January 22nd, 2018
Cardigan Bay encompasses Wales’ entire western coastline and stretches from the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula to the opposite tip of the Pembrokeshire coast, as far west as Wales reaches into the Irish Sea. It’s a fantastically diverse area of seascapes, landscapes and mountain views. However, the northern section of Cardigan Bay is one of Wales’ hidden gems. The stretch between Porthmadog in the crook of the peninsula and Aberystwyth in the centre of the bay is less well known than the rural beauty of the Llŷn Peninsula, the popular coasts of the island of Anglesey or the jagged and dramatic cliffs of the Pembrokeshire coastline.
But being less well known means that northern Cardigan Bay has a quiet beauty and a peaceful serenity all of its own. Although it is perhaps the least well known stretch of Welsh coastline, thanks to the opening of the Wales Coast Path, it is now more accessible and easier to explore than ever.
As well as wide and almost endless sandy beaches, this section of Cardigan Bay offers hidden coves, tiny harbours, quiet sands, dramatic estuaries, legendary castles, ancient monuments, pretty and unexpected villages, quaint towns, the ghosts of tall ships, powerful links to an inescapable maritime history and a heritage that dates back almost 250,000 years.
Among the finest qualities of North Cardigan Bay are the many beautiful beaches. These are scattered along the map, often found every mile or so. Harlech beach is one of the longest on the coast at almost 4 miles long. Look westwards and the sparkling blue water stretches out across the Irish Sea; northwards, and the views of the Llŷn Peninsula come into focus – on a clear day it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the magical Bardsey Island, right at the tip of the peninsula. South, the vistas continue along the coastline, but I think the best views are found if you look eastwards and over the dunes. It is here that an ordinary beach is transformed to something special. The peaks of southern Snowdonia are formidable, even on a sunny day. It’s possible to glimpse the hills of the Rhinogs and Bryn Cader Faner as well as Y Gyrn and Moel Ysgyfarnogod, which sit just above the town of Harlech. Towards the northern end of the beach, you may also spot the distinctive pointy peak of Cnicht, standing tall with the hilly Moelwyns.
There are plenty more impressive beaches along this stretch of coastline. Just south of Harlech is Shell Island, notably one of Europe’s largest campsites, but it also boasts a fabulous beach and sand dunes. The “island” is a tidal one, and is so called because of the huge amounts of shells that are washed ashore here during the winter months from a nearby reef. You can walk to Shell Island from the village of Llanbedr or you can drive across the causeway (check tide times first) and pay for day access to the beaches.
There are also great beaches at Barmouth, which was once a popular and fashionable holiday resort, and Aberdyfi, a traditional seaside town complete with donkey rides, fishing trips and sticks of rock. And not forgetting the broad, golden sands of Dyffryn Ardudwy, which includes a section that is a designated, and popular, naturist beach during the summer months.
A sense of history
One of the things I love about this stretch of coastline, other than the beaches, is the incredible array of history that you can stumble across on even the shortest of walks. Just a few miles from Dyffryn Ardudwy is the town of Harlech, which is home to one of the area’s most famous historic and cultural structures. Harlech Castle sits perched above the town, keeping watch on the beach and the dunes below. It was built in the late 13th century, by Edward I of England, as part of his Iron Ring of fortifications along the Welsh coast, that were designed to assert his authority and prevent uprising from the troublesome Welsh rebels that opposed his rule of their home land.
It took a thousand men seven years to build the domineering castle, but it was attacked almost immediately by Welsh armies. In the 15th century it was captured by Welsh ruler Owain Glyndwr and was used as his headquarters for four years until it was recaptured by the English. Today, the castle is in remarkable condition for a building that is over 700 years old. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is renowned as one of the finest 13th century castles in Europe. It is open to the public and is well worth a visit to explore the squat concentric towers, enormous gatehouse and the fine views across Cardigan Bay.
And let’s not forget the eclectic village of Portmeirion, and while it may not be as old as Neolithic chambers or medieval castles, it’s still an important part of the history and culture of this area, and one of which local people are extremely proud.
Portmeirion draws visitors from all over the world, and has also been the setting and inspiration for stars of the big screen – from 1960s television series The Prisoner to the modern drama Cold Feet. It’s one of my favourite places along North Cardigan Bay and I can easily while away a day ambling along the well trodden cobbled squares, finding secret gardens and exploring the wild landscape and beach that lie behind the village.
On the surface, Cardigan Bay is quiet and unassuming, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find strong local communities that take pride in their heritage; a culture and language that arrived in Britain about 1,000 BC; towns, villages, castles and ruins packed full of history, myth and legend and the kind of amazing scenery that makes you wonder why on earth you didn’t visit sooner.