The Beginnings of a Dream (2016)
I take some time out in late May to rest and think and dream. We have just moved to Wales – 5 months ago…
I had always really loved ‘sitting on my bottom’. I still do, and a big part of my prayer journey has been learning to be still. But from the moment we moved to Wales I began to get this urge to walk, and walk, and walk, and… walk.
During this week of rest and reflection, I pick up a book on camping in Llangollen Library, which begins to fire my interest in the life giving nature of it.
I also walk at least 20 miles in a day, during this week, to Corwen from Llangollen, along the valley of the River Dee and then back to our house in Betws Gwerfil Goch. The sun blisters down as I walk, and I love it. But I don’t think I would have even thought this a possible distance in one day if you’d mentioned it to me a year before! This walking thing is getting into my system!
And then at one moment during this week, I am sitting in the garden of our house in the Denbigh Moors, just outside the small village of Betws Gwerfil Goch. The sun is still blaring, and the thought comes to me, ‘Why don’t I walk around the whole coast of Wales?’
Now this is not a standard thought just to pop into ones head…
‘Why don’t I clean my house?’, ‘Why don’t I watch some telly?’ ‘Why don’t I get up and make myself a hot chocolate?’
Now, those are more standard thoughts… But once in a while we all have thoughts which are out of the ordinary and this is one of mine!
For three years, Nathalie and I had been dreaming about coming to live in Wales, and we finally made it by the beginning of 2016.
Now, 5 months in, I am sitting in my garden having thoughts like this. Is this the effect of the beautiful Welsh landscape, and breathing in the Welsh air? Maybe! Quite Probably!
I had always loved the countryside and loved to walk, but long distance walking was not something I had considered! Not really at all… till now.
The dream settled in my heart, lightly like a feather, but after this it simply wouldn’t go away!!
The Wales Coast Path is 870 miles long and is a path that hugs the coast of Wales as closely as possible. It was thought of many years before, but was officially finished in 2012. Since then it has been occasionally tweaked and altered, but stays pretty much in its 2012 form. It has been an inspiration to other countries to look at creating well signposted coast paths.
Think to myself more than once – ‘I think I better do a few practice walks before I look at walking the whole path’!!
I want to adventure, get out into the wild. I don’t have the gear, resources or experience for this.
I better start somewhere…
Buy a £13 tent in a well known goods store in Wrexham and a £10 barbecue/ bin-shaped thing claiming to be a barbecue.
Convince Nathalie to attempt two days camping with me. Amazing campsite near Tal-y-Lynn, a large lake on the southern side of Cadair Idris, near the Tywyn Coast.
We find conclusively that the tent is not waterproof!
Buying such a cheap tent has not paid off.
We get wet…
And I think I’ve put Nathalie off camping for good.
Great few days though – coffees in Tywyn, a reasonably successful and tasty barbecue, given the equipment, and a sunny day in Aberdyfi. I love Aberdyfi.
By now desperate to get into the wild and try a combination of walking and camping.
How do I do this?
We don’t have the money to invest in what I need…
I could cope for 1 night in my water-welcoming tent if I get wet…
But what about the other gear I need?
I’ll have to be creative…
Ok… I could set off with what I have… how about that?... (St Francis would have approved…) I’ll need to be creative.
Walking boots with holes in? Tick.
No sleeping bag? How about a single quilt? Sure, why not?
No hiking bag? Hmmm… Well I do have that black Travel bag – with the long strap, and the two smaller hand carrying straps. I mean this is not a bag for backpacking. The long handle kills you after two minutes, but then if I adjust those two small hand carry straps over my shoulder it could be a sort of makeshift rucksack… It’s the best I’ve got…
And I’ll make rain covers with some plastic bags…
So I start off into the countryside from our house – taking the routes that mean the minimal amount of people will see me! I must look different, to say the least!
But best not to think too hard how this looks…
I think sometimes in life, you need to pursue a dream, or at least start your way on the journey to pursuing it, and to do this before you have the necessary resources to fulfil it with. A dream is a powerful thing, and I don’t think money should hold it back. But sometimes you need to start with things before the money is there… to start with the first steps to fulfilling a dream. Or at least that has been my experience.
…and perhaps there’s space for being a little bit silly along the way.
After 3 hours walking in the direction of Bala, I get to Cynwyd and start along the road from Cynwyd to Llandrillo. A number of roads going off to my left and to the east wind up to the north western edge of the Berwyn Mountains…
I take one fairly soon, and am aiming to get onto the top of the Berwyns to camp before dark. I don’t know much about ‘wild camping’ yet. I know in Scotland it is allowed, but in the rest of the UK it is more questionable… but my understanding is that if I get onto the higher hills this land is more common...
