Castles and a campanile along a sheltered shore
The southern coast of the Lleyn Peninsula has the best of both worlds, climatically speaking. The long arm of the Lleyn shelters it from the worst of the prevailing weather from the west; it also traps the warm waters of the Gulf Stream to create a climatic zone entirely different from that of the bleak mountains which rear their lofty heads inland. There are sandy beaches and coves, and grey-walled castles guarding the shore.
The biggest and busiest town on the Lleyn, Pwllheli has been a port and market town for centuries. It was given its charter as a borough by the Black Prince in 1355, and a street market is still held each Wednesday in the Maes.. The inner harbour has silted up, but the outer harbour provides berths for a few fishing boats and increasing numbers of yachts and sailing dinghies.
The South Beach is a long strip of sand, backed by shingle, while the Glan-y-don beach, east of the harbour, has almost 4 miles of sand, with safe bathing, except near to the harbour mouth and the Gimlet Rock. The sands stretch eastwards to the sheltering headland of Pen-ychain, skirting the secluded village of Abererch which has cafes, shops and a car park.
In this village of greystone houses astride the turbulent little River Dwyfor the Liberal politician and prime minister David Lloyd George grew up. His simple and dignified grave, marked by a great boulder inscribed ‘DLG 1863-1945’, is set on a slope overlooking the rapids just upstream from the bridge. A museum houses some of the gold and silver caskets, deeds of freedom and other honours and gifts he was given during his career. The stone cottage where he lived until 1890, marked with a plaque, stands beside the main Criccieth to Pwllheli road.
Just below the village, the River Dwyfach joins the Dwyfor to form a long estuary, offering pleasant riverside walks, and there are pony-trekking stables near by for those who want to explore further afield. A walk of about a mile down to the estuary leads to an isolated beach with wide patches of sand and rock pools at low tide.
The Welsh began to build Criccieth Castle in 1230 and finished it, with a strong main tower and a high outer wall, in 1260. By 1282, however, Edward I had captured the fortress and incorporated it into his defensive scheme for his new Welsh dominions. Though in ruins, the castle still betrays evidence of its eventful past. The Engine Tower on the north side was built to site a siege engine, or catapult, with which to bombard attackers. The fortress was taken from the English by Owain Glyndwr during his rebellion in 1404, and the scorchmarks on the Leyburn Tower probably date from that siege, as do the splits, caused by intense heat, in the stones of the tower doorway.
The magnificent setting of Criccieth Castle, perched as it is on a towering headland, effectively divides the town into two: to the west is a short pebbly beach, with ranks of groynes and backed by terraces of white-painted hotels. To the east is a longer, curving sweep of sand, which offers sheltered bathing.
David Lloyd George, Liberal politician and Britain’s prime minister from 1916 to 1922, was known as the ‘Welsh Wizard’ because of his spellbinding oratory. He retired from political life in 1944 and died a year later at Llanystumdwy, where his bronze bust stands outside a museum devoted to him.
The Welsh name of this village means ‘Little Marsh’, but the English name of Black Rock
Sands is more appropriate for the long sandy beach which it faces. There are caves among the rocks on the headland at the western end, and it is possible to dive from the rocks in good weather when the tide is high.
In the right conditions the bay provides good surfing waves, and there is ample parking on the beach, with a slipway for launching boats. Swimming is safe, except for strong currents at the south-east end of the beach, on the edge of the Glaslyn estuary.
A legend that upsets the history books is attached to this quiet village, for it is said that it was from here that Prince Madog, son of Owain Gwynned, set sail to discover America – more than 300 years before Christopher Columbus.
The village, on the bank of the Glaslyn just below Porthmadog, has a sand-and-pebble beach, with a slipway for boats and a path round the headland to another small cove further downstream. Bathing is safe close inshore, but there are fast currents further out. Trim cottages line the seafront, sheltered by the towering crags of Moel-y-gest, and there are splendid views across Traeth Bach to Harlech and the Rhinog mountains.
This little harbour town was created early in the 19th century when the local MP, William Alexander Maddocks, built the 1 mile long embankment called the Cob across the Glaslyn estuary to reclaim 7,000 acres of land from the river’s mud-flats. The town’s prosperity was founded on the slate trade; the output from the quarries of Blaenau
Ffestiniog was brought to Porthmadog on the narrow-gauge Festiniog Railway and there loaded on to ships for destinations all over the world.
