Wales: Greatest Hits and great silence

There is also a blue lagoon in Wales, namely in the Pembrokeshire Coast NP. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales
Hiking along the Wales Coast Path is lonesome and splendid – if it were not for the chattering DJ brother-in-law. But no worry, at a length of 1,400 kilometres, sooner or later even he will run out of things to say.
Sometimes there is a little chapel ... | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales
Sometimes there is a little chapel ... | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales

My brother-in-law, Henry, comes from Bristol, and from Bristol you only have to look across the Bristol Channel to see Wales. In Great Britain they may think the Welsh are like super East Frisians and the Bristolians might give an irritable reply when you talk to them about their closeness to Wales. But many tough and even quite hip guys from the trendy city of Bristol keep a small and dark secret: They like to go hiking. In Wales. Just like my brother-in-law, who works as a DJ, and who invited my to his best-of-album – to the Wales Coast Path. Henry said that one should first visit the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, the most famous and most popular stretches of the Wales Coast Path. Afterwards, we would take the train to the North to the Snowdonia National Park to experience the Greatest Hits there. I was a bit worried because it was early summer and therefore high season; no doubt a lot of people would be thinking of going hiking there. But Henry calmed me down: they would disperse along the route.

... or a light house – most of the time you are alone with nature. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales
... or a light house – most of the time you are alone with nature. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales

The fact that Wales still did not attract the masses, Henry said, was based on a simple factor. The country has always been sparsely inhabited, especially in the coastal regions. The rough and steep coastline and the very considerable tidal range make it difficult to build big harbours, and safe natural harbours are very few and far between too. So that equates to no big settlements, no big roads, sometimes little towns and once in a while a fishing village. The state and the communities try their best to offer something like a tourist infrastructure. But hiking on remote coastal paths and accommodation in little B&Bs is not everybody's cup of tea.

Northern Europe 3,000 years ago

Along the Pembrokeshire Path, the southern part of the Wales Coast Path, well-placed and well-marked paths ensured that we were not away from the ocean for longer than half an hour and that we did not get lost too often. We passed through 300 field gates and over 4,000 steps (for example at styles, and yes, Henry really did write down such things in his notebook). We also made a few excursions down to giant, white and isolated beaches. Mission: to scare seagulls like little dogs do. Parts of the southern Coast Path lead through the Pembrokeshire National Park where we made a little excursion into the hinterland. When you walk through the primeval forest you can imagine how Northern Europe must have looked some 3,000 years ago: mostly pathless forests.

Back on the coastal path, after every bay and hill we are spoilt with sublime views  to threatening rock formations, wild cliffs, delicate rock arches and picture-book islands. It felt to me like some big creator wanted to show on a small scale what you could do with coastlines when you put all your effort in. The section between Stackpole and the little chapel of St. Govan’s Head impressed me in particular: a coastal landscape with giant cliffs and a rich bird life. The Atlantic Ocean pounds away at the coastline unrestrained there, and has washed out caves as big as aircraft hangars. A chapel of an Irish itinerant preacher has been fighting the elements since the 6th century and hangs perilously on the edge of cliffs.

If it was up to me, I would have liked to enjoy many of those views in silence. But Henry was well aware of his role as a travel guide and gave me a lot of detailed historical information without stopping for a breath. The Welsh coast is studded with traces of sunken empires and civilisations. Fortifications from the Iron Age, ruins of fortresses of Norman conquerors, castles of unloved English lords and even Napoleonic forts line the path. And all the hidden bays, deep caves and uncountable coves have always made Wales a playground for pirates and smugglers. So Henry had a lot to say …

Instead of people you see many  birds along the way. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales
Instead of people you see many birds along the way. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales

Ten days later, we were on our way north, to Snowdonia. Henry chose a few day trips that would lead us from the little town of Tywyn – roughly in the centre of Snowdonia National Park – to the Anglesey peninsula. It is an unusual landscape there, where, in the east,  the giant national park lies in wait with sublime mountain scenery – full of crystal-clear lakes, steep mountains and alpine meadows. A partly wooded, partly mossy landscape clings to the narrow coastline however, and which often suddenly runs out into mostly stony beaches. Imagine: shells, sea gulls and an old fishing boat, including the grey vastness of the Irish Sea. But when you turn around, you face scenery resembling an alpine cliché guidebook for wild alpine worlds.

