Here we are, back on the platform at Penhelig, with two new guestwalkers, L and M. This morning we’re not alone. A small group of urban children sit on the ground. They look out of their element, and it’s soon obvious that they’re staying with Outward Bound. The Trust’s very first school was set up in Aberdyfi in the 1940s, by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun School and an advocate of rigorous Spartan education. The children’s mentor, a fresh-faced lad in his twenties, is doing his best to enthuse them to enjoy the outdoor life, with, it seems, limited success. It turns out they’ve missed the Pwllheli train, and have two hours to wait for the next one. The lad is trying to explain the managerial complexities of team leadership. It’s a lecture that seems more suited to an MBA class. Later he moves on to how many calories they will need to walk so many miles, and to symbols on Ordnance Survey maps (‘blue means sea, green means wood’). The children seem uninterested, as if they’re on some punishment routine. It’s true that they’re out of range of most mobile signals.
Our train arrives and we stare in silent wonder at the sunlit Dyfi estuary as it rattles towards Machynlleth. Suddenly we’re told a mechanical fault has arisen, and customers travelling beyond Machynlleth are invited to get out at Dovey Junction station. A few bemused travellers alight here, possibly Britain’s most desolate railway stop. They look as if they’ve been deposited in a remote gulag.
At Machynlleth we walk up to MOMA for a coffee and chocolate ginger flapjack, then return and cross Afon Dyfi by the old bridge. The path to Aberdyfi quickly veers off the main road and climbs a steep lane, and then a steep path, northwards into the hills. The views south across the estuary grow ever wider, and the sweat begins to fall as we struggle upwards. Toward the top we reach grassland, cut so close and smooth by the lawnmower teeth of the sheep around us that it looks like a golf course. The path goes over the ridge and down into the next valley, along a broad track through forestry plantations and then a road towards the village of Pennal.
Pennal has an interesting history. The Romans built a fort commanding the estuary; a motte marks the site of a medieval Welsh fortification, and the church, St Peter ad Vincula, celebrates the letter Owain Glyn Dŵr sent from Pennal in March 1406 to the King of France asking for military support in his rebellion. We take a look in the church, but our minds are on higher things than history – eating and drinking. Opposite the church is just what we need, Glan yr Afon, and we sit down to large platefuls of food. Some refined ladies lunching at neighbouring tables cast nervous glances at our rucksacks and sunburnt faces.
Crossing the main road we enter the old estate of Plas Talgarth, which now belongs to an outfit called Macdonald Hotels and Resorts. At the end of a driveway they run a health and leisure resort. Around the old house new buildings have sprung up: reception, baths and restaurant, and bungalows for the would-be healthy residents. Though it’s not exactly Outward Bound, Plas Talgarth doesn’t look as though it belongs to the most luxurious end of the spa spectrum, and the accommodation wouldn’t be out place in a modern university. On the estuary side of the complex a large number of trees have been roughly felled, perhaps to make room for more buildings.
Despite the right of way hairy walkers are clearly not encouraged in this depillated paradise, and we have to pick our way carefully, without signs, through the complex to a path westwards, with views over Dovey Junction and Ceredigion beyond, and into a wood carpeted with bluebells.
Leaving the estate we cross the main road again and start climbing, along a minor road and along the upland path called the Panorama Walk. By now we’re feeling the full force of the north wind, which has grown even stronger. After Bwlch the road climbs again, with views down into Cwm Maethlon (‘Happy Valley’ is the feeble English equivalent), with its scattered farms and lonely chapel (it once supported several lead mines). The wind’s becoming tiresome – our group is now strung out, each walker coping alone with the windy cold – and it’s a relief to regroup and turn southwards at last, on a path along a sheltered valley that leads to fine views across the estuary. The tide is low now, and the retreating water leaves intricate patterns in the pale sand.
We drop quickly down through the old terraces of Aberdyfi and reach the coast road opposite the Literary Institute. We could have accepted the invitation to attend the Institute’s AGM but prefer to reward ourselves with a pint in the Dovey Inn and compete in the quiz night. I get my Adeles and my Taylor Swifts mixed up, so consigning our team to ignominious failure.