Most hikers know the feeling. You’ve ventured far from your usual haunts and are about to explore somewhere new, a place that until now has just been a name on a road map. You’re excited but slightly apprehensive. Will this new destination live up to your expectations? It’s all just land, after all… mountains and valleys, woodlands and salt marsh, fields and gardens, beaches and cliffs. Can any one place really be that special?
Very occasionally you find it is… you arrive somewhere new and you’re instantly bewitched. You feel an affinity with the area, know with absolute certainty that you’ll return. Yes, I really believe it’s as possible to fall in love with a place at first sight as it is with another person.
Our hiking adventures in Wales often take us to new destinations and this time it was the Llŷn, a thirty mile peninsula jutting into the Irish Sea. Historically, it was a place frequented by pilgrims as they passed through it on their way to Bardsey Island; nowadays, the attraction is the stunning coastline (the Llŷn Peninsular Coastal Path – around 84 miles in length – is part of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path).
Llŷn’s most famous residents are probably Duffy (the singer was raised in Nerfyn on the north coast) and the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R S Thomas, who was vicar at St Hywen’s Church in Aberdaron from 1967 to 1978.
I had visited the Llŷn on one previous occasion. It was spring 1998 but the weather was anything but springlike when my middle daughter was performing at the Urdd Eisteddfod, an annual Welsh-language youth festival of literature, music and performing arts. We stayed in converted stables near Transfynydd, drove to a large park and ride somewhere closer and were finally transported onto the peninsula proper by bus. It was cold, foggy and drizzly; if there were spectacular views to be seen, they were well hidden.
I do recall visiting and being impressed with nearby Portmeirion, an exquisite Italian village designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, but of the Llŷn itself I remembered very little.
Fortunately, life was giving me a second chance to get acquainted with this stunning landscape. Harri’s latest commission with a large outdoor publisher has taken us all over Wales, but most recently, we’ve been checking existing and devising new circular walks in North Wales and the Llŷn was notable for its absence in earlier editions. Clearly, previous contributors hadn’t deemed the peninsula exciting enough to include in a book which also covered walks in Snowdonia; fortunately for me (and future purchasers of the revised publication) Harri felt differently.
He suggested to the publishers that they include two Llŷn walks, each hugging sections of the spectacular coastal path before veering inland to take hikers back to their starting point, and thank goodness they gave him the thumbs up.
Our first stop was the former fishing village of Aberdaron, on the westerly most tip of the peninsula. It’s one of the prettiest places imaginable, with a long sandy beach and lots of old cottages. One cafe – Y Gegin Fawr – dates back to around 1300 when it was a place where the saints could claim a meal before crossing the sound to Bardsey Island, the legendary ‘island of 20,000 saints’.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the village developed as a shipbuilding centre and port, with thriving mining and quarrying industries.
On a sunny day in the middle of March, we were enchanted by Aberdaron’s quiet charm. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, there was a complete lack of public toilets (both the village and beach facilities were closed ‘for winter’). The National Trust is currently building a new visitor centre ‘to bring to life Llyn’s unique history, culture and environment’ so hopefully future visitors to the village won’t be inconvenienced. The clunky sounding Aberdaron Coastal Centre of Excellence will soon be renamed Porth y Swnt (meaning Gateway to the Sound) thanks to local primary school pupil, Elliw Jones. The board outside promises the centre will ‘provide you with the opportunity to discover something new and exciting about the area, and inspire you to explore this wonderful landscape’.
We didn’t need inspiring; the sun was shining and the coast path above was beckoning. First though, we popped into St Hwyen’s Church, which must have one of the loveliest settings of any church in Wales, its graves peppering the slope above the beach.
The climb out of Aberdaron is tough going, and is rapidly followed by several steep descents and ascents (which might have been one of the reasons we passed only three other hikers for miles). As we turned the headland, puffing and panting, we were rewarded with our first glimpse of Bardsey Island, which at just under two miles away is tantalising close to the mainland.
In the 5th century, the island was a refuge for persecuted Christians but these days the majority of its residents tend to be of the feathered kind. The island was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1986 and is a favourite bird-watching location (a bird observatory was established in 1953 and each year, during the night, seven thousand pairs of Manx shearwaters come ashore to nest here). The island isn’t only popular with birds – an advertisement in 2000 for a tenant for the 440 acre sheep farm drew over a thousand applications (these days, the island tenancy is held by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).
Bardsey also boasts an unusual square lighthouse. Built in 1821, at a cost of £5,470 12s 6d plus a further £2,950 16s 7d for the lantern, the lighthouse is 98 feet high, unplastered inside and out, and retains its original iron gallery railings (the present-day lantern, fitted in 1856, didn’t require their removal). The lighthouse, now electrified, has four feet thickness walls at its base (reducing to three feet at the top) and sadly, has many bird casualties despite all attempts by the RSPB to minimise the danger it poses to migratory birds.
I’ve always loved coast path walking and the stunning scenery on this most westerly tip of the Llŷn peninsula must surely rival the much-loved Pembrokeshire Coast Path, however it was when we left the Wales Coast Path to cross back to Aberdaron that I was truly captivated by this place.
One thing that struck me was that despite its proximity to Snowdonia, the peninsula’s mountains are far less dramatic in height and ruggedness. True, there are lots of hills (volcanic in nature) which give the land an interesting, undulating appearance, but these are green, grass-covered affairs, where sheep graze contentedly alongside washing lines (one of the footpaths took us through someone’s garden where we had to duck the freshly laundered clothes!).
The houses, too, looked at one with their environment; old stone cottages dotted here and there as though they’d burst forth from the stony landscape surrounding them and dry stone walls meandering around the natural slopes.
At this westerly end of the peninsula, there was so little traffic on the roads it was easy to convince ourselves that we’d stepped back in time several decades.
In his poem, ‘The Other’, R S Thomas wrote of ‘the long shore/by the village, that is without light/and companionless’ and it is perhaps the Llŷn’s relative isolation that makes it so special.
Many years ago, I stepped off the helicopter onto St Marys, Isles of Scilly and felt as though I’d died and gone to heaven; it’s been a long wait but that feeling came back with force when I stepped onto the Llŷn Peninsula.
P.S. I’ll write about our second walk, from Hell’s Mouth, in a separate blog.