In the end I don’t make it quite to the mountain tops, but to a seemingly unused field with no livestock in that backs onto the heathery mountains that are the beginnings of the Berwyns…
The views down over the Dee Valley and back towards the hills on the other side are stunning. I set the tent up facing the view, using a rock as a final tent peg, having run out of one.
I sit – soak in the view. It is an idyllic night, and an idyllic moment.
Wake up and wander towards the heather at the top of the field. Think about leaving the tent and going further, but the decision is made for me. I have a visit from a farmer who isn’t super pleased! I know enough to offer to leave, and do that. Her point of view was that it was her land and it would be like someone coming and putting a tent up in my garden. I can see her point, and I think on the one hand there is a lot to be said for the private ownership of land, and that all land in England and Wales belongs to someone (I now know this). It creates ownership and the potential for good stewardship. On the other hand, we can end up missing something where there is the need for that natural freedom to roam and to stay, like the Celtic Christians did years before in the British Isles, where they would roam, and one day choose a place to set up base – an island or a valley. This world after all is not mine or yours, but ours…
Pack up – walk to Llandrillo – Sit. Rest. Eat biscuits. Take a different and quicker road towards home, and make it back before dark…
Need to try some sections of the coast path if I’m seriously considering walking the whole thing next year.
A £50 gift in the post from a friend gives me the boost I need to decide to try two lots of 3 night sections of the coast path to see how I find it…
Nathalie and I still don’t have loads to invest in it, but we chat and decide I do need some basics…
A trip to Chester does the trick.
A Tamar 2 £30 Eurohike tent, reduced from £60
A £5 sleeping bag reduced from £10
A £10 sleeping bag, reduced from £20
And a £2.50 emergency blanket… as it’s getting colder… and my feet are cold...
even walking around Chester!!
And that’s the other thing – my walking boots still have holes in them and need replacing… but that will just have to wait…
For an early birthday present – Nathalie buys me a really cool back pack for £50 reduced from £160. That really feels like a bargain and I feel proud of it!
Tues October 18th
Set off to Barmouth from our home… Devour 2 Belgian buns and then sit watching the sea and eating chips before setting off…
I set off from Barmouth to Fairbourne, first walking over the rickety old railway bridge which also has a space for walkers and still carries Cambrian Line trains over the mouth of the estuary, and then up the little pavement to Fairbourne.
This is the first time I have carried the pack and there are no two ways about it – it’s too heavy. I stop about every 10 minutes – I can only hope I’ll get bigger! Or stronger at least, as I go! A few older couples stop and talk to me – all mention the size of the pack, and so my reply is, ‘It’s a bit like carrying a house’. Hopefully it will get easier!!
After Fairbourne, I then head on and up onto the hill tops from there with almost Mediterranean views over the Meirionnydd Coast…
Really want to get to a campsite by the sea called Cae Du where it’s only £10 a night…
Am unsure if I’ll make it… so come off the path to a main road…
Whether this was a good decision or not is open to debate…
It’s a main road, cars speeding at 60 miles an hour plus with many bends in it.
It’s now dark, I try shining my torch behind me so they can see me and crossing near bends so they don’t miss me.
I don’t necessarily recommend trying this… but I want to give it a go getting there to this campsite by the sea…
I arrive at the Farmhouse… I realise that for many country folk and farming folk… it is an extra thing to do with land, to bring in a bit more revenue, so it’s not surprising that the lady seems a bit distracted when she comes to open the door…
In the end she gives me £2 off the fare – ‘Fair play to you, you haven’t got a car’.
Follow her instructions heading under the bridge and down to the field by the sea edge – go to the barn to try and switch the light on. Eventually find it…
The wind is blowing in from the coast like anything and this, being the first time I’ve put this tent up – I know you’re meant to have practice goes in your garden with a tent, but I didn’t have it in me this time – makes it extremely challenging. It’s hard by torchlight seeing the instructions, so I have to keep popping into the barn to read the instructions and back into the tent pitch to fight against the wind and the light.
Eventually get set up, but that took an hour, not the 7 minutes suggested. Still, I’ll get better.
Weds 19th October
Awake at 9am. My back is hurting from carrying the pack. Lie in bed till about 12 thinking, journaling and reading, and by the time I’m fully packed away don’t actually set off till about 2pm. A much later start than I expected!
Still my motto with these things is, I’m not doing them because ‘I have to’ so if I need a day off or a different and slower day all along the process of doing this, then I can! That’s the joy of it… there are no rules here… I love that!
