ONE problem with the increasing distance from my home of these coastal walks is that I now require so much longer to get to the start and back from the finish that I essentially lose whole days just travelling. I was quite keen to minimise that on my most recent trip so I endeavoured to return to Aberdovey as early in the day as was possible in order to get some more walking in from the very moment I arrived.
Early is Relative
That moment turned out to be about a quarter past eleven in the morning, although achieving that meant leaving London at about half past five. And achieving that meant leaving my flat at twenty past three. And that, in turn, required me to not go to bed as otherwise I’d have slept right through my alarm. But it’s not as if you ought to be rested before walking sixteen miles, is it? Erm…
I shook off any lingering sleepiness as I stepped off the train in Aberdovey and saw its houses waiting to see me off. The sky was greyish but not actually raining, despite rain being what was mostly forecast. It’s West Wales — rain is always what is forecast.
I picked up the coast path from where I left off and was both pleased and unsurprised when it immediately led me onto the beach.
The beach at Aberdovey was flat and sandy and hemmed by dunes, many of which had been eroded to form low, sandy cliffs. The sand was strewn with stones and the odd enormous concrete tank trap left over from WW2 but mostly it was just level going for miles. This was good news, as the first quarter of my walk would be upon it and the sand was firm enough to support a fairly brisk pace.
Taking to the Dunes
One little problemette did present itself with stomping merrily along the beach, namely that the tide was rapidly coming in and the high tide mark was basically the dunes, which was why they had been partly eroded. The stone-scattered sand also gave way to shingle and soon there was nothing for it but to take to the dunes.
This was less than ideal for two reasons: firstly dunes are a fragile environment easily damaged if you stray from the path. And secondly: there wasn’t a path. Still, the dunes were level on average.
Arriving in Tywyn
This particular walk was very much a walk of four distinct parts and the beach and dunes was the first of these, ending four miles after Aberdovey when I arrived at Tywyn. Tywyn (previously anglicised as Towyn with the first syllable to rhyme with a thing that goes ‘moo’) takes its name from the Welsh word for ‘dune’.
It was historically an agricultural town, plus a port for slate brought from further inland by a dedicated narrow-gauge railway, the Tallyllyn Railway. The ordinary railway had already arrived, the station opening in 1863, enhancing the town’s growth. These days, it’s a small seaside resort.
The promenade is a Victorian construction, as is much of the town’s infrastructure, most of it paid for by Mr John Corbett, an English industrialist, philanthropist and Liberal Party politician from Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire. Mr Corbett had moved to the area, buying a large house within the parish which had previously been owned by the unrelated but homonymous Corbet family.
Rather older than the promenade or the narrow-gauge railway is Tywyn’s other claim to fame, the Cadfan Stone — a stone at St Cadfan’s Church which probably dates to the ninth century and bears the oldest known example of written Welsh.
House of Aberffraw
Tywyn also has something else that is impressively old and Welsh, namely the pedigree of the head of the Anwyl family, Mr Evan Vaughan Anwyl who, like the late Mr Corbett, lives just outside the town.
The Anwyls are direct patrilineal descendants of Rhodri ab Owain, sixth son of Owain ap Gruffydd (King of Gwynedd from 1137 to 1170) and thus a cadet branch of the Royal House of Aberffraw. I believe that Mr Anwyl is a retired teacher.
With thoughts of ancient Welsh kingdoms in mind, I headed out of Tywyn along the promenade until the path headed very slightly inland — just far enough to cross the railway line and deliver me to a handy shop full of snacky goodness.
It also delivered me unto the second distinct part of the walk, namely a bit that went by road. This began with two miles of long, straight road bounded on one side by the railway and by the reclaimed former marshland of Morfa Tywyn on the other.
When my OS map was printed in 2012 the road down which I was walking was a dead end, terminating at the mouth of the Afon Dysynni. As the Dysynni forms a small, marshy lagoon before it empties into the sea it required a fairly extensive detour: six and a half miles in fact. However, this changed in January 2013…
The bridge uses the abutments of an old army pontoon bridge dismantled in the 1980s. It also appeared to have been recently used by a particularly incontinent horse. Still, it allowed me to cross the Dysynni without having to swim or to circumnavigate the Broad Water lagoon.
Having crossed the Dysynni I was expecting the footpath to reconnect with its old route and send me up that hill in the background of the bridge photo. From there it would then be a stretch of windy hill walking for a while. Only it wasn’t.
The Wales Coast Path signs sent me north along more roads, following narrow country lanes past the tiny hamlet of Tonfanau, whose abandoned WW2 army base was used in 1972 to house around three thousand Ugandan Asians, who had been expelled by Idi Amin (he gave them 90 days to leave Uganda, claiming that God told him to do it in a dream).
Bwlch & Rhoslefain
The road conveyed me past fields full of sheep and through a gap between two hills, wherein lay the hamlet of Bwlch. There I found the end of the original footpath, the Wales Coast Path roundels removed from its signpost.
A brief detour across fields carried me past the village of Rhoslefain and then it was back on country lanes.
