Back to Penhelig station, for the last time. C and I are on our own today. We’re planning, as the climax of the week, to make a grand ceremonial advance on Harlech, in pale imitation of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s successful assault on the Edwardian castle there in 1404. Fortunately the wind has veered overnight. It’s still strong but it’s now blowing from the south-west, so for the first time we feel comfortable walking from south to north.
When we sit down in the carriage a balding man in one of the seats ahead stands up and greets me as his old friend, ‘Richard’. My parents blessed me with several forenames, but none of them is Richard, and I’ve never thought of myself as a Richard type. I must be looking blank and confused. The balding man, aware of his mistake, quickly resumes his seat. The train manager arrives and tries to interest us in an endurance walk (42 miles in one day) from one side of Wales to the other. We try to look non-committal, though it’s flattering to be mistaken for extreme walkers.
The rain starts immediately we reach Tal-y-bont, an unlucky village. C is reluctant to trust ourselves to the official path, a maze of field routes mirroring yesterday’s difficult path south out of Tal-y-bont. But my completest tendencies prevail and we manage to follow the signs, down the river, across fields and past caravans and a series of ruined stone buildings. Rather than gates the fashion here is for simple stiles, projecting steps climbing over high walls that are hard to spot from a distance. This region is a drystone waller’s paradise, and it’s good to meet a newly built wall, incorporating, like the old ones, huge boulders found along its course. Walling is not quite an obsolete craft.
We cross dunes by a wooden walkway and reach the great sandy beach of Morfa Dyffryn. A sober sign warns us that sunbathing naturists may be expected a mile or so to the north. Not today, maybe. We see just one other person for the next two or three miles, and his flesh is as well hidden as ours. The rain’s gathering strength. Before long it works up into a storm, shooting in almost horizontally from the sea. Raindrops crack like bullets against our waterproof hoods. After a while, wet starts to penetrate our clothes and boots, Gortex or not, as we trudge north between the bleak sea and the tall dunes. The winds have sculpted the sand into contoured towers, and the beach has been swept clean of shells and other jetsam, leaving only small pebbles: each of these has a long comet-like tail of sand, pointing south, a relic of the previous north wind. Sand martins flit in and out of the dunes, godwits skip on the sand, and a black gang of cormorants stand in a line at the sea’s edge, daring the wind and waves to do their worst.
At last we reach a sign signalling the end of our beach journey. The path turns inland, just short of Mochras (Shell Island), past a deserted tent site, along a tarmac path through reed beds, and around the old airport at Llanbedr. The rain’s still falling and we’re beginning to despair of reaching any shelter or sustenance, when suddenly I spot what could be a mirage: a large sign on one of the concrete buildings within the airport perimeter that says ‘CAFÉ: ALL WELCOME’. We’ve not been so glad to see such an oasis since the ice-cream van on the beach on our sweltering approach to Abereiddy in July 2013. Another, even happier sign says, ‘Airport café open’. Once inside we peel off our dripping clothes and gulp the soup we’re offered. The owner explains that the airfield, with its exceptionally long runway, has to be kept clear and in operation in case of emergency, but it’s also used by light aircraft and helicopters, and by Manchester University students for testing their drones. She’s only just opened the café. Then she’s on the phone, placing an order for 600 baps for a car rally at the weekend.
We wish her luck in her new venture and start again, along Afon Artro to the marina at Pensarn and back towards the coast across marshy ground to Llandanwg. The medieval church of St Tanwg hunkers down on the sheltered side of the dunes. It’s a small, dark and primitive-looking building, with two exposed wooden beams across its width, and it shelters several early stone fragments. Then up through Llanfair and we find ourselves looking down on the vast sweep of Morfa Harlech – sand as far as the eye can see on this murky afternoon, and the Cambrian Coast line, complete with passing train.
We climb down steep steps, cross the railway line, and start walking along the beach. I make the fateful prophecy that the worst of the weather is over. Before we’ve gone far, a second rainstorm sweeps in off the sea, more violent than the first. My rain trousers, bought to withstand the arctic climate of Svalbard, are no match for its ferocity: what feels at first clammy and moist becomes cold and sodden. After what seems an endless tramp we leave the beach and cross a golf course towards Harlech, climb the steep hill to the old town, and find shelter in the excellent Cemlyn tea shop. When we leave to descend the hill for the station we have to apologise for the pools of water our dripping clothes leave behind on the wooden floor.
History doesn’t record what the weather was like when Owain Glyn Dŵr captured the castle at Harlech, but it’s unlikely he would have succeeded on a day like today. We wait for the train back to Penhelig with a feeling of some satisfaction at completing our plan to walk in a week from Aberystwyth to Harlech, a distance of almost 70 miles. That is, until we meet on the platform a young woman with a heavy rucksack, who explains that she’s walked the entire Rhinogydd ridge, sleeping in a tent on the way, as a rehearsal for crossing the Scotland Highlands west to east, starting in the extra-remote Knoydart peninsula.