Nevertheless, I want to get walking and want to at least get to Tywyn this evening, if not further and perhaps to wild camp in the countryside around it somewhere.
I start off and the countryside after Cae Du is absolutely idyllic with the sun out and people’s gardens look almost Mediterranean with hydrangeas and other flowers still providing colour, even in October.
Quite early on, I miss the turning for the coast path, and half a mile down the road speak to a Welsh Farmer. He is the epitome of Welsh friendliness and kindness in the way he speaks to me – and he shows me where I’ve gone wrong. His cows are about to be pacing down the road in 10 minutes – so that’s a reason to get going… don’t want to be trampled…
Just over a week ago I met a vicar from Manchester who told me of some walks he had been doing – he had a whole topsy-turvy way of thinking about being hospitable as ‘being the good guest’, so when he had gone walking, he had phoned up other vicars and asked if they would put him up for a night. Most were really helpful, and if they couldn’t personally help, found someone from their church who would be willing to host him. Until then I hadn’t liked the idea of staying in people’s houses for walking the coastal path, but this made me consider the option, and I began to think that maybe a combination of camping in campsites, wild camping, B&Bs/ hotels, staying in people’s homes and the occasional church floor, could be the way to go with walking the coast path.
I know for me, in doing something like this it needs to be more on the spontaneous side rather than carefully planned, but at least this way I could have numbers for campsites and some churches as well for each section, and it would give me a possibility of finding somewhere. I could always as well keep the possibility open of knocking at B&B doors if there’s enough money, and if all else fails finding a spot to wild camp. Though it may be that I find I take to this wild camping thing more as I go…
This night nowhere is appealing in terms of wild camping. So, with this vicar’s thoughts in my head, I think I’ll just try Tywyn Baptist Church and see if I can sleep on their church floor…
I phone and am put through to Mandy an elder.
I explain who I am and what I am doing. She says she’ll call back…
She phones back and says it isn’t possible for me to stay on the church floor, but that I can sleep at their house if I like.
They are in Bryn Crug a couple of miles away from Tywyn, so it will be late when I arrive.
It’s absolutely beautiful walking into Tywyn with a bright sky starting to go pink… and it’s so open… with wonderfully flat fields all the way to the sea, as I’m looking towards the town as I arrive, and with hills behind and in the distance… The town goes an atmospheric grey, white and red with the different colours of the roofs and the buildings reflected in this light… and it’s a heart grabbing moment. What an amazing scene!
But soon after I reach the town it goes dark…
There were people all around on the way in so I hold a wee in to the point where it is painful!
Walking the final few miles by the road side from Tywyn to Bryn Crug would have been easy, but holding the wee in has caused trapped wind – agony!! Owww.
I arrive on Mandy and Dave Deere’s doorstep just after 8.30.
Mandy and Dave are kindness personified.
I’m nervous when I knock at the door, but this soon thaws…
Their hospitality – all undeserved and unearned on my part, I might add – is second to none. I have a jacket potato on arrival, and then sit and talk with them for a good two or three hours about mutual interests. They let me have a bath, and then show me to an extremely comfortable bed in an extremely comfortable room.
I love that it is possible to relate to people twice your age as friends and equals. People are people at the end of the day, and why should age be a barrier to getting along well?
Thurs 20th October
Today is my birthday.
Nathalie and I are going to spend the day celebrating it tomorrow when she picks me up from Aberdyfi. Today I walk alone and have fun.
I haven’t told Mandy and Dave it’s my birthday – well, they’ve been so kind already, and I expect they’d feel they needed to make something of it.
But it feels like my birthday.
I get served scrambled eggs on toast.
And, would you believe it – the cricket is on Sky TV…
I have chosen not to have TV for years… so I’ve only seen bits of the cricket over the last 10 years in pubs here and there…
It’s the first series of the winter – England against Bangladesh I think…
The cricket’s not exciting…
But simply the relaxing nature of it is just what I need!
And so it feels like a birthday treat – sitting and talking to lovely people and watching the cricket.
Leave Mandy and Dave’s just after 11 with my faith restored in the goodness of people, and, walking down the road, meet a man and find myself saying, ‘Wales is beautiful, isn’t it’.
‘Most beautiful country in the world’, he replies, and I think I would have to agree with him.
Get into Tywyn town, and am thinking that I need to make it feel like my birthday.
I’ve got time as Aberdyfi is only another 4 miles from Tywyn.
So wander and mill around the town at leisure, enjoying having no sense of having to do anything except for enjoy myself.
