Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The haunted fishing coves of Llyn

 by Richard Neale
Fishing from the rocks at Porth Ferin c.1967.  Who was the fisherman in the distance?
 I came across an old black and white photo of me the other day, aged about six or seven, fishing with my brother from the rocks at Porth Ferin on the Llŷn peninsula.  Dressed, rather comically in black oil-skins, complete with sou’wester hats, We're holding the wooden frames of hand-lines and next to us sits a bucket to hold the crabs that we’ve caught.  Over my shoulder you can clearly see a small white open fishing boat, some distance offshore, with the silhouette of a figure standing erect at the tiller.

As I pondered on when the photo was taken (probably 1967), it occurred to me that the distant figure was one of the last of a breed of subsistence fishermen who were still working out of the small coves of north Llŷn at that time.  These secluded inlets have provided shelter for small-scale fishing boats since time immemorial.  Over two centuries ago, Edmund Hyde Hall noted that, “The shore…is notched into several small creeks…in all of which ply the vessels engaged in the herring fishery, in pursuit of which they are said to frequently stretch over as far as the Irish coast”.

This provoked an interest in me to find out who the mysterious figure in the photo was, and where he lived.  The answer to both these questions came from a colleague.  Paul Lewis, one of the National Trust’s local Rangers told me that the figure was almost certainly “Owie Cae-Hic”.  In a land of few surnames, many people are universally known by the name of their home or birthplace, and Cae Hic – a simple crogloft cottage – sands on the deep lane that leads down to the isolated rocky cove of Porth Ferin.  Owie spent most of his time down at Y Borth, as he would have called it, repairing his boat, lobster pots and winch engine.

The land around the cove is too steep to take a vehicular track, so his boat had to be winched out of reach of the waves onto the grassy bank with a thumping stationary engine and an ingenious system of pulleys.  I found a photo of Owie taken in 1985 for a project to record the traditional fishermen of Llyn. Looking every bit the archetypal Llŷn smallholder of his time, with a weatherworn face, flat cap, jacket and buttoned-up shirt, he’s proudly holding a huge lobster, the like of which is rarely seen nowadays.
Owie Cae Hic.  Photo from
 So when a recent spell of warm weather inspired me to walk this stretch of coast, I visited several of these little coves, including Porth Ferin.  They remain as beautiful as they ever did but it was sad to see that all but a couple are now deserted, long-since abandoned as the ‘economies of scale’ and modern lifestyle needs made the modest self-sufficient life of the cottage fisherman untenable.  But the ghosts of Owie and his compatriots still haunt these shores.  You approach the coves along the impressions of their cart tracks and their winches, now still and seized with rust, stand as their silent memorials.
Porth Ferin.  Photo from
 Thankfully, some of their clinker-built timber boats have survived and are lovingly maintained – and sailed – by their descendants in the Aberdaron area.  Two of these boats, which were built locally to a unique design, are in the care of the National Trust and await funds for restoration.  We also have worked with the community and local authority to set up the Blas y Môr local seafood festival, which goes from strength to strength.  Although the likes of Owie will no longer be seen in the background of our sea-views, their spirit lives on.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Wales Coast Path Provides an Opening

It must have been about two years ago when I found myself staring at a brick wall in a woodland near Bangor.  There was nothing metaphorical about this eight foot high wall, which defiantly encloses the seven-mile boundary of the once-mighty Faenol Estate.  What made the scene somewhat surreal is that I was looking at a bricked-up doorway which had brought my walk to an abrupt halt. 

John, with the bricked-up doorway in 2012
I was in the company of my colleague John Whitley, who has looked after the 300-acre National Trust part of the estate for the last 20 years.   He was lamenting the fact that the newly-opened Wales Coast Path was not running through this doorway and along the estate’s wonderful coastline, where there was already a good path.  The reason for this was that the neighbouring landowners were not in favour of allowing the path across their land, forcing a rather unsatisfactory inland diversion.  We commented wryly on the irony that a wall once built to “keep pheasants in and peasants out”, was now keeping people in.

