Well, this is awkward.
England’s National Trust (also Wales’, though I’m not sure how loudly I can say that around here) provides all kinds of thoughtful extras for travellers who arrive to stay at one of their many historic holiday cottages. They leave you little flammable bricks for the fireplace, a helpful book containing the property’s history, an Ordnance Survey map if you’re lucky, a tasty casserole if you ask them to. And they suggest a walk, so you can get to know the immediate area. I have an OS map and a tiny book of walks with me already, but the Trust’s directions promised me gorgeous views and Neolithic tombs. Sold.
So, our first morning here, we took the laminated half sheet, and off we went. The first direction led us immediately astray. How is this possible? We must have read it wrong. We consulted the map, and still there was no “stream crossing on your right.” Retracing our steps, we figured out they want us eventually to go up the hill on the road that leaves the cottage, so we climbed. And climbed. If you were thinking about going there, be warned: North Wales is steep.
At the top of this tiny mountain, the promised views have unfurled, and they are grand indeed. Our lodging sits just above the Llyn Peninsula’s southern coast, atop the wide elliptical sweep of Cardigan Bay, and more specifically overlooking an utterly beautiful encirclement of ocean called Hell’s Mouth. It’s named that for its history of shipwrecks, but today’s weather is unlikely to produce one. It’s almost aggressively perfect, and – people keep telling us – atypical. Under an enthusiastic sun already high at 8am, the bay lies lazy and cornflower blue – the very shade of summer. A cacophony of crows converses in the wood behind us, and below, the rock-walled fields and farms fall away to the sea.
And then there’s this farmyard in front of us. There’s a road here, except it’s actually a driveway, and it goes right between a house and a set of outbuildings, with no room to spare. We’ll hardly be able to avoid a look in their kitchen window.
It’s entirely possible this is the correct route. Public rights of way in Britain – as we will continue to learn by uncomfortable experience – often arrow straight through private pastures and down personal drives. We’re nearly sure we’re in the right place, but our west-coast-American personal space makes us shy. Back to the B road we go.
From the safety of the public domain, I pull out my book of walks. I passionately love to read guidebooks, especially tiny, clever books like this, with enticing photos and and color facsimiles of the relevant section of OS map, and numbered directions with authoritative indistinctions like “go through a gate and bear left onto a path beside the wall.” I have been thumbing through this thing for months now – this morning included, when I slipped it in my back pocket just in case. Because, as of course I already knew, one of the walks is right here.
It begins in the village of Rhiw, which has to be close, because the property we started from is Plas yn Rhiw – the hall, or country house, in Rhiw. I figure we can just saunter over there, take off on the promised 5 mile jaunt, and then wander back – not more than a mile or two out of our way. I have a map. This cannot be difficult.
The map shows Rhiw just up the hill, where you pick up the Wales Coast Path. We walk back past our lodging and turn right onto the road, and there’s the Path heading off at a right angle, clearly not anywhere the map says it should be. We stand about at the junction for at least five minutes, arguing with it, until we finally decide that the Path will be more interesting than the road. We can detour a little and pick up the walk midway; we’ll go right through Rhiw a bit later. Besides, look at these signs, it’s clearly marked, we can’t get lost. I study the map again, wave my hand vaguely uphill. “Rhiw is over there. We’ll swing around and come at it from the southwest, see?”
This first section is sheep pasture. Only one inhabitant bothers about our intrusion; the rest glance up once and phlegmatically look away. I don’t know anything about the emotional range of sheep, and how this may or may not reflect in their voices, but from an anthropomorphic standpoint, this lady is cussing us out.
Her hill is not a gentle one, and we’re cutting across it on a traverse, angling down towards a stile at the edge of a wood. My foot – inexplicably injured last week and still sharply painful – dislikes walking on lumpy, unpathed pasture. It does somewhat better with a method of locomotion that just barely qualifies as a walk – a sort of sideways, crabbing gait, catching myself on the downward lurches with the help of a cork-topped stick I’ve shortened to use as a cane. I’m very slow. It’s a lot of time to spend getting bawled out by a belligerent ewe.
