The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
27. WALES COAST PATH
Monmouthshire to Flintshire, Wales
Distance: 1,400 km
Time: 3 months
It’s a rare thing for a walker to say they’ve traced the outline of a nation, the term some give to a successful completion of the Wales Coast Path which follows the entirety of the Welsh coast as best it can from Queensferry in the north to Chepstow in the south. And while even a cursory acquaintance with Welsh geography makes it pretty clear you’ve fallen short of circumnavigating all of it if you’ve left out Offa’s Dyke Path and the entire Welsh/English border, well, one should not quibble. Offa’s Dyke Path - which connects to the coastal path anyway, thus making a true circumnavigation possible for those with too much time on their hands - is a mere 285 km in length; a stroll in comparison to the 1,408 km that comprises this epic trail.
Conceived in the wake of the commercial benefits and growth in tourism the popular Pembrokeshire Coast Path and the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path have brought to their local economies, the various segments of this remarkable path, created over seven years from 2007 to 2014 (though officially opened on 5 May 2012), welcomed 2.8 million walkers in its first year. It is broken up into eight geographical areas, which from north to south are: North Wales Coast and Dee Estuary; the Isle of Anglesey; Menai, Llyn and Meirionnydd; Ceredigion; Pembrokeshire; Carmarthenshire; Gower and Swansea Bay; and the South Wales Coast and the Severn Estuary.
WALES COAST PATH
As the first dedicated continuous walking route in the world to be as physically and legally close to its coastline as it was possible to get, its creators have devised a path that is an amalgam of existing trails and a series of new ‘connector’ trails, and is a clarion call to all lovers of wildlife. Encompassing eleven National Nature Reserves and dozens of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the path passes through the Dee Estuary, Wales’s largest estuary and home to over 100,000 wintering birds; and past Wales’s only little tern breeding colony in the Gronant Dunes near Prestatyn, which are themselves the only unmodified remnant of far larger systems of dunes remaining on the North Wales coast. There have been sightings of snow buntings - the high Arctic songbird - along the regenerated sea front at Rhyl in Denbighshire, and the heath habitat on the limestone headland that is the Great Orme has a population of the silver-studded blue butterfly, a species under threat elsewhere in the UK but thriving here. The Precambrian cliffs near Holyhead off the west coast of Anglesey Island contain large colonies of guillemots and razorbills, Cemlyn Bay has Arctic and sandwich terns, Newborough Warren has one of the UK’s largest raven colonies, and there are the hanging oak woodlands at Penderi Cliffs near Llanrhystud - sessile oaks whose normally tall stature has been stunted by persistent sea winds.
Naturally the trail bisects the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the only coastal park in Britain, where you’ll see the fresh and saltwater marshes of Carmarthenshire backed by pine forests and sand dunes, and the remarkable coastline of the Gower Peninsula, the UK’s very first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In the south you’ll walk the 22 km of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast with its multitude of soaring sandstone cliffs between Ogmore and Rhoose Point, and the mud flats along the Severn that lead you to the Norman remains of Chepstow Castle above the River Wye, Britain’s oldest surviving post-Roman stone fort.
Along the way you’ll visit a series of man-made and cultural points of interest too, such as the Neolithic burial chamber not far from Lligway, Edward I’s Conwy Castle with its wonderfully preserved 800-year-old medieval walls, Caernarfon Castle, the most expensive castle ever built by an English king, and all along the trail a smattering of 6th-century Celtic churches. You will walk along Cei Bach, the beach near which Dylan Thomas lived and wrote, and on the Llyn Peninsula you can take a well-deserved break and catch the ferry to Bardsley Island, the ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’ which, if visited three times, is considered the spiritual equivalent of a religious pilgrimage to Rome. On the Llyn Peninsula there’s the birthplace of T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) in Tremadoc, and of David Lloyd George at Llanystumdwy. There are, of course, more ‘earthy’ establishments as well - such as Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn in Beaumaris on Anglesey Island with its low ceilings and wall displays of antique weaponry, where Charles Dickens helped himself to a glass of ale during a stay in 1859.
In the end, though, it will be the unspoilt beaches - the best in Britain - that will leave the deepest impression. The sand dunes of the Dee Estuary, the sheltered coves of Gwynedd, Ceredigion’s ‘giant’s tooth’ rock of Carreg Bica on Llangrannog Beach, and the dozens of award-winning beaches along the Pembrokeshire coast.
And if you have an interest in maritime history, no matter how obscure or niche, the good news is that - at some point - you’re bound to be passing by where it all happened. Cardigan, the great 16th-century shipbuilding hub, is where emigrants departed to the new worlds of the United States, Canada and Australia when the harvest failed in 1816. There are still faint echoes of the glory days of the trawlers and drifters that made up the Milford Haven and Tenby fishing fleets. Whatever your maritime fancy might be, you’ll find it here on Britain’s longest waymarked trail.