Walking: To be beside the seaside: Ross Davies tastes the salty air of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales

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The Independent Culture
THERE are some walks which choose you, rather than the other way around; old favourites that draw you unthinkingly towards them, perhaps while you're still trying to make up your mind. The seven miles or so along the cliffs from Nefyn to Lifeboat Bay and back is just such a walk.

This is a walk that is never the same twice running. On bright spring or summer days, sky and sea are a washed-out blue and white. There are autumn days whose lengthening shadows summon up a strange 'otherworldliness', peopled by the old Celtic gods and heroes. On any day you could get high on the soft, salty air - particularly useful on Sundays, when the pubs are shut in this remote part of North Wales.

Nefyn is a large coastal village on the Lleyn Peninsula, which juts out into the Irish Sea from Caernarfon and Pwllheli towards the Kerry Mountains. The village is on the old pilgrim route to the sacred island of Bardsey, about 15 miles to the west.

Even on weekdays Nefyn is, well, quiet. Some of the postcards in the shops are taken from photographs of the bay so old that they don't show the harbour wall, built over 30 years ago.

To get a feel for the district, it is worth starting your walk at the former Anglican church, now the Nefyn museum, where sheep graze in the churchyard. The weather-vane on the tower is a ship, recalling - like the exhibits inside - the days when Nefyn men who weren't away at sea either built boats on the beach, or fished for a living. The village coat of arms, dating from the grant of a charter in medieval times, is of three herrings.

We set off up the main street, Stryd y Ffynnon (Well Street), so-named from the municipal well which you pass on your right, next door to the post office. Beyond the well, there is the crossroads in the centre of Nefyn.

If the weather is unpromising, walk straight on for 50 yards or so, and this brings you to an old pub on the left called The Sportsman. Here, with draught beer and, in season, a large open fire, you stay until either the weather, or your attitude towards it, improves.

The weather being fine, we turned right at the crossroads, past the present Anglican church and walked towards the war memorial which stands in the middle of the road. The inscription on the Celtic cross shows that three of the Nefyn men who died in the First World War came from the same house.

A little further on, and to the right there is Lon Traeth, or the beach road. If the tide is out, you can walk down to the sandy beach and turn left along the retaining wall at the base of the earth cliffs. As the tide was in, we took the cliff path to the left as Lon Traeth starts to corkscrew down to the beach.

Gorse lines the path along the top of the cliffs - the Welsh eithin sounds a far sweeter and poetic-sounding name for the bush and the peach-scented golden blossom it bursts into each spring. In his pre-Chapel Age poems, the 14th-century Dafydd ap Gwilym is always diving behind the eithin to screen a tryst with some willing wench.

We continued walking past two other poetic standbys, violets and wild thyme. The cliffs themselves are covered in low scrub, much of it monbretia, promising to turn the green slopes a fiery orange. 10 minutes' brisk walk along the edge of Nefyn Bay brought us to a bracken-covered headland, Penrhyn Nefyn. At the tip of the headland, there are some old slit trenches, probably from a wartime observation post.

From this vantage point, we could observe not only the wide sweep of Nefyn Bay behind us, but to the north-east, the island of Anglesey, or Ynys Mon, home of the princes of Gwynedd.

To the west unfurled a succession of beaches all the way to Lifeboat Bay. Inland, across the fields, brooded a mysterious, hump-backed hill. This is Garn Boduan, which boasts a large pre-Roman fort on its summit. A pair of ravens and buzzards circled above the ancient stones.

A couple of miles along the clifftop, the path dropped down into a sunken road leading one way to Morfa Nefyn - a village even smaller and quieter than Nefyn itself. We took the other direction, to the right, towards the sandy beach. Morfa Nefyn is a favourite spot for angling contests - the king of Lleyn fish being the sea bass - but the beach was quiet today.

There being no footpath along the top of the cliffs, we walked along the sands at their foot. The cliffs consist of sand rather than earth and stone, and although it's very tempting to scramble up them, children and the young at heart should be restrained, because the cliff face is continually crumbling and can bury the careless.

At the other end of the gently sloping bay, we came a cluster of houses called Porth Dinllaen, and another pub, the 200-year-old Ty Coch (Red House), which used to be just one of three beach pubs here.

There is also a handsome early 19th-century stone building, now converted into holiday homes. This is 'Whitehall', built as a hotel in Porth Dinllaen's heyday when the harbour vied with Holyhead to become the North Wales terminus of the new railway from London, and therefore the main port for Ireland. In 1837, Holyhead won by one vote in a Commons committee.

A rock headland juts out from the far end of Porth Dinllaen, and to proceed into the next bay, our path took us through the courtyard of some charming old beach houses.

Winding up and around the back of one of the houses is a rocky track which takes you down into Lifeboat Bay, a tiny cove enclosing a lifeboat station, established in 1864. Nobody was in trouble today, but once in a while the station doors open and the lifeboat zips down the slipway. The first rescue, in 1866, was of the crew of a Barmouth smack.

We could have turned back at this point, but decided to cross the tiny beach and to rejoin the path which now ascends behind the lifeboat station. It was the right decision. Shortly, we came Trywn Porth Dinllaen, a craggy headland.

Several seals were playing on and around the cluster of rocks at its tip. Then, as if choreographed by the Wales Tourist Board, a pair of dolphins came into sight, curving up out of the water and down again in some strict-tempo formation swimming.

We could have started back to Nefyn by taking the track over the brow of the headland, which leads you first to Nefyn Golf Club, and from there along the Morfa Nefyn-Nefyn Road. But it seemed a better bet to retrace our steps along the coast path to Morfa Nefyn.

As the tide was out, we struck out along the beach back towards Pentre Nefyn. We skirted a mussel colony, beyond which there there was multi-coloured shingle, some of it so beautiful in shape as well as hue that our pockets were bulging by the time we reached the foot of the headland.

Chalcedony, obsidian, porphyry and serpentine, they were all there - at least we thought so. Pebbles, like mushrooms, look like the pictures in the reference books but rarely exactly like. Anyway, all pebbles are bad for you if you eat them.

The shingle banked up towards dry, weed-free rocks at Pentre Nefyn, around whose base we could clamber safely. From here we could see the harbour wall at the west end of Nefyn beach - the one you don't get to see in Nefyn's venerable postcards.

Walking will now appear on the Miscellany page every Wednesday

(Photograph and map omitted)

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