HAVING previously forecast a lot of rain that turned out to be made of golden sunshine, the Met Office recently managed an unspectacular return to form by accurately predicting cloud cover over North Wales. Which is a bit like predicting sunshine in the Sahara. But at least I was forewarned and therefore prepared…
Prepared to take no notice whatsoever, that is.
This was slightly unfortunate. Not because bad weather affected my day’s walking, because apart from poor visibility it mostly didn’t. But because the night before I stood outside my hotel and looked down the road at the rising bulk of Yr Eifl and thought to myself ‘that will make an awesome photo in the morning’.
The coast path went right past the end of the road so I joined it, following a slightly circuitous route of footpaths and alleys back into the heart of Nefyn. It had been raining and the grass underfoot was soaking wet. So too, in short order, were my walking boots and my trouser legs below the knee. Given the slippery conditions, if — or when — the path started to climb, I would have to watch out.
Nefyn’s historic Watch Tower (Y Twr) isn’t all that historic, since it only dates to the early nineteenth century. It is a relic of the fishing industry and served not to defend Nefyn from attackers but instead as a platform from which a huer could direct the fishing boats towards a herring shoal.
The mound on which the tower sits, on the other hand, is a Norman motte, probably constructed sometime around the thirteenth century. There are no records to prove that a (wooden) keep stood atop it but it would be frankly bizarre for there not to have been one. A helpful notice board might have told me more (see photo) but the gate was locked and I couldn’t get any closer.
St Mary’s Church
Something else that was locked and closed was St Mary’s Church, a grade II listed building that now houses the Llŷn Maritime Museum.
A rather squat building with a magnificent ship-shaped weather vane, it is undergoing restoration and redevelopment. Indeed, it has been closed and undergoing work since 2000 after health and safety concerns were raised. I was just a few weeks too early for the planned reopening, which coming as it does after fourteen years of redevelopment, is almost certainly guaranteed to be a crushing anticlimax.
Some poor waymarking in the heart of Nefyn almost saw me heading off the wrong way but, even with Yr Eifl completely obscured by low cloud, I had a pretty good idea where I ought to find it. Thus, I was soon tramping up a shallow incline on the lower slopes of Mynydd Nefyn. The walk was going well.
Ffynnon John Morgan
Signposted as Ffynnon John Morgan, meaning ‘John Morgan’s well’, the above well is somewhat mysterious as I can find absolutely no information about it at all. It’s as though no one else knows that it exists.
Well, I definitely didn’t imagine it, not unless my camera was complicit in a shared hallucination.
There are or were many such wells dotted about the Welsh countryside to the great benefit of pilgrims heading for Bardsey Island; sadly many of these wells have long since dried up, been filled in or simply been lost.
The John Morgan for whom this well is named could well be the early eighteenth century Welsh poet of that name. Or it could be the nineteenth century London investor who part-owned ships sailing from Nefyn. Or it could be any one of many people bearing that name; Wales does like to recycle the same names over and over.
The path joined a decent lane for a while and then left it again. Just before they parted company I turned back for a last look upon Nefyn.
The path now made its way along past a caravan park on one side and the slopes of Gwylwyr (‘sentinel’) on the other. These slopes were mostly composed of loose material and the path crept along at their foot.
There is little vegetation on the slopes as the material is unstable and as I looked up at it I thought to myself that it was sloping at that angle purely because that’s the angle where friction overcomes gravity. Should it suddenly start moving, I’d be buried alive. But really, I said to myself sternly, what are the chances of that?
1984 Llŷn Peninsula Earthquake
‘Ah yes,’ said the part of my brain responsible for dredging up pertinent facts at the worst time possible, ‘but don’t forget that in 1984, Nefyn was the epicentre of one of the UK’s biggest recorded earthquakes, measuring 5.4 on the Richter Scale’
I considered this and came to the conclusion that that still wasn’t very big in earthquake terms.
‘Big enough to dump a lot of stones on you,’ said my brain.
I dismissed this as improbable nonsense. I also quickened my pace…
St Beuno’s Church (1)
Having left the Stones of Sudden Death behind, I passed several buildings, crossed a road and trekked through some fields of thigh-length grass to ensure that my boots and trousers were still dripping wet. And it was thus, with my boots squelching slightly, that I found myself beside St Beuno’s Church in Pistyll.
There has been a church on this site since the late sixth century, founded by the saint for whom it is named.
Beuno, a member of Powys’s royal family, became an active missionary under the patronage of King Cadfan of Gwynedd.
