Mid-September and the last of the summer is holding its breath. It brings blue skies, a fine breeze, a languid sea, and a kindly sun that warms the skin without burning it. I’m back with C. for three more days of gentle coastwalking in mid-Ceredigion.
For no good reason we start walking from north to south, beginning in Aberaeron. In the harbour lies a yacht called ‘Awel Haf’ – a good omen. The town clings tightly to the pastel good taste that, together with its honey and ice cream, lures its day visitors. Once you reach the southern outskirts different idioms emerge. Neuadd Ceredigion (1990), defiantly styleless, is followed by two villas, both pixie-classical in inspiration. Alcoves, balustrades, columns, urns and statues are scattered about them in a baroque, sugary mix. In the garden of one of the houses stands a statue of a horse, as if live horses were hard to find in these parts.
The climbing path is broad and grassy, bordered by dying bracken, white grass stalks and flowering gorse. Many stretches of the Path between New Quay and Aberystwyth, green, sunken and track-like, seem ancient. Maybe they predate the main coast road by centuries. The land slopes gently down towards us from the east, then again down to the sea, which, through the three days, not once betrays its mammalian life – not even a single seal. The occasional fishing boat from Aberystwyth meanders between lobster pots.
In the distance New Quay gleams white and indistinct in the heat haze. Three streets fan out from the harbour and up the hills on each side, like a military moustache.
Gilfach-yr-halen, once the home of salt smugglers, according to our guide, Gerald Morgan, follows a common model of development. The original isolated farmhouse has become the focus for a large and ugly caravan park. C. explains to me the social stratification of caravanning: the mobiles apparently feel superior to the ‘statics’, normally located in a separate enclosure. The statics here are spartan-looking and resemble barrack blocks. The park, like the others we pass, is preparing for its long winter sleep.
The going is easy. A rare valley on this stretch is Cwm Buwch, one of Gerald’s ‘delightful dingles’, where a stream clatters over horizontal strata before losing itself over a small waterfall into the sea.
The land here is poor. Its characteristic plant is the thistle, its seeds billowing on a big hillside field beside a wood. At Cei Bach we divert from the path to break out on to the long, almost deserted beach, and sit on some rocks to eat. The sun is at its height and we’ve become a touch light-headed. A small sailing ship with Samian red sails moves slowly from left to right. A woman with green boots and a large dog emerges from the wood behind us and walks with purpose along the beach towards the boat. Its owner edges his vessel slowly towards the shore. Some words are exchanged. Suddenly, in the drowsy midday heat, we’re transported back to the years before the First World War, when rumours of German espionage were in the air and The riddle of the sands was a bestseller. The mysterious woman, evidently, is a fifth columnist, the boat owner a German spy. Furtively she passes to him a secret code to the British Empire’s naval secrets. He checks the message, quickly turns the bow of the skiff and heads out to sea, to deliver his deadly communication to the chancelleries of Berlin …
Llanina Point divides Cei Bach from another wide sweep of bay leading to the harbour at New Quay. The cliffs here, of glacial clay, are holed with a succession of small caves, and above them slender trees totter on the edge. On the sands at New Quay we’re back, not in the 1900s but the 1950s. Retired couples in deckchairs are lost in their Robert Ludlums and Lee Childs. Lads throw boules up the beach, and two girls play backgammon. The smell of vinegar plays gently on the light breeze.