, replacing a mostly wooden inn that had stood since 1472. Some of the current cellar walls are believed to be mediaeval originals. Admittedly, the inn doesn’t look all that old thanks to some unsympathetic refurbishments over the years but appearances are deceiving.
The inn takes its name from the armorial crest of the Bulkeley family, who were powerful local landowners.
In 1646, the Bulkeleys held Beaumaris Castle for the King and Parliament dispatched General Thomas Mytton to besiege and capture it and other Royalist strongholds.
Mytton succeeded in his mission and Colonel Richard Bulkeley was forced to surrender to him. Two years later Royalism resurfaced in Beaumaris and General Mytton returned to recapture the castle. He commandeered Ye Olde Bull’s Head for use as his operational headquarters.
Anglesey Coastal Path
Having located Ye Olde Bulls Head, I decided not to follow in the general’s footsteps and besiege the castle; there was only one of me, so it would have involved a lot of running around. Instead, I chose to rejoin the coastal path where I had left it the previous evening and made my way along Beaumaris’s seafront, which is graced by a somewhat functional-looking pier.
The original pier was built in 1846 for entirely commercial reasons: The Liverpool & North Wales Steamship Company was plying the Menai Strait with tourist traffic and a pier would make Beaumaris accessible (the quayside being too shallow for the steamers).
It was rebuilt in 1872 and extended in 1895 (to 170 m) with a narrow gauge railway running its length to convey visitor’s baggage.
A huge success through the 1920s, the pier lost its purpose when steamer traffic dwindled shortly before WW2. A pontoon at the end was dismantled and the remainder mouldered, becoming unsafe; it narrowly avoided demolition in the 1960s.
Repaired and refurbished in 1974 and again in 2010, it has been restored to its original width and length and its landing stage allows access to tourist boats sailing to Puffin Island.
From the pier the coast path led along Beaumaris’s seafront, which took the form of a short promenade. It could have then continued along the busy but unexciting A545, which follows the shoreline and is overlooked by some large and expensive houses, but it didn’t.
Allt Goch Bach
Instead, the coast path diverted slightly inland up a side road. And I do mean ‘up’. Well, okay it maybe wasn’t as steep as all that but after a couple of days of mostly flat walking, the hill was a bit of a surprise. The side road turned out to be something of a leafy country lane that quickly left Beaumaris behind and meandered narrowly between hedgerows and fields.
The footpath was now running parallel to the A545 but further in and further up. When the road turned even further inland, heading for a crossroads, the path left it and cut across country. I, however, was too busy looking somewhere else and missed the sign, which I only realised when I got to the crossroads and decided to check that I really did want to head straight on.
It turned out that no, I didn’t. Not unless I was heading for Hen Bentref Llandegfan (‘Llandegfan Old Village’), which I wasn’t.
The left hand road at the crossroads took me back to the coast path and a parallel course to the A545. The leafy lane had become a lot more open by now and I saw the tops of large houses further down the hillside. Then, as the path reached the edge of Llandegfan (the newer part of the village) I got my first glimpse of Bangor across the Menai Strait, easily recognisable by its massive pier.
The newer part of Llandegfan grew up over the last few decades and consequently comprises such typically modern housing as might be found on the outer suburbs of any Welsh or English town. This wasn’t in any way unpleasant and it did mean that it had a shop, where I could buy a drink and some snacks but it wasn’t exactly wowing me with its charms either.
Yr Hen Bentref
The old village lies on the original road from Beaumaris to Porthaethwy and so, in retrospect, I might have preferred the route had I gone straight on at that crossroads after all. Ah well.
The coast path followed the road as it skirted the southern edge of Llandegfan and then descended down another steepish hill to rejoin the A545 on the outskirts of Menai Bridge (Porthaethwy).
Under its old name (and current Welsh name) of Porthaethwy, Menai Bridge was one of the old official crossing points with a ferry operating across the Menai Strait; indeed it was the narrowest possible crossing point.