He is the patron saint of sick children and diseased cattle; poorly sheep and ailing goats are presumably out of luck. Fictional French detectives on the other hand are welcome, or at least the actors who portray them on TV:
The actor Rupert Davies, who played Jules Maigret in the BBC’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories, is buried in the cemetery.
With a title theme composed by Ron Grainer (who also wrote the Doctor Who theme) and a faithful and engaging portrayal by Davies, the series was a critical success. Not least of all with Georges Simenon himself who, on meeting Rupert Davies, chose to greet him with the words ‘C’est Maigret! C’est Maigret!’ — high praise, indeed.
Village & Waterfall
The village of Pistyll is tiny but can still call itself a village not a hamlet on account of the traditional distinction of having a church, whatever its roof might be made of. The current church building dates from the twelfth century and was an important resting place on the pilgrimage route to Bardsey.
In keeping with the needs of pilgrims and St Bueno’s patronage of the unwell, medicinal herbs still grow close to the waterfall (pistyll in Welsh) which is tucked away behind the graveyard.
As I left the church, village and waterfall behind the path began to open out somewhat although it still insisted on using the medium of wet grass to deposit as much water onto my lower legs as was physically possible. The sky was gradually brightening, though Yr Eifl remained resolutely hidden.
I now approached Penrhyn Glas, the name of which means ‘green peninsula’.
To my relief, the path veered inland slightly rather than climb the steep, scrabbly faces of Penrhyn Glas’s disused quarry. Once atop it, I could look onwards down the coast. Yr Eifl remained disappointingly shrouded in low cloud but then, as I watched it, glimpses showed through between clouds…
While the tallest of Yr Eifl’s three peaks is still only 564 m high (that’s the one on the right), it’s not the height that’s the problem with hills so much as the rate of ascent. I was quietly reassured from my vantage point on Penrhyn Glas as I was already 100 m high and it looked as though It would be a gentle climb from here.
Gallt y Bwlch
Unfortunately, my map said otherwise and so it proved. The path curved round to the green coastal slope opposite — Gallt y Bwlch (‘hill of the pass’) — and then headed down and along it. The down bit was almost a challenge too far.
I was doing all right as the path, which was narrow and flanked by yet more wet plants, turned towards the sea and began to drop. It was pretty sedate at first but then there was a short section — no more than twenty metres — where it headed straight down and I couldn’t see where it was going. My sense of balance, which is ‘challenged’ shading to ‘malicious’, made this pretty hard going.
To my great relief, the path suddenly stopped heading directly for the sea and turned ninety degrees to the right. To my even greater relief, so did I, which had been by no means guaranteed.
The path then descended rather more gradually, a narrow, plant-flanked muddy track worn into the sloping hill. It was quite exhilarating but I would still be pleased when I reached level ground.
Nant Gwrtheyrn means ‘Vortigern’s Creek’, a name redolent with ancient British legend, which makes it an appropriate place for the Welsh National Language Centre to now make its home.
Vortigern, of course, was the fifth century warlord who allegedly invited the Saxons — whose leaders were named as Hengist and Horsa by Bede — to Britain as mercenaries, thus paving the way to lose control of all of what is now England. Which, now that I come to think of it, makes Vortigern’s creek an ironic choice for a centre to celebrate a Brythonic language and culture. Ah well.
Porth y Nant
The centre has only been there — there being specifically the old mining village of Porth y Nant — since the 1960s. The village and quarry dates from a century earlier, having opened in 1861.
It includes two rather lovely rows of quarrymen’s houses named Trem y Môr (‘sea view’) and Trem y Mynydd (‘mountain view’), which were built in 1878 and considered some of the best housing for miles.
Porth y Nant quarried setts for use in paving road surfaces and was in use from its foundation until WW2. Displays and examples of its craft are arranged about the centre and I would have spent some time there and dallied in its café — and almost certainly failed to order tea with the tiny amount of Welsh I’ve picked up — except that it was all closed because it was hosting a wedding.
I thus climbed the steep, narrow, zig-zag road out of Porth-y-Nant and back up to the cliff top. As I climbed it, I was passed by two cars descending at a crawling speed best explained by the question ‘bloody hell, was that really a 120° bend?’ and a cyclist progressing at the rather faster velocity for which ‘Oh God, oh God, too fast to stop!’ is a more appropriate utterance.
The thing is that the road has actually been much improved since the 1960s. It now has two passing places and has been properly resurfaced and partly rerouted. Prior to that, it was actually used by motor manufacturers to test if their vehicles could make it. Some of them could.
Approaching Yr Eifl
I rested for a minute in the car park at the top and then set off towards the peaks of Yr Eifl.
