From Patagonia to Pwlldu – a half baked plan that turned into an epic adventure
Sarah Morgan Jones
Ria Bevan is no stranger to a long walk. She regularly takes off in her Birkenstocks to a favourite bay on Gower or from her Swansea home to visit her family in Ogmore Vale or even from Tawe to Taff in a 24-hour trampathon, undaunted by walking through the night just for the sake of it, taking the time to watch, walk and wonder, sorting things out as she goes.
These marathon mega walks of ten, twenty, forty or more miles have become…not easy exactly, but achievable… ever since she spent five and a half weeks walking the entirety of Offa’s Dyke and Wales’ Coastal Path on her ownsome back in 2016.
No bay was missed out, no shortcut taken, and apart from a few days at the beginning when she was close enough to home to be picked up at the end of a long day and dropped back to the same spot in the morning, and the odd kind pub landlord or hotelier who put her up for the night, the rest of the five and a half week journey was completed with her home, her food and her first aid kit on her back.
The coastal path opened in May 2012 becoming the first dedicated coast path in the world to cover the entire length of a country’s coastline, linking Chepstow in Monmouthshire to Queensferry in Flintshire.
At 870 miles it links five existing long-distance paths close to the coast, creating a route that is accessible to walkers and, where practical, cyclists, families with pushchairs, people with restricted mobility, and horse riders.
In the month which sees the tenth anniversary of the opening of the coastal path, she reflects on that journey, what inspired it, what the obstacles were and what she achieved.
The idea for the trip first began to ferment during a trip to Patagonia in 2014, for which she saved up all her annual leave and all her pennies before jumping on a plane with no itinerary to speak of, just the urge, like so many other Welsh speakers, to experience the language and culture of home on the other side of the world.
With not much Spanish and even less of a clue, she stood in the bus station in Buenos Aires and eyed the departure board “looking for somewhere that sounded Welsh” before taking an 18-hour bus ride to Trelew.
There followed a whole load of remarkable events, significant moments, extraordinary coincidences, and many, many more hours walking, bussing and climbing around the country, which form an entire chronicle of their own.
But the long and the short of it – a seed was planted in the back of her mind, that having explored Patagonia in this way, she’d love to do the same thing in Wales. On foot.
Back in Wales, barista life continued as normal until she became increasingly aware of the efforts of a regular customer who had MS to get himself into her café every morning for his espresso.
Come what may, no matter how hard it was for him, he got there, and so she blames him and a close friend who also had MS for cementing her madcap plan to get up one day and walk Wales.
Hell on earth
Anyone who has met Ria, knows that her tiny frame is packed in equal measure with a huge heart and steely determination. She eats only what she needs to sustain her, is a connoisseur of craft ale, and her odd sized feet (2.5 & 3) will give your average hobbit a run for his money.
Looking back, she says her five weeks preparation of a morning run around Swansea was woefully inadequate for the morning she set off, with double her bodyweight in her backpack.
Although she knew she was heading east, some mix up between the red and blue coastal path signs meant she spent rather too much time running round in circles and suffering personal disappointments and humiliations.
She remembers the first four days from Swansea to Monmouth were hell on earth, with shredded feet (Berghaus boots not Birkies this time), cuts on her shoulders from her backpack, and more than one terrifying encounter with a herd of cows, who she says “bloody well do get attracted to all things red.”
Once the safety net of nights at home became impossible, she headed north on Offa’s Dyke having to strap up a swollen knee, unable to even contemplate her torn and blistered feet, and somewhat disheartened by needing to slow her pace to ‘a mere 18 miles a day’.
Long lonely days might mean she saw no one at all, but she says “I made sure I found a pub in the evening, to talk to local people and get to know the area a bit. And some people I met donated to my fundraising link, which gave me a boost.
“It’s a long time with your own thoughts, and that can be challenging…and boring…and when I was on a go slow to build up my stamina it was really hard.
“One young man fell in with me along the way for a day or two. He was walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and he slowed his pace to keep me company which was lovely.
“He, like many long-distance walkers, was walking away from something, away from some heartache or other. It’s quite common I think, for it to start like that. Because one thing’s for sure, when you are walking all day, every day, thinking takes up a lot of your time.”
Setting off as she did in April, Ria hoped that the spring weather would be on her side but found travelling north along Offa’s Dyke was not only bitterly cold and even snowy at times, but with calves and lambs at foot, the farm animals along the way were understandably defensive of their young.
“All in all, that leg of the journey was a massive learning curve, and really daunting. There were loads of things I hadn’t considered, and I was so annoyed with the pain and the slow pace.