Wading through Sheep
The lane I was on ended at an isolated farm and the third stage of my day’s walk began. One I like to call the ‘wading through sheep’ stage. There are a lot of sheep in Wales and most of them seemed to be in my way.
The sheep were pretty timid but they also had tiny little lambs. The lambs were quite cute, staring at me in a ‘what the hell’s that?’ sort of way before running to their mothers for reassurance.
A few of the ewes — either older and more experienced or just not very maternal — refused to allow me to distract them from some important grazing they were doing. Most eyed me warily as if to say ‘you try it Mister, and I’ll… I’ll… well, just you wait and see.’
Bearing in mind that the only time that ewes are normally aggressive is if you get between them and their lambs, I picked my way through the fields by carefully weaving around each ewe-and-lambs cluster. Best not to mess with a maternally anxious ewe…
That ruined barn was just one of many such buildings that I passed during the afternoon. Empty relics, the ghosts of structures past; I found them at once fascinating and yet melancholy.
Big Sheep that Moo
Between the ruined barn and cottage I had traversed several fields and gained my first indistinct glimpse of Barmouth and seen rather a lot more sheep. One field contained some particularly large and weird-looking sheep that watched me curiously as I passed and quietly mooed. I’d not seen cows in ages.
Return to the Road
The fields of sheep were not to last however and soon enough, after crossing a delightful stream with a waterfall in it, I found myself returning to the feel of tarmac beneath my feet.
Llwyngwril is a village sitting on the River Gwril (Afon Gwril) and is equipped, as a good village should be, with village shop, pub and twelfth century church.
The shop replenished my dwindling supply of water and the pub furnished me with a refreshing gin & tonic and some inadvertently incorrect directions (they would have been right if I was driving but not following the coast path on foot).
The Gwril splashes pleasantly through the village, tumbling over rocks, and at one time not only powered various mills but also generated electricity — something that would please my good friend the Lemming.
In the seventeenth century, Llwyngwril was home to numerous Quakers, who were considered dangerous nonconformists at the time. One of their leading lights in the village was Humphrey ap Hugh, who took his family over the ocean to settle with William Penn in Pennsylvania.
I started to follow the road out of Llwyngwril before realizing that I’d gone the wrong way and backtracked, taking a back street up the side of a hill. The street soon left the village behind and became yet another country lane, launching the final phase of the day’s walk. The road climbed consistently for what felt like forever, twisting and turning all over the place and hemmed in by low stone walls.
Up in the Hills
Dry Stone Walling
I like dry stone walling, there’s something about it I find magical especially when, as this was, it’s covered in moss and lichen. Given how slowly most lichens grow the walls must have been there for a good many years and I started to wonder who builds and maintains them: the farmers or specialist wallers? It turns out that it could be either — some farmers may be traditionalists but many call in skilled contractors; there’s even a national Dry Stone Walling Association which certifies and accredits members.
As I ambled along I spotted a couple of places where the roadside walls were a bit tumbledown and thus in need of some care.
The road climbed high onto the hill and then became a grassy farm track for a short stretch before joining another metalled road. The grey skies that had lowered overhead all day now began to part to show some glorious blue as the late afternoon sun bathed the hills.
I was ridiculously pleased to have actually seen some standing stones, instead of peering belatedly at the map and muttering ‘well, I never saw them’.
I was just thinking that this could hardly get better when a curve in the road gave me a view up the valley of the Afon Mawddach.
Modern Fairbourne only dates back to the nineteenth century, when it was founded by successful flour magnate Arthur McDougall (who, with his brother, invented self-raising flour). Prior to becoming Mr McDougall’s pet project, the site was known as Morfa Henddol, as befits a location in an estuarine salt marsh.
Aiming for Friog
Fairbourne was intended to be my destination for the day although I was actually staying in Friog, which lay at the base of the hill between me and Fairbourne.
Dark Woods and Diversion
The road plunged into a Forestry Commission conifer plantation, the trees so densely packed that to step off the path was to plunge into darkness. Even so there were definite signs of storm damage around the edges.
In the middle of the wood, I made an interesting discovery when I reached the junction where I would turn off for Fairbourne only to discover a Wales Coast Path diversion notice.
The Morfa Mawddach (‘Mawddach marsh’) sea defences between Fairbourne and the Barmouth Bridge were undergoing repair. This meant that the path couldn’t run there and, in order to avoid that section, the coast path would now avoid Fairbourne altogether. It still passed through Friog though so I resolved to simply end my walk there.
Any Route Down
As it turned out it wasn’t altogether simple. The path descended the hill on a series of grassy farm tracks and I got completely disoriented at one point and headed off along the wrong path. I realised this pretty quickly but kept going, figuring that any path downwards would at least lead me off the hill. I thus followed a narrow, zig-zag path down steep hillside eventually reaching a road at its base. There I quickly found a building and waterfall, both marked in my map, and the end of the actual footpath.
Fifteen minutes later I was climbing another part of the hill in order to arrive where I was staying: a smart but expensive B&B originally built as a school for McDougall’s children.
That night I slept like a log.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,520½ miles