I AWOKE at an unearthly hour in Portmeirion, which was not entirely unconnected to the discovery that my phone’s alarm clock remains active even if the phone is turned off. Its beeping and warbling thus ate up any charge it had managed to recover overnight. Still, this meant that I was awake and, after a light snooze, I was able to watch the sun rise and to amble about the village in its first rays. It was lovely.
Breakfast was also lovely and took the form of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. This set me up nicely for my day’s walking. And so, with some reluctance, I turned my back on the charms of Portmeirion and headed away from the village.
The man at the gate did his best to direct me back to the coast path even though, in his own admission, he didn’t know where it was. His educated guess was spot on though and I was soon wandering through woodland and over fields towards Boston Lodge Halt on the Ffestiniog Railway. On the way, I managed to coax one photo out of my phone — just to see if I could — after which the battery was back to being so low that it couldn’t even get to the login screen.
At Boston Lodge, the coast path waymark was misleading but there was really only one direction I could go in, so I did. That was over a level crossing and then along the massive embankment locally known as the Cob.
What it is
The Cob is about a mile long and more or less blocks the estuary of the Afon Glaslyn, forming a polder behind it. The building of it, completed in 1811, reclaimed much of the estuary for agricultural use while simultaneously taking one of the beaches away from the Penrhyn Deudraeth (‘peninsula of two beaches’) on which Portmeirion sits.
The Cob was built by William Madocks (1773-1828) — who was simultaneously a local landowner and the MP for Boston in Lincolnshire — but had originally been proposed in 1625 by Sir Hugh Myddelton. The building of it basically bankrupted Madocks although parliamentary immunity protected him from debtor’s prison; it had cost £60,000.
Less than a year after completion, the Cob was breached by a massive storm and it took another two years to find the money to repair it. It was breached again in 1927 but otherwise has stood firm; this year’s storms brought unusually high waters but not enough surge to top it.
Road and Rail
In 1836 the Ffestiniog Railway ran its track along the top of the Cob and these days it is accompanied by the A497 and a cycle/foot path. I was quite taken with the views across the polder and up the valley to the mountains and it irked me greatly that I was unable to photograph them.
Perambulating the length of the Cob also involved crossing the Glaslyn, upon whose banks the single combat between Gwydion and Pryderi occurred according to the Mabinogion. Pryderi, you may recall, was supposedly buried at Maentwrog, which lies about four miles due east.
Crossing into Caenarfonshire
As I stepped across the sluiced and culverted river I passed from the historic county of Merionethshire into Caernarfonshire (although these days, both are just parts of Gwynedd).
I also passed into the town of Porthmadog, which was founded in 1828 around a new, deep harbour that the diverted Glaslyn had scoured. Prior to 1974, the town was called Portmadoc, that being the anglicised form of its current (Welsh) name. Either way, it was named for its founder.
The locals just call it ‘Port’.
Ffestiniog Railway Terminus
Not far from the statue of Madocks was the terminus of the Ffestiniog Railway (Rheilffordd Ffestiniog). This narrow gauge railway is the oldest railway company in existence (although sadly it has not been in continuous operation).
Legally named the Festiniog Railway Company with one ‘f’, it is pre-Victorian, having opened in 1836, when William IV was on the throne. The Act of Parliament that authorised it was passed in 1832.
Welsh Highland Railway
Porthmadog is also the terminus for the Welsh Highland Railway (Rheilffordd Eryri), another narrow gauge railway with a complicated history.
In essence, a railway ran from 1922 to 1941, partly incorporating an older railway that had run from 1877 to 1916 but which had been a commercial failure. The 1922 railway was also a failure and had gone bankrupt by 1923, at which point it was leased by the Ffestiniog Railway and promptly proceeded to make them a crippling loss.
An attempt to restore it was mounted in the 1980s but this was strongly opposed by the FR, which then feared competition. A change of heart at the FR prompted a new and lengthy legal battle against the would-be restorers at the end of which the FR owned the WHR track and restored it itself. The joint terminus of both railways is Porthmadog Harbour Station.
