- since 2011 -

The pub on the beach

Friday, 8 April 2011

Starring seals, shells, shipwrecks and Hollywood stars...

On an offshore rock wreathed in seaweed is the graceful silhouette of a cormorant. Just as it drapes its dark wings to dry, it's spooked by a snarl and plunges below the surface. The culprit isn't a dog off its leash but half-a-dozen seals on the next outcrop.

The biggest is the most ornery, hissing and growling at the rest of the mottled-grey colony until a dinghy with two adults and two children cuts its outboard motor and bobs over for a closer look. They must be 200 yards from the mainland, but the air is so fine that every word is clear. "Look, he's scratching his face with his flipper," says the man. "You don't see that very often, do you?"

Neither, once, was it every day that a habitual nine-to-fiver like me exchanged office striplights for hazy sunshine, air-conditioning for the faintest summer breeze, and open-plan for inspiring view: a crescent bay book-ended by rocky headland to the west and twin mountain peaks to the east, washed over by a pastel blue of sea and sky.

I've always fancied myself as an explorer of cities and their labyrinths of brick canyons on foot. But gone is the relentless built environment where there is rarely much space, merely the next rooftop. In its place, a sublime horizon and some welcome perspective.

Caernarfon Bay

The bay at Porthdinllaen

The setting is a remote corner of Llyn, the northernmost of the three great peninsulas of England and Wales (the other two being Pembrokeshire and Cornwall). Porthdinllaen, pronounced 'Porth-din-klein', is a tiny hamlet of a few cottages and a pub right on the beach, looking out to Caernarfon Bay. A stone's throw from the village of Nefyn, where pop star Duffy grew up, and 30 minutes from the drama of Snowdonia, it's been owned and managed since 1994 by the National Trust whose clifftop car-park provides a discreet entry point.

Earlier I walked bare-footed upon a prickly carpet of fractured shells, sun-bleached seaweed and cool pebbles - there must be a correct term for all that stuff washed up by the waves: the grit and crustacea and those exquisite, spiralling nautilus shells that look like tiny funfair houses; scrush, sprish, shelp, shebble?

Now I'm following the footpath around the rugged promontory that shelters Porthdinllaen from raw westerlies, now and then glancing back at Yr Eifl, or The Rivals, the two mountains at the far end of the bay that rise up to 1,850ft and fall straight down into the sea. All the while I'm harried by a reassuringly dense population of bees drunk on the purple flowers of wild thyme. Here the coastline fragments from grassy hills and cliff faces strafed by sand martins, into exposed rocks and small coves whose clear waters are home to darting shoals of sand eels, the fast-food of Britain's puffins and guillemots.

At the northernmost tip of the headland, a lifeboat station with a concrete slipway hoves into sight. It was opened in 1864 to serve Caernarfon Bay, a stretch of water with a history of shipwrecks (the previous 25 years had seen over 200 vessels lost in the area). A church in the nearby village of Edern has a memorial for one such tragedy, when the SS Cyprian ran aground en route from Liverpool to Genoa in 1881. The story goes that the captain, John Alexander Strachan, found a young stowaway as the crew prepared for the worst, and gave him his life jacket. The boy survived but 18 seamen, including the skipper, died.

Today the sea is as still and calm as a pond. Only the soft ripple of waves towards the shoreline, rolling like dark bands of interference down a fuzzy TV screen, betrays its perpetual motion. How can something this vast be so silent? Just occasionally the spell is broken by the far-off boom of a streaking RAF fighter through the hollow air, or the engine of a jet-ski buzzing like a lawn mower.

Above the station, at the highest point of the promontory, folklore tells of fairies living underground and, according to one local guidebook, 'entering our world by lifting a sod of earth'. Here, Kathleen Thornley has the best seat in the house. She's remembered by the inscription on a bench: '1934-2003. Much missed by family and friends. She loved this place'. I'm reminded of the engraving on another bench at a similar spot in St Ives, which says simply: 'Sit. Relax. Enjoy'.

The Ty Coch pub

The Ty Coch pub

Past the seals performing their turn for a captive floating audience, the eastern flank of the headland gives way to the outer reaches of Nefyn Golf Club, and a short-cut across a fairway brings me back to the beach and the Ty Coch, literally 'Red House'. The back of the barman's T-shirt reads: 'Call in for a virtual pint at www.tycoch.co.uk'. I'll settle for the real thing.

The pub's ceiling and walls are covered with antique tankards, lamps, lanterns, navigation maps and old prints of schooners, barques and brigantines. In 1844, from a romantic's perspective, Porthdinllaen had a lucky escape. Once an anchorage for the slate industry and a shipbuilding hub in its own right, it narrowly lost out to Holyhead in a parliamentary vote to establish the primary port in North Wales linking London and Dublin.

Nefyn's parish church

Nefyn's parish church

The Anglesey town never looked back, but Porthdinllaen's near neighbour, Nefyn, has the more exotic claim to fame. It's twinned with Puerto Madryn in Argentina, a Patagonian outpost founded in 1865 by 150 Welsh immigrants and named after the estate of the foremost settler, Sir Thomas Duncombe Love Parry-Jones. Nefyn's parish church, with its cemetery of headstones and rusting anchors, doubles as a maritime museum to tell the tale.

Among the Ty Coch's exhibits is a photograph of Demi Moore posing with the pub's landlady. In 2005 the Hollywood star was here on location for a movie called Half Light in which Porthdinllaen stood in for a Scottish fishing village. "Don't think it was much cop," shrugs the barman anti-climactically. "Went straight to DVD."

The picnic benches outside announce arguably the best beer garden in Britain, corralled by a cluster of small pleasurecraft and string of yellow safety buoys in the water. For me, there are echoes of another idyll a decade ago: a cafe-shack on the beach at Conil de la Frontera on Spain's Atlantic coast, run by a boy and his dog and reached through an otherworldly fog thanks to the siren call of Marilyn Monroe on an old speaker system.

This time the mist reclaims rather than reveals its shangri-la. The drive out of Porthdinllaen on the A497 to Pwllheli coincides with the sudden onset of what the locals call a niwl, a Celtic pea-souper that devours Yr Eifl entirely. The legendary Welsh bard Dafydd Ap Gwilym described this phenomenon as an 'exhalation from the deep... wild of vapour, vast, o'ergrown, huge as the ocean of unknown'.

Not the most propitious of send-offs, but Porthdinllaen's real parting gift is more profound: it recharges the happy batteries, it's good for the soul. I'm heading home not only with the 'sense of present pleasure', as a celebrated English poet put it, but 'pleasing thoughts that in this moment there is food and life for future years'. Roll on real world.

'Today the sea is as still and calm as a pond. Only the soft ripple of waves towards the shoreline, rolling like dark bands of interference down a fuzzy TV screen, betrays its perpetual motion. How can something this vast be so silent?'


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Love for sail

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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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