Yesterday’s walk up the river at Aberffraw and down the other side, a long walk for very little distance travelled, was a taster for today’s extraordinary route which took me about 15 km of walking effectively to travel a few tens of meters. The Isle of Anglesey is divided in two by the narrow Cymyran Strait, where Holy Island is separated from the main island by the Afon Cymyran winding its way through a series of tidal flats and creeks and salt marshes out into Cymyran Bay. Rhosneigr, where I started today, sits at the south end of this bay, and the RAF base of Y Valley lies behind the dunes backing onto the bay’s long sandy beach. The Coastal Path follows all the crevices of the Strait in a fantastically tortuous route, crossing over to Holy Island by way of the Four Mile Bridge, directly under the flight path of the fighter jets out on their training flights.
My brother dropped me off on the roadway where he had picked me up last night, and I was conscious that my mood had a very different feel today – I was terrifically worried about carrying my pack, about my knee, and worried about my own personal minor energy crisis: would I be able to charge my phone (would I come to that be able to find food?) I was so nervous that my mouth was dry and my brain seemed to be incapable of rational thought.
At least I did not have to worry unduly about the weather. The forecast had promised rain, but once again it had blown through overnight to reveal an unexpected glorious sunrise.
But as soon as I hoisted my pack onto my back I knew that it was perfectly doable: despite adding water and a few snacks I could carry the weight comfortably, and my knee, although twinging, was stable enough. So far so good.
The resort town of Rhosneigr was very quiet out of season, and the town’s spectacular north beach belonged to me and me alone. To get to it I walked through the sand dunes, more peaty than sandy so drumming slightly under my feet, the path twisting through the slacks but always way-marked, and in general aiding me in finding a slowish, metronomic pace that felt purposeful but also comfortable.
The path offered one trial climb, up to the top of a dune, affording panoramic views backwards to town, out to sea over the rollers shining white and blue in the sun, and east to the RAF airfield. One solitary jet fighter was parked close up to the fence. I don’t know why I thought they would be silver: the jet was a mean-looking black.
The long walk up to the north end of the beach was an uplifting start to the day. Tangles of seaweed lay scattered from yesterday’s crashing waves, still-life arrangements of rubbery sugar kelp and oarweed with tiny barnacles growing on it, bladder wrack and serrated wrack, and the occasional bright green handful of sea lettuce.
Tangled in amongst the seaweed were the dogfish egg-cases known as mermaids’ purses, oyster shells, spiny crab carapaces.
Here was the igneous rock from yesterday polished smooth by the sea and glistening wet, revealing its complex veining, shiny polished white quartz pebbles. Further up the beach, well-coordinated phalanxes of plover and dotterels scurried back and forth comically picking their way through the piles of seaweed, taking off when I got too close and flying in close formation to settle a little further down the beach and start again with their running back and forth.
The magnificent waves, the sun and the sand and the clarity of the air were intoxicating. It all looked delicious, I felt incredibly happy.
Walking with the pack is a very different proposition to just the little daysack. Anglesey is an island of kissing gates, all very well when you’re walking as a couple, but walking solo, they turn into assault courses. Some of the angled side bits (there’s probably a technical name for them but I don’t know what it is and I don’t have my wood-working expert here to ask) are too narrow to be able to squeeze behind the gate, and I have to clamber up the planks so the rucksack can slip over the top. Needlessly awkward.
Step stiles also need careful negotiating, as their stone slabs are well-polished by walkers and slippery even when not wet. I have vivid memories of Stephen cracking his elbow falling on that Cornish one near the start of our End to End walk…
Speaking of wet, the radar picture showed widespread scattered showers, so it was pretty much going to be a matter of luck whether they were going to blow over where I was at any one time today.
In the end there was one very brief sharp shower which coincided with me slipping into a thickly-roofed copse, and another as I was passing between two blackthorn bushes. The rain was horizontal enough and the thorn bushes dense enough to keep me completely dry and protected for the very few minutes it took to pass from drenching rain to blaming sun. There’s something unspeakably cosy and comforting about sheltering from the rain. And there were blackberries. But mostly it was wall-to-wall sunshine: yet another shorts day.
Looking from afar at the flocks of birds feeding on the rich tidal mud flats, I lamented the lack of my binoculars. I think my pack weight was almost at the limit, and certainly as much as I can cope with today. But I was going fine! This rucksack is brilliantly designed, and the hours we spent choosing one that really fit were well spent – shout out to the calm and observant lad in Trekitt for his patience and expertise.
The hedging plant most used by Anglesea farmers seems to be blackthorn. Loaded with purple sloes at this time of year, it grows thickly and is obviously stock-proof.
However, the very feature that keeps the horses in their field is also discouraging for walkers: small thorny suckers of Prunus spinosa conceal themselves in bracken, and along the narrower paths they can shred trousers, and, if I did not take care, certainly the skin on my shorts-wearing legs.
So I was overjoyed to see, on the other side of a salt marsh inlet, two men strimming a path raised above the spring tide line and strengthened by a dry stone retaining wall.
Karl helpfully got the banana out of the side pocket of my rucksack for me, as I’m not quite enough of a contortionist yet to manage that feat for myself. I thanked him and Lee for their maintenance work, and he mentioned that he himself had built the wall on which I was standing, and which frequently needs repairing because motorcyclists sometimes try idiotically and thoughtlessly to ride on top of it.