Imagine my delight therefore at finding myself standing the other day at that same spot to inspect the doorway again, this time opened up and sporting a fine new gate.  Thankfully, the neighbours’ concerns have been overcome and the path, which now runs through the doorway, is in the process of being opened in sections across the Trust’s land to the village of Y Felinheli.
What a transformation!  The new gate was made by Joe Roberts, Access Policy Officer and part-time blacksmith.
This relatively minor breakthrough is just one in an ongoing process of refinement to the line of the Wales Coast Path, as it gradually finds its ideal coastal alignment.  Of course, there are still a number of industrial, military, agricultural and other impediments (some of which are – paradoxically – gated visitor attractions) to be resolved before the route is continuously coastal, but…all in good time.

As we recently celebrated the path’s second anniversary, and the fact that it has rapidly become one of the wonders of Wales, I pondered on what part the National Trust has to play in its success.  It was after all a Welsh Government initiative, overseen by its environmental advisor, the Countryside Council for Wales, now part of Natural Resources Wales, and maintained by 16 local authorities.  Well, firstly there’s the fact that our 133 coastal properties in Wales – built up gradually over 120 years – were already open to the public, often with good paths in place.  These were the stepping stones that helped make the opening of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path possible back in in 1970.  The success of this initiative more recently led to the creation of coast paths for Ceredigion, Anglesey and Llŷn – each crossing stretches of accessible Trust-owned coast.  These in turn became the stepping stones that enabled the creation of the Wales Coast Path in 2012.  Then there’s the fact that the path has also inspired us to create shorter link paths, allowing walkers to enjoy circular walks based on the coast path, adding significantly to its attraction.  After all, 95% of us who use the path follow it on short sections.
Our 60 miles of accessible coastline in Pembrokeshire helped make Wales' first coastal National Trail possible back in 1970
 But I suggest that the greatest benefit that our national coast path has brought, perhaps even greater than the boost it has bought to the wider Welsh economy (£32m last year), is that it has done much to reinvigorate our more isolated coastal communities. Away from the traditional busy seaside resorts, the beauty of the smaller coastal villages often masks the joint ills of lack of jobs and the flight of youth to the cities.  I wonder if the newly-opened doorway at Glan Faenol does after all have a metaphorical meaning. 

For more information about Joe Roberts' gates, click here

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Welsh Coast's Woodland Wonders

Wind-pruned tree at Gallt y Bwlch. Ancient woods like these are the wildlife 'crown jewels' of Wales.  Print by friend and relative, Tina Neale

What do you see when you think of the Welsh coast?

I bet the first image that comes to your mind is a sandy beach or a bare windswept rocky headland.  These are the places that have the strongest attraction for most of us, with their powerful sense of airy openness and boundless freedom.  

            But I was reminded the other day of the importance of our coastal woods; often tucked into the sheltered, shady nooks and crannies of our coastline.  I was listening to a talk about how rare, rich and often unjustly overlooked this is as a wildlife habitat. I learnt that the special combination of a mild moist microclimate and reflected light from the nearby expanse of water creates communities of plants and animals which are subtly different from ones you find inland.  I noted with some pride that several of these distinctly maritime woodlands are in the care of the National Trust, including the wooded fringes of the Menai Strait, the hanging oak woods of Snowdonia’s Glaslyn and Maentwrog valleys; Ceredigion’s Cwm Soden woods, Pembrokeshire’s Stackpole and Cleddau woodlands to name just a few.

The speaker then mentioned a particularly special wood – adjacent to the National Trust land at Pistyll on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula – known as Gallt y Bwlch.  He explained that this mysterious wood, unusually rich in hazel, may be a tiny fragment of a sort of Celtic fringe of woodland that clothed the coastal slopes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall in prehistoric times.  As he put it, “in its structure and species composition Gallt y Bwlch has an affinity with remote woods found on Scotland’s west coast”.  