Former Slate Port
The town of Porthmadog initially grew as a slate port until WW1 put paid to that — most of its slate had previously been shipped for the German market.
Gateway to Snowdonia
Tourism is an important industry today, with the town marketed as the Gateway to Snowdonia and this is not just hyperbole. Quite apart from its ideal position, Porthmadog remains an important shopping and commercial centre for the region and is thus an excellent base from which to explore Snowdonia National Park.
Porthmadog’s bustling high street delighted me on many counts. The myriad of shops meant that I was able to buy water and snacks, not mention a coffee and some cake. But it also gave me an idea…
Acquiring a Camera
Given its size, its tourist credentials and its varied array of shops Porthmadog was the first town in ages that I had walked through that might be large enough to have a camera shop.
Having obtained directions to such a shop, I was soon chatting to a very helpful bloke indeed, who helped me choose an inexpensive digital camera for the taking of snapshots (in theory I should be able to take good photos; in practice I just want to point and snap pictorial aides-mémoir). Since I wanted to use it immediately, he tested those available to find one with a fully charged battery and we noted the inherent assumptions of camera manufacturers as to who would buy such a thing.
Actually, this surprised me but maybe I’m naïve or maybe it’s just that I don’t tend to think like a camera manufacturer. But it was pretty evident that while the ‘serious photographer’ end of the market comprises businesslike, professional-looking equipment, the happy-snapper end of the market is all bright colours and flower patterns on the casing.
Shop Bloke shrugged apologetically as we alighted on what suited my immediate needs, sighing that he only had it in a shiny red colour. I didn’t care overly much that I had bought a red camera but I was a little disconcerted by what I had seen. I’m surprised they don’t just write on the box in big letters: ‘this one’s for girls’ with a footnote to add that anything else would hurt their pretty little heads.
Red Ones Go Faster
And so, with my slightly girly camera in hand — I was wearing a t-shirt with my Helpful Mammal on it, if I had a macho bloke card I would already have forfeited it — I added an extra mile to my day by retracing my steps on the Cob.
Twenty minutes later I was back in Porthmadog, following the coast path through the town.
The coast path followed a back road from Porthmadog Harbour, with towering cliffs on one side and harbourside buildings on the other. An old Morris Minor convertible was parked outside one of these and a small group of Italian walkers, whom I had just overtaken, practically dissolved into a gooey mess cooing over it.
Sticking with the subject of a gooey mess, the path led me around to the next embayment and the village of Borth-y-Gest (‘port of Gest’). Not that Borth-y-Gest is a mess, far from it, but there I purchased a delicious but rapidly melting ‘clotted cream and honeycomb’ ice cream, the eating of which before it escaped was a challenge.
Borth-y-Gest lies just one mile south of Porthmadog and was the point from which people would cross the treacherous mud and sands of Traeth Mawr (‘great beach’) before Porthmadog Cob was constructed. Locals would earn money by acting as guides for the crossing, while others acted as pilots for ships that were built here. ‘Pilot houses’ were constructed at the harbour’s edge so that the pilots would have a good view of anyone requiring their services.
It’s only now, as I type this, that I realise that that is the reason why my hotel suite at Portmeirion, with its commanding views of the estuary, was called Upper Pilot. Although in that case it was purely a conceit.
From Borth-y-Gest the path ceased to be in any way urban, initially passing a wooded stretch carpeted with bluebells, before becoming a narrow path flanked by gorse and other vegetation.
The path soon proved to be quite busy with many people out for a stroll in both directions. With the path being so narrow it wasn’t always easy to get past each other and I got stuck for sometime behind a group of four old age pensioners and their over-excited spaniel. The path led on to the headland at Ynys Cyngar where it led past a golf course and rapidly descended to beach level.
Black Rock Sands
Black Rock Sands, known in Welsh as Traeth Morfa Bychan (‘small marsh sands’) extends for about two miles and is gloriously broad and flat. Above it on the hillside is the village of Morfa Bychan (‘small marsh’) while at its western end is a rocky outcrop known as Graig Ddu (‘black rock’).
