IT IS early December as I write this and winter is closing in. It is already much darker and colder than when I last walked and that was but a few weeks ago in mid-November. And autumn was already skulking home, wrapped in a coat and muttering, even then.
Returning to Rhyl
I returned to Rhyl the night before and stayed overnight in a hotel, this being pretty much the only way I could set off as early as I wished.
A Sunless Start
Thus, I was able to venture forth on a cold Sunday morning just as the very first glimmerings of twilight were starting to make themselves felt. I needed all the time (and daylight) I could get — I had over twenty miles to walk and it would get dark by half past four.
Of course, nothing was open at silly o’clock on a Sunday but I had some water and some chocolate and figured I’d find something else along the way. Or I’d go hungry, one of the two.
I ventured back into the heart of Rhyl in a hopeless effort to see if my camera could photograph its French gothic town hall in the dark (answer: ‘no’. Or at least, not with me driving it). Fortunately, I wasn’t actually that bothered.
And thus, with a spring in my step — and a cold, wet late autumn in everything else — I set off.
Seafront & Beach
In semi-darkness, I headed past the boarded-up and disused buildings on the seafront and then down onto the sandy beach when the promenade itself became sealed off due to disrepair. Twilight lightened about me as the sand crunched underfoot and I came to the conclusion that there were much worse ways to spend a Sunday morning.
Eventually I was able to regain the promenade, which did wonders for my pace. A helpful sign at Splash Point informed me that Bronze Age locals five thousand years ago would have had neither promenade nor beach to enjoy, since where I was now walking would have been a forest full of wild boar. Back then, the beach was out beyond what is now Rhyl Flats Wind Farm, which lies some five miles offshore.
Thoughts of wild boar quickly turned to those of bacon and I vaguely hoped that breakfast might lurk some way ahead, at the end of the four mile long promenade that led alongside Ffrith Beach. As I strode along the promenade, which dates back to 1935, twilight gave way to sunrise and the sun’s great orb crept above the horizon to bring joy and warmth to us all.
It may have got infinitesimally lighter but it also got greyer rather than bluer as the promenade ended and I took once more to the sands of the beach. It was a good beach, broad and sandy, and it’s probably lovely when the sun is out. I wouldn’t know.
Now that it was actually daytime — in theory if not in practice — I started to encounter a few hardy dog-walkers and the occasional morning jogger. These grew in numbers as I approached Prestatyn, where it was still way too earlier to answer my craving for breakfast; nothing was open yet and therefore there was nothing to eat.
Dechrau a Dewedd
Despite being popularly known as ‘the Polo Mint’ by residents, the sculpture above is officially titled Dechrau a Dewedd (‘beginning and end’) and marks the start (and end) of the 177 mile long Offa’s Dyke National Trail.
Apparently, it represents the sun standing between two paved areas representing land on either side of the Anglo-Welsh border. Or possibly it’s a popular annular mint manufactured by Nestlé that has somehow gained three legs like a Martian tripod and will blast you with its deadly menthol-rays at any moment.
Erected in 2009, the sculpture was cordoned off less than a month later after a little old lady managed to injure herself with it (did I mention the deadly menthol-rays?). Evidently they have long since un-cordoned it, no doubt to the accompaniment of a rousing chorus of ‘it’s health and safety gone mad.’
Prestatyn has been inhabited since prehistory and its climate must have simply delighted the Romans who arrived there to build a fort on the road to Deva (modern Chester). There are the remains of a bathhouse but most of the other Roman sites have been built on — they’re probably the most solid foundations available in that terrain.
Modern Prestatyn actually has an Anglo-Saxon name, being derived from preosta (‘priest’) and tun (‘farm’), which has corrupted to Prestatyn over the years. Interestingly this is less of a change than would likely have happened in England, as demonstrated by Preston, which name has the same origin.
Though the Roman fort was long gone, the Normans decided that Prestatyn without fortification amounted to a dangerous lack of oppressing the natives so Robert de Banastre had one built in 1157.
The Welsh were not keen, not least because this was Gwynedd and not England and no-one likes being oppressed by the king of next door. Which is why the castle only lasted for ten years, being destroyed by Gwynedd’s King Owain in 1167; all that remains of it today is an earth mound.
Following their ignominious defeat the Banastres opted to take the hint and cleared out, moving to Lancashire.
Like the Banastres, I too decided that it was time to leave Prestatyn. The path out started off as another promenade but soon gave this up as a bad idea and instead took to the dunes in the form of a wooden boardwalk that was damnably slippery when wet. Which it was. Everything was wet on account of the misty conditions.
To my great surprise, I at no time actually fell off the boardwalk and planted my face in the dunes or (further on) the salt marsh. I may have skidded alarmingly — arms windmilling wildly — but that, I assure you, was simply me showing my appreciation of the Rhyl Flats wind farm. Which I couldn’t see, on account of the mist.
