Jamie's Blog: Criccieth to Portmeirion
Jamie Owen walks the length of the Wales coastal path in his new series on Radio Wales (Saturdays at 1 PM, repeated Sundays 5 PM). In his blogs he shares his experiences along the way, and tells us what we can expect to hear in the programme
I’ve been coming to North Wales since I was a child. Our family used to drive from Pembrokeshire to Snowdonia in a Mini 1000 for a couple of weeks holiday in August throughout the 1970s. We used to stay in a log cabin on a farm at the foot of the mountains.
The sun always shone and our days were spent doing all the usual touristy things - feeding the animals on the farm, watching the puppet show in Llandudno and seeing the real life Thomas the Tank engine who, unlike the books, never talked back.
As older children our geography field trips were spent in Abersoch and Aberdaron. As an adult, I’ve made dozens of programmes and countless broadcasts all across North Wales. But just when you think you are getting to understand somewhere, you realise just how little you really know.
I’ve been walking the new Wales Coast Path for an eight part documentary series for BBC Radio Wales. I’ve just done the stretch from Criccieth to Portmeirion and despite driving through this neck of the woods so many times and even sailing past the coast, it’s only when you pack your rucksack and pull on your walking boots that you begin to get under the skin of a place. When you walk you have time to stop and stare and smell the place, in a way that will always elude you if you only ever drive through in the car.
North Wales has always attracted walkers since leisure was invented. Who wouldn’t be drawn here by the magisterial beauty of the mountains and the heart-stopping scenery of the landscape?
I’ve climbed Snowdon a few times and it seems odd to be driving North and not to be heading for the hills. But this assignment is something new for me - a new challenge and a different way of looking the countryside.
Can there be a more dramatic location in the country than Criccieth? At daft o’clock in the morning, sitting on the pebbles in the shadow of that glowering castle built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth – it’s fair to say they don’t make them like this any more. A vast swath of beach staring out to sea - its scenery that looks dreamt up by the studios of MGM.
My coast walk from Criccieth to Portmeirion begins and ends at a Clough Williams Ellis building. He built the beachside café on the dunes at Criccieth - a great stop off for a fortifying cuppa before setting out. Those huge windows frame Cardigan Bay’s giant skies. I could happily sit here all day and watch the waves. Believe it or not despite our lengthy coastline – there are very few places that you can sit in a café this close to the water. This is also home to the painting doctor Dr Louise Morgan and her photographer husband Mike Gibson. Louise’s speciality is standing in the gale with her paint brushes to capture the full force of nature.
From Morannedd Café, you begin the first of many detours slightly away from the water’s edge. The route takes you beside the railway line out of town. The Wales Coast Path is a slight misnomer - the herculean task of driving a public footpath through eight hundred and seventy miles of private land, farms, military ranges and all manner of other obstacles is still a work in progress. Sometimes your journey will detour around roads a little further inland, through housing estates and industrial parks, but the experience is richer for that. Besides I’m a nosy blighter and enjoy nothing more than meander through places where I’d ordinarily never see.
You’ve got to pick your day to get the most out of these walks. I’m no ‘whatever the weather’ hiker. If it’s tipping down with torrential rain I stay indoors. Not because I’m averse to a day walking in the rain but you are rewarded so much more on fine days with the treat of breathtaking views rather than grey low cloud. And boy the views are something else. The visibility was exceptional when I walked from Criccieth to Portmeirion. Over a calm sea, Pwllheli poking the skyline, Abersoch in the distance and just in front, St Tudwal’s Islands bobbing in the waves.
I’m ashamed to say I’d never been to Black Rock Sands before. I can see why the poet Shelley and Lawrence of Arabia lost themselves in its vastness. I met half a dozen Black Rock veterans in my saunter across the sand, all of them life long devotees. Pendine is the only other beach in Wales I’ve seen which has such disciplined zones to separate cars parking right on the shore from watersports and sun bathers. (Not that there was much lying in the sun on this particular day).
There’s a wonderful moment at the end of Black Rock where the coast path is the dividing line from wild coast on one side to manicured nature on the other. On the immaculately trimmed greens they were out in force at Morfa Bychan golf course sporting their dazzling Rupert Bear trousers, hacking away in the rough trying to find a little lost white ball that would bring meaning to life. I grew up near a golf course but the game’s addiction has yet to trap me. For those playing golf here – how do you ever concentrate on the game when the surroundings are so beguiling?
Now this might be a boy’s thing but dropping down into Porthmadog I have to admit to ecstatic excitement at the sight of a full boatyard in winter. The empty tarmac of summer when all the vessels are at their moorings is now tightly packed with every imaginable boat you could think of. Shiny plastic yachts barely used last summer standing ungainly out of the water waiting for their bottoms to be scraped. The clanking and drilling from one of the sheds means that the workload of mending broken boats stretches for many months ahead and like discarded toys lying around the playroom floor, each vessel will await its turn before receiving attention and affection. For me, there is something endlessly attractive about the stench of varnish, glass fibre and metal being welded.
The harbour at Porthmadog was once one of the busiest ports in the country, rammed with vessels jockeying for position to ship Welsh slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog all over the world. These days the chains anchor ropes securing pleasure craft and the odd fishing boat whose voyages will for the most part be near rather than far. These days the business of Porthmadog is largely pleasure and none-the-less enjoyable for that.
An American couple sitting on the bench beside the harbour told me how perfect they thought the town’s setting to be, so natural. I didn’t like to point out that everything in sight was built on land reclaimed from the sea in W.A. Maddocks’ vision of a new town and embankment - the Cob - that reshaped the Glaslyn Estuary. But that is the story of this part of Wales – two determined men who lived a century apart who had a plan to reshape the Welsh Coast. W.A. Maddocks built Porthmadog and further along the bay Clough Williams Ellis built my destination, Portmeirion. These days both locations are part of the fabric - much loved and admired. The irony is today neither entrepreneur would get their vision past the planners.
In the interests of transparency I have to admit to some slight cheating in the making of this documentary. When the Wales Coast Path crosses the Ffestiniog railway track any sane walker would surely not pass up the chance to hitch a ride on one of our most historic tourist attractions. Reader, I hopped aboard - but only for the run over the Cob simply to exchange the sound of my wheezing and spluttering for a bumpy ride in third class and a chance to sit down for a few minutes.
On the other side of the Cob, framed by the Snowdonia mountain range, perhaps the most dramatic part of this coastal walk is yet to come. The path snakes up the hill on the other side of Porthmadog the fading afternoon sunshine signaling the onset of a cold clear evening.
On the final leg to Portmeirion, the path deviates away from the coast and winds across fields and farms, some of them with some leery-looking cattle non-plussed with the latest breathless addition to the day’s grazing. I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much attention to the under-carriage of livestock - but for the coast path walker such detail means the difference between running for your life from a fast bull or a gentle walk past cows through squelching pastures.
You know when you’re close to Clough Williams Ellis Italianate temple - the modest fences and shorter trees give way to something more ancient and grand. This is the back entrance to Portmeirion. The destination for so many Prince’s and pop stars is about to have another visitor on the doorstep hoping for a drink. Except this one is walking a little awkwardly now, caked in mud splats up to his thighs and sweating profusely. I needn’t have worried, the staff were charming.
At the start of the evening sitting with a drink watching the tide wash in over the sand in the estuary, life doesn’t get much better.
Jamie Owen’s Wales - Saturdays 1 PM, repeated Sundays 5 PM - or available for seven days after on BBC iPlayer