Because the Anglesey coastal path is circular, it doesn’t really matter where you start and end. I chose to begin at the closest point to my brother’s house, taking up their generous offer of a base and logistical support for the first few days so I can get my head around route-and food-finding, and mentally manage long days back to back and get back into the swing of looking after my body, before I also have to cope with carrying the heavy pack and camping.
The closest point happens to be the statue of Lord Nelson (erected by Admiral Lord Paget, whose family seat is the nearby Plas Newydd), set spectacularly on a rock covered by water at high tide near the Britannia Bridge looking masterfully out over the Menai Straits.
The morning light on the water as the sun was rising higher behind the bridge was extraordinarily magical, casting both the statue and a heron stalking about in the bladderwrack in a shining golden glow.
Surely, a good omen for the day’s 28km walk along the Straits and through Newborough Forest, home to much of the island’s healthy population of red squirrels following a successful programme to exterminate the American greys.
Sadly a more apt omen, however, turned out to be the inscription on the statue’s plinth: ‘Fell at Trafalgar, 1805’ as, just six minutes into this 12-day route, I lost my balance and crashed to the ground, twisting my right knee painfully.
Thankfully for the purpose of coaxing my knee along, the path (and indeed much of this day’s route) soon left the foreshore which, whilst picturesque and the obvious draw of this whole journey, is tough-going and unstable underfoot with its cobbles, shingle and sand.
The route tracks along good, flat inland paths and crabs across farmland. Given the forecast, the day was unexpectedly sunny and warm – and on the level my knee wasn’t too bad.
But instead of being able to build on the composure I had sought at the start of the walk, I found myself distracted by the pain, and by anxieties about what this knee wrench might mean for my walk. There seemed to be a good chance it would be over before it started, and I was ruefully considering whether, following on from yesterday’s NASA launch quotation, some ‘abort mission’ statement might not end up being today’s headline quotation. I made some stupid route-finding errors, for example, erroneously crossing a little bridge and beating around in long wet grass and dock stubble in search of the path instead of staying in the field I was in and simply turning left,
and I noticed myself distractedly clocking the turning leaves in the hedgerows and heavily loaded blackberries, hawthorns, elders and wild roses with no actual appreciation or consequent sense of balance and peace.
For solace I tried listening to the new Cormoran Strike novel, but realised within five minutes that I could not concentrate on an audiobook either, still less listen and simultaneously route-find. Some cows blocked the stone and slate slab stile but I didn’t have the mental resilience to forge through them, and tracked a little way back on myself to climb over a gate into their field instead.
I was rather glum.
Then I saw coming towards me across a stubble field an enormous black bear-cub, which soon resolved itself into a gigantic Newfoundland dog, Brennin, Welsh for ‘king’. I hoped as I buried my hands in the thick fur of this huge, amiable creature that perhaps it would function like the ‘King’s Evil’, warding off knee pain instead of scrofula.
And to some extent it did: Brennin’s owner Morgan cheerfully observed that if I was bearing weight effectively on the knee now then I would probably walk it off, and we agreed that I might find some ice at the Sea Zoo, scene of wonderful holiday outings in years past to its huge aquarium and sea-horse and lobster-breeding programme. I could do with a stop after 12km in any case.
The Sea Zoo café went one better than ice: to my amazement, lovely Elin behind the counter produced an actual ice pack from their freezer, and so I sat with a green salad and soothed my knee for half an hour, bathed in the kindness of café-patron strangers who offered me lifts and asked how I was.
And so I set off again after this early lunch, starting to be able to give my attention to the hulking masses of the National Park rising to the east behind the glittering water, the curlews and gulls resting and feeding on the Traeth Gwyllt sandbank, and the outskirts of Caernarfon on the opposite shore. I started to appreciate the foreshore too, as it curved gently northwards, enjoying the diversity of seaweeds and washed-up sponges,
descendants down the aeons of the local underwater environment as evidenced by the coral fossil-bearing beach cobbles dotted along the shoreline.
To my right a striking red sandstone cliff, to my left in the distance the Snowdon range had given way to the Lleyn Peninsula.
I walked for a while with a couple, out on one of a series of day circular walks, welcome company and a perfect distraction from the catastrophising internal monologue on the theme of my knee. We passed out of the belt of affluent rural properties close to the waterfront, complete with ruined chapels and peacocks, through autumnal farmland and out into the wide reedy flats flanking the tidal Afon Braint, a completely different kind of habitat, wild, muddy and open. We crossed the river at the Stepping Stones, limestone blocks so huge and widely spaced that it required a determined launch and surprisingly dizzying semi-leap to cross them.
I left Clare and David to their lunch. Thus far I had been walking on coastal path new to me, but at about the 18km mark I joined a familiar section, the path down to Newborough Beach. The dune complex of Newborough Warren which flanks this path is under active management: it is now fenced off and grazed by small herds of horses and cattle, and the slacks running like mazes between the dunes are being deepened to regain their year-round dampness, better to support the flora and fauna of this European Site of Special Conservation. I love the late-summer flowers of devil’s bit scabious and knapweed, and the last of the willowherbs, familiar to me from home, unlike the salt- and sand-loving plants I will need to learn about over the coming days. Interpretation boards explained that the dunes themselves were the result of a catastrophic sandstorm in 1331 which mostly buried the eight local farmsteads in one terrible night; the ruins of one medieval farm are still visible by the side of the path. After this storm the survivors began planting marram grass to stabilise the dunes, which has largely prevented them shifting.
For some reason the Coastal Path slogs inland through the entirety of Newborough Forest. Why this should be so is a mystery to me: I had to make detours to get any views of the sea at all, roaring behind the dunes. The car park was full, and populated with people sitting on folding chairs right by their vehicles in the centre of the car park instead of down on the beach – another mystery. Kite surfers were unloading piles of fascinating equipment and staggering with it effortfully down the boardwalk through the dunes for their fix of exhilarating semi-flight over the waves.
Even though I was tiring significantly, I was pleased my knee was holding up. The Forest is huge, planted mainly with Corsican pines which fill the air with a distinctly Mediterranean scent. Some are huge – planting began in 1947 as part of dune stabilisation efforts and latterly as the most important red squirrel conservation site in Wales (did I see one? I did not… although Stephen did, fleetingly, when he came here for a forest trail run on Saturday). To respond to climate warming they are now thinning the pines and encouraging a much greater diversity of trees, bushes and understory species, to encourage resilience to unpredictable weather and climate. It is very beautiful.
On paper today’s walk, at 28km, was going to be a long one. I passed that mark with Malltraeth still an hour away on the other side of the Avon Cefni’s huge estuary. I would have liked time to dawdle with the binoculars, identifying wading birds and filling my eyes with the waterland, but I was just focusing on walking steadily to the end – at 32.6km significantly beyond the notional 24km into which I had tried to carve up each day. There had been no shortening today, though, except radically, by finishing before the Newborough section. And I did muster up enough energy to ask a chap with likely-looking binoculars what the wading birds were. Black-tailed godwit. Handsome creatures.
And there was definitely still energy left in the tank to walk up the road a little way into Malltraeth for a packet of crisps, a bottle of water and a self-congratulatory Magnum. My brother arrived to collect me just as it started to rain – the ultimate in satisfaction!
Video of today’s walk