Penhelig is the best hidden of railway stations. A poorly signed flight of steps takes us to a platform high above the road, the single track line leading to a tunnel at each end. Facing us a curving Victorian terrace blocks the sea view; it has its gardens at the front, each bisected by a lane. On the landward side is the Penhelig Arms and a cluster of houses under the hill. There’s now no trace of the shipbuilding industry for which Penhelig was once famous.
C and I – H is taking a holiday from tramping – are taking the train towards Pwllheli. The sun has gone and it’s colder and windier today, spitting with rain. On board the train there are few fellow passengers. The conductor’s a genial man, as they all seem to be on the Cambrian Coast. Despite the crimes and misdemeanours of Arriva Trains Wales – our fares support its parent, the nationalised train company of another country, Deutsche Bahn – an older, pre-privatisation culture of friendliness and public service has somehow survived.
The Cambrian Coast has other advantages. Its stations are so closely spaced they’re a gift for coastal walkers, who seem to form a sizeable proportion of the passengers, and it has some of the best sea views of any railway. At one point the train slows to a crawl on a length of track poised between a steep hill to our right and a sheer drop to the rocks and sea below, just a few feet away on our left.
We get off at Fairbourne, one of the strangest places in Wales. It was founded on the seaward side of a small existing village by the McDougall flour family, and intended to be a holiday resort. A miniature railway, still maintained by enthusiasts, took visitors along to the end of the spit of land opposite Barmouth, from where they could cross the Mawddach estuary by ferry boat. Housing sprang up, nearly all single storey bungalows and often occupied by west Midlanders dreaming of a seaside retirement idyll.
We walk past the railway terminus and the Indian restaurant P had recommended to us earlier in the week, towards the sea front, a long concrete prom. In a deserted amusement playground a plastic policeman keeps the peace. Just over the sea wall is a string of concrete tank obstructors, ‘dragon’s teeth’, intended to hinder a seaborne German invasion during World War II. Some of them have slumped badly. Quite why the Germans would be crazed enough to attack Britain via the Mawddach estuary it’s hard to imagine. A sign commemorates the Merioneth Home Guard, which must have been a formidable branch of Dad’s Army. It’s maritime invasion of a different kind that threatens Fairbourne today. Changes in climate and sea level mean that eventual large-scale flooding is a certainty, and in February this year Gwynedd Council told the inhabitants that it would be unable to save them from their fate (‘managed retreat’, says the Council; ‘village of the dammed’, says the Daily Mail). The houses have a glum air: they don’t look as if they’re received much maintenance and improvement lately.
The path takes us past the cottages of the original village, which may escape the coming inundation, and then up a very steep lane and path uphill. After an hour’s strenuous climbing we’re still not far south of Fairbourne, spread out below us, and Barmouth, constantly and miraculously bathed in sunlight, to the north. After negotiating our way, signless, round a worked-out quarry we climb again towards forestry. This is wild and windswept country, high above, and away from, the coast. We tramp, with the strong north wind to our backs, along a bleak track, past two standing stones and between well-constructed stone walls (we can only guess at the endless back-breaking labour that went into their making). At last the path begins to drop, past several derelict buildings, to Llwyngwril – an old and compact stone village almost completely given over to second and holiday homes. We shelter from the wind in the railway station shelter to eat our meagre supplies. The shelter, and the whole platform, are bright with a host of coloured knitted decorations.
We have a look in the plain village church and then climb steeply again on a minor road, regaining most of the height we lost before lunch. Crossing a stile we have an encounter of mutual surprise, a group of three women from Somerset, who like us are walking the whole Wales Coast Path. They started from Chester and they’re moving south, using specialist companies to book accommodation and transport luggage. They look weathered but determined, if not slightly cranky. No doubt we look exactly the same to them. We wish them luck and move on, noting that they seem to shared our taste for derelict stone buildings.
We have another unexpected encounter later, with a remarkable group of aggressive sheep, who chase us off their territory, baying in unison like a male voice choir. Later a hare comes bounding down a lane straight towards us. Realising his error he slams on his brakes, legs pumping in all directions, turns round and skedaddles back, veering into a field and invisibility. We squelch through a boggy hollow-way to a lane, where a tall bank is covered by hundreds of primroses.
After Rhoslefain the path takes us on a curving course that contours above the flat plain behind Tonfanau, and dips towards a disused quarry, which specialised, according to our guide John B. Jones, in ‘felsic tuff’. Then we make for the new bridge across Afon Dysynni. It’s designed to impress and is approached by two rather grand roads, but it turns out to be for pedestrians only. Then it’s a long tarmacked trudge along the straight road to Tywyn, the railway line on one side and huge views towards Bird’s Rock and Cadair Idris on the other. After some dreary suburbs we reach the main street, just in time for Lloyds Coaches to take us back to Aberdyfi.