I have crawled out at last far as I dare on to a bough of country that is suspended between sky and sea. – RS Thomas
Under a darkling sky, rain was threatening on the first morning of our week on the Lleyn. Not a promising outlook, but undeterred, we pushed open the gate that led directly from the cottage nestled at the foot of Anelog Mountain onto the Wales Coast Path. Continue reading “Lleyn walks: wind and rain on Mynydd Anelog”→
Aberdaron is, I think, the most characterful village on the Lleyn, a picturesque cluster of white-washed stone buildings huddled around two small, hump-backed bridges and a church that edges the shore. Its present appearance belies the village past. Long a fishing village, in the 18th and 19th centuries it developed as a shipbuilding centre and port, exporting limestone, lead, jasper and manganese from local mines and quarries. At low tide you can still make out the ruins of an old pier running out to sea at the western end of the beach. Continue reading “Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place”→
We’re back home after a week spent walking stretches of the newly-designated Wales Coast Path on the Lleyn Peninsula. We returned just as the extended spell of high pressure began, bringing beautiful sunny days and clear blue skies we’ve waited for all summer. Nonetheless, the week we were on the Lleyn was predominantly dry, though very breezy.
We had arrived on a glorious sunny afternoon that extended into a warm evening as we walked out from our holiday cottage, sheltered beneath Anelog Mynydd, the last outcrop of the range of mountains – some of them extinct volcanoes – that stretch down through the Lleyn. Continue reading “Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory”→
This time on the Lleyn, as well as returning to well-trodden paths at places like Aberdaron, Porth Dinllaen and Porth Oer, we also found coves and beaches, more off the beaten track.
We were staying in a mobile home on a caravan site just outside Nefyn. Each morning our Cavalier puppy would get me up at dawn, ready for a walk down to the shingle beach. It was worth it, though, for those crisp, clear views along the coast towards the distinctive outline of Yr Eifl.
Being late May, the thrift, or sea pink, was just beginning to splash seashore and stone walls with their globes of bright pink flowers held on tall stalks above cushions of green leaves.I remember the old threepenny coins that featured the thrift, maybe as a pun on its name.
The thrift was joined on the cliff tops by carpets of bluebells, just going over, and the blinding yellow of gorse.
Porth Dinllaen has been owned by the National Trust since 1994. With views across to Yr Eifl and Snowdonia, Porth Dinllaen forms a magnificent stretch of bay sweeping up beyond Nefyn.
However, that view might have looked very different: in the early 1800s it seemed that Porth Dinllaen would be chosen over Holyhead on Anglesey as the route to Ireland. The Porth Dinllaen Harbour Company was formed in 1808 with assets that included the village and the harbour. But the bill before Parliament to constitute Porth Dinllaen as a harbour for Irish trade was rejected in 1810.
In fact, at that time Porth Dinllaen was a much busier place than nowadays. Because the headland forms a natural harbour that affords protection from the prevailing westerly winds, Porth Dinllaen became important as a harbour and busy port with as many as 900 vessels entering the harbour in 1840. Records going back 400 years show cargoes being shipped through here included cloth, tobacco, pepper and coal. In the early 1830s a regular steamer service to Liverpool was established, giving villagers access to a major city and the latest fashions.
Today, there are only about two dozen buildings at Porth Dinllaen, with the Ty Coch pub the centre of the village.
Porth Colman is reached by a winding back road from Tudweilog and is situated at one end of the broad sweep of Traerh Penllech, where we found orchids, primrose and violets in bloom. We startled a flock of oyster-catchers resting on the sand and watched them fly in v-formation out across the breakers, piping their distinctive cry.
Traeth Penllech is a long bay to which there is no vehicular access, so you really feel away from it all. At high tide there is only a limited stretch of beach, but we were lucky to be there at low tide when a large expanse of sand opens up. The coastal path follows the cliffs along much of the bay, though in places erosion had resulted in its collapse.
