Friday 16 September 2022

Lost in Wales Again

 This week I managed to escape for a few days from the sturm und drang of moving house (a saga that is still by no means over) to join my brother and a couple of old friends for some walking in North Wales. On the first day, we set out from our base in 'the most beautiful city in the world' and headed for the extraordinary Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct – a World Heritage Site, no less, and one deserving of the accolade. Thomas Telford's aqueduct was built to carry the Ellesmere Canal over the waters of the River Dee, and it does it in spectacular style, over 19 tall flat-arched bays, at a height of 127ft. To walk across this astonishing, elegant and even beautiful aqueduct is a vertiginous experience, as the towpath, far from wide, runs next to and on a level with the canal, which is contained in what is essentially a long lead trough. Narrowboats pass within inches, and only a railing stands between the walker and the waters of the Dee so far below. The views are, as you'd expect, wide (and deep) and dramatic – and we were to see more such views as we climbed later into the hills above, then descended into the town of Llangollen, heaving with tourists but perfectly situated on the river. After lunch, it was back along the towpath of the tree-lined canal (where benches were frequent and welcome) all the way to the great aqueduct – a superb day's walking. 
    Alas, the same could not be said for our second day. The plan was to walk a stretch of the North Wales Pilgrims' Way, or Welsh Camino, which begins at Holywell and ends at Bardsey Island, burial place of 20,000 saints. We walked from the delightful village of Llanasa (a delightful village is something of a rarity in this part of Wales) to the start at Holywell, then on to the ruined abbey of Basingwerk, all of which sounds straightforward enough, especially as the Camino is waymarked and stiles are plentiful and well maintained. Soon, however, we found ourselves Lost in Wales again. Despite the fact that we are all very experienced walkers and at least two of us (not including me) are expert map readers with an excellent sense of direction, we were confounded again and again by footpaths whose only existence was as a dotted line on the map, paths that had clearly been diverted or done away with, too infrequent waymarks, and those notoriously long Welsh miles. Lunch was a selection of crisps and nuts in a large but entirely empty bar/grill attached to a caravan park. When a member of staff finally emerged from somewhere, we asked her if it was open, and she replied, with commendable frankness, 'Sort of'. But at least we got a drink. The afternoon's walk was equally difficult  – La diritta via was more than once smarrita – with the result that the Holy Well and the extraordinary late-15th-century building that houses it were already closed by the time we reached them. Still, the church (Georgianised) was open, and the organist was practising. As we entered and wearily seated ourselves, he was playing, maestoso, 'God Save the King'. 

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