What it’s like to walk right around Wales: tips and tales from the trail with seasoned hiker Michelle Gollins

Few people can say they have walked the entire way around a country. Wales might have become the world’s first nation to have a footpath all along its borders with the completion of the Wales Coast Path (WCP) in 2012, therefore making the challenge more possible. But actually doing the hike, 870 miles on the WCP, another 177 miles on the Offa’s Dyke Path (ODP) which makes up the complete Welsh circuit, so almost 1050 MILES in total… that is no easy feat. Not physically, not mentally, not logistically. Today we talk to one of the select few to have circumnavigated Wales on foot, why she did it, what it was like and what she learned as a result…   

You walked right around the nation of Wales, Michelle. First of all, what inspired you to do that? Do you have a personal connection to Wales? Did you set out from the very beginning to walk the whole route? 

It all started in 2013. I signed up to take part in a 26.2 mile charity walk in London called the MoonWalk in aid of breast cancer research. The walk starts at midnight and walkers
wear brightly decorated bras in order to raise awareness of breast cancer. I roped my husband into signing up: he too, wore a decorated bra!! In order to train for this marathon hike, we started walking sections of the North Wales coast path, slowly building up the mileage and finally to the stage where we could complete a 20-mile walk (Bangor to Conwy) 

After completing the London MoonWalk (ten hours of non-stop walking!), I realised I had covered a quite a lot of the North Wales coast path in the preparation. The WCP had only just opened as the world’s first and longest continuous trail around the whole coast of a country the previous year. It was then that I had the idea to try and walk the whole route! I am Welsh, and was born & brought up in North Wales, which made Wales an obvious choice for trying this kind of challenge too. In my youth, I didn’t appreciate the stunning scenery of the coastal areas, so I thought attempting a hike like this might give me a chance to do that. 

In terms of what else motivated me, aside from a few walking milestones by this point (in 2014, I also finished the Edinburgh MoonWalk – and in a quicker 8hrs 10 minutes!I) I had recently signed up to Twitter and started following other walkers who were walking the WCP. Reading their Tweets/blogs certainly made me more determined to keep on going. In particular, @charlesbchawes, @RuthlessTweets & @siriolg were inspirational. When I began in 2013, I  didn’t know if I’d ever complete even the whole WCP, especially the sections further away from home. I walked it bit by bit and didn’t think too far ahead. Walking the ODP and thereby to complete the full circumference of Wales on foot wasn’t considered until I was finishing the WCP and wanted the next challenge.

Very impressive Michelle. So the complete path is over 1000 miles – how on earth do you plan for such an epic hike? 

I didn’t complete it in one go (I work full time, so this would have been impossible)! In fact, it took me 7 years! I only walked during British Summer Time so, as soon as the clocks went forward in March, I started planning my walks & when the clocks go back in October, I hung up my walking boots until the following year. My time frame for this hike was:

  • 2013: North Wales
  • 2014: Llyn Peninsula
  • 2015: Ceredigion
  • 2016: Pembrokeshire
  • 2017 Carmarthenshire/South Wales
  • 2018 Anglesey
  • 2019 Offa’s Dyke Path

My husband walked with me to start with, but he wasn’t keen on the distances I covered, due to an old motorcycling injury, so after reaching Aberystwyth together, he decided to bow out of the walks & opted to drop me off, pick me up & meet me half way with refreshments instead! From Carmarthenshire onwards, it was too far for him to provide the transport so I relied on public transport to get me to & from the relevant point on the WCP/ODP.

When I started walking solo, I bought the official WCP guidebooks and OS maps and planned carefully before setting off. The further away from home the route was, the longer the sections I walked, taking 2 to 5 days to walk & staying at B&Bs en-route.

The closest I came to camping was staying in a glamping pod in Tudweiliog on the Llyn Peninsula – but other than that, I opted to maximise my comforts en-route in B&Bs with a full Welsh cooked breakfast every morning!

I would always check the WCP website before setting off. Coastal erosion is a continuous problem and diversions are common. The odd diversion might seem ostensibly inconsequential, but when it adds several miles onto your day’s walk, it’s worth paying them close attention!  Also, sometimes the WCP sign posts are not visible so having the official guidebook is really useful as the route is described really well. I used the official WCP guidebooks by Northern Eye Books. You might imagine it’s as simple as just following the coast, with that big landmark (the sea!!) on one side, but it’s not always! I also used the MAPS.ME app in conjunction with the guidebooks – it uses GPS to display your location so you know if you are on the right track.

I didn’t, and still don’t, spend lots of money on gear. I just have a good pair of walking shoes & walking poles. Fitness and determination are more important, I think. I only wore out two lots of footwear walking around Wales: my personal favourites being a pair of Salomon walking shoes. I never once had any blisters or toe nails coming off, which was a big plus for me because I lost 3 toenails with my first pair of shoes! The distances I walked varied but it was about 10 miles per day on average. I am capable of walking longer distances, but wanted to walk at a pace where I can appreciate my surroundings and take photos along the way.