Now Porthmadog is a holiday centre for canoeing, sailing, rock-climbing, fishing and horse-riding. But there are still close links with the past. The Festiniog Railway has now been reopened all the way to Blaenau Ffestiniog after almost 30 years of patient and ambitious restoration. A pottery has been established in the mill which used to grind the corn for the ships’ biscuits in the days of sail, and a maritime museum is housed in an old ketch, the Garlandstone, which used to sail from the port and is now permanently berthed at Oakley No. 3 Wharf in the old harbour.
In the 1920s the architect Clough Williams-Ellis became captivated by the Mediterranean fishing village of Portofino, which he discovered while touring Italy. He returned home determined to recreate his dream village in Britain, and the result is Portmeirion.
It was pure chance that decreed that Williams-Ellis should choose Portmeirion. For years he had searched in vain for a suitable site, and by 1925 he had almost given up when he was asked to find a buyer for a derelict piece of land in a sandy estuary between Porthmadog and Harlech. As soon as he saw it he knew that his search was over, and set about hacking down the jungle of tangled thickets. Out of this wilderness grew the king of follies, an extravaganza of Italianate buildings rubbing shoulders with architectural oddments acquired from all over Britain. Yet it was a folly with a purpose: in the architect’s own words, ‘a lighthearted ‘live’ exhibition of architecture, décor and landscaping’.
In Battery Square a tall campanile contrasts oddly with shuttered, box-windowed and weather-boarded buildings below. The Gloriette, looking like a ducal palace, is a mere facade built of rescued oddments, and the 17th-century Town Hall was rebuilt stone by stone after being saved from demolition elsewhere. Among the other rescued buildings and adornments are a colonnade from Bristol, a brewery clock and a once-abandoned ballroom.
Distinguished visitors from all over the world have gazed with awe and wonderment at Williams-Ellis’s creation, from royalty such as King Zog of Albania to writers such as Bernard Shaw and John Steinbeck. The playwright Noel Coward stayed there to write Blithe Spirit. The hotel where so many celebrities stayed in the 1930s was converted from a 19th-century house that stood on the site when Williams-Ellis acquired it. The main building was badly damaged by fire in 1981 but is being restored. It stands by the water’s edge close to a sandy beach, backed by gardens of subtropical plants and trees which make a perfect setting for this extraordinary ‘Mediterranean’ village below the rugged heights of Snowdonia.
The rivers Glaslyn and Dwyryd meet to form a broad, sandy estuary, which reaches the sea by funnelling through the narrow gap between Morfa Bychan to the north and Harlech Point to the south. Behind Harlech Point is Morfa Harlech, a wide stretch of flat land reclaimed from the sea, now a nature reserve with colonies of wading birds. Entry is by permit only, from the Nature Conservancy Council’s North Wales Regional Office at Plas Penrhos, Ffordd Penrhos, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 21Q.
The sands of Traeth Bach, along the northern edge of the Morfa, are unsafe for bathing, because of the strong currents and the danger of being cut off by the tide.
Another of F.dward I’s massive and threatening fortresses, built to hold down a turbulent Wales, Harlech’s castle is perched dramatically on a rock bluff high over what was once a tidal creek, with a moat defending it from high ground to the south and east. It is unusual in its plan, in that its strongest part is its huge gatehouse, instead of the usual massive central keep.
The castle’s commanding position enabled it to be held by a garrison of only 37 men during the rebellion of Madoc ap Llywelyn in 1294. The defenders were supplied by sea from Ireland, the supplies being brought up a staircase which still climbs the west side of the 200 ft castle rock today. In 1404, however, Owain Glyndwr captured the castle and made it the residence of his court until it was retaken by the English five years later.
Harlech Castle played a prominent part in the Wars of the Roses, when it was held by the Lancastrians. Its seige, which ended in surrender, is commemorated in the song ‘Men of Harlech’. The castle was in ruins by the time of the Tudors, only the Prison Tower being left intact and used as a debtors’ prison.
Part of this old village, including the church of St Danwg, has been half-buried by the shifting sand-dunes on the edge of the estuary of the River Artro. The sandy beach, dotted with rocks, offers safe bathing, except on a falling tide when strong currents swirl around the submerged rocks. At nearby Llanbedrisa holiday centre for pony-trekking, hill-walking, orienteering and canoeing, while the old wharf at Pen-sarn is now the home of a water-sports centre.
Early last century the local landowner, the Earl of Winchelsea, diverted the River Artro to add reclaimed land to his estates. The old channel dried up, eventually becoming covered with tall dunes. Because of the peculiarities of the offshore currents, this peninsula, also called Mochras, is covered in shells of more than 200 different kinds.