When I first heard about what Ursula Martin had done I found it hard to believe. Over a period of seventeen months she set out to walk 3,300 miles around Wales â€“ in the end she walked 3,700 â€“ including all the recognized long distance paths and other, river-long walks, she devised herself. Now sheâ€™s written a book about the experience, One woman walks Wales (Honno, 2018).
Ursulaâ€™s just one of several women whoâ€™ve recently made marathon journeys through Wales on foot. Hannah Engelkamp walked the Wales Coast Path and Offaâ€™s Dyke in the company of a donkey called Chico. Earlier, in 2012, Arry Beresford-Webb became the first woman to run the course of the same two paths, in 41 days.
Ursulaâ€™s walks began with illness. In 2011 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. An operation followed in February 2012 to remove the diseased ovary. The cancer hadnâ€™t spread, it seemed, but the experience left a deep impression, and Ursula set her mind on her astonishing plan. Her walk had two practical aims â€“ to raise money for the charity Target Ovarian Cancer, and to help make women aware of the dangers and symptoms of the disease, so that those affected by it have the best chance of early treatment.
But these aims hardly called for such an extreme ambition. Itâ€™s only gradually, and in a piecemeal way, that we gain some understanding, in the course of the book, about what might be the deeper motives for Ursulaâ€™s walk.
She starts by leaving behind her job and her home to walk from the source of the river Severn to its mouth, and then to Bristol to attend a hospital appointment. Immediately weâ€™re there with her on the bare slopes of Pumlumon, struggling with too much baggage, too little food, soggy boots, the cold of outdoor, tentless nights and above all the discomfort and pain of long-distance walking. This is a visceral book: she (and we) never lose awareness of how the body, and especially the feet and joints, rebel against the incessant strain and generate their many protests. Weâ€™re told too about all the stratagems Ursula uses in response, some physical, like straps, massage and rest, others mental â€“ especially an iron determination, never quenched, to carry on walking come what may.
Pain is maybe the commonest theme of the book. Hereâ€™s a typical, vivid description, from early on in the journey:
I was tired. Really, the groans were just a symptom of the effort Iâ€™d made to date: 395 miles covered in six weeks. The beginning stages of the walk brought the pain of blood swelling in my feet to cushion against the unexpected pounding, leading to a sharpened ache at the new internal pressure, feet feeling like clumsy stones at the end of every day, cells brutalized by the repeated thump and press.
Later, Ursula sums up the experience, and the prospect:
â€¦ half way through the effort, the grime, the sleepless nights trying to curl my body around the unyielding ground. There was the same again to come. All the high hills rising in front of me, all the muddy patches, all the gleefully saturated bog, all the pain: foot pain, back pain, neck pain, ankle pain. All the evenings spent hobbling, barely able to put feet to the ground.
She has particular foot trouble with a condition called plantar fasciitis. But the pain has to be endured. Ursula vows to
â€¦ accept pain as normal, accept throbbing feet, clicking knees, a heavy rucksack, the discomfort of sleeping outside, of turning an ankle in an uneven field â€¦
Sheâ€™s also aware, though, of the need for â€˜self-careâ€™ â€“ to look after her body, her safety (especially at night) and her mental equilibrium, so that she can cope with the hundreds of miles that lie ahead. And when that prospect seemed impossible she develops a way of forgetting the grand target and concentrating on the next steps: â€˜just go for a walkâ€™ is her brotherâ€™s advice.
Wild camping isnâ€™t the only way to spend the night. As word spreads about her gigantic walk and its fundraising, Ursula meets more and more well-wishers, especially women, who offer her shelter for the night, and much else, particularly encouragement and conversation. A few have suffered the same cancer as her, and others have experienced recent loss or trouble. And yet she confesses â€“ this is a brutally honest book â€“ that she often prefers to flee from people into her own company. Her preferred walking is in the deserted uplands of the Cambrian Mountains and north Wales, where a whole long day can go by without meeting anyone. You sense her favourite path was the north-south Cambrian Way, across the â€˜roofâ€™ of Wales, taking in the major mountains, like her favourite, Cadair Idris, and for the most part avoiding tarmac.
The walking, and the writing, are personal, intense, self-absorbed. Sometimes Ursulaâ€™s well aware of the price to be paid. Birds all around her â€˜had been singing the whole time and I wasnâ€™t listening â€¦ There was a whole world there for me to savour, and I was shutting the blinds and disappearing into my imaginationâ€™. And itâ€™s true that you wouldnâ€™t turn to this book if you wanted an insight into the geography, history or archaeology of the Wales her paths pass through: I found myself feeling annoyance at her failure to notice some of the wonders on the way (Llyn y Fan Fach is dismissed as â€˜dingyâ€™). But thatâ€™s because, above all, this is really an internal odyssey. Ursulaâ€™s aim is not seeing the sights, but seeing within herself, at a time of recovery from crisis â€“ or even a continuing crisis is her life.
