It’s taken me a while to get around to finishing this post. Aunty and I walked along this stretch of the coast on a cold and windy April day as soon as we could get away after the lifting of the COVID lockdown restrictions at the start of 2021. And it is now almost the end of July but other things keep on getting ion the way.
April this year was pretty cold, and on the day we tackled Porth Neigwl it was a very cold, and a very windy day when Aunty and I braved the weather on a circular walk along the beach and back inland. As we walk the coastal path it is rare that we need to undertake a circular route, but this being the Easter Bank Holiday there was a distinct lack of buses, and the taxi price was a little prohibitive with the area being remote. If anyone is thinking about walking around the end of remote Lleyn my advice is to plan ahead, not just for the public transport but also make sure you plan to arrive either side of the high tide. The beach walk is exhilarating, but if you need to take the overland route, avoid it if at all possible. It is a very tedious walk along fields, zigzagging due to land owners differing attitudes to public right of way and access across their land. Plan, check the tides and walk the beach! Depending on which direction you are walking this will either link westwards to St Tudwals Island and Abersoch section or east to Aberdaron.
Today the long sandy beach of Porth Neigwl belies its reputation during the days of sail and safe trade was dependent upon the weather. The bay faces south-west and is flanked to the west by Mynydd Rhiw and Mynydd Cilan to the east. At almost 3 miles long this is one of the longest beaches on the Lleyn. Known also as Hell’s Mouth, partly because on the map it looks like an open mouth, but also because of the number of wrecks driven onto the beach in south westerly storms. The Welsh name of Porth Neigwl is much older and unrelated to the romantic tourist name. Porth means bay. And Neigwl was possibly a person’s name, maybe Scandinavian or Irish. Neigwl (in the 16th century is was written as Neugell) was the centre of the ancient cantref of Cymydmaen, and Porth Neigwl provided the gateway to the inland areas when coastal shipping was easier than overland travel.
Even today the Lleyn is a little inaccessible. What is undeniable is that when the winds blow up from the South West this was not a safe beach for sailing boats, more than 140 shipwrecks have occurred along the beach. If the gales came from the South West, the prevailing direction for the winds off the UK, sailing vessels would struggle to escape and if unable to anchor safely the only option would involve attempting to ground the ship on the beach, with the hope it might be refloated in calmer weather.
The list of wrecks is long and Coflein provides some brief descriptions, but there is more tangible evidence of on the beach. We came across a hunk of metal that looks like the remains of a boiler and I’m thinking it might belong to a wooden steamship, the Aggravator. Built in 1860, it was owned by JT Howells of Pwllheli and registered in Liverpool. On the 5th August 1898 it was unloading coal at Porth Neigwl, when it was caught by a force 10 south westerly gale and became stranded as it was unable to escape the bay.
More recently the area was used in during WWW II when in 1937 the Air Ministry purchased 7 farms to create a grass strip airfield and a range for 5 Armament Training Camp at nearby Penrhos. Later in the 1940s, four Bellman hangars were constructed together with an adjoining concrete apron and short perimeter track. The range was used for live-weapons practice when trainee aircrews from nearby RAF Penrhos would try to hit large floating targets tethered out in the bay. Concrete remains can still be seen in the dunes and fields behind.
Porth Neigwl has been the site of a very Reginald Perrin experience (younger and overseas readers may need to Google this reference – but it was a very good series). In 1955 a small pile of clothes were found on the beach, prompting a search for Rev Philip Ross, a Cheshire vicar. It was assumed that he had gone for his usual pre-breakfast swim but failed to return to his wife in their caravan. A body was never found and he was legally presumed dead in 1956. But was then found to be living with another woman in London, having faked his death. You can’t get any more Reginald Perrin than that.
Even though the are reminders of shipwrecks on the beach, what is no longer evident is that Porth Neigwl once had a large jetty at the north end of the beach to allow quite large ships to moor and load up ore from the manganese mine on the top of Rhiw. The only evidence of the heavy industry and mining nearby are the ore waste tips on top of Mynydd Rhiw. I’ve got to return here soon, because of the amount of Neolithic history in the area which includes a Neolithic Stone Axe factory of Mynydd Rhiw itself, there are two burial chambers to explore.