It is not coincidental that this was then chosen as the point for Thomas Telford to build his suspension bridge in 1826, a development popular with many who had complained bitterly about the unreliability of the ferries. One assumes that the complainants voiced their objections from the safety of dry land; upsetting a ferryman when halfway across could potentially be counter-productive.
The Afon Cadnant meets the Menai Strait at the eastern end of the town and, as I crossed that river I paused on the bridge to look up the strait. At this point there are several small islands lying between Anglesey and Great Britain, some of which are joined to the former by bridges or tidal causeways.
Ynys Gaint & Ynys Faelog
I made my way into the busy heart of Menai Bridge — it is the third largest settlement on Anglesey, after Holyhead and the county town of Llangefni — where I found myself a handy café and spent a while lingering over a nice, hot cup of tea. I had plenty of time to linger; despite my tea-related dawdling I was still ahead of schedule when I eventually emerged.
A short walk from the town centre carried me past the pub in which I’d had my first G&T on Anglesey and then back onto the Menai Suspension Bridge.
A couple of buses passed over the bridge as I did and I could not help but stand and watch.
The road passes through the bridge’s towers by means of arches that are almost exactly one bus wide. Each bus approaches its arch and comes to a complete stop. Then, ever so carefully, it creeps forward with no more than a couple of inches clearance on either side. Once through it advances to the other tower and does it all over again.
No such problem was attendant to crossing on foot and soon enough I was back on the island of Great Britain, looking back at an Anglesey that was alarmingly hazy in the deteriorating weather. From the bridge, the coast path headed east towards Bangor, taking the simplest if not the most scenic approach by simply following the A5.
It wasn’t that the A5 lacked in excitement. Some of the lorries and buses that bombed along it were quite exciting in a ‘really letting you know how narrow the pavement was’ sort of way. It just wasn’t all that interesting. So when the footpath branched off it onto an access track, I was delighted.
The access track ended at some locked gates but the coast path veered off again, now becoming a footpath skirting the edges of fields. The path itself was separated from the field proper by a wire fence which was possibly just as well. The second field was full of bullocks who were at that ‘awkward teenager’ stage — full of youthful excitement, bovine curiosity, hormonal belligerence and herbivore fear.
Moving as one, they all headed over to investigate and then followed me intently as I moved along the fence. They were a little unnerving in their intensity but I actually felt a little sorry for them. They were just getting old enough to sort out their places in life, their positions in the herd, and their fear that everything might want to eat them when, in fact, someone would want to eat them and a trip to the abattoir would confirm it.
As I distanced myself from their field I felt their big brown eyes watch me go…
…I forgot about them pretty quickly though as the path became a flight of steps heading down a wooded hillside. Well, I say ‘steps’. They were steps but they were the sort of steps you get when you just pin vertical boards into place to hold the earth up. There would be a lot of those for the next half mile or so, as the path became a narrow, leafy woodland adventure, rising or falling every few paces. It was fantastic.
The path ended in a field that had clearly had cattle in it recently but seemed to be bovine-free at that precise moment. The field curved over to become a grassy hill and I descended it. Ahead, blending into the horizon was Bangor’s Garth Pier.
At the bottom of the hill, a gate let me out onto the access road for that building. This in turn became an actual road. There was a short interlude of wandering some suburban streets and then an equally short stroll through a park.
Ashley Jones Fields
Urban parks are such a varied bunch, if you don’t already know the park, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Neatly-mown lawns or scruffy grass and litter? Picnicking families or bored teenagers spraying graffiti? Smiling dog-walkers or startled doggers? Only one way to find out…
A couple of dog-walkers passed by, clearly sizing me up for ritual sacrifice; they didn’t fool me with their friendly helloes.
The stone circle and table were actually erected during the National Eisteddfod of 1931, which was held in Bangor, and are largely a product of a misty-eyed romantic nostalgia for a Celtic past that Iolo Morgannwg (1747-1826), founder of the Gorsedd of Bards, mostly just made up.
