Sandy beaches and hill tracks from Barmouth to the Dyfi
The coast between the estuaries of the Artro and Dyfi rivers is one long sandy shore, backed to landward by the craggy peaks of the Rhinog mountains and Cader Idris. The main coast road threads its way through a succession of neat, stone-built villages. Each has its own stretch of beach and its own connection to a network of mountain tracks and paths which makes this area particularly rewarding for the energetic warker.
The name means the ‘Valley of Ardudwy’, and applies to the area of coastline as well as to the village which straddles a winding section of the Harlech to Barmouth coast road. On the north-west side of the village is the stretch of dunes called Morfa Dyffryn, the central and northern part of which is a national nature reserve. Entry is by permit only, which can be obtained from the Nature Conservancy Council’s North Wales Regional Office at Plas Penrhos, Ffordd Pen-rhos, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2LQ.
The village lies between the hills and the sea, and fits tightly into a narrow gap already half filled by the main coast road and the BR line from Machynlleth to Pwllheli. The little parish church, hidden below road level, dates back to the early 13th century and is one of the best examples of the Early English style in this part of North Wales. The churchyard tombs are said to have been used for hiding contraband spirits during the heyday of smuggling along this coast in the 18th century.
There are three names for this little resort town at the mouth of the beautiful Mawddach estuary. Apart from the English one, there are two Welsh versions: Abermaw, a contraction of Aber-mawddach (the estuary of the Mawddach) and Y Bermo. Whatever its title, it offers the usual resort attractions with one or two special ones of its own, such as the art exhibition held in August and the arts festival held each September. Barmouth is also the starting point of the Three Peaks International Yacht Race held in June; competitors sail to Fort William, stopping on the way to run to the top of Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis.
Bathing is safe along the sandy beach which sweeps northwards along the coast, but at the southern end of the town, where the waters of the Mawddach meet the sea in swirling currents and eddies, conditions can be treacherous. Water-skiing and surfing are popular when the weather permits, and dabs and flounders can be caught in the estuary.
This is also first-class walking country, with a wide variety of routes to choose from. One is the climb up to Dinas Olan, which in 1895 became the first piece of land to be owned by the National Trust. A Panorama Walk skirts the edge of the estuary up to Cutiau, while a footpath along the wooden railway bridge offers the only pedestrian. way across the river without a detour of several miles upstream.
Dolgellau is a neat, stone-built market town on the banks of the River Wnion, a tributary of the Mawddach. The ancient stone bridge dates back to 1638, and has the unusual feature of a tannery built on to it. The countryside round about is still well known for the quality of the sheep and cattle it raises, and the street and livestock market each Friday is well attended by farmers and their families from all over Meirionnydd. The sober respectability of the town today is hard to reconcile with the days in the last century when it was the centre of a local gold rush. The hills round about were mined for gold by the Romans, and gold for the Royal Family’s wedding rings is still mined here. The keen walker is almost spoiled for choice. Apart from the stiff climb up the network of paths leading to the summit of Cader Idris, 2 miles to the south, there are gentler strolls like the Precipice Walk which starts from near Llanfachreth and provides splendid views of the Mawddach estuary, or the Torrent Walk which follows the course of the Clywedog above the town.
The village is centred around a riverside hotel and a small wooden toll-bridge, whose planks rattle and rumble alarmingly under the car wheels, but which provides the nearest crossing of the Mawddach for road traffic heading south from Barmouth. The disused railway line from Ruabon and Llangollen to Barmouth now provides a walking route along the southern shore of the estuary, and the old Penmaenpool signal-box has been restored and converted into a Wildlife Information Centre.
This little village on the road from Dolgellau to Fairbourne, along the southern bank of the Mnwddach estuary, is a useful base for hill-walking, with routes into the foothills of Cader Idris, to the waterfalls below the hill of Llys Bradwen and to Llynnau Cregennen -the Lakes of Cregennen.
The Victorians’ love of the seaside led to the establishing of a small resort at Fairbourne. Extended by more modern building, the village is set in the flat strip of coast between the hills and the dune-covered peninsula of Morfa Mawddach, which stretches out towards Barmouth like a pointing finger.
Fairbourne is the starting point of the smallest of the Welsh narrow-gauge railway lines. Originally a horse-drawn tramway laid to carry the materials used for building the village, it was equipped with steam locomotives to run on its 15 in. gauge tracks in 1916. Today services connecting with the ferry across the estuary to Barmouth are run during summer by four steam locomotives and twodiesels.