As I headed westwards, the beach became increasingly busy and a number of cars were in evidence — unusually, vehicles are permitted on the sands and the beach serves as its own car park.
At low tide it is apparently possible to walk all the way round to Criccieth but the tide was not that low as I walked it and the coast path diverted inland before Graig Ddu.
It initially set off along the access road, passing a weird little bar named Shenanigans with pictures of leprechauns on its sign as though there had been some sort of Fair Folk invasion from across the Irish Sea. Or, more likely, the Atlantic — the leprechauns were the green-coated, buckle-hatted American stereotype and bore very little relation to the creatures of Irish tales.
The footpath soon branched off onto a farm track and took me past some very chilled out sheep (of the Welsh Hill Speckled Face variety) which barely bothered to even look up as I passed. I rounded the hill of Graig Ddu and saw, across the broad, marshy valley of Llyn Ystumllyn, Criccieth in the distance with its castle.
The footpath crossed the valley, which also involved crossing the railway line. This was the standard gauge National Rail line but there was little danger from trains as the line is closed and the bridge at Pont Briwet is down. I still showed some caution though as engineering trains were still possible — the best way to move men and materials to a point on the railway line is usually to use the line to do it.
The path quickly became squeezed between the hill on the right in the photo above and the railway line, which was in turn squeezed between the path and the sea. At one point they actually ran out of space for both and the path ran on the railway line on a sort of linear level crossing. And then, almost before I knew it, hills and sand dunes gave way to a seafront promenade and I was entering Criccieth (Cricieth).
Criccieth has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and while I was navigating the path/railway combo I was alo passing beneath a hill on which a chambered burial tomb, Cae Dyni, can be found. The area was settled by Celts in the fourth century BC and according to the Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy (90-168) was inhabited by the Gangani, an Irish tribe. Possibly the leprechauns were more at home than I thought.
The most obvious landmark in Criccieth is its castle, which can be seen from along the coast for miles in either direction. It was built by Llywelyn the Great, King of Gwynedd, in the 1230s to a design atypical for native Welsh castles and which was most likely copied from the English.
Llywelyn’s grandson, Llywelyn the Last, extended the castle in the 1260s and 70s but, as his epithet might suggest, things didn’t go all that well. Edward I of England took the castle in 1283, possibly because designing your castle exactly how your enemies would do it is a bit of a mixed blessing. One of his Savoyard architects –— James of St George, the architect of Harlech Castle — immediately set about improving it. His alterations seem to have worked as it survived a siege in 1294 when Madoc ap Llywelyn, a distant relation of Llywelyn the Last, led a doomed rebellion.
It remained strong and proud and long served as a prison until Owain Glyndŵr led his rebellion in 1404. Glyndŵr’s forces took the castle, tore down its walls and set it on fire; some of the scorch marks are still visible today.
In Criccieth I found an ice cream parlour where, out of sheer contrariness, I chose not to have an ice cream. Instead I fuelled my further walking with a milkshake and another cake.
Thus refreshed, I made my way westwards along a path that ran atop some low, sandy cliffs above a beach. As I headed further along, the beach became increasingly littered with all manner of debris that had been washed ashore: branches, seaweed, bits of wood, plastic bottles and oil drums. It was a mess.
The mess reached its apex about a mile from Criccieth where the Afon Dwyfor (‘great holy river’) meets the sea — the first hundred metres or so of its banks were more or less buried. Fortunately this didn’t last; a little further inland the banks of the Dwyfor were clean but marshy and in places a raised boardwalk had been put in place. The river was tranquil, which for some reason made me suspicious.
Despite that it would be an exciting cause for all the wreckage downstream, no ungodly abomination from the unknowable depths roused itself from the river to hinder my progress and I was able to turn from its banks and cross fields of sheep to a farm track that led to a village.
The village which I was now approaching was Llanystumdwy, which is apparently a rather attractive village composed of stone cottages. I say ‘apparently’ because I never really saw it — the coast path got as far as the Llanystumdwy Bypass and then turned away, following the A497.