The park itself was a meadow donated to the city by Ashley Jones, a successful solicitor in the inter-war years.
At the park’s far end, the footpath rejoined the road, albeit a road with a fairly broad cycle/footpath. This then led around the shoreline until I finally reached Garth Pier; since I’d been catching glimpses of it all morning, I was delighted to actually get there. Too delighted, apparently. My arrival immediately triggered an early onset of rain.
Garth Pier was built in 1896 and was originally 470 m long (it is now 10 m shorter). Like the pier in Beaumaris, it was built to attract the steamer trade and, again like Beaumaris, it had its own narrow gauge railway to carry passengers’ baggage.
The railway was removed in 1914, the same year that the pier was badly damaged by a steamer that broke free of its mooring. After repairs in 1921, the pier then slowly deteriorated until it was closed in 1971 and threatened with demolition in 1974. Bangor City Council (which didn’t actually own it) objected to the demolition and sneakily got it listed. It was repaired and renovated between 1982 and 1988, when it was reopened.
Cold Rain & Hot Tea
I paid my 50p entrance fee and wandered out along the pier in what turned out to be a flurry of horizontal rain. The pier actually extends halfway across the strait and yet I could barely see Beaumaris on account of the poor visibility. I thus quickly retreated from the pier end and took refuge in one of the many kiosks that punctuate its length, purchasing a cup of tea and drinking it in the kiosk’s relative warmth and dryness.
Only when the rain had eased off did I drain my teacup and emerge, to make my way round to Bangor’s old docks at Port Penrhyn.
A Cathedral City
Although Bangor is officially a city, it is fairly small despite being a university town. It takes its name from an old Welsh word for a wattled enclosure, in this case referring to that around the sixth century cathedral of St Deiniol, the first Bishop of Bangor.
Deiniol was the son of a king in the Old North (Yr Hen Ogledd) — the Cumbric-speaking Celtic lands later lost to the Angles of Northumbria – and a descendent of the powerful fifth century Old North leader known as Coel Hen (‘Coel the Old’).
Most of the Welsh Royal lines seems to have descended from Coel Hen in one way or another; he is also the probable original basis for the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’.
After Deiniol’s father Dunod lost his lands in the north, he was given land and refuge by King Cyngen of Powys and retreated into religious life as abbot at Bangor-on-Dee (Bangor Is Coed). Deinol followed his father into the church, ultimately founding the monastery at Bangor under the patronage of King Maelgwyn of Gwynedd.
Maelgwynn raised it to a bishopric and extended its borders to those of Gwynedd, making Deiniol and his successors the premier clerics of the kingdom.
The A5 Again
I wasn’t actually going anywhere near the cathedral, although I was vaguely in the right end of town. My route carried me around two sides of a harbour by means of my old friend the busy A5. It was quite a lot busier in the heart of Bangor.
This A5 adventure was even shorter than the last one as I quickly abandoned it at the entrance to Port Penrhyn (Porth Penrhyn).
Port Penrhyn was at one time a dockyard of significant importance, being the port of the Penrhyn Quarry — by the end of the nineteenth century Penrhyn Quarry (near Bethesda) was the largest slate quarry in the world.
The harbour was built at the mouth of the Afon Cegin and was constructed and owned by the Pennant family, who dwelt in nearby Penrhyn Castle.
Penrhyn Castle, which lurks about half a mile beyond that gate, at the heart of a large estate, is a dour-looking country house that appears to be a Norman castle. The actual building as seen today is the result of rebuilding in the nineteenth century, which totally transformed the eighteenth-century reconstruction of the original building.
The funny thing, given all the work to make it look like a Victorian’s idea of a castle, is that it originally was, if not an actual castle, a mediaeval fortified manor house.
