At three o’clock, on Saturday 29th March 2003, a driver paid the last five-pence toll to cross the Cob and reach the delightful town of Porthmadog.
Before then, drivers wishing to avoid the toll and the queue took a seven-mile diversion around two thousand acres of salt marshland called Traeth Mawr.
Lying eight miles from Beddgelert and fourteen miles from Pwllheli, the delightful town of Porthmadog sits just where the Llŷn Peninsula in northwest Wales stretches its arm into the Irish Sea. And, as I’m discovering, the best way to arrive in Porthmadog is along the Cob. With no tolls to pay, and through traffic now taking the bypass, it’s a leisurely drive along the mile-long stone embankment.
Today’s kind weather allows me to make the most of the views on my right. The mountains of the Snowdonia National Park, or Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri to give it its proper Welsh name, dominate the skyline with the rugged peaks of Cnicht and Moelwyn Mawr catching my eye. Further round, low cloud shrouds the top of Wales’s highest peak, Snowdon. Recently, the National Park Authority announced it will use Welsh names more prominently in all of its communications, including tourist promotions. So, instead of saying Snowdon, I should say Yr Wyddfa instead. I may need to practise my Welsh pronunciation!
The view on my left isn’t as far-reaching. All I can see is the Cob’s towering stone wall. To think that this stretches for nearly a mile only emphasises what a tremendous feat of engineering this was when built in 1808. The Cob was the brainchild of William Alexander Madocks, who had Welsh family connections and property in Wales but was also MP for Boston in Lincolnshire. Madocks had big plans for the area. He wanted the Cob and the road it carried to become the main road between London and Porthdinllaen, a small village on the north coast of the Llŷn Peninsula.
There were plans to make Porthdinllaen the main ferry terminal, connecting Wales with Dublin. However, the government chose Holyhead instead, so the main A5 road connecting London with Holyhead took a different route through North Wales. At the end of the Cob, just before the road crosses the Britannia Bridge into town, I spot a National Trust sign pointing to Ynys Tywyn. A minor path climbs up this small rocky knoll, giving me the perfect vista over the Cob and the Glaslyn Valley.
The Cob has three levels. The original is the highest and carries the Ffestiniog Railway line. Cars now drive along the middle level, which was added in 1836, and later widened in 2002 so busses and lorries could pass. The cycle and footpath are the lowest level. It took over 400 men from Wales and England to construct the Cob when work began in 1808. It officially opened on 17th September 1811, but five months later, a storm breached the new wall.
What had already cost Madocks £60,000 to build and bankrupted him in all but name was at risk of failing. However, locals who were previously against the Cob’s construction now realised its potential, and 900 men with 700 horses offered their labour to repair it.
As I gaze across the Glaslyn Valley, I appreciate how difficult this land would have been for anyone to cross. To my left lies the boggy marshland of Traeth Mawr, and to my right are the shifting sands of the Glaslyn estuary.
Traeth Mawr and the Glaslyn estuary was a dangerous place. Many lost their lives in the notorious quicksand as they tried to cross this boggy area. Not only did the Cob make the crossing safer, but it also reclaimed useful farmland from the sea.
Across to the west, I have a wonderful view over Porthmadog’s harbour, with cottages perched on the hillside.
These hill-clinging buildings were all that were here before the Cob existed. Locals called the hamlet Clogyberth. But thanks to the Cob, they witnessed the birth of Porthmadog or Madocks’ Port. At its peak, Porthmadog was one of the world’s biggest slate-exporting ports.
The strangely named Ynys y Ballast or Ballast Island, catches my eye in the estuary, just outside the harbour walls. That seems a strange name. There’s bound to be a story there.
I clamber down from my viewpoint and stumble across a large wooden sculpture of William Madocks himself. A local tree surgeon and wood carver, Steve Faherty, created it to mark the Cob’s 200th-anniversary celebrations. Madocks has certainly weathered over the years, although he looks like he’s got a splitting headache!
A quick stroll across the road lies Porthmadog’s Harbour Railway Station. Now home to the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, Britain’s longest steam railway attracts visitors from all over the world. But they didn’t lay the first iron tracks along the top of the Cob until 1836.
Originally a tramroad, the Ffestiniog Railway connected the slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog in the east with Porthmadog’s harbour. The slate wagons ran by gravity alone for thirteen miles from Snowdonia’s mountain quarries to the harbour. Horses pulled the empty wagons back. The Welsh Highland Railway negotiates a scenic twenty-five-mile route from Caernarfon, through the Welsh mountains. This allowed the slate to be taken to harbours at either Caernarfon or Porthmadog.
To allow two separate trains to arrive at the station simultaneously, the Harbour Station’s platform had to be extended in 2014. The Cob had to be widened further for this. Now the work is complete, it means a train from Blaenau Ffestiniog and another from Caernarfon can be at the station at the same time. This makes it easier for tourists to travel nearly forty miles from Blaenau Ffestiniog through to Caernarfon on narrow gauge heritage railway lines.
I decide to take the footpath running alongside the track as it travels along the Cob. I have to be careful when a train trundles past because there’s no fence, but the views are worth it. A mile later, I reach the outskirts of the Boston Lodge Works, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways engineering sheds. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, these are the oldest in continuous operation. They’re also the only ones to have built steam engines in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries! A steam engine called Criccieth Castle whistles past me as it prepares to shunt some carriages into the sheds.
Steep steps drop me to the road, and I have to be careful as I cross over, but once on the other side, there’s a lovely smooth cycle track that runs back to town. I wish I had my binoculars with me because there are hundreds of birds feeding on the salt marshland beside here. There are oystercatchers, Canadian geese, and even a Heron wading through the long grass. I bet dedicated birders spend all day here.
Back in Porthmadog, I cross over the town’s unusual combined road bridge and level crossing. Steam trains on the Welsh Highland Railway use this road bridge to cross over the Afon Glaslyn to reach the Harbour Station. Beside the harbour stands Porthmadog’s fascinating Maritime Museum. Open between Easter and the Autumn Half Term, it is a treasure trove of nautical nostalgia.
And remember Ballast Island? I was right. There is a story behind it! As a harbour, Porthmadog exported Welsh slate all over the world. However, unlike traditional trading routes, where ships brought imported goods back home, Porthmadog’s slate ships often returned empty.
To ensure they remained stable at sea, these ships carried stone ballast in their holds. This had to be emptied when they arrived back. At first, the ships emptied the ballast right beside the harbour, and the land it created became known as Rotten Tare. Levelled off in 1862, the authorities turned it into another harbour wharf.
However, ships needed a new site to empty their ballast and harbour officials identified a sandy bank just outside the harbour walls. From 1868, ships dumped their ballast here, creating Ballast Island, which contains rocks from all over the world, including some as far afield as Australia and South America.
From the Maritime Museum, I follow the Welsh Coast path around the harbour and into Lombard Street. Huge buildings line the harbour side of the road, remnants from the town’s shipbuilding days. Craftsmen built some 300 ships here in its heyday. My path climbs before magically dropping me into the heart of Borth-y-Gest. The idyllic view across the cove stretches into the tidal sand embankments of Tremadog Bay.
Houses at the mouth of the cove were called pilot houses because their owners would watch for ships entering the bay who needed their navigational skills to steer them safely into Porthmadog harbour.
A perfectly positioned bench allows me to enjoy the setting sun. The sun may have set on Porthmadog’s shipping and slate industry, but it’s a fantastic place to visit. Especially as it no longer costs a shilling to cross the Cob these days!
© Simon Whaley