5 May 2012, the date of the official opening of the Wales Coast Path was also the day that a tiny seed was planted somewhere in the back of my mind, a seed that over the subsequent 15 months slowly germinated and gradually changed from being just a frivolous idea to becoming a naive but definite commitment to walk not only the path but Offa’s Dyke as well. It would be a walk around Wales of 1000 miles or so; a walk that would allow me to see Wales from a completely new perspective, from the outside looking in; a walk that relatively few would find the time or the inclination to try; a walk that the more I tried to ignore became something I knew I had to try. Retirement from the Welsh Government at the end of August 2013 meant that the time for excuses and further procrastination was over. It was time to ‘just do it’. If nothing else it would give me a couple of months to gorge myself on the beauty, uniqueness and idiosyncrasies of Wales before moving on to other, yet to be determined, avenues and interests.
So in summary, aged 60 years and eight months, I started the walk on 11 September and ended it on 10 November. 61 days in total, walking anti-clockwise from my home town of Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan and averaging 15 – 20 miles a day. Although I was a solitary walker for the vast majority of the time, I was joined at various stages by friends and ex colleagues who, in various permutations were witty, warm and (just occasionally and literally) wet companions. I am also hugely indebted to all those hospitality businesses which, on learning of my retirement from Visit Wales and plans to walk around Wales, were generous in their donation of free accommodation to support my chosen charity, Cancer Research Wales. As a way of raising awareness of the walk, the charity and last but not least the wonders of Wales, I posted daily updates on a Facebook page (FunnyWalks Wales) and via Twitter (FunnyWalksWales@swcwebb). Why FunnyWalks? Well, we all know a joke or two and I hoped to capture one or two of these from those I met on the journey. As it turned out though, capturing jokes from strangers wasn’t always as easy as I had imagined but...it was a great way to start a conversation!
Looking back on what was an unforgettable experience, it’s difficult to isolate particular high points. Every day had its moments - moments of beauty, charm, humour or even personal challenge. Even those when the rain sheeted down with relentless intensity or when the wind gusted and punched me sideways, pushing me ever closer to sheer cliff edges. There were days too which offered a glimpse into the future, not least the very first day from Barry to Cardiff when I met Hannah and her donkey Chico on their journey around Wales, a journey that had started in Aberystwyth three months previously and one that had another two to go. I was excited that first day, puppy-like in my expectations of what lay ahead; Hannah, I sensed had become a toughened traveller, grown weary but still driven by a sense of purpose and duty. That first morning it crossed my mind that the journey may have a few surprises in store that I hadn’t bargained for – hardly an earth shattering prediction but one that was proved correct on many occasions.
Offa’s Dyke took me 12 days and was no doddle with three particularly tough sections, Pandy to Hay on Wye, Llanarmon-yn-lal to Bodfari and the hardest of the lot, Knighton to Brompton Crossroads, which has earned for itself a certain notoriety hinted at by its ‘switchback’ nickname. Views of Tintern Abbey, the Vale of Clwyd and Llanthony from on high, traversing the Montgomery Canal and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and lazily wandering around the character towns of Chepstow, Monmouth, Hay, Knighton, Kington and Llangollen are memories that will stay with me as will those of the many hospitable, friendly and generous people I met, stayed with and chatted to along the way. Anglesey was a sheer delight, a full weeks walking opening up long stretches of coastline previously unfamiliar to me but rich with natural beauty and signs of the island’s industrial heritage. The stretches from Benllech to Amlwch and on to Church Bay with the brooding presence of Wylfa were particular favourites but South Stack, Rhosneigr and Newborough Sands also stood out as did St Cwyfan’s Church, the Church in the Sea near Aberffraw. I was also thrilled to see three red squirrels or it may have been the same squirrel three times!
The Lleyn peninsula came good after Trefor and the three stretches that followed on to Tudweiliog, then Aberdaron and Abersoch were as enjoyable as any on the coast path, as was the leg from Pwllheli to Penrhyndaedraeth. Reaching Bardsey Island marked the half way point of the journey and acted as a spur with every step taking me closer to home. Much is rightly made of the rugged beauty and seascape of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and it’s hard to beat the areas around Porthgain, Whitesands Bay, Freshwater West and Tenby/Saundersfoot but I also relished the vast expanse of Morfa Dyffryn south of Harlech and the quiet charms of much of the Ceredigion Coast Path which was teaming with wildlife – dolphins leaping in Newquay providing a spectacular free show to all, adult and new born pup seals in almost every inaccessible cove and gannets, shags and cormorants hungrily harvesting the bountiful waters of Cardigan Bay. Nearing home, the two Gower stretches from Llanmadoc to Port Eynon and then to Mumbles stood out for me as coastal walking at its best.
Although there were few low points, there were frustrations and these all involved detours away from the coast. The three large privately owned estates on Anglesey, the MOD territory in Aberporth, Castle Martin and Pendine and the natural estuaries of the Dyfi, the Taf/Tawe in Carmarthen and the trek up to Briton Ferry were niggles. It’s a pity too that the Coast Path designation is not yet used on all signposts to provide a real and obvious sense of unity. Anglesey and Pembrokeshire in particular seem to favour their own local designation which is understandable in part because these parts of the path pre-date the launch of an all Wales coast path.
Overall, it was a superb two months. Time well spent, providing an uplifting transition into retirement. Wales may be a small country in size terms but it is truly a wonderfully diverse and proud nation that revels in and takes strength from its location on the periphery of Europe. It’s also beautiful beyond my limited ability to describe.