Years ago my parents used to take a magazine called Country Walking, which is still going strong, as a companion and guide to the walks they did all over Britain. I am currently having a massive sort-out and today went through a large number of leaflets and walks, keeping some and disposing of others, always a horrible job. This walk, torn out of the January 2004 issue of Country Walking looks excellent. The introduction says that in 1993 local ramblers launched and won a campaign to save the route, known as Bryncrug Six, as a public right of way. This is the victory referred to at the top of the article. I have checked on the OL23 Ordnance Survey map, and the paths are all marked on it. You can either head out by the Tal y Llyn railway, or park in Bryncrug, from where the walk starts. Although I haven’t tried all of it yet, being somewhat obsessed with hillforts at the moment, I’ve walked the section between 6 and 7, which is excellent. The untidy blue and purple annotations are mine, for my own use, as I found the black and white a bit of a jumble, making it a bit difficult to distinguish roads from streams.
This walk has been divided into two, partly because I went crazy with the camera and took too many photographs, but also because I had quite a lot to say about the hillfort. The second post, this one, is about the hillfort and what can be seen from it. The first one was about the walk itself, how to get to it, where the two different forks take you to, and what views can be seen from parts of the route.
I am currently walking as many of the nine Iron Age hillforts in the local area as I can before winter sets in. Or at least, I am when it’s not sloshing with rain and there’s no haze or mist to obscure views. Fortunately there has been some glorious weather recently, after a rather soggy summer. One of the wonderful things about hillforts is that the views are often terrific, and Craig yr Aderyn is simply the best. It dominates the Dysynni valley from miles around, catching the light in dramatic ways, but I had never seen it up close. Approaching it along the lovely road from Llanegryn for the first time, I was somewhat staggered when I rounded a corner and suddenly found it looming over me. Drifting happily down the road, I had no idea that I had arrived so near to it.
Craig yr Aderyn is a highly visible local landmark in the Dysynni valley (SH643068), and is approached by small B-roads from Bryncrug or Abergynolwyn. For full details of reaching Craig yr Aderyn and the route up, see my other post, about the walk rather than the hillfort.
Craig yr Aderyn, which translates as Rock of Birds, or more usually Bird Rock, is a major local landmark, abutting the of the Foel Wyllt hill ridge overlooking the Dysynni valley from the south. The course and character of the river Dysynni have changed over time. Before the 18th century the estuary reached almost to the foot of Craig yr Aderyn, but the river silted up and is no longer navigable. The land has been drained since the 1700s to create better quality land for farming, although standing looking down from the summit, it is quite clear that the land to the west still has some very boggy patches marked by beds of spiny rush (Juncus acutus), which is found in all freshwater flats, bogs and marshes herabouts. It is not known what it looked like in prehistory, but the presence of a glacial valley with Cadair Idris at its back indicates that a melt-water river certainly passed Craig yr Aderyn on its way to the sea, and this will have established a valley route into which later hill drainage descended. It would be useful to know what it was like during the Iron Age.
According to a Snowdonia Active publication (2018) the crag is made of rhyolitic tuff, rock formed from volcanic ash laid down after a major eruption through the Bala fault line c.800 million years ago. It is separated from the hillside behind it by a saddle or col 100ft below the peak. Its distinctive shape is immediately recognizable from miles around, almost always visible in the Dysynni area. Its gaze always seems to follow you around. Its summit is at 230m OD (700ft). The hillfort is lower, at about 180 OD, 10m higher than the 170m OD Tal y Garreg, the next highest hillfort in the area. Although the north face of the crag is very steep, the home of nesting birds and a route for rock climbers, there is a much more gradual approach to the rear.
Craig yr Aderyn is one of a small number of hillforts that were built near the Dysynni valley. I’ve already posted about the two small hillforts at the mouth of the Dysynni, Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd on Mynydd Garreg above Tonfanau, some 8km away to the west of Craig yr Aderyn. Nearer to Craig yr Aderyn is Castell Mawr, c.5.5km to the west as the crow flies, about which I have also posted. See the map at the end of the post.
