24 September 2020

Snapshots from a September Staycation in Barmouth

After many cold and rainy visits to Barmouth and Dolgellau, where the mountains of Snowdonia meet the west coast of North Wales, I've been rewarded with rather fine weather on my more recent trips. Last week's staycation was no exception, and it was warm and sunny — often simultaneously — for most of my short trip to join my parents at a cottage overlooking the Mawddach estuary.

Mawddach moments

Once again, we stayed at Aberamffra Cottage, on the edge of Barmouth, whose large balcony overlooking the Mawddach estuary — with views of the 19th century railway bridge and Cadair Idris — is a real gem. We spent plenty of time on the balcony, breakfasting, barbecuing and simply enjoying the panorama, especially during golden hour.

Barmouth Bridge is a few minutes' walk away and we crossed it several times, both walking and running, in my case. Once you've crossed the bridge, you can join up with the Mawddach Trail, which takes you along the estuary to Dolgellau, with stunning views of Cadair and other southern Snowdonia peaks.

We also did a walk on the other side of the estuary around Cym Mynach, in the wooded hills north of Bontddu. The walk around the lake had a slightly surreal, almost post-apocalyptic feel as many of the tress had been chopped down owing to disease. The views of the mountains were still impressive, though. We also found the house featured in Anne L. Hill's memoir Four Fields, Five Gates, an account of three women who decided to move to Wales during World War II and to do up a derelict cottage in the middle of nowhere, an impressive feat given how remote it is even now.

Climbing Cadair Idris

I'd always thought that we'd climbed Cadair Idris (the 'chair of Idris' the giant) depending on your  — which stands at just under 900 metres — several times during my childhood, but we actually never made it to the top. Last year, we got pretty close following the Minffordd Path up past Llyn Cau, but we were short on time and appropriate hiking kit.

This time, we tried the Pony Path, which is shorter but steeper and made it all the way to the summit, Penygadair. But it wasn't an especially easy climb, especially the final 'scramble' to the top, which was very steep, and the terrain rocky and wet. 

Despite the Met Office's forecast that the cloud would dissipate by mid-morning, it was extremely windy and with a thick mist that seriously limited visibility; thank heavens for my dad's Ordnance Survey app as there are no signs or markers to aid navigation. We picnicked at the shelter at the summit, hoping that we might be rewarded with the promised views, but despite a few hints of brightness, it was not to be.

You used to be able to descend down the Fox's Path, but the already steep path has eroded considerably making it rather dangerous, and none of the other hikers we met had even heard of it, which wasn't a good sign. The sun came out as we descended although Penygadair remained enshrouded in mist — as if to mock us, it was clear every day for the rest of the week. If I climbed Cadair again, I would stick to the more interesting, more consistent Minffordd Path, although we certainly had a great adventure walking in the footsteps of ponies.

Neapolitan pizza with a view

We've enjoyed many fine meals at Bwyty Mawddach, several miles east of Barmouth, whose floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning views of the mountains. During lockdown, the restaurant reinvented itself as a Neapolitan pizzeria, initially offering takeout, but then opening for dine-in customers. We were booked for the early sitting on a mild Saturday evening and so decided to sit outside on the terrace. We started with some arancini, ham, olivers and sourdough, and I enjoyed a G and T with locally distilled Dyfi gin

The pizzas soon arrived and they were really good, with a great puffy crust, with nice charcoaling, and very good mozzarella and tomato sauce. Although it started to get a little chilly when the sun had gone down, we still enjoyed some salted caramel and malted milk/white chocolate ice creams for pudding.

Bustling Barmouth

Barmouth was pretty busy, with many people trying to enjoy their final sunny staycation of the summer. Most shops and restaurants were open in town, with the appropriate distancing measures in place. I picked up a wool blanket at the lifestyle store Pieces for Places, and enjoyed browsing elsewhere. One afternoon, we went for a quick dip / paddle in the sea, from a quieter stretch of Barmouth beach. I even managed a few leaps (despite being a leap year, 2020 has been largely leapless to date).

On my last day, we picked up fish and chips from The Mermaid Fish Bar, which we ate on the beach. Fish and chips always tastes better when eaten by the sea, but the Mermaid's battered cod was particularly good, with a very crisp batter.

The return to London

I drove up to Barmouth with my parents, but returned to London by train. It was a long journey, which involved changing trains at Machynlleth, Wolverhampton (I had to say hi to my team!) and Stafford, but not as bad as I was expecting. Although the trains to Wolverhampton only had two carriages and were quite busy, I had a double seat to myself for the whole journey and everyone was wearing face masks. The train from Stafford to Euston was much bigger and as I'd intentionally avoided the rush hour, it wasn't too busy. It wasn't massively pleasant wearing a face mask for six hours, but the journey was, overall, much better than I was expecting.

If you're interested Barmouth and the Mawddach, and my family's connection to the area, you may like to check out my dad's book, Marians on the Mawddach.

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