Day 58 – Aberdyfi to Machynlleth

another coast path day without the sea, a life boat and a crocodile, a Royal church welcoming all faiths, and growing poverty in a grieving town

miles walked: 12
miles completed: 617.3
miles to go: 443

As I walked the extra mile yesterday (well four extra miles) to Aberdyfi, this is a short day, just twelve miles. It is also an inland day, as the path wends its way up the Dyfi valley to the first road bridge at Machynlleth.

As I got off the train in Aberdyfi, a crowd of young children, maybe 5-year-olds, with parents, disembark and crocodile file towards the town.  They have come all the way from Telford, a long journey for little children. It is looking pretty dismal at present, "I hope you get some good weather during the day," I say to one of the mothers, "although the children will like it whatever, I’m sure."  "At least it will be a quiet journey back," she says, and I wonder what the journey out has been like.

2013-06-14 11.29.50Wandering along the promenade I see the Lifeboat Station open, and a portion of a huge caterpillar track tractor for dragging the inshore boat in and out of the water. One of the lifeboatmen standing around invites me in to see closer. He and all the lifeboat crews are volunteers, regularly risking their lives, for no reward beyond knowing they have done something for others.

With the lifeboat and tractor, the lifeboat station has hardly room to move. However, it is soon to be extended so that the tractor will sit in the new half and the boat in this half. As well as giving the crew more room to move it will mean they have more room for visitors. I mention the new station at Moelfre, with its planned visitor gallery. Obviously Anglesey is far enough from here that news does not travel, as he didn’t know about the rebuilding at Moelfre, but had seen similar stations elsewhere.

While we chat, another lifeboatman gets in the tractor and drags the lifeboat towards the entrance, making a large area behind, into which a caterpillar of bedraggled Telford children trail to eat their packed sandwiches in the dry. While I was inside the heavens have opened, as if all the seas have been sucked up and dropped in one go.

At the tourist board I chat to the young man who had directed me to the bus the day before. He has the most enormous Welsh dictionary, but sadly no copies for sale! However, I do buy ‘To Dream of Freedom‘, a book about the Free Wales Army, as I only have a sketchy idea of the events of the 1960s when Welsh and Scottish armed resistance grew alongside the peaceful protest movements and political parties.

I had also briefly thumbed through a short booklet about the Aberdyfi Literary Institute, and had almost forgotten, until a few hundred yards on from the Tourist Information Centre I see the Literary Institute itself. The reading room is open. It is lovely, a huge window overlooking the bay, pictures of old Aberdyfi on the walls and local newspapers laid out on the table. The rest of the books are on a bring and buy basis: pay a 50p or more donation to take a book and drop off your unwanted ones; so maybe not the highbrow collection one might expect.

The rain had now passed with even the hint of sun, so I set off properly.

The road from Aberdyfi to Machynlleth skirts the river Dyfi for most of the way, but, like so many other roads, it has no separate footpath and is unsafe for the pedestrian. The valley is wide, and the deep track of the Dyfi meanders across it, but the tidal sands of the estuary cut right to the edge of solid rock. It would be a wonderful walk, but of course far too dangerous, narrow, winding and with no footpath or verge, rock on one side, wall on the other.

So, the ‘coast’ path once more heads inland up a series of steep but well-made paths. It is the last time for two days when I will be close to, indeed usually even in sight of, the sea.

In stark contrast to the paths above Fairbourne the previous day, this is a well-signed path along a combination of clear paths and small country roads where I only once encounter a vehicle.  A couple of times I realised how easy it would be to go wrong on even a well-marked path, when the rain is pelting in your face and eyes focused on the ground a few yards ahead.

2013-06-14 13.32.37On an early (and rare) field-cut there was an open gate that was in a line with the last arrow, but it had no Coast Path roundel.  In some stretches this would be normal, but given the well-signed-ness of earlier stretches, I looked again and found another gate further up the field, but it was only within about 20 yards when the Coast Path badge became clear.

On another occasion the signage was very apparent (two roundels and a finger post), but it was just off to the right on a lane that cut back in a switchback.

The latter could have been made unmissable by a roundel beside the track, but was definitely in the "kick myself, how could I miss that?" category, but the former because of the strange rectilinearity of Coast Path signage. At one point, at the top of the first slope above Aberdyfi, the Coast Path arrow points sharp right, but what it means is bear very slightly right of straight ahead.

The ordinary footpath symbols of yellow arrow on green background are placed at all sorts of angles, to attempt to point you in the right direction, maybe it is the writing on the Coast Path notices that discourages angles other than 90 degrees.

