From the sandy arc of Traeth Lligway beach, we work south onto a headland high enough for a glimpse down to the tip of distant Point Lynas, its fields and pastures emerald green in the pale sunshine. A stiff breeze blows in off the Irish Sea, but we're lucky with weather: sunshine in Wales is never a gift to be taken lightly. Here on this remote coast of the island of Anglesey, conditions even now, in May, could be downright dangerous. Today we have it easy, a breezy but mild spring day. The surf may roll purposefully ashore, pushed with some force by the wind, but the day is warm and in the waves we catch a glimpse of an Atlantic gray seal.
Under filtered sun our small group hikes along the good trail, the sea and surf crashing on one side, a farmer's field full of sheep on the other. Variety is part of the charm of hiking the Wales Coast Path. The way can climb up and over a wild headland one moment, then turn down a country lane the next, only to end up in a picturesque village miles from any highway. On the section we hike today, ancient stone walls define every field, and through most of these the prized Welsh notion of "right of way," the right of any person to cross the field (just be sure to close the gates), holds sway.
We round a corner to see suddenly the imposing bulk of a large monument standing incongruously in the middle of a sheep pasture. We clamber over one of the "gates" in the stone wall, just a dip in the height of the wall with rock steps that facilitate climbing, to see the carved stone is a marker to commemorate the tragedy of the Royal Charter. The ship went down in the mid 1800s with appalling loss of life, a debacle made even more sad by the fact most victims were returning after years of hard labor from the Australian gold fields with pockets and suitcases full of the precious metal.
The coast of Anglesey has seen more than 100 shipwrecks, most of which occurred in the first half of the 19th Century. The Royal Charter went down in 1859 in one of the epic storms that regularly visit this volatile northwest coast of Wales. The captain ran the ship aground in a desperate measure to save his passengers, yet more than 400 people lost their lives just a hundred yards from shore, so tumultuous was the surf. A handful survived thanks to the brave men of the village of Moelfre, but still the tragedy defines this stretch of coast. So ghastly was the incident, the Times of London sent its star correspondent to cover the tragedy: Charles Dickens himself, the man who became one of the English language's greatest novelists.
For us, it's a grand day on the Wales Coast Path, itself both a unique concept and a brand new reality: the Welsh government decided to link together a myriad of existing trails, and create connectors as needed, to make a grand traverse of the entire 870-mile coastline of Wales. We'll be lucky to complete a hundred miles of it in the five days we have, but just this bit is enough to have us planning our return to sample more. This is a coastline loaded with interest.
In fact, a few hours further south of the shipwreck site and we come to Penmon Point, and it's lighthouse, well marked by Puffin Island. The comical, attractive birds elude us today, but a few hundred yards inland we find the ancient church of Penmon Priory, and it's storied St. Seiriol's well, dating from the sixth century and said to harbor healing powers for those who drink. But seemingly every place in Wales is infused with magical properties--or at least a millenia of history.
That evening we stop in the village of Beaumaris, staying for the night at Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, the very place in fact where Charles Dickens slept while covering the breaking news of the Royal Charter disaster. Great hiking aside, the Welsh Coast Path comes with a lot of intriguing extras. There's something unforgettable about sitting in this pub of a 400 year old inn drinking a single malt whiskey--the Welsh version, Penderyn, distilled in south Wales, and quite distinctive from its Scotch or Irish counterparts. By the glow of the fire I could feel the palpable presence of one of my favorite writers, who quite likely had done the very same thing I was doing, and in the very same spot, just a couple of centuries earlier.
And all of that nineteenth century stuff is pretty much recent history for Wales. For the real deal, check out the Neolithic burial chamber near Lligway, dating to ancient cultures from 3000 BC. Or walk two blocks down the street for a stroll through Beaumaris Castle, built in the 1200s by the English King, Edward I. After waging war in the Holy Land during the Crusades, Edward hadn't had enough of fighting, so he decided to conquer Wales. Which he did do, helped by a string of imposing forts built in less than a decade along this coast of North Wales.
