long-distance trail to trace the shoreline of an entire country, the Wales
Coast Path offers an immersion into some of the Principality’s most charismatic
scenery and legends. Dip your toe into the 870-mile route with one of three
short walks, from the remote Llŷn Peninsula to dramatic Pembrokeshire.
Walk one: The west
Where the land runs
out is a wild place, where the cliffs are the prows of ships, enduring the
battering tides. Pembrokeshire’s south-westerly winds bring waves of freshened
skies over the Celtic Sea. On a clear day, the whole western tip of Wales is
visible; the Coast Path skirts the yawn of St Bride’s Bay in a long curve that
runs between fields and the coves, cliffs and beaches, all the way from St
David’s Head in the north to Skomer Island in the south.
stretch of the path reveals curiosities, from abandoned airfields to hermit’s
chapels, but few sights are more peculiar than an oval eye of glass that gazes
out of the clifftop at Druidstone, overlooking the middle of St Bride’s Bay.
Known locally as the Teletubby House, it is home to former MP Bob
Marshall-Andrews and his wife Gillian. The roof is turf and wild flowers; the
whole structure landscaped into the ground.
very beautiful coastline to walk,’ Bob says. ‘To a certain extent repetitive –
you round one headland and there’s another. It gives it a quality that’s quite
unique in walking: after a while you stop being starstruck and enter into what
it is. I love it – the islands offshore give it a frontier feeling.’
waves below are surfers; a benign cavalry of pony-trekkers from the village of
Nolton Haven crosses the sand. It is a truly heavenly place to live.
yards away is the Marshall- Andrews’ local, the Druidstone Hotel. Part home,
part refuge, its windows filled with sea-light, its walls crammed with pictures
and its beds old and kind, the hotel has a bohemian enchantment. Beth Wilshaw
and her husband Gus Bell are nominally in charge, but you could equally say that
of their little girl Seren or cat Yoda.
‘People come down to dinner in a wetsuit or a tux; no-one minds,’ Beth says.
‘When someone rings and asks if there’s a pool I say yes, but it’s very big,
southern edge of that great pool is the Marloes Peninsula, where Wales runs
out. The last of the land is the Deer Park, where the radiance of the light,
the warm surges of the wind, the dark outlines of Skomer Island and Midland
Isle and the streaming silver of Jack Sound – the tide-race between the
peninsula and the islands – combine in pure invigoration. I feel I could launch
myself into the air.
left from the wuthering cliffs of the Deer Park begins one of the most
beautiful walks in all Wales: the couple of miles along the coast path to Marloes
Sands. Choughs fall headlong into the wind – they are supreme fliers, handsome
with their black plumage and scarlet beaks and legs. Old beliefs held that they
stole lit candles and burned hayricks; their Latin name, Pyrrhocorax
pyrrhocorax, means fire crow.
legend says that King Arthur did not die but turned into a chough, so harming
one is very unlucky. The birds on this walk seem blessed and blessing.
along the path are sweet reeks of bracken, heather and turf. The sea rushes white
pounders at the cliff: other sounds are the ‘ciao!’ of choughs, the wind and
wicketing crickets. A cormorant flaps across the water, fat on mackerel, along
with great black-backed gulls, which sailors believed were souls of executed
pirates. A ship appears, three-masted, with the mainsail up. A raven goes over.
Some myths hold ravens to be messengers of sorcerers and gods: they are said to
hear everything and report it to their masters. Greet one with a ‘pruk!’ and he
may answer, as this one does.
death zone between the rock shoals and the breakers, two grey seals float and
turn, fishing, peering, wallowing like fat ladies in a spa pool. The ground is
springy and cushioned, starred with pink thrift.
In a field
of flowers on the clifftop above Marloes Sands a young woman gives the sun a
yoga salute. Saluting the sun has been practised here for millennia. A tidal
island at the end of the beach, Gateholm, has the remains of Iron Age and later
settlements on its flat top: archaeologists found an amber bead there which
they believe was associated with sun worship.
On the way
back to the Deer Park a kestrel appears, hovering and still in the wimpling
wind. Tail and wings adjust to the floods of air so that the head is perfectly
still. ‘My heart in hiding stirred for a bird,’ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins,
and seeing the choughs, and the kestrel, brings the same stirring. Like
Gateholm, Skomer and the Deer Park were settled in pre-antiquity. Our ancestors
were here and felt as we do now, walking the coast at sunset; people will, for
millennia to come. There is the most gentle eternity in the spirit of this
Walk two: The estuaries
Laugharne is a
country all of its own. Here is a land of woods and fields falling to estuarine
worlds that submerge with every high tide and gleam with every low. The path
out of town is signposted with extracts from Dylan Thomas’s Poem on his
Birthday. The mustard-seed sun, as he called it, is bright today; the clouds
are boiling towers. The path runs under ash trees like universes,
constellations of leaves high against the blue. Rocks drip like Hades. To go
south along the shore is to walk with the ghosts of cockle-pickers and
fishermen; the latter still make this lovely, unusual trek. There is
cow-tramped mud underfoot and a rune of marshes to the left.
other side of the dyke are rough pastures and an army firing range, which has
saved the land from the pillages of modern agriculture. Man’s additions to the
landscape are harmonious and kind: small white horses, the farms of
Carmarthenshire, round bales – it is like moving through a Constable painting.
