Long beaches and sandy coves on the Lleyn Peninsula
The western part of the Lleyn Peninsula is one of the least-changed parts of Wales. The roads are twisting and narrow, edged with high banks and tall hedges, with gaps which suddenly reveal distant mountains, or the sheen of sunshine on blue water. Beautiful in fine weather, the seas below its rugged cliffs savage and dangerous when the gales blow, this is a world away from the more traditional holiday resorts of the North Wales coast.
Rhos-y-Ilan is a tiny hamlet on a lane which leaves the coast road just north of Tud-weiliog. From a car park beside the road, next to a farmhouse, a path leads towards the sea. Rounded, grassy hills slope down to the water, and there are several small coves where sandy strips of beach are dotted with low-tide rock pools.
Another in the succession of tiny, cliff-backed coves which stretch along the northern side of the Lleyn, Porth Ysgaden is not one beach but two, separated by a small headland and studded with rocks. The sand is still speckled with the grains of coal dust left from the days when coastal colliers landed their cargoes on these beaches for customers in the neighbouring villages.
When conditions are right, there are good waves for surfing along this stretch of coast. Swimming is safe, except near the headlands where there may be treacherous currents.
The lane which runs from Penllech Bach to Pen-y-graig crosses a stream at a right-angle bend at the bottom of a steep hill. From this point a path alongside the stream runs down a steep ravine to the mile-long sandy beach of Traeth Penllech. The clear waters are popular with divers, and there is a choice of other, even more secluded coves and beaches. A 10 minute walk over the headland to the north-east leads to Porth ychen, a tiny bay with rocks, shingle and sand at low water. Even closer in the opposite direction is Porth Colmon, where there are rock pools and safe, sheltered bathing.
Forth lago is a difficult beach to reach, and is best approached from one or other of the tracks leading from the coast road towards the clifftops. In each case, the last stretch involves a steepish climb down to the sands, which can be difficult in wet weather. But the bay offers good surfing, and diving from the rocks at the edge of the bay.
The English name for this little cove is Whistling Sands, because the white sand actually whistles – or, more accurately, squeaks – when footsteps cause the fine grains to vibrate together. A steep track leads from a car park in a field at the top of the cliff to the long, sandy beach. At low tide there are rock pools to explore at the western end of the beach.
There is a small cafe where the track reaches the sand. Canoes and finned surfboards are not allowed on the beach between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. in June, July and August.
The long outstretched arm of the Lleyn Peninsula ends in the dramatically clenched fist of the 524 ft high Mynydd Mawr. The winding, single-track road reaches a parking area on the grassy slopes just after crossing a cattle-grid. From there, two paths diverge. One leads to a cairn on a nearby headland, with views southwards across cliffs and coves towards the bulk of Bardsey Island out at sea. The other follows a gully between the hills down to the water’s edge.
The road carries on up the mountain, to end in a paved car-parking area beside a coastguard lookout point at the summit. From there, a concrete footpath leads down to the foundations of an old wartime radar station. A rougher track continues to sea level, and to St Mary’s Well, where the Bardsey pilgrims would drink before boarding the ship for the last stretch of their long journey.
The island faces the mainland across a 2 mile wide strip of water which, because of the string tidal currents funnelling around the end of the long peninsula, almost always seethes with whirlpools and tide-rips. This remote mass of rock, dominated by a 548 ft high hill, was a tranquil refuge for Christians fleeing the chaos of mainland Britain after the Romans left.
A church was founded there as early as the 3rd century AD, and at one time three pilgrimages to Bardsey were reckoned equal to one pilgrimage to Rome in terms of religious credit. Many of the pilgrims stayed on the island, and because they were buried there it is often called the Isle of the Twenty Thousand Saints. The Welsh name is more prosaic, but just as accurate: Ynys Enlli, or the ‘Isle of the Eddies’.
