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The Snowdonia & Meirionnydd Coast Path

 

Aerial view of North West Coastline

Section Two - Harlech to Barmouth - Wales Coast Path

Around 16 miles (25.7km) – Options to split this into two days. Generally Easy grade with a few moderate stretches, isolated beaches, dunes, coastal estuary and farmland

Harlech sand dunesAs you leave Harlech, if you dare to look back over your shoulder at the looming castle walls, you feel like you are being banished into the wilderness. Fear not, however, as you quickly reach the ocean and having passed through the edge of the famous Royal St David’s Golf Course, you climb mighty sand dunes before tumbling into a beautiful wild coastal scene at Traeth Harlech.

A wide expanse of golden sands stretches south. Head down them, whilst on your left the ever-changing ridge of the immense dune barrier, a chaotic fusion of ever shifting sands rises above you, with hillocks of marram grass, immense sandy hollows and huge dunes, supporting a unique range of plants, insects and animals which have adapted to life at the edge of a windswept ocean. Look for the three coloured dune pansy, pyramid and bee orchids and rare maiden pinks. It’s famous for its moths and butterflies as well - the six-spot burnet moth, marsh fritillary, common blue and small copper butterfly are all found here.

Church in the dunesProvided it is not high tide, you can descend to wander by the waves, with occasional glances over your shoulder back to the Snowdonia Massifs. It’s peaceful here, away from any sign of human habitation and it feels immensely open and free. Eventually, at Llanfair, the beach ends in huge boulders. Crossing the railway, you begin a twisting ascent up the cliffs on a snaking path - notable as the only cliff climb on this whole section of the Wales Coast Path – the next is a week away at Borth.

After the shock of your short climb, you enter a new landscape, a narrow but green and fertile coastal corridor of sheep and cattle meadows, hemmed in on one side by the ocean and on the other by the rocky Rhingog mountains that creep ever closer. The dominating sight of the nearest, the huge rounded dome of Moelfre, is particularly pleasing. At the hamlet of Llandanwg, the path takes you past a tiny chapel of rest, dating back to the 5th century, established by Saint Tanqg (St Tanwgs) from Brittany. This lonely spot is one of the oldest Christian locations in the UK. Almost entirely hidden amongst the dunes that continually threaten to overwhelm it, the tiny building squats in defiance to the ocean and the shifting sands that tower above – its single bell and stone gateway are iconic guardians against the eternal shifting sands that have almost engulfed it. It surely feels that something bigger than us mere mortals is holding it all back! Look for sea holly in the last of the dunes. Flitting around you are skylarks and stonechats and beyond, the wading birds out on the shoreline include ringed plover which nest right on the beach, oystercatcher, dunlin and sanderling.

River Artro Estuary near LlanbedrThe coast walk is now broken abruptly by the sweeping Artro Estuary, a smaller river estuary with distinct mud flats at low tide but large enough to harbour a small fleet of yachts and boats in hidden enclaves around its twisting turns. The scene would be reminiscent of South Devon, were it not for the mountains, a mile of so inland. This is Ardudwy, a narrow coastal land, bordered by the ocean on one side and the wild heather-clad Rhinog Mountains on the other.

The walker takes a gentle route inland alongside the water for a mile or two, past moored vessels which lean like resting drunks and then below rich, salt meadow pasture. Crossing the Arto on an impressive new bridge, here you can divert ½ mile upstream with the river now a small babbling affair with deep pools and little waterfalls, at the head of which is the welcoming little town of Llanbedr, with a tea shop, an inn and a few other amenities.

CLICK HERE for information about breaking this section with stays in Lanbedr or Dyffryn Ardudwy on The Snowdonia and Meirionnydd Coast Path

Heading from Llanbedr back to the sea, you pass through the former RAF airfield, still a flying centre. Leave the last little huddle of boats as you snake across the coastal marsh causeway on a fine raised footpath, trekking over and above the estuary across tidal pools and huge clumps of lush reed banks. Safely on the other side, you reach a last patch of coastal woodland before the sands of Shell Island. It may no longer be an island but, protected as it is by its causeway, Shell Island is 445 acres of unique peninsula, with stunning sands with good swimming options and has over 200 varieties of shells - hence the name! At the south end of Shell Island is St Patrick’s Causeway, a reef of glacial rocks visible at low tide, which stretches for over 12 miles from Mochras Point out into the ocean towards Ireland.

Shell island causewayThe coast path keeps you inland at first, on a sandy access road, before you finally climb over to the beach and arrive on wide sands strewn with tiny shells. As you crunch you way across Shell Island, in good weather you have mountains as the backdrop for a full 180 degrees, right round from the Lyn to Rhinogs. Morfa Dyffryn starts at Shell Island and has been designated an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) since 1953. This is another important area for wading birds as well as a winter-feeding ground for migrating wildfowl. The dunes are massive here, larger even than those at Harlech, capped again with little tufts of marram grass waving in the breeze above huge mounds of golden sands, with deep hollows and tortuous, deep tracks.

Now it’s a glorious unspoilt 3 miles of golden sands ahead as you continue south with the dunes on your left still towering above you and just the sounds of the sea and the calling of the flocks of birds that sit on the sandbars to accompany you. This is a constantly changing landscape of shifting dunes, shaped by winds and ocean, a protected and unique dune system, perfect for rare fungi such as the dwarf earthstar, the colourful waxcaps, earthtongues and parasols and even the rare dune tiger beetle or mining bee. Take care on the beach, where ringed plovers nest, hidden amongst clusters of pebbles.

There is not a building or a fence for three miles - but farther down the beach you may spot the occasional pasty-shaded skin of a Homosapien as the path takes you right through one of the oldest and largest of Wales Naturalist Beaches. Eyes forward and keep marching!

Walking inlandFinally, shingle appears, and it is now time to head inland on an impressive dune walkway that takes you into an area of rich arable farmland. This area is notable for its maze of enclosures, constructed from huge thick stone walls, built hundreds of years ago when the land was parcelled into tiny segments. Beyond is the bubbling Afon Ysgethin, flowing towards you from the village of Tal-y-Bont.

Decision time here - stronger walkers and those looking to avoid the road section by heading into the mountains depart here, whilst those choosing not to climb inland will continue the coast path on a shorter walk following paths next to the coast road and close to the sea, on an easy walk into Barmouth with minimal climbing.

The path eventually drops to the sands and you meet the iconic and defining obstacle of the mighty Mawddach Estuary, where the entertaining town of Barmouth clings to the mountainside at its entrance.

CLICK HERE for information on your overnight in Barmouth on The Snowdonia and Meirionnydd Coast Path

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