From Holyhead there are two obvious routes across Anglesey, one tracing the south coast of the island, the other the north (there is no satisfactory route for walkers through the middle of the island). Both options follow the Wales Coast Path, a long-distance trail round the entire Welsh coastline opened in 2012. The coastal scenery is stunning throughout Anglesey, but is probably the more varied and dramatic in the north of the island. Our end to end walk therefore follows a long, winding route round the island’s north coast before heading down the Menai Strait to Telford’s iconic suspension bridge.
After crossing to the Welsh mainland, we head up the opposite side of the strait to the cathedral city of Bangor. Here we pick up the second of our promoted long-distance trails, the North Wales Path. This follows a mid-level route across the northern slopes of Snowdonia and offers fantastic views of the Welsh coast between Puffin Island and Great Orme. But the highlight of this trail is Aber Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Wales.
Leaving the North Wales Path, we are faced with our first major route choice: a high-level traverse of the Carneddau or a descent into the green valley of the Conwy. The main route chooses the latter option before tacking back across the hills to Capel Curig, a walker’s Mecca in the heart of Snowdonia. We continue across the eastern flanks of Moel Siabod to Dolwyddelan, then over Bwlch y Rhediad into the beautiful mountain valley of Nant Gwynant. Passing the trailhead for the Watkin Path, we follow the valley down to the picturesque village of Beddgelert and the start of the Fisherman’s Path: a narrow, rocky walkway through the dramatic Aberglaslyn Pass. After climbing past Cnicht, we head down to the coast at Penrhyndeudraeth, where a new bridge spans the Dwyryd estuary.
Once across the Dwyryd, we link up with the Ardudwy Way, a waymarked, mid-level trail winding across the westward slopes of the Rhinogydd. In poor weather, these mountains can appear forbidding and bleak (they can also get quite muddy), but the final descent into the seaside town of Barmouth is truly spectacular. Also special is the crossing of the Afon Mawddach over Barmouth Bridge. At half tide on a sunny day, there is a dazzling contrast between the blue, sparkling waters of the estuary and the pristine golden sandbars through which they meander.
Between the Mawddach and Machynlleth, our route is dominated by the louring presence of Cadair Idris. The main route bypasses the summit to the west, leaving the final 250 metres of ascent as an optional detour. After a long descent into Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, we follow the emerald valley of the Afon Dysynni up to the former slate village of Abergynolwyn. We continue up the tumbling Nant Gwernol stream to the old quarry at Bryn Eglwys, then join a rough, sometimes muddy path below Tarren y Gesail. There’s a long descent through forestry before the green ribbon of the Dyfi Valley opens up before us. South of the river is Wales’s ancient capital, Machynlleth.
We leave Machynlleth along Glyndŵr’s Way – one of Wales’s three National Trails – and head south into the softer, rounder hills of mid-Wales. Our wild moorland route takes us past Pumlumon – in good weather, one of Wales’s finest viewpoints – then down into the steep wooded gorge of the Afon Rheidol. Surrounding us is some of the most spectacular scenery in mid-Wales. Above the valley is Devil’s Bridge, where a tributary of the Rheidol, the Mynach, plunges some 300 feet (90 metres) down five great rocky steps into the Rheidol Valley.
A promoted path, the Borth to Pontrhydfendigaid Trail, provides an obvious route between Devil’s Bridge and Pontrhyd-y-groes. However, we opt for a more direct and much drier route across the open hills to the west. Entering the Hafod Estate, we combine a number of the restored walks created by Thomas Johnes (1748–1816) before once again picking up the main promoted trail along the beautiful Ystwyth Valley. From Pontrhyd-y-groes, the path leaves the river and continues across mainly open moorland to Pontrhydfendigaid and the Cistercian ruins of Strata Florida.
Leaving Strata Florida, we follow tracks through the vast Tywi Forest before descending along a quiet mountain lane to the isolated chapel of Soar y Mynydd. A lovely bridleway traces the course of the Doethie stream to its confluence with the Tywi. Lanes, paths and byways lead us down through Rhandir-mwyn and across attractive rolling hills to Llandovery. This interesting little town is worth exploring further, and is a good place to stock up before entering the Brecon Beacons.
Field and woodland paths climb out of Llandovery towards Myddfai, a sleepy village on the western edge of the National Park. Here we join a narrow, undulating lane to Llanddeusant, a hilltop hamlet best known for its well-equipped YHA hostel in the former Red Lion pub.
Llanddeusant is also where we pick up the Beacons Way, a waymarked long-distance trail running the full length of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Our first day on the trail takes us up on to a fabulous ridge, high above Llyn y Fan Fach, and over the top of Fan Brycheiniog, the highest summit in the Black Mountain range. Descending into the green valley of the River Tawe, we pass close to the famous National Showcaves Centre for Wales at Dan yr Ogof.
Caves also dominate the next stretch of the trail, through Ogof Ffynnon Ddu National Nature Reserve, a grassy upland concealing one of the most extensive cave systems in Britain. We continue across tufty moorland to the former Roman road of Sarn Helen, then climb across the bleak, open hills of Fforest Fawr to Storey Arms (named after a former coaching inn, now an outdoor education centre).
At this point, we are likely to find ourselves sharing the trail with numerous other walkers, all setting off to conquer the Beacons’ highest peak, Pen y Fan. East of the main summit, we pass two other fine peaks, Cribyn and Fan y Big, before descending to the road pass at Torpantau. Our route then takes us along a stretch of the Taff Trail above Tal-y-bont Reservoir, then round the grassy base of Tor y Foel. After a long descent through fields, we emerge on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal on the edge of Llangynidr.
Climbing out of the Usk Valley, we pass through Bwlch, then continue upwards on to the open common of Cefn Moel. There are excellent views from here of Llan-gors Lake, the largest natural body of water in southern Wales. After descending into Cwm Du, we climb on to the lower slopes of the Black Mountains and follow the base of the common round to Crickhowell.
The next section takes us through the heart of the Black Mountains and is one of the most rewarding stretches of the Beacons Way. Our route takes us across the distinctive flat-topped hill of Crug Hywel or Table Mountain, then on over Crug Mawr to St Ishow’s Church in Patrisio. After another long ridge walk, we descend towards the ruined splendour of Llanthony Priory in the beautiful Vale of Ewias.
There are stunning views of the priory as we climb out of the valley towards Offa’s Dyke Path on Hatterrall Hill. At the top, we join a lovely ridgetop track along the line of the Wales–England border, eventually descending off the mountain into the scattered village of Pandy. We then say goodbye to the mountains, striking out across the green, fertile fields of northern Gwent towards Monmouth.
Here we encounter another dramatic change of scenery as we enter the Wye Valley AONB, a largely wooded valley straddling the Wales–England border. After crossing Kymin Hill, we swap Offa’s Dyke Path for the Wye Valley Walk and continue across steep wooded slopes above the River Wye. Our route takes us past the famous medieval ruins of Tintern Abbey, as well as along a wonderful woodland walk through the former Piercefield Estate. Emerging on the edge of Chepstow, we drop down past the Norman castle to the end of our walk at the Old Wye Bridge.
‘Never too old to backpack: O Fôn i Fynwy: a 364-mile walk through Wales’ is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store priced at £2.99.