St. David’s Day in Wales this week and I’ve got two articles out to mark Wales’ patron-saint day.
The first is a piece about foodie breaks for spring and my contribution focused on the local flavours and fairytale architecture at Portmeirion [pictured above], North Wales, one of my favourite places to spend time.
The second is the publication of copy-writing work for a tourism client, outlining story angles around the tenth anniversary of the Wales Coast Path — it’s coming up in May.
The 870-mile, long-distance walking trail, launched in 2012, forms the first ever continuous waking circuit of a nation.
The anniversary will be accompanied by a programme of key celebratory events, starting from March 1st, St David’s Day.
According to research by Ramblers UK, some 89 per cent of people find walking amongst nature improves health and mental wellbeing. Walking briskly for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is one way of meeting medical experts’ recommendations for adult physical activity.
* Another story from the back catalogue, this week with a Wales theme. This autumn I’ll be doing more walking around West Wales in connection to the Dylan Thomas centenary but, for now, a coastal-walking trip from Mid Wales. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more story updates.
People have gathered on Cardigan’s windswept quayside, now renamed Prince Charles Quay, for centuries.
It was a place where hearts were broken, hopes were raised and farewells exchanged.
Today, there’s little to hint at the historic importance of the site aside from a few lines of verse. The Quay by Ceri Wyn Jones, the former Children’s Poet of Wales, describes the now-unassuming place thus:
“A place of beginnings and ending as bitter as brine or as comforting as a sea breeze.”
It’s very fitting. Cardigan developed as a port since the Middle Ages given its strategic position as the gateway to the fertile Teifi Valley. But during the 18th century it started to grow as a key trading port with shipbuilding along the coast, sail- and rope-making in the harbour, plus industry around lime and iron in the nearby villages.
Over 300 ships, employing over 1,000 men, were registered at Cardigan by 1814.
In its 1860s heyday, the port of Cardigan was a major hub for transatlantic emigration, sending ships to New Brunswick in Canada and New York. But the arrival of the railway in 1885, coupled with increased silting of the river, sounded the death kneel for the once-proud port.
Cardigan’s star had faded by the late 19th century, its maritime heritage lost in time.
That is, until Menter Aberteifi, a community regeneration company based in Cardigan, stepped in to stir memories of Cardigan’s seafaring past.
The Dros Y Tonnau (Over the Waves) project runs until December 2013 to highlight the maritime legacy of Cardigan and the Lower Teifi Valley. Six interpretation sites along the Ceredigion coast from Cardigan to Newquay recount the story.
The company also manages the newly refurbished Guildhall in Cardigan, where early traders plied their wares. The company raised £1.2m to complete the restoration of the Grade II listed building, turning it once more into a public and civic space.
“We wanted to make people more aware of the local maritime heritage,” says Anne Stokoe of Menter Aberteifi. “In its day, Cardigan port was a major seaport, bigger than Bristol or Cardiff.
“The golden era of seafaring in West Wales was fading from living memory. We wanted to revive it.”
The project fits snuggly with current plans to foster awareness of the Ceredigion Coast Path as part of the wider Wales Coast Path, which brings coastal access to the whole Welsh coastline.
The Wales Coast Path has its official opening in May. Of the eight sections making up the overall trail, the Ceredigion section, a 60-mile stretch from St Dogmaels, just beyond Cardigan to the south, to Borth, just beyond Aberystwyth, to the north, is particularly rich in maritime heritage.
I set out on a chilly spring day to explore the coastline, looking for clues along the way to its lively past as a hotbed of industry, trade and smuggling.
The first section heading north takes me from Cardigan to Mwnt, a section rich in birdlife with gannets, cormorants and even kestrels soaring overhead. The terrain is soft and the sea-air bracing as I make good progress.
Just off the path at Mwnt, looking across to the conical outcrop Foel y Mwnt, a circular limekiln, the first sign of former industry, surveys the deserted hillside.
The nearby white-bleached Church of the Holy Cross stands isolated against the elements above the cliff-enclosed bay. The church, rebuilt in its current form during the 14th century, was a former pilgrimage church on the coastal route from St Davids, Pembrokeshire, to Bardsey Island during the Age of the Saints.