I was fascinated to hear this, as Gallt y Bwlch, with its tangle of gnarled wind-pruned trees, is one of my favourite places, They’re so bonsai-like that you can sometimes pop your head above the canopy and imagine yourself a giant.  But it’s the fact that this wood features in a family story passed down from my father that makes it doubly special to me.  My great grandfather, Robert Baum used to visit this wood each autumn in the 1940s, after he retired as a foreman at the nearby granite quarry.  The purpose of the visit was to pick hazelnuts to be boxed up and sent to his daughter, my Nain, and her family in Nuneaton.  Into the box he put a nut-cracker, which he had carved in the wood with a penknife.  I imagine that my Nain would feel a stir of hiraeth, as she opened this little reminder of her birthplace in the far west.
My great grandfather, Robert Baum, is in the front row,  3rd from the right.  He used to collect hazelnuts in Gallt y Bwlch, to send to my Nain in Nuneaton
The speaker bought me back with a jolt as he mentioned the need to better protect all our coastal woods.  It seems they are suffering from the same harmful effects as inland native woods.  They are too fragmented, plagued by introduced invasive species and are harmed by nutrient run-off from intensively-farmed land.  We must do more to protect, extend and join up these priceless fragments.  Many of them have survived for at least 400 years, meaning that they are classed as ancient woodlands, the ‘crown jewels’ of our countryside.  This is potentially the richest habitat on land and deserves to make up more of Wales than the current paltry level of just under five per cent.   

The talk has inspired me to pay homage to our coastal woods, and to follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps to Gallt y Bwlch next autumn, making sure that I take my penknife with me.

[Article first appeared in Welsh Coastal Life Magazine.]

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Wales' Favourite Coastal Walks

By Richard Neale.
©National Trust Images/Leo Mason

The 870-mile Welsh Coast Path is one of the glories of Wales.  Did you know that 20% of it is cared for by the National Trust?

For the 2013/4 Christmas & New Year holiday, I posted a blog on my twelve favourite walks with links to the downloadable walk on our website.  Nearly 200 people clicked on the links and by using the stats, I can now share with you what were our followers favourites.

 Cliciwch ar deitl y daith gerdded ar gyfer cyfarwyddiadau, map a mannau o ddiddordeb.

Click on the highlighted walk title for directions, map and points of interest.

Walk 12. Porthoer & Mynydd Carreg

Looking down onto the Whistling Sands, which squeak underfoot © National Trust
Llyn's famous Whistling Sands only whistle when the sand's dry, so don't expect to sample this curious phenomenon on this bracing winter walk.  But there's plenty more to make this walk really worthwhile.  The summit of Mynydd Carreg, with its curious circular structure is a fine viewpoint.  Download the walk to find out what the structure was, and the story of the semi-precious stone that was quarried here.  Lle gwych i ddod i fwynhau'r tonnau pan mae 'na storm chwythu o'r gogledd.

 Walk 11. Martin's Haven and Deer Park


 The Deer Park, Marloes Peninsula © Sid Howells
A short but spectacular walk around the end of the Marloes peninsula. No deer to see, but lots of seals.  You may be lucky to spot seal pups before they take to the sea.  Enjoy spectacular rocks and sea views.  From the top you'll see most of Pembrokeshire's islands.   Mwynhewch yr olygfa ar draws y Swnt dwyllodrus i Sgomer.

Walk 10.  Menai Strait & Glan Faenol 


Bird hide at Glan Faenol on the banks of the Menai Strait © National Trust
This is one of North Wales' best kept secrets: the walled woodland that is Glan Faenol.  Look out for winter wading birds from the hand-made greenwood hides and platforms. Explore varied native woodland and ancient parkland with views of the house and gardens at Plas Newydd and the hills of Snowdonia.  Gallaf warantu y byddwch yn cael y lle i chi eich hun!

Walk 9. Abereiddi & Porthgain


Once a place for industry, now a place for recreation and sport © Andrew Tuddenham
One of the attractions of this popular Pembrokeshire cliff-top walk is the wonderful Sloop Inn at Porthgain.  When you peer into the depths of the Blue Lagoon, spare a thought for the world cliff diving competitors as they took the plunge here in September.  Explore the evocative ruins of the quarrymen's houses between the beach and the lagoon, known as The Street. Yn ddi-os, y Slŵp yw un o dafarnau gorau ein harfordir!