2013-06-14 14.27.07I should say also that on this day, and indeed on the HarlechTywyn stretch also, I spotted a few footpath posts with … wait for it, don’t be too shocked … their tops painted bright yellow. And, amazingly, the world did not collapse, there were not hordes of disgusted-from-Tunbridge-Wells-ers with placards protesting at the chromal despoliation of the countryside.

As well as being easy to follow, the route does have some amazing views both of the estuary and the green valleys behind. However, for a coast path it would be so much nicer to follow closer to the water.

The route finally drops through a Macdonald ‘Resort’, Plas Talgarth ‘Health and Leisure Club’, and indeed before walking through the chalets (sorry ‘luxury self-catering lodges’) and bungalows, there was a short section through the woods on a ‘Trim Trail‘, where every so often amongst the trees there would be a fitness station with heavy wooden equipment and instructions of how to do sit-ups or a pole climb.

Finally, you approach Pennal passing a small tree-ringed grassy knoll, which looks artificial, maybe a burial chamber.  The map names ‘Comen Las‘ although it is hard to make out the capitals in the OS antiquities font.

As I arrived into Pennal I was photographing a wonderful number snake on the school wall, when a man called from across the road, "you should be taking that," and pointed to the words in the gable end of the school:

Gwell Dysc na Golud

"What does it say," I asked, and he answered, "Better Learning than Wealth".

Across the short narrow bridge from the school is the church of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains), which has a prominent sign saying:

Church and Garden Open Daily

St Peter’s was a Chapel Royal of Owain Glyndŵr, and of the Princes of Gwynedd, Llewellyn the Great and others before him.  The gardens, funded by Council and European grants, are a celebration of the Princes of both dynasties, a combination of well-planned plantings, upright stones, carved paving slabs, and a statue of Owain Glyndŵr. I didn’t notice when I was looking at the gardens, but this is an oval churchyard, which is rare, and evidently suggests an earlier pre-Christian site.

The church is indeed open and welcoming, with a basket of wrapped sweets saying: "Please help yourself to a sweetie."

There is an upper area and this includes a number of symbols of other faiths, a seven-headed candelabrum for Judaism, a seated Buddha, a Hindu god, and, for want of a ‘standard image’ a decorated leaf for Islam.  By each is a notice in English and Welsh:

With this symbol, we offer a warm Christian welcome
to all those of the Buddhist (Islamic, etc.) faith who visit our Church.

Gyda’r symbol hwn rydym yn cynnig croeso cynnes
Chrstnogol i bawb o’r ffydd Fwdhaidd sy’n ymweld a’n

On the one hand I feel this open hand to others is wonderful; and yet also I feel a little discomfort, especially at the statue of Buddha and the Hindu deity.

2013-06-14 15.39.58Personally I felt I would have instead looked for things in the Bible or Christian tradition that are held in common and emphasised these, rather than bringing these other symbols into the church.

While there, and after whilst walking, I tried to make sense of this discomfort.

I think there are two separate feelings.

One is related to the sort of syncretism that was common in RE in schools in the 1970s, and indeed by some ‘liberal’ Christians then and today. This effectively says, all religions are the same in the end, it doesn’t matter what you believe, what matters are the universal principles and that you have faith in something.

I don’t think this is the intention of the symbols in St Peter’s.  Indeed this kind of syncretism would be unwelcome to many of other faiths, certainly to most Muslims.  However, I guess the possibility of it being construed or appearing to be like that worried me. But fear of misconstrual is a reason to think, to be careful in one’s choice of words, but not a governor of action, certainly not for a follower of Christ.

Arguably my own ‘finding things in common’ has more danger of syncretism than an upfront display, that says, "these are *your* symbols; we do not believe the same things, and indeed believe that there is only one truth, one way, but still offer these for your own prayers and contemplation."  The leaflet for the church says

Ty Gweddi i’r Holl Bobledd

A house of prayer for all people

The other reason for my discomfort is probably some more vague sense that the non-Christian symbols in some way harm the purity or holiness of the place. Whereas fear of appearance of syncretism seems a valid, though not overriding worry, this fear of contagion, of unholiness, is pure superstition. We even have a word for it, desecration, things or acts that make a place less ‘holy’, as if holiness were a thing that could be so easily sullied.

Jesus said, "it is not what comes from the outside that is unclean, but what comes from within."

Jesus, who touched the ‘unclean’ lepers, who ate with tax collectors and with prostitutes, and did not recoil, as ‘holy’ people of the day would, from the woman with a ‘discharge of blood’.

Given it is the church of St Peter I am reminded too of the vision he had of the sheet with all the forbidden foods, where he is told to eat freely.