At Craig yr Aderyn all of the hillfort construction work took place on a natural shelf beneath the rocky peak, which the hillfort incorporates. Its man-made defenses consist of two phases of earthen and stone banks. Today the fort’s ramparts are covered in grass, but most of them are still clearly visible, although it took me some time to trace them against the site plan on the ground. Thankfully they are covered mainly with short turf rather than bracken or long grass, which makes the job much easier than at places like Castell Mawr. The ramparts are impressive, and served to cut off the only realistic line of human access to the hillfort, as the other side is a sheer drop into the valley beyond from the summit of Craig yr Aderyn, some 270m below. The combination of natural and stone-faced sloping man-made defenses makes this one of the most ostentations structures of this type in the area. The site is thought to have been built in two phases.
The most obvious features of the first phase are the two sets of ditches and eroded banks, which once formed ramparts that were stone-faced. This is sometimes called the upper fort. There was an in-turned entrance at the southeast side through a gap in the rampart. The enclosed area encloses approximately 0.8 hectares (just under 2 acres), and measures roughly 100 by 55m (c.330 x 180ft). the shape formed against the line of the natural topography is a triangle.
In the second phase an additional line of banks and ditches were built on the eastern side to enclose a larger area of approximately 1.6 hectares, measuring 119 by 170m (390 x 560ft) on the east side, which was most vulnerable to attack. This included a substantial stone wall, much more impressive than the first phase. Unfortunately, this has now collapsed, but its original line is still clearly visible. Secondary improvements were a wall on the south side and two new banks to the east. These were accompanied by another in-turned entrance, this a lot more prominent and well built than in phase 1. Unlike the first entrance it could only be approached via a steep slope. This is the entrance that the public footpath uses today, but even if you approach the hillfort at a tangent and follow a sheep track into the interior, the entrance is unmistakable from the interior.
The early excavations at Craig yr Aderyn, such as they were, produced very little in the way of dateable artefacts, and although a pottery sherd was identified at the time as Romano British, I have not seen any modern opinion on the subject of its date, and have no idea where the sherd itself is located today. Even if this tenuous evidence was validated, it is not enough to tie in in with the other hillforts in the area, as none of those have been excavated and the architecture itself is only suggests very approximate dating.
The location of the site is commanding. It is c.9 km inland and therefore although the sea is visible, it has no view over the comings and goings of anything that was travelling along the coast. If it was in league with any or all of the Tal y Garreg, Llechlwyd or Castell Mawr hillforts, that may not have been important. What it did have, and still does, is remarkable views over the Dysynni valley to the west and east from the summit, and good views towards the hill slopes to the north and south. It is lower than many of the surrounding hills to north and south, but difficult to reach except via the saddle connecting it to the main hillside to its north.
The function of this hillfort remains unknown. Even at 180m OD (590ft), Craig yr Aderyn cannot be completely ruled out as a settlement, but it it was very small, and would certainly be extremely inconvenient for permanent living, just like the other hillforts so far visited. Although there are level surfaces that might have been suitable for settlement huts and storage, the only signs of settlement that have been found to date are an indeterminate feature found in 1874, and two possible and unconfirmed platforms in the south-east corner found in the 1921. Whilst it might have been used as a seasonal settlement for taking sheep herds into the hills, it seems far too elaborate for this sort of role, particularly given the human resources required to build the impressive stone facing of the ramparts.
The stone-faced ramparts and entrance are themselves interesting, unique in the Dysynni area, and suggest that the site was particularly important to its builders. In his overview of the Iron Age, Timothy Darvill in his overview of mentions that after c.400BC a number of sites were provided with sloping stone-faced ramparts, which he suggests were as much for ostentation as defense. In a more recent discussion, focused on the Ceredigion hillforts, Toby Driver points to these as a recurring theme in that area, and he too suggests that they may have been intended to give the appearance of strength, a deterrent rather than being strictly defensive. Although they would have required substantial investment in effort to build them, they would have been relatively easy to maintain, as their survival today demonstrates.