Fair warning, however: in Wales, there are so many mind blowing castles that the visitor from abroad is susceptible to "castle fatigue." After hiking a stretch of trail over the Great Orme, an enormous bald mountain--or more accurately, a limestone headland rising improbably 900 feet above the sea--our coastal path took us into the town of Conwy and the remarkable Conwy Castle, another creation of Edward I. This still impressive fortress includes some of the best preserved medieval town walls remaining in Europe, so one's hike along the coastal path can also include a mile or so along these 800 year old ramparts. Just when you think you've seen it all, something completely unexpected appears on the horizon when you're hiking the Wales Coast Path.
People ask me: Is it feasible to camp along the route? It's probably possible to pitch a tent for the night in a few locations on this coastal trek, but it would be dumb. There are so many lodgings of interest along the way that the overnight stops become a highlight of the trip, people and places that offer a tantalizing glimpse into Welsh culture. Our group stopped for the night at the centuries old village of Nant Gwrtheyrn, for a hundred years one of the most productive rock quarries in all of the UK, nestled in its deep valley. The place was abandoned and eventually fell to rack and ruin. But the noble stone buildings were saved and restored by a local trust in the mid 1970s, and Nant Gwrtheyrn now serves not only as overnight accommodations, but as a center for teaching the Welsh language.
For the uninitiated, Wales is definitely part of Britain but most definitely not English. With its own distinctive culture, history and language, Wales is--much like Scotland and Ireland--an integral part of the United Kingdom while retaining its unique identity. A resurgence in nationalism in Wales has fueled a movement to teach and practice the Welsh language, which, like Gaellic, bears little resemblance to English. The Welsh flag, with its proud red dragon, serves as an ever present symbol of the Welsh culture within the larger context of Great Britain.
From our modern accommodations within the restored historic stone buildings at Nant Gwrtheyrn, our route took us down to the beach where we hiked by by the remains of the old docks from which quarried stone was shipped to Liverpool. The trail headed west now, down the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula, and over a striking headland, green with spring rain. This was some of the wildest terrain we had seen so far, nothing but blue sea, blue sky and green fields. Predictably, however, the route soon crossed the headland, picked up a country lane and began to meander through fields full of newborn lambs. Unique Welsh "kissing gates," sort of like turnstiles, allow humans to pass though no gate is ever really open, so the animals are safe.
This section of the Wales Coast Path follows what is known as the Pilgrims Trail as it works its way to the extreme western end of the peninsula at Bardsey Island. This is the famous "island of 20,000 saints," as legend holds that all who die there become sainted. The island has been for a thousand years a focal point for religious pilgrims. But the weather is often bad, and the ferry crossing to the tiny, remote island hit and miss, so my party chose to have a lunch of fresh local crab and lobster in the village of Aberdaron before heading for Portmeirion and our last night on the path.
The mad vision of architect Clough William-Ellis, the village of Portmeirion defies description. William-Ellis borrowed heavily from Italian architecture, but that hardly does the place justice. "Eclectic" might best way to describe buildings that clamber up the hillside in a riot of colors and forms. The unique cluster of structures was the location for the 1970s cult television show, The Prisoner, and every episode was filmed here. Portmeirion was a favorite retreat of Beatle George Harrison, and many other British rock musicians. It is now renowned for its excellent accommodations and food, and the fine china that bears its name.
It was fitting to end our trek along the path here, a place utterly unique, but characteristically quirky, as is much of Wales. And the bold vision of the Wales Coast Path, both in scale and in interest, mirrors the independent streak one finds everywhere in the small nation. The only country to have a route that hugs its entire coast, Wales can now boast of a hiking path that crosses cliff tops, follows sandy beaches, and enters villages and coves you would surely miss if you were traveling by car.
If you stay with all 870 miles of the Wales Coast Path, you'll even walk by the Wales parliament building, the Assembly and into the big cities of Cardiff and Swansea. The more remote north coast of the country was probably better suited to my tastes, and given the length of this path, there are even wilder sections yet to discover farther west. But whether you follow it for a day or for a month, this epic route will show you a side a Wales most visitors never see.
Most international visitors to Wales choose to arrive via Manchester, a major international airport but one far easier to negotiate than London's Heathrow. Manchester is served by American Airlines and other U.S. carriers. Public transportation makes getting around to various points along the trail easy, and some operators will even ferry your luggage on to the next night's venue. For more information, see Visit Wales, or the national site for the Wales Coast Path.