To make way for the community garden outside, the old gravestones have been moved aside, in some places lining the walls of the churchyard, in others laid flat on the ground lining the gravel paths.  In one place a collection of gravestones, so old they look like natural riven stone on a riverbed, are set around an upright cross.

The cross looks as if it is shattering a single huge tombstone, like resurrection day itself; a fitting image of the Lord of Life, who died on a cross, sunk into hell, preached to the dead and then tore apart the very maws of death itself on Easter morning.

The holiness of Jesus is not like pristine clothing that must be kept free from dust and grime, but like free-flowing waters that cleanse all. The contagion of Christ‘s holiness is positive, it is not threatened by the unholy, but sanctifies all by walking alongside all.

After visiting the church, I look at the restaurant/bar opposite, hoping for something light to eat as it is nearly four and a long time since breakfast, but it is only open for lunch and dinner, so I pop into the shop to renew my ’emergency’ supplies and ask if there is another pub or café in the village that would be open. There is none. "He’ll open at ten to six," says the shopkeeper, referring to the restaurant.

She asks me about my route onwards to Machynlleth, and when I say I’m taking the Coast Path she says, "ah, they take you up around, it is only four miles by road."  I say I guess it is not safe for walking, "yes, these roads were designed for horse and carriage, not cars."

I have become increasingly ‘radicalised’ about the lack of footpaths and cycleways alongside roads. Sometimes I can see it would be very expensive, as along the initial part of the route out of Aberdyfi, but even there if they decided the road should be an extra 10 foot wider for lorries, they would manage, either by cutting into the hillside or building out into the roads.  However, for the stretch between Pennal and Machylleth it is different. When driving Pennal is perhaps two-thirds of the way to Machylleth, but feels nearly there, as the valley sides are wider and the rest of the way is an easy drive with wider roads beside farmland.

Given the costs of a road, it would add only a small amount to lay a footpath beside when they are periodically upgraded. For fitness and also energy use, we are encouraged to use bikes more, and yet this is not part of road policy. Roads are public rights of way, and yet effectively barred to the pedestrian. I have begun to imagine mass action, like the Kinder Scout Trespass in the 1920s, where large groups of walkers invade a major arterial road, blocking it, like the farmers with their cattle in French protests, or the lorry drivers when fuel prices rise.

The lady at the shop thinks this is a wonderful idea and thought on a far grander scale than I, "you could block the A1," she suggests.  I was soon to begin to think that maybe her scale was the right one.

I had thought I was nearly at Machynlleth, but the Coast Path had one last sting in the tail of the day.

It is still largely very well signposted (with one exception), and runs along (largely) easy to follow major forest roads, but rises inexorably. The road is virtually flat, but the path mounts hills of around 200m or 700 feet. "Why?", I wonder, surely there is an easier route. Indeed if it had been the end of a longer day I might have been cursing the Wales Coast Path again.

I should say there are high points of this part of the route, a few bubbling brooks beside the grey gravel forest path, a broken safety glass windowpane, its plastic laminated inner layer bent and sun-browned like an over-ripe banana skin, and a big JCB-like machine, with tracks and what looks like an enormous hook for pulling out tree roots.

Looking later at the map, it is almost possible to get from Pennal to Machynlleth along existing public footpaths by the riverside; not coast, but at least next to the water running to the coast.  However, there is a short stretch, of perhaps a third of a mile, where you would have to follow the road. However, it is in one of the road’s wider stages with open ground on the riverside. Maybe they will lay path there at some point.

The path is almost all along these major forest tracks and eventually a small lane, except once, when it cuts off a portion of a track–road triangle, by heading straight up a bracken-covered hillside. The point to do this is well marked, but if you missed it, it would not matter greatly as you would come to the lane anyway another third of a mile along the track. The path through the bracken is fairly obvious as it has been beaten down by previous walkers, and is marked periodically, although the painted bamboos that have been added by some previous walkers again help give confidence.

Over the top the path cuts down a field, and there is a small marker on a fence post where the arrow points straight onwards, but which ‘straight’?  Across the open grassland beaten tracks spread uniformly, although whether laid by human feet and or by sheep is not clear. I take the most straight-ahead and well-trodden track, but try to keep an eye to the right where another well-trodden path runs close to the field fence and eventually the other side of a small wooded stream. Gradually the path gets less and less clear, and it becomes simply a thickly grassed hillside as any traces of trackway bifurcate and bifurcate into a maze of indistinct, almost windblown lines.

But at least I can now see Machynlleth, tantalisingly close, down (a long way down) in the valley below.  If I keep going down I can’t go far wrong.

