This walk was one of those things that just 'seemed right'. I am a Welshman, born and bred in Cardiff, but I've not lived there for 35 years and now live in Tiree, one of the Scottish islands, wide open to the North Atlantic wind.
One day in April 2012 I had been down in Cardiff for work and on the way back up north I was listening to Radio Wales. There was a report about the Wales Coast Path to be opened in May that year. The report went on to explain that the coast path, with the existing Offa's Dyke Path, would mean you could walk around the whole of Wales. I just knew there and then that I had to do it.
I would like to say that a year of planning and physical preparation followed... but life is busy, and so, on 18th April 2013, I set out, having just about worked out where to stay on Offa's Dyke, but little more. I'd not walked any distance since I was in school, maybe five or six miles at most and that only every year or so. I learnt on my feet.
My intention was not just to walk, but also to engage with local communities and to study IT 'at the margins' for walkers and for local people. I was (and still am) also collecting for three charities: MHA (homes for the elderly), Tenovus (cancer care and research) and The Wallich (support for the homeless), each with a Welsh connection but also representing a broader concern. Oh yes, not to forget, I offered myself to other researchers as a 'living lab', wearing various body sensors, and other bits of technology!
Where to start? The walk across the Severn Bridge (the 1966 one) is strictly a detour from the Chepstow end of the coast path, but one I'd recommend to anyone; the sense of serenity looking out over the Severn estuary was unexpected and astounding. Going up Offa's Dyke the churches that have tea and coffee making facilities are so wonderful when you are on a stretch with no cafés or shops (a lot of these!).
Then there are the Seven Wonders of the Periphery of Wales: in the South the Newport Transporter Bridge, in the East the Pontcysylite Aqueduct and Dinas Brân near Llangollen, in the North the Duke of Lancaster and St Trillos, on Anglesey St Gwenfaen's Well, and in the West the Dysynni Map.
The best scenery ... how can I judge! It is hard to beat Three Cliffs Bay in the Gower, but so many places round north west Anglesey, Lleyn, and Pembrokeshire ... basically everywhere! Best beaches: Black Rock near Porthmadog, the near endless beach between Tywyn and Aberdovy, and Freshwater West for its wildness.
For the best path - the Ceredigion Coast Path has to take it hands down: spectacular, but so well signposted and recently landscaped, even in the 'challenging' sections.
The most surprising: amazing signage on the Dee estuary, guerilla poetry alongside the A55 path by Penmaenmawr, and – oh such joy – Fairyland between St Dogmaels and Strumble Head, and the incredible exhibition created by the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives at Trinity St David in Lampeter.
But above all – people. I cannot name them all, old friends and new. There are fellow walkers past and present: some, like Will, I met purely virtually, some, like Rosie, face-to-face (although how hard can it be to miss each other on a coast path!); and Arry, you will always be my hero! There are those whom I met or got to know along the way: Paul who took me into his home and family, Les the Lancastrian who speaks fluent Welsh, BOCS at Caernarfon, the Lion Hotel at Harlech, the club house at the caravan site in Monmouth. There are also university folk in Wales at the School of Art and Design at Cardiff Met, Glyndŵr, Swansea, Bangor, and Trinity St David; and across the border at dot.rural in Aberdeen, and at Birmingham and Nottingham. The list is endless: family, friends, supporters near and far, and all those who walked sections with me. Thank you all.
And then the welcoming committee when I arrived home on Tiree, cheering and waving flags as I got off the ferry.
Although the walk as a whole was amazing, there were some pretty low moments, from losing my Garmin GPS on the first day (which I later found, but only after ordering a new one!), to always getting lost in Anglesey and North West Wales (what was that about 'waymarked'?), and pushing through chest-high brambles and nettles in North Gower.
And logistics! I used a camper van as 'base vehicle' as I needed to periodically connect to computers and had a mini-library about Wales and walking. But that meant I had to get back and forth to it, either daily or every few days when using B&Bs, with fresh bus timetables in each new area ... argh!
Physically I had expected aches and pains, especially near the beginning, but I was so fortunate with only two blisters needing plasters the whole way. Three weeks in, I was like a mountain goat; in fact I had become one of those really annoying people, who seem to power up hills effortlessly. Then on the North Wales coast my first physical low point came when my left ankle swelled like a balloon, but I swopped my boots for sandals and, looking more and more like an Old Testament prophet (and once mistaken for a druid), I pressed on.
But then ... about a month and half in, long-term fatigue, sleep deprivation, and mental tiredness set in. Runners call it 'the wall' and in a race it lasts for perhaps ten minutes, but, in a long-distance walk, this becomes several weeks. Depressed, exhausted, wondering why I was doing such an idiotic thing, I felt I was wasting my time. With no mental or physical reserves, the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I had decided to do this thing.
But even this low period had many wonderful high spots and somehow I came through this – thank you folk at Harlech, Trinity St David, and the Dysynni Valley, and the reinvigorating Ceredigion Coast Path.
However, the lowest point of all, but, of course, also the most glorious, was coming back into Cardiff and knowing it had come to end.
Although the walking stopped at Cardiff on 28th July (back to my birth town on my birthday), the project goes on. I am still catching up on writing gaps in the blog (about 2000-3000 words for each day), sorting 19,000 photos, and curating the data gathered for health and fitness researchers to use. I am writing a book and giving talks about the experience ... the first was in Bangalore!
As I grossly underestimated the time it takes to walk coastal miles, I ended up with less time than I wanted for meeting people, so I will do a couple of return trips in 2014, to see people again or people I missed ... but this time driving! If you live in one of the communities around the Coast Path or borders and would like to talk about issues that are important in your locality, please get in touch.
And then people ask, "what next?". I'm not sure; probably not something similar, but there will be something. When I first started walking I found it weird that people addressed me as if I was the kind of person who does things, but that wasn't me, other people were the kinds of people who do things, not me. The truth is there isn't a kind of person who does things, there are just people who do things ... and it can be you.
Read more about the walk and ongoing things related to it at: Alan Walks Wales, and Facebook.
Online exhibition at Trinity St David.
- Feeling inspired but want a walk that’s more manageable? Click here for great walking routes along the Welsh coast. Choose your ideal region and then select whether you want a short (under 5 miles) or a long route (over 5 miles).