If there was insufficient stone for the facing from digging out the ditches, there was plenty of loose stone available for the ramparts. Nearby rockfalls from the hill behind Craig yr Aderyn would have done the trick, and it is quite likely that those prominent today were the result of glacial activity. The rocks in the immediate area were much bigger than any of those used for the stone facing, so they were probably broken up. Interestingly, much of that rock is quartzite, some of it quite massive, but none of that was used in the rampart facing. This suggests that the builders had a very specific vision, and it didn’t include quartzite.
One slight oddity if the hillfort was to impress, is that it is not visible from a distance. It is only when one is almost upon it that the impressive stonework comes into view. Its appearance is defensive, because the ramparts are large and stone-faced, and the entrance well built, but the approach is not particularly challenging. I paused twice for a breather on my way up, but I’m in my mid 50s and not at optimal fitness. For a fit person it would present no difficulties at all, and for a hypothetical raiding party accustomed to such tasks it would have been all in a day’s work. The approach is out of direct line of sight of the hillfort itself, and partly obscured even from the summit. If its role was primarily defensive, lookouts would have to be stationed in the area to ensure that any threat was detected early. its potential as a defensible retreat was tried and tested during the 10th Century AD when, according to a publication by Snowdownia Active, Tywyn was attacked and burned by Norsemen. When they approached from the sea a warning beacon was lit on the coast, and Tywyn residents retreated to Craig yr Aderyn. There are related theories for use. One are that the site might have been used as a refuge for local farming families or the most important of the local elite if there was conflict over land, or it could have been used as a secure communal store for important raw materials, food and craft products, including livestock. There is really nothing to help narrow down a precise role.
From Craig yr Aderyn there is a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape. From the hillfort it is a very short walk to the summit where there is an excellent, uninterrupted line of sight west to Mynydd Garreg and the sea in the distance, along the Dysynni valley. Although I couldn’t make out the trig point or ramparts on Tal y Garreg hillfort through my telephoto lens, the ramparts are certainly in the line of sight. The promontory on which Llechlwyd sits was easy to make out and I could see where Castell Mawr was located. Bwlch too, which I haven’t yet visited, was easily visible, with its unmistakable trig point. These lines of sight would have been no use at all for seeing what people were up to, because the other hillforts were simply too far away, but would be invaluable if the occupants were signalling to one other about any threats from outside the area, including from the sea. There are no known hillforts nearer to Craig yr Aderyn.
The second phase of the hillfort argues a renewed interest in securing the space, extending it over a larger area and adding further stone-faced ramparts. Two distinct phases of hillfort construction have been identified at many sites elsewhere in Britain. Although it is unknown whether the two phases at Craig yr Aderyn conform to this pattern, it seems worth giving a brief outline of the general framework. The first British phase of hillfort building occurs, at the transition between the Late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age at c.800BC, gaining momentum after c.600BC. These were generally single rampart-and-ditch (univallate) structures. The addition of more defenses and additional banks and ditches then came substantially later, at a time when some other hillforts were abandoned at around 400BC.
Some hillforts in the south of England continued to be used into the Roman period. It would not be surprising if those in west Wales, became overtly defensive during and after the Roman invasion of Wales in AD74. If the identification of Romano-British pottery was accurate, this might have coincided with a new anxiety about protecting the community from the threat of Roman incursion, or the threat of raiders coming to secure products to accumulate resources that would help negotiations with Roman traders or native traders securing goods to sell to the Romans. According to Roman sources Britain was a good source of slaves, and rural areas were likely targets.
If it emerges that the local hillforts were contemporary at the time of their original construction, I am leaning towards a completely speculative model of fortified sites being used to enable people to stay in touch and share early warnings about potential threats from further afield. More about the role and function of local hillforts will be discussed on a future post, once I have finished visiting all nine hillforts (four down, five to go).
Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967. History of Merioneth, volume 1. From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes. The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.
Cunliffe, B. 1995. Iron Age Britain. Batsford
Driver, T. 2013. Architecture, Regional Identity and Power in the Iron Age Landscapes of Mid Wales. The Hillforts of North Ceredigion. BAR British Series 583.
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009. A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd. Project No. G1770. Report No. 839
RCMHCW 1921. Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. Volume IV: The County of Merioneth.
Sjöberg, K.S. 2014. Hidden possibilities. Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151
Snowdonia Active 2018. Craig yr Aderyn. Site Guides for Recreation. Protected Landscapes of Wales.
Archaeology Data Service
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date). Historic Landscape Characterisation: The Dysynni
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date). Hillforts in Dwyfor and Merioneth http://www.heneb.co.uk/merionethforts/9craigyraderyn.html
I have divided my Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) walk into two posts, of which this is the first. The first focuses exclusively on the Iron Age hillfort. This one looks at the walk itself, how to approach it, incidental information about the environment and views from all the parts of the walk that I did. This has to be one of the most magnificent walks in the area. You might want to drive on to the 13th century ruins of Castell y Bere if you have energy left afterwards.
As well as a destination for some of the most fabulous views in the area, it is also well known as the nesting site of cormorants (the furthest inland nesting ground for cormorants in Wales) and red-billed choughs (the latter on the endangered list). It is also houses a two-phase Iron Age hillfort. The hill used to be inhabited by feral goats, which were introduced in the 1960s, but slowly died out. In the more recent past the hill has been used as a quarry for road stone, but this has now been stopped. Today it is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area. As the birds nest on the north face, they are undisturbed by walkers, and climbers are only allowed to scale that face outside the nesting season.
Craig yr Aderyn is a highly visible local landmark in the Dysynni valley (SH643068). A narrow road skirts its base, unfortunately not identified with a number on the Ordnance Survey map. If you are familiar with Happy Valley, where you can usually squeeze two cars past for most of the way, halve that. If you don’t like reversing, this may not be for you. From all directions, it is a single track road with occasional passing places, and I had to reverse three times for quite a way, once around some steep corners. From the west Craig yr Aderyn is best approached along the road from Bryncrug; from the east it can be approached from the B4405 from Abergynolwyn or via the very narrrow road through Abertrinant.
There is a small grassy parking area by the roadside at the foot of the hill, sufficient for about six or seven cars, and marked on the map above right, but not shown on the Ordnance Survey map. There is a farm gate here that opens onto a public footpath, a rocky farm track that starts off quite steeply before levelling out for a bit, although it inevitably rises again. After about 10 minutes, the track carries on beyond a gate across a field, just before which the footpath veers right, a grassy break in the bracken heading up the slope. If you find yourself pondering whether to go through another gate once out of the car park, you have gone too far. This fork is not signposted, just has a 2ft tall post on the right of the track to mark its presence, so look out for it.
The path from here is good, but climbs a lot more steeply, and doesn’t let up much. In winter it is likely to be very wet, as even in Monday’s high heat, after two very dry days, it was distinctly soggy in places. Don’t forget to keep turning round to enjoy the fantastic views. There’s almost no sound up there except for the tiny birds that nest in the long grass, and some crows.
When you have been walking for perhaps another 15 minutes there is another fork, which is not signposted in any way, but is clearly visible on the ground as wide turf tracks that make their way through low bracken. One track leads to the hillfort on Y Pallis Bach (the low stockade) and the other leads to Col Crag, the foot of a small crag that sits on the saddle that connects Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) with the main line of the hill behind.
There’s a very well-timed bench at this fork in the path, dedicated to Nick (I don’t know who he was, but I love him), which is at the perfect point for taking a much-needed breather on a seriously hot day and admiring the views. I flopped with enthusiasm. Once you have enjoyed a slurp of water and enjoyed the scenerey, you simply follow the right hand fork beyond the bench to reach the hillfort, which you can see from the bench, or you can head left to go to Y Pallis Bach. I do recommend the views from Craig yr Aderyn.
