A Long, Wet Walk in Wales

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Correction Appended

My idea of heaven is a long walk. Aimless hours pass, thoughts drift. I was never ambitious about how many miles I covered -- until I read a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. He loved to walk, too, and thought nothing of walking to a town hundreds of miles away to try a new organ, or to look for a new job. He walked for weeks -- months, even -- humming to himself, I hope. I wondered why I always traveled by car, or train, or plane, always in a rush. I wanted to walk from one town to another, too. I began to yearn for slow travel.

And that is why I went to walk in Wales. Most of us carry around in our hearts places we must visit. My list began with Wales -- verdant, mystical, rimmed with cliffs, dotted with castle ruins. When I learned that Wales recently became the first country in the world with a formal footpath along its entire coastline -- 870 miles of trails -- I could no longer resist. Particularly alluring was the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, in southern Wales, with those cliffs tumbling down to heaving seas.

Scrolling around online I found many companies that advertised walking tours, and picked one, Celtic Trails. The company plans the route, reserves rooms and arranges for your luggage to be moved. I indicated that I wanted to stay in picturesque old places, and to walk after the busy summer tourist season. The outfitter e-mailed me with a warning about the late autumn rains, so I booked for the last week in September.

Then there was the matter of traveling alone. Or, as Celtic Trails cleverly put it: a self-guided tour. I am a fast walker. It drives many people crazy. It drives me crazy to walk slowly. The initial itinerary that was presented to me -- a group tour that would cover four miles a day -- wasn't challenging enough, though I was reminded that the trails were not "New York City sidewalks." Still, it seemed too easy. That settled the matter of group tours.

As for the issue of being completely by myself, I was worried about getting broody in such a brood-enhancing landscape. A friend, Frances Palmer, who is always up for adventure, agreed to join me. Among Frances' appealing qualities is that she is a fast walker. And that is how we undertook to race around the coast of Wales, planning to cover more than 60 miles in five days.

Traveling with a friend is a funny business. Planning sessions went along these lines:

Me: "Let's go on diets, rise early, sleep long, be healthy. No alcohol."

Frances: "I'm not giving up my glass of wine. In fact I'm craving one right now."

Me: "I'm not even taking my computer. I'm turning off my cell. Tuning out."

Frances: "I would die. I can't live that way."

We resolved that I would be healthy and she would be happy. By the end of September we were pleased to leave the unremittingly miserable weather in New York. After a night of flying, and a transfer from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station in London, we caught a train for the long -- and not especially scenic -- ride to our starting point roughly 250 miles west, Milford Haven.

The itinerary that Celtic Trails sent us was a model of breeziness. It was meant for people who are acquainted with essentials like the British rail system (people who know, for instance, that you cannot take a train from Heathrow to Wales). No one was at the Milford Haven station to meet our train, and we couldn't get phone service. We were in an exhausted panic.

After half an hour, a taxi appeared and took us to the Fields Lodge bed-and-breakfast, which was eerily empty. There was a fat package on my bed, containing a field guide and maps, but it was incomprehensible; Welsh seemed to be a language of misplaced (if not lost) vowels. I called Celtic Trails in high dudgeon. "There is no one here to explain things! We can't even get Internet! We don't know where we are!" Tour operator: "You don't need Internet. You need a map. We have mailed you a map. You have to look at the map."

I had become so reliant on navigational apps that I had forgotten how to use plain old maps.

After we had dinner in a pub -- delicious fish and chips in the lightest of beer batters, local brews, never mind dieting -- the owner of the lodge, Jayne Hancock, returned. We settled near her cozy 1950s Aga and she explained the British walking system.

Clearly, the first step to successful self-guiding is to know where you are. She located us on our dense map and circled each day's destinations. She decoded the tide charts; we had to time our crossings carefully. She explained how to calibrate the distances. Were the paths nice? we wondered. "Oh yes. Not like sidewalks, like you have in New York. Think of the little trails animals make when they walk through grass. They're like that."

Ms. Hancock seemed satisfied that she had penetrated our mental fog, but then she added, "You know, you must take whatever comes your way."

Slow travel began in a great rush. The next morning, we hurried into a drizzle to reach the steppingstones across the estuary at the Gann near Dale, about four miles away, before the tide came in. The day's 10-mile hike was enough without a four-mile detour.

The cliffs were low, the path was gentle. All around us lay flower-speckled meadows, fragrant herbs, thick tussocks of grass of an emerald shade I had rarely encountered. Everywhere, I saw plants I tended, slavishly, in my own garden, like a purple and crimson fuchsia, but here they were extravagantly large, pendulous shrubs. Blackberry canes groaned under the weight of their fruit.

The drizzle had thickened to a steady rain by the time we scrambled across the slippery stones in the Gann, the tide lapping at our boots. But nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the dazzling beauty of the coast -- and the dizzying freedom of a long walk. We hit our stride, gulping in the wet, fresh air. Whitecaps were rippling across the bay by the time we got to the village of Dale, where we were meant to stay the night. We decided to check in to our bed-and-breakfast and dry off before tackling the 5.5-mile loop around the peninsula.

