Thursday, 17 November 2016

Aberdwyryd - shifting sands

Look on a map and you’ll not find it as a place name but many stories can be told about the mouth of the Dwyryd. My favourite way to approach it is in a Chariots of Fire slow motion run in the waves, northwards along Harlech beach with dunes to the right, Snowdon ahead and the Llŷn arcing towards Ireland.

A feature of our coastline is the 'long shore drift', a process whereby the sand is nudged northwards by the angled direction of the waves, creating sandbars and beautiful estuary mouths.

Looking across the Dwyryd to Portmeirion
The estuary is in constant flux with tides racing in and out revealing the routes of streams and the river flowing from the Vale of Ffestiniog. Across the waters to the north is Portmeirion, most remembered as the location for filming The Prisoner, with the huge bouncing balloon rolling over the mudflats.

In the middle of the estuary slightly upstream, is Ynys Giftan sticking out defiantly. It’s opposite the village of Talsarnau which translates to 'head of the roads' and has been a major route for crossing the Dwyryd for thousands of years. The Ordnance Survey map shows a public right of way from the south but warns of estuary tides. This was not always the easily-accessible side, in 1816 a major storm surge caused the main flow of the river to switch to the north of the island.  

There was a small trackway along the southern tip of the estuary to reach isolated properties but in 1927 it was swept away by a massive tidal wave. A neighbour of mine, who lives a few miles inland at the Crochendy Maentwrog (Pottery), showed me the high water mark carved at waist height onto a slate pillar in his barn. A Welsh Tsunami.

A ferry service carried people from the southern banks of the estuary to Ynys Cyngar above Porthmadog, until the railway came in 1867. The railway crossed the Dwyryd over Pont Briwat, with Briwat being derived from Preifat, and that’s why you had to pay a toll to cross it! But that's all history now as the old wooden bridge had been replaced with a modern, free of charge bridge.

The village of Ynys is aptly named, sitting like an island above the high tide mark surrounded by estuary, sea and the great marsh, but since 1806 the marsh has been drained with a network of ditches flowing out through locks into the estuary at low tide. If you look at the lock outside y Warws (the warehouse) and use your imagination it is easy to see that this was the route taken by boats to supply Harlech Castle. Forget the romantic vision of ocean going ships sailing to the foot of the castle, the goods arrived along y Gamlas, the canal.   
Following on from the drainage a racecourse was established, y Ffridd Rasus, and this is where rich families such as the Oakeleys and the Vaughans would race their horses. The Oakeleys even held polo matches on the beach! Nowadays the site is used for much less glamorous purposes being the landfill and recycling centre for the area.

The high point of Ynys is Llanfihangel y Traethau, the church of St Michael of the Beaches to differentiate it from all the other St Michael’s – back in olden times Michael (Mihangel) was as common as the Jones’s. It is shrouded in yew trees and the walls of the graveyard are rounded, most probably reflecting pre-Christian use. In many cases the transition to Christianity built upon and adapted existing places of worship making the conversion more palatable. Gravestones mark out the resting places for people with remarkable spirit.

One of these is for Richard Hughes, the author of High Wind in Jamaica, first published in 1929. There is also a beautiful stained glass window presented by his children. Richard and his family had a long association with North Wales and for many years lived at Mor Edrin, nowadays a holiday cottage looking north across the estuary and where Richard died in 1976. 

Richard was a keen sailor and loved messing around with boats big and small. On one occasion he helped fit out a slate brig called the Rosetta and subsequently was a member of the six man crew to sail it from Porthmadog to Belfast. The experiences from this voyage feed into the description of the pirate ship in High Wind in Jamaica.

Another gravestone is to the memory of Lord Harlech who was a Cabinet Minister before becoming the British Ambassador to the United States during which time he played a significant role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He subsequently went on to be the founder of Harlech TV.

Looking at the Moelwyns from Ynys Church
Up until the mid 1800s the estuary was a bustling freight route with 2-man boats rowing slate downstream to meet waiting ships at Borth y Gest. There were about fifty boats and a hundred boatmen plying the waters, loading up at the several quays as far upstream as Maentwrog, going out with one tide and back on the next. Within fifteen years of the Ffestiniog Railway opening, the slate boats became a thing of the past, but an old one has been found pickled in the mud and is awaiting retrieval and restoration.

This idyllic peaceful location also has its memories of war. Tank traps and wire fences can still be made out, this was considered a likely landing point for an invasion from Ireland and was the base for a military camp behind the dunes. Castell Deudraeth, the five star hotel, was the evacuation home for a girls boarding school.

Summer storms in 2007 rearranged the sand to reveal an American fighter plane that crashed in 1942. The plane was towing a target for the rest of the squadron to practice on, but the pilot failed to switch from the reserve to the main fuel supply, and the engines lost power. Landing in two feet of water he survived the crash but a few weeks later was “lost in action” in a raid over North Africa. The plane, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, has been nicknamed the Maid of Harlech and is incredibly well preserved with minimal corrosion. Within a few months of being revealed the sands moved again and it is once more covered, protected from the elements and souvenir hunters, awaiting rescue for display in the RAF Museum.