02 August 2019

In North Wales, Steep Streets and Cloudy Peaks

We haven't even made it to the next junction of the M40 before my parents and I realise that driving from Oxford to North Wales on the first Friday of the school holidays may not have been the best idea. The journey takes over five hours, but the last part, at least, is lovely as we wind west from Welshpool through the rolling hills and lush green fields towards the coast at Barmouth.

We have been dreaming all day of fish and chips on the beach at sunset, a goal that is achievable only because sunset isn't until 9:20 pm, but it's touch and go for a while. Barmouth has put on a particularly beautiful display for us, and the sky is awash with rose pink, lavender blue and tiger lily orange by the time we park on the sea front. It proves more challenging than we expected to find a fish and chip shop still open at 9 pm, but The Mermaid saves the day and we are soon enjoying the crisply battered cod as the saturation on the sky is dialled down.

After breakfast at our B&B near Bontddu, we drive north to Harlech, which boasts a splendid 13th century castle. It's been many years since my last visit to Harlech and the town has had a moment in the spotlight of late thanks to Guinness World Records declaring Ffordd Pen Llech to be the world's steepest street. We arrive early, worried the small town might be inundated with 'gradient tourists' but other than the Victorian mop fair and several art and craft stalls, it is still fairly quiet. We end up walking halfway up a very steep road before I realise we're in the wrong place. Luckily, the right location is very well marked (I feel the gift shop is missing a trick by not selling commemorative spirit levels, however). It is surprisingly difficult to capture gradient on camera, but we try our best.

On the way back to Barmouth, we stop at the diminutive seaside village of Llandanwg, where we stroll along the beach, trying to avoid the giant translucent domes of washed-up jellyfish, and then pay a visit to the small church. Lunch in Barmouth is underwhelming, but at least we have a good view of the harbour and Barmouth's iconic railway bridge; I also take the opportunity to photograph the colourful houses on Marine Parade on the sea front.

In the afternoon we hike around Farchynys, four miles east from Barmouth along the Mawddach Estuary. We walk up the bridle path opposite Farchynys car park, a short but steep climb with stunning views over the estuary from the top, and then descend through the bracken, via St Philip's Church, to the main road. On the other side of the road, we spot some 'grey sheep' (well, white sheep that I later realise have been rolling around in slate dust), and plenty of vibrant and varicoloured hydrangeas. If you're interested in the area and its history, there is plenty of detail in my dad's lively book, Marians on the Mawddach, the launch of which I attended in Farchynys two years ago.

For dinner, we return to the always excellent Mawddach restaurant, a few miles east towards Dolgellau. The upstairs tables in the converted barn command stunning views over the estuary and Cadair Idris, although the sunset isn't as impressive as the night before. The food is top notch, however. I start with a plate of salami and cured pork collar, followed by 55C beef with celeriac and potato gratin and Etruscan sauce (a bit like salsa verde). The beef is particularly good, but I still have room for pudding when I find out they have lavender panna cotta; I substitute the poached pear for some honey ice cream, which works very well.

I go for a pre-breakfast run in the morning, and then we drive to Dolgellau to stock up on supplies for our Cadair Idris hike. Although we're wearing trainers and have some rain gear, we're not prepared for a full Cadair ascent, but we follow the Minffordd Path up to Llyn Cau, a stunning heart-shaped glacial lake most of the way up the mountain. The hike — particularly the part with steep stone steps — takes me back to the Inca Trail, and I regale my parents with tales of my Peruvian adventures.

After taking some llyn leaping photos, we climb a little further up until we can see over into the valleys on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately, either it has started raining or we've ascended into the clouds, so we eat our refreshments quickly before returning to the sunshine of the lower altitudes. It took us just over three hours in total to reach the mini-peak above Llyn Cau. To get to Penygader, the summit, and back it would take about five hours, which would have been doable had we had more time, and better kit (walking boots, hiking poles and more food, for starters). The car park at Minffordd is full, though, and we meet many other ramblers, from the UK, EU and further afield.

Fortunately, the return journey is much swifter, and I'm back at Euston station about four-and-a-half hours after leaving Dolgellau (I hop on a train at Birmingham International for the last part). We have packed a lot in our long weekend in Barmouth and my knees will certainly thank me for the rest when I return to the office the following morning.

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