We returned to Porth Oer, aka Whistling Sands (apparently because it can squeak when you walk on it). As can be seen from the photo above, this normally busy beach was almost deserted in the days leading up to the spring bank holiday. It’s a National Trust treasure, with car park, toilets and an excellent beach cafe and shop. Some work has been done recently on the stretch of coastal path leading from the car park down to the beach, and two rather lovely wooden benches installed at good viewpoints.
We had spotted the cove at Porth Meudwy, near Aberdaron, while walking on Mynydd Rhiw, and worked our way to it along the winding lanes west of Aberdaron. Then stood, looking back to Mynydd Rhiw across the bay.
Porth Meudwy was the embarkation point for pilgrims to Bardsey Island and is now a busy lobster fishing cove as well as being a departure point for day trips to Bardsey Island (walking down to the cove, we met a group coming off the Bardsey boat, which was being hauled off the beach when we go there). It’s a pebble beach with rock pools, surrounded by woodland and birdsong.
Another discovery was Towyn beach, near Tudweilog. Again, we found it at low tide when huge expanses of sand are revealed, interspered with rocky outcrops. This BBC site reveals that the place is special in the hearts of very many people remembering childhood holidays spent here.
Pistyll beach (below) is reached by a path from the ancient church of St Bueno, an important stopping-off point on the medieval pilgrims’ route to Bardsey Island.
And back , once again, to Aberdaron…
Once you were tethered
And now you are free
That was the river
This is the sea!
We’ve been away in North Wales this last week in glorious weather, starting with a couple of days at Aberdaron staying at the excellent Gwesty Tŷ Newydd hotel, literally on the beach. The view from our bedroom window or from the terrace having a drink and a meal in the evening was stunning.
Next door to the hotel was a newsagents with a small but excellent selection of books. It was here that we discovered volumes by local poet Christine Evans. Born in Yorkshire, Christine Evans moved to Wales in 1967. She divides her time between farms on the Llyn Peninsula and Bardsey Island. Her characteristic themes and concerns range through family, childhood memories and the history and landscape of Llyn, particularly Bardsey Island, the subject of her latest book.
Skies tower here, and we are small. Winters, we sleep on a flap of land in a dark throat. We taste the salt of its swallow. Huge cold breaths hurtle over, cascade down till we feel the house haunch.
When morning comes at last houses sit up with pricked ears on reefs of land the black tide leaves, or sidle crab-wise to the lane, their small squashed faces giving nothing of their thoughts away.
In summer, flowers loosening with seed reach out to fingerstroke cars passing in the long sweet dusk. Hay-meadows sigh. Pearl-pale in the bracken on the headland shorn ewes step delicate and wary as young unicorns.
The sea we look out over is a navel the wrinkled belly-button of an older world: after dark like busy star-systems, the lights of Harlech, Aberystwyth, Abergwaun wink and beckon. The sun’s gone down red as a wound behind Wicklow. A creaking of a sail away Cernyw and Llydaw wait.
Once, here was where what mattered happened. A small place at the foot of cliffs of falling light; horizons that look empty. If we let ourselves believe it, fringes.
– Llyn, from Selected Poems, Christine Evans. Published by Seren in November 2003.
In Christine Evans’ collection Growth Rings, there’s an entertaining poem called, Not Much Like R.S. Thomas. R.S. Thomas was vicar of Aberdaron from 1967 to 1978 and enjoyed a reputation for being outspoken both in and out of the pulpit. There is an exhibition commemorating his time as vicar, in the church at Aberdaron.
I like this story, from Theodore Dalrymple’s biography: the poet’s son recalled his father’s sermons, in which he would “drone on” at length about the evil of refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and other modern devices. Thomas preached that they were all part of the temptation of scrambling after gadgets rather than attending to more spiritual needs. “This to a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them”.
A sense of his irascability (directed at the English – but also the Welsh) comes across in this poem:
To live in Wales is to be conscious At dusk of the spilled blood That went into the making of the wild sky, Dyeing the immaculate rivers In all their courses. It is to be aware, Above the noisy tractor And hum of the machine Of strife in the strung woods, Vibrant with sped arrows. You cannot live in the present, At least not in Wales. There is the language for instance, The soft consonants Strange to the ear. There are cries in the dark at night As owls answer the moon, And thick ambush of shadows, Hushed at the fields’ corners. There is no present in Wales, And no future; There is only the past, Brittle with relics, Wind-bitten towers and castles With sham ghosts; Mouldering quarries and mines; And an impotent people, Sick with inbreeding, Worrying the carcase of an old song.
