On the Llwybr Arfordir Cymru – the Wales Coast Path.
Over five wet March days blundering round the wildest, woolliest peninsula of west Wales, a sinew-stiffener for a tougher walk coming soon, I learnt a few things about some new gear I wanted to test. I was particularly interested in three questions:
- Could I by sheer willpower and mileage adapt my feet to some new and strange boots, so far disappointingly uncomfortable?
- Could I navigate a new and strange landscape without paper mapping, relying solely on my phone?
- Could I spend a pleasant and restful night in my new (and strange) bivvy bag?
Spoiler: perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer was ‘no’ to all three.
Day One – Trefor to the windy cliff.
On a deceptively sunny Saint David’s Day I set out to circuit Pen Llŷn, the Lleyn Peninsula, quite deliberately with no idea of the weather forecast and no map. The Llŷn isn’t very wide – barely 15 km at my starting point – and with sea on either side I figured it would be hard to get disorientated. I planned to follow the Wales Coast Path which is lavishly waymarked. I have family half an hour’s drive away – had I got into trouble, I could literally have called my Mum. It seemed a safe enough place to try out a few ideas.
I’ve long been intrigued by the Llŷn, a place of history and mystery, of poetry and pilgrimage, of R.S Thomas and the twenty thousand saints of Bardsey. A place profoundly and proudly Celtic where Welsh is a living language. An outlier, an appealing irregularity. On many a family trip to flat, arable Anglesey, the Norfolk of North Wales, I’ve gazed wonderingly over Caernarfon Bay at the unaggressively but not unimpressively pointy Yr Eifl (564 m), Gyrn Ddu (522 m) and Bwlch Mawr (509 m).
Many are drawn to islands but to me the unambiguity of their isolation is too simplistic; I find peninsulas more intriguing. I like their prosthetic quality, stiff, slightly rebellious limbs of hard, incompatible substance bolted onto softer bodies politic. The transition across a shifty, flimsy, artificial division into their uncanny bilateral illumination, like pushing through a stage curtain. The sense of increasing psychological and cultural compression, down to a vanishing point where the distillation of a nation dances on a needlehead. The climactic point of inflexion: from all the going out quite suddenly into all the coming back, like a summit but with less arduous climbing. The frisson of the bottleneck, of infinite access to finite capacity – what if everybody heads this way? We’ll all have to jump into the sea, like lemmings, that’s what.
Huge amounts of thought, negotiation and hard work have gone into creating the Wales Coast Path. Much of it is gorgeous but there are notable exceptions and these include the initial slog onto the Llŷn from Caernarfon which south of Dinas Dinlle involves 10 km of tedious trudging along the largely flat and often busy A499. You walk along the old carriageway which is marginally nicer than the pavement but although the pilgrims’ church at Clynnog Fawr is interesting the view is negligible and frankly you may as well get the bus.
There’s an excellent service from the main line rail station at Bangor to Caernarfon then a surprisingly regular minibus (afternoons only on Sunday before Easter) trundles down the 499 to Pwllheli. Alight at Trefor, where the trail heads counter-intuitively north, then around the headland before dumping you back at the south end of the village having perversely bypassed any possible amenities. Hence I don’t know if there are any amenities at Trefor but believe me, if you’d yomped all the way from Caernarfon you’d be jolly glad of some. I scrounged a lift to Trefor from my folks, which was probably my most sensible decision on this whole trip.
Nosing cautiously onto the Wales Coast Path, one is immediately struck by its generous and comprehensive waymarking. In fact for most of the way around the Llŷn you hardly need a map at all. Until, that is, there suddenly isn’t a waymark. This usually happens at fingerposts so at least you know there’s a trail, you’re just not sure which one. My theory is that to support indigenous industry the waymarks were attached to the fingerposts with traditional Welsh glue made from boiled-down sheep and sadly this did not prove rainfast. The waymarks are bilingual so surely it can’t still be Welsh language activists removing them. They’re also inadvisedly attractive so perhaps there’s been a Magpie tendency among souvenir hunting trailwakers; very annoying if so.
On the entire Llŷn circuit there’s only one extended climb. This occurs immediately south of Trefor, a stiff little hike up to Bwlch yr Eifl, the pass between the pristine south and the extensively quarried north peaks that’s still quite atmospheric despite the quarry buildings, the mobile phone mast and their service road. One is straightaway aware that this has been an important footway since time immemorial, ancient infrastructure abounds, history is tangible. Weighty stones intentionally placed a millennium ago are worn smooth by innumerable feet – by hands and knees even, if tales of pilgrims are to be believed. Small meadows above the village harbour authentic Welsh goats, the high-pitched whickering of the massively-horned Billys took me right back to the Cheviot. I was on standby for their stink but these are well-groomed goats of regimental mascot pedigree and cleanliness, also, let’s face it, living on the Llŷn they get plenty of showers. Their tiny kids were pronking in the unexpected sunshine like baby Chamois.
Approaching the top of the pass I was pleased to spot some Star Jelly, something I haven’t seen since a stroll up into the West Cumbrian fells above the legendary Gosforth pie shop a few years ago. I like Star Jelly because it still seems to lack a conclusive, universal explanation, as far as the Internet is concerned anyway. A slime mould or a Nostoc cyanobacterium seem the most likely candidates. Either way it’s fun to find.