The wood is hazed with withered bluebells, and the barest ghost of their scent remains in the still air. At least, I imagine that last, because I’ve never sniffed a bluebell wood in full bell. Tiny pink flowers I don’t recognize fluff up prettily in their place, and invisible doves call from enclosing branches.
Out the other side, the Coast Path signs have wandered astray. Reasoning that Rhiw is far above us, we chose the track charging straight up the hillside, and for the first time we realize that today is hot. The headland we’re climbing could be the very birthplace of stone walls and springy ferns and foxglove in magnificent magenta, and on all of these the sun pours its questionable benison, generously and without cease.
Later, we’ll be in England, and a man in a pub will complain about the “nasty weather rolling in from Wales.” “What else is new?” the barman will sigh, while we exchange smiles. The only rain we’ll experience on this trip spatters down the very moment we cross the border – to the east.
For now, it must be 70 degrees Fahrenheit – which, to a Portlander in full sun, toiling up a slope graded more like Dog Mountain than something the tiny book of walks labels “easy” – is very warm indeed. There’s a single stunted oak tree at the top, twisted protectively over nothing in particular. Its pool of green shadow feels very like an oasis, a cool relief from this enormous prickly heath, this endless sky and sea gone flat with heat.
The flies up here are massive and they look hungry for blood, although I may be profiling them unfairly. None have actually attempted to pierce my skin, yet. The map – which doesn’t know where the Path is, and upon which we cannot accurately locate ourselves – is good for this one thing: fly sweeping. Not swatting – they just hum lazily out of its path, shepherded by gentle buffets of warm air.
Before us lie three choices. It’s technically four if you count the one just climbed, but we’ve no intention of wasting that onerous ascent. None of them are signed. One runs into a wall and someone’s backyard, without apparent right-of-way. Another fizzles into vague indentations in the grass within a dozen yards, going exactly the direction we want. Jeremiah consults the map reflexively, then says that the trail pointing precisely the wrong direction must be the one to Rhiw.
“That makes no sense.” I pause. What is the alternative? “Let’s do it.”
We do, eventually, reach Rhiw. All morning, we have walked in a landscape utterly changed by humanity, and seen no humans. Sheep are fenced in by stacked stone; a quartet of chestnut horses gallops about on a hillside three hundred yards off; ruined buildings squat at a crossroads of confusing paths. Unsilent, it is yet the quietest human space I’ve ever known – empty of human voices, transport, industry, or recreation. In the village, half a dozen people send a single wave from a doorway, nod without comment as they help an elderly friend to the car. No one is in a hurry to compete with the song of sunshine and wind.
The trail did not exactly get us here, but it led us by roundabout means to an unsigned road with houses on, and it was these that allowed us to confirm the route. You could never do this at home. Naming a house that’s unlikely to last fifty years seems an exercise in pre-meditated sadness, and adding it to a map is practically asking for someone to tear it down. We don’t go in much for permanence in the States.
The center of the village isn’t far from the outskirts. I can finally ask my clever little book for directions. Instead, I pocket it. We haven’t, almost certainly, walked more than a handful of miles. But our adventure was greater than the sum of our footsteps, and I’m leaning heavily on my stick with each of those. What I really want is to find my way “home,” and sit in “my” garden, and have a nice reflective glass of wine. I’m quite the extreme explorer.
Later, I will learn that the Wales Coast Path in this section was recently moved to conform more closely to the coast. Usually, when the map is wrong, you’re not reading it correctly. This once, we are vindicated. This territory has strayed from its topographical portrait.
I prefer my public paths to stay where the map put them, but I cannot complain. Today is paradise. This wild peninsula seems small, but offers worlds to explore within its close contours. My best friend walks by my side. I know how to get home.
Under such circumstances, I can hardly begrudge a little getting lost.
The Wales Coast Path is a relatively recent long-distance trail around the entire coastline of this beautiful country. We touched only a few short segments, including the one above. If you’re going to walk it yourself, I recommend checking the route changes, no matter how recently you think your OS map was updated.