The low cloud had a half-hearted stab at raining as I trudged my way up the gravelly path, the sole fool mad enough to be up there getting wet. The path passed over the hill between the two peaks in the photo. A third peak (Tre’r Ceiri), off to the right, is the site of one of the best examples of a prehistoric hill fort in Europe. I couldn’t even see Tre’r Ceiri from the path.
I could hardly even see the middle peak of Garn Ganol (‘centre cairn’) and I was right next to that.
Bwlch yr Eifl
I paused at the top of the pass — Bwlch yr Eifl — to look at the view. It was grey. Apparently on a clear day you can see the Lake District, the Wicklow Mountains and the Isle of Man. Apparently. All around me there was nothing but impenetrable cloud. And then it moved on.
I still couldn’t see very far. And I could only see ahead, not to the side or behind me. But I could see something. Specifically I could see the village of Trefor and the hills of Gyrn Goch, Gyrn Ddu and Moel Pen-llechog.
A Gazillion Goats
The slow trek back down the hill into Trefor was surprising. Not because it followed barely discernible paths through lumpy fields, nor because it passed the ruined shells of abandoned cottages and squeezed down tracks between the dry stone walls of other fields. I expected all of that. What I hadn’t expected was goats. A whole flock of them!
The goats bleated in alarm as I appeared in their midst and they trotted away as fast as their little hooves could carry them. They had clearly been taking timidity lessons from sheep, which suited me well because they had some fearsome looking head-weapons in the form of impressive curvy horns. I rather like goats and they’re not usually aggressive but they can be, well… capricious. Which is why it’s called that.
In Trefor, I found a rather depressing shop and café — depressing in the sense that it filled just a fraction of its shop space. On the other hand, it was open and not converted into someone’s holiday home, so I guess that should be cause for celebration.
I celebrated with many unhealthy snack foods and a can of
fizzy sugar solution soft drink, which I took with me to the rather half-hearted harbour formed by Trefor’s pier.
The harbour is formed by a single breakwater pier, constructed in the 1800s by entrepreneur Samuel Holland, who envisioned making a fortune shipping stone from Trefor Granite Quarry (on the slopes of Yr Eifl) to the bustling new port to be built at Porthdinllaen to cater for the Irish route.
Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t built at Porthdinllaen but at Holyhead, which scuppered his dream of millions but the quarry was still successful enough that the harbour saw use and the village grew up beside it. Its name, Trefor, is that of Holland’s foreman, Trevor Jones.
Narrow Gauge Railway
By 1865, the village had gained its own narrow gauge railway between it the quarry, but this was closed when better roads replaced it in 1960.
My meagre lunch devoured, I made my way onwards, passing a guy who was cleaning his car — an MGB GT. My mum used to have one of these and it was an unforgettable vehicle.
I’ll never forget, for instance how its sun roof would fly open of its own accord at handy moments such as in the middle of a hailstorm. And that it would do this even if I was holding it shut, tearing lumps out of my fingers on the way. Yes, an unforgettable vehicle.
A499 & Cycle Path
The path led me along the road out of Trefor and onto and across the A499. A handful of houses faced onto a broad cycle path, which was, on second glance, simply the old course of the road. In essence, a bypass had been made by simply building the new A499 right next to the old one and then blocking off bits of the latter. This seemed a very odd way to proceed.
Gyrn Ddu & Gyrn Goch
And speaking of proceeding, I now found myself perplexed in that regard. On my map — which is , I admit, a few years out of date, the coast path veers off to the base of the hills called Gyrn Ddu (‘black horns’) and Gyrn Goch (‘red horns’).
I did try to follow it but the path wasn’t much in evidence on the actual ground. Nor did any waymarks point that way. It looked like I would be sticking with the cycle path, which continued beside the A499 for miles. But then it would, wouldn’t it, if they’d just made it from part of the old road and built a new one next to it?
Old Roads and New
Over the next three miles, the cycle lane/footpath occasionally widened from one lane to two, revealing old road markings, and at one point crossed a stream on what was clearly the old road bridge, the new road crossing beside it on its twin.
Actually, I have to give them their due, when they upgraded the A499 between 2007 and 2009 they did it in a fairly sensitive way. Early on, they realised that a plan to ship in building materials was ludicrous, given the number of local quarries, so they simply reopened some for the duration of the works. The result is a road made with local materials and lined by miles of new (but traditional) dry stone walling. And the retention of the old route as a ’community path’ meant that I didn’t need to risk life and limb dodging the speeding traffic.
