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Dodging the Snow in Snowdonia

Well-wishers, slate, turning south, snow, a 4,000-mile service, heritage railways, an Italianate village and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ were all on this week’s agenda as I moved from the Llyn to the Ceredigion Coastal Path.

Shortly after leaving the peace of Pwllheli Marina, I met with a former Wren, Jeannie, who made last minute arrangements for us to park the Victory Van in a large barn. Safe from a wild storm, we sheltered in peace, eating delicious cream cakes that Jeannie had kindly delivered to the Van. Once a Petty Officer Cook, always a PO Cook!

As I approached Porthmadog it seemed that people had received advance notice of my arrival.  Noting that the local Police Community Support Officer, Paula, had also served in the Royal Navy, I sensed local intelligence was very well informed!  At Borth-y-Gest well-wishers waited in the chilly air to make some Victory Walk donations, and the local café came out with a steaming mug of much needed coffee for me.

Rounding the corner into Porthmadog, I noted that snow had fallen on the hills and mountains above me.  It looked beautiful but it was a relief that it hadn’t affected my walking plans. That night we parked in the grounds of Snowdon Lodge, at nearby Tremadog.  The Lodge was the birthplace of TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who was born here in 1888. He became famous during WWI when he led the Arab uprising against the Turks, later immortalised in a film in which Peter O’Toole took the title role.

Before starting the Ceredigion coast path from Porthmadog, a local osteopath with Naval connections, Anja, kindly offered to give my body an MOT and full 4,000 mile service. I’m delighted to report that I passed my MOT and was able to leave Porthmadog next morning with a spring in my step! 

Porthmadog, referred to locally as ‘Port’, was developed for shipbuilding and the international export of slate brought down from quarries at neighbouring Blaenau Ffestiniog. Although slate is no longer exported, some harbour buildings have survived, as has the railway that was once used for slate transportation. 

Wales is famous for its ‘Little Trains’ and the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog line which terminates at Porthmadog harbour is probably one of Wales’ best known lines. The train track crosses a mile-long embankment built across an estuary, known as ‘the Cob’.  Sadly, there were no steam trains running on the morning I crossed the Cob to begin my journey to the unique village of Portmeirion.

Portmeirion’s architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, began creating his village in 1925 with his work spreading over a fifty-year period.  Sir Clough was a man of immense talent who brought together his skills and passion for colourful architecture, town planning and rural preservation; amongst other things he pushed for National Parks and helped draw up Snowdonia’s National Park boundaries. Resembling a Mediterranean village, and with a micro-climate to support similar trees and plants, I found Portmeirion to be a charming, albeit slightly eccentric enclave.  No wonder it’s been used in various film and TV sets over the years.  

Many people will also be familiar with Portmeirion Pottery which was founded by Sir Clough’s elder daughter, Susan, in 1960.  One of her most famous designs, ‘Botanic Garden’ is sold worldwide, along with other Portmeirion pottery items.  Although the actual pottery is based in Stoke-on-Trent, the producers state the spiritual home is Portmeirion village, in North Wales.

Later the same day, having circled and crossed the Dwyryd estuary, I was able to catch sight of the quaint village across the water before I walked into Harlech. Our overnight driveway stop was high above the famous castle with its far-reaching views.  Next morning as I set off to walk miles of deserted sands, I could see why Harlech Castle on its almost vertical cliff-face, was such a fought-for prize. In 1647 it was the last Royalist castle to fall to Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War.

Arriving in Barmouth I was stuck by vast areas of beach with its sand bar. Shipbuilding was the town’s heritage, but in more recent times it has become a busy seaside resort. Barmouth lies on the river Mawddach’s huge estuary, has steep hills towering immediately behind and Cadair Idris mountain is the larger neighbour.  We parked overnight alongside Barmouth’s new purpose-built lifeboat station; this houses both an all-weather and inshore lifeboat, and it was fascinating to learn how lifesaving has changed and advanced over the past two centuries. Barmouth is now preparing to accept the latest class of all-weather boat, the Shannon, at its station.

For me, leaving Barmouth required almost a half mile walk across the much photographed Barmouth Bridge over the Mawddach’s fast-flowing waters. This was easier than the Support Team’s 14-mile road trip on narrow roads, up and around the estuary. Barmouth’s Bridge takes the single-track Cambrian Line railway, together with a planked path used by foot passengers and cyclists. For this privilege I paid my £1.00 fee at the Troll Booth before stepping onto the bridge!   

I usually have ‘a head for heights’ but confess to feeling slightly unnerved as I stood on single layered and weather-beaten green planks, looking through the gaps at the ripping current below.  During my crossing I saw workmen on a float fitted with scaffolding being manoeuvred into position by a jet-ski, and it was plainly evident how strong the tidal flow was.

Making my way further south, I’ve regularly run parallel to and criss-crossed the Cambrian railway – this appears to provide a very regular service, up and down the coast and into nearby cities.  Occasionally, the path takes me further inland and up steep hills where I see little, other than sunken lanes, lots of sheep and miles of stone walls and enclosures. 

On one of these forays I entered the old Goleuwern slate quarry, high on a hill overlooking Fairbourne.  The sheer height of the worked slate faces and the ancient superbly constructed slate walls were a real marvel.  At one point I ventured through a tunnel, with old rail tracks still visible, to discover a water-filled quarry.  Known as the Blue Lake with its petrol blue waters, I understand why so many people venture up to see these workings.

Arriving drenched to the skin at Aberdovey, I was reminded of many soakings I had when doing an Outward Bound course here approximately 40 years ago. If nothing else, Welsh weather is consistent!

See Photo Album Numbers 63

  1. Crossing the Mawddach Estuary at Barmouth
  2. Dodging Snow in Snowdonia