There’s a royal wedding on, but we’re somewhere else entirely. Ca and I point the car towards the far north, through Talley, Temple Bar and Llanrhystud in the bright May sunshine. Coffee in Pysgoty in republican Aberystwyth, where protests quickly forced Oxfam to remove pictures of Harry and Meghan from their bookshop window, and a sandwich in the National Park car park at Minffordd. The park’s full, and probably the Park too: this is no day for climbing Cadair Idris. We reach Aberffraw, our base for the next week, by mid-afternoon, by chance at exactly the same time as C and H.
The four of us decide on a gentle introductory stroll, from Malltraeth back to Aberffraw. Malltraeth sits on the river Cefni, which quickly broadens downstream into an estuary. A cob was built here in 1812, after an earlier attempt failed, releasing many acres of land for grazing animals. A folk song, Cob Malltraeth, tells of the horrors that would follow any breach in the dyke: ‘os torriff Cob Malltraeth, mi foddiff fy mam’ (if Malltraeth cob breaks, my mother will drown). Inland, the river is straight and canalized, and crossed by a railway viaduct.
To the south, in the slanting sun, the mountains of Eryri and Llŷn stand out clearly in a row like a line of schoolchildren. Some, like Snowdon, are stout and commanding, others are angular and leaning, with cavities scooped out of their middles. Malltraeth, an information board reminds us, was once the home of the artist Charles Tunnicliffe, faithful recorder of local birdlife.
The village is basically just one street, with a fish and chip shop and two pubs. The Joiners is open: a large man with his upper half exposed and red is downing pints outside the door. The Royal Oak is a wreck, its rear semi-demolished.
The path leaves the main road and threads its way discreetly along narrow shrub-lined tracks, parallel to the coast, and then across the bottoms of gardens belonging to largish houses, extended and with big windows to drink in the mountain views. After a while the tracks are replaced by a series of quiet tarmac lanes. Swifts and swallows dart within feet of our heads. We pass old whitewashed farmhouses with small windows, almost all provided with green plaques to tell us that they belong to the Bodorgan Estate. These give the area an air of persistent feudalism – a geographic counterpart to the royal wedding. We pass two lodges guarding long drives to the Big House, and a continuous stone estate wall, pierced by regular ‘arrow slit’ openings, as if to defend the estate against encroaching natives.
The final, straight lane crosses an area of sand dunes. At its end, and entirely on the north bank of the river Ffraw, is Aberffraw (Berffro in the vernacular – there’s a Berffro cake, ‘teisen Berffro’). A compact village that lacks the usual ribbon sprawl, it shelters on the south side of a low hill, out of sight of Irish Sea marauders. An elegant stone bridge, built in 1731, crosses the river, a stream that once bore sea-going ships.
M, our regular guest walker, is waiting for us in our home for the week, a converted vestry at the bottom of Seion Methodist Chapel. Seion is a grim mortared pile of 1887 with a hideous mix of architectural styles (Lombardic/Italian according to the Royal Commission). There’s another, older chapel in Stryd y Capel, built in a plainer and handsomer classical style. Between the two is a triangular ‘square’, Sgwâr Bodorgan, with two essential surviving buildings, a post office and shop and an excellent pub, Y Goron, where we sample the beers. Beyond the centre are humdrum modern houses and bungalows, arranged in grey horizontal terraces. They hide the occasional much older cottage.
In one respect Aberffraw is a disappointment. It’s an ancient place – the site of a possible Roman fort, and where the wedding feast of Branwen and Matholwch took place in the second branch of the Mabinogi. For centuries, from at least the ninth (and probably much earlier) to the twelfth century, Aberffraw was the royal capital of Gwynedd and north Wales. Nothing at all now remains of its splendour, beyond a few fragments of sculptured stones unearthed last century. Its buildings were no doubt systematically destroyed by Edward I when he built the new castle of Beaumaris and settled the Welsh expelled from Llanfaes in the new town of Newborough. Even its exact site is uncertain. Much the same obliterative treatment was meted out after the conquest to the Welsh-built castles, like Deganwy, Castell y Bere and Dolforwyn. Today you have to search hard to find traces of the medieval Welsh kingdoms. Cadw looks after many of the Welsh castles, but keeps them almost as hidden secrets, and gives them much less attention than the English castles. A damaged Jonah Jones sculpture is the only thing visible in Aberffraw today to mark the Welsh princes (a small one-man heritage centre is now closed). The question has to asked: why isn’t there a major interpretation centre in the village explaining its significance as a centre of power and learning?