unexpected intrusions of beauty on the road
In 2017, three national touring routes were born. The Wales Way, a chance for independent explorers to follow winding self-drive trails where wandering from dramatic coastlines to towering peaks is encouraged. But what can travellers expect from a road trip named a top experience for this year over the likes of Grand Canyon National Park?
The roar of the waterfall is deafening. It’s a decibel sitting as a low and steady thrum in the back of your head, a baritone felt in your bones and blood. I inch further down the trail, lagging behind the group of four others as the spray curls my errant hairs and soaks the fleece of my jacket. Ceunant Mawr Waterfall isn’t visible, but it’s certainly announcing its presence.
The path, slick with rain-swollen moss and slippery stones, clings to a bank of trees curling under the shadows of the viaduct spanning this gorge. I hug its inner curve, muddy fingers grasping damp bark in an attempt to keep my feet steady; to the left, the trail falls into swift rapids foaming white at the mouth like a rabid animal.
Finally, Ceunant Mawr reaches a crescendo and all five of us stop to gawk. It’s not the tallest, widest or most beautiful waterfall. It looks as though it tumbles into the mouth of a guzzling giant. The gushing cascade is his oesophagus, his stomach the startlingly blue plunge pool flowing into the Afon Hwch.
Arthur’s voice, lovely and lilting, carries across the noise. “You can stick your head in that and wash your hair,” he says. He mimes scrubbing suds of his short, greying locks with the seductiveness of a haircare commercial. “I’m here if anyone wants a picture of me.”
“I guess this is what you could call a detour; an unexpected intrusion of beauty that comes from following a loose thread of possibility laid out for you on the road.”
I met 79-year-old Arthur three hours ago outside the ticket office for the Snowdon Mountain Railway. I did what we’re warned against in childhood. I struck up a conversation with a stranger. I’m now on a hike in what admittedly would be a good place to dispose of a body with Arthur and his daughter, 57-year-old Mandy. The friends they made on the two-hour train journey from Llanberis to Clogwyn Station, 50-something Stephanie and Brian from New Zealand, also joined this impromptu walking tour to a waterfall most only see in passing as the train trundles by on the tracks above, starting its scenic journey on the tallest mountain in Wales.
I guess this is what you could call a detour; an unexpected intrusion of beauty that comes from following a loose thread of possibility laid out for you on the road.
I’m in Llanberis, a village in the north-west stretches of Snowdonia National Park. It’s the second of a five-day solo odyssey from South to North Wales. I’m following the Wales Way, a collection of three self-drive touring routes navigating the best visitor experiences of the country from coast to mountain peak. It’s a road trip named a top experience for 2020, beating the likes of the Kalahari Desert and Grand Canyon National Park.
The Cambrian Way running south to north between Cardiff and Llandudno for 185 miles, the Coastal Way running along the west coast between St Davids and Aberdaron for 180 miles, and the North Wales Way running north between Rhyl and Holyhead for 75 miles represent a global shift to creating experience products and the growing movement of valuing the journey over the destination. Visit Wales says the three routes aim to drive the development of bold and internationally outstanding experiences to inspire sustained growth in tourism which still lags behind in terms of awareness in international markets compared to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Yesterday, I followed the mountainous spine of the country. I started my journey on the Cambrian Way, the A470, in Cardiff, travelling north through the Brecon Beacons National Park on roads bordered by pines before spending the night in the foothills of Cader Idris, the southern sentry of Snowdonia National Park. I drove north for another hour this morning, passing slate mines, glistening lakes and rocky valleys, arriving with time to spare before my journey on the Snowdon Mountain Railway in Llanberis.
Arthur enters the story at this point. A conversation about the weather – low clouds and a forecast of rain – turned into one about the wonderful things to see and do in the country we both call home. He and daughter, Mandy, were visiting from Holyhead. It’s a town an hour’s drive further north-west, sitting at one end of the North Wales Way. I asked for his recommendations and the three of us chatted until the conductor ushered us into separate carriages. Mandy invited me to join her makeshift tour group as the train journey ended.
“I was in a local café and the owner was telling me about this walk. So, I drove here for the day and ventured to the top of the waterfall. You can stand just above there, see?” Mandy says, pointing to a ledge with a steep drop. She smooths a lock of hair behind her ear. “You’ve got to be careful. Anyway, I came back down and there were two women coming from this path. I asked where they were going and they showed me how to get to this spot. I’ve been a few times now. See, this is a picture of me and my husband from last week.”
I love the Welsh. It’s rare to find a more helpful or welcoming population. In my country, strangers quickly turn into friends upon a discussion of the holy trinity – the weather, directions or the pub.
“If you’re going to Holyhead, South Stack is a nice area,” Arthur says suddenly, turning from the din of the waterfall. He’s sprightly for his age, toes baiting the edge of the deep basin.
Mandy considers it like we’re debating a matter of national importance.
“South Stack is lovely, yeah,” she says. Stephanie and Brian nod like this isn’t their first time in North Wales.