So why is she walking? She never really tells us, and sometimes itâ€™s as if she doesnâ€™t know:
Cancer stopped my life as it was but didnâ€™t give me another one to continue with. I had to make one up and I chose to walk. If I couldnâ€™t walk I had no idea what to do next.
Cancer has left another imprint: the realization that life is short:
It made me aware of the blunt ending of death, its indifference to circumstances. Iâ€™m aware that my precious life would end at any moment and I need to make use of it because Iâ€™ll never get it back â€¦ Every month must be movement towards achievement, there was no time to let focus slide.
But maybe there are several other motives. One is to escape â€“ from her former life and its ties, and from her former, pre-cancer self. The way she chose to walk â€“ at extraordinary length, in inhospitable places, in solitude â€“ suggests a need to withdraw, like the early Christians who fled to live in the deserts of Egypt. Like them Ursula is an ascetic: her budgets are meagre (Â£150 a week maximum) and she survives through extreme economy and the kindness of strangers. Pain and discomfort, you feel, arenâ€™t just an unfortunate by-product of her exertions. She embraces them, almost seeks them out, as if to test her ability to withstand and overcome them, after the pain of her cancer and the treatment of it. Self-challenge is built into her psyche. And finally, walking is a therapy: â€˜Walking is healing for me â€¦ creating calmness within myself, building an appreciation of my qualitiesâ€™.
All this paints a picture of a grim fanatic. And Ursula admits that towards the end the days all merge into one, and that sheâ€™s become a â€˜walking machineâ€™, satisfied with her â€˜simple, mechanical lifeâ€™. All the walking has changed her:
I was part wild, my humanity dropped away over a year of outdoor living, careless of showers, and scents and shopping, forgetful of where to sit, of dirt on my clothes, of a dayâ€™s timings and schedules. Uncaring of appropriate behaviour, of anything but walking.
But sheâ€™s far from being a pedestrian automaton. Again and again she doubts her own abilities and her resolve. She knows that solo walking is a â€˜supportâ€™ but also a â€˜cageâ€™. She admits to misjudging people, like the youths she meets at Neath Abbey who seem so threatening but end by wishing her well. We find her in tears frequently, as when she comes across a dead baby calf, â€˜in a puddle of blood and mucusâ€™. One of the most moving parts of the book is when she interrupts her journey on hearing the news that her brother has suffered serious injuries after a car accident. She forgets her own mission and immediately goes to Derbyshire to be with him until the worst danger is over. Ursulaâ€™s not a humorous writer, but she can be wryly self-aware, imagining a supporter thinking of her as â€˜plodding on like Don Quixote, endlessly in search of 3000 milesâ€™.
â€˜The journey had overtaken everything in my life, there was nothing elseâ€™, she tells us towards the end. We, her readers, should be grateful for that, and that she was able to write about her remarkable experience with such style and sensitivity.
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Itâ€™s our last day, and a chance to fill a missing link, between Newborough and Brynsiencyn, the furthest point west we managed last year. We leave the car in the Llyn Rhos Ddu car park south of Newborough. In its centre is a metal sculpture by Ann Catrin Evans of several â€˜gafrodâ€™ or bunches of marram grass. The grass was planted from the sixteenth century in an attempt to stabilise the dunes and halt the spread of the sand. Local women harvested it, dried it in the sun, and wove it into ropes, mats and baskets. We walk along the main road for a short way, waving cheerfully at a huge and healthy sow across the wall, before turning down a long lane towards Afon Braint.
Just before the river thereâ€™s an unexpected notice, warning that some of the stepping stones across the river have slipped, and that we may prefer an alternative route â€“ back along the lane weâ€™ve just walked. We get half way across the river, but H finds difficulty with two of the slipped stones. After several attempts she has to admit defeat, and retreats with C to the main road for a long detour along the main road via the village of Dwyran. We agree to meet there. I cross the stones and walk up the grassy path along the bank, blossoming hawthorn on one side, a stone wall shielding the river on the other. Thereâ€™s plenty of time to stand still and watch. I wait, and soon all the local birds seem to come together in this tranquil place. A family of mallards swims upstream, one duckling trailing behind the rest, apparently forgotten. Two geese fly above, horns blaring like self-important SUV drivers. Swallows brush the air with their long tails. Iâ€™ve come too near to the nest of a couple of redshanks. They warn me off angrily, sitting on top of adjacent posts across the river on their long red legs and giving me the evil eye. As soon as Iâ€™ve gone they stop their yelling and resume their business. Thereâ€™s a kink in the river ahead and the path goes off through a meadow with sitting cows. Beyond it, another, more neglected path snakes through undergrowth to the main road, where I wait for C and H to arrive.