There was no end to the beautiful empty beaches. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales
There was no end to the beautiful empty beaches. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales

From Tywayn we followed the coast up north on paths hardly separated from the forest – it appeared to want to grow straight into the sea at some spots – and the beach. Henry said that in Snowdonia, visitors are more interested in seeing the mountains in the hinterland. The popular hiking paths of the national park are even known for being overcrowded in summer. The Coast Path, however, was a touristic outcast by comparison. That was evidenced by the fact that carefully and regularly placed standardised signposts in Pembrokeshire had given way to sporadic collections of waymarks of all types and vintages. It is clear that there is much less happening than down south. And when Henry did not talk, it was absolutely still. And empty. Divine. And there it was: the view and reason why my brother-in-law had dragged me so far up north at all.

During our brisk day-walks we passed the towns of Tonfanau, Llangelynin and Llwyngwril, and in Friog near Fairbourne, we descended to the alluvial area of the Afon Mawddach Fjords. And no, although I have been there I have no idea how to pronounce the names properly. Henry’s local knowledge also treated us to a special scenic highlight. Behind the town of Llwyngwril, the official map encourages you to climb down to the coast. Henry, however, knew that we could follow a little road through the forest to reach a kind of enchanted valley. We hiked through primeval moorland and field landscapes, crisscrossed by ancient stone walls which went on for kilometres. Weathered cairns mark places whose meanings have been lost in the dark murmurs of folklore.

Film sets for Hollywood

We passed a few still inhabited farmhouses from the mid 18th century which had been built with undressed field stones and were surrounded by overgrown gardens and knotted fences. Each one of them could have been a film set. When Henry was not talking, I could only hear the wind whispering, it was so quiet.

The famous Barmouth Bridge spans the Mawddach-Fjord. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales
The famous Barmouth Bridge spans the Mawddach-Fjord. | Photo: Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales

Later on, we finally stood on the famous Barmouth Bridge that crosses the Mawddach Fjord. The bridge is nothing else than a small railway embankment. A wooden pedestrian bridge stuck on to it. It seems authentic and unaltered. It looks like nobody has ever changed a single square plank since its opening in 1867. But this is all narrow-minded banter in comparison to the view we had when we stood in the centre of the roughly 700 metre long bridge. Looking across the surface of the water of the narrowing Mawddach Fjord, we looked at a sublime landscape painting which first showed soft rolling hills, then the foothills, and finally, behind all that, the high mountains around the Snowdon Peak.

The water separated both banks a long way into the land, and so we gained the impression we had a multi-dimensional theatre stage – of an unbelievable size – in front of us. It felt like standing in a natural cathedral with the air of an enclosed space, whilst at the same time evoking the pathos of infinity. Even Henry kept his mouth shut for a few minutes with such a view.

 
GM Info

Wild coast

Everybody can find their favourite path along the 1,400 kilometre Wales Coast Path.

Character
The Coast Path is not at all crowded and therefore the perfect hike for people looking for tranquillity and pure nature without too many outdoor challenges. The stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in the south is divided into 15 daily stages with no stage longer than 26 kilometres. The further north you go, the less organised the path becomes.

Amount of time
At least two and a half weeks for the whole Pembrokeshire Coast Path including getting there and back. The other 1,000 kilometres of the Wales Coast Path can be accomplished according to gusto and the desired duration of the journey because there are good train and bus services which drop you off and pick you up along the way.

Getting there and back
Flight to Bristol or Cardiff. From there, take the slow train and bus to the chosen starting points. Alternatively, you can drive with your own car and take the car ferry for example from the Hoek van Holland to Harwich and then on to Wales.

Accommodation
Camping is not recommended. Bed&Breakfast and Youth Hostel with reservation.

Information
Wales Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Ingrid Retterath, OutdoorHandbuch, 2011, € 14.90, travel info:
www.visitwales.com, www.walescoastpath.gov.uk.