David Atkinson and daughter Maya spend a day hunting for mini sea creatures in the rock pools on Llandanwg Beach, a remote spot on Snowdonia National Park's coastline
It’s a bright, wind-gusting day at the beach. We stand on the shingle, looking north towards the Llyn Peninsula and east towards the snow-saddled pyramidal peak of Snowdon. Spring, it feels, is bursting into life around us. Sandwich Terns dive for fish out to sea, while seals and dolphins will bob playfully past this way in summer.
My daughter, Maya, and I have come to Llandanwg beach to meet Brian Macdonald of Wildlife Wales, who arranges a weekly programme of guided wildlife trips around a remote stretch Ardudwy coastline between Harlech and Barmouth.
Wiltshire-born Brian, a former botanist at Kew Gardens, has made the area his home and now writes a Country Diary-style blog about the local wildlife. He also leads nature walks on northern shore of the River Artro estuary, takes fly-fishing trips and cooks up foraged beach suppers over driftwood fires in summer. But Maya and I are here for a spot of spring rock pooling, hunting for mini-beasts amongst the ecosystem of tide-turned rocks and glistening-green seaweed.
“Rock-pooling is a lucky dip,” laughs Brain, explaining that the secret is to find a rock with space underneath and a good smothering of sea-salty reeds. As we clamber over the rocks with green-mesh dipping nets, we find winkles, barnacles and limpets, the latter clinging steadfastly to the rocks. Brian attempts to catch one off guard with a sharp jab of his Wellington boot. “You only get one chance with limpets,” he smiles. “Once they’re startled, they cling on for dear life.”
Of our catch, Maya is most impressed by the sea anemone and a solitary prawn, its wiry tentacles feeling the Perspex tank as we hold it up to the sun. Prawns, Brian explains, have what looks like yellow-and-blue stripy socks on their feet and, like crabs, they grow by moulting, casting off their old shells like growing into a new school coat. “How do they make babies?” asks Maya, and Brian explains how the females keep eggs under their tails to be fertilised externally. Back at Y Maes, Llandanwg’s sunshiny beach café, we compile a list of our finds over mugs of hot chocolate and scoops of raspberry ripple ice cream before returning the creatures to the sea.
From the beach, we head back into the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, stopping for lunch and a gentle afternoon mooch around the grey-slate market town of Dolgellau, the visitor hub of southern Snowdonia – it's worth remembering that lots of places close on Wednesdays around Dolgellau.
Plates of freshly made Welsh rarebit, slices of bread slathered with sautéed leeks, melted cheese and wholegrain mustard, go down a treat at T.H. Roberts, a charmingly traditional independent café. The adapted fittings of the old ironmongers shop are now home to coffee machines, homemade cakes and daily newspapers.
After lunch we take a peek at the current exhibition in the upstairs art gallery and I order a fresh-baked loaf of bara brith, a local speciality fruit loaf, to take home. The streets around Eldon Square, the centre of town, are home to lots of interesting little independent shops, notably local deli Popty’r Dref and Grug, a funky little emporium where a collective of local craftspeople showcase their works.
The latter is on the ground floor of Ty Siamas, the National Centre for Welsh Folk Music with its exhibition and regular live events. The centre is particularly buzzy during Session Fawr, an annual festival of Welsh music staged in July.
To stay on, there are some good accommodation options nearby. To combine Dolgellau with walking the Mawddach Way long-distance trail, the owners of Coed Cae are very knowledgeable about walking routes. Ffynnon is a stylish boutique guesthouse in Dolgellau itself with six homely rooms and a breakfast table heaving with locally sourced produce. Bring your own yellow-and-blue stripy socks.