Thursday, 3 July 2014

Wales Coast Path Provides an Opening

It must have been about two years ago when I found myself staring at a brick wall in a woodland near Bangor.  There was nothing metaphorical about this eight foot high wall, which defiantly encloses the seven-mile boundary of the once-mighty Faenol Estate.  What made the scene somewhat surreal is that I was looking at a bricked-up doorway which had brought my walk to an abrupt halt. 

John, with the bricked-up doorway in 2012
I was in the company of my colleague John Whitley, who has looked after the 300-acre National Trust part of the estate for the last 20 years.   He was lamenting the fact that the newly-opened Wales Coast Path was not running through this doorway and along the estate’s wonderful coastline, where there was already a good path.  The reason for this was that the neighbouring landowners were not in favour of allowing the path across their land, forcing a rather unsatisfactory inland diversion.  We commented wryly on the irony that a wall once built to “keep pheasants in and peasants out”, was now keeping people in.

Imagine my delight therefore
at finding myself standing the other day at that same spot to inspect the doorway again, this time opened up and sporting a fine new gate.  Thankfully, the neighbours’ concerns have been overcome and the path, which now runs through the doorway, is in the process of being opened in sections across the Trust’s land to the village of Y Felinheli.
What a transformation!  The new gate was made by Joe Roberts, Access Policy Officer and part-time blacksmith.
This relatively minor breakthrough is just one in an ongoing process of refinement to the line of the Wales Coast Path, as it gradually finds its ideal coastal alignment.  Of course, there are still a number of industrial, military, agricultural and other impediments (some of which are – paradoxically – gated visitor attractions) to be resolved before the route is continuously coastal, but…all in good time.

As we recently celebrated the path’s second anniversary, and the fact that it has rapidly become one of the wonders of Wales, I pondered on what part the National Trust has to play in its success.  It was after all a Welsh Government initiative, overseen by its environmental advisor, the Countryside Council for Wales, now part of Natural Resources Wales, and maintained by 16 local authorities.  Well, firstly there’s the fact that our 133 coastal properties in Wales – built up gradually over 120 years – were already open to the public, often with good paths in place.  These were the stepping stones that helped make the opening of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path possible back in in 1970.  The success of this initiative more recently led to the creation of coast paths for Ceredigion, Anglesey and Llŷn – each crossing stretches of accessible Trust-owned coast.  These in turn became the stepping stones that enabled the creation of the Wales Coast Path in 2012.  Then there’s the fact that the path has also inspired us to create shorter link paths, allowing walkers to enjoy circular walks based on the coast path, adding significantly to its attraction.  After all, 95% of us who use the path follow it on short sections.
Our 60 miles of accessible coastline in Pembrokeshire helped make Wales' first coastal National Trail possible back in 1970
 But I suggest that the greatest benefit that our national coast path has brought, perhaps even greater than the boost it has bought to the wider Welsh economy (£32m last year), is that it has done much to reinvigorate our more isolated coastal communities. Away from the traditional busy seaside resorts, the beauty of the smaller coastal villages often masks the joint ills of lack of jobs and the flight of youth to the cities.  I wonder if the newly-opened doorway at Glan Faenol does after all have a metaphorical meaning. 

For more information about Joe Roberts' gates, click here

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