“But gradually I got stronger, and the pain reduced, and I was glad of the company I found along the way. By the time I got to Prestatyn – when my first pair of boots gave up – and onto the coastal path I was cracking along at a much faster pace, the weather was improving, and I was coping much better.
“By the time I got to Porthmadog, for example, it was so warm I slept in a bird hide and didn’t need to put the tent up.”
Considering the logistical challenges along the way she laughs and says: “Public loos were a godsend. I could wash and get warm and put my socks under the dryer. Having had to go in all sorts of places, it was real luxury to find a proper loo.
“Although by the time I got to Pembrokeshire I was in no mood to pay for the privilege and would jump over the barriers.
“Ynys Môn was challenging as the path goes along cropped fields and although farmers get paid for the path to cross their land, sometimes the signs were misleading and the detours around fields were a nightmare.
“Because of the agriculture, wild camping on the island was hard, I hit obstacles with the Caravan Club who wouldn’t let me pitch up in the corner of one of their sites as I wasn’t a caravan…
“On the other hand, the landlady of the Pilot Boat took me in and gave me a bed for the night which was heavenly. She even got up with me at 5am to see me off. The more miles you do before midday the better, so I’d always get going about then.”
It took Ria four or five days to get around Llŷn and having never been there before she was pretty gutted, she says, that it rained for the entire time.
As she headed on down the coast towards Pembrokeshire, there were days when friends or family would pay her a visit to keep her spirits up and replenish supplies and take her for a meal, for this vegan woman with a normally tiny appetite, now needed at least 5000 calories a day.
“Veganism went out of the window. For one thing I couldn’t bear another banana or another nut. I could feel the energy drain out of me daily and just needed fuel. So I just ate all I could, a big lasagne, whatever. Though after years of no saturated fats and the like, this caused a few problems initially. But it had to be done.”
She said she managed to treat herself to a night in the Druidstone, where in true homely Dru style they whisked away her belongings to wash and dry them for her while she rested her bones, but at 5am she found herself hunting high and low for her boots, which were being kept warm in an airing cupboard.
The southwest coast of Wales, full of inlets and estuaries was particularly challenging, and at the tail end of such an epic adventure, with novelty a long distant memory, she was feeling an urgency to get home.
Sitting in Tenby Brewery chatting to a man who confessed an ambition to complete el Camino, it was a beautifully clear May evening, and she could see Worm’s Head off Rhossili in the distance.
Fuelled by homesickness and walking sickness she phoned home and told them to come and get her bag the next morning as she would be home the day after, that if she was bag-free she could make it in one hit.
Her doubtful parents dutifully obliged and she set off at the crack of dawn and walked with only a pause in Llansteffan and Carmarthen for supplies through the day and the night arriving at Penclawdd the next morning delirious, jelly-legged and distraught that she hadn’t made it all the way round.
Her friend Frank arrived to catch her, took her for food, beer and rest, giving her the motivational talk she needed to just get through the last miles, and then dropped her back to Penclawdd early the next morning.
As anyone who has taken part in the annual Macmarathon for Macmillan will know, the walk around Gower alone is no small undertaking, but on that last day Ria says she doesn’t even remember putting one foot in front of the other as the adrenalin got her round the final rugged cliffs and stony paths.
Her favourite bay in all of Wales – and as she has probably seen every single one, she is now an authority – is Pwlldu, and she says that as she reached it late in the day she just cried and cried and cried.
Beyond Pwlldu, the last 12 miles back to her starting point, the cheering welcoming committee, the celebrations in the local – none of it she remembers.
But her little file of mementos, the journey covered, the lucky charms, the hand drawn wrapping of gifts from children, the congratulation cards is a bulging testament of a truly remarkable endeavour.
It is also a testament to how much support she had from her community in Swansea, not just with the fundraising, but with send off and welcome home gigs from local bands Django Haze and Lost Tuesday Society, her customers and colleagues at Crumbs cafe, gifts of goji berries and protein bars, the loan of an iPod along the way…she remembers how invaluable it all was.
She raised well over £4000 for MS, half of it from her café customers and half from people she met along the way, she covered well over a thousand miles, and despite the agonies, she still hopes to do el Camino.
“Funny thing though. I bumped into that guy from Tenby recently. He told me he had never forgotten our conversation, and although he’s faced some difficulties in recent years, he’s booked and he’s off to walk it this year. I inspired him. That’s really something isn’t it?”
A collection of 20 of the best coastal walking routes in Wales is being launched to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wales Coast Path. More details can be found here
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