Same journey, same start point, but we’re now down to three, C, H and me, for our last day in southern Llŷn. Llanengan seems a bit busier than yesterday, though it’s a quieter place than it was when lead was mined here (a chimney still stands above the village). We walk down to Porth Neigwl, past a colony of swifts swerving among the telegraph wires and sending their short electronic messages to one another over their miniature internal mobiles.
The official path takes a zigzag line parallel to the bay through inland fields, but since the tide is ebbing we choose to stay on the sand, a long gentle curve of three to four miles northwards. It’s a brighter day than yesterday, and even sunny at times. The sand’s firm underfoot, and the beach scoured clean of shells and debris. Low cliffs of mud, or stone that has the consistency of mud, crumble on to the sands, leaving odd pillars and parallel streaks as if giant fingernails had run down them. The rare mason bee (Osmia xanthomelana), we read, builds nests on the dune faces. Traces remain of Second World War military installations – part of the bombing school at Penyberth near Llanbedrog, famously torched by Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams in 1936 in protest against the alien militarization of the area. Later on we see a large metal half-drum lies mysteriously on the sand.
For over an hour we sandwalk, a light wind blowing from the western sea and weak sun gently warming our upper bodies. Towards the north end a hawk hovers motionless for minutes above the gable end of a whitewashed house above the shoreline. A path up the cliffs is marked by a post and a long rope hanging from it to help ascent. At the top we’re on a high lane, lined with a virtual museum of redundant farm machinery, that follows the hill’s contour below the village of Rhiw. The sun reappears just as we reach the drive up to Plas yn Rhiw, the sixteenth century manor house owned by the National Trust. The house isn’t yet open, but crucially the café is, and we’re restored by coffees all round. The woman serving us thinks we should know about the impending visit of Charles and Camilla, but I explain that it’s unlikely we’ll be turning out to wave flags and cheer.
So we know
she must have said something
to him – What language,
life? Ah, what language?
Thousands of years later
I inhabit a house
whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here
by the sea they said little …
Some years ago, Ca and I happened to meet his son Gwydion on the street in Aberdaron, and he invited us back to see the family home, where he was staying at the time. We were there for most of the afternoon. We saw the living room where RS and his wife spent the evening in front of a feeble fire, under the unceilinged eaves of the roof, and listened to Gwydion’s bitter recollections of his childhood and his cold, remote father.
We’re now deep in RST territory. After an interlude in a sheltered wood pierced by sunshine, we walk up to a wild, high land between rocky sea and gorse hill, where birds – songbirds, waders and raptors – share the air. We climb up Mynydd y Graig and then out on to the rocky promontory of Penarfynydd, high above the sea and giving views west, and far to the south, the other end of Cardigan Bay. It feels like the end of the world, even though we’re yet to reach the true Pen Llŷn. From Aberystwyth the curvature of the earth makes these peaks look like islands rather than parts of a peninsula.
We stop on the leeward side of the outcrop on this extreme place and eat a hurried lunch. It’s darkening quickly and within minutes rain starts to fall and the wind blows in gusts. We drop down the side the mountain on a path almost parallel to the one we used to get here, looking down on a patchwork of fields and a pig farm. The path now takes us through a farmyard but as soon as we open the gate three barking dogs bound towards us. We shut the gate fast. No one comes from the farm to help us, and C and H search for another way around the farm. I just stand beside the gate until the most strident of the dogs loses interest and sits on the ground. I reopen the gate and walk through the gate unharmed. After many minutes C and H appear in the muddy lane, having braved woods, walls and barbed wire in the meantime. This is a low point of the week. The rain’s still falling.
The path takes a detour inland, through lanes in the shadow of the long ridge of Mynydd y Graig. We take a small detour from the path to visit the church of Llanfaelrhys. In the church, plain in the extreme, are box pews and, on the other side of the aisle, simple forms or low benches, that must have tried the patience of parishioners during long sermons. In the graveyard is the equally simple memorial to Elsi Eldridge, the artist and R.S. Thomas’s first wife. The inscription reads, ‘M.E. Eldridge / 1909-1991 / ac yn ei ysbryd / R.S. Thomas 1913-2000’.
(In memoriam: M.E.E.)
As I move to take a photo of the flat stone laid on the earth I disturb an adult hare. He bounces unsteadily away, like an older man unable quite to recover the athletic grace of his youth.
I’d first met Gwydion when he was trying to find a new home for his mother’s great mural, The dance of life, displaced from its original site in Gobowen Hospital. The National Library wasn’t in a position to help, but some years later the work was accepted by Glyndŵr University in Wrexham, which has displayed it proudly and fittingly around the inside walls of its new Centre for the Creative Industries.
Back on the coast, though the rain has stopped, progress is slow. We tramp up and down small valleys, through tall flowering grasses, at their very best in early July. It’s hard not to remember RST, in John Ormond’s 1972 black and white television film portrait, striding in a long black coat along these cliffs, white hair tossed by the winds and binoculars round his neck. One of his favourite haunts was Porth Ysgo, a valley where manganese was once mined; some of the machinery remains. Next comes Maen Gwenonwy, an islet (at high tide) that projects into the sea like a thumb.
At last Aberdaron, the last village in Llŷn, comes into view, modern development above and inland, the historic centre at the end of the long bay. There’s no way down to the windy beach, the obvious and fitting prelude to the end of the walk, and the path diverts through mundane fields. When it strikes the road it tries to cross it and take us through yet more fields, but we ignore the signs and pad quietly, long gaps between us, down the tarmac into the village. We thread our way through the tall grasses in the graveyard of St Hywyn’s church, the wildest and most dramatic of all the graveyards of Wales. The church is large: Aberdaron was the last resting place for pilgrims on their way to Ynys Enlli, and the port from which they sailed.
I first came to Aberdaron in the late 1970s. It was a Sunday morning and Ca and I were on the beach. On a whim we joined the congregation and RST for the morning service. Thomas’s sermon concerned Plato’s theory of forms and, I remember, seemed quite challenging, even to one who’d recently read Plato’s Republic. We mumbled something to him as we went through the door at the end. No doubt he was well used to cultural tourists and atheists joining his flock, and gently cursed us.
On a much later visit to the village Ca and I stayed at the Tŷ Newydd, waking to the sound of waves immediately outside our window. It’s in the same pub, almost at the end of the world, that the three of us now celebrate the end of the week’s walking with a pint or two, and reflect on our adventures. Despite the uncertain weather it’s been a magical time, in a unique place. Llŷn is not well off materially, apart from the yacht owners, but it’s hard to think of an area richer in culture and in landscape. To begin a conversation in Welsh with a stranger and expect to hear Welsh in response is a rare experience in most of Wales, but not here – even if in my case neither party can fully understand the other. And only in a few other places I’ve been to – the Hebrides, off the west coast of Ireland, islands in the Arctic – have I ever felt the same elation of separation.
We leave the north coast of Llŷn for another week. Back in Pwllheli we sit on a bench on the harbour’s edge eating fish and chips. We watch the swifts dive and swerve, over the water and under the trees, in the still evening.