THERE can be few places in Wales that exude an atmosphere of such utter serenity as Nant Gwrtheyrn , a secluded valley on the stunning northern coast of the Llŷn peninsula that once hosted a whole quarrying community. It reeks strongly of its role in Welsh mythology and history, sometimes intertwined so that one is never quite sure which is which.
This is where the 5th century warlord Gwrtheyrn – sometimes known as Vortigern in Old English – is said to have hidden from his enemies after his forces were defeated by the Saxons. 18th century Welsh traveller, writer and antiquarian Thomas Pennant claimed to have once been shown Gwrtheyrn’s grave by locals.
This is also where the fabled Meinir is said to have met her doom on her wedding day. She failed to extricate herself from the hollow oak tree she’d taken refuge in to temporarily hide from her groom-to-be, Rhys, an ancient Welsh betrothal tradition supposed to bring good luck. If only. Months later Rhys discovered her skeleton, still clad in her wedding dress, when a screeching bolt of lightning split the tree into two hissing halves.
The hair-raising road hacked out of the hillside that leads down to the valley through its wooded slopes down from the car park, some three kilometres north of the B4417 at Llithfaen, lends an otherwise distinct sensation of making your way to paradise. In the nicest possible sense, of course.
It really is best done on foot, although a lung-bursting affair rather than a stroll, for the metaphysical feel to it all. There are also more practical considerations, such as the possibility of meeting oncoming traffic on a road dangling in mid-air, and the restricted parking available at the bottom.
The sound of birdsong, rushing streams, and the wind sighing gently through the trees washes over one’s senses on making the descent. It makes it all a magical experience that somehow dares you not to link the present to a misty, mysterious past.
But if you are genuinely not up to it, and you’ve a stomach for dare-devil cliff-edge motoring, the new road laid down in recent times has an excellent surface and is perfectly safe if approached sensibly.
At a plateau between the head of the valley and the pebbled beach at the bottom lies the double-terraced village of Porth y Nant. This was at one time sadly abandoned, and until the 1970s its glassless windows stared intimidatingly like a row of smashed skulls at anybody venturing into their midst. Nowadays, however, it has been swishly spruced up as a residential Welsh language learning centre.
You can also book bed and breakfast or self-catering accommodation here, in one of the 24 terraced cottages, should you just fancy a few days’ blissful retreat rather than having any educational aim. The centre also caters for conferences, and is a highly popular venue for weddings, even given poor Meinir’s mishap. Well, they do say lightning never strikes twice.
The valley and the village offers much to attract the casual day-visitor looking for that different experience that will stay in the memory long afterwards. The old chapel, that also used to double up as the village school, is now a fascinating heritage interpretation centre. One of the quarrymen’s cottages nearby has been reconstructed and furnished to depict how it would have looked back in 1910. Meanwhile you can treat yourself to a snack, a meal or a pint at Caffi Meinir, from where you can soak in the majestic views over Caernarfon Bay, all the way to Ireland given the right conditions.
The modern glass and metal sculpture on the village green is titled Tu Hwnt (which could be translated as “Beyond”), and was a Welsh-German collaboration between Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther. The visitor is invited to stand within the sculpture to gain a different perspective on his or her surroundings through its analytical lens.
Bring your walking boots and you can wander the myriad well-marked walking tracks that criss-cross the valley. You can hike all the way up to the summit of Yr Eifl (pronounced Uhr Ey-vel) that looms over the valley, and the Iron Age hillfort of Tre’r Ceiri that stands on one of its peaks, should you be up to it. Look out for fascinating relics of the valley’s quarrying and agricultural past on your way. You can pick up leaflets describing these routes in the village.
Meanwhile an easy track descends to a pebbly beach that is often gloriously deserted, hemmed in as it is at both ends by the mountains. Cut off from the racket of everyday life, save for the wonderfully relaxing whishing of the waves rolling in from the Irish Sea, it really is the nearest most of us get to experiencing a few minutes’ or hours’ perfect solitude. If you’re fortunate you might be joined in your sojourn by one of the grey seals that similarly enjoy the solitude, out in the bay in front of you.
Having at one time boasted a population of 200, Nant Gwrtheyrn (prounounced roughly as Nant Goor-thigh-earn) and Porth y Nant saw its last residents leave in 1959. The last of the three granite quarries the valley served, and which at their peak employed 2,000 workers, had closed in 1939. In 1948 the village school had also put up its shutters, proclaiming the virtual death of what was once a thriving community.
With the valley ill-served by its transport links to the outside world, a horrendous corkscrew track that an ordinary vehicle couldn’t possibly climb, people and commodities by then had to enter and leave the valley on foot or on horseback. Coffins would have to be dragged up by horse-drawn sleds. Remnants of that infamous track can still be seen among the trees alongside the current road.
How different it had all been when the quarries were in their heyday. Ships carrying granite off the pier, which used to stand on the beach, would arrive laden with the latest fashions and modern household goods. The people of Porth y Nant were years ahead of the rest of the peninsula as far as consumerism was concerned, and their isolation mattered not one iota.