1988, South and North of Dolwyddelan

This year proved to be a milestone in my pursuit, because I studied my growing mini-library of North Wales walking books, together with my maps, to put together a suitable route to follow, that was also an appropriate number of miles. Exactly what spurred me to do this I cannot remember, but last year’s walk, with its non-existent paths, its over-farmed parts and its endless stretches of road walking, was a low point. Actually, I could not find one big circuit, so I linked together two, or was it three, of the routes in Ralph Maddern’s little 1981 paperback, Walk in Magnificent Snowdonia. These made a figure-of-eight, centred on the village of Dolwyddelan, that had the advantage of me never being too far from my vehicle at any time (that old phobia surfacing again!) so that I would be able to cop-out if I felt the going was too tough or if the weather became awful. In the event, that did not matter, and in fact it felt very strange to pass my van on my second day out. What was most important was that I had a plan, a goal, a schedule, as a result of which I felt an enormous sense of achievement after completing the route (or a good chunk of it, anyway).

So, on Saturday 1st October I spent 5¼ hours, including breaks, travelling to Betws-y-Coed. The edge of the spent Hurricane Helene, travelling northeastwards up the Atlantic towards Greenland, arrived with me, but mercifully it veered away and conditions improved a lot – for a while.

Day 1

I have only a few sketchy memories of the southern loop of the walk, maybe partly because I covered many miles, maybe because it was a route I had not walked previously nor since. I was armed at the time with photocopied portions of Mr Maddern’s book, but his sketched maps are in sections, and both these and his directions in the text can be a little vague to say the least, so at this later date I am unable to fall back on them for help. I do remember a very tiring 3-miles uphill slog on a forestry track in Cym Penamnen, south of Dolwyddelan, but it was enlivened by me sharing part of the way with an elderly man who was out for a Sunday morning stroll, and he patiently taught me that the name of the village was pronounced, “Doll-with-Ellen.” At the southern end of the long cwm, the track curved round to the right, westwards, while I continued straight on where a narrow, muddy footpath climbed extremely steeply up through the trees. Here I became re-acquainted with my old “Why am I doing this?” syndrome. The will to continue having gained the upper hand, I eventually emerged from the edge of the forest above the cwm, with a lovely bit of relatively level walking on upland grassland to enjoy.

Following my intended route around old quarry workings and lakes, I crossed the north edge of Llan Ffestiniog and emerged at a main road where, on finding a telephone kiosk, I called home, before climbing up through a rather wet woodland nature reserve. Having found my way to the southern end of Tanygrisiau Reservoir, I decided to camp here for the night. It was a most scenic spot, with the high mountains of the Moelwyns stretching from the west to the north of me, and the village of Tanygrisiau itself, maybe 1½ miles distant, beyond the north end of the lake. However, around the lake, strands of old vegetation and plastic-based litter in the undergrowth showed that the water level must fluctuate a lot; it was obviously part of the pumped water storage scheme. I was therefore very careful to search for the highest tide line I could find, and pitch my tent above that, but right up until I retired for the night, I kept nervously checking the edge of the water to see if it was rising.

Day 2

Well, the lake certainly was considerably larger in the morning, but it was nowhere near me, so there would be no “Camper Found Drowned” headline in the press, but just then my mind was taken off the thought by the sight and sound of a narrow-gauge train passing nearby. Today’s route took me up through the east side of the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, around a mass of slate quarry workings, then somehow on to the north and the east, and back to Dolwyddelan. Here I passed my van (in the distance) and made my way northwards through a reasonably level area of forest. At the northern limit of the trees, a stone boundary wall and a small stream provided an excellent site for my tent. As darkness fell, I shared this secluded spot with a bat that flitted back and forth above my head.

Day 3

In the morning, I followed a unmissable old packhorse trail across moorland, with the cloud-capped bulk of 2,860 ft Moel Siabod rising to the west. Where the trail dipped down into the Llugwy valley, it was tough on the feet and legs because of the rocky floor, but the sight of the bridge Pont Cyfyng, with its waterfalls beneath, raised my spirits again. Crossing Telford’s road, now the A5, I followed tracks northwards across more moorland to Llyn Crafnant, where I turned uphill eastwards through forest, and then steeply downhill to emerge at Llyn Geirionydd. Both the map and Maddern’s book show a path along the west bank of this lake, and indeed there was one in places, but most of it involved stumbling over masses of exposed tree roots, making me wish I had chosen the lane along the east bank instead.