Look, this section of path was pretty dull in the circumstances; sometimes you have to make your own entertainment.
Point of Ayr
After a while the boardwalk ended and became a muddy path, which then led onto Barkby Beach and The Warren north of Gronant. The beach was broad and flat and windswept and only a few foolhardy souls were out determinedly enjoying the seaside.
Point of Ayr Lighthouse
The beach became Talacre Beach and ahead the tall shape of Point of Ayr Lighthouse resolved itself into view.
Point of Ayr is the northernmost point of mainland Wales and its lighthouse was built in 1776, making it the same age as the United States, which makes its red and white striped livery somehow appropriate.
Badly damaged in 1819, it was repaired and rebuilt and served until 1883 when a lightship took over its duties.
Just past the lighthouse, the coast path headed south but I kept going another half mile to the tip of the Point of Ayr, in order to gaze out across the mouth of the Dee Estuary. About a billion sandworms had got there first.
Retracing my steps almost to the lighthouse I headed south through Talacre, a village that appeared to be mostly made of shabby-looking holiday attractions. This was fine by me as it meant that I found a café and thus my long-awaited bacon sandwich. I also found a shop to sell me more chocolate, which I munched as I headed south past the Point of Ayr Gas Terminal.
Point of Ayr Gas Terminal
Point of Ayr Gas Terminal receives gas piped from the platforms that make up the Douglas Complex in the Irish Sea and was opened in 1995 near the site of a former colliery that closed the following year.
The path was routed down deserted industrial roads, past vast concrete spaces and over abandoned railway sidings, all of which I assume must have related to the colliery. The active gas terminal contrasted nicely with the industrial dereliction that surrounded it and I paused beside the broken remains of an old traffic signal on the access road to talk to a cyclist coming the other way.
‘Are there many more cows this way?’ were his first words, though he quickly corrected himself from ‘cows’ to ‘jumpy-looking bullocks’.
This question rather raised others and we quickly established that he’d just ridden through a herd of them and also through a flock of sheep. He seemed quite annoyed about it and proceeded to rant about the state of the path, Wales and the Welsh in terms that rapidly shifted from merely uncharitable to outright xenophobic (his accent was northern English).
Something in my expression may have suggested that despite my Home Counties accent I was not the audience he thought he was playing to and he quickly added that he was born in Wales before undermining this defence with ‘but I didn’t grow up here, thank God.’
I had heard enough and left him to it, now wondering how far ahead the bullocks were and how much he’d pissed them off while cycling through them.
The Cattle in Question
As it turned out the cattle were just a few minutes down the road, on a cycle path leading to the village of Ffynnongroyw. They were indeed bullocks and they were indeed jumpy. So much so that they took one look at me and charged out of my way as fast as their hooves could carry them. The sheep, a little further along, were considerably more relaxed about my passing by.
Ffynnongroyw (‘clear well’) was a tiny fishing village that expanded between 1890 and 1920 to service the nearby Point of Ayr colliery. As its name suggests, it had a well, and I diverted down Well Lane in search of it. Well Lane quickly ceased to be a metalled road, diminishing to a muddy footpath, but a signpost promised that it led ‘to the well’. Which it did.
Further muddy tramping saw the far end of Well Lane become a metalled road again and then suddenly I was emerging from the backstreets of Ffynnongroyw and heading down the busy A548 towards Mostyn.
Mostyn View Point
Most of the next couple of miles was roadside walking but there were occasional points where the foot & cycle path diverted from the carriageway. On one such stretch I encountered a sign informing me that I was at Mostyn View Point, along with various historical snippets.
Mostyn (from the OE for ‘moss town’) has been a port since Norman times and though its quay is small it has still seen historic events such as Henry Tudor’s 1485 escape by boat from Richard III.
The village gained a railway station in 1848 and significantly expanded with the coal and iron industries in the 1880s. This prosperity faltered in the mid twentieth century and the ironworks closed in 1965, the station following suit the year after.
The railway line still passes through Mostyn but the trains haven’t stopped in almost fifty years and the old goods shed is now the offices of a wind farm equipment company. An old signal box still stands, battered and in use though.
Mostyn’s quay is no longer being used for would-be kings to take flight from their rivals but the village does play host to flight-related shipping.
Specifically, it has a dedicated quay for handling the wings of the Airbus A380 airliner. These are built — yes, just the wings but they are 50 m long — in nearby Broughton (Brychdyn), where an aircraft factory was established by Vickers Armstrong in the 1930s. These are barged to Mostyn and then loaded onto ships to be taken to Toulouse, where Airbus assembles its planes like a giant model kit.
On the far side of Mostyn, the path rejoined the shore of the Dee Estuary, taking the form of a gravel track with huge rocks forming a coastal defence.
Numerous fishermen were fishing the estuary, much of which was exposed as sandbanks. Somewhere on the other side was the Wirral Peninsula but it was mostly hidden in the mist. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking as something else had seized hold of my attention.
