The best hikes in Wales by the man who's done them all
Will Renwick is a 29-year-old Welshman currently living in London, who always has itchy feet when it comes to getting home whenever he can. He’s covered pretty much every inch of Wales on foot - often with his dog Teilo - and at 22 was the then-youngest person to walk around the country, on the Wales Coast Path and Offa’s Dyke before going on to traverse the Cambrian Way. He’s been ticking off other trails ever since and is now the President of Ramblers Cymru and an editor at Outdoors Magic.
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Have you been getting itchy feet during lockdown? Where’s going to be the first place you head once things loosen up?
When the pandemic kicked off I panicked and thought I need to make a bolt for it out of London. But then as things progressed I realised it would be best to stay put. I was a bit worried about how I’d handle a few months in Dulwich but actually I’ve been surprised at how content I’ve felt.
In normal times in London, I’m always trying to escape back to Wales and plan ahead. But right now, that’s not an option and I’m living for the moment, exploring my local area, especially Sydenham Hill Wood which is lovely.
Once things loosen up I can’t decide if I want to go straight to the coast or my normal stomping grounds of the mountains. I think Newport in Pembrokeshire is a good combo of both…it’s the Vancouver of Wales! It’s got mountains behind the town but then an amazing coastline and a few craft breweries too.
I think I’m right in saying you’re learning Welsh – how’s it going?
Good! Lockdown’s been a good time to practice. There’s an app called Say Something in Welsh which I couldn’t recommend more highly and it’s free at level 1. It’s definitely the easiest way to pick up the language especially if you’re a beginner.
I started to learn at school but had a bad attitude towards it then and I regret I didn’t try harder then.
I feel knowing Welsh gives me a much greater connection to the landscapes I walk through, just having the satisfaction of knowing how to pronounce the place I’m walking towards or see on a map.
Over the years there are place names in Wales that are being forgotten because of English-speaking hikers. Tourists come in and think the names are so impossible to pronounce that they don’t try and give places nicknames that stick. For example, in Snowdonia, there’s a lake called Llyn Bochlwyd, which means Lake of the Grey Cheek, but now a lot of visitors just call it Lake Australia because of its shape.
When you walked the Wales Coast Path, what’s been your favourite part?
When I started walking it, I wanted to do it anti-clockwise so I could finish at what a lot of people consider to be the jewels in the crown, Pembrokeshire and Gower. But I was really surprised along the way about what else there is in Wales, particularly in the northwest with Anglesey and the Llŷn Peninsula.
Anglesey’s got such a varied coast, it changes around every headland. There’s a rugged, jagged side and wide, sweeping beaches and the meandering Menai Strait.
It’s hard to pick, but I’d have to say it’s probably Llanddwyn Island on Anglesey because it’s got a stunning lighthouse with Snowdonia behind it, and to get there you have to walk through deep forest. You burst out of the woods and the view is spectacular, especially at sunset.
Same question for the Cambrian Way?
I’d say the Desert of Wales, which runs from around Pumlumon to Llandovery. It’s an upland expanse that’s almost featureless and miles from anywhere, with just a few minor roads. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere as remote. If you want picturesque, it won’t be for you, but if you want rugged and wild, that’s the place. It’s really not often you see somewhere like that in the UK, so I think everyone needs to experience it if they can.
In normal times, would be your favourite one-day walk in Wales?
The Fisherman’s Path and Cwm Bychan. It’s a bit touristy but still amazing: starting in Beddgelert, which is a chocolate-box little town in Snowdonia, you go through a deep ravine with boulders scattered about and wild swimming spots all over the place. Then it leaves the gorge and goes uphill through ancient woodland, bursting out through that onto a hilltop with a huge, sweeping view of the Snowdon Massif, and then back to town for a pint at the Tanronnen Inn
If you had slightly more time and could get away for a weekend where would you recommend?
I’d say base yourself in Crickhowell in the Black Mountains. There’s a great pub at the heart of it called the Bear Hotel, which is a proper walkers’ pub and very friendly, with a great outdoor shop next door if you’ve forgotten anything.
There’s loads of great walking nearby. If you want something challenging you can head up straight up to the tops of the big mountains round there, or for something a bit easier but still great views there’s Sugar Loaf or Crug Hywel, aka ‘Table Mountain’. For something easier you can just stroll along the canal to another great pub at Llangynidr.
What’s your favourite long-distance walk, say over a week or more, and within that do you have a “favourite favourite” part of it?
One of my most memorable walks was the Cambrian Way. It shows all the best sides of Wales but it is very challenging and you do need a certain level of fitness and experience to take it on. It’s not that well-trodden so it does take a bit of navigation too. Last year it was partially signposted for the first time. For an averagely fit walker it would take around 3 weeks, but it took me 18 days as I was going at a fairly cracking pace.
One I have a real soft spot for is Offa’s Dyke Path. I’ve done that both ways and loved it both times. People tend to head for the coast and the national parks, but not so much The Marches, which I think are more overlooked.
I love the variety of it, because the Wye Valley is stunning, then you’ve got the uplands of the Black Mountains and then you drop down into the rolling edges of the Shropshire Hills then into the wild Clwydians and finish at the coast. There’s something really satisfying doing a coast to coast walk.
Having done it both ways, it’s hard to recommend one direction over the other. I originally chose to do it north-south just to head home at the end, but also if you do that you end up at the Wye Valley which is probably one of my favourite parts of the country: you’ve got the ruins at Tintern Abbey, the viewpoint at Devil’s Pulpit, and then the winding river with steep woodlands flanking it. And also, some great pubs especially Boat Inn at Redbrook, where you can sit in the beer garden and watch kayakers go by. It’s a very tranquil spot.
Can you recommend a great coastal walk if you’re away for a weekend?
As I mentioned earlier, I’d really recommend Anglesey to people as I think they’d be really pleasantly surprised by it. But the stretch of coastline that’s really special to me is in Pembrokeshire, between Newport and Fishguard, somewhere I’ve been going all my life.
It’s everything you imagine that part of the Welsh coast to be…teetering along the edge of a clifftop, the roaring sea below, little coves tucked away and small fishing villages. It’s only a six-mile stretch but if you want a taste of Pembrokeshire without all the crowds, that’s the one.
About halfway you’ll stop off at a little bay called Cwm yr Eglwys with a small collection of houses and a ruined church. It’s very picturesque, but it seems to have its own microclimate so even if you’re walking on a rainy day, the chances are good you can dry out there in the sun. It’s really stunning.
Do you have a favourite Welsh pub?
Another testing question! When you’re walking in Wales, pubs are a big part of the experience – I’m usually just on one great big pub crawl.
I’ve come across some proper locals’ ones that you just stumble across when you’re hiking through the mountains as you drop down into a valley and find a small village and the pub is right at the very heart of that community.
Y Llew Coch in Dinas Mawddwy in Southern Snowdonia is a great example of that.
And then there’s another place, that seems frozen in time – I think their village runs on the Julian calendar, so they celebrate New Year’s Eve a few weeks after everyone else. It’s a place called Bessie’s, named after the lovely owner, but officially it’s the Dyffryn Arms in the Gwaun Valley. Beer is served through a hatch in jugs. And the Gwaun Valley itself is a stunning part of Wales.
It’s hard not to include the Ty Coch Inn in Porthdinllaen on the Llŷn Peninsula. I don’t think you can drive to it, you have to walk along the beach to it, and the beach is its beer garden. Inside the window frames the mountains of Snowdonia beautifully across the bay. When I went there, I arrived at 11am and the landlord gave me a free pint when I told him I was walking around the country. "
(c) Will Hide 2020
All photos by Will Renwick
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