– RS Thomas: Welsh Landscape
On the way from Aberdaron to Harlech we stopped to look round the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw, a 16th century small manor house near the village of Rhiw, restored to its former glory by the three Keating sisters who bought it in 1938. The grounds, which have great views over Hell’s Mouth and Cardigan Bay, also include ornamental gardens which contain many interesting flowering trees and shrubs, with beds framed by box hedges and grass paths.
This house was continuously occupied for a thousand years and for most of that time it was in the ownership of a family that eventually took the surname Lewis. The house, which stands on the foundations of a fortified building dating back to 900AD, was originally a farmhouse, and a house of some importance, indeed it is mentioned in the court records of the 16th and 17th centuries. Over the years the house was gradually enlarged until by 1800 is assumed the structure it has today.
Sarn Rhiw by RS Thomas
So we know she must have said something to him–What language, life? Oh, what language?
Thousands of years later I inhabit a house whose stone is the language of its builders. Here
by the sea they said little. But their message to the future was: Build well. In the fire of an evening I catch faces
staring at me. In April, when light quickens and clouds thin, boneless presences flit through my room.
Will they inherit me one day? What certainties have I to hand on like the punctuality
with which at the moon’s rising, the bay breaks into a smile as though meaning were not the difficulty at all?
Plas yn Rhiw was bought by the Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora, and their widowed mother Constance in 1939. They set about a comprehensive programme to save the old Welsh manor house and re-create the garden, while campaigning to protect its whole environment. They bought various smallholdings in the area to restore the estate to something of its former glory, and in 1946 in memory of their parents Constance and William Keating, the sisters donated surrounding land to the National Trust, followed by the house and further land in 1952. They continued to live there, however, until the death of the last sister Lorna in 1981.
The Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Mary Honora, first came to Rhiw as children with their mother in 1904. At that time they rented a house name Pen yr Ogaf, a small cottage situated on the hillside overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay. The house was rented from the North Wales Iron Ore and Manganese Company at the cost of £8 per year. At that time there were extensive manganese workings on Mynydd Rhiw, with tramways, overhead carriers, winding engines and jetties to carry away the ore at Porth Ysgo and Port Rhiw. Their home was in The Park, Nottingham, and their father, who had been a surveyor’s architect, had been involved in the design of Jesse Boot’s first shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham. He was unfortunately killed in a traffic accident in the 1890’s when the sisters were small children. Their mother and grandparents raised the girls. One grandfather was an accountant, the other a lace manufacturer. The sisters came regularly to Rhiw for their summer breaks, buying the house Ty Uchaf. When their mother broke her hip in 1934 whilst on holiday, they decided to live in Rhiw permanently. The frame of an old wheelchair, thought to belong to Mrs Keating has been found at Ty Uchaf by its present owners and has been preserved.
In 1939 the family were able to purchase Plas yn Rhiw which then only included 58 acres of land, and by single minded endeavour, restored the house, and repurchased much of it’s original land, to a total of over 400 acres.
Rooted in history, the garden is run along organic lines, as it was by the Keatings, and although today it’s less overgrown than it had become, many of the plants survive either in their original form, or as progeny of specimens brought in by the sisters. Large overflowing flower beds are contained by box hedges deliberately cut by the sisters in asymmetric patterns. They brought in plants from the wild such as teasles; iris pseudocrus, (which has unusual blackcurrant margins on the flowers); various poppies; myrtle; the poisonous monkshood; sheep sorrel (related to the culinary sorrel but with much smaller leaves) and foxgloves. Other ‘weeds’, such as the gardener’s nightmare, ground elder, are welcome.
Star players in the garden include the specimen Magnolia campbelli. It’s said by sources who spoke to the sisters themselves, that the tree was grown from seed Honora was given when she visited the Far East.