Further north, I climbed a steep track westwards, and then down a path, more gently, towards the long concrete dam at the north end of Llyn Cowlyd Reservoir. My guidebook shows the route, and I was indeed following a distinct path through bracken and heather, but nothing is shown on the Ordnance Survey map. It was somewhere along this path that rain started to fall from the dull skies, earnestly enough for me to have to don full waterproofs. By the time I reached the dam, the downpour was unrelenting and uncomfortable, so much so that I studied a shelter, a simple stone building with a large open entrance and a wooden bench running around three walls, with the thought of bivouacking inside it for the night, but it smelled strongly of sheep and the mud floor was churned up by hundreds of little hooves. No, I would continue on my way along the bank of the two-miles-long lake until I found a suitable spot for wild camping.

I had not walked very far when I encountered three glum-faced farmers who were driving towards me a small flock of sheep that smelled strongly of chemical dip. The men looked startled to discover another human approaching them in this weather, but one of them recovered sufficiently enough to nod his head towards the heavens and comment, in a strong Welsh lilt, “This iss a bugger, issn’t it!” by way of a greeting

I realised that to camp wild without the chance of being discovered, I would have to trek a good bit further to get away from “civilisation”, so I plodded, squelching, along the lakeside path, the rain spattering against me. As it happened, there was no suitable spot for my tent anyway. The flanks of 2,621 ft Pen Llithrig y Wrach, somewhere up in the clouds on my right, sloped down at an angle of about forty-five degrees to the rocky shore on my left, and it was not until I had passed beyond the far end of the lake that I began to find any level areas of grass. I ultimately chose one such spot, below a little mound that gave me just a bit of shelter from the prevailing wind.

It takes less than ten minutes to get my tent up in conditions like this, after which it was such a relief to be out of the rain. I was surprised to find how little dampness had penetrated my waterproofs, it was only around the neck area; then I remembered I was going to have to go back outside and climb down the rocky gulley below me, to fill my water bag from the stream that fed the lake. Preparing a meal in the porch of a dog kennel-sized tent, even if it does only involve pouring half a pint of boiling water into a foil bag of freeze-dried dinner, and again for a dessert, requires a considerable amount of organisation so that everything is within reach, coupled with a great deal of caution so that things do not get knocked over, while at the same time feeling the need to stretch out tired limbs.

By “lights out” time the rain was coming down harder than before. This would have been at about 9:00 p.m., a little early to go to bed maybe, but at the time of the year I go away it is dark at 8:00 o’clock, which means finding a camping spot between 5:30 and 6:00 on average, before the light fades at 7:00. Once dinner is eaten – preferably while I can still see – there is nothing to do but get in the sleeping bag and read a paperback book by the light of a gas lantern. Anyway, there I was trying to get to sleep against what sounded like someone directing a hosepipe at the flysheet, and every time I woke and drifted off again, it was the same.

I woke once more around 2:30 a.m., to realise that all was not well, for I could feel soft pressure against the underside of the inner tent’s groundsheet. A quick shine outside with my torch revealed that my level grassy area was now under a couple of inches of surface water. I had no choice but to move uphill a few feet. Basically, this involved stuffing all loose items into the main compartment of my rucksack, donning boots (always horrible when they are sodden and cold), lighting the lantern, whipping out all the tent pegs, quickly carrying the tent to the new spot and then re-erecting it. Surprisingly, this is not as horrendous as it sounds, it just has to be got on with, and it is soon done. The break in sleep hardly matters; it does no harm when you are in the sack for eleven hours at a time (in late September it is not light until 7:00 a.m. and the temperature only starts to rise at 8:00 a.m.). The downside is that the new site is nearly always lumpy and sloping, far inferior to the carefully selected original site.

Day 4

A raw, grey morning greeted me. Ragged shreds of cloud moved across the dark hillsides around me, the wind blew chill, and the vegetation lay in sodden, squelching submission to the elements. The stream where I had collected my water supply was now a swollen, brown-coloured rushing mass. After packing up, I splashed the couple of miles, waded in places, from the upland moