WHILE the Lemming and I had both agreed that leaving his car at the end point of a walk and catching the train back to the start had been an excellent plan that had given us a much greater freedom with respect to time, we were unable to reprise this cunning scheme on the Sunday due to an annoying lack of trains. What we ended up doing instead was driving back to Machynlleth and walking from there in the knowledge that there was just one — and only one — train from Aberdovey back to Mach. If we were to miss it we’d be screwed.
In an effort not to miss the one and only train of the day, we got to Machynlleth pretty early and set off across the A487 road bridge that spans the River Dovey (Afon Dyfi).
By doing so, we entered the boundaries of Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri), which was Britain’s third national park, established in 1957. This makes it older than the principal area of Gwynedd, into which we had also crossed.
Caernarfonshire & Merionethshire
The current Gwynedd dates from 1996 when it was created as Caernarfonshire & Merionethshire but renamed itself the following day after the 1974 county of which it was previously the largest part. The original Gwynedd was a kingdom covering north Wales that existed from about the fifth century to the thirteenth.
Once across the bridge, the A487 came to a T-junction where it turned sharp right and the A493 led off to the left. We took the latter road but only for a short while as the coastal path routes soon had us ascending a steep unclassified road which would turn into a forestry track at the top.
This road was steep and I rued my cavalier assertion of the previous afternoon that so long as we were on a road the gradient could only be so bad. Surprisingly it was also a cycle route, which I can only imagine is heart-attack inducing – from exertion going up and terror going down. It did give us a lovely view of the Dovey Valley (Dyffryn Dyfi) though.
Partway up, another track led off to the right next to a sign saying ‘Bron-yr-Aur’. This was the driveway leading to the cottage of the same name, which was where Robert Plant wrote Led Zeppelin’s hit Stairway to Heaven.
We stuck to the main track, at least until a Welsh Coast Path (Llwybr Afordir Cymru) sign sent us off to the left on what turned out not to be a footpath at all but merely a steep grassy hill. The normally excellent waymarking of the Welsh Coast Path failed utterly at this point and, as a result, we pretty much made our way up the steepest face that the hilltop could provide before we found the way onwards.
At this point, I felt not so much as if my lungs had exploded but as if, having exploded, they had reanimated as zombie lungs and were now hungrily devouring the rest of me from inside.
Having reached the summit of this hill — named Foel Gogh (‘red bare hill’) and treeless at its summit — we now descended to a Forestry Commission track that wound down the hill flanked by towering conifers. A brief shower of hail came out of nowhere just in case we were too warm from our efforts, followed almost immediately by bright sunshine.
As we went, we saw occasional patches of storm damage and the usual impenetrable density of trees that means straying from path would be more or less impossible without a really good saw. We also passed another mine entrance, this one fenced off for safety, from which a toxic-tinted stream was spilling forth. This caused us to stop and consider the implication, namely that even what appeared to be a healthy hillside spring could in fact be mine runoff laced liberally with lead and other surprises.
Fortunately, we had brought water of the bottled kind and we drank some when we reached the bottom of the hill, where the track joined a road to Pennal. We sat on a handy bench, another sudden hailstorm bouncing off our heads, while a bunch of nervous sheep watched us warily from the hillside.
It was at this point that the Lemming spotted something that neither of us had seen before: rather than bending their necks to reach the grass, one of the sheep knelt on its forelegs instead, its tail sticking up in the air as it nommed down on the green, leafy goodness. Having spotted this once, we would see it again all day in various different fields. A search of the internet suggests that the usual cause of this is hoof problems but also that sometimes sheep just copy other sheep and do it when their hooves are fine.
A short stretch of road led us to the village of Pennal, in which Owain Glyndŵr penned a letter (in Latin) to Charles VI of France, setting out his ultimately doomed plan for an independent Wales in the hope of gaining French support. Unfortunately for Glyndŵr, ‘Charles the Mad’ was erratic, psychotic and sometimes believed that he was made of fragile glass. Things didn’t turn out well for either of them.
Pennal sits on the site of an old Roman fort, erected to guard the Roman road known as Sarn Helen, the nearest stretch of which probably lies underneath the previously mentioned A-roads (because why waste a perfectly good road route? Those Roman engineers knew what they were doing.) The road is believed to have crossed the Dovey via either a ford or a ferry.
The modern A493 might be an excellent road route but it threatened to be a dangerous one for walking and so we were somewhat relieved when the coast path veered off to the south along the access road to what was once a Georgian mansion house but is now Plas Talgarth Country Club.
A curious mound lurked beside this road, clearly not natural, which was labelled ‘Tomen Las’ on my OS map. It means ‘grass-green mound’.
While this neatly accords with the general Welsh principle of naming a thing on the basis of exactly how it looks , it’s not particularly informative. The mound (sans trees) is believed to have been the motte for a wooden keep belonging to the mediaeval princes of Gwynedd, whose descendants lived nearby. However no actual record of the castle exists. Maybe it was just made by a really big mole?
