Sunday 8 May 2016

Tasks 5 & 42: Walk 60 miles along Wales Coast Path & visit Aberystwyth to find my grandparents' house

I must start this blog by explaining that I'm half Welsh, courtesy of my father, whose family have lived in and around Aberystwyth over many generations.  During my early childhood, annual trips to Aberystwyth to visit my grandparents and other relatives were an essential feature of family life, despite the inevitable travel sickness through the Cambrian mountains, tricky weather conditions and Granny's strict house rules. However, once I became a mother myself I'm ashamed to say that holidays in Wales were quickly eschewed in favour of warmer European destinations. Apart from a few 24-hour forays across the Welsh border for conferences, concerts and a special commemoration, I haven't been back to Wales for forty years.

Five years ago I was idly flipping through The Times Travel Section (see also Folkestone to Hastings cycle ride), when I spotted an article describing the beauty of the Wales Coast Path. All of a sudden I felt my Welsh blood coursing through my veins. I tore out the article, and placed it in my pending tray, where it sat gathering dust for the next 4 years. A candidate for my sixtyat60 list? Most definitely. And in another surge of re-kindled Celtic fervour, I decided it was high time I visited Aberystwyth to track down the house where my father grew up. Tasks 5 and 42 were duly added to the list. My Welsh dragon was finally breathing fire again.    

Andrew and I made contact with a company called Celtic Trails, who organised a five-day walk for us along the Ceredigion section of the Wales Coast Path, a 60-mile journey that would take us from Cardigan to Borth, via Aberporth, New Quay, Llanon and Aberystwyth.  They booked us into a variety of B&Bs or hotels for overnight stays, and arranged for our luggage to be taken from one hotel to the next. So all we had to worry about was The Walk. My younger brother Clive volunteered to join us in Aberystwyth to visit my grandparents' house with me, and to our surprise and delight also suggested accompanying us on the final day.  I duly instructed him to bring along some sensible walking boots (once a bossy big sister eh.....)

Andrew and I spent a mini fortune on walking gear and equipment, undertook a series of practice walks over the Ashdown Forest and Seven Sisters, and set off for Cardigan two weeks ago. I was feeling more than mildly apprehensive.  After all, I'd never done a holiday like this before.  I usually lie on a sunbed reading books or meander around cities seeking out places of culture. Would my body take the strain of relentless hill-climbing? Would Andrew and I have endless map-reading related moments of, ahem, 'tension'?  Would one of us be blown off a cliff during an Irish Sea storm of epic proportions?  

On Day 1 we quickly discovered that with a full Welsh breakfast lining our stomachs, we were ready for just about anything. And from the moment we joined the Wales Coast Walk trail at Cardigan harbour, we were greeted by the most stunningly stunning views, which made every step worthwhile and pleasurable, whatever the steepness of the slope, the proximity of the cliffs (and they were seriously proximal to the path at times) or the strength of the wind. Talking of the weather, the first two days were bathed in glorious sunshine, making the scenery even more, well, stunning. Here are just a few photos from Day 2 as we walked the 15-mile stretch from Aberporth to New Quay. We went to bed that night completely shattered but on a real high.



We experienced an inauspicious start to Day 3. Not only were we both feeling rather stiff and tired after our tough walk the day before, but within minutes of setting off on the next stage, the heavens opened. Andrew fell over whilst trying and failing to put on his waterproof trousers, which turned out to be mine. He had a mini-meltdown. Half an hour later I fell over, whilst gingerly clambering down an especially slippery slope, and yanked my lower back (actually it seemed to do it a lot of good - could I market this as a new treatment do you think?) Hunot bonhomie begin to evaporate a little. But then we found ourselves in Aberaeron, often described as the jewel of Cardigan Bay. Oh my goodness, what a beautiful little harbour town. We both fell instantly in love with it and our spirits soared again. 


On Day 4 we walked 14 miles from Llanon to Aberystyth. It was a day of bright sunshine, sharp showers, plunging paths, secret coves, deserted beaches, shaggy sheep and helpful signs saying 'CLIFFS KILL'.  We didn't pass a single person all day. But we did spot several pairs of red kites, which we were very excited about. Sadly dolphins and porpoises proved to be as elusive as fellow walkers.