“It tempts a lot of visitors.” Arthur smiles, then breaks into a grin as bright as the sun hiding behind the clouds. “You’ll drive past my house, you will.”
“I’ll give you a beep,” I reply with a laugh.
With the waterfall thoroughly admired, the five of us walk for twenty minutes from Ceunant Mawr to Dolbadarn Castle. We spend an hour exploring ruins once inhabited by kings and disgraced princes, talking about life and the road.
“We have this philosophy,” says Brian. “Stephanie and I would do it all the time in New Zealand. Where’s that road going, and we’ll just go.”
I agree to apply this principle to the rest of my travels. Arthur even gives me his phone number. Tomorrow, he’s going to show me his favourite spots in Holyhead.
The afternoon is fading into evening by the time our group says their goodbyes. “You’re brave, doing what you’re doing,” says Mandy. “You know what, if I had my time again…yeah, I’d be doing it. Yeah, I would.”
I reassure her it's never too late to pack up and drive until the road runs out. She shakes her head and smiles sadly. Then they’re gone. The road ahead is empty of everything but possibility.
Going igam ogam
I don’t meet Arthur in Holyhead. I don’t meet him because of missing a digit when writing down his phone number. I even spend an hour searching name and location combinations on social media to no avail. That’s the thing about being on the road; you live a postcard life. You have these fleeting conversations with strangers and quickly learn their quirks. The basic details hardly matter when you know their biggest regrets, their greatest achievements, their wishes for the world. It doesn’t feel right to visit without him. Instead, I detour.
In Welsh, igam ogam translates to zig-zag. It’s a metaphorical and distinct visual identity of the Wales Way. I experienced igam ogam in the literal sense yesterday when navigating the bends of the Llanberis Pass. Today, I seek a more figurative interpretation. Visit Wales encourages going off-piste from the three roads forming the touring routes, saying they’re densely packed with more reasons to be out of the car than in it.
So, I drive north-west and join the North Wales Way at Bangor. I cross the Menai Bridge into Anglesey before slipping onto the A4080. I keep going until the road runs out on the island’s southern tip and find myself at Newborough Beach.
This blue-flag stretch of coast is part of the Newborough National Nature Reserve and Forest. I pay the small entry toll and drive for a mile through a forest of pines, the air fragranced and tarmac softened by fallen needles. The tree-shaped cutting of scented cardboard hanging from my rearview mirror bounces mockingly.
“I’m not sure this weather will last,” says Peter Davies. “It’s working hard to brighten up.” He wanders over from his car, parked a few bays from mine. Peter tells me he’s a keen bird watcher who’s been coming to this area for over a decade. His tall flask and military-grade binoculars certainly give him away as a twitcher. He lists in detail all the species he’s spotted, trailing off as his eyes get misty. “Say, have you been here before? The beach is lovely, of course, and even better when it’s quiet like this but you should really walk over to the lighthouse on the island, Ynys Llanddwyn. It’s really…Well,” he says, nodding toward the path choked with low cloud and sea mist. “You’ll see. I think.”
Peter heads towards the sand dunes – a sanctuary for wildlife, he tells me – while my feet head for the water. The shore is littered with white shells that crunch under my boots. It reminds me of a nursery rhyme. I walk north-west for around half an hour before beginning an easy climb on a trail cut into the cliffs of Ynys Llanddwyn. The clouds burn off as the tidal island unfolds. I can see the distant jutting peaks of Snowdonia and the Llŷn Peninsula.
Ynys Llanddwyn is like the setting of some epic fantasy with princesses and curses and handsome princes waiting to be saved from hideous fates. It feels magical; like on a night when the moon is high and the stars bright, this place is a doorway into the land of the fey.
Here, myth and legend are as intrinsic to this almost-island as the sea surrounding it on three sides. I learn it was the home of the patron saint of lovers, Saint Dwynwen. In another life, she was a princess and unhappy in love. She prayed to be rid of her misery and was given a potion. Yet, it turned her lover into ice. She prayed again for three wishes; the first her lover be revived, the second all lovers find true happiness and the third she would never marry. Dwynwen’s wishes were granted and she retreated here to live as a hermit.
“The road through forest, beach and bluff is visible, a line rising and falling like the tide. Yes, there’s an air of reverence surrounding a journey.”
It’s peaceful in the ruins of her church. The crumbling foundations provide respite from the sea breeze and wildflowers bloom between cracked stone and shells, a brush of crimson red, lapis blue and blush pink against walls coloured like jars of honey. Ahead, the arch of a window frames a view of rolling dunes and surf. I dust the sand from my fingertips and it drifts like confetti at my feet.
Ynys Llanddwyn is still reminiscent of the place of pilgrimage it once was. In years past, women would flock here to visit the home of Saint Dwynwen. It was said the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of eels living in a nearby well. I’m unsure about this method of predicting romantic futures, but there’s something sacred about walking a road giving way to the ocean; the kiss of sky and sea on the horizon has a way of connecting the soul with a far larger force.