Approaching Clynnog Fawr
The road conveyed me to the rural hamlet of Gyrn Goch, situated at the foot of the hill beside a stream called the Afon Hen (‘old river’). Here the path on my map rejoined me for the next mile or so, keeping me company on the road to Clynnog Fawr. As I approached this latter village I got a decent view of the sea and the coast curving up towards Anglesey.
Clynnog Fawr Village
Clynnog Fawr is a small village with an unusually large church, again dedicated to St Beuno. It stands on the site of a monastery he established and for centuries was an important stopping point for pilgrims heading to Bardsey.
St Beuno’s Well
St Beuno’s Church (2)
Forlorn and Forgotten
Alas for St Beuno’s, pilgrims now are very rare indeed and other travellers bypass the village.
Clynnog Fawr’s petrol station remains stubbornly open, attracting only the occasional car that has pulled off the A499 with its low fuel warning flashing. Mostly, it seems to act as the village shop (it sold me an uninspiring sandwich), which is just as well because the actual village shop is long gone, as attested by the houses called Hen Siop (‘old shop’) and Siop Newydd (‘new shop’).
The post office closed in 2006, a mobile replacement now visits twice a week, and the village pub, Y Beuno — an old coaching inn — closed in 2013. If I’m honest, this all rather depressed me.
Still, I’m not the first person to be depressed by events in Clynnog Fawr. I don’t imagine the vicar was overly delighted — although he might have been actually alight — when the Vikings torched the church in 978.
And I expect that Gruffudd ap Cynan was not-yet-royally cheesed off when the incumbent King of Gwynedd, Trahaearn ap Caradog, defeated his first bid for the crown in a battle there in 1075.
And his descendants Owain and Dafydd ap Gruffudd can hardly have been impressed when their brother King Llywelyn the Last defeated their attempt at rebellion in 1255. Imprisoned? Yes. Impressed? Not so much.
Leaving Clynnog Fawr
And so, my spirits dampened in a way the weather had been unable to achieve, I set off along the A499 towards the village of Aberdesach…
The footpath narrowed and became a more typical pedestrian pavement. Somewhere off to my left, hidden by hedges and farmland, was the vanished site of the fishing hamlet of Y Borth, collapsed and eroded by the sea.
Aberdesach mostly comprises a small number of twentieth century buildings, many of them holiday homes. However, the nearby Penarth Farm is possibly the ‘Penardd’ mentioned in the Mabinogion, where Math fab Mathonwy, King of Gwynedd, rested with his army, anticipating battle with King Pryderi fab Pwyll of Dyfed, thanks to the trickery of Math’s nephew Gwydion.
If so, given that the language of Mabinogion dates to the eleventh or twelfth century, that would make the farm rather older than most of the village.
Continuing by Road
In theory, according to my map, at Aberdesach I should have turned left and taken a coastal footpath to the next village, which was Pontllyfni. And though I saw a footpath I didn’t see any coast path signs directing me towards it. I took this to mean that the official coast path was continuing along the A499 and thus I did likewise, although I suspect that meant I took the duller route by far.
Pontllyfni means ‘Llyfni Bridge’ and the Afon Llyfni is indeed bridged there, the present bridge having been constructed in the mid-twentieth century to replace an older and narrower one.
On my map, a footpath immediately north of the bridge led inland towards the village of Penygroes. On the ground there was a footpath, though not one waymarked for the coast path. But what it lacked in official signposting it made up for with its opportunities for enjoying an all-over nettle bath.
I looked at the Great Wall of Nettles and carefully counted my lack of machetes. Twice. Given that I fancied fighting my way through them about as much as I fancied being struck by a meteorite — a fate that almost befell local farmer John Lloyd Jones in 1931 when a 5 oz (142 g) rock fell out of the sky and missed him by about ten paces, burying itself in the hard earth and becoming the first meteorite impact recorded in Wales — I resolved to go another way.
Pont y Cim
A quick glance at the map showed that just south of the river some quiet country lanes would achieve the same object, only with fewer nettles, more cyclists and perhaps the occasional car. I took advantage of this, enjoying the quiet, sun-dappled road with its leafy trees and, somewhere below me in its valley, the Llyfni gurgling away. It was delightful. It also meant I crossed the Llyfni using a rather older bridge…
The delightfully leafy lane continued for some time, disturbed only by a couple of cyclists. All the motor traffic was on the A487, as I discovered when I reached it.
The A487 is a primary route linking Caernarfon in the north with Porthmadog in the south. It was pretty busy. I crossed it, heading briefly into Penygroes thinking I might like to sit down and have a drink.
The village is allegedly a shopping and industrial centre for the valley of Dyffryn Nantlle but I quickly realised that it looked pretty dead and, if I hoped to find the shops, I would clearly need to go exploring. I saw one pub but it didn’t look inviting so I re-crossed the A487 and continued on my way.