Walk 8. Ragwen Point


One of the massive concrete structures built by the army in the 1940s © National Trust
Burn off calories on the steep steps up from Pendine and descend to one of Carmarthen Bay's hidden gems, Morfa Bychan beach.  Can you work out what the curious concrete structures are at the back of the beach?  They're covered in the impacts of artillery shells, why?  Get the story on the downloadable walk.  Golygfeydd godidog ar draws Bae Caerfyrddin.

Walk 7. Bosherston Lily Ponds


 High tide, March 11 2008. Sea level higher than lake level! © Richard Ellis
These amazing man-made freshwater lakes are the crowing glory of the wonderful Stackpole estate.  They're one of the best places in Wales to see otters in the wild.  A small detour will take you to the amazing beach of Broadhaven, which like its neighbour Barafundle is one of the very few sandy beaches in Wales which is untouched by development.  Tybed beth yw'r enw Cymraeg ar gyfer Barafundle? 

Walk 6.  Lawrenny Woods 


 Lawrenny Wood - ancient oak trees © Marilyn Smyth

This Pembrokeshire walk is one of the county's hidden gems.  Tucked amongst the inlets of the mighty Cleddau estuary, this short but sometimes steep walk goes through some of the most undisturbed woods in West Wales. If you enjoy this walk, why not return in the summer to enjoy a bite at the Quayside Cafe?.  Dewch i fynd am dro ymysg rhai o'r coetiroedd unigryw'r Cleddau.

Walk 5. Dinas Island 


The coast path at Dinas Island © Joe Cornish
This is one of my favourite Cardigan Bay walks.  The 2 hour walk takes in breathtaking views of the coast of North Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion and the pretty, secluded hamlets of Pwllgwaelod and Cwm yr Eglwys.  View the ruins of St Brynach's church, which was badly damaged in a great storm in the great 'Royal Charter' storm of 1859.  Ynys Dinas - un o drysorau cudd Ceredigion.

Walk 4. Porthdinllaen


Tw Coch has been an inn for about 200 years © National Trust
This sheltered village-on-the-beach is a must for anyone looking for a winter walk on the Llyn peninsula.  If the tide's in, you'll have to use the golf road, otherwise, the beach is the perfect way to approach the village.  Remember to check out the opening times of the wonderful Ty Coch Inn.  Take a look at how the work is progressing on the new lifeboat station.  Lle gwell i fwynhau peint, nag yn bar clyd y Tŷ Coch.

Walk 3. Garn Fawr


The coast at Garn Fawr © Sid Howells
Another personal favourite of mine, this short walk takes you to one of the most spectacular views on the entire Welsh coast.  And if the view wasn't enough, where else can you see a combination of Iron Age and Second World War archaeology side by side?  A great place to see the rare chough.  Rwy'n credu bod yr olygfa o yma yw'r gorau yng Nghymru.

Walk 2.  Rhossili Headland

View across the beach of Rhossili Bay with Worms Head in the distance © John Millar
 This classic walk-for-all-seasons is deservedly one of Wales' most popular. Walk out to the coastguard lookout to enjoy views of Worm's Head or extend the walk by also heading up to Gower's highest point, Rhossil Down.  Its not recommended that you attempt to cross to the tidal island of Worm's Head at this time of year, so why not make a date in your diary to join one of our Walk to the Worm guided walksPen Pyrod yw'r enw Cymraeg ar gyfer yr ynys.

Wales' No.1 Most Popular Walk:  

Pennard Cliffs & Pwlldu


Southgate, Pwll Du, Wales © Sian Musgrave
The perfect combination of dramatic sea views, a hidden beach and a cosy cafe to warm up over a cream tea.  Make sure you've got boots or wellies for the puddles.  This is one of my favourite circular walks on the Gower.  Dyma fy hoff daith gerdded ar arfordir Gŵyr.

For loads more great Welsh walks, visit our Walking in Wales web pages. 

Please let us know your favourite Welsh coastal walk by using this blog's comment facility.  I look forward to hearing from you.