Eventually they appear, and we retrace my steps back to the coast path, and carry on. We cross fields, pass close to houses and reach a long lane carrying a surprising amount of traffic. Many of the fields are large, and left as flowering meadows, a rarity these days. Then a track takes us across the bottom of the estate of a mansion, Tal Gwynedd, before we turn downhill at last through fields to the shore of the Menai Strait. Immediately opposite are the eastern outskirts of Caernarfon, the castle grey and commanding to our right, and the mountains indistinct behind. The waterâ€™s quiet, and sandbanks are exposed in the low tide.
We take a break on a large stone on the shore. This spot is where the Tal y Foel ferry once took passengers to the other bank, before, and long after, Telford built the Menai Bridge. We set off again, crunching our way over the stones and crushed shells towards a lane that leads past a sea zoo. Next door is the headquarters of Halen MÃ´n, and we call in briefly. Weâ€™re not in time for a tour of the plant, but buy some special (and expensive) salt in their shop. (Salt is a simple and cheap substance, and Halen MÃ´n is a rare example of a Welsh company that relies for its success almost entirely on branding and marketing.) A ruined and abandoned boat lies in a field on the landward side of the road, wittily labelled (or relabelled) â€˜Uphill Struggle, Caernarfonâ€™. Then come more large fields. One passes in front of another mansion, white with a brilliant red front door. We swish through a tall grass crop, in the wrong direction until we spot a green metal kissing gate. Finally we come to a lane leading inland that looks familiar: this is the spot we reached a year ago. It takes us up to our second car, parked in Brynsiencyn. The village looks as closed as it seemed last year. The toilets, the pub, the shop â€“ all are shut. Only Horeb, the huge Presbyterian chapel that was the base for the notorious preacher and army recruiter John Williams, remains open.
And thatâ€™s the end of Anglesey for now. Weâ€™ve left a final three days to be walked on another occasion, from Valley to Amroth. Most of the afternoon is free, so we turn ourselves into tourists and visit two sites. First, Llangadwaladr Church, with its fifteenth century stained glass, seventeenth century chapel and, best of all, its stone inscription commemorating Cadfan, ruler at Aberffraw in the seventh century (in Latin, â€˜Catamanus [Cadfan], the wisest and most famous of all kingsâ€™). And second, Oriel MÃ´n in Llangefni, one of the finest art galleries and small museums in Wales.
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After Holy Island north, today three of us are tackling Holy Island south â€“ a much shorter and less strenuous trek. Itâ€™s a cooler and cloudier day. We start from Trearddur Bay. Just as it took half an hour to get into Trearddur from the north, it takes half an hour to leave it walking south. This must be one of the longest villages in Wales, with houses, mostly dull or worse, ribonned along the many coves and headlands of the coast. Some of the larger houses used to be hotels; the smaller and newer ones on the outskirts occupy the land of a long-gone gentry estate, traceable by the remains of its continuous wall and two â€˜lodgesâ€™. The road out is narrow but busy with traffic from several caravan parks at the end of town. (Caravan parks, a Coast Path staple, are common on Anglesey, but weâ€™ve noted a strange lack of another common coastal feature, sewage farms.)
Just as we think weâ€™ve escaped the urban sprawl and reached the coast over open heathland, a well-hidden settlement of static caravans appears, next to an attractive bay studded with small inlets and islands. Soon, though, weâ€™re striding along the open clifftops. Again, deep gulches open up in the rocks to our right, while the cliff edges are carpeted with spring squill and thrift. Soon we come across a large arch, and then a more spectacular one. We wish Pembrokeshireâ€™s Dr John had written our guidebook: the one we have betrays no interest in geology, and we feel the need for expert knowledge about the petrology of the cliffs. The second arch, Bwa Gwyn, has rocks of a vivid white colour, while later on patches of bright pink rock appear in lower strata. More stones are on the landward side of the path, in the form of an exceptionally fine drystone wall. Itâ€™s tall and extends for a mile of more, expertly crafted with big boulders in its lower courses and snugly-fitted coping stones.
