Starting mileage: 18150 km
Day started: 8:00
Day ended: 22:00
Had to get up at an ungodly hour to make it before the Shell Island closed, at half nine; the causeway was already surrounded by water on both sides by the time we sped through it.
The van was acting up again, despite the service visit the day before, so once again we spent most of the morning looking for a garage. We found one on the outskirts of Porthmadog – Davies Motors – who agreed to look at her at noon.
As a result, we spent more time in Porthmadog than we would care for; it is a fairly affluent city, but ugly: grey and plain, the only redeeming feature being an old slate harbour and a steam railway service to Caernarfon. The Porthmadog high street is filled with a number of very curious shops, selling everything and nothing, the very definition of bric-a-brac, some of them as old as the town itself, very Dickensian in setup and stock.
With the car more or less fixed – brakes and wheels adjusted – we began a slow journey towards the tip of Llyn Peninsula, which juts out to the north of Cardigan Bay like an arrow. Having done little research, we didn’t really know what to expect, and resolved to simply stop by anything that seemed remotely interesting, be it in real life or on the map.
The first thing that caught our eyes was a twin-towered gatehouse of a castle rising on a tall promontory in Criccieth. In care of Cadw, as it turned out, the Criccieth castle belonged to that rare breed: a castle built by the native Welsh themselves, instead of the Normans. It has the typical D-shaped towers of the Welsh style – similar ruins can be seen at Dinas Brân – and the elongated, rather than square, shape. Ironically, the greatest damage had been done to it by the Welsh as well, during the Glyndwr Rebellion, but it is still one of the finest looking native Briton ruins surviving.
Guided by the leaflets found in Criccieth, we headed for Abersoch, two-thirds of a way down the south coast of Llyn. There was a couple of picturesque islands in its cove that we wanted to take a look at – both owned privately by millionaire celebrities, which was symptomatic of Llyn’s main problem, local estate being bought up by the rich for holiday homes. Until recently, Llyn was considered an unspoilt, virgin land, nestled between the better known, more touristy regions of Snowdonia and Anglesey – but it is, unfortunately, quickly catching up.
Abersoch turned out to be a miniature beach resort, with several water sport shops and four terraces of beach huts. The prevailing strong winds make it perfect for sailing and wind surfing, and when we arrived the small bay was a place of chaos unseen outside Italian city centres. Boats sailing into each other at full speed, windsurfers barely avoiding death, sailors falling into the water left and right. Among all this, a few hapless bathers and kids trying to have a splash in the spluttering waves.
There was still time to see one more place before we found our campsite: the ancient township of Aberdaron, at the very tip of the cape; Wales’s Land’s End, Wales’s Santiago de Compostela. It was for centuries a place of pilgrimage – the last stop before a sail to Ynys Enlli – Bardsey, the Island of the Saints, where it said 20,000 saints are buried. We found, among souvenir shops and cafés, two remnants of this antiquity, both making the long journey more than worth it.
The first one was the Old Kitchen, Y Gegin Fawr, a 700 years old pilgrims’ diner. We remembered such establishments from Japan, standing near old monasteries, serving pilgrims for countless generations, often by the same family. This was the first time we found something like this in UK. It no longer serves exclusively pilgrims, and is just a regular café, but both inside and outside it’s beautifully preserved and retains the ancient feel. It was the perfect location to try what I had longed for since we arrived in Wales – a proper Welsh Rarebit.
Arguably the most famous dish of the Welsh cuisine, this is basically a glorified cheese on toast with some Worcestershire sauce, but in the proper hands it can have the subtlety of a fondue. This one was on the average side, but it was undoubtedly hand-made, filling enough, and the surroundings made the meal a real treat.
The other trace of the ancient pilgrimage route was the Aberdaron church of St Hywyn‘s, and let me tell you – you’ll be hard pressed to find a stranger little church in all of Great Britain.
Famously, the vicar of St Hywyn’s in the 70s was one RS Thomas, one of the greatest and most controversial characters in Welsh culture; considered by some equal to Dylan Thomas in poetic proficiency, and nominated to Nobel Prize in Literature, RS Thomas was a great supporter of Welsh nationalism, going as far as to support the fire-bombing campaigns of the 1980s with a quote “what is the death of one man compared to the death of one nation”.
The interior of St Hywyn’s is a distinct creation, whether of Thomas himself or of his followers, I cannot say, but it recreates his naturalistic, almost pagan world view closely. Its main decoration are four embroidered banners representing four elements; in one corner it has a cairn of stones brought by pilgrims from Bardsey Island; the Christ is crucified on a rainbow with nails in the shape of a celtic cross; the altar is like a table of a discussion panel moderator, surrounded by chairs on all sides. It is a mish-mash of ideas and notions, as remote from the general idea of what a church should be as RS Thomas’s poetry was from your typical village sermon. Not all of these ideas worked, but those that did – like the pilgrims cairn, or the book of names which were to be read only once during a single mass, and then forgotten by all except God – worked beautifully.
It feels banal and contrived to say, but between the stone circles and druid groves, between ruined monasteries, ancient chapels and paganised churches, there is something immensely spiritual about Wales, something that could be felt almost from the moment we crossed the River Wye, and that makes even one as thoroughly atheist and rational as myself stop and ponder; soon we’re heading off to Anglesey – the Mona Island – where all those ancient traditions combined, multiplied and fed off each other in one small, confined space. But for now, it was time to spend a night at this end of nowhere.
The mound of Bardsey is rising ominously from the water just off Aberdaron, casting a dark shadow upon itself, as we set to camp at Ty Newydd. It is a good site, very cheap, spacious, flat, with a nice cafe open until late and decent facilities, but once again it’s the location that seals the deal: at the end of the road, at the end of the peninsula, at the end of the world, with only the Gate to Paradise at Bardsey before it.