Thread your way up through the main entrance of the Iron Age hillfort, which is flanked by two great banks of local stones. This is the second phase entrance (see my post about the hillfort if you’re interested). Keep heading upwards for a couple minutes and you will very soon reach the summit. Pause and enjoy. The world is your thoroughly fantastic oyster – the whole of the western Dysynni valley rolls out before you, a truly astonishing sight. Head a little way down from the summit, nearer to the edge, and the view is even better. I plonked down on a convenient rock and was only sad that I hadn’t brought a picnic. This has to be the ultimate picnic spot. Next time.
After a very lazy sit in the sun and loving the view, I retraced my steps to the hillfort. I had an archaeological site plan for the hillfort and try to match up the plan with what is left on the ground. As I came down I bumped into a lovely couple who had left their car in Dolgellau and were on a six night camping hike, looping back to Dolgellau at the end of their holiday. Now that’s serious walking! Very impressive. They were looking for a way down the other side of the hillfort rather than retracing their steps. I didn’t see them again, so perhaps they found a route.
Having sorted out the hillfort features to my own satisfaction, I walked below the bottom wall towards the west to have a look at the view from there. It’s better from the top, but still very fine. If you’ve chosen to go to Craig yr Aderyn first and afterwards decide to go to Y Pallis Mawr, you can take a short cut by crossing towards it following sheep tracks rather than going back to the fork in the official footpath. The marsh symbols on the above map aren’t kidding, and there are big patches of beds of spiny rush (Juncus acutus) and a large pond surrounded by small birds enjoying a bath and a drink, so stay above the dark spiky tell-tales, following the sheep tracks, and you’ll hopefully retain dry feet. You rejoin the footpath and find yourself at the foot of a smaller, more conical peak between Craig yr Aderyn and the main hill’s peak. The public footpath stops here, but if you feel inclined to walk up to the high crag of the hill behind, be aware that it is steep and is a scramble over rocks alongside a barbed wire fence, with a fairly convincing drop immediately to your right. It convinced me to give it a miss.
Instead, I turned to walk down the side the hillside where there is a huge rockfall, which I was guessing was the main source of stone for the stone-lined ramparts. These are enormous chunks of rock, with a lot of bright white quartz in amongst the dull grey. I rounded the base of the conical peak and returned back towards the footpath, heading down the hill to the carpark. The views were just as good on the way back. Bliss!
Craig yr Aderyn from Castell Mawr:
Nearly every walk I’ve done around Aberdovey has been a riotous success, but on Saturday it all went slightly wrong in spite of the stunning sunshine. I was trying to scope out a route to another hillfort. I had already made the mistake of crossing a footpath through a field that turned out to be very boggy, so ended up with soggy socks and damp jeans, before turning onto a single track road for a couple of kilometers. Its hedges were so high that I couldn’t see much of the scenery and when I turned onto the footpath it was so overgrown with brambles that it was a struggle to get anywhere. There were a few nice flowers, including toadflax, lots of honeysuckle and a few late foxgloves, and a couple of damselflies and dragonflies, but otherwise it was just a fight against the increasingly vigorous thorny tendrils so eventually, when they were knee-high and seriously impeding progress, I gave up. Fortunately I was in jeans rather than my usual shorts, which saved my legs, but it was disappointing. There’s another approach that I’ll try on another day. I decided to return home, stopping first at the beach outside the crush in Aberdovey itself, parking up opposite the cemetery.
