The Wales Coast Path doesn’t lack for breathtaking scenery or history. (All photos: Bill Fink)
The Plan: Hike the entire coast of Wales along the recently created Wales Coast Path. Seek out the weird, woolly, and wonderful: everything from a fantasyland hotel village to herds of grazing sheep, and vistas from cliff-side castles. Walk in the footsteps of royalty and monks, of miners and fishermen. Wait, what? The path is 870 miles long? Perhaps I’ll just do a few segments.
The Route: Begin at the English border and follow the Coast Path around Northwest Wales on roads, trails, and beaches about 200 miles to Portmeirion.
The Ride: Even 200 miles is a long way to walk, so I’ve joined a combination bus-tour-and-hiking trip, stopping for daylong rambles along the coast.
Provisions: Before going on a hiking trip, it’s important to stock up on provisions like “monster sausage rolls.” So we stop at the Hawarden Estate Farm Shop near the beginning of the Coastal Path along the English border. With a bag full of local meats, cheeses, spicy mustard, and bread, and a stomach full of blood pudding, ham, and tomato, I ensure I won’t be too peckish along the trail, although I may not be moving too fast.
Hawarden provided us all the hearty food we’d need.
Ruins New and Old: We visit Flint, Wales, which aside from the ruins of a 13th-century castle and a scenic seashore, displays an urban blight that gives it a striking resemblance to Flint, Michigan. At the height of the industrial revolution, one-third of all Welsh males were working in the coal trade, an industry which has disappeared along with the jobs. The Flint Sports and Social Club provides a welcome lively note downtown, but I later learn it’s scheduled for demolition. Flint’s losses are a hiker’s gain, and we’re able to stroll undisturbed into the nearby coastal wetlands.
Related: The Lost Town of Dunwich, England
Some curious sheep gazing at us.
Jolly Olde Seashore: The Coastal Path turns into a Victorian boardwalk in LLandudno, a 19th-century resort town with a 2,295-foot-long pier and winding beachfront promenade, the sort of place where you’d expect a barbershop quartet to pop up from a Victorian patio and begin to sing. Above town, we hike along the rocky ridges of Great Orme (old Norse for “dragon”), sharing views with curious sheep over the Irish Sea.
Conwy Castle, or Game of Thrones scene?
Bigger Ruins: Wales is called the “castle capital” of the world, with maybe 600 stone forts in varying degrees of ruin covering the country. Towering Conwy Castle is one of the more evocative ones, making me feel like a “Games of Thrones” character as I march along the imposing parapets and clamber into secret passages. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Conwy also features “The Smallest House in Great Britain,” a claustrophobic shack which makes me eager for the open trails.
A cliffside stroll.
A Royal Retreat: Connected to the mainland by bridge, the island Anglesey boasts one of the most scenic segments of the Coast Path. The 270-square-mile island is dotted with small farms, historic villages, and wide-open seaside hiking, where my group enjoys strolls through terrain varying among lush brambles, rocky beaches, large sand dunes, and towering cliffs. The island’s charms attracted Prince William and wife Kate, who used the area as their royal retreat for three years, living in a country cottage that is now available for rent.
Harsh Coastline: But not all of Anglesey is relaxed serenity. Its harsh northern coast gets winds that blow so strong and so often that they say “when the wind stops, people fall over.” I ask a couple locals in a pub midday if they do much hiking. This elicits a few laughs. “Hike? Why? There’s nothing wrong with my car,” says one. Our group braves the winds to walk the Path near Moelfre, site of the 1859 Royal Charter shipwreck, in which more than 450 people died as hurricane-force winds dashed the ship against the jagged seashore rocks. Charles Dickens came out to report on the event, and even stayed at the nearby Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn in Beaumaris, where rooms in the refurbished inn are named for his characters.
A Real Mouthful: Welsh, spoken by over 80% of the people in this part of North Wales, is not an easy language to pronounce or figure out from the bilingual signage. No place is this more evident than the Anglesey island town of LLanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. While it may look like someone fell asleep against their keyboard, the 58-letter name has meaning: “The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the fierce whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave.” When asking for directions, I give up trying to pronounce places, and just point to my map and grunt.
We’d like to solve the puzzle, Pat.
Company Town: Driving down Wales’s west coast, we stop in the old mining company village of Nant Gwrtheyrn (pronounced “Nahnt Goor-the-oorn”). Nant village was abandoned in the 1940s when its granite quarry closed after roads began using asphalt. Lying dormant, the settlement was occupied by a hippie commune in the 1970s, and has since been refurbished as a hotel and Welsh language center. My group takes a lesson prior to hiking, enabling everyone to declare the warm, sunny day to be “bendigedig!” or “marvelous!”
Hiking through Wales felt like walking through a salad.
A guide from the Wales Official Tourist Guides Association takes us on our hike, and chats about local history, botany, and the supremacy of the Welsh over the English. We walk past massive rusted iron axles and gears framing the crumbling stone wheelhouse of an old abandoned mine shaft. Above me, mountain goats hop deftly between bright yellow patches of gorse bushes on impossibly steep slopes while kestrels ride warm updrafts toward their cliff-side nests. As we ascend the slopes from the beach to the lush farming plateau of the Llŷn Peninsula, the temperature warms, and I peel off my layers of Gore-Tex. The winding trail wanders into a creek gully that is so thick with greenery and smells so strongly of wild garlic and other herbs that it feels like walking through a salad. Recently born lambs totter next to their bleating moms in well-nibbled green fields while a few inquisitive older brothers trot to gaps in a stone wall to check out us hikers.
The Edge of Wales: The Coast Path continues to the far western tip of Wales along the Llŷn Peninsula, a remote portion known as “the edge of Wales.” Some of these paths have been used by religious pilgrims for nearly a millennium, the sunken trails packed down by the tread of thousands of pious boots. Now, the crossroads of the Pilgrim Trail and the Coast Path combine a dedication to the spiritual and the natural, and our hike takes us by the ruins of small churches overgrown with plant life. Our group rides the bus to the tip of the peninsula, where we shuffle along the rock-strewn seashore and gaze out at fog-shrouded Bardsey Island, said to be the final resting place of “twenty thousand saints.” We avoid martyrdom in the cold waters, and warm up with some fresh seafood stew at Ty Newydd in Aberdaron town.
The quirky Portmeirion.
Portmeirion: For a surreal conclusion, our road trip takes us to the shores of Tremadog Bay, where the Coast Path touches the grounds of Portmeirion, the curious lifelong project of an eccentric architect. Sir Clough Williams-Ellis wanted to build an Italian-style seaside resort village, but as the 50 years of its construction progressed, he used whatever materials he could obtain from nearby estates. It took on a fantasyland aspect, combining bell towers, winding paths to nowhere, themed hotel rooms, observatories, domed halls, random fountains, and hidden gardens. The whole thing has a dropped-from-the-sky, science-fiction vibe to it, which is appropriate, as the cult-classic series “The Prisoner" was filmed here in the 1960s. The Beatles, fresh from their own "Magical Mystery Tour," were fans of the show, so much so that George Harrison later held his 50th birthday here. Friends transferred George to a ground-floor room midcelebration due to worries he’d topple over a precarious balcony into the sea.
But even in this contrived playground, our group is able to find some peace and solitude by walking along woodland paths leading to pristine shorelines. I gaze south along the coast, realizing there’s nearly another 600 miles of the Coast Path ahead of me, with promises of additional Welsh weirdness, wonders, and adventures on the winding coastline, awaiting my next journey.