We turn with the wall round the corner at Rhoscolyn Head and start moving eastwards. The path climbs, past St Gwenfaenâ€™s Well (the oily water looks unlikely to cure mental conditions, as claimed), towards the old lookout station. Itâ€™s now staffed not by paid public coastguards but by volunteers from the newish National Coastwatch Institution â€“ a neat symbol of the wasting of the public realm. A volunteer comes out to welcome us, and assures us â€“ in jest, with an undercurrent of menace, I thought â€“ that weâ€™ve been under his binocular surveillance for some time, â€˜to help keep us safeâ€™. We try to remember where we last had a pee and look anxiously ahead for future cover. From here the views of the coast and the offshore reefs are wide. Thereâ€™s a monument close by to Dennis Stephenson Wood, a geologist noted for his research into the Precambian rocks of the Rhoscolyn coast, one of the best places in Britain to study the cleavage and folding of older rocks.
Now we can see RAF Valley again. The piercing screams of its jets destroy the peace of the coast. Residents seem not to notice the din, but to visitors the aural pollution of the airplanes and helicopters is a constant scourge.
At Silver Bay thereâ€™s a tasteful wooden cafÃ© cabin. Itâ€™s not open, but we sit at a table outside to eat our sandwiches before turning away from the coast through a small pine wood. This is a different, quieter world, where the horizontal of the coastline suddenly turns vertical. But weâ€™re soon out of the conifers, and the next section follows a lane, as the sky darkens and rain threatens. We divert from the path up a lane to visit the White Eagle at Rhoscolyn, a gastropub where the other visitors have turned up with large cars and without boots and rucksacks (we huddle with our pints at a side table and look inconspicuous). The tactic works, and thereâ€™s no more rain.
Finally we regain the coast, marshy at this point, and tramp along the wooden boardwalks made by the Ramblers, to our destination, the old bridge at Four Mile Bridge. In the evening we celebrate the conquest of Holy Island by going for a meal in the Oystercatcher, near Rhosneigr. It has a fine view over the reed-fringed Llyn Maelog, a sizeable lake completely invisible from the road nearby. We spot a couple walking from the road through the tall reeds towards the lake. They disappear and fail to return, like the Lancashire pair on the cliff at North Stack. Perhaps this part of Anglesey is one of those places where, with the aid of Philip Pullmanâ€™s â€˜subtle knifeâ€™, itâ€™s possible to slide with ease into a parallel universe and leave a sudden absence in our usual world.
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Just the two of us today. Valley to Trearddur Bay direct is no more than three miles. Valley to Trearddur Bay via Holyhead Mountain, taking in a circuit of the northern half of Holy Island, is sixteen miles, and thatâ€™s our route. Weâ€™re lucky to have a day of continuous sun, from start to finish.
The first stretch, three quarters of a mile long, is dead straight, across the Stanley Embankment built by Thomas Telford in 1822-3 to connect the two islands across the Cymyran Strait. A tall wall separates the road and railway tracks, built so that the train engines would not frighten the horses. We stop three quarters of the way across to look at the water shooting through the sluice gate, watched by a gang of gulls. Past the porticoed tollgate house we divert from the road towards the east and enter the coastal woods of the Penrhos estate. The paths, full of dog walkers, are well provided with information boards, about red squirrels, conservation and much else. We pass a pet cemetery (â€˜Tiggy Puss, tragically killed, gone but not forgotten, rest in peace, little ladyâ€™). Emerging from the wood we climb a field to a stone viewing platform with an almost panoramic view, and catch our first sight of an enormous cruise ship moored at Holyhead. The tall cylindrical tower of the defunct aluminium works dominates the sky ahead of us.
Now weâ€™re walking into the town of Holyhead, past grey estates built to house workers in industries now closed down, and the grey obelisk commemorating Captain John McGregor Skinner, who lost an arm while fighting on the losing side in the American War of Independence and then captained Irish packet ships. The town centre holds reminders of its better days, like the many redundant parallel railway lines around the station. The main streets and their shops look tired and worn. In a cafe we stop to buy coffee and sandwiches to eat later. Several cruise ship passengers come in to ask for advice; C hears one of them ask the way to South Stack; another wants to know what a â€˜sausage rollâ€™ is. We seek out the official start of the Anglesey Coast Path, St Cybiâ€™s Church. The church, with its wealth of external sculpture, hides behind the tall wall of the late Roman fort. Weâ€™re surprised to see large numbers of people, of different nationalities, crowded in and around the church â€“ more refugees from the cruise ship. An elderly American man gatecrashes a coffee morning in the nearby chapel, demands to take a group photo, and requires everyone to smile. The locals comply.