We left the mysterious mound behind us and passed by the chalets of the country club into a small wooded area, where we merrily picked our way through the trees.
We emerged from the trees onto a grassy hill with an excellent view across the valley to Glandovey (Glandyfi), a village whose name means ‘Doveyside’.
A short interlude of getting confused on account of a total lack of waymarks then followed but we eventually figured out the only direction we could possibly be meant to go in. This led us onto a short stretch of road, whose solid surface would contrast nicely with the equally short but surprisingly squelchy stretch of mud that immediately followed it.
Mynydd y Llyn
The muddy path ended at the A493, which we crossed, before taking another steepishly-climbing road up the side of a hill called Mynydd y Llyn (‘mountain of the lake’). We never actually saw the small lake of Llyn Barfog since the summit of the hill remained between us and it. We did get to see back down into the valley though, which was cool.
The road passed a small scrapyard and continued to climb, ending at the isolated farmhouse of Cefn-Cynhafal, where we shook hands in a highly self-congratulatory manner and the shy and elusive helpful mammal allowed itself to be captured on camera.
The reason for this levity was that Cefn-Cynhafal marked my fifteen hundredth mile since Gravesend, a fact made all the better (thanks to our spuriously pattern-detecting human minds) by the fact that the Lemming had been with me five hundred miles previously, when I reached my thousandth mile just outside Clevedon.
Carn March Arthur
From this point onwards, the hilltop was largely exposed moorland and the path a deeply rutted track that was frequently flooded with rainwater (or possibly melted hail).
It was glorious, though, despite the biting wind, and we strode enthusiastically onwards until we came to a marker stone on which were engraved the words ‘Carn March Arthur’ meaning ‘the stone of Arthur’s horse’. This referred to a local Arthurian legend in which King Arthur, with the help of his horse, defeated a terrible lake-monster, the avanc, by physically dragging it from the lake with a chain.
A vaguely hoof-shaped dent in a nearby stone was what the marker was actually celebrating, this shape having allegedly been made by the horse straining so hard that it left its print in solid rock (but somehow didn’t sink into the soft boggy moorland that surrounded it). One can only assume that Arthur’s horse was very picky about what it stuck its feet into.
We continued along the path, which was also a bridleway — how else would Arthur have ridden his horse up there? — as it crossed the brow of Tyddenbriddell Hill towards the tiny and isolated house of Bwlch Farm, where the road began again. Or ended, depending in which direction one was going.
We were quite glad of the firm and level ground as we strode determinedly into the wind, which seemed to be coming from everywhere. Indeed the Lemming observed that Bwlch Farm (‘bwlch’ — gap or pass) had been cunningly situated so as to be sat in something of a wind tunnel no matter which direction the wind was blowing. Definitely a place for people who like their fresh air.
We headed off along the road, hoping vainly for a spot sheltered enough to stop and eat lunch. The road ran along the edge of the hill ridge so that it steeply dropped away to our right, into the so-called Happy Valley (or Dyffryn Gwyn, meaning ‘white valley’ in Welsh). Ahead, between the hills, I caught a glimpse of Tywyn, a town we’d briefly considered making the end point of the walk.
We crossed a cattle grid but saw no sign of cattle, nor any living soul. We grabbed a short rest beside the empty road and had a drink of water while we gazed across the Happy Valley to Bryn Dinas.
The vehicles perplexed me at the time, since the road had started at Bwlch Farm and we didn’t see them there. The obvious answer is, I suppose, that they came up the bridleway.
We were almost at the end of our hilltop endeavours at this point and, soon enough, the path prepared to lead us down to Aberdovey. We took advantage of the lee provided by the hill to devour some well-earned lunch and then began our descent down a poorly-waymarked path and past an eviscerated sheep.
A mildly knee-straining descent brought us down to Aberdovey (Aberdyfi), a former shipbuilding village and early nineteenth century port that is now principally a seaside resort.
Council of Aberdyfi
Perhaps its best claim to historical fame dates back to 1216 when Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd decided that this rigid feudalism thing that the Normans had might actually possess some advantages. Certainly, he wanted to press his claims that the House of Aberffraw were the primary rulers of Wales. To this end, he summoned the other Welsh princes to the Council of Aberdyfi, where he received their oaths of allegiance and essentially created — for a brief while — a unified Principality of Wales. For a given value of ‘unified’, anyway.
Today only about forty percent of Aberdovey’s population are Welsh, with the majority of houses being holiday homes. Most of the village’s tourists hail from the English Midlands, which are only about a hundred miles away.
It’s a small place but it has a lovely flat sandy beach facing onto the estuary and a definite seaside feel. This made me want an ice cream, and it seemed rude not to succumb.
Armed with ice creams, the Lemming and I waited at Aberdovey’s railway station for the one and only Sunday train.
The railway came to Aberdovey in 1863 and was compelled by public opinion to tunnel behind the town rather than lay track across its seafront. We got to experience these tunnels as our train whisked us back towards Machynlleth and the Lemming’s waiting car.
This time: 14½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,504½ miles