A Variety of Owners
The original manor house was built in the thirteenth century for Ednyfed Fychan, seneschal to Llywelyn the Great. A couple of hundred years later its then-owner, Ioan ap Grufudd, obtained a licence to crenellate (an important piece of mediaeval bureaucracy — fortifying a building without Royal permission was an act of rebellion) and rebuilt in castellated stone. This essentially makes Penrhyn Castle a Victorian mock-castle made out of a real one.
Owned by the industrialist Pennant family from the latter part of the eighteenth century, the castle and its estate were given to the government in lieu of death duties in 1951. It is now owned by the National Trust, so I could have paid my entrance fee and gone to take a closer look.
Penrhyn Quarry Railway
The footpath had different ideas however. It headed directly inland, following the line of the old Penrhyn Quarry Railway, which used to carry slate from the quarry to the docks.
Penrhyn Quarry Railway was built as a narrow-gauge horse-drawn railway in 1801 and incorporated in its length the track bed of an earlier (1798) mile-long tramway. It was slightly rerouted and converted to steam in 1870 and ran until 1962. Today, it mostly forms a footpath, which makes for level-going and leafy greenness with the Afon Cegin gurgling alongside.
Cegin Viaduct (1)
The brick bridge in the photo above is the Cegin Viaduct, built between 1798 and 1800. It is the oldest known multi-arched railway bridge in Wales above ground level and possibly also in Britain and the world.
It is a Scheduled Monument, which is the strongest protected status available, and was clearly undergoing maintenance / restoration work as I traversed its successor.
Cegin Viaduct (2)
Just to the right of the mainline viaduct shown above was Bethesda Junction, from which the Chester & Holyhead Railway branched off to Bethesda. Like the Penrhyn Quarry Railway, that branch was also lifted in 1963.
A Bridge & Ford
Immediately after the road bridge was my exit from the track bed, which continued without me towards Bethesda. I stepped off onto a narrow country road which rather charmingly crossed the Cegin by means of a ford.
There was no fording for me though as my path lay in the opposite direction, crossing road bridge shown above and following the road towards Llandygai. Or so I thought. That’s what my map suggested anyway.
The waymarks on the ground soon directed me back off the road and along a short stretch of footpath that led to a more roads and a roundabout. The roundabout had three exits and no signage to indicate which way to go. For all of maybe ten seconds I was perplexed.
With my choice of onward directions reduced to one, I followed it. The road led me onwards through what appeared to be an invisible industrial estate. It had the roads (wide enough for two lorries to pass) punctuated with occasional junctions leading off to nowhere. All the pedestrian crossing points had those bumpy tiles that help tell the blind it’s a crossing. To be honest it felt a little bit bizarre, as though there had been some kind of Building Apocalypse.
Eventually, I got to the end of the road, where it joined the public road network. Or would have, had a set of low gates — like those at the entrance to a car park — not been padlocked shut. A small plaque proclaimed the involvement of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Welsh Government. It didn’t say what they’d been involved in.
Parc Bryn Cegin
It was, of course, a business park (i.e. an industrial estate for light industries) but one in which the buildings have yet to be built. Well, fair enough, it’s clearly very new. Or is it?
Actually, it turns out that Parc Bryn Cegin (‘Cegin Hill Park’) was laid out back in 2000 along with a nice new roundabout on the A5 onto which its padlocked gates face. It promised multi-million pound investment and at least 1,500 jobs as companies would fall over themselves to relocate there.
Well, I guess they broke their metaphorical legs in the ‘falling over’ part because 14 years later not a single site in the park is occupied, unless you count a small electricity substation with no-one to supply power to.
Thanks to a quirk of where the business park’s exit was, I now found myself back on the A5 but heading in the opposite traffic direction from before. This only lasted a few yards however before I found myself following a narrow lane — the original course of the A5 — into the village of Llandygai.
Llandygai (Llandygái) takes its name from St Tegai, a late fifth century missionary and a son of Ithel Hael, the prince of Armorica who also fathered saints Tecwyn and Twrog amongst others.
