TOWARDS the end of May, with a weather forecast of ‘heavy showers’ interspersed with ‘heavy rain’, I returned to that part of Gwynedd that used to be Caernarfonshire to embark upon a challenging couple of walks. The first, from Pwllheli to Aberdaron, was about 25 miles, which promised to be hard going in the expected rain.
Lightly clouded skies were giving way to glorious blueness, even as I set off from the centre of Pwllheli. I wasn’t too optimistic, though, as the Met Office had predicted mostly showers for the morning and a definite worsening of conditions around midday. And I suppose things did worsen, in so far as the unrelenting sunshine burnt me even through my sunscreen.
The stainless steel fish’s tail sticks up on the other side of the road. It was made in 2011 by artist Benjamin Storch as part of a Gwynedd Council community arts programme. I rather like it.
The route out of Pwllheli took me along a quiet lane that ran alongside the wetlands beside the Afon Rhyd-hir as it flows towards Pwllheli Harbour. Several people were out jogging or dog-walking and all felt compelled to comment very Britishly on the non-existent quality of the rain.
Pwllheli was built on the banks of the Rhyd-hir, where it commanded a strategic position. It was always a locally important town and thrived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when it held the status of a maerdref — a town under direct Royal demesne of the King of Gwynedd.
Following 1283’s Anglo-Norman conquest, it was given to a man named Edmund Dynieton in 1317 and then to Nigel Loryng in 1349 along with nearby Nefyn and valued at £50 (about £28k in today’s money, which sounds ridiculously low — the relative cost of land ownership has long since rocketed).
In 1355, Pwllheli was enfranchised as a free borough, which made it self-governing and permitted it to return two burgesses to Parliament. This would probably have assured Pwllheli’s growth and prosperity had Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion not ‘destroyed and laid waste’ to it in the early 1400s. It took it almost a hundred years to recover.
Pwllheli and Llanbedrog Tramway
Today it remains an important market town in the Llŷn Peninsula (Penrhyn Llŷn) but is pretty small, which meant that the path westwards took me beyond it pretty quickly.
I found myself walking along a broad path, with dunes on one side and a golf course on the other. This was actually the old track bed of the Pwllheli and Llanbedrog Tramway, a narrow-gauge horse-drawn tramway opened in 1894.
The tramway was constructed primarily for hauling stone from the quarry at Carreg-y-Defaid to Pwllheli, where it was being used to build a sea wall. Its owner, Solomon Andrews, didn’t miss the possibilities presented by paying passengers though and ensured that tourist trams were also timetabled.
Destroyed by Storms
The tramway was destroyed in 1896 by severe storm damage but Andrews soon had it rebuilt. Then, two years later, he purchased land in Llanbedrog and extended the tramway the additional mile required to reach that village. The fortunes of the tramway oscillated somewhat in the early twentieth century until a particularly massive storm struck in 1927. The sea flooded half a mile inland and swept away the tram tracks between Carreg-y-Defaid and the farmstead of Tyddyn-Caled.
Andrews gave up at that point and offered the tramway for sale to Pwllheli Corporation, who weren’t at all interested. He thus sold off the assets separately (or at least those that hadn’t been swept away by the flooding) and the Corporation tore up the tracks in 1928 and ’29.
After Tyddyn-Caled, where the path had become less well defined, I followed a narrower path atop a low cliff. Here I encountered a woman coming the other way who was walking her dog. Well, sort of. What she was actually doing was walking along the path towards me. Her dog was bounding along in an adjacent field, separated from her by a fence. She must have seen that I had noticed this arrangement as she then felt the need to explain it…
Her dog, she said, was excitable and devoid of all sense and would probably jump off the cliff had she not taken advantage of the very handy fence. This sounded quite reasonable to me but not to the dog, who immediately squeezed under a gap in the fence and bounded across the path in front of us.
‘Well that didn’t work,’ sighed the woman, grabbing the dog by the collar just as it was about to go for a plummet. ‘Enjoy your walk.’
Carreg y Defaid
I left her with her hands full (quite literally so — of squirming dog, who clearly thought that he was playing the Best Game Ever) and continued on my way. The path led me past Carreg y Defaid (‘sheep rock’) and on towards Llanbedrog.
