Section 1: Anglesey (71 miles / 114 km)
From Holyhead there are two obvious routes across Anglesey, one tracing the south coast of the island, the other the north; both options follow the Wales Coast Path. In early summer sunshine, we followed the more varied and dramatic north coast before heading down the Menai Strait to Telford’s iconic suspension bridge. The coastal scenery was spectacular with rugged cliffs and wide sandy beaches. Five days later, we crossed back to the Welsh mainland and made our way along the other side of the Menai Strait to the cathedral city of Bangor.
Section 2: Snowdonia (60 miles / 94 km)
It was time to say goodbye to the Wales Coast Path and pick up the North Wales Path. This waymarked mid-level trail crosses the northern slopes of Snowdonia and offers fantastic views towards Puffin Island and Great Orme. The highlight is undoubtedly Aber Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Wales and particularly spectacular after the morning’s torrential rain. The valley below is incredibly pretty and a dedicated national nature reserve.
Leaving the North Wales Path, we were faced with our first major route choice: a high-level traverse of the Carneddau mountain range or a descent into the green valley of the Conwy. With the weather still iffy, we chose the latter then tacked back across the hills to Capel Curig, a walker’s Mecca in the heart of Snowdonia. Our route took us via Dolwyddelan and Beddgelert back down to the coast at Penrhyndeudraeth.
The new Pont Briwet still not open, we caught a rail replacement bus across the Dwyryd estuary to Llandecwyn and joined the mid-level Ardudwy Way, which winds across the westward slopes of the Rhinogydd mountains. In the poor weather, the stark mountains looked bleak and forbidding; by mid-afternoon, however, the landscape was bathed in sunshine and we decided to push on to Barmouth. As twilight descended, we enjoyed spectacular views towards Cadair Idris, and later still, descending from the mountains to Barmouth, we watched the sun setting over the Irish Sea.
Section 4: Cadair Idris (25 miles / 40 km)
The next morning was warm and sunny. Tracy wanted to spend a day relaxing at the seaside but, tired legs or not, we had another long day ahead of us!
We crossed Barmouth Bridge, captivated by the sparkling clear waters of the Afon Mawddwch, the golden sandbars and the distant mountains. Ahead, lay a long climb over Cadair Idris and an equally long descent into Llanfihangel-y-Pennant. After camping near the spectacular Craig yr Aderyn (Bird’s Rock), we continued along the Dysynni’s emerald valley to Abergynolwyn, then followed the tumbling Nant Gwernol stream up to the old quarry at Bryn Eglwys. Our hopes for an early finish in Machynlleth were dashed by a landslip, forestry clearances and an unforgivable navigational error. Our spirits were revived by a fish and chip supper from the award-winning Hennighan’s.
We left Machynlleth along Glyndŵr’s Way – one of three official national trails in Wales – and headed south into the gentler hills of mid-Wales. Our wild moorland route took us past Pumlumon – in good weather, one of Wales’s finest viewpoints – and into the steep wooded gorge of the Afon Rheidol. High above was Devil’s Bridge, where a tributary of the Rheidol, the Mynach, plunges some 300 feet (90 metres) down five great rocky steps into the Rheidol Valley.
A promoted path, the Borth to Pontrhydfendigaid Trail, provides an obvious route between Devil’s Bridge and Pontrhyd-y-groes. However, we opted for a more direct and much drier route across the open hills to the west. Entering the Hafod Estate, we combined a number of the restored walks created by Thomas Johnes (1748–1816) before continuing along the beautiful Ystwyth Valley to Pontrhyd-y-groes. We left the river and climbed across open moorland to Pontrhydfendigaid and the Cistercian ruins of Strata Florida.
After a night at the Black Lion, we ventured into the vast Tywi Forest. A long day’s walk took us past the isolated chapel of Soar y Mynydd and down the lovely Doethie Valley to Rhandir-mwyn. We suffered another night under canvas being plagued by midges. Exhausted, we decided to cut the next day’s walking short and rest up (and feast) in the pretty market town of Llandovery.
Field and woodland paths led us out of Llandovery towards Myddfai, a sleepy village on the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Here we joined a narrow, undulating lane to Llanddeusant, a hilltop hamlet best known for its well-equipped YHA hostel in the former Red Lion pub. Here, the warden kindly allowed us to eat our lunch on the bench outside – and made us a pot of tea as well!
We picked up the Beacons Way in Llanddeusant, planning to follow it for some 70 miles (113 km) to Hatterrall Hill on the English border.
We walked along a fabulous ridge walk high above Llyn y Fan Fach and down into the Tawe Valley. Here we shared a campsite with a large group of Duke of Edinburgh students – and a vast midge population.
Back in the hills, we continued eastwards to Storey Arms and caught a bus into Brecon where we stocked up on supplies and enjoyed a midge-free night in a hotel. The next day (Saturday), we joined the stream of walkers heading up Pen y Fan and leapt aside for the front runners in an annual fell race. The classic traverse of Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big was wonderful, despite the crowds. We passed above Tal-y-bont Reservoir and began our long descent from Tor y Foel to Llangynidr.
It was the longest day of the year. After a brief pub stop, we took advantage of the extra light and pushed on into the Black Mountains. Climbing out of the Usk Valley, we passed through Bwlch, then continued upwards on to the open common of Cefn Moel where there were excellent views of Llan-gors Lake, the largest natural body of water in southern Wales. We camped overnight at Cwm Du, where thankfully the midges were less troublesome than previously.
Pushing on to Cwm Du enabled us to bypass Crickhowell the next day and continue across the lower slopes of the hills to the distinctive flat-topped hill of Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. An undulating route then took us through the heart of the Black Mountains, crossing Crug Mawr to Patrisio and then on to another long ridge before a final descent into Llanthony. Determined not to spend another night under canvas, we booked into Llanthony Treats bunkhouse.
The next morning, we joined Offa’s Dyke Path and enjoyed stunning views back down to Llanthony Priory. We followed the Wales–England border on a ridgetop track before descending to the scattered village of Pandy. It was time to say goodbye to the mountains, and strike out across the green, fertile fields of northern Gwent.
Leaving Monmouth, we encountered another dramatic change of scenery: the sylvan slopes of the Wye Valley. We aimed to complete the 19 miles (31 km) to Chepstow in one day; a friend had offered to drive us home to Newport.
The day began with a steep climb over Kymin Hill, a wonderful viewpoint marked by a distinctive round tower. On our descent, we briefly entered England (was this in the spirit of a Wales end to end, we wondered?) before crossing back into Wales at Redbrook and joining the Wye Valley Walk.
On our last day and our feelings were mixed: we were relieved to be finishing, proud of what we’d achieved, but a little sad to be leaving the simplicity of life on the trail. Our celebrations began at midday with a cider in the Boat and, later, another at Tintern. We were walking through the picturesque Piercefield Estate when our friend Goff texted us. He was in Chepstow, early for the first time in his life. We upped our pace.
With the end in sight, I realised I didn’t want to stop walking. Perhaps we could carry on across the Severn Bridge? Or join the Wales Coast Path and walk back to Holyhead?
But we had to face reality – and that meant returning home. With heavy hearts, we passed Chepstow’s splendid Norman castle. At Old Wye Bridge we took the obligatory photographs and set off to find Goff.
We’d walked a total distance of 364 miles (578 km) and we were still standing.
‘Never too old to backpack: O Fôn i Fynwy: a 364-mile walk through Wales’ is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store priced at £2.99.