David Lloyd George
This is perhaps a shame as Llanystumdwy was the childhood home of David Lloyd George, the Liberal statesman and WW1 Prime Minister. Lloyd George was the only PM so far to speak English as his second language (his mother tongue was Welsh) and the village is proud of him. His grave, which lies in the village, was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the late owner and architect of Portmeirion.
There now followed two miles of fairly dull plodding alongside the A497. This had little to recommend it except that the verges were blooming with spring flowers and I was fairly glad when it drew to an end at the hamlet of Afon Wen.
Afon Wen Junction Station
Afon Wen means ‘white river’ and is a tiny little place beside a stream of the same name. Between 1867 and 1964 it had a railway station not because it needed one — it didn’t, it is tiny — but because it was the junction where the Caernarfon line met the Cambrian line. These days, both the station and the Caernarfon line are gone, apart from a short stretch between Caernarfon and Dinas which was rebuilt as the far end of the Welsh Highland Railway, which would otherwise terminate at Dinas.
Back to the Beach
For me, Afon Wen was the point where I left the A497 and headed south down a tiny lane in order to regain the coast. There, I once again found a path atop low sandy cliffs and dunes. There were plenty of people on the beach along with two horses being ridden in the surf. Two powered paragliders were buzzing about in the air and it all helped engender a holiday mood.
Since my phone couldn’t tell me, I asked the nearest person what the time was. He shrugged.
‘Search me,’ he said, ‘my watch broke.’
I looked back along the coast the way I’d come and thought…
The beaches got busier and busier over the next mile and a half, mostly on account of there being an extensive holiday park situated right next to them at Penychain. This used to be a Butlin’s and now belongs to Haven Holidays and has somehow managed to retain its own railway halt despite the Beeching Axe.
While Helpful Mammals think nothing of walking fifteen to twenty miles, most people won’t walk more than fifty metres given a choice and thus, as I rounded the headland for which Penychain is named, the number of people I encountered rapidly dropped away. Ahead of me now was Pwllheli, just the other side of a three and half mile bay.
At the Penychain end, the beach was fairly pebbly and I was pleased to stick to a clearly defined path atop the dunes. The path had other ideas and came to an abrupt halt by running off the edge of a low sandy cliff of about the same height as I am. This did not delight me but it was fairly easy to climb down. Did I say ‘climb’? I basically just fell off it in a controlled manner. Well, I say ‘controlled’…
The beach was sandy by this point and it was just a case of trekking along the beach until I reached Pwllheli. Gradually people started to appear again as the town drew closer and I came to a decision. According to my map the footpath curved round for another half mile and then doubled back along a spit that formed part of Pwllheli Harbour. My decision was ‘sod that’, I had done enough walking.
Also, I was hoping to encounter some toilets in the pressingly near future and adding unnecessary distance seemed like a foolish thing to do.
Glandon Industrial Estate
Thus I took the earliest exit from the beach that I encountered and entered Pwllheli via an industrial estate. A short stroll alongside the harbour conveyed me to the town centre where I could locate tea and toilets, not necessarily in that order.
Pwllheli is the main market town of the Llŷn Peninsula and its name translates as ‘brine pool’. Its market charter dates to 1355, issued by Edward, the Black Prince (son of Edward III) and it still holds a weekly market today. It is a small but thriving town with a wide variety of shops and is also the terminus of the Cambrian Line, with trains running to Birmingham when the line isn’t closed for repair.
Calling a Cab
Unfortunately, I had not been able to get a hotel in Pwllheli at short notice on the Easter weekend. Instead, I had found myself somewhere on the other side of the Llŷn Peninsula, some six and a half miles across the peninsula’s hills. Not wanting to do that much more walking, I took a taxi to my hotel which in part answered the question of where people who live in places like Llŷn go on holiday (in the taxi driver’s case, he was looking forward to a holiday in Kent).
The hotel was a family affair, very welcoming indeed but budget basic, which was quite a contrast to Portmeirion (both in terms of quality and price).
The following morning I walked back across the peninsula to Pwllheli, there to catch the rail replacement bus for the first leg of the long journey home.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,575½ miles