June 8th, 2018
Once part of a busy railway line that boosted the area’s economy and transport links to the rest of Britain, the Mawddach Trail is now one of the most beautiful walks along the Welsh coast line.
The point where the river Mawddach spills its contents into Cardigan Bay is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful estuaries in Wales. Defined by vast sea views, wooded mountain slopes, flat, mud plains and the steep slopes of the Cadair mountains, the winding and dramatic route of the river Mawddach was determined over 10,000 years ago when the last ice age ended and the fierce frosts and ice carved out the valley and river paths.
The Railway Trail
Heading along the Mawddach Trail is the perfect way to take in this stunning scenery. The trail runs for just over nine miles and links the inland town of Dolgellau with the traditional seaside town of Barmouth. It follows an old railway line along the southern edge of the estuary, before crossing the wide river mouth via the iconic Barmouth Bridge, which has stood proud and strong as an adopted symbol of the town since it was built in 1867. On a bright and clear day, the views from the bridge along the estuary, the valley and even to the dramatic mountains of Snowdonia in the far distance have captivated walkers’ hearts and imaginations.
The Mawddach Trail follows the route of an abandoned railway that was built to link two of the biggest railway companies in Wales in the mid nineteenth century. Cambrian Railways had finished work on this track between Barmouth and Dolgellau by 1868. This meant important links between the Welsh coast lines serviced by Cambrian Railways, and the prosperous towns of middle and northern England served by the might Great Western Railway, were finally complete.
By the mid 1960’s however, just as road transport was beginning to emerge as the more popular and convenient method of travelling, the little railway line became another victim of the Beeching Axe and was closed as part of the re-structuring of British Rail. Snowdonia National Park purchased the land, and it has since become one of north Wales’ most revered walks.
Dolgellau is the starting point of the Mawddach Trail, and this little town is packed full of history. There has been a settlement here since the early 12th century, when the rich and fertile lands were exploited for farming. After Owain Glyndwr, who famously led the struggle against suppression by the English, held a stirring meeting here in the early 1400’s, the town became an important administrative centre and market town, as well as housing the county’s criminals in the dark and eerie jail.
Dolgellau is as famous for what is found underground as it is for its handsome grey stone buildings and quaint narrow streets, for in the mid 1800’s the town found itself in the middle of a gold rush. The lush hills and forests that surrounded the town were rich in the most sought after of commodities, and because of its scarcity, purity and distinctive copper hues, Welsh Gold became extremely valuable, and many investors became extremely rich.
Gold mining has long since all but ceased in the area, but gold from here is still renowned because of its royal connections. The Queen, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Princess Diana all requested wedding rings made from beautiful Welsh Gold.
At the other end of the trail is the lively and colourful seaside town of Barmouth. From humble beginnings as a ship building port that exported woven cloth, slate and copper to the Americas, Barmouth became a fashionable holiday hotspot for the populations of the crowded towns and cities in north western England when railway links made the fresh coastal air and all curing sea breezes of north Wales easily accessible.
Today, the trail is still and quiet, and not an industrious steam train ferrying freight or passengers is in sight. The variety of rich, fertile and peaceful land means that wildlife is in abundance here. An old railway signal box at Penmaenpool is now an RSBP observatory where oystercatchers, kingfishers, swans and curlews are regularly spotted, and red kites make a increasingly regular appearance.
The reed beds that lie either side of the river Mawddach between Dolgellau and Penmaenpool are thought to be the largest in Wales. The site is now designated as a Site of Special Scentific Interest because the reeds provide a home for so many different birds and wildlife. The woods at Abergwynant a little further along are part of a project by the Snowdonia National Park to reintroduce native plants and flowers, mainly by trying to keep invasive species such as spartina grass and rhododendron under control.
Once you’ve walked the trail yourself, perhaps you’ll agree with English poet and writer John Ruskin, who famously commented that there is “no better walk than from Barmouth to Dolgellau other than from Dolgellau to Barmouth”.