St Tegai’s Church
St Tegai founded a church and the village named after him grew up around it. Not that it grew very fast, it only had about eight houses well over a millennium later at the start of the nineteenth century. The current church, which is grade II listed, was built in 1330 and extensively restored in 1853.
The restoration of St Tegai’s Church coincided with the significant expansion of the village as part of a grand plan by Lord Penrhyn (Edward Gordon Douglas-Pennant of the aforementioned Pennant family) to house his workers in a model village.
The houses were built in a deliberate picturesque style and the village was designated a dry area without the ‘corrupting’ influence of a pub. It was also right next to the Grand Lodge that forms the main entrance to the Penrhyn Estate.
Sadly I didn’t see the Grand Lodge or the centre of the village as the footpath ushered me round the village’s fringes, lest I should make the place look untidy.
Snowdon and Rained On
I did get a fleeting glimpse of the mountains of Snowdonia in the distance as they peeked out from the mist but it was pretty fleeting as the long-threatened rain arrived in earnest, cutting the visibility right down and dumping water by the bucketful. Cats and dogs had no part in it; for one mercifully brief downpour it was easily raining tigers and dire wolves.
Fortunately, the rain soon settled back down to a steady and miserable drizzle as my route brought me back to a main road outside yet another entrance to the Penrhyn Castle’s grounds. Shunning the castle yet again, I turned away to enter the neighbouring village of Tal-y-bont.
No sooner had I entered Tal-y-bont than I left it again, following a track beside a railway line until it dropped me back onto the same main road that I was on before Tal-y-bont. Being a creature of habit, I immediately left that again too, following a long, narrow road that skirted the wall of the Penrhyn Estate for a about a mile to the coast. It was still raining.
The road ended at a car park in a place called Aber Ogwen. This, as one might expect, sits beside the mouth of the Afon Ogwen, which had flowed north from Llandygai, passing through the Penrhyn Estate. A small sign went to unexpected efforts to ensure people parked in the right places.
I paused for a moment in the car park to peer out across the Menai Strait to the hazy white blur that I knew was Beaumaris. It was good that I knew it; I certainly couldn’t see it properly. The rain eased off just long enough to tempt me into lowering my hood and then redoubled its efforts the moment it had a clear shot at my head.
Enormous Rucksack Girl
On my left, a young woman with an enormous rucksack also stared out across the mudflats that the strait becomes at low tide. She didn’t look to be enjoying the weather very much. I nodded in passing, one rain-bedraggled walker to another, and then set off.
The So-called Sands
As I walked the rain alternately eased and intensified as it passed overhead in bands. Low, lush fields formed a buffer on my right between the shore and the hills and mountains of Snowdonia. On my left, the Menai Strait opened out into Conwy Bay (Bae Conwy) although the actual water was out of sight beyond the vast mudbank of the optimistically named Lavan Sands (Traeth Lafan). This, I believe, is a godsend to bird watchers, at least on days when the air doesn’t contain more water than the strait does.
I trudged along for some time, perversely enjoying the solitude despite the rain. At one point, the path narrowed due to erosion before temporarily ceasing to exist, forcing me onto what I must call ‘the beach’ for want of a better word for a stretch of unstable, foot-tripping rocks embedded in soft, squelchy, boot-adhering mud. Regaining the path, when there was one, meant climbing a precarious pile of said rocks.
I rested for a moment at what appeared to be a car park in the middle of nowhere but was actually at the end of a road from the village of Abergwyngregyn (usually just shortened to ‘Aber’).
Although a tiny little village, Aber has historic significance. The Roman road from the fort at Segontium (modern Caernarfon) to Deva (Chester) crossed the Afon Aber there, while the village also sat astride one of the crossing routes to Anglesey, which ran on foot across Lavan Sands and then by ferry to Llanfaes (and then later to Beaumaris).
