Wild Wind and Waves: Aberystwyth

Watching the wind whisk around cars on the M62—which prides itself on being the highest motorway in the country, at 372m above sea level at its peak—I wondered if heading to Aberystwyth on a weekend with storms threatening the UK was really a good idea. I’d heard good things about the place, but would it be worth it seeing the town in this weather?

Aberystwyth (literally, ‘mouth of the Ystwyth’ in Welsh) is situated on the west coast of Wales, and is arguably one of the most isolated towns in the UK. Its nearest large city is Swansea, 70 miles further south. It’s a train terminus, end of the line, nowhere further to go except into the sea and onwards to Ireland. Once you hit Shrewsbury in Shropshire, it’s virtually a straight line to the town, through mid-Wales. Driving due west, destination the sea.

From Shrewsbury to Newtown, Wales is still seemingly populous and habitable. Though the buses might be rare through this region, going every hour, they are regular, and you can almost imagine being quite content living here. After Newtown, however, the towns become fewer and further between, separated by miles of road that snake through high, rocky peaks. While the town names before this point have been pronounceable, now the hamlets are nothing short of tongue-twisters, evidence of the language that is still in use in this remote part of the country: Eisteddfa Gurig, Aberffrwd, Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn. As the road got more windy and the hills taller, a red kite came into view above the road: a warning sign that this is a region ruled by the elements.

Slowly, the surroundings became more town-like—housing estates, the university buildings, a hospital. The road dipped suddenly as it came into Aberystwyth town proper, and then suddenly the sea was in view, choppy, white-horses flashing the horizon. It seems like everything in Aberystwyth faces towards this sea, with the promenade curved and cut off at both ends with the castle ruins and Constitution Hill (affectionately known as ‘Consti’).

After dropping bags off at the hotel, I decided to venture out into the rain before it got dark—the drive from the north had taken up most of the day, though the train wouldn’t have been much quicker. Leaving the hotel, the wind suddenly wrapped itself around me, determined to make me regret my lack of winter coat. I headed straight down the promenade towards the castle ruins, wondering how anyone could live here and battle with elements like this most days. The harshness of the area is exasperated by the almost prehistoric-looking beach, which isn’t made up of sand, but pebbles—a disappointment to anyone arriving in the summer for a beach day, I imagine. On a day like today, though, the beach seems a natural part of the environment, the pebbles being relentlessly juggled by the waves.

View from Aberystwyth Castle of Aberystwyth’s promenade, looking down to Constitution Hill

Aberystwyth Castle, a small, aged information board informed me, was supposedly one of the largest castles in Wales in its hey-day; now, it was reduced to two small towers and a dozen walls that still stood braced against the sea wind. It’s a sad sight—a castle that had workmen from all over England and Ireland working to build it in the 13th century, now just a bit of greenery where locals could eat fish and chips and watch the sunset. But ruins can also be an interesting escape too, and Aberystwyth Castle offers curious nooks; staircases to nowhere; and half-standing doorways that make it a romantic sight on the seafront—an Gothic ruin buffeted by the Atlantic and inhabited no longer by Welsh Kings, but seagulls.

On the other side of the castle, the town virtually disappears, nothing left to see but another pebble-strewn beach and the Welsh hills fading away into the mist further down the coast. Here, you can visually imagine the entire Welsh country stretching out to Swansea, those long, 70 miles away. I think it’s telling that, on the official Aberystwyth website, there’s a section entitled ‘Bored in Aberystwyth?’ This felt like a town that, if it felt like home, then you’d be loyal to it. As an outsider, and especially one used to

From the castle ruins I walked back through the town centre—though it’s really only one main high street and a few back streets with small, independent shops. The whole place seems ludicrously small compared to other places in Wales; I wondered how long it would be until I passed someone in the street I’d already seen, or looped back to my original starting point without realising. There’s really only two directions to wander—north or south—so I headed back onto the promenade and towards the hill. The weather forecast predicted even worse weather in the coming days, and if I was going to have a chance of climbing Constitution Hill without risking being blown away by the wind, it was now.

Though I imagine the climb up isn’t that strenuous on a calm day, struggling against even a mild wind it was a different experience. I was rewarded for my struggles though, with the hill providing a great view over the town even from the half-way point of the climb. You can really see how small the place is—the promenade fits entirely into view, ending at the castle, with Pen Dinas, the site of an Iron Age hillfort, just outside of town in the distance. A cliff railway—open since 1896—cuts into the granite cliff as well if you don’t fancy the climb, but the walk, which winds over the railway on a series of bridges, is a good way of getting a view of the historic railway.

As night began to fall, and the weather worsened, I took shelter in my hotel room. In a room at the back of a promenade hotel, Aberystwyth felt even more isolated than ever—very far away from the north and even further from London. Tomorrow, I’d be taking the journey back up over the Peak District to North Yorkshire, and secretly wished the weather would be better, so I wouldn’t be stuck here another night.

When I woke the next morning, it sounded like the wind had died down during the night; but I had a shock when I went out the front entrance for a morning walk on the beach. Waves were crashing over the balustrades of the promenade, whipping sea spray over unsuspecting walkers, and the wind had become totally unmanageable, making it difficult to even get the front door open. I thought it would be fine if I made it past the seafront and into the backstreets towards town, but I was sorely mistaken. Those small streets, so unassuming yesterday, were now acting as wind tunnels, funnelling me with no regard for where I really wanted to go.

It truly felt like, since I’d arrived in Aberystwyth, the place had been out to get me; steering me away, making me regret ever coming. Leaving town, though—not on the risky mountain road this time, where falling trees could have impeded the journey back, but a safer, coastal detour through neighbouring Machynlleth—I did see the appeal of such a place. It may not have the busyness of a large city, but in this part of Wales, nature does rule over man. As the car swung through forest paths and glimpses of snow-capped peaks in distant Snowdonia cut through the tree-line, I could see why someone could love being so isolated.

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