“I particularly like the wildness of the south sections of the Ceredigion Coast Path. The sea always looks different and it’s particularly rich in nature with bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoise sometimes close to the shore,” says local wildlife guide, Howard Williams.
“For me, it’s as beautiful as the north Pembrokeshire sections, but it’s far less crowded.”
Pushing onwards, the section from Tresaith to Penbryn leads through bracken and stunted thorn, the sandy beach at Penbryn ahead of me.
The latter is famed in local legend for a French ship, which was wrecked on the beach in the 18th century with its expensive cargo of French wine.
The local people are said to have boarded the ship and proceeded to drink it dry over a period of days, many of them dying of alcohol poisoning in the process. The local priest was eventually called to the ugly scene to admonish the drunken hordes and restore order to the community.
The final 1.7-mile hike of the day leads to the seaside village of Llangrannog, a settlement crafted around a tiny, swell-washed harbour with its Blue Flag beach. Carreg Bica (Devil’s tooth), a beak-like rock jutting out into the bay, stands like a visiting alien with waves lapping at its feet. Legend suggests it is a decayed fang from Lucifer’s very own mouth.
The next day, I’m back on the path, following the shingle foreshore from my overnight base at Aberaeron and heading north towards Aberarth, one of the earliest settlements on the Ceredigion coast.
“The 60-mile stretch of the Ceredigion Coast Path is as diverse in coastal landscapes, heritage and wildlife as any other stretch of coast path in Wales,” says guide Nigel Nicholas, Coast and Countryside Area Ranger for Ceredigion County Council, who joins me to walk the second day.
“From Iron Age hill forts to Norman castles, links to monastic orders and maritime heritage, it appeals to history lovers, serious walkers and families alike.”
Today Aberarth is home to just a handful of people but it was formerly one of the main maritime hubs along the West Wales coast – some 20 ships were built in the tiny harbour during its golden age.
On the shore I can see the semi-circular traces of stone walls, believed to date from the 6th century. These were fish traps for salmon and mullet, known as goredi in Welsh, and used by the local monks, who first established Aberarth as a centre for activity.
The next stretch, the 10.6-mile, wild and open section from Llanrhystud to Aberystwyth, is one of the most remote trails in Ceredigion. We cross the Penderi Hills wildlife reserve with its hanging oak woodland and descend through bracken-covered slopes towards the old farm buildings at Mynachdy’r Graig for our packed lunch.
The smugglers’ coves on this section of the path are the domain of local folk hero Twm Sion Cwilt, a Robin Hood-style character famed in West Wales for his daring raids on ships from Ireland and France, laden with salt, tobacco, perfumes and wine, which ran aground on the coast. Goods were heavily taxed during his lifetime and salt was a particularly precious commodity.
The coastguards, known as horse riders, were often non-Welsh speakers from across Offa’s Dyke and Cwilt lead the local communities to frequent confrontations.
The final approach to Aberystwyth offers some of the best views in Ceredigion, looking north to the county boundary of the Dyfi Estuary.
The Alltwen ridge, in particular, takes in a century-spanning vista of three key castles in the region, namely the Norman castle above Tan y Bwlch beach; the imposing hill fort Pen Dinas, and the ruins ahead of Aberystwyth castle, part of Edward I’s defensive ring against the Welsh.
It’s a fitting end to a walk packed with history, nature and wildlife. “The feeling is different every time I walk the Ceredigion Coast Path,” says Nigel Nicholas.
“When you’re walking, you get visions or flashes of the past – the old ships in the harbour, the ancient civilisations.”
* Last week a small pub on a beach in North Wales was named the third best beach bar in the world, beating bars in Australia, America and South Africa. I’ve visited the Ty Coch Inn [pictured above] several times and this story was based around my first encounter with a Llyn Peninsula institution.
I’m not cut out for life as a pilgrim.
Mortification of the flesh is not my thing and, besides, I don’t have anything in sackcloth.