Aber Garth Celyn
It was under the name of Aber Garth Celyn that the village has its best historic claim to fame, however, for it was the seat of Llywelyn the Last, who was not just the ruler of Gwynedd but Prince of Wales. His daughter Gwenllian was born in the village in 1282 and his wife, Eleanor de Montfort, who died giving birth to Gwenllian, was buried there.
Crossing Lavan Sands on foot to jump in a ferry boat sounded extremely unappealing to me; in fact it sounded decidedly dangerous given the usual properties of tidal mudflats. The ‘sands’ may have been more solid in the past, at least in places and they are said to have been inhabited prior to the sixth century, when they became inundated.
Enormous Rucksack Girl (Again)
My thoughts on such matters were interrupted by the arrival of Enormous Rucksack Girl, whom I had spotted in the distance now and then as I had traversed the path. I smiled and waved to indicate that I was either not a deranged serial killer, or I was the sort of deranged serial killer who would pretend to be friendly first. Either way, she was happy to take the risk if it meant putting the rucksack down for a bit.
Her English was halting — I didn’t ask where she was from but her accent suggested somewhere Nordic — and she turned out to be on her first ever hiking holiday, which was rapidly turning out to be a triumph of grim reality over naive optimism.
She was, we established, going as far as Llanfairfechan (which she couldn’t pronounce but, fair enough) as day one of a Bangor to Chester adventure. Although she had clearly over-packed her rucksack, she didn’t seem to have included a map in its contents. Nor had she booked somewhere to stay, hoping to find somewhere when she got there. The weather was not helping.
Learning by Mistake
I worked out how far we had left to go to Llanfairfechan (about two and a half miles), which judging from her expression was about three miles too far. In truth I felt quite sorry for her.
It’s far too easy in the beginning to make all kind of assumptions some of which (such as ‘I can walk at four miles per hour’ and ‘I can carry this weight no problem’) are certainly true on level ground for the first mile or so. Discovering that they are decreasingly so as the miles add up falls under the category of ‘experience’.
Not Seeing Seabirds
Enormous Rucksack Girl produced a lighter and a cigarette and looked set to remain where she sat for some time so I bid her farewell and good luck and set off back along the path.
It continued much as before with the mud of Lavan Sands on one side and the hills of Snowdonia on the other. At one point, I passed a sea wall that was having a bit of a lie down. At another, I passed two people with a camera, looking for seabirds that had more sense than to be out in the rain.
Crossing into Conwy
Somewhere on the way I crossed the boundary from modern Gwynedd into Conwy and also, thanks to a 2003 boundary change, into the Preserved (ceremonial) County of Clwyd. Historically speaking though, where I was walking was still the traditional county of Caernarfonshire and before that part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. Welsh counties continue to confuse..
Glan y Môr Elias Nature Reserve
About a mile from Llanfairfechan I paused again, using a handy map at Glan y Môr Elias Nature Reserve to avoid subjecting my OS map to the rain.
As I confirmed the distance left to go, Enormous Rucksack Girl staggered into view; she must have been fairly bombing along to catch up like that. I pointed to the map; she grimaced at the thought of another mile. The rain, which had become half-hearted, suddenly woke up and tried to drown us by filling all the available air with water.
We walked the final mile to Llanfairfechan together, marching mostly in silence, heads bowed against the rain.
Eventually the muddy path became concrete and the first houses of Llanfairfechan came into view followed by a pond with two swans on it. We had made it.
‘There’s good news and there’s bad news,’ I told my companion. ‘The good news is that this is Llanfairfechan. The bad news is that most of the village is up that hill.’ I pointed. She groaned.
We parted company then, she heading straight into town to try to find somewhere to stay. I headed for the seafront café for an extra-large helping of disappointment. (I wanted a hot cup of tea; they had closed ten minutes earlier. Of course they had.)
There was nothing now but to go and lurk at the station, which I made in good time for my train. Soon I was whizzing across Wales and England, sat in the warm, London-bound with a hot cup of tea in my hands.
I do hope Enormous Rucksack Girl found somewhere suitable to stay.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,806 miles