As I crossed the dunes and walked across the grey pebbles down onto the beach, the sight was rather bizarre – facing towards Aberdovey it looked as though several lines of humans in the distance, in silhouette, were moving in slow motion towards me. It was slightly eerie, shades of zombie invasion movies. Fortunately, they were just out to enjoy the sunshine, like me. There was a vintage RAF propeller plane overhead. Many thanks to Hugh Tyrrell for responding to my request for information about it. He says that it is a restored Avro Anson from Sleap airfield in Shropshire, painted in D Day colours. It is owned by a aviation enthusiast who takes passengers for local trips. This time he was further away from home and was probably flying back after visiting Llanbedr. It was a really marvellous sight, with a very distinctive engine sound. An elegant visitor and a contrast to the super-fast jets that we often have roaring overhead around here, also rather fascinating in their own particular way.
Whilst sorting out some stuff on one of my bookcases I found a bilingual leaflet/booklet produced by Natural Resources Wales giving details of the Dyfi National Nature Reserve, including walks and seasonal highlights. It was free of charge, and I think I picked it up at the Ynyslas Visitor Centre. The Dyfi National Nature Reserve includes the Ynyslas sand dunes, the saltmarsh, Cors Fochno, the 5000 year old peat bog and a wide range of wildlife. It’s an excellent little publication, which I have scanned so that you can download it here. The following shows the front and back cover, and the fold-out map.
The map shows the village of Furnace on the A487, which has the excellent and well explained remains of the Dyfi royal silver mint and charcoal blast furnace. I’ve posted about it on the blog here, if you are interested in combining a visit to it with a Dyfi National Nature Reserve walk.
Two weeks ago, when the weekend’s occasional fluffy white clouds darkened ominously into a single charcoal mass and the skies opened and the temperature plunged, there were so many goldfinches landing in the cherry tree that they couldn’t all fit on the bird feeder. I’ve never seen so many of them, and it suggests that the entire community is larger than I had realized. Usually there are up to four or five of them, and on rare occasions six.
Eight of them were clinging on with grim determination, and occasionally a ninth and even a tenth managed to find a foothold, but soon fell or was seen off in a flurry of feathers. Others sat in the tree and waited for opportunities. There were frequent fisticuffs. Whilst harmony reined, there were occasional little sounds from the birds, but when another tried to gain a foothold the noise was raucous and discordant. Although the birdfeeder was like that all day, the video below was taken during a brief pause in the rainfall. It catches some of the fun and games, taken from indoors, so minus any of their communication. Duration 1 minute and 20 seconds.
After a walk along the Dysynni last week, I did a three point turn by the footbridge and drove back along the line of the railway. Instead of turning left to head back towards Tywyn I decided to turn right over the level crossing and park up to see if I could reproduce the picture from the Cardigan Bay Visitor that I posted last week. Unfortunately for that plan I had reckoned without the addition of a caravan park since the original illustration was drawn, and both the railway track and the village were completely hidden behind it. On the other hand, the beach at low tide was a complete revelation.
This part of Tywyn is apparently called Sandilands, but is something of a misnomer. There is certainly sand on the beach, but mostly it is a mixture of fine and coarse gravel, surprisingly harsh on the feet, with some swathes of pebbles around, all divided by wooden breakers. I had never seen it at low tide, and was amazed to see that the sloping beach ended in huge green-topped rocks and lovely weed-filled rock pools with sand between them, with an enormous stretch of wide open sea on the other side. The sea was splendid, with lovely white-topped waves chasing each other in, crashing on the rocks and pebbles and sounding just what a seaside should sound like.
There were quite a few people around, most large family/friend groups, but not so many that social distancing was a problem, and it was all terribly civilized. I had really enjoyed having the Tonfanau beach all to myself, but it was also splendid to see people of all ages launching themselves into the waves and having a really great time. The caravan park overlooking the beach takes the edge off the beauty of the place, but keep your eyes facing seawards and there is nothing to disappoint.
I was intrigued by what looked like huge boulders made of coral. When I stooped to touch one, it was clear that these rock-like structures were made of sand, and consisted of fine walls dividing thousands of tiny tunnels. The beach is full of them, and they are really very lovely. After a rumble round the web I found that they are Honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata) colonies. The reef structures resemble honeycomb. The colonies form on hard substrates and they need sand and shell fragments for tube-building activities. They manufacture the tubes from mucus to glue the tiny pieces together. When the tide is out the worms retreat deep into the tunnels, but when the tide covers their reefs their heads protrude and they feed on micro-organisms in the water, including plankton.