But at the bottom, there is a fence and no apparent way through; to the right I can see the corner of the field, with fencing rising back up the way I came. Maybe I should have taken the path that ended up the far side of the stream and there was some sort of stile or gate there, hidden by the trees. I almost turn to go back up the field and try again, but the thought of climbing back up a few hundred feet is daunting, so I decide to scout to the left along the fence at the field bottom away from the fenced-off field corner. "It is bound to meet the road," I say to myself, "and there may be a way through."

Indeed it does meet the road, and there is a way through, and there is even a Wales Coast Path fingerpost, pointing exactly along the way I came. They obviously intend you to skirt close to the field edges, but why, oh why, not add a few markers along the fence so that you know you are on the right track?

The rest of the way is down a lovely lane, at one stage passing a tiny waterfall, its back shining black as if running over jet. The blackness was some sort of slime, but I have never seen this deep black rather than the more common vivid greens. This is one of the lanes, I am told, where Led Zeppelin, who stayed at a house nearby, used to drive their bikes, annoying the locals.

Crossing the river bridge I can see clearly why they keep you clear of the road, it is a breathe hard and walk confident moment. "I have walked across Piazza Venezia in Rome, I can cross a river bridge at Machynlleth," I say to myself.

Machynlleth was home to the last Welsh Parliament, that is the parliament of a completely independent Wales under Owain Glyndŵr, rather than simply a ‘devolved assembly’.

2013-06-14 17.34.21It is also the home of CAT, the Centre for Alternative Technology, in the vanguard of sustainable living, wind and solar power, recycling and conservation. Sadly, I hear and see in the press that parts of CAT are struggling and they have recently sold the Quarry café in the centre of Machynlleth.

However, the presence of CAT runs deep, attracting individuals and businesses with similar ideals.  At the edge of Machynlleth is the Dyfi Eco Park.  I didn’t go in to explore, but the business closest to the road is a home energy company with a mural covering their entire end-wall.  A man, dressed a little like an American Amish, sits fully clothed in a bath tub playing his violin and attracting what I think is meant to be solar power from the face of a beneficent sun, but looks rather more like a golden Medusa, her snake-like hair reaching out to get him.

2013-06-14 18.05.21Of course Machynlleth is now best known for the abduction and murder of April Jones, and bedraggled pink ribbons can still be seen scattered around the town and its environs. The Radio Wales reporter who interviewed me in Conwy said that he had been involved in the reporting of the trial of her killer. The guilty verdict and the knowledge that he is behind bars for life will not ease the pain for her family, but maybe help to draw some sort of line and allow new life to grow in this community.

However, new life is difficult for other reasons.

On the way into town I passed an open bookshop, and spotted a copy of ‘The Planet‘ in the window. I had been told about this by Jane Whittle; it describes itself as ‘The Welsh Internationalist‘, and I could see it also had an article about Machynlleth itself. There was also a copy of Robert Macfarlane‘s The Old Ways, which I’d been planning to get, and thought better I buy it from a small bookshop than tax-dodging, supplier-screwing, global monopoly Amazon.

So I went in, and, on the shelves, found many books I had in my campervan library, as well as many I did not.

You can fill out the details.

I can say there at least several thousand books in that bookshop that I did not buy, but now in my campervan library there are:

The Planet: The Welsh Internationalist. Volume 210, Summer 2013.

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, Penguin, 2012

Ross Bradshaw (ed), Maps, Five Leaves, 2011

David Evans (ed), The Art of Walking{{, {{Black Dog Publishing[/sem], 2012

The article in The Planet is entitled ‘Closed/Ar Gau, sorry’, from a shop sign in Machynlleth, one of many. CAT has reduced its staff by a third, and most of the rest are on zero-hour contracts, that is, paid only when there is work; other local employers have closed down or reduced staffing. In a local newspaper I saw that across Wales unemployment has stayed static or gone down, a sign of recovery according to the government, but *employment* has dropped far more significantly. For some reason (emigration, giving up), there are fewer people in the job market, but the actual number of people working is still reducing, and at an alarming rate.

The ‘closed’ signs have been common across all of Wales, and indeed much of England and Scotland as well. While prosperity may be returning in a limited way to the South East, it is not for those in the already poorer areas of the country. It is noticeable also that the prices of holiday-home-worthy houses did not dip significantly during the recession and of course luxury car sales have boomed whilst mass-market car factories have closed or cut production.

The plentiful years of the ‘noughties‘ were not shared equally, with the well-off benefiting from the ready credit of a deregulated banking sector, whilst the poor struggled with the corner loan shark, and the buy-and-sell-back versions of the old pawn brokers proliferated. And it is no surprise that the years of recession, brought on by that easy credit, are not felt equally.