Half-way through our week on the Lleyn, and the wind which had got up on the second day was still blowing strongly as we drove into the car park at Porth Neigwl (aka Hell’s Mouth) to begin a walk around the headland of Mynydd Cilan.
Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth, gets its name because it faces south-west and receives the full force of Atlantic gales. In the past, gales have brought terror to sailors and have caused numerous fatal wrecks at Porth Neigwl. This has led to many a sailing ship being trapped there and coming to grief. No wonder it became known in English as ‘Hell’s Mouth’.
The author of a guide to North Wales and its Scenery published in 1839 wrote:
Few places present so favourable an appearance, and at the same time are so much dreaded by the mariners, as this. It is at the very end of the promontory, and from point to point is supposed to measure about eight miles: it is nearly semicircular. None but strange vessels, even in the most boisterous weather, ever seek shelter here, for they are soon stranded, and never again return.
After we had parked the car I noticed an interpretation board that told the story of The Twelve Apostles, a schooner built along the coast at Pwllheli in 1858, that spent most of her working life sailing out of Porthmadog with cargoes of slate. On her way home from Southampton in November 1898, she was caught in a storm in the middle of the night and the gale force southerly wind blew her towards Porth Neigwl, with no escape. In the morning, in order to try and save the ship and her crew, she was deliberately run aground. Luckily the crew were able to reach the shore safely but the ship itself was wrecked. The board’s text observes that The Twelve Apostles being lost in ‘Hell’s Mouth’ did not pass without comment at the time!
These days, Hell’s Mouth has a friendlier face: popular as a wind surfing beach, attracting the best surfers from all over Wales and the UK.
The beach, with its miles of clean sand is also the perfect place on a sunny day for kids with buckets and spades, and on windy days for windsurfing, sailing, water-skiing, and kite flying.
The beach is backed by steep clay cliffs that suffer badly from erosion. But at each end there is a rocky headland – Mynydd Cilan on the eastern side and the slopes of Mynydd Rhiw on the west. Growing at the foot of one of the dunes I found this clump of (I think I’m right) sea rocket.
Sea rocket is a succulent, low growing plant often seen inland, but commonly found near the sea. It’s an annual, with tiny flowers – white or pale pink- almost buried in the sand. The leaves certainly looked like those on the rocket that grows on our allotment, and the flowers similar to the yellow blooms of the cultivated variety.
We started to climb out to the headland and the wind really hit. We were following a section of the newly-designated Wales Coast Path. The first section of the walk, up to the trig point that marks the highest point of Mynydd Cilan (a modest 318 feet), afforded excellent views westwards across the bay of Porth Neigwl towards Mynydd Rhiw and beyond to Mynydd Mawr (where we had stood, in a squall, on our first day here) and the island of Ynys Enlli.
At the top we encountered a group of men flying model aeroplanes beyond the cliff edge and over the sea. I admired their skill and bravado as their delicate planes twisted and banked out of reach of any help should a mishap have befallen them.
These days the predominant economic activity up here is sheep grazing, but just inland from the trig point there was once a manganese mine (like the one at Porth Ysgo, it would have been worked for the mineral that became an essential element in the emergent steel industry in the second half of the 19th century). On the return leg of this walk we would pass another mining relic – the smelting chimney of the lead mine at Llanengan. There is evidence of lead being mined there in Roman times, but in the 19th century some 240 miners were employed in the industry, the majority from Cornwall, recruited because of their expertise in tin mining. Which explains the terraced row of cottages called Cornish Row.
Mynydd Cilan is supposed to be a great place for bird-watching – one of the best sites for chough in north Wales, plus peregrine, stonechat and linnet – but, perhaps because of the stiff wind – they stayed well hidden.
There was only one place where the path came dramatically close to the cliff edge – at Trwyn Llech-y-doll, where a flock of black sheep grazed their way around gorse, heather and bracken selecting what was left of the summer grass.
It was here that things began to go awry. We were following our trusty little guide book which, supported by our OS map, suggested leaving the coast and heading inland using rights of way across farm fields. However, as we later discovered, the Coast Path has been re-routed in the past two years, and – presumably following negotiations with farmers and landowners – the farmland from the end of the common on Mynydd Cilan is now very firmly fenced off (in fact, with the cliff edge side being also fenced off, walkers are forced to walk for a couple of miles through a fenced tunnel that has the feel of a prison yard).
We didn’t manage to break out until we reached at Nant y Big, above the long beach at Porth Ceiriad – and then only by ignoring a sign that said a track heading inland from a car park and caravan site was for residents only. Meanwhile, the designated path headed on relentlessly, and with no obvious exit, around Porth Ceiriad and on to Abersoch!
We returned to tour car by following quiet lanes, first to the crossroads at Sarn Bach, and then on through Llanengan. The wind never let up, the cloud cover remained gloomily grey and oppressively low – but it never rained!