The way in question was Lôn Eifion (‘Eifion’s Lane’), a twelve mile long cycle route from Caernarfon to Bryncir that runs along the bed of the dismantled Caernarfon to Afon Wen railway line (closed of course thanks to Dr Beeching).
I planned to follow Lôn Eifion for only three miles, from Penygroes to Llanwnda, where my hotel awaited me.
Lôn Eifion and the A487 were right next to each other as they headed north out of Penygroes and the roar of traffic somewhat detracted from the experience. In no time at all, however, they had put some distance between each other and the residual noise of the traffic was further dampened by trees.
Inigo Jones & Company Slate Works
I ambled along at a leisurely pace rather enjoying the peace and quiet until I encountered a sign pointing towards a café. The café turned out to be adjacent to the Inigo Jones & Company Slate Works, which was presumably not founded by the Inigo Jones as he died in 1652 and the company ‘only’ dates from 1861. Even so, it has successfully remained in business selling things made out of slate — writing slates, early electrical panels, tiles and so on — for over a hundred and fifty years. That’s pretty good going.
Tea & Cake Stop
Of more urgent importance to me was that the café was open, which it was. I was thus able to enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge cake. Almost as enjoyable was the look on the café manager’s face when she asked me if I’d walked far and I told her I’d started at Nefyn. She was shocked.
This led to an engaging conversation with a cyclist who was heading the other way and had likewise been enticed by the café sign and I nodded amiably while he regaled me with helpful notes about Vortigern. It seemed rude to say I knew already.
Refreshed by tea and cake, I continued north along the delightfully leafy Lôn Eifion, skirting the edge of the nineteenth century village of Groeslon. The village’s name means ‘junction’ — literally ‘cross-lane’ — and it grew up around a pub and a smithy that were indeed handily placed at a crossroads.
I crossed the road and kept going.
Not too far after Groeslon, Lôn Eifion needed to cross the road again as the A487 and the A499 joined up, trapping it between them. This was the southern edge of Llanwnda, a small village on the old Roman road from Caernarfon (Latin Segontium).
An earthwork near the junction known as Hen Gastell (‘old castle’) is puzzlingly small and of unknown antiquity, which is why it is the subject of an archaeological dig beginning this month.
Stables Country Lodge
Also in, or at least near, Llanwnda was the place I was staying, which was in a hotel converted from an old stables. I checked into a gleamingly new and clean room and joyfully sat down and enjoyed another cup of tea. This was where I had planned to end my walk.
‘There’s a good three and half hours of daylight left,’ announced the part of me that doesn’t know when to stop. I pointed out to it that I already had stopped and that it was therefore too late. It smirked. ‘Caernarfon is only three miles away,’ it pointed out. ‘I’m just saying.’
And so I set off…
A Choice of Routes
Caernarfon is indeed about three miles from Llanwnda, although the coast path veers off on my map and approaches along five and half miles of quiet lanes along the actual coast. Now that a massive inland detour (partly to make use of Lôn Eifion and partly to avoid Caernarfon Airport) was out of the way, I thought that might be a nice route to take.
I continued to think that right up until I realised that I’d left my map in the hotel room and couldn’t remember the way. Then I shrugged. Three more miles of Lôn Eifion it was then…
Lôn Eifion took me first through Llanwnda itself and then through the hamlet of Dinas, which dates to the opening of a turnpike road in 1805.
First, pubs sprang up, then houses and expansion accelerated when the railways arrived. That’s railways plural — both the Caernarvonshire Railway and the narrow gauge line that is now the Welsh Highland Railway.
Lôn Eifion took me right past Dinas Station on the Welsh Highland Railway. Dinas is the steam heritage railway’s base of operations and was at one point its northern terminus.
From Dinas onwards Lôn Eifion and the WHR ran side by side, passing through Bontnewydd (‘new bridge’) and onto Caernarfon.
Bontnewydd is named for its eighteenth century bridge across the Afon Gwyrfai, having been previously known as Bodallog. Both path and railway cross the stream on the Caernarvonshire Railway’s viaduct.
By the time I reached Bontnewydd, I was feeling pretty tired and was glad I’d been forced to take the shorter route. By the time I reached Caernarfon, I was exhausted but the sight of the castle perked me right up.
History Can Wait
Caernarfon is an ancient town with a long and fascinating history. But I hadn’t planned to be there and so had skipped on the research. Besides, it could wait. All I really I wanted a nice sit down and a pint of beer. Maybe two.
Everything in good time…
This time: 24 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,647½ miles