Windswept on a fresh Saturday morning at St Beuno’s Church in Clynnog Fawr, however, I found myself about to retrace the footsteps of the 20,000 saints that blazed a medieval trail to Bardsey Island during the 14th-century halcyon days of the North Wales pilgrimage.
Tackling the 47-mile Edge of Wales walk, an extension to the Llyn Coastal Path, could help me find some higher meaning to life. Or, at least, shed a few pounds, get some sun and soak the scenery in this lost-in-time enclave of rural North Wales.
When thePope decreed that three pilgrimages to Bardsey would have the same value as one to Rome, the Llyn Peninsula witnessed a pilgrim explosion and Bardsey became the Mecca.
But while the original God-fearing wanderers set out with just cloaks and sandals, the present-day pilgrims beside me at St Beuno’s assembly point had come armed with GPS and Gore-Tex jackets.
“By following the pilgrim’s way I feel at one with nature and God,” explains Gill Gordon of a group of third-order Franciscans.
The four-year-old trail splits into nine convenient stages across four to five days and visits the ancient forts, holy wells and medieval churches that waymarked the original pilgrim’s trail.
Overall, the Llyn makes for perfect walking country with plenty of infrastructure, plus deserted beaches, wild flower-shrouded headlands and rustic, lost-in-time villages to discover en route.
Better still, while the beaches and guesthouses of the hub towns, Abersoch and Aberdaron, are packed in summer, come autumn the Gulf Steam-warmed climate and empty, open spaces make for an ideal time to visit.
Over the next few days the going would range from strenuous on the first sections, a 13-mile yomp, often uphill, from Clynnog to Nant Gwrtheyrn, to gloriously flat on the middle straight from Nefyn to Tudweiliog that dips its toes into the waves that lap the National trust-owned beach.
The scenery was ever changing – from crashing rocks and Atlantic swells as I hugged the north coast, to ruined Methodist churches and rustic farmsteads on occasional inland deviations.
The sense of being close to the saints was always with me, especially at the humble little church of Pistyll.
Many pilgrims were sick and ill, their odyssey the last act of a dying soul, and Pistyll church became a regular stop as the garden was given over to growing herbs and plants to help treat the sick.
As I open the thick-set wooden door of the church, I’m transported back in time by the herbal smell of the interior: rushes on the floor, flower garlands across the pews and the heady aroma of evergreens filling the air.
The Llyn Peninsula is proudly Welsh and the population 80 per cent Welsh speaking, yet people are happy to chat with a passing pilgrim at the rural pubs along the route.
Tracing the headland to the beach at Porth Dinllaen [pictured below] for a late lunch one day, I found one of my favourites, Ty Coch. From its beachside location, Ty Coch has been attracting a new genre of pilgrim of late: film buffs.
Demi Moore shot key scenes from the 2006 Hollywood drama, Half Light, in the pub, but her tinseltown trappings did little to impress the locals.
“She had a helicopter to take her back to the hotel just to use the toilet,” laughs the pub’s co-owner Stuart Webley. “Talk about spending a penny.”
The days passed with ozone-filled strolls and glorious coastal vistas while Edge of Wales guides were on hand at the end of the day to transport me onto a comfortable B&B for the night and a full Welsh breakfast the next morning.
So it was with a heavy heart that, as I descended the hill to face the imposing brick façade of St Hywyn’s church, Aberdaron, I knew the end was nigh.
The Welsh poet RS Thomas made Aberdaron his parish from 1967 to 1978 and his bleak, angry verse captures the end-of-the-world feel of the village.
Across from the church, restaurant Y Gegin Fawr was built around 1300 for saints to claim a meal before heading to Bardsey and today remains a café, although lasagne now replaces gruel.
According to Evelyn Davies, the current vicar of St Hywyn’s, some 120,000 latter-day pilgrims enquire each year about retracing the Bardsey pilgrimage. “It’s not just a physical journey,” she nods, looking at my well-worn boots, “most are on an inner journey.”
Tossed about in a small, canary-yellow boat in the Aberdaron Sound, I finally arrive on Bardsey to a welcoming committee of seabirds: Manx Shearwater and puffins.
