John Jones, author of the Cicerone guide to the Ceredigion and Snowdonia Coast path, explores some of the Wales Coast Path, along the heritage coastline of Cardigan Bay.
Little by little, as I climbed the steep lane into the foothills of Snowdonia, the early morning mist melted away to reveal the huge sweep of Cardigan Bay. Far off to the west, beyond the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, lay Bardsey Island; while even further off I could make out Pembrokeshire’s Strumble Head. I was now walking the full length of the Cardigan Bay section of the new Wales Coast Path.
The Wales Coast Path – at 870 miles – is too far for most people to tackle in a continuous journey, but if you have a week or two to spare why not make tracks to follow it down the marvellous and varied coasts of Snowdonia and Ceredigion?
As I made my own expedition I crossed high rugged cliffs and atmospheric salt marshes; steep-sided cwms and magnificent beaches, walked beside beautiful estuaries and explored the lovely hill country just inland from the coast. I passed through areas rich in wildlife and areas where the bones of the land were laid bare in the varied topography and rock strata. At almost every step I was accompanied by the ghosts of those who had passed this way before: the ancient peoples who had built the stone circles and tombs; the legendary settlers remembered in some of the oldest place names in Wales; the princes of Wales and the Norman lords and later kings who had struggled for supremacy over the land; the founders of the early churches in the Age of the Saints; the men who burnt lime in the heat and fumes of the many kilns along the coast; the quarrymen who brought slate down to the sea on the narrow gauge railways; and the shipwrights who built vessels of all shapes and sizes in even the smallest of places along the Bay.
I left bustling Porthmadog alongside the Ffestiniog Railway and headed off on the long inland loop via Maentwrog: it was to be some 30 kilometres before I reached the coast proper at Harlech, but this hardly mattered as the countryside was immensely varied, at first with glorious views on this fine day towards Cnicht and the Moelwyns, and then on past the quirky tourist village of Portmeirion. On entering the Snowdonia National Park, my way lay through attractive mixed woodland to secluded Llyn Mair.
From the high ground above Maentwrog I looked towards the northern outliers of the Rhinogs; and then, passing along the shore of lonely Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf, I dropped to the Glastraeth saltmarshes. At Ynys I went into the churchyard to find the rare rough-hewn 12th century gravestone before continuing along the edge of the huge Morfa Harlech Nature Reserve (one of the British Isles’ best preserved dune systems). Magnificent Harlech Castle became prominent ahead, standing high above the coastal plain. This is one of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles, a spectacular example of medieval architecture, imbued with history and legend.
Much of the onward route to Tal-y-bont lay along wide sandy beaches, passing the tiny medieval church at Llandanwg, half buried among the dunes. The official route then slogs unsatisfactorily along the main road to Barmouth but, as the tide was low, I continued along the beach instead.
The best way to Barmouth, which I took on another occasion, is undoubtedly to head into the hills on part of the Ardudwy Way. You climb through lovely woods beside the tumbling Ysgethin, then taking in the southern part of the Rhinogs ridge. Not only are there wonderful views of Cadair Idris and the Mawddach estuary, but the several ancient sites along the way add an extra dimension.
The start of the Ceredigion Coast Path was a little over a kilometre away as the crow flies, across the swirling waters of the Dyfi estuary. To reach it meant a 40km walk via Machynlleth at the lowest crossing point, on what was to be a truly lovely walk, the first part along the high ridge on the north side of the estuary. Green hills rolled away into the distance as I dropped down into Machynlleth.
Machynlleth is Wales’ ancient capital and the place most closely associated with Owain Glyndwr and the revolt that began in earnest in 1400, with Glyndwr being declared Prince of Wales.
The next day I headed off along quiet lanes and paths, through fields and woods and open hillside, enjoying views across to the Tarren hills. I reached the linear seaside resort of Borth alongside the huge Cors Fochno (Borth Bog) where another time I had been privileged to watch a couple of young otters lolloping along the path.
I made my way north up the Afon Leri to where the Ceredigion Coast Path begins at the point of land looking across the estuary to Aberdyfi, and then back down Borth’s magnificent sands. High cliffs now led to the busy town and harbour of Aberystwyth, on the way passing a remarkable glacial spit that stretches way out to sea. Abersytwyth (seaside resort and university town) came suddenly in view as I passed over Constitution Hill, whose various attractions include a cliff railway, which of course a long-distance walker wouldn’t think of using to get down the steep slope into the town!
At Aberystwyth you could take a break from walking to ride on the Vale of Rheidol Narrow Gauge Railway up to Devil’s Bridge, visit the famous falls and be back at the coast in time for tea.
The path now continues over high rugged cliffs, with plenty of ups and downs. Part way along it crosses a narrow coastal plain which at one time was farmed as a grange of distant Strata Florida Abbey. Then came the Pinderi Cliffs Nature Reserve where stunted oakwood hugs the vertiginous cliffs. On through the village of Llanrhystud, past a range of former limekilns, and with easier walking for a time, I reached Llansantffraid, crossing an area divided up into numerous narrow enclosures, a remarkable survivor down the centuries of the medieval strip field system.
Along cliffs, shingle and the edge of green fields, and through cwms and woods I eventually came to the little planned town of Aberaeron, with its brightly painted houses set round a harbour where equally colourful boats bobbed; on to New Quay with its ancient harbour.
At last I reached what many would regard as the most spectacular stretch of coast – along Cardigan Bay.
A narrow machine-cut terrace runs across the incredibly steep slope that plunges to the sea. (If it’s windy, or you have a poor head for heights, you needn’t worry as there’s a safe inland alternative.) The sea shimmered and the dramatic headland of Pendinaslochtyn, crowned by an ancient hillfort, was in silhouette. To its south, deep set in the valley of the Hawen, lay attractive Llangrannog. Once a group of us had stood on the beach here watching one of the most dramatic of sunsets, with the large rock stack of Carreg Bica in jagged profile against the far horizon.
More inspiring walking followed to Tresaith, with its fine waterfall tumbling over the cliffs, to Aberporth and on to the ancient sailors’ chapel, conical hill and sheltered sandy bay at Mwnt. Soon after, I was following the way inland beside the estuary of the Teifi to the market town of Cardigan. The Ceredigion Coast Path ends here at an otter sculpture beside the bridge over the river and below the restored castle. Of course, if you are continuing along the Welsh coast you can now follow field paths and lanes via the ruins of St Dogmaels Abbey to the start of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, and look forward to many more magnificent days.