At the beginning of the century, Bardsey still supported a population of more than 100 farmers and fishermen and their families, who appointed a ‘king’ to settle disputes. This office continued until a few years after the First World War. According to legend, Bardsey was also the home of the wizard Merlin of the Arthurian legends. Now, however, its only inhabitants are the custodians of the lighthouse and the bird observatory. In settled weather boat trips round the island set out from Aberdaron, but landing on the island is not encouraged.
BIRD OF THE WESTERN SHORES
On the coasts of Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man, colonies of choughs nest in caves, on ledges and in high cliff crevices. In flight they often perform aerobatics together, displaying their flight feathers like outspread fingers and diving, soaring and rolling in spectacular fashion.
This tiny fishing village, its whitewashed cottages nestling snugly in a fold of the rugged coastline, has been touched little by the passing centuries. The church was built at a safe distance from the sea 1,400 years ago, but the advancing waters have made it necessary for it to have its own sea-wall. The building which now serves as a cafe and gift shop at the other end of the village, Y Gegin Fawr, ‘The Big Kitchen’, dates from the 14th century. It was originally built as a resting-house.
The beach offers Vh miles of sand, sheltered from all winds except from the south and south-west, and when these blow they can create ideal surfing conditions. At calmer times the bay is popular with divers, and boats can be launched from a ramp leading down to the beach beside the church and its sea-wall. There are boat trips from the village for offshore fishing and to cruise round Bardsey Island.
This delightful little bay is reached by a walk of about 10 to 15 minutes from the unclassified road leading east from Aberdaron. The walk itself is a pleasant one, along a valley of ferns, gorse and foxgloves and following a stream that cascades down to the sea in a series of small waterfalls. The sand-and-shingle beach, sheltered by grassy cliffs, is covered at high tide.
This long sweep of sand and cliffs bears the English name of Hell’s Mouth, testimony to the threat it presented to sailing ships making their way to any of the ports of West Wales. Any ship unfortunate enough to be blown inshore by strong south-west gales risked being embayed – trapped within the long curving crescent of the bay by the onshore wind, and eventually driven on to the rocks.
Nowadays, when the south-west wind blows, the rollers sweep in to offer the strongest swimmers spectacular surfing conditions. When the weather is quieter, the sands offer seclusion and safe bathing, reached by a steep footpath, where care is needed in wet weather, leading down from the road between Llanengan and Rhydolion.
This little village has a twin-naved church which dates back 1,400 years and was founded by St Einion, King of Lleyn. A stone commemorating ‘Melus the doctor, son of Martinus’, carved in the 5th century AD, is the first mention of a doctor anywhere in Wales. There is also a beautifully carved rood screen, a solid oak coffer and sacred vessels which came originally from the abbey on Bardsey Island.
Just over a mile to the north is the beautiful and unspoiled little hamlet of Llangian.
ST TUDWAL’S ISLANDS
These two small islands to the south of the peninsula include another of Wales’s sacred places, this one founded by a saint from Brittany who fled, like the pilgrims of Bardsey, to escape the religious persecution of the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. The ruins of an 800-year-old chapel on the eastern island can still be seen from the boats which sail from Abersoch when the weather is good, but the islands are privately owned and landing is not allowed.
The one real intrusion of the modern world into the timeless charm of the Lleyn Peninsula, Abersoch has been transformed over the years from a quiet fishing village to a busy centre for powerboat enthusiasts. There are sailing boats, too, and two sandy beaches which face east, away from the prevailing wind, separated by a rocky headland and a small and muddy harbour.
The beach to the south is edged by chalets which climb in tiers up the side of the headland, while further south there are massive dunes, a car park and a golf course. Northwards, the sands run for 2 miles to the headland of Trwyn Llanbedrog. The swimming is safe and there is good fishing, mainly for bass.
The village of Llanbedrog lies to the north of the main road from Abersoch to Pwllheli, but a lane leads down to a beach of sand and shingle, sheltered from the prevailing winds by the wooded headland of Trwyn Llanbedrog. There is limited car parking and a ramp for launching boats; canoes, boats and pedal floats can be hired. Above the headland, the 400 ft peak of Mynydd Tirycwmwd can be reached by a path which gives fine views of the coastline towards Pwllheli.