Eventually we made it to the top of the final ridge and there before us lay Aberystwyth, basking in the late afternoon sunshine. We made our way stiffly through the town like two Thunderbird puppets to our promenade hotel Gwesty Cymru (can't recommend it highly enough), where Clive was awaiting our arrival with celebratory drinks all round.  

We kicked off Day 5 with my second very important sixtyat60 task - to locate our grandparents' house.  And to our delight, we were able to locate it with ease, because it's still called by its original name, Cartrefle (it means 'abode' in English). The house has been divided into two dwellings and was in the process of being let out, which I thought was rather sad. But we agreed that otherwise it had changed very little since our last visit over 50 years ago. 

As Clive and I stood by the front door for the obligatory pic, I spotted the doorbell - wow, definitely the original. It felt like a direct connection to my grandparents. A special moment indeed. 


With Task 42 ticked and flickering childhood images of Cartrefle still running through in my mind, Andrew, Clive and I made our way back to the Wales Coast Path and prepared to start our walk to Borth, the final destination. At this point I noticed that Clive was still wearing his usual, er, city shoes. I raised my eyebrows questioningly. 'They are my winter ones Vivien' Clive said a tad defensively. He hared up the first hill ahead of Andrew and me. The next two miles were pretty flat. The sun was shining. 'This is a doddle' said Clive. 'Is this what the rest of your walk's been like?'  Oooh - younger brothers, don't you just love them!!

An hour later, a hostile weather system hit just as we were making our way down a steep slope. The ground was wet and slippery, the wind was whirling and the hail was horizontal. I turned around to see Clive lose his footing and.....well, let me hand over to him to tell the story:   

'Although I felt a bit like an extra in the Aberystwyth Fringe, it was a genuine delight (finally) to participate in Vivien's age-defying adventure. The long-overdue return to Aber brought back sepia-tinted memories of childhood, but the main event was definitely the final leg of Vivien and Andrew's coastal trek. In hindsight I should hang my head in shame for suggesting, on the strength of the initial uphill meander, that it wasn't much of a challenge. My perspective shifted dramatically when we were assaulted by wind and hail on a sharply downhill section (cliffs unnervingly close) where I slid more than strode to the bottom. Memo to self: conventional footwear doesn't quite do the job. 

Vivien and Andrew assured me that they'd faced more extreme conditions and gradients on previous days, so I came away with huge admiration for their grit, stamina and resilience.

Final reflections: the views seem even more outstanding when you're battling nature and terrain at the same time. Restored to the comfort of the hotel, the drinks go down quicker and a gourmet dinner tastes even better. What peaks shall we conquer next year?'

Here are Clive and I back on terra firma. Much to my relief Andrew was able to loan Clive one of his walking poles for the rest of the walk. 

As we reached Borth the sun came out again and we decided that the weather system moment had been a curiously positive team-building experience. We returned to Aberystwyth and the comfort of Gwesty Cymru. Our Wales Coast Path adventure was over and we had not only survived it but had loved (almost) every minute of it - we definitely felt a sense of achievement.

Another lovely outcome to our Wales Coast Path walk is that my Welsh roots feel so much stronger. Andrew and I are awaiting the arrival of our Ceredigion Coast Path Challenge certificates, which I'll be placing on the Welsh dresser in our kitchen with pride.  And I'm now dreaming of the day that we own a little cottage overlooking Aberaeron harbour. In the meantime Andrew and I are definitely up for the challenge of conquering another peak next year with Clive - on the proviso that he pays a visit to Cotswold Outdoor first.

I can't publish this post without saying a very special thank you to a brilliant podiatrist in Horsted Keynes called Claire Beale, who rescued my feet from the onslaught of chilblains (old lady or what) 2 months ago, and made it possible for me to tackle the Wales Coast Path. And I also want to thank Celtic Trails for a fantastic service - our trip was completed without a single hitch and that's all because they were working so hard for us behind the scenes. We shall definitely be using them again....

I shall now close this exceedingly long post with a traditional Welsh wish: 

  Iechyd da i chwi yn awr ac yn oesoedd *

I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Shooting Star Chase children's hospice care in memory of a special little girl called Thea Redford. 

For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at

*  Good health to you now and forever

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