The dyke is your guide and thoroughfare, all the way to Pendine Sands. Swallows
hunt along it, flinging into the wind. On the sands themselves the shells of
razor clams pop underfoot as the sea opens before you, a road to all the world.
Jay Griffiths travelled to the Arctic, the Amazon and West Papua, among many
other places, in the service of her book Wild, which explores the connection
between human societies and the wilderness. She might have chosen to settle
anywhere on Earth but all her journeys begin and end on the wide beaches of
Wales. ‘A long, open shoreline is good for long, open conversations,’ she says.
‘The horizons of sight and the horizons of the mind reflect each other, and the
one influences the other. And there is a long breath in the fetch of a wave
which makes me breathe easy.’
come deep and contented on this walk, flavoured with the tang of the marshes;
breaths hush as you study their creeks and runnels, infinitely complex, home to
nymphs and goblins arguing over green-glass beads, and my breath catches as a
hundred curlew flock together, a wild net of birds. It is a sight left over
from an older Britain, when great flocks were common.
rests in the sun like a gypsy with his back to a rock. You can see why sea
captains liked to retire there: close enough to tides to measure the seasons by
their comings and goings; far enough away from the waves not to be reminded of
their terrors. On the way back into town, passing a farm, a peacock strolls
across the track. A Welsh walk holds more unpredictability than the weather.
Walk three: The Llŷn Peninsula
The tip of the Llŷn Peninsula is a kind of promised land.
It was the last home of the poet RS Thomas, who was the rector of St Hywyn’s
church in Aberdaron, the last town before the sea. Thomas’s poetry records a
life spent searching for an encounter with divinity. During one of his walks on
the peninsula, while watching small birds in a thicket, he felt a oneness, a
kind of transcendence, which he described as ‘a repetition in time of the
eternal I AM’. Since the 6th century pilgrims have come to Llŷn, where the
world ends in bright sea-light, to seek and pray to that eternity.
west along the cliffs from Aberdaron is a favourite of the writer Niall
Griffiths and his partner Deborah Jones. ‘You can easily fall off the end of
the continent,��� Niall says. ‘One step and you’re somewhere entirely else.’
Watching one’s steps as well as being open to transcendence is the way to
follow the path from Aberdaron beach to the end of the world. The coast path
runs westwards, first climbing along the Cwrt headland, then descending to
Porth Meudwy, for centuries a base for fishing boats. After climbing back to
the clifftop the path passes Porth y Pistyll, where the Llŷn’s mineral wealth
of jasper, quartz and granite was once loaded onto boats. The descents and
climbs make good exercise, with a stunning reward at the end. As I round the
headland of Pen y Cil there is the sudden prospect of Bardsey Island, like the
head of an elephant surfacing from the deep.
a land that belongs to birds and seals,’ says Niall, who has stayed there. ‘No
wonder the devout wanted to be buried on it. You feel like one half of you is
already in another realm.’
known as ‘the island of 20,000 saints’: they were supposed to have Horatio
Clare was raised on a hill farm in South Wales, an experience he recorded in
the best-selling memoir Running for the Hills. He walks some stretch of the
coast of Wales every year. His next book is Down to the Sea in Ships, a story
of seafaring. been buried there in pre-medieval times. The gravestone of a
5th-century Christian priest, Senacus, was found on the headland, marking his
burial ‘with many followers’, which may be the source of the belief. Whether or
not saints lie under its turf, the island’s spiritual reputation was such that
three pilgrimages there were held to be the equivalent of one to Rome.
It is easy
to understand why pagans, poets and pilgrims from the dawn of Christianity to
our own times have been drawn to this land’s end. Around heathered stumps, like
the silhouettes of hunchbacked watchmen, flocks of choughs tumble and strut.
The birds’ colony makes Pen y Cil a Site of Special Scientific Interest. I walk
among them quietly and they seem unbothered, as they probe the heather for ants.
Climbing up the steep green flanks of the headland to the lookout point on
Mynydd Mawr, I turn back to the sea to watch the sun go down. As unexpected and
miraculous as a revelation, pale blue hills appear, far over the water. The map
says they are the mountains of County Wicklow in Ireland, but they seem just as
likely to be the contours of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the sunken kingdom of Welsh
legend, a kind of Celtic Atlantis. Anthropolgists suspect that the repeated
claims, over the ages, of a fertile land just beneath the waves, may be the
echoes of an ancient folk memory of sea-level rise at the end of the last ice
stories and suppositions wash over reality in the most beguiling way here.
Deborah Jones makes me promise not to dig for gold if I climb the Rhiw, one of
two hills near Aberdaron. ‘The giant who buried it will send a lightning bolt
at you,’ she warns. I can find no reference for this except a cairn of stones
on Mynydd Ystum, to the northeast of Aberdaron, which is said to mark the grave
of a giant, Odo; a rock nearby was apparently thrown there by Samson, before
Delilah cut his hair, and is said to have a pot of gold beneath it.
To walk the
Welsh coast is a kind of pilgrimage, whether or not you believe in myths or
God. The views of the horizons, the workings of the land, the wheeling birds,
visions of the sea and tombs of saints may not convince you of RS Thomas’s
‘eternal I AM’ but they are absolute assurance of an eternal-seeming ‘this IS’.
For that, at the end of a day of waters and skies, you feel as grateful and as
humble as any worshipper.
The article 'Hiking Wales’ storied coastline' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.