TSS Duke of Lancaster
The ship in question is the Turbine Steam Ship Duke of Lancaster, built for British Railways in 1955, back in the days when they also ran ferries. But to call TSS Duke of Lancaster a ferry is to do her a significant injustice, she was a luxury liner crossing the Irish Sea between Belfast and Heysham, near Lancaster.
Laid up in 1979, by which time car ferries had replaced the old passenger liners, she was sold into private hands. The new owners had plans to make her ‘the Fun Ship’, a market, restaurant and casino. She was towed to her new home at Llannerch y Môr (where she is now) and almost immediately the problems started…
Conflict with the Council
The local council, which had promised support, became extremely obstructive, objecting to bar licences, claiming that the market infringed the rights of another market and trying to close the ship down on safety grounds. Matters dragged on through the courts for decades, costing the council a fortune in lost cases.
The owners allege massive council corruption and are still fighting their corner but the ongoing battles have taken their toll. The Fun Ship closed in 2004 and Duke of Lancaster’s exterior is starting to rust. A number of murals are now painted on her side, part of a project to make her ‘the largest open air gallery in the UK’.
The path onwards was a little dull after Duke of Lancaster, being characterised by muddy fields edged by the same sea defence rocks as before. The fields here were at or below sea level and so the path followed a series of raised embankments until it reached Greenfields (Maes Glas) on the outskirts of Holywell (Treffynnon), which is named for St Winefride’s Well — the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Great Britain.
There, a muddy stream met the Dee but it was clear, on closer inspection, that it had once been a working quayside. Indeed, Greenfield Dock (Mae Doc Maes Glas) was one of many small harbours on the Dee Estuary and was constructed on a natural harbour in the 1700s.
With two wharves protected by a breakwater, it handled raw copper from Parys Mountain on Anglesey, which was sent to be worked in factories in Greenfield Valley (Dyffryn Maes Glas).
Manufactured copper goods were then shipped out to Liverpool and from there to West Africa as part of the triangular slave trade (taking manufactured goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to America and bringing cotton and sugar back to Blighty.)
Some of the cotton arriving in Liverpool would then find its way to Greenfield Dock as the valley contained cotton mills as well as copper plants.
The stream that formed the location for this quay was the Holywell Stream, rising at St Winefride’s Well, and long before Greenfield Dock was built, the stream’s mouth was the landing point for pilgrims arriving from northern England
From Greenfield Dock, the path changed character, becoming narrow, tree-lined and set slightly inland of salt marsh. I rather liked it.
Dee Bank Gutter
The path conveyed me to another small and long since silted wharf at Dee Bank Gutter, also known locally as The Holy (Y Sanctaidd).
There, as at Greenfield, commerce once bustled and even the stream itself is a testament to past industries — water gushes from the Milwr Tunnel, a ten mile drainage adit emptying water from the Halkyn Mines. The water comes from the same source as St Winefride’s Well, which is why it’s called the Holy.
This stretch of path was almost park-like, with many strange carvings visible from the path. This was an excellent use of derelict industrial space and in no way betrayed its origins as the Bettisfield Colliery. The colliery opened in 1872 and prospered for fifty-odd years but the strikes and depression of the 1930s hit it hard, forcing its closure in 1933.
Still, I liked the carvings. Well, most of them.
Wide views opened up across the Dee to what appeared to be grey, misty nothingness. I passed yet another old wharf at Station Gutter (Gwter yr Orsaf) where goods could at one time be transferred between ship and train at Bagillt Station.
Sadly, neither wharf nor station remain in use, with the latter being closed in 1966 (the overgrown shapes of the platforms remain in situ though).
Bagillt is a small former colliery town, and from 1704 to 1799 also a centre for lead smelting. It has never really recovered from losing its industry, and remains a deprived area with high unemployment to this day.
Nearing the End
From Bagillt, the path returned to the shoreline, sitting atop a steep bank. I was drawing near to Flint and the end of my journey, as indicated by the rectangular ugliness of its three distinctive 1960s tower blocks, which lurked on the horizon.
Chartered Castle Town
Flint (Fflint) lays claim to being the oldest charter town in Wales, with a charter dating back to 1284, shortly after Edward I of England had its castle constructed. Of course, Edward’s castle town charters typically forbade any Welsh from living in the town, mostly because of entirely reasonable fears that they might object to being conquered and rise up in rebellion.
Revolt of 1294
In 1294 the Welsh did indeed rebel under Madog ap Llywelyn, a relative of King Llywelyn the Last of Gwynedd, and the citizens of Flint set fire to their town rather than let the Welsh have it.
I’m pleased to say that Flint wasn’t on fire when I got there and nothing was afoot.
Food & Farewell
I’m even more pleased to say that I was able to buy food, as I was getting quite hungry. The sun, which had never shown itself as more than a diffuse grey glow, was now setting and I made my way to the station in order to catch the first of several trains home.
This time: 21 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,862 miles