When the summer comes calling a place many of us can’t wait to visit is Cilan. The views are frankly ridiculous. To the West you can look down onto the waves crashing onto the Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth) sands, to the East the sunrise greets you every morning and to the North a peerless vista is laid out from here to the horizon – to the foreground the green fields of farmland slide down the hill towards the village and the bracelet of beaches cradling it, beyond them the twinkling blue of the bay broken only by the white wakes of the boats traversing the scene and in the background Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) strides above the panorama like a colossus, the centerpiece of the magnificent ring of peaks embracing Cardigan Bay.
But it is on the short journey to and from Cilan that we find the subject of this ‘Somewhere only we know.’ Because the truth is our hero is somewhere nearly everybody knows, but no shortage of even Abersoch experts struggle to find! If you make your way along Lon Sarn Bach from the village and start to climb a little at the crossroads that has the old blacksmiths on your left and Ysgol Sarn Bach on your right, you will begin to see cars pulling uncertainly in to the side of the lane, cyclists taking a puzzled breather, walkers leaning on a fence as they wrestle with the contents of their backpacks. These are travellers on the Porth Ceiriad Mystery Tour! The more organised will start to twist and turn their Ordnance Survey maps, driver and passengers in heated debate about the exact location of that elusive left turn. The Tourist Office reliants will be scratching their heads over the otherwise excellent village map and the freestylers will be swallowing their independent pride and asking anybody and everybody exactly how they do find what is frankly such an enormous beach that it should represent an easy target.
Not necessarily so, so let’s get you to Porth Ceiriad. Take the Sarn Bach road out of Abersoch, go straight on at that Sarn Bach cross roads, start the gentle climb up the hill and ignore that left turn to Bwlchtocyn. That’s right you clowns we see endlessly reversing out of that narrow turn, or hovering uncertainly at its entrance, maps flailing and thrashing in the front seats, marriage almost cast asunder in vain search of the Holy Grail that is Porth Ceiriad. That’s right – do NOT turn left to Bwlchtocyn. Instead continue straight on up the hill towards Cilan, winding your way past Tan Y Bryn farm and the Bed, Breakfast and caravan possibilities of Ty’r Lon until you see a modest green electrical substation on your left, a few yards after which, with three wind-worn wooden telegraph posts on your right you will see an unmarked left turn angling away towards your destination. This is your left turn and (barring a fiendishly complicated route up through Bwlchtocyn and Cim) the only road route to your destination.
The lane is narrow but have faith, continue along it, through the dog-leg with static caravans on your right, until you come to Nant Y Big campsite (see inset on Camping at Ceriad) where, if you are in a car you will need £3 to pass through the barrier and cover your parking costs. The now unmade lane then drops away down the slope towards the sea and your prize starts to hove into view. You’ve made it – you’re on the edge of one of the peninsulas finest prizes, one of the real jewels of the area – the Crown Prince of the Royal Family of beaches surrounding Abersoch – Porth Ceiriad awaits!
Should you be less able or simply tired, your life would still be considerably richer if you do nothing more than pull up in the little car park on the cliff edge and soak up the views. As I write this I’ve glanced up at a watercolour on the wall above me of that very scene – my children and their cousins sat high up on the fields above the bay, looking out at the cliffs that make up the arrow-head shaped headland to the north of the beach, the blue seas twinkling before them and the waves (for Porth Ceiriad is a serious surf beach when conditions are right) bumping down onto a foreshore which glitters with silica sand and a billion fragments of shell – crushed and ground over the centuries by those same waves to create a view that is always alive, forever moving before you. A view that captivated and held a group of children when they were at an age when sitting still was simply not an option in the normal course of events.
Porth Ceiriad is always one of the big adventures – a beach day that requires commitment – a full day to justify the trek. For your journey is not over yet. It’s time to load up the windbreak and bodyboards and surfboards, maybe even that little stove, the towels and the beachwear and take the walk left through the gate and across the fields until another gate places you at the head of the long flight of winding steps leading you down to the beach. You’re actually on one of the more dramatic sections of the Wales Coastal Path and it can be a tough gig for the little ones, but well worth the push when they arrive down on the beach and sprint off into the middle distance – released by the sense of freedom and ‘otherness’ that this beach offers you. You can see no houses, no roads, no civilisation from the sands – it’s your very own desert island experience just a couple of miles from the busy hubbub of the village. Somehow your soul knows that – this beach sets you free physically and spiritually – free to soak in the sea air and the whispers of history calling you from the ancient geology of this place.
If you look away from the sea back towards the cliffs you will see millions of years of geological evolution. The rock layers aren’t horizontal – over the endless centuries that have shaped this cove, these rocks have been tilted and folded into the shapes and angles we see today. Now take a look at the boulders below the cliff face. Deposited by glaciers they range from small pebbles to massive rocks. Further west and we see shales with thin sandstone in a striped black-green colour, before giving way to thicker sandstone beds – this is stuff geologists dream of – and then sedimentary layers of thick black-blue mudstone – the product of volcanic action! You aren’t likely to see an eruption any century soon but you may be able to save a few pounds on the children’s pocket money by offering them some of the ‘Fools Gold’ that completes the picture. It’s just dull old Pyrite to the scientists out there.
