Starting mileage: 17922 km
Day started: 15:00
Day ended: 22:00
We left Walsall at 4pm, and headed back towards Wales, noticing along the way that the best place to camp for the evening is at Llangollen.
As far as we’re aware, Llangollen is the best little town in Wales. It’s got everything you’d need of a place, and more. Let me just list as much of them as I can remember:
Of course, the canal – the finest of all the English canals, which had brought us to Llangollen in the first place two years ago, across the terrifying Pontcysyllte aqueduct (on a journey which had first inspired me to write about Wales); the majestic ruin of Dinas Brân, the largest castle ever built by the Welsh Princes; a ruined abbey, with a runic pillar listing the genealogies of kings of Gwynedd; a Regency mansion of the scandlous Llangollen Ladies; a beautiful river valley, rushing through the middle of the town, with white-water rafting and kayaking; a yearly international festival of Welsh music and poetry, the largest in the country; a medieval bridge…
There are also a good range of shops, including not one but two delicatessen and a fantastic greengrocer, and a weekly market. If you’re ever in the area, Llangollen is a must to visit, and we’ll be sure to come here again some day.
We set off the next day, along the Dee, into Snowdonia. The roads in Snowdonia are surprisingly good for the car – yes, they go up and down a bit, but they’re wide and well-built, a nice change from what we had to suffer over the last few weeks. The views, of course, are fantastic – the sun reflecting in the long glens and the play of light on the green slopes… but as we are on the coastal trip first and foremost, we didn’t stop often until we got to the sea itself at Barmouth.
There is a tiny, narrow, wooden tall bridge, and a narrow, steep road before Barmouth beach spreads widely and unashamedly before you. This is, so we were told, the sea resort of Midlands. True enough, we did hear more of the Brummie accent than Welsh, and a train along the beach ran straight to Birmingham. It has all the trappings of a working class sea resort: the amusement arcades, the chippies and the ice cream parlours, but the views – with Cadair Idris in the background, and the old railway bridge in the foreground – almost make up for it.
We drove along the beach and railway track, north to Harlech. A practical note: there are two ways to get into Harlech Castle by car; if you follow the arrows, you end up at a seemingly abandoned car park by the train station. There was once a side entrance there, but it’s now locked up, and you need to take the road uphill on foot. If your car is a 40-year old temperamental lady, this is what you should do. Otherwise, you can drive up the awful, narrow, steep and winding road to the town centre, where the main entrance is.
Harlech Castle is surprisingly tiny for the amount of role it played in history, and the number of long sieges it had withstood. Yes, it has a mighty gatehouse, tall walls and towers, but inside it’s barely bigger than the promontory castles we had seen in the South Wales. It’s the geography rather than size that made it the impregnable fortress of song and legend: it sits on a tall head of rock, surrounded on three sides by raging sea (now receded a little from the walls, but you can easily see where it was from the ramparts) and as long as the besieged have food and water there’s almost no way to capture it from land. It famously held for a year during the Glyndwr rebellion, until all the defenders starved to death; it held even longer during War of the Roses, when the defenders could supply themselves by the sea route – the event that inspired the Men of Harlech anthem; even the relatively modern siege methods of the 17th century could not breach its walls, and it was the last castle to surrender to Parliamentary army in all of Britain.
Looking northwards, you can see Snowdon from the walls of the castle on a good day; but we were looking southwards, to see whether the tide was still low enough for us to get to our last destination of the day.
The Shell Island is the largest campsite in the UK – and possibly in Europe; it doesn’t feel at all crowded, though. The entire tidal island – the causeway is cut off by the tides twice a day, and you really need to be careful with the timing – is dedicated to campers; there are no pitches, and the only rule is to stand 20 meters from each other. Despite the site being considered among some English campers as “wild” – it is far from such, with several toilet and shower blocks, a bar, and several shops. It even has Wi-Fi. The price is £18 per night, and naturally there are no hook-ups anywhere.
It does have a wild feeling about it, especially at moonless, rainy night, when you try to find your camper among the miles of dunes (hint: don’t forget a torch :). The name of the island comes from the abundance of sea shells (over 200 species!) covering the shingle beach at low tide – even greater than at Ynyslas. Like Ynyslas, the beach also has bits of the sunken forest and turf emerging from under the shingle in several places, and was also considered part of the Cantre’r Gwaelod in the legend.