A charming old house, Allenbrook looked like something out of a fairy tale, hidden behind sheets of ivy, gardens misted in fog. We rang, and rang again. Finally, the door opened. But Mrs. E. A. Webber, proprietress, was having none of the dripping likes of us. She was recovering from a raucous wedding party, she explained, and thought it best if we returned later. As she shut the door, we glimpsed a crackling hearth. Huge mop-headed hydrangeas bowed down under the rain, a peacock screamed. We set off around the peninsula.

When we returned, Mrs. Webber was in a better mood. "I felt a bit guilty about throwing you back out into that rain, but I knew it would be good for you," she said.

The Allenbrook was the highlight of our trip, as far as lodgings went. We were tempted to stay the week. The armchairs were deep, the bathtub capacious; there were books and paintings and oddments scattered about, collections of silver cigar cases, stuffed birds and precious porcelains. In the kitchen, a parrot squawked in its cage. Mrs. Webber's vivid bird portraits decorated the walls.

As I fell asleep that night, it struck me: For the first time in my life, I had walked from one town to another. I was suffused with a splendid, ennobling feeling, a sense of fortitude and power.

We woke to the sound of rain beating against the windowpane. At breakfast, a bit parsimonious owing to the depredations of that wedding party, Mrs. Webber, perhaps worried that we might not leave, assured us that the rain would let up. But two sailors eating at the next table predicted we were in for a doozy. "It will be wet today," one promised. "But it doesn't matter, does it? Not if you have the proper kit."

Their kit was splendid. Every inch of their bodies was waterproofed; even their backpacks were swathed in plastic contraptions that looked like air-conditioner covers. They eyed our kit dubiously. I was sporting a cotton jacket and some old baggy pants, little realizing their capacity to become sails catching the wind. We headed out on the 14-mile walk to Broad Haven. We made slow progress; the long grass edging those narrow animal trails hid some real ankle turners. I developed a searing pain in my toe. The soles of my old boots felt like concrete. I had a moment of longing for New York sidewalks.

The wind picked up, as did the rain. We dumped our packs out to find extra rain gear, and that was when I learned that Frances does not go anywhere -- ever -- without the proper kit: a string of pearls and a tube of red lipstick.

As we headed farther west, the scenery was more rugged; dramatic rock formations studded the coast, carved out over eons of beating waves. Parts of the trail were severely eroded. This was not a trip for children, or mothers with anxiety. Signs showed people and rubble falling through the air: Cliffs Kill. Signposts were abstract, indicating the trail, but not mileage to the next town.

In spite of the pounding rain, we slowed to watch seals loll about on the beaches far below. Black-faced sheep grazed in the meadows. The sweeping, throat-catching grandeur of the coastline awed us, but it was tiny miracles that stopped us in our tracks. Slugs crawled with small majesty through the long grass. Spangled blossoms sprouted from tumbling stacked walls. And always, we were accompanied by the pounding sea, heaving over rocks, crashing through eddies.

They say that if you travel with someone, you talk to your companion. If you travel alone, you talk to the world. They have not reckoned with Frances. Thanks to her, we met fellow walkers, and learned something about how they organized their expeditions. Some rented cars, drove to a starting point, walked a few days, and returned by bus. Others recommended favorite outfitters. Everyone had taken walks in various parts of Britain; several recommended spectacularly rugged Cornwall.

Our walk along the Wales coast got me thinking about how we build our landscapes around various cultures. In the United States, the car culture dominates. Of course we have miles of hiking trails in our national parks, but we don't have walks connecting towns and cities. Instead, we engineer marvelous highway systems that twist and wind along breathtaking vistas. Think of gorgeous Route 1 along the coast of Northern California, or the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in the southeast -- or for that matter, the West Side Highway in Manhattan, hogging the view of the mighty Hudson. If I wanted to walk from my coastal Rhode Island town to, say, the charming village of Padanaram, Mass., a mere 15 miles away, I would have to stick to asphalt -- without even the safety of sidewalks.

But in Britain, there is a disposition toward walking. The land is crisscrossed with trails that connect villages, and every day, no matter what the weather, people young and old are out walking. In Wales, the needs of landowners and farmers -- for privacy, or for keeping animals penned in -- have been balanced against the need for citizens to tromp through private property.

Much as I love to walk, my destinations tended to be stores, or friends' homes. The walk in Wales opened up a new world of possibilities. There was even something therapeutic about walking in treacherous weather: my mind emptied of all distraction. I focused only on each step.

When we stumbled into Broad Haven after what seemed like endless soaked miles, we were past caring that our room was seedy and small, that we couldn't turn around in the shower, that the stairs were clogged with newspapers and piles of clothes. At a nearby pub, we nursed beers and watched windsurfers tack across the bay. I passed on the barman's suggestion of pressed faggots and mushy peas, but when I ordered a curry, the barman twinkled and said, "Ah, you can hide a lot of things in a curry now, can't you?"

I was sick all night.

It was pouring the next morning, an inconsolable rain. The next night's lodgings were 11 miles away, in the village of Solva. I put on all the warm clothing I had -- stuff I wore at home when I took walks. But I never walked in the rain. Who would do such a thing? My old clothes had long ago transcended weatherproofing. My jacket had become a sponge. My boots were small tubs; water wicked up my legs. My hat funneled water down my neck.