Because there are rock pools, it is possible to see various seaweeds in their natural habitat floating freely in the clear water, a lovely kaleidoscope of colour. In the pools themselves there were lots of tiny fish, which can be seen in the video. On the actual rocks (rather than the honecomb worm reefs) there were limpets, barnacles and various sea snails, none of which we have in Aberdovey due to the lack of rocks. Of course there are none of the shells that Aberdovey’s beach has in such profusion, because they get broken up on the rocks and pebbles but, together with the pebble beach at Tonfanau, it’s super that there are three such contrasting beaches such a short distance apart.
I had a lovely long paddle, and would have loved to have had a swim, but even if I had gone in with my denim shorts and t-shirt, I had no way of drying myself off. Next time for sure, and I’ll start to keep a towel in the car!
Looking to the north, beyond the caravan park and the breakers, the beach was quite, quite empty. That too is a walk for another day, but it must be a really peaceful way of walking up to the Dysynni.
The video below captures some of the contrasts of the beach – people swimming and enjoying the waves, lovely coloured seaweeds in rock pools, sections of empty sea with waves chasing each other onto the beach, and that fascinating honeycomb reef.
Last week I had already walked along Tonfanau beach, but was nowhere near ready to go home on such an unexpectedly sunny day. The BBC weather website, which I checked just before I left the house, was promising storms so I had cancelled my plans to go hillfort hunting. Although my walk started out with most of the surrounding hilltops sitting under large clouds, they eventually cleared and the sunshine was glorious. So instead of going back to my car, parked by the Tonfanau footbridge, I turned along the footpath that wends its way along the southern banks of the broadwater and the river Dysynni, and I am so glad I did. By the footbridge there were a couple of families with kayaks, all having a good, peaceful time, and a little further on there was a lady with two small boys swimming between the shore and a sandbank. One of her sons announced with great satisfaction that that the water was “as hot as a bath.” But the further I walked, the emptier it became, and eventually it was just me and the birds. And what a lot of birds there were!
My walk last Tuesday, the only sunny day last week, took me back to Tonfanau. Tonfanau railway station was added to the Cambrian Line to service the Tonfanau Army Camp, which opened in 1938 and was finally closed in 1973 after a 6 month stint as a refugee camp, before being demolished sometime in the 1980s or 90s. The camp extended both sides of the railway line, reaching the beach to the west and spreading part way up a slight slope to the east. I have posted about the camp here. When Tonfanau was at its height as an anti-aircraft training facility, with emplacements of enormous guns along the field at the top of the beach, it would have been anything but a peaceful place to go for a stroll. Today, however, it is probably the most quiet stretch of seaside in the Aberdovey and Tywyn areas.
The reason for the lack of human presence, other than fishermen some way out at sea in waders, is certainly because the beach is uncompromisingly uncomfortable to walk, sit or lie on. Apart from a few isolated islands of sand or gravel, it is a pebble beach running down a shallow slope into a rocky foreshore. Footwear is required. This, together with the complete absence of gift shops, public toilets and ice-cream stalls, makes it undesirable for most families, and there is rarely any more than a handful of people there even at the height of the tourist season. This makes it a very good retreat for sea birds, which line the water’s edge at a very safe distance from anyone who might be walking along the stony beach or investigating the rock pools. Oystercatchers, terns and various types of seagull are all in evidence at this time of year.
