In the early morning sun the T1 bus bowls down from Aberystwyth to Llanrhystud. We thank the National Assembly twice over: for our free bus passes, and for the campaign by Elin Jones AM to replace the bus routes suddenly abandoned by the wicked Arriva.
The coast road has ruined the centre of Llanrhystud, but the side streets survive intact. In Church Street the terraces, one of them directly attached to the Black Lion, and then elegant detached villas, lead down to Richard Kyrke Penson’s rebuilt church (1854). Penson knew all about how to build a striking broached spire. Spires are rare in Cerdigion and this one dominates the coastal plain to the south west: ‘as focal as in a painting by Samuel Palmer’, as ‘Pevsner’ says in a rare poetic moment. Here and in the rest of the building Penson coordinates the different masses with a skill that encourages the eye to linger.
Capel Salem (1823) makes a nice contrast to the established power of the church. It sits shyly in the grass, back from the road, on the other side from the church (you can imagine the Baptists keeping their eyes right as they approached): a simple box, plainly painted, with two elegant arched windows and a blue door to their right.
Down on the coast another caravan site sprawls to south and north across the flat green fields. This time the original farmhouse, Pengarreg, has been whitewashed over, windows and all, so that it’s spared the sight of the suburbs on wheels that have overwhelmed it. Many of the mobiles have garden sheds and other additions so that the inhabitants don’t feel too far from home. We’ve climbed and turned on the path north for a couple of miles before the park is finally out of sight.
C. has his walking sticks today and the going is harder, as the path winds up and down among the green ridged hills, where the sheep seem surprised to see us (there are few other walkers). To our left the sea has bitten irregular chunks out of the line of turf and clay. To our right a desultory fence sits on top of a stone wall. The stones aren’t laid flat but set at a 30 degree angle, as if in recognition of the slant wind and rain that often sweep across the cliffs. Today, though, everything is still and the sky is all blue. The low sun makes dark fingers of the many inundations along the coast to the north; the plain in the distance is hazy in the heat that’s already building.
Near the strangely named rock Carreg Ti-Pw a lone fishing boat appears off the coast. Later it’s succeeded by another, then another, then two kayaks, each of them slowly paralleling our progress and shadowing us through the rest of the day, so that we begin to feel – coastwalking may cause mild levels of paranoia –suspected and surveilled by dark forces. We’re still watching out for dolphins, seals and choughs, but none appear, just a few cormorants. But there are plenty of sheep. They pose obediently for our cameras. In one shot they arrange themselves in a low hill, suddenly reminding us – wild imaginings are also part of the coastwalking experience – of the Sermon on the Mount.
Houses are few, but we pass Mynachdy’r Graig, once a monastic grange of Strata Florida Abbey. Gerald tells us that the monks were given the right by the Welsh princes to ‘exploit wrecked ships’ on the coast, a practice that seems to fall some way short of principled Christian behaviour. Then we reach the abandoned farm of Ffos-las. The house stands gutted. Its widows are empty and one of them shows signs of a fierce fire. Outbuildings are mostly in ruins too, except for one: terrified sheep pour from its inside when we approach and plunge down the slope towards the sea. Below is a caravan, also apparently abandoned, perhaps after a vain attempt to rescue the farmhouse. We wonder whether the producers of Y Gwyll / Hinterland have found this location yet; its sinister emptiness and potential for televisual murder surely hold promise.
By now we’ve excited the interest of a pair of red kites. One of them circles us curiously, to make sure that we’re still moving vigorously, before gliding off – the gentle thermals mean no effort is needed – to search for more convenient prey. Other kites remain in sight almost all the rest of the walk.
After Ffos-las we find ourselves in an ancient sunken lane, lines with dykes and stone wall. At one point the path passes through what Gerald calls ‘a virtual tunnel of hawthorn’, the bushes bursting with red berries. The path descends towards Morfa Bychan, another Strata Florida grange but now the site of a (well-planned) caravan park. We stop to eat our pasties and flapjacks well above the sea, before by-passing the caravans and starting on the grassy path that leads up and up to the heights of Allt Wen.
Spread below us at the top of Allt Wen, beyond Pen Dinas, lies Aberystwyth. We stop and ponder in silence the years we’ve both spent there, before starting on the steep, knee-wrecking descent to Tan-y-bwlch beach. It’s low tide and we elect to walk along the edge of the waves, over the long shingle towards Trefechan and the bridges over the twin rivers. In a cafe in Chalybeate Street we sit in the window and watch the busy people of the town come and go, maintaining our anonymity until Rheinallt Llwyd, a far great walker that the two of us, happens upon us and shares a word.