We meet more cruise ship stragglers on the prom near the maritime museum. These too seem to be wondering why theyâ€™ve been brought to Holyhead. A Welsh Water caravan looks inviting. I call in to ask if they can give or sell me some water (itâ€™s already getting warm), but Iâ€™m told nothing is available except advice on how good Welsh Water is. The road turns into a lane, and the gleaming marina buildings give way to scenes of dereliction: an abandoned, rusty boat, a sign warning divers off exploring the SS Castilan, wrecked on the Skerries in 1943 with a cargo of high explosive, and a burnt-out castellated hotel, the Soldierâ€™s Point, its tall turret overwhelmed by ivy. We meet the last, more adventurous remnants of the cruise ship residents, taking selfies and killing time.
The townâ€™s finally at an end, and now weâ€™re alone. The white stone bulk of Holyhead Mountain lies in front of us. Its eastern face is heavily quarried, leaving tall vertical slabs of stone gleaming in the sun. Much of the stone was carried on a railway to build the breakwater of Holyhead harbour, a mile and a half long and, itâ€™s claimed, Europeâ€™s longest breakwater. Its construction took 28 years. Weâ€™re walking through rocky heathland, amid spring squill (seren y gwanwyn) and sea pink, in whatâ€™s called the Breakwater Country Park. The Parkâ€™s well cared for, with quirkily designed seats, little mosaics of local birds, and skilfully engineered stone paths and steps, designed to avoid erosion. The path climbs gradually to one of the quarries â€“ a tall chimney remains from a former brick factory â€“ and then up again towards the Mountainâ€™s summit. Resting to take breath, we look back on Holyhead and its harbour. One of the white Irish ferries pulls out, turns and disappears into the haze that covers the horizon.
The path falls towards North Stack, and we decide to stop for lunch there. Low buildings, all brightly whitewashed, house an observatory â€“ there used to be a fog warning and signal station here â€“ and an old magazine store, which looks like an early Celtic saintâ€™s sanctuary. We sit in the sun, with our backs to the white surrounding wall. In front of us is a luxuriant carpet of blue squills and pink thrift. A few yards away to our right is a sheer drop into the sea far below, and in the distance, a view of South Stack lighthouse. Thereâ€™s no one else in sight (only a rough track leads to North Stack). We agree that weâ€™ve never found a more perfect place to have lunch in five years of walking the Coast Path.
Our reverieâ€™s disturbed by the sudden arrival of a couple from the north of England. The man asks accusingly if we havenâ€™t seen the seals below. We havenâ€™t (but heâ€™s right, there are two seals there). Then he edges down the slope, to a few inches of the sheer drop. His partner begs him to move back, but he walks on down the slope. She follows him. We never see them again, and wonder whether the sea has swallowed them both.
South Stack, a mile or two more across the mountain, is different: it has road access. Dozens of tourists are here, admiring the lighthouse (but probably not paying the steep fee to go in), looking at the hundreds of sea birds gathered on the ledges beyond, and eating ice cream. Unlike most of them we descend from the mountain. I skip down rocks the hard way, along with two tough women in their seventies (we see them later, miles ahead of us). One of them asks us if weâ€™ve seen any puffins yet, and doesnâ€™t hide her disappointment in us when we say no.
The way down the west side of the Mountain is gentler, and follows the minor road. We stop to look at Cytiauâ€™r Gwyddelod, hut circles excavated by W.O. Stanley of Penrhos in the 1860s. They form a village of roundhouses on the lower slopes of the Mountain, inhabited from pre-Roman to post-Roman times.
The path leaves the road, and then hugs the rocky coast. Giant clefts open up. Each inlet features slanting flat slabs on the left, jagged vertical rocks on the right. In one of them an arch appears. A coasteering class is in train far below us: children totter on sharp rocks before hurling themselves into the sea. Thrift and sea campion colour the cliff edge. We see few other people, except a group of outward bounders being frogmarched across the heathland, until we get to Porth Dafarch, a perfect sandy cove for family holidays.
Weâ€™re beginning to tire by late afternoon, and need more frequent stops, as the path carries on along the clifftops, having to take long deviations to avoid deep inlets in the coastline. Finally we reach the first houses of Trearddur Bay, without realising that the village stretches over several miles of coastlines, fringing a series of coves and bays. The path keeps on leaving the road and diving onto headlands. On the last of these, a narrow path with threatening barbed wire, C loses his footing and collapses sideways into a rose bush. An angry oystercatcher, defending a nest, swoops after a crow, harrying the larger bird and uttering a piercing shriek.
At last we reach the car, exhausted but exhilarated. Itâ€™s been, we agree, one of the greatest days of the whole Wales Coast Path.
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In SgwÃ¢r Bodorgan in the centre of Aberffraw weâ€™re waiting for Gwynfor. After twenty minutes weâ€™re still waiting. Weâ€™re on the point of giving up and taking two cars when a bus turns up â€“ the original vehicle had broken down â€“ and weâ€™re bowling along the road south.