With yearning looks we passed a charming place along our trail, Druidstone Villa, surrounded by greenhouses and garden sheds, and we cursed our luck (and the outfitter) not to have booked a room there. Next to the inn was a house built under the sod; shaped in a half moon, with roundels of windows, it looked like a home for Teletubbies. Horses galloped down a deserted beach. We crossed paths with the sailors for a few moments; they were dry, though their fancy pack covers had blown off. They warned us that the trail ahead was steep and rocky.

We marched on grimly. The clay soil became slick. The rain began to blow sideways. A gust of howling wind pinned me against a boulder. Frances yelled over the storm.

"This isn't pleasant. This isn't fun. This isn't even safe."

"But we agreed to take whatever comes our way," I yelled back.

"We are walkers. Not martyrs," she shouted.

There happened to be a bar on the road just off the trail. We sat by a weak gas fire, water pooling at our feet, and watched a television report on Wales's worst September storm in 30 years, winds gusting up to 45 m.p.h. Streams were flooding their banks, washing out villages; cars floated away under bridges.

And that was how we came to appreciate the efficiency of the Puffin Shuttle, a bus that runs along the coast, carrying visitors from village to village. It was dismaying to cover in minutes what it would have taken hours to walk. It was also delightful.

Solva, a harbor town, felt more protected from what the British writer Alice Thomas Ellis called "the undisciplined ways of Welsh weather." I bought new boots, new pants and a new jacket.

As the rain subsided, we wandered through what was easily the prettiest village we had seen. Lower Solva sits at the harbor behind a glacial meltwater channel formed at the end of the ice age, when water gushing down the mountains carved out deep gorges. Much of the craggy Pembrokeshire coast was created this way.

We stumbled on the Solva Woollen Mill, the oldest working woolen mill in Pembrokeshire. Enormous antique looms were strung with colorful carpet runners; a handsome shop featured elegant pots made by the neighborhood plumber, handmade soaps and lotions, and yarns from local llamas.

Minutes later we saw those very beasts munching on grass. Brightly painted cottages with mossy slate roofs lined the streets. Narrow passageways of stairs led down to a muddy, roaring river; these "gudels," a sign explained, "gave access to the river for washing clothes, disposing of slops waste" and were used until the late 1940s.

We had a remarkably good dinner -- a briny fish soup, braised lamb and lemon and thyme crème brûlée -- at the Old Pharmacy Restaurant, which sits across the street from an imposing Georgian house, Williams' Accommodation, where, Frances remarked pointedly, we were not staying. It was dawning on me that it would have been better to have made my own reservations.

Because I was finally kitted out properly, the rain let up the next morning. A soft drizzle accompanied us out of Solva, though the winds were still furious. A rainbow arced across the sky.

As we rounded the headlands we got a dazzling view of Ramsey Island. Dolphins surfed against the tumultuous channel current. White gannets and storm petrels soared over the waves; the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, important breeding grounds, are an ornithologist's dream.

We headed for St. Justinian, where we would turn inland for what is said to be the smallest city in Britain, St. David's, and a magnificent cathedral with a 12th-century nave. Far below we saw the remains of houses, brick kilns and slate slag heaps. Crumbling, flinty stacked walls had become exquisite rock gardens. The trail became more barren, and the landscape wilder. We passed steep slopes of bracken and heather, long white beaches, forested tunnels of scrub oak and rocky knolls.

We felt exhilarated and strong with accomplishment. The sparkling sun made the journey -- by the end of five days, we'd walked 64 miles -- much easier. So did knowing that if you put one foot in front of the other, eventually you get somewhere. You learn to take what comes. Even if it is only the Puffin.

PLANNING A HIKE

I took a "come what may" approach to planning my tour. I started by Googling "walking in Wales," and came up with many options for tour companies. Most organize your route; book lodging, which generally includes breakfast; and transfer your luggage.

I chose Celtic Trails (celtic-trails.com), which charged £471.75, or $699 at $1.48 to the pound, double occupancy, for the six-night trip. They were extremely patient and helpful with my many e-mail inquiries ahead of time.

My favorite mode of technology for this sort of walk is the printed word. I spent hours poring over Jim Manthorpe's excellent guide, Pembrokeshire Coast Path, as well as the Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps. I could see how easy it would be to decide how far to walk, book your own hotel and still not have to carry heavy gear. You can get your luggage transferred during the day; I recommend Walkalongway (walkalongway.com).

The Welsh government maintains an excellent Web site (walking.visitwales.com) as does the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/local-to-you/wales), though theirs has more of an inspirational feel.

DOMINIQUE BROWNING is the senior director of MomsCleanAirForce.org. She blogs at SlowLoveLife.com.

Correction: May 26, 2013, Sunday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The cover article this weekend, about hiking along the coast of Wales, includes outdated information. After the section had gone to press, the Walk North Wales Web site was taken down. In addition, the Rathlin Country House B&B, in Colwyn Bay, now plans to close in early June.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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