Just before I reached the village, the actual path disappeared altogether, becoming a grassy field. Parts of the field were also working quite hard to disappear and building anything along this coast was clearly something of a gamble.
The coast path quickly gave up any attempt to stay atop the disappearing cliff and dropped the short distance to the beach. Although it was still quite early, the beach was already filling with excited children and hopeful sun-worshippers and as I looked at the latter I realised that I needed more sunscreen.
‘You’ll make it go in,’ said a passing woman as I quickly smeared sunscreen into my face, arms and neck. I looked down at my arm and a blob of sunscreen that I had yet to rub in. I was perplexed. Surely that’s what I wanted? It wasn’t going to do much good as one single white blob. I frowned.
‘The sun,’ she said eventually, as though I were a small and backwards child. ‘You’ll make the sun go in. By applying sunscreen.’
I shrugged. It was already supposed be raining. Besides, without it I’d quickly go beach hut red.
St Pedrog’s Church
At the end of the row of beach huts a road led up from the beach to St Pedrog’s Church. Both church and village are named for St Petroc, the 6th century saint and missionary who was born in South Wales but spent much of his life in Dumnonia.
As it was Sunday morning, intermittent peals were sounding from the Grade II* listed church as I passed it, following the road to the dower house of Plas Glyn-y-Weddw (‘widow’s vale mansion’).
A dower house is a smaller house on an estate into which the widow of the late landowner traditionally moves when her son inherits the title and gets the main residence. This particular dower house was built in 1856 for the widow of Sir Thomas Love Jones Parry Bt, a local landowner, baronet and Liberal MP and one of the chief financiers of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia.
Sir Thomas’s widow, Lady Elizabeth Love Jones Parry, used it to house her art collection. When, as previously mentioned, the Llanbedrog estate purchased by Solomon Andrews in 1898, he opened it as a public gallery to drum up more custom on his tramway. Although the tramway is now history, the house is still an art gallery and is in fact Wales’s oldest. Lady Love Jones Parry’s ghost is said to haunt the upper landings.
Directly to the south of Llanbedrog lies the high, rocky headland of Mynydd Tir-y-cwmwd, a former site of granite quarrying. The path thus rose through leafy woodland via several flights of steps. Another statue waited at the top.
The Tin Man
The Tin Man is the latest in a line of statues atop Mynydd Tir-y-cwmwd, the original being a ship’s figurehead, placed there by Solomon Andrews. Its weathered remains were eventually destroyed by arson and a new statue, the Iron Man, erected in 1981. This too was vandalised, leaving only its boots. The third and current instalment, the Tin Man, was created by local craftsmen and lowered into place by helicopter for the Golden Jubilee in 2002.
The path rounded the tip of Mynydd Tir-y-Cwmwd and then headed inland before dropping steeply down steps onto a road. Here I was accosted by a group of Scouse holidaymakers, hoping that I could tell them if the road led to the beach. I could and it did but my answer surprised them — a Home Counties accent was not what they expected to hear.
North Wales is very popular amongst holidaymakers from Liverpool on account of it being quite close but not right on their doorstep. I realised as I reached the beach that it was half-term across much of the country and, to judge from the sound of the voices I was hearing, every family in Liverpool was holidaying in Gwynedd.
A pleasant stroll along the beach soon conveyed me to Abersoch, where tractors were busily towing yachts down the water. A large village, Abersoch was originally a fishing port but now has an economy based almost entirely on sailing and water sport tourism. This meant that it was quite well served with cafés, and thus stopping for a cold drink and a bacon sandwich (the Ultimate Food of Walking) presented no problem at all.
Refreshed and refuelled, I picked up the path out of Abersoch and set off apace from a junction in the centre of the village. Ten minutes later I was back at the junction, having been directed by the waymarks in a circle.
This little revolution scored many points out of ten for completism, as it had taken me along a short stretch of coastline that I would otherwise have missed out. But it scored minus a hundred in terms of practical achievement as I had just traversed a quite unnecessary three quarters of a mile. Normally, I’d be all for that, but not on a twenty-five-miler. Ah well, too late to miss it out now…
The streets of Abersoch soon gave way to another path through a golf course and this in turn led me to the village of Machroes. There, I looked back across Borth Fawr to Abersoch and vaguely wished for another bacon sandwich.