Today we have a second guest, Mi from Aberystwyth, after a gap of two years. Heâ€™s asked for a â€˜flat stretchâ€™, so weâ€™ve chosen the coast between Newborough and Malltraeth. Itâ€™s a sunny morning in Newborough, with a slight breeze and a hazy view of the mountains. We walk past Ebenser chapel, plain and pleasing, and the car park at Llyn Rhos Ddu, and make a quiet start along a track on the edge of Newborough Forest. To our left are precious sand dunes and hollows (â€˜slacksâ€™), home to numerous birds, plants and insects, including the vernal mining bee. Mi has brought his binoculars and birdlore. Within minutes heâ€™s spotted a kestrel flying out of the trees ahead.
This areaâ€™s now deserted, but was well populated before a disastrous storm in 1331 that obliterated the existing village. We pass the ruins of a farm, Clwt Glyb, and then weâ€™re on a sandy track moving through tall conifers, with a huge area of dunes between us and the sea. The forest was planted with Corsican pines between 1947 and 1965, to stabilize the sand dunes and prevent further erosion. After a while the path forks and we choose the left variant, across the dunes and on to a long beach with a distant view of Ynys Llanddwyn. To our right the dunes part occasionally to show the trees of the forest; on the left is the sea and the silhouettes of the mountains of Eryri and LlÅ·n. Even here machine noises pursue us: over the sea an RAF helicopter is hovering on manoeuvres, churning the waves below.
Llanddwyn attracts young lovers, but today itâ€™s oldies like us who haunt the place. The story of Dwynwen has its attractions â€“ her over-ardent lover, Maelon, is encased in a block of ice, and advice on love is dispensed by a talking eel â€“ but what draws people here is the long islandâ€™s situation, with superb views in every direction. We dutifully visit the sites â€“ Dywynwenâ€™s church, the pilotsâ€™ houses, the two towers. But the highlight is a clifftop picnic with a view of the Cefni estuary. Below us are two gulls: the female sits on her nest, the male stands guard a little way off and casts the odd solicitous glance at her. Cormorants have their own home, an island rock whitened by their excrement. Mi spots a small bird with a curious white head on a rock far below us, probably, he says, a turnstone.
We leave Llanddwyn and resume the long sand walk. Weâ€™re on our own again. Dunes, often delicately wind-sculptured, hide the forest edge. The wooden spines of a wrecked ship poke from the sands like dragonâ€™s teeth. With the help of an improvised sign (a blue bucket and an indelicate red rubber glove) we find a path across the dunes to the forest, where the coast path retreats to avoid the wide saltmarsh opening up in front of us. Tiny violas and yellow flowers line the path. M suddenly tells me not to move: next to my boot sits a small lizard, completely still except for his tiny lung.
Now we move through the forest. The trees arenâ€™t all coniferous, and gorse bushes, fresh with brilliant new yellow, line the way. The path turns into a track and then into whatâ€™s almost a pedestrian M1, as it moves north to meet the main road. It seems a long way. To help our spirits M, the keeper of the map, keeps assuring us, like a soothing parent, that we have only a kilometer to go (his kilometer is a flexible measure). From the road we join the cob, or dyke wall, which goes in a straight line for over a mile to Malltraeth. We were familiar with the Porthmadog cob, built by William Maddocks to block the estuary of the Glaslyn, but were unaware that this other cob existed. It was built across the river Cefni in 1812 (after an abortive first effort, authorised by Parliament in 1790), to reclaim land from the tides and allow the former saltmarsh to be used for farming (later in the nineteenth century coal was also exported via Malltraeth from the Berw colliery).
Itâ€™s a straight mile across the cob, on a tarmac cycle path, but the views are worth the slog: sands and saltmarsh on the sea side, and pools and farmland inland. Then up through the village street to wait for Gwynforâ€™s bus back to Aberffraw. M and Mi both leave for home, and weâ€™re reduced to three for the rest of the weekâ€™s walking.
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Itâ€™s still and warm as we deliver C to the railway station at Rhosneigr for the absurdly long train journey back to Swansea (including an enforced bus journey between Cwmbran and Newport). Someone has scratched the words â€˜â€¦ is shitâ€™ as a predicate to the platform sign for Arriva Trains Wales, the unlamented rail franchise holder soon to hand over to another foreign-owned, exploitative rail company. Fair play, the train arrives on time (though itâ€™s only come from Holyhead), a dirty two-carriage diesel from a distant age. As we wait, two jets from the flying school at RAF Valley scream in unison overhead â€“ just a prelude for many others today.
