Five gather at Porthmadog station: C, H, me, and two guests, M-A and J. Sunshine beams through the roof of the elegant platform, and the three-carriage train arrives to take us to Harlech. Its manager is as friendly as we’ve come to expect on the Cambrian Coast. Is it daily experience of working on the finest train route in Britain that makes the staff happy? Or are they content by nature, and deliberately assigned by Arriva to work on the railway – the grumps on the payroll being reserved for the company’s buses?
For some of us Harlech has a wet reputation, but for once no rain is forecast. Once through a small housing estate we set off northwards across flat fields. Far ahead are the mountains of Eryri. They stay with us all day, giving this stretch the best views of any on the Coast Path. In our guidebook John Jones takes a dim view of this first stage, but he follows the path in the wrong direction, from north to south, and his judgments are in any case often unsound. Cows block our path, but they look unconcerned and puzzled at our pointless behaviour. After the fields a straight concrete lane leads to a recycling site. For some reason Jones finds both objectionable. What is his view, I wonder, of the many fine sewage works we find on the course of the Path?
M-A calls to mind the romantic-age ‘curious travellers’, the subjects of her current research, who came this way before us: the conventional, touristy ones bumping along in coaches, stopping to sketch castles and complain about the sordid taverns; the more adventurous, including women, on foot or horseback, inquisitive about the inhabitants and their history and language as well as eager to hunt down the picturesque and the sublime.
We pass Glan-y-mor, an old farm with crumbling outbuildings. Somnolent rams as ugly as pigs laze against the bucket of an abandoned JCB in the field in front. We skirt the foot of a hill, turn eastwards and soon we’re looking across Traeth Bach and the estuary of Afon Dwyryd towards the confectionery of Clough Williams-Ellis’s implanted toy village, Portmeirion. Its white houses, campanile and domes spill down the slope to the hotel at the water’s edge. We stop for rest and refreshment at the side of the path, with a view up the estuary to the mountains. A hovercraft – we’re surprised they still exist outside museums – shoots noisily up and down the narrow stream of the river.
We pass a sight of perfect picturesque dereliction: a rotted caravan sitting alongside a wrecked stone farmhouse. At Ynys, no longer an island, the church of Llanfihangel y Trethau hides stained glass windows of brilliant colours. One of them, showing the arrival of St Tecwyn, commemorates the author Richard Hughes and was made by Polly Hope, a much-loved London artist remembered by the Spitalfields blogger The Gentle Author when she died in 2013. St Tecwyn bears a likeness to the bearded Hughes. In the graveyard is a thin stone post or pillar with a twelfth-century inscription commemorating ‘Wleder, mother of Hoedliw, who first built this church in the reign of king Owain Gwynedd’. We miss the grave of Mary Evans, known as ‘Y Fantell Wen’, who claimed to be betrothed to Christ and arranged a marriage ceremony for herself in Ffestiniog church. She denied that she would ever die, and when by some mischance she did so in 1789 her followers refused to believe it. They kept her body from being buried until wiser counsel prevailed.
After Ynys we climb and then descend towards the great saltmarsh of Glastraeth. An isolated industrial hamlet at its edge has an incongruous row of terraced houses and a warehouse, Tŷ Gwyn Camlas, for loading boats at the side of a canal. An old notice tells us that Lord Harlech disapproves of the use of jet-skis. We’re encircled now by a distant amphitheatre of mountains, from the Moelwyns, past Snowdon and Moel Siabod to the Harlech Dome, grey and green in the diffused, cloudy noonday light.
Richard Hughes comes to mind here. The saltmarsh – Hughes lived as a child at Talsarnau nearby, and was a churchwarden at Llanfihangel y Traethau when he lived at Ynys at the end of his long life – is the inspiration for the atmospheric first paragraphs of his novel The fox in the attic (1961):
This sea-marsh stretched for miles. Seaward, a greyness merging into sky had altogether rubbed out the line of dunes which bounded it that way: inland, another and darker blurred greyness was all you could see of the solid Welsh hills.
From this grey, dripping landscape two men in oilskins emerge – one of them carrying the body of a dead girl.
The path follows the berm of a long, curving embankment built in the mid-19th century to reclaim land for grazing from the tidal waters of the Dwyryd. On green banks of marshgrass to our left well-groomed lambs pose for the cameras, unaware of their fates (we rehearse for M-A’s sake an old Coast Path argument about the ability of animals to forsee their own deaths). The path’s narrow and the going uneven, so we trudge silently in single file, each lost in thought, boots swishing through lush long grasses at the height of their flowering. A redshank calls across the marsh, in harsh Morse code. At length we rejoin the railway by the lonely station of Llandecwyn, and cross Pont Briwet. Before the bridge was rebuilt and reopened the Path was forced up the estuary north east to Maentwrog and back, a long detour. We stop to record this river route – it looks almost Alpine with the mountains behind – and follow the main road into Penrhyndeudraeth. We pass the site of the old Cookes explosive works, now converted, thanks to European Union money, into a nature reserve and small industrial units. New, finely fitted slate walls line the road. M-A and I spot a single sheep standing precariously in a gap high on a sheer wooded slope. It looks at us boldly as if it might have delusions of being the Lamb of God.
In the centre of Penrhyndeudraeth we dive into Gwenyn Prysur/Busy Bees, an unpretentious café well suited to hyper-hungry walkers, and restore ourselves, then take the busy main road to Minffordd and turn off towards Portmeirion. At first all goes well, despite the zigzag route and confusing map, but a missed sign leads us into a large field with no exit (large fields, you’ll remember, are a constant Coast Path hazard). M-A and I clamber over a high stone wall on to a lane, and ask two locals for directions. The rest, defeated, retreat to the bottom of the large field and re-climb the slope on the other side of the field boundary. Meanwhile we ask the locals if there’s a way to the Portmeirion hotel – we’re aiming for a posh afternoon tea – without paying the huge entrance fee. They suggest either softsoaping the guard at the gateway, using out best North Walian Welsh, or creeping along the shoreline to the hotel at low tide (it isn’t). Or alternatively take some tea in Castell Deudraeth, down the lane and turn right.
Reunited, we take this last advice. But the Castell, an oppressive Victorian pile, is closed for a private function. Dejected, we trudge on to the Portmeirion gate. I ask the woman there how to regain the Path, but my southern accent and, M-A says, my strangulated syntax and formal diction (‘dyn ni’n chwilio am Lwybr yr Arfordir …’) defeat her. She too has communications difficulties, crossing the fingers of both hands when she can’t find the word for ‘stile’. Finally we understand where to go, and follow the right path northwards. It skirts the Portmeirion boundary, which is defended by coils of barbed wire – the owners must regard coastal walkers as vicious desperadoes – then passes a derelict farm and wanders across fields before turning into an oak-lined track. The track falls gently, late sunshine glancing through the leaves, towards sea level and the south end of the Cob, the great bank that blocked the Glaslyn and transformed the geography and economy of the whole estuary.
The Cob’s cycle path gives wide views through long waving grasses up what was once the estuary towards Snowdon and the other peaks. Steam from a passing Ffestiniog Railway locomotive blows across our path. At the north end a wooden bust of the Cob’s creator, William Alexander Madocks, stands guard, and we pass the famous Cobb Records (closed) on the way to the centre of Porthmadog.
It’s been a grand (rainless) day out, we all agree. And quite possibly the very best section of the Coast Path for mountain views. The romantic travellers would have been proud of us. Or maybe not. They would have scoffed at our puny distances and spasmodic progress; after all, when Coleridge came to Wales in 1794 he covered 600 miles in two months.