Heavy rain’s expected. But it hasn’t arrived yet, and C and I set out on the bus to Pwllheli. This is the end of the (railway) line, and the town has an old-fashioned look, with cafés, working chapels, bookshops and a big traditional ironmongers. The path takes us round the old harbour. It’s now empty, except at its southern edge, where hundreds of leisure yachts are moored. They’re overlooked by Plas Heli, a big new circular building that houses the National Sailing Academy. We call in for a coffee, and by chance meet L from the Coleg Cymraeg, here for a conference. In the building’s atrium young children are receiving sailing tuition, gathered around a small boat.
Outside, an uninviting beach stretches for four miles in a straight line to the east. It looks uniform, a mix of dark, coarse sand and small pebbles, backed by low dunes. But under foot its consistency changes every few minutes. Sometimes the sand’s firm and the pebbles flat, but more often both give way to our boots, and it takes over an hour and a half, and a whole morning’s energy, before we reach the headland of Pen-ychain. In the gathering gloom there are few people, but towards the end we disturb a gang of shifty cormorants, standing at the sea’s edge and sharing complaints, no doubt, about the poor fishing. As we turn the corner, small coves replace the exposed beach, and the path meanders past a holiday site, its caravans blending unusually well into the land (this is where Butlins used to be).
For a while we’ve watched the Rhinogs and the Harlech Dome disappear from view in the south, and now the rain overtakes us too. Black and wet from head to toe, we walk on in file like monks at a funeral. At Afon Wen the path leaves the coast and at a roundabout dumps us on the main road. We’ve come to one of the Coast Path planners’ rare total failures: a two mile slog along a busy, straight road. Mansel Davies lorries gift us regular showers of spray as they hurtle pass within a few feet of us. Rain trickles down our hoods and down our necks. The only consolation is that the strengthening wind is to our backs.
By the time we turn off on to a side road up the hill into Llanystumdwy the sky’s a dark slab and the rain’s developed a hard edge. We find shelter in a Victorian church porch, benchless and white with pigeon droppings, and glumly eat the food we bought in Pwllhelli. It’s damp from being in our leaking backpacks. Up the road is the Lloyd George Museum and we go in for some respite from the rain. Our money’s taken by a small bearded old man who clearly models himself on the Wizard himself. He has a straight back, an air of authority and a precise delivery, and he makes us feel guilty for politely declining his instruction to view the LG film on offer. The displays are wordy and make you work hard – no bad thing, maybe, in the age of the short-attention-span museum. Maybe they underplay the weaknesses of the great man – the sexual wanderings, political corruption, acceptance of the disastrous Paris peace settlement, late adoration of Hitler. But you don’t after all expect to find an objective assessment in this kind of museum; as C points out, it’s short of being hagiographic. We leave and visit Lloyd George’s grave above the river Dwyfor, designed by Clough Williams-Ellis. It’s a simple, secular oval enclosed by a low stone wall, with an irregular rock placed on a circular pebble base in the centre – a reticent and moving monument.
We notice that the authors of the Coast Path guide, Rogers and Bowerman, haven’t brushed up lately on their twentieth century political history. They describe Lloyd George as ‘the famous British Labour prime minister’.
The path crosses the main road, passes a farm, and makes across soaking fields. We’re now walking south into the teeth of the rain. Water trickles down back and front, our feet are damp and depressed, our eyes look nowhere except where our boots are going to fall next. We reach Afon Dwyfor for the second time. In Llanystumdwy it was a lively spate; now it’s sullen, grey and tidal, looping parallel to the coast. A long trudge follows east above the shore. Criccieth castle seems reluctant to become more than a grey smudge on the horizon. The distant mountains long disappeared from sight. After a couple of miles the path swerves round the rear of a white neo-modernist house, Cefn Castell, that’s won a RIBA award. RIBA claims that it’s ‘in fact, quite public’, but on the contrary the owners have built a high wall all around it that prevents us judging its merit. At last we emerge on to the Criccieth promenade. We shed our wet clothes. Long hot baths await.