Over the pass, a crushed stone service road leads down to a newish car park. It was so far so good with the navigation although, to be fair, it could hardly have been easier with the waymarks and the fine weather. One of my objectives for this walk was to see how far I could get around the Llŷn using completely free mapping resources and just my phone to view them. To this end, I’d downloaded GPX waypoints from the Long Distance Walkers Association website (data access members only), and managed with some perseverance to import them into the free mapping app OsmAnd. I’d also been to the official Wales Coastal Path website and acquired onto my phone a set of the PDF maps kindly provided there. It was at the newish car park (around 353 440) that the first of numerous discrepancies between these two datasets became apparent.
The LDWA is volunteer-run and quite reasonably can’t always manage to keep its enormous archive of trail waypoints up to date. There’s at least half a dozen major differences now between their waypoint file and the Llŷn Coast Path as it actually exists on the ground. The PDF maps on the other hand were pretty much up to date and super-useful, or at least they were until Mynydd Tir-y-cwmwd when my phone battery ran out. Two important lessons about paperless navigation!
A newish tarmac road leads from the newish car park and zigzags down an astonishing gradient. The landscape suddenly turns Swiss, a skinny waterfall threading down a massive rock face opposite like a frayed, white climbing rope. ‘This had better not be a mistake’, you think, wondering whether any vehicle has made it intact to the bottom and, if so, might take a hitchhiker back up.
Nant Gwrtheyrn, the National Welsh Language Centre, when you finally get down to it is a joyful place; wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully located, peaceful, inspiring and educational. And, on top of all that, it has a delightful and friendly café with hot food, loos and – miraculously considering the location – WiFi.
‘This bodes well’, I thought, eating a bowl of tasty Lobscows (Welsh spelling) and a double helping of Welsh cakes in warm sunshine as Stonechats displayed in front of me and a Robin scrounged crumbs from my plate. ‘The Llŷn must all be like this, tea rooms, sun and civilisation’. Hilarious. Apart from a mysterious pub signposted at Morfa Nefyn, that was basically it for facilities. Not even a loo until Aberdaron two nights later. And as for the weather…
Well-fed and cheery, I ambled on past extensive evidence of the granite quarrying that was for centuries the major industry in this neck of the rocks. To someone who lives on the north Norfolk coast, it always seems extraordinary to be walking on rock, real, Rocky McRockface rock that never falls apart, rock of ages that will build monumental edifices that stand for centuries. Not to mention kitchen worktops. Granite, no less, the hard stuff. Google any decent British geology website to understand the dizzying dysphoria of the Northfolk whenever they find themselves standing on actual stone – it’s yer stratigraphic sequence, innit? In one day’s drive east to west I acquire five hundred million more years under my feet.
At Pistyll there’s a chapel of austere beauty with slate tombs and a sinuous path along which someone, in a tentative outbreak of decorative frivolity, has recently planted daffodils. Through its open door I heard voices in low, serious Welsh. It stood above a stream that was splashing through a small ravine sumptuously furnished with ferns.
In a larger ravine at Porth Dinlaaen a promising public toilet hoves into view. It’s locked until Easter, a reminder of how religion retains its influence on the patterns and cycles of our secular lives. I had to do some splashing of my own. Frogspawn further along the path reminded me that Star Jelly is something entirely different, whatever people on the Internet may tell you.
It was feeling late in the day by the time I’d ploughed through a tiring outbreak of over-the-boots mud into Nefyn, an archetypal North Wales town with typically squat grey houses, negligible facilities (zero detectable from the trail) and feral youths of assorted sizes hanging around. Bravely, I chatted with some of the smaller and slightly less feral-looking of the youths, who’d been until then engaged in smashing up an allegedly derelict shed and attempting to set fire to it with a blowtorch purloined from within. They were bright, friendly and highly articulate, as you’d expect from kids who can elide instantly between two very different languages and whose primary culture still values poetry and oratory.
‘Are you on some kind of survival challenge?’ they asked, then wanted to tell me all about their own camps in the woods high above the town. The wood in which I camped out at their age, around 13, I’d guess, has long ago been built over with a massive estate of boxy, hugger-mugger houses, prettified from an architect’s catalogue with faux timbering and ersatz vernacular textures. In the far west of Wales the houses may be plainer but my kind of youth is still available half a century on, and with the added bonus of verbal skills. No girls though, I noticed.
I couldn’t face trekking to the lookout at Trwyn Porth Dinlaaen and skived my way across the golf course instead, but not before an Englishman in checked trousers emerging from the clubhouse and eyeing my poles had enquired ‘lost your skis?’ No, wait, honestly, I was smiley and friendly in response. Admittedly this was because I needed to ask him the way.
Crossing the fairway I heard then saw my first Choughs, just two, presumably already paired up for spring, chatting away to each other and pulling their supper from the greens and tees. It was time to camp, especially considering that some Irish weather appeared to be incoming.
Atop the low cliff, however, the air was warm and bizarrely still. ‘It might rain a bit’, I thought, eyeing the clouds on the horizon. I pitched the Stealth with perfect timing, literally as I crawled into it rain started pattering on the fly. I managed to inflate my shiny new mat and unfurled my new sleeping bag. Feeling very smug and pleased with how my plan-free camping had panned out, I ate some cold bits and bobs and wondered how on earth to induce sleep at barely seven o’clock. The rain strengthened. ‘Never mind’, I thought, ‘apart from a bit of wet this is going to be a peaceful night of classic, enjoyable wild camping’. I couldn’t have been more wrong…