Catch Porth Ceiriad out of high season or early or late in the day and you may just have it to yourselves – a ludicrously luscious indulgence granted by the Gods, well worth that muddled journey. In season the free-spirits camp up on the cliff-side fields – wild, windy nights of flapping canvas on the bad nights more than paid for by that stunning vista when you unzip the tent on a sunny morning to watch the sun rising over the bay.
It’s a place for rock-pooling and exploring, for casting a line amongst the rocks in the hope of a mackerel or pollack or just possibly a beautiful bass. For body-boarding in waves very different from those at Hells Mouth, the architecture of the beach creating a wave that suddenly stands up off the sand and dumps down with considerable force – great fun but keep an eye on the kids until they are confident. For beach cricket as the tide drops and leaves an endless, firm wet sand cricket pitch. For kite flying in the lee of the cliffs, your kite climbing up against the massive bank behind you like the choughs and falcons that fly from this most perfect of perches. And for surfing.
Yes, Porth Ceiriad is a surf beach – one that offers a very different experience to Hell’s Mouth and one more suited to the serious surfer. Local expert and Ceriad surf enthusiast Phill Woods from Abersoch Watersports explains why lesser surfers (like me!) find it more challenging: “Hell’s Mouth is a big, shallow bay, the waves building slowly as they hit the shallow gradient of the sand as it tapers up towards the beach. The result is that the waves generally break relatively slowly, allowing the surfer time to sort out their positioning and paddling as they make the wave. Porth Ceiriad faces south into deeper water, the relatively sudden drop in depth as the beach shelves steeply away causing the waves to ramp up higher and break faster. Combine that with the effect of the ‘refracted wave’ bouncing back of the cliffs at the eastern end of the beach and hitting the incoming wave and it’s an altogether more dynamic experience, with a faster, steeper drop requiring the surfer to be much more precise in their positioning on the wave and their take-off. It’s not unusual for conditions to quickly make surfing Ceiriad close to impossible, the steep, fast-breaking wave instead leaving ideal conditions for expert body boarders.” Which I can confirm can make for some spectacular viewing on big wave days for even the most committed of land-lubbers!
I tell Phill that it reminds me of a break I struggled to surf on the Western shore of Fuerteventura – El Cotillo – and gain some consolation from the news that Phill is an El Cotillo fan too, confirming that, like Ceiriad, it’s more suited to the experienced surfer – I just wish I’d spoken to him before I wasted a week endlessly beating myself up in the fast -breaking Fuerteventura waves!
What Porth Ceiriad does offer the surfer is an alternative to Hell’s Mouth, each being suited to different winds. Surfers look for offshore winds so south-facing Ceiriad is ideal in a northerly that may still be creating problems on more westerly facing Neigwl. For the same reason beach-lovers looking for a sheltered spot in a northerly blow may well find Ceiriad their perfect destination – those big cliffs (don’t sit too near in case of rock falls) offering excellent protection from the wind, creating a cosy oasis on days when you may well be blown off another beach.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the mystical nature of the place, Porth Ceiriad is a bay for poets too. Jonathan Coe, the best-selling writer whose brilliant novel The Rotters Club (it’s a great beach read by the way), is partly set in the Abersoch area, wrote the definitive biography of the celebrated poet, novelist and film-maker, B. S Johnson. ‘Like a Fiery Elephant’ documents the life and work of Johnson, revealing Porth Ceiriad to be his favourite beach and the subject of a number of his poems and film-making. So if you find yourself inspired to rhyme, rhythm or verse as you tread these sands you will be pleased to know that you are in excellent company!
When the summer sun is really blasting its rays, be ready for the beach to take on a new dimension as a stream of boats make their way round from Abersoch. Some to swim or fish in the bay, some to moor up in the shallows and wade to the beach for that desert island picnic, some to head west to anchor in the shelter of Cilan headland – the emerald green, moss-bathed backdrop of what I call the Porth Ceiriad Waterfall a perfect backdrop for those snoozing on deck in the Abersoch sunshine.
For those on foot, this is a beach made for camp-fires. For staying on deep into the evening, maybe with a beer or a bottle of something, and toasting some marshmallows in the flames to the sound of the waves relentlessly bumping down onto the sands and to the ‘cawing’ of the gulls wheeling away over the cliffs high above you, their cries echoing off the amphitheatre of rock that surrounds you on three sides, the fourth dimension a seemingly endless stretch of sea reaching down to south Wales.
The sun is setting behind you here, the immediate drama hidden by those cliffs offering you their warming shelter on this summer evening. Instead the light show is more subtle – playing out across the waters of Cardigan Bay, the moon over the water a subtle blend of pink hues, slowly developing the beam of moonlight that, like a theatre spotlight, will wash its light over the simple pleasures of an evening on the Porth Ceiriad sands, illuminating your beach-bound evening deep into the night. This is Porth Ceiriad – a never-ending adventure, a beach of dreams, of poetry, a place to salve your soul, and maybe just save it!