As I stride ashore amid the perfect still of the afternoon, the ghostly cry of the grey seals evokes the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the 20,000 martyrs that died on the island as saints, their souls cleared of sin and a one-way ticket to eternal paradise assured.
I follow the dirt track to the ruins of the eight-century St Mary’s Abbey and kneel before the weather-scared Celtic cross. Ignoring my aching feet and a sudden craving for chocolate biscuits, I focus on the words on the inscription:
“Respect the remains of 20,000 saints buried near this spot.”
My pilgrimage was complete but the journey was just beginning.
* This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2009.
* This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more. This week’s piece is particularly timely as last Sunday marked the first anniversary of the opening. Want to read more? Try Wales Coast Path blog for Visit Wales.
The landscape opens up in widescreen, all crashing waves and wide-open skies.
I feel a frisson of vertigo as I peer over the sheer cliff drop but steady my gaze on the path ahead, the promise of wooded glades and secluded beaches luring me onwards. I fill my lungs with fresh air and close my eyes, emptying my mind and tuning into the rhythms of nature instead.
Better still, I’m the only walker on the trail today.
I’m walking a section of the new Wales Coast Path, the new 870-mile trail from the Welsh border near Chester to Chepstow in the southeast. It connects existing coast paths, such as Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, to form one continuous circuit – making it the very first coast path to outline an entire country.
Along the way it showcases the best of Welsh landscape and wildlife. Think near-deserted coastal trails, wave-lapped scenery and a natural habitat rich with flora and fauna.
I’ve chosen a walk along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, a 14-mile section from Porthcawl to Aberthaw, as a microcosm of the entire path. It’s also the nearest section of the path to air hub, Cardiff.
For me, walking the Glamorgan coast was the perfect way to discover one of the lesser-known regions and uncover some warm Welsh hospitality. The Glamorgan coastal path skirts the Bristol Channel with views of ruined Ogmore Castle to the north and south to Exmoor.
“I love the contrasts of this walk. You look across to Devon, not a blank horizon of sea,” says Principal Ranger Paul Dunn. “You can almost touch it on a clear day.”
I had started walking just beyond Porthcawl, first tackling the sand dunes of Merthyr Mawr before progressing onto the salt marsh of the Ogmore estuary. Numerous flower species, including the rare Tuberous Thistle, line the trail and the twice-repeated refrain of a song thrush serenade my steady progress.
I stop for tea and a chance to read up on local geology at the Heritage Coast Information Centre at sheltered Southerndown Bay.
This sweep of South Wales may be sandwiched between the industrial hubs of Port Talbot and Barry, but it’s the last ice age that forged the landscape of rocky outcrops, built on layers of Carboniferous limestone.
It lends the coast an otherworldly feel captured by the TV series Doctor Who, which renamed Southerndown as Bad Wolf Bay for a season-ending climax staring David Tenant.
The path then climbs up from the beach through the former deer park of the Dunraven Estate, following a new public footpath to increase access. After ducking through a maritime-ash woodland, I take a detour at Nash Point, heading inland for lunch at the Plough and Harrow in the village of Monknash.
Back on the coast path, Nash Point Lighthouse was the last manned lighthouse in Wales. The twin lighthouse keepers’ cottages have now been converted into self-catering accommodation with the ultimate sunset vista.
I push on, low-slung afternoon sun softening the landscape, tracing a line along the coast past Tresilian Bay and Summerhouse Point to the trailhead just before Aberthaw.
St Donat’s Arts Centre, an old tithe barn just off the path in the village of Llantwit Major, is staging a performance of Welsh jazz that evening, but I’m heading back to Olivia House, a stylish but homely guesthouse in Porthcawl, for a long soak and a chance to rest weary feet.
After a day on the trail of fresh air, stunning views and escaping the crowds, I’ve got a tasting of walking Wales.
Just another 856 miles to go.
* This story was first published in BA High Life magazine in 2012. Read the original piece here.
Have you got a favourite section of the Wales Coast Path to walk?