Dusk on Saturday. We’re in Criccieth, two days after UKIP’s ‘Independence Day’. Explosions sound outside the eccentric seaside apartment we’ve rented for the week (it features a very public bath in the front bedroom window, and an impudent fish, Billy Bass, who turns to face you and sings, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ when you open the toilet door). Could this be Brexit triumphalism? The outbreak of civil war? From our second floor window we can see people in the street, one standing in the middle like Robert Capa with a camera and tripod. But it’s just fireworks from the castle, a show for the tourists. We resume our scanning of the weather forecast. Rain on Sunday, light, then heavy and prolonged.
But the next morning’s dry and we set out for the bus stop, hoping to finish the first day’s short walk without being soaked. The Arriva bus to Porthmadog arrives on time. Soon, though, the ticket machine collapses, the driver stops the engine and a passenger has to be refunded. We stutter on to our destination, glad to escape the clutches of Wales’s most luckless transport company.
In the still air Porthmadog harbour has a quiet, exhausted feel, hardly surprising after the night’s celebrations of Wales’s Euros victory over Northern Ireland, settled by an own goal by the opposition – apt after a suicidal majority of Wales citizens voted in favour of leaving the European Union. There are few people around. A small group of men chat around the harbour office. As we walk along the Glaslyn estuary past a long line of boatyards an old man has something amusing to tell us, but about what, and even in which language, we’re at a loss to tell.
The path climbs past large houses with big views, then descends to the semicircular cove of Borth-y-Gest. The modest houses and disused chapel that line it show no signs of life, except for a fisherman carrying his rods down to the estuary sands. Across the low, still water, lying in fingers over the sand spits, the grey hills above Harlech rise in the flat light. Further north, Cnicht and the Moelwynion have their tops hidden by rainy cloud. We follow the path into Pen-y-banc nature reserve. Bracken and willow-herb line the sandy route through trees. A high wall on the right, made of precisely carved and interlocking slate slabs, is half-smothered by ivy. We descend to another cove, where the National Trust has buttressed the crumbling path, to Ynys Cyngar, and then turn west, along Black Rock Sands. We’re mercifully shielded by dunes from the caravan city of Morfa Bychan, and all we can see to the north is the black ridge of Moel-y-Gest.
In the distance we can make out the outline of Criccieth castle, but it slowly fades to grey as rainclouds arrive from the north-west. Soon we’re in full rain gear, and walking into a healthy downpour. A few dog-walkers are still about, and some cars and vans that for some unaccountable reason are allowed on the beach. Wheelmarks scar the hard sand ahead of us. Eventually the path leaves the beach and heads north up a lane and then along a track, past the happily named farmhouse Pen-y-trip. Next we descend to sea level and follow the railway line to Criccieth. The first train of the day isn’t due for a couple of hours, so our multiple crossings of the single track are without risk.
The rain has resumed, and on the outskirts of Criccieth we take cover in Dylan’s, a café and restaurant housed in a restored pavilion overlooking the sea. Its urban style is out of place in such a rural setting, but it seems to have a winning formula. It’s a busy place and offers a beer called Cwrw Llŷn from Nefyn. We’re served by Lukas. His silent look seems to ask us whether we voted for Brexit; we silently wonder what will happen to him post-EU.
Criccieth is really two towns in one: the original settlement sheltering under the castle and the later development around the straight main street. In between is a space, partly green and partly in-filled with suburban bungalows. The railway line bisects and separates the two towns. Finding your way round isn’t easy to begin with. Cadw look after the castle. Their display highlights the Welsh princes – Llywelyn ap Iorwerth was the castle’s first builder – at the expense of the Normans, an emphasis that would have been very different ten or twenty years ago.
Later we try to buy tickets to see Jan Morris, now 90 years old, in an event in the Marine Hotel that’s part of the Criccieth Festival. But there are no seats left. On the way home we pass the Marine: the room’s full, some people sitting on the window sills as they listen intently to the words of a local hero of world renown.