A successful family break is a tricky proposition. Satisfying the sometime conflicting wishes of two young children is hard enough, never mind throwing in something for us grown-ups. The harbour resort of Barmouth on the Gwynedd coast seems like an excellent option – beaches and seaside fun for miles, plus plenty to see and do once we were tired of sand between our toes.
Day 1 - exploring Barmouth and Fairbourne
Upon arrival in Barmouth, we check into our accommodation – a top floor apartment in one of the handsome Victorian buildings that line the town’s seafront. It proves an instant hit with the kids, thanks both to its proximity to the beach and the large bowl of complimentary chocolates sitting on the dining table.
Fully sugared up, we head out to explore. The flashing lights of the arcade and fairground promise some traditional seaside fun, but we manage to persuade the kids to defer this in favour of a walk across Barmouth’s historic wooden railway bridge. Opened in 1867, this 820-metre/2390ft span stretches right across the mouth of the Mawddach Estuary and still carries Cambrian Coast Line trains on their journey along the coast. It’s also part of the Wales Coast Path and Mawddach Trail cycling route, both of which seem popular with walkers and bikers as we make our way across.
Reaching solid ground on the other side, we carry on into Fairbourne, a quiet seaside community of bungalows and holiday homes. Sensing that we have probably exhausted the kids’ appetite for walking, we decide to make our way back to Barmouth on the Fairbourne Railway. Traversing a route it has followed for more than 100 years, this miniature steam-hauled train puffs us through the dunes to Barmouth Ferry Station, where we board a small boat for the short ride back to Barmouth’s bustling harbour.
After lunch (mussels and dressed crab in harbourside seafood specialist The Lobster Pot) it’s time to hit Barmouth beach. Despite the warm weather and summer holiday crowds, there’s plenty of space on the expanse of soft golden sand. The kids spend a few happy hours rolling down dunes, building castles and splashing about in the surprisingly warm surf (even the adults manage to venture in and get our feet wet). Accepting that we can’t put off our visit to the arcade for ever, we spend some time (and money) shovelling coins into various jangling machines before heading home for the evening.
Day 2 - Dyffryn Ardudwy and Harlech
Flushed with success at yesterday’s walk, in the morning we push our luck with the shorter but somewhat steeper stroll up to Dinas Oleu. Looming above Barmouth, this rugged 4.5-acre range of fields, cliffs and meandering dry stone walls became the first National Trust property in 1895 – following its donation by local landowner Fanny Talbot. Ascending the winding path leading to its summit generates some complaints from the kids, but even they have to admit that the views over Cardigan Bay and the Llŷn Peninsula are pretty impressive.
Ascending the winding path leading to its summit generates some complaints from the kids, but even they have to admit that the views over Cardigan Bay and the Llŷn Peninsula are pretty impressive."
Next, we pile into the car for a drive up the coast to medieval Harlech Castle. On the way we stop off to explore some even more ancient history at Dyffryn Ardudwy Burial Chamber, where two neighbouring Neolithic monuments built several generations apart stand next to each other. Though my lad is somewhat disappointed by the lack of any visible skeletons, the children enjoy peering into the tombs’ shadowy interiors and imagining what life must have been like for the people who built them so long ago.
There’s no chance of disappointment at mighty Harlech Castle (one of a quartet of World Heritage Site fortresses in this part of Wales). As soon as we cross the shiny new ‘floating’ footbridge and enter through its sturdy gatehouse, we are transported back through the centuries. Considering it was built over 700 years ago, it still looks pretty impregnable, with sheer walls rising from the rocky outcrop on which it stands.
The kids rush off in search of ‘Edward I’s Secret Weapon’, a treasure hunt/history trail that reveals the castle’s past in a way guaranteed to engage younger visitors. To be honest, I enjoy it too – castles have always brought out the big kid in me. It's the perfect motivation to keep exploring Harlech's various nooks and crannies – though you'll have to visit yourself if you want to solve the mystery.
After tour of the ramparts to take in the views of Eryri's (Snowdonia) peaks, we venture outside the walls to the Water Gate – reached via a steep 108-step journey below the castle itself. Once an access point to the sea (now receded behind dunes and the nearby Royal St David’s Golf Club) this unique feature allowed Harlech to resupply with food and water during the many sieges it endured in its long and eventful life.
A quick pit-stop for sandwiches at Wilderness Cafe/Y Gwyllt just over the road from the castle and everyone is ready for another visit to the beach. A short hop in the car brings us to Morfa Harlech, where we walk through the towering dunes of the Morfa Harlech National Nature Reserve on our way to the beach. It’s a hugely significant habitat home to an astonishing variety of fascinating flora and fauna – though my attempts to play David Attenborough struggle to compete with the kids’ desire for a paddle.
When we emerge from the dunes and onto Harlech beach, it’s hard to think their enthusiasm was misplaced. With sparkling white sand and shimmering blue-green water beneath a cloudless sky, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Mediterranean rather than the North Wales coast – were it not for the unmistakable profile of Eryri’s summits peeking out from above the dunes.
With a shallow, gently sloping shore and narrow tidal range that keeps the water close, it’s the perfect beach for our young adventurers who spend several happy hours playing in the waves and trying their hands at a little light bodyboarding.
Our trip ends back on Barmouth beach, enjoying a final ice-cream as the shadows lengthen across the sand. Getting young kids to agree with each other is pretty rare, but our days on the Gwynedd coast receive rave reviews across the board. We’ll have to stay longer next time.
The Welsh coast can be fantastic fun and provides great opportunities for adventurous activities, but please read up on the risks and make sure you are prepared.
- Follow these tips from the RNLI for staying safe on the Welsh coast.
- Visit AdventureSmart.uk for further information on how to stay safe whilst exploring Wales.