I turn back to the ruins of the church, the dark cliffs hewed from volcanic rock, the crest of trees with roots sunk into soil packed with sand. The road through forest, beach and bluff is visible, a line rising and falling like the tide. Yes, there’s an air of reverence surrounding a journey. I’m on my own sort of pilgrimage, seeking answers in the bends of the road, the grumble of the engine, the stroke of headlights mimicking the stars shining overhead.
Wandering is encouraged
I’ve noticed a distinct lack of signage telling visitors they’re on the Wales Way. I’m back on the North Wales Way, the A55, heading again towards Snowdonia National Park before beginning the long journey south on the Cambrian Way. It’s a shame the routes aren’t celebrated more, especially when more than three-quarters of the country’s visitor traffic comes by road. I can’t help but compare it to the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. It’s a similar self-drive tourism trail of 1,553 miles with 13.8 million visitors in the last six years. In Wales, I get looks of confusion when asking locals for their on-route recommendations.
“The mountains roll into the distance, the road stretching towards home like stitch threading each one together into a large piece of lumpy cloth.”
Gwawr Price, the Wales Way Manager, says, “The Wales Way is a ten-year initiative and we will be growing and enhancing the visitor experience on a yearly basis.” She says, “The development of signs was a big part of the initial work and prior to the coronavirus outbreak, we were about to move to finalise the next steps on signage. Unfortunately, all of the work is on hold.”
Gwawr reassures the Wales Way will feature in the recovery planning efforts of the destination management organisation made necessary by the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. She’s hopeful the project will resume its planned growth and improve signage by the end of the year.
Still, signs or no signs, my heart swells when the road gives way to mountains again. The Wales Way guides visitors through three national parks and over a hundred peaks, not to mention the most castles per square mile in the world. Here, the mountains roll into the distance, the road stretching towards home like stitch threading each one together into a large piece of lumpy cloth.
I pull over to begin my last hike in North Wales before the landscape flattens into the softer, rounder mountains of South Wales. Cwm Idwal is a glacial valley with dramatic rock formations and stunning views of Snowdonia National Park. The National Trust manages the walking trail with a popular circular route from Ogwen Cottage near Zip World Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda.
It’s still early, but the car park soon fills with walkers eager to start the three-hour hike. I immediately reach a crossroads. I can choose the left route, where most seem to be heading. Or, I can choose right for an empty path leading through a cleft in the mountain just wider than my outstretched arms. I choose wisely. It’s a detour. Stephanie and Brian would approve.
“You’re writing a story, are you? That’s cool,” said Alys Evans. She was working the kiosk in the car park. I stopped there for a hot drink before my hike. “Yeah, there’s a lot of stories about this place. My nain, she would tell us how birds don’t fly over the lake because a prince was drowned there by his uncle. Idwal, the lake is named after him. He was the son of Owain Gwynedd. She’d say the uncle was mad because he had to babysit.” She told me all of this while simultaneously working the barista station and re-stacking towers of takeaway cups. “I wouldn’t listen to the experts either,” she said. “The big boulders on the path were kicked down the mountain by giants. Yeah, there always seemed to be giants in my nan’s stories.”
Alys’s tales echo as my narrow walk between mountains spills onto the bowl-shaped floor of Cwm Idwal. I half expect to see a kingdom of legend rise from the mist gathered on the silvered surface of Llyn Idwal. I can’t see more than ten feet ahead through the low cloud. The large rocks could be monsters, witches, ghouls or indeed, giants. There are rumours of all such creatures roaming these mountains; hungry and helpful, scheming and kind.
The only clear sound is the lapping of water on the stony shore. I strike for the path following the banks of the lake, enjoying how all roads on my trip have led to places where stories come alive.
The thought that strikes me most when driving back south, mountains in my wing mirrors, thick forest ahead and a sky darkening into sunset above, is these are normal roads. The Wales Way is used every day by locals and commuters with little fanfare. The routes are, after all, a link from one point to another. It’s about the journey; the smudge of blue to green to black as the landscape blurs like an impressionist painting on the windscreen. Yet, the roads are also more than a means of movement between marks on a map. They’re an epic tangle of detours and possibilities, rich with stories and life and serendipitous moments fueling diversions. It’s these fortunate accidents that capture the essence of the Wales Way. After all, wandering is encouraged. It’s a good metaphor for life.
I think of Arthur and Mandy, Stephanie and Brian, Peter and Alys. I think of those names never learned but whose laughs are familiar. I think of the wisdom they shared and the lives briefly glimpsed, like road signs flashing by. I think of the winding roads, the flooded roads, the newly tarmacked roads. Mostly, I think of all the times my tyres drifted into a verge, a layby, or just stopped altogether on a lonely stretch of highway so my soul could appreciate a journey with everything ahead. I smile, gaze snagged by a junction pulling away from the road like the tributary of a river. I wonder where it leads?