Monday, 21 July 2014

Morfa Mawddach and Barmouth

Anna, one of the people I see at the pharmacy at Boots in Burgess Hill, learned last January that I was planning to visit North Wales in May and June. 'Lucy,' she said to me, 'please, please, please, if you possibly can, go and visit Barmouth, and let me see your photos.' She was brought up in Barmouth, and her parents live there, and she takes her two boys there for holidays. Her parents live not too far from the quay, and her Dad has a boat moored there. Of course I promised to visit the town.

On the map, Barmouth looks somewhat like Aberdovey a little further south - a small seaside town with sands, on the railway, at the mouth of an estuary, and huddled beneath steep hills that come right up to the coast. I'd been to Aberdovey back in 1996, and had thought it pleasant but nothing very special. I'd never seen Barmouth. I could also see from the map that there were at least two crucial differences between the two towns: first, Barmouth had a proper harbour; and second, a long railway bridge spanned the river mouth just to the south of Barmouth, which linked it with an apparently lonely station called Morfa Mawddach. Aberdovey had no such feature. 'Mawddach' was the name of the river. 'Morfa' seemed to indicate 'coastal marshland or pastures'. The obvious thing to do was park at Morfa Mawddach, walk along the bridge to Barmouth, take a look at the place, and then catch the train back.

I made this my priority day out while pitched at Llan Ffestiniog. No matter what else I did, this was the essential trip. I didn't want to disappoint Anna.

So, late morning on a sunny day (it was 10 June) I turned Fiona down a side road off the A493, wondering what kind of place Morfa Mawddach station might be. It might be utterly forlorn. It was not. There was a spacious and free car park, complete with nice toilets and the tidied-up remains of old platforms. It was a base for local coast and estuary walks, a stop-off for cyclists, and a kind of park-and-ride location for ordinary visits to Barmouth by train. The present little station had once been a quite busy railway junction - see the Wikipedia article at Now it looked like this:

A good footpath-cum-cycle track went off northwards towards the bridge, parallel with the railway line. I took it. It was clearly a popular route. I encountered several walkers, including a local lady with whom I chatted; and a fit and keen cyclist from Manchester, who was seeing the country around, mountains and all, in a series of daily thirty-mile sweeps, with whom I also chatted. It was fascinating to see the Fairbourne sand-spit in the left distance, hiding the open sea; and on my right, the wide Mawddach Estuary, hemmed in by high mountains. And all the while, glimpses of Barmouth, which got ever closer.

After a while I approached the bridge itself. Then I was on it. To my delight, a train appeared from the south, and overtook me. You don't often get as close as this to a train. Even the Manchester cyclist paused to watch the event.

When they built the bridge, they had to leave a span for shipping to get under, so the Barmouth end is made of iron girders which looked pretty rusty to me. It's clear that this is a high-maintenance structure. There was in fact a work party on this part of the bridge, engaged in essential maintenance. I chatted with them too.

Then suddenly I found myself at Barmouth. The railway line curved off, to run through a short tunnel. I was faced with a tollbooth that until fairly recently charged a small amount to pass through, but was not now in operation, and therefore nothing to pay. Up a slope to the main road, then down into the town. Looking back, I saw Barmouth's signature view, the railway bridge set against the wide estuary.

Barmouth was a sunny, attractive little holiday resort with a yachting flavour. There were plenty of interesting corners. I wondered where exactly Anna's parents lived - I didn't have the address. Looking up, it was strange to see how some of the town clung precariously to the mountain side above. But I couldn't linger long. I had worked out that I had only forty minutes to look around, buy something from a baker for lunch, find the station, and catch my train back to Morfa Mawddach. So having merely inspected the harbour area, I walked up the main street, bought a pasty, and turned down towards the station. This proved to be a substantial place, with proper buildings either side of the two lines, where trains could cross. Part of it was the local tourist office, a swish modern conversion job with free Wi-Fi on offer. I bought my ticket there. £1.40 for just one stop: but cheap for the experience on offer!

The train soon arrived. I had a slight moment of panic when I remembered that I'd have to see the guard and make a special request to get off at Morfa Mawddach. But there he was, and he seemed to expect me to ask. Then we were off. It hardly took five minutes to travel out of the town, over the bridge, and halt at Morfa Mawddach station. But in that time I enjoyed magnificent river views, and had the thrill of passing over the bridge.

After a cheery thank-you to the guard, I watched the train disappear and then sat in the back of Fiona to devour my still-hot pasty. Another happy day!

£1.40 for a complete railway adventure. You don't have to chug up Snowdon, paying a small fortune, to get a railway fix!

I next went to Harlech, primarily to see the famous Castle. While on the ramparts, I noticed that it had a fine view of a school. Anna had mentioned that she'd attended the school at Harlech, and this must be it. I took a shot, ready to ask her when I returned from holiday.

Once home, I visited Boots just as Anna was getting ready to finish her stint for the day. So it didn't matter if we had ten minutes conversation. I said I'd visited Barmouth and Harlech while on holiday. She was delighted. I showed her my pictures on Demelza, my phone. She was so excited to see them. Barmouth did look exceptionally nice on Demelza's bright screen. And yes, that had been her school.

After a while I saw her eyes watering up a bit. I think she was missing her old home very badly. Mid-Sussex is pleasant, but it's nothing like this part of Wales. Later, it occurred to me that she might have been touched that a customer had gone out of her way to see Barmouth for herself, and had so obviously enjoyed it. It's a possible explanation for the tears only just held back. But I think she was chiefly nostalgic for the special place that she had known and loved from childhood.

I can relate to that, very easily. I have several such places. And whatever people say, nostalgia is usually bitter-sweet, not sugary-sentimental.

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