The four of us that remain hop on a Gwynfor Coaches minibus (M has to pay, as an England resident). GC pride themselves on using â€˜expert, local and bilingualâ€™ drivers. Ours takes us on a comprehensive tour of local villages, sometimes travelling in exactly the opposite direction to our destination (the same happened to us in Beaumaris). The train to Valley takes a couple of minutes, but the bus needs over twenty. As is common on north Wales buses, a passenger spends most of the journey leaning over the steering wheel, in constant conversation with the driver.
We get out, earlier than we should, in the village of Valley, and have to walk a mile along a busy road to the Stanley Embankment in order to cross the railway line and begin the walk south. Weâ€™re on the east side of the short strait that separates Anglesey from Holy Island. Here itâ€™s in effect a lagoon â€“ the tides have little effect, with the still water trapped between Telfordâ€™s embankment and the older bridge at Four Mile Bridge.
The path works its way along the scrubby, rock-strewn borderline between the shore and farmland inland. We climb through an abandoned quarry. Abandoned boats lie on the mud, with the grey lump of Holyhead Mountain behind in the distance. A man tows another boat through the shallows, with effort. Past Four Mile Bridge we reach a handsome, EU-funded barrage intended to control flooding. A swan spreads its wings on the water pool inland. Further south, open fields invite us to get lost, but a bright green line, worn down by feet as if by the land artist Richard Long, shows us the way forward. Another big, ploughed field hides its unknown crop under swirling lines of gleaming polythene â€“ another piece of land art.
We reach a deep inlet of the sea. The path round it means a diversion of half an hour at least. But the guidebook mentions an old stone causeway across the creekâ€™s mouth. Itâ€™s seen better days: the seaâ€™s washed away the trackâ€™s surface, the underlying stones are covered with slippery seaweed, and water flows through a gap. But we thread our way safely across and resume the coast path.
All this while the peace of the countryside has been periodically shattered by screaming jets. Now weâ€™re getting close to their origin, the airfield at RAF Valley. Rows of tall yellow metal poles, each bearing two landing lights, hold their hands up in supplication. Below one set, two people are working outside their caravan: either theyâ€™re deaf or theyâ€™re military aircraft anoraks, because no one else would willingly choose that pitch. At a spot thatâ€™s as close as youâ€™re allowed to get to the runways (â€˜do not loiterâ€™, says a sign), carfuls of jet fighter enthusiasts are gathered. The planes overhead hunt in packs of three. Often one of them peels away and takes a different route. Then they all turn, re-form, and return on the same path for another virtual attack. The roar is deafening, sometimes so extreme you have to hold hands to your ears. We hurry by as fast as we can, past a strange screen of vertical streamers and the skeleton of a new hangar, and with relief cross some dunes to the long sandy beach of Traeth Cymyran. The runway lies just beyond the dunes, which shield us from the sight, but not the sound of the monstrous machines.
We have the sand to ourselves except for an elderly German couple ahead of us. Despite the heat, heâ€™s huddled in a coat and strides impatiently on the sand. Sheâ€™s a long way behind him, paddling barefoot and dawdling and stopping to gaze at the waves. Soon we construct an imaginary narrative for them: theyâ€™ve come on a foreign walking holiday in a final, desperate but doomed attempt to save their relationship, exhausted by overfamiliarity.
Traeth Cymyran merges into a second long beach, Traeth Crigyll, with a long view of Rhosneigr. The town lies comfortably on its low hill, looking out to sea. At the eastern end of the beach Afon Crigyll blocks our entry into the town. The guidebook claims the water is paddlable, but we donâ€™t believe it, and take a mileâ€™s detour up the bank, along a winding sandy gulch, to a footbridge at the northern edge of the town. As we walk back to the centre M suddenly sprints across the road, camera in hand, towards a car parked ahead. The rest of us stand mystified. What weâ€™re looking at, M explains in wonder, is a rare example of a Land Rover extended at the back so that it has six wheels instead of four.
In need of consolation after the detour, and in a rare fit of hedonism, we order glasses of prosecco and a small mountain of crÃªpes and sauces in a cafÃ© in the centre of Rhosneigr. Two people join us at the next table and order a meal for themselves. Itâ€™s the German couple from the beach. They tell us theyâ€™re from Stuttgart and plan to walk on to Aberffraw. They seem entirely happy in each otherâ€™s company.
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Rhosneigr is a bloated seaside village, with some forgettable seafront houses, but once past them weâ€™re walking south into the morning wind on a long, dune-edged beach, Traeth Llydan. The sun has gone today and the distant mountains are reduced to grey silhouettes.
A wind surfer races across the water of the bay. Reaching its end, he flips his board, leaps in the air and reverses direction. Tugging the blue and red sail to take up the wind, he speeds back to his starting point, all with apparent ease and nonchalance.