The path climbed away from Machroes towards Penrhyn Du (‘black headland’) on which stands an old stone engine house of a sort more typical to Cornwall. The reason for this apparently misplaced building was of course mining. The headland got its name from lead deposits and a local shortage of vertical seam mining skills led to an influx of Cornish miners, who then took up residence in a little row of cottages known, imaginatively, as Cornish Row.
St Tudwal’s Islands
The path now carried me along the coastline on a route that in no way accorded with my map. It did however give me an excellent view of the two islands that sit just off this coast.
St Tudwal’s Island East
The island on the left is known as St Tudwal’s Island East in English and Ynys Tudwal Fach (‘little Tudwal’s Island’) in Welsh. The names of the island on the right I leave as an exercise for the reader.
St Tudwal, a sixth century Breton monk, lived in a hermitage on the east island; these days the population is composed of seals. There are currently no buildings on the east island apart from the ruined remains of a mediaeval priory; the island belongs to TV comedy writer Carla Lane (who wrote The Liver Birds, Butterflies and Bread amongst other things).
St Tudwal’s Island West
The west island is home to a lighthouse, built in 1877 and automated in 1922. While the lighthouse belongs to Trinity House, the keeper’s cottages are a holiday home belonging to the island’s owner, the TV adventurer Bear Grylls. He recently built a large slide leading down to the sea which looks moderately exciting. It certainly excited Gwynedd Council, who noted that he hadn’t asked for planning permission and have ordered an investigation into it.
Rounding Trwyn yr Wylfa (‘lookout’s nose’), I found myself looking down on the sandy beach of Porth Ceiriad in what, according to the Met Office, was now a heavy downpour and would remain so for the rest of the day.
The path ambled along above the beach for a while until it reached the access road at the campsite of Nant-y-Bîg. There, a sign warned that the coast path was closed and a diversion in place. So far as I could tell, the diversion was along the route that was actually on my map (printed 2009), so this was no particular hardship.
A small amount of road walking followed but the roads were quiet country lanes so that was okay. In next to no time, I was back on the clifftops, wandering around amid shin-high gorse and clumpy grass.
Approaching Porth Neigwl
Meanwhile, directly ahead of me lay the beach of Porth Neigwl, also known as Hell’s Mouth. In the distance dark clouds lowered over the peninsula’s peaks: sinister, foreboding and a perfect illustration of the rain cycle.
The path meandered downwards until I reached the beach, which was lined with low and crumbly clayish cliffs. It looked quite harmless at first glance and yet this bay alone had wrecked thirty ships since 1819. It is exposed to the full force of south westerly gales and the consistency of its sand makes for poor anchoring.
That was frankly hard to imagine on such a calm and sunny day. The beach was busy with holidaymakers and I felt vaguely tempted to take their cue and frolic at the water’s edge. The water’s edge was a long way off though, despite it only being a couple of hours until high tide.
I duly set off along the sands, slowly burning through my sunscreen and wishing I’d taken more water with me than I had. Fortunately those playing on the beach had got there somehow… or had they? Were they not in fact lost souls doomed to build sandcastles in Hell’s Mouth forever? … no, they had definitely got there via an access track to a car park.
It was a glorious car park. Glorious! And I don’t say that only because it had drinks and ice cream vans able to sell me refreshments. Actually that’s not true. I do only say that because it had drinks and ice cream vans able to sell me refreshments. But I was very grateful. I thus continued along the shrinking beach with a veritable spring in my step…
Ah yes, shrinking.
The Incoming Tide
The thing is, Hell’s Mouth is four miles long and the beach is very flat. And I began to realise that when I’d previously noted that it was two hours to high tide, that might have been a clue not to waste undue time in the car park. Because I was now noticing that the cliffs looked pretty eroded and that there wasn’t a visible tide mark between the sea and the cliffs. There was also no escape route until I reached the far end of the bay, nor was there a path atop the cliffs.
I wasn’t too worried. At this point I had about two miles to go and I had an hour to do it. Probably. I certainly had an hour to high tide. What I didn’t know was where high tide got to. Did high tide just about cover the beach or did it come right in and then just keep getting deeper? If it was the latter then I potentially had less time before I ran out of beach. I quickened my pace. The soft sand tried to do the opposite.