So you did much of the path solo. How did you find that aspect of the walk?

I actually have a mention in a list of 100 women who walk solo. I like walking on my own, I can walk at my own pace (which is slow!) and I find other walkers are more likely to stop and chat to you.

There was never a shortage of people to meet on the WCP and ODP. I was always surprised how far people have travelled just to complete these walks. I have met people from Montana, LA, the Netherlands & Australia to name a few. There is a church along ODP that allows walkers in to make themselves a hot drink (for a donation) and the visitors book is signed by Offa’s Dyke walkers from all over the world. A group of Australians I walked with were saying how lucky we are in this country to have such walking trails. They said that Australia is so vast it is impossible to have do-able long distance trails. I agree, we are lucky in this country.

As hikers ourselves we know that even when you are enjoying a multi-day hike, there are highs and lows. Could you describe a couple that you had on the walk? 

I had mostly just high points. One that sticks in my memory is standing at the top of Moel Famau, the highest point of the Clwydian Range of hills, with a superb 360° view around from the Cheshire Plain on the right, across to Liverpool & the Wirral, along the North Wales coast and right over to Snowdon – it was such a clear day – amazing. Another is the finish of the ODP in Prestatyn. I remember walking into Prestatyn town centre & at least 3 locals shouted over to me “keep going, not far now” and “da iawn” (very good/well done). That was an amazing feeling. It was a great feeling to finish the WCP in Chepstow, too, but, as I found ODP more challenging and strenuous, especially the Shropshire ‘switchbacks’ and the Clwydian Range, this encouragement right at the end by total strangers was the best feeling ever.

It’s true that I sometimes feel vulnerable being a solo walker – pondering over what would happen if I get injured and the like. So on stages like when I was walking over Hatterrall Ridge from Monmouthshire into Powys, I planned that route very carefully to coincide with good weather (trust me, you don’t want to get lost in the Black Mountains in bad weather). But my biggest fear is cattle! I worry about being trampled by cows. In Pembrokeshire, cattle are free to roam. I came face to face with two lively adolescent bulls on a rather narrow stretch of the WCP. I managed to get by waving my walking poles but my heart was in my mouth! I never had a moment where I wanted to give up. I even became the first person to complete ODP with a completed ODP passport! I found having a passport a great motivator, actually.

To walk round an entire country must really give you a special feeling of completion, and of having properly seen Wales in all its many types of terrain. Could you give us an insight into how that feels, and how you personally felt when you completed the path?

I do feel a sense of achievement after completing the WCP & ODP, albeit drawn out over a long time rather than all at once. I have walked through areas of Wales that, unless you are walking the coast path, you would never think of visiting. There are areas that are inaccessible by car known as ‘no get out areas’ so only walkers get to see them. Even the built up industrial areas are interesting and make good photographs. I can certainly say that I feel more of a connection to Wales now as I have walked completely around this country. I even watch Welsh walking programmes on TV just so I can say “I’ve been there”! And it makes me want to do it all over again!

On the hike, could you tell us your favourite…

Stage of the walk – and why: Aberffraw to Newborough on the Isle of Anglesey because of the amazing backdrop of the Llyn Peninsula and Snowdonia. 
Beach – and why: Llangrannog in Ceredigion: a stunning beach totally hidden away down a narrow country lane.
Village/town – and why: Morfa Nefyn, and more specifically the Ty Coch Inn, mainly because of it’s location on the beach: a great place to have a pint at the end of your walk!
Castle – and why: It’s got to be Conwy. I’m a bit biased, though, because that’s where I grew up!
Place that you ate – and why: The Sloop Inn in Porthgain, Pembrokeshire: because it’s the nicest dinner I’d had for a long time and the pub still has most of it’s 18th century features.

Place that you stayed – and why: The Walking Hub B&B in Kington (actually just in England!) on the ODP. There was a warm welcome, I could soak in the bath with bath salts provided, other ODP walkers were staying there which was nice for a chat and to exchange experiences. The host even makes you a healthy packed lunch for the next day’s walk.

So now you have walked around the whole of Wales, Michelle, what is your next big hiking project? And where can we hear/find out more about it?

My next walk is going to be Glyndŵr’s Way so I can say that I have walked across Wales too! I’ll be raising funds for St. David’s Hospice. During this pandemic, they, like so many other charities, have taken a hit on their fundraising and these funds are vital to keep their services going. Any support from you readers would be invaluable.

READ ON: Meeting a modern-day pilgrim: insights from Iaian Tweedale, pilgrimage guide

Donate to Michelle’s St David’s Hospice fundraising page, follow her on Twitter or catch up with her latest walking adventures at her blog.

Mid-walk… ©Michelle Gollins