Past the bay and up above the shoreline, pink thrift bursts from clefts in the rocks, themselves dressed in equally vivid yellow lichen. Then the flowers start to multiply, spring squill joining the thrift to clothe the walls and land to our left. Beyond another bay, on a headland, we spot what looks from a distance like a wartime sea defence or a nuclear bunker. Eventually, with the help of the OS map, it dawns on us that weâ€™re looking at a constriction thatâ€™s thousands of years older â€“ the massive neolithic burial chamber Barclodiad y Gawres (â€˜the she-giantâ€™s full apronâ€™). It was excavated in the early 1950s by Thomas Powell and Glyn Daniel and later restored in a heavy-handed way, with a heavy concrete entrance and a circular cap over the rebuilt mound. We point our cameras ineffectually into the gated, gloomy interior, taking on trust the elaborate patterns â€“ lozenges, spirals and zig-zags â€“ incised on the massive stones within.
Next comes Porth Trecastell, a bay with a curved rim, well hidden from the sea. In English itâ€™s called Cable Bay: it was once the terminus of an underwater link to Ireland, first laid in 1871. As we reach the car park by the road, a van and trailer pull up beside us. The trailerâ€™s labelled MÃ´n Ar Lwy, which turns out to be a witty pun (eats / on a spoon), since what it sells is Angleseyâ€™s top ice cream. The owner says that if we wait for his kettle to boil we can buy his coffee; and while we wait, why donâ€™t we try his â€˜hufen iÃ¢ clasurolâ€™? Heâ€™s a former secondary school teacher â€“ he recalls the secondary in Holyhead as an â€˜ysgol ryffâ€™ â€“ who retired and, with his wife, turned his hand to making fine ice cream. Now they supply it to outlets all over the island, and sell it at the National Eisteddfod. (Thereâ€™s a fault with the kettle, and itâ€™s twenty minutes and a few ice creams later before we get to drink the coffees.)
The next section south must rank as the Flower Coast of Wales. For a week or so at this time of year the slopes and cliffs are covered with sheepâ€™s bit scabious, sea pinks, violas, sqills, celandines, sea campions, primroses, vetches and other flowers. Normally, walking through such a natural carpet of blossom happens only in dreams, and this is a rare experience, even more intense than seeing the spring flowers of the north Pembrokeshire coast. Birds too are everywhere, especially skylarks, and oystercatchers. The oystercatchers stand on rocks by the sea, with their impossibly bright orange bills and elegant legs, as if theyâ€™d been created by contemporary Scandinavian designers.
For some time the air has been full of noises. Motor bikes â€“ a whole army of them, by the sound they make â€“ are racing round Trac MÃ´n (Anglesey Circuit) to the south. Now the Bodorgan Estate forces the (permissive) path to leave the coast and skirt the eastern edge of the Trac. Across a large field the noise grows to a crescendo â€“ screaming, squealing, roaring and bellowing â€“ but we can see nothing. Soon weâ€™re nearer still and edging the fence of the Trac, and the noise is deafening, but still we see nothing: a long rampart shields the view of the bikes. Finally we snatch a glimpse through a hedge, of machines flashing inanely past.
Down a lane past another Bodorgan Estate house and a small white house named, unpromisingly, Tyâ€™n Twll, weâ€™re back at the coast and suddenly see one of the wonders of Anglesey, St Cwyfanâ€™s Church, perched on its tiny island linked to the bay by a low-water trail of stones and pebbles. The island was surrounded by a high stone wall in the nineteenth century to counter sea erosion, which gives the plain white building a defiant, fortified air. Itâ€™s only two hours before high tide, but M and I decide to skip over the quickly submerging stones to visit the simple white church, which dates mainly from the fourteenth century. We linger only a couple of minutes, but the tideâ€™s coming in fast and weâ€™re almost too late coming back. The grit path has gone under water and weâ€™re forced to hop precariously from one wet boulder to another. The others, eating their sandwiches in safety, watch us with scorn and amusement.
The narrow path continues south, past small bays and inlets below us. In one of them a land artist has perched little piles of stones on the shore rocks, to create tiny figures, and a perfect arch. On spikes of flowering gorse skeins of spun silk, grey like plastic, are home to tent caterpillars, just emerging into the warmth. Then we round Trwyn Du and turn east, along the estuary of the Ffraw. On the opposite shore the dunes are fringed by a continuous strip of bright, white sand; the dark shapes of occasional walkers give the scene the air of a Dutch painting. The tideâ€™s high and as we come to Aberffraw village itâ€™s easy to image ships sailing up the river to dock below the medieval court.
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