Turns out Karl used to be the secretary of the North Wales branch of the Dry Stone Wallers Association, and he knew of my father (erstwhile Secretary of the South Wales branch). The small brotherhood of craftsmen. Originally from Saddleworth, Karl set up business with his nephew, and the dynamic duo do a sterling job of keeping these parts walkable. As I walked on, I had new appreciation of the carefully trimmed thorn bushes lining the path: Karl and Lee had been at work here too. It would be pretty rough going if it weren’t for green manicurists like them, the unseen maintainers of this path, those who take care to angle the way-mark arrows at each stile, gate or field entrance really precisely, who nail chickenwire to duckboards so our feet don’t slip, and lay them over the marshes to provide safe, dry year-round passage over this tidal zone which is sometimes sea, sometimes land.
Nearly all day the path felt properly ‘coastal’, although that didn’t mean monotony. It’s a surprisingly varied landscape, and habitats and views constantly changed, from mudflats to lochanlike stretches of water dotted with rocky islands, to extensive reedbeds in which curlews were seen but not heard. The path folds itself around the crevices of the estuary so that walking feels like tracing the edges of a fractal. I had to keep a close eye on the way marks as some of them point counterintuitively almost back on oneself.
At one fast-flowing section of the Afon Cymyran proper, a training group of volunteer rescuers were gripping onto the side of the Four-Mile Bridge below the parapet, flinging themselves by turns into the fastest point of the current and endeavouring (mostly hopelessly and to the general hilarity of their comrades) to catch hold of the rescue rope as it was thrown to them, thrashing effortfully back to the bridge as punishment for missing grabbing hold of it, instead of being dragged back.
I left their good-humoured ribbing behind me and walked on out into a reedy section of the estuary on a long series of duckboards which made for fast and easy and (for my knee) blessedly flat walking.
The duckboards mostly continued into a long stretch of a seasonal path, a rich wilderness habitat – perhaps a wildlife reserve of some sort – in amongst the comparatively sterile agricultural land. It was watery and marshy, woody and sheltered by terms, and full of dragonflies, damselflies, and speckled wood butterflies. The dragonflies were moving too fast to get any chance of identifying or photographing them.
From the map I could see that I was getting near to the beach from which I’d started, and emerging from the eco-habitat I found myself high up on agricultural land with – at last! – blackberry pickers, filling bag after bad with fruit for blackberry and apple pies and crumbles.
I was getting tired now. It felt like the end of a relatively long day: although the distance wasn’t great, it had been warm, and carrying the pack, no matter how comfortable, is more energy-sapping than carrying a small backpack, and I’d been going fairly slowly. I was surprised to see that it was only 1 o’clock.
But I had reached roughly the point on the opposite bank of the river which had seemed so close this morning, three and a half hours ago.
My efforts were rewarded and my need for a sit-down met by a set of wooden steps leading down to a feast for the eyes: tiny Silver Bay, tucked in just next to the Strait.
I gratefully took off my pack and boots, and gazed my fill for a while at the spectacular sea, clear turquoise and blue over the sand underneath. One man, perhaps attracted by the name of the beach, was metal-detecting – without any apparent luck.
Just before I turned the last headland to the day’s end Borth Wen, enjoying the rabbit-cropped turf and the last of the heather, a helecopter passed overhead, to lower itself slowly and gently just out of sight beyond a patch of rocks. As I caught up with it, I saw that it hadn’t landed, but was hovering motionless. It must have stayed there for a good half hour, having lowered one crewmember onto some rocks where he hung out perfectly happily gazing out at the view while the helicopter crew, equally cheerily, practised hanging in the air some short way away.
Passing dog walkers told me the crew had been practising this manoeuvre on an off for about an hour – such a skilled job to hold a helicopter absolutely stationary in in the face of stiff, tugging sea breezes. I wondered whether the helicopter had come out of RAF Valley. Jet plane training flights had been a feature of the day, pass after pass roaring overhead as the pilots banked their wings to return to base. The enormous soundwaves linger confusingly in the air as booming echoes rather like thunder, an aural analogue to the waves I watched in Porth Cwyfan yesterday (except perhaps not because waves in water are longitudinal and sound waves are transverse, which I know because I read up about it on the BBC Bitesize GCSE revision site just now, but I still have lots of questions about waves and there’s no one to ask). I didn’t mind the noise of the jet flights at all – they were quite interesting. It’s probably a different story if you live here, but I could imagine ceasing to notice them.
It was good to return to the eco-campsite of Outdoor Alternative Bunkhouse where we had camped once before in late September. After a beautiful sunset on the beach, an unexpected storm had blown in overnight, and we found ourselves in the only tent left standing in the morning: everyone else was surveying the wreckage through their car windows. I was hoping for better weather this time for my first solo night’s camping. They are expecting a party of 67 children later tomorrow but for now the site was peaceful and near-deserted.
I felt a bit self-conscious pitching the tent… there was no one around but over my shoulder I was watching myself pretending to be a camping person. It took a while to get the tent exactly right, but by the time I’d finished it looked like a hell of a comfortable place to rest, and was dry enough on the grass next to it to stretch out my muscles. I had done it! Carried my home on my back for a whole day! A huge sense of achievement.
Video of today’s walk