Walk into the local bookshop and love their section on outdoor stuff. This is how a bookshop should be. Sofas, and loads of books you wouldn’t have thought of looking for, and probably wouldn’t have even found online. I hope we find a way for places like this to co-exist with our ‘internet filled’ world.
The lady in the bookshop is fun and bubbly. She is one of those extroverts who are life giving. She just talks about life, makes the occasional comment about what’s being said on the radio, and then lets you browse a little before making a few comments.
Go into a pub/ restaurant called ‘The Gander’ for a mocha and a great big slice of chocolate cake. Now that’s a birthday present!
Pop into another shop. Another talkative lady, but this time is less comfortable…
So start my walk to Aberdyfi.
I walk the four miles along the beach – the official coast path follows some of the road, but this is clearly the most beautiful way.
At times I go up through the dunes and at other times walk along the sand. The sun is shining, and in one direction I can see the whole arm of the Llyn Peninsula, including Bardsey Island, and in the other direction I can see the arm of Pembrokeshire curling round. Cardigan Bay really is beautiful like that and really does stretch a long way with the various estuaries that come out into it. Essentially Cardigan Bay is the name for at least half of the west coast of Wales.
As am arriving into Aberdyfi, decide the massive dune system behind the beach is as good a place as any to try wild camping.
What had helped was the lady in the Tywyn bookshop, and a book I had dipped into whilst in there, had answered my question about wild camping really comprehensively. It is a case of the difference between civil law and criminal law. It is a case of civil law and the key thing is to agree to move if you are asked to. Wild camping is generally tolerated, as long as you follow a certain etiquette – setting up late and leaving early, doing everything possible to respect the land, finding an appropriate place (ie: not right in the middle of a currently used field), burying human waste, and leaving no trace of your presence.
I find a suitable flat spot, surrounded by higher dunes on all sides.
Feeling a bit nervous of being told off by someone – probably false guilt!
You do feel a bit vulnerable wild camping, but also free.
Friday 21st October
I wake up freezing at 5am, as the night has been cold. It didn’t help that I had been reading a section in Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ where he hilariously, but also scarily describes hypothermia, and how you don’t always realise you have it.
Started worrying, but this proved a good moment to try my survival blanket. Wrap it round myself. It’s like being a chicken wrapped in tin foil – except that I’m alive and leave space for my face so I can breathe, where as chickens wrapped in tin foil tend not to be breathing! And then with my sleeping bag over the top try to go back to sleep for a little while.
Eventually, get up, slowly pack away and wander along Aberdyfi beach, which in my mind is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with the estuary and the mountainous backdrop and sit by the dunes reading a little bit more of my book.
At about 10 o clock, I go to meet Nathalie, give her a massive hug and we spend a great day together around the area for my birthday.
Tuesday 25th October
I’m starting a day later than intended, but after working on the Saturday and Sunday, felt I could not start without a rest day on the Monday, not least to put my tent up in the lounge to dry and brush as much Aberdyfi sand off it as possible. I decide I’ll start from Caernarfon and walk down the northern part of the Llyn Peninsula getting as far towards Bardsey Island as I can – but it turns out that is extremely hopeful for the time I have!
We travel together over to Caernarfon, sit in a really nice teashop/giftshop and then are told by one of the waitresses that we can get in for free to the castle today as there is a display of the poppies moved over from London in memory of the centenary of the First World War. So we do go.
And then at 2pm say a difficult goodbye – somehow am feeling more nervous about this stretch than last weeks, perhaps because we’ve never taken a day out on this part of the Llyn, so it is all new.
It seems to take me forever to get what I need shopping wise, and end up not setting off till 4pm, which at this time of the year only leaves me 3 hours walking in the light.
Still, I need to enjoy my KFC snack box!! So wander and eat, and walk and stop and enjoy the view for the first hour.
My pack is heavy again… partly because I’ve tried to get enough food to keep me going for a large chunk of the way, as I guess that there won’t be lots of shops on this stretch. This proves to be right.
After passing some earlier opportunities to camp or stop, I get to the point where I need to because it’s getting dark, so head inland away from the coast path. Am feeling a bit nervous about it all. Come into a small village. Knock on a door with Caravans in the garden, but no answer.
Eventually I settle on a site of a church that is up for sale. Yes it’s owned by an estate agent, but in one sense it’s nobody’s land. Still feel a bit nervous about being seen and told off by the people in the houses whose gardens border the church. I’m still new to this wild camping thing. Aware of the sound of the road near the church. Feel a bit unsafe.