A mile-long beach of low-tide sand, backed by a strip of shingle, offers a wide panorama of the coast northwards to Barmouth and beyond to Harlech and the mountains of
This little village is best known for its church, which has a beautiful 16th-century carved rood screen, thought to have been taken there from Cymmer Abbey, near Dolgellau, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The grapes, berries, leaves and twining vines make an eloquent testimony to the carver’s skill. Near by stood the old stately home of Peniarth, home of the Peniarth Manuscripts, the earliest-known documents written in the Welsh language, which were among the first acquisitions of the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. Further up the valley, at Craig-yr-Aderyn (Bird Rock), are colonies of cormorants and guillemots, and a couple of miles further on stand the melancholy ruins of Castell y Bere, a Welsh fortress perched on a precipitous crag in a superb defensive position. Originally, it could only be approached across a timber bridge crossing the dry moat hacked out of the rock. Edward I captured it during his campaigns in Wales, but it was retaken during the rebellion of 1294, after which it fell into ruins.
The Welsh name means ‘sand dune’, highly appropriate for a resort set at the northern end of a sand-and-shingle beach, backed by ranks of dunes which stretch for almost 4 miles to the Dyfi estuary and the town of Aberdyfi, and broken only by a golf course and an old rifle-range.
The town is probably best known as the terminus of the Talyllyn Railway, a narrow-gauge line established in 1865 to run 714 miles up the valley to Abergynolwyn and the quarries at Nant Gwernol, but never reaching the place after which it was named. The line came under threat of closure in 1951 but it was taken over by a private preservation society, the first line in Britain to be run in this way, and survived to celebrate its centenary. The story is told in the Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn’s Wharf station, which also has exhibits from other narrow-gauge lines in Britain and overseas.
Once proposed as a serious rival to
Holyhead and Fishguard for the ferry trade to Ireland, Aberdyfi, or Aberdovey, is now a busy but attractive holiday resort at the mouth of the River Dyfi. It has a wide, sandy beach and bathing is safe except near the river mouth.
The local yacht club’s sail marking of a black bell recalls the song The Bells of Aberdovey which first appeared in an 18th-century opera, but which harks back to the old Welsh legend of Cantre’rGwaelod, a city said to lie beneath the waters of Cardigan Bay. It is said that the bells of the city can be heard ringing when trouble threatens.
There is a maritime museum housed in the old warehouses on the jetty – behind the bustling seafront are quiet streets and squares of houses built for the sea-captains engaged in trade with ports all over the world. Even now, names like ‘The Old Custom House’, next to the Britannia Inn, and ‘Liverpool House’ in The Square, are reminders of the town’s prosperous and cosmopolitan past.
The town is built at the last crossing point of the Dyfi before the estuary widens into the open sea. It forms the focal point for the farming communities of this part of mid-Wales, and on Wednesdays the streets are crowded for the open-air market, held under a charter which dates back to the 13th century and also authorises a twice-yearly fair. On alternate weeks the market also deals in livestock.
Machynlleth’s oldest building is probably Royal House, which dates from the 15th century. It is believed to have been the home of Owain Glyndwr. Dafydd Gam, who attempted to assassinate Glyndwr during his crowning as Prince of Wales, was imprisoned there in 1404. A stone building of about 1450 in Maengwyn Street is said to stand on the site of the building where Owain Glyndwr held the first Welsh Parliament, during his rebellion in 1404 against the English Crown. Further up the street is a timber-framed building of 1628 known as the Mayor’s House, and at the centre is an imposing clock tower, presented to the town in 1873 by the local landowner, the Marquis of Londonderry.
A later marquis gave an even more lavish gift in 1949 – the 17th-century mansion of Plas Machynlleth, just outside the town on the road to Aberystwyth. The mansion now houses the council offices, and its grounds form a public park.
Situated among buildings which once belonged to one of the string of old quarries lining the Corris valley is the Centre for Alternative Technology. It was set up in 1974 to display and promote ways of reducing energy consumption. Among the projects demonstrated are a specially designed house which needs far less heating than the average dwelling, solar-heating panels, windmills and water generators.
There are also woodland and vegetable gardens, a working smallholding, a bookshop and a restaurant, a maze and an adventure playground. The centre is open daily, and also runs short courses.