The views along the beach are splendid. After the recent heavy rain the Dysynni charges at high speed through a surprisingly narrow mouth into the sea, fascinating to watch, and you can see it and hear its roar on the video at the end of the post. This understated but impressive meeting of the Dysynni with the sea is marked as Aber Dysynni (mouth of the Dysynni) on the Ordnance Survey map. The sea itself makes a lovely sound on the rocky foreshore and gravel, drawing the gravel back as it retreats, and colliding with the rocks as it advances. Above the sound of the sea and wind are the musical voices of sea birds. As you walk along it, the beach curves around a long corner promising more of the same untroubled vistas over an empty beach, rolling white horses and, in the distance, the Llyn peninsula. Behind the beach, looking east, are views of the major summits of Tonfanau and Foel Llanfendigaid, as well as the smooth green slopes of the hills between them.
I started out walking along the top of the small “cliff” that runs along the top of the beach. It is only a couple of feet wide, drops only about eight foot or so above the beach below and stops where the publicly accessible land meets the fence of a farmer’s field after about 10 minutes of walking. It offers a terrific view down onto the beach, there are always some interesting wild flowers, and it is well worth doing if you are sure of your footing.
I then executed a controlled skid down a bit of the “cliff” that had collapsed into a sloping mound of earth, a quick way down onto the beach, and headed for the rocks. The lush green seaweed is glossy and lustrous, a great contrast to the darkness of the rocks in the bright sun. The overall effect was delightful. Water trickles through the multiple channels formed by the rocks, crossing the glistening gravel in a way that is quite unlike the sea flowing through channels in the sand at Aberdovey.
Someone has been having fun making pebble patterns in the sand and fields. Like most abstract compositions, it gives a curious sensation of something clearly created in the present taking on the character of something completely timeless.
Small-spotted catshark eggcase (Scyliorhinus canicula), one of the smallest of all the mermaid’s purses. There were two of them, one right at the top of the beach and the other in the field behind the beach. They are so lightweight when empty that they travel on the wind. For details on the subject of eggcases and the Shark Trust, see my earlier post. The photos of the two eggcases have been uploaded to the Shark Trust Great Eggcase Hunt page.
I walked out onto a spur of sand to watch the oystercatchers, getting as near as I dared. Unlike the video that I posted the other day, when what they were mainly concerned with was preening, today they were actually hunting for food and treating shells to merciless beak treatment. Trying to get a little closer I scared them into flight, and they congregated a little distance off on a few rocks, looking very striking.
I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder, so the following video is not quite as steady as it might have been, but don’t miss out on the oystercatchers. They are sublime. The fast-moving water coming out of the Dysynni and churning into the sea is also truly impressive. The Dysynni originates in Tal y Llyn lake, makes an abrupt turn northwest at Abergynolwyn and then resumes a parallel course to the Tal y Llyn valley in the neighbouring valley. It passes the Ynysymaengwyn estate, finding its way through extensive reed beds, and emerges into the Broadwater, making its way around the low sandbanks before being funneled into the narrow channel into the sea.
After walking up Tonfanau to see the Iron Age hillfort I went along the road to Tonfanau station, crossed the tracks and passed part of the old military camp to go down to the pebble beach. It is an excellent place for watching the oyster catchers, and I was lucky to find some pottering around at the water’s edge, amongst the small rocks. Oystercatchers are lovely to look at. Their bright orange beak and pink legs make them stand out from any background, whilst their black and white plumage is particularly distinctive when the birds are in flight. They make a piercing peeping sound, which can be heard here on the British Birdsongs website. Oystercatchers feed on molluscs that the find on rocky shorelines, which they open by stabbing the sharp beak through linking muscles, and then hitting on stones and rocks to break them up, sometimes audibly. The video below shows a pair of them on the beach at Tonfanau. Duration: 1 minute, 33 seconds.
Due to the difficulty of walking on pebbles and the discomfort of lying on them, together with the rocky approach to the sea that challenges bare feet, there are rarely many other people there. Whilst Aberdovey was simply packed, there were only a handful of people along that stretch of the sea, two of them fishing in waders, quite a long way out. Walking back to the Tonfanau bridge over the Dysynni as it opens out into the sea, the path is flanked either side with verges full of wild flowers at the moment.