Wednesday 26th October
Set my alarm for 5.30 following the ‘leave early’ part of wild camping etiquette that I’d been told, but lie for an hour unable to get up just yet.
Glad to be walking with a whole day of the coast path ahead of me when I start off.
Enjoy in the first part of the walk today some of the deserted country lanes the path takes me on and stop once in a while to pick and eat a few blackberries and enjoy the autumn bounty!
The path goes through a nature reserve, so stop in a bird hide.
Here the path follows round a coastal lagoon, so for quite a long while you can see in all directions, and in a way it lasts forever, without seeming to get far, but is really beautiful and calming.
Come past Caernarfon airport, and have to pop into the loo. Feel a bit conspicuous with my pack, and undoubted rugged look, but is a welcome break, and the airport provides a varied backdrop to the walk, watching people working on and walking on the runways. The airport is home to the Wales Air Ambulance and the HM Coastguard helicopters, and has a museum.
Get to Dinas Dinlle stony beach and enjoy sitting and its windswept beauty and the striking view back to Newborough forest on Anglesey.
Can’t seem to find the clear signing for the continuation of the path at the end of the beach, so sit in a coffee shop and have chips. Reflect as I listen to the chatting between the owner and the locals, that places need a balance between locals and tourists. If a place exists purely for tourism, it has no real base from which to give, no beating heart… on the other hand if it has no place at all for tourism then the insularity can be suffocating and people coming in feel like intruders. Speak to a lady who used to live in Abersoch, where she had observed that same struggle of a place to keep it’s identity in the face of many newcomers.
She mentions the Welsh language centre further round the coast where you can start learning Welsh by residential courses. Sounds like such a good idea.
Café owner kindly gives me my food for a small amount and tops up all my water bottles.
Carry on up the beach. Have to take shoes off, roll up trousers and ford a rapidly flowing stream pouring out into the sea. Feel a bit nervous about loosing footing!
After this, the path gets boring and follows the road.
Eventually at about 4pm I come into view of a little village called Clynnog Fawr and the path comes off the main road.
I’m exhausted and have definitely reached my limit for the day. Not sure what to do, so I call the number of a B&B from outside their grounds and ask if I can camp in their garden. I can’t, but she really helpfully phones another place for me and finds me Bach Wen over the road which I would never have found on my own, as it wasn’t advertised.
But it is included in the Cool Camping guide, and it deserves to be! Everything here is super cool – cool cottages, cool pods, cool spaces for tents, a very cool bar that opened in the evening, and even cool loos and showers!! When a place has cool loos, then you’ve reached another level of accommodation!
Feel safe here. Read in my tent and fall asleep
Thursday 27th October
Well I have to say the campsite is extreme luxury and only £10 a night. It is so good (and for the practical reason that I’ll be able to get a bus back to Caernarfon on Friday) that I decide to have a second night here. That way today I can leave my heavy tent here and just walk as far as I can get and back – the only disadvantage is I’ll have to turn round and come back the way I’ve come.
Loving walking with a much lighter backpack today. Is practically like flying!
Path starts on the road, but once it turns off the road, down into Trefor harbour and then up onto the cliffs of the north Llyn coast, the walking gets really exciting. Try to avoid being blown over the edge of the cliff!
Eventually the path starts to climb round the flanks of Yr Eifl to the level of red kites and buzzards soaring. When you find yourself looking down on a red kite soaring, you know you are up high. I wonder if I will be able to see all the way over to Bardsey Island once I reach the top.
As I’m about to reach the summit, I bump into two walkers. We chat for a while and then I ask them what their names are – they say ‘Peter and John’ and I feel a rush of excitement.
I somehow feel encouraged about my whole journey into walking by this. Peter and John were the names of two of Jesus’ disciples, and metaphorically and literally they walked with him.
This feels like an encouragement from God that He thinks exploring walking, and exploring this element of what I am finding that I love and enjoy doing is a good thing, and that I may actually discover more of myself and more of Him through it.
They tell me that they are walking the whole coastline of Britain in week long sections little by little.
Anyway, I get to the top – enjoy and savour the views, look down to Nant Gwrtheyrn and the Welsh Language Centre. Consider going down! Would love to go and explore, but don’t fancy walking back to Bach Wen in the dark.
Can’t face the road on the way back, so take my chances with the beach along from Trefor. It takes time, but I find my way to the campsite through the back entrance.
Friday 28th October
Go back home to Betws Gwerfil Goch via Caernarfon on the bus all the way.
At Caernarfon see ‘Peter and John’ again waiting for a bus! Was highly unlikely that I would have seen them again, 20 miles or so away from where I met them, so this feels like another little whisper.