Racing to the End
I had about half a mile to go when I reached the first place where the sea was kissing the cliff base — cliffs and beaches are not even and here the cliffs projected a little. I had to time the wave for its return and dash past before the arrival of the next one. A bit further along I had to clamber over some debris that had already fallen from the cliff.
Now I was starting to get a little worried. But based on the rate the sea was advancing I still had a good twenty minutes before my feet need get wet on most of the beach. The sand had given way to stones too, which were slightly quicker going. All I had to do was keep up a brisk pace and look out for the path off my beach; the map was pretty clear about where I could expect it.
The cliffs were a lot less clear. I was later told that there was still a path but I never saw it and I walked back and forth twice. Still, there had clearly been a lot of recent erosion, my timing may just have been unlucky.
I was definitely thinking that my timing was unlucky as I stood on the alarmingly narrow pebbly beach and wondered if I could make it to the two houses perched above the shoreline out on the side of the bay. They must have had an access road. They were still a way off though.
Climbing the Cliff
Instead, I started to look at the low, crumbly cliffs, trying to spot a part sufficiently damaged that I could climb up the landslip. The mud was soft, claggy and foul-smelling and my first attempt got me no further than halfway up unless I wanted to try climbing it on hands and knees. I really didn’t, not unless I had no choice.
Slightly further on, I found a better spot, where a tiny stream gave me a route up a slippery, noxious-smelling slope. Using my walking poles for the first and only time that day, I stormed my way up it and made the wooded clifftop with some relief. Phew.
Now my only problem was that I wasn’t on the path. Fortunately there was a path, a small track, so followed it. It led me through some pleasantly leafy woodland from which I emerged to startle a group of people chatting outside their static clifftop caravans — they knew the path didn’t go anywhere and so I couldn’t possibly have just appeared on it. Like I had.
The people turned out to be lovely. They gave me directions back to the road and refilled my water bottle. I had climbed the cliff about a quarter mile further on than I should have left the beach via the alleged ‘proper’ path. I thanked them very gratefully and set off along the road towards Rhiw.
Old Road to Rhiw
The road I was now on was the old road, closed to motor traffic, which used a newer road built further inland from the cliffs in 2005. How did I know that I was on the old road?
Up the Hill
The old road led me to the new road, where a motorist who pulled up to take photos of the view felt compelled to warn me that a hill awaited. I knew this already, the lovely water bottle refillers had said as much, plus I could see the ‘20%’ road sign. A 20% hill isn’t all that bad on foot — I mean, you notice it all right — but compared to what you find on footpaths it’s a doddle. And so I climbed the hill to Rhiw.
Rhiw (Y Rhiw, meaning ‘the hill’) is, unsurprisingly, a hilltop village. It commands excellent views. All around it are relics of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age habitation.
Originally an agricultural village, it went through the inevitable mining phase that all Welsh villages must experience but Rhiw bucked the trend quite impressively by mining manganese. A 17th centure manor house, Plas yn Rhiw, stands nearby.
At this point though, I am ashamed to say, the thing about Rhiw that most grabbed my attention was a fingerpost sign indicating just 3½ miles to Aberdaron. I was feeling absolutely knackered and was starting to wonder if perhaps my measurement of distances had been a little optimistic. (It was a little in places, plus the path not sticking to the map near Machroes had knocked my estimation off).
Mynydd a Graig
The coast path now looped around a the peak of the hill called Mynydd a Graig and would carry me along a vertiginous cliff top past many of the interesting things I just mentioned, including standing stones and the ancient site of a hut circle. The views would no doubt be awesome. They would also add at least a mile.
Going by Road
I looked at the time and that settled it for me. I wanted to get to where I was staying before they shut their kitchens for the night. I would forego the standing stones etc. and instead stick to the road…
Even so it seemed to take an age. The truth is, I just wasn’t used to walking that distance any more. Eventually though, I saw this:
Actually, in this instance, the pre-1964 design of the ‘Aberdaron’ sign did hold an interesting resonance for me. In those days, before the Worboys Committee redesigned Britain’s road signs, place name signs like this one always listed the next and previous significant settlements. Thus Aberdaron’s sign showed the previous town of significance to be Pwllheli, which I had left that morning. And the next town was shown to be Nefyn, to which I would walk the next day.
‘It’s a sign,’ a chuckled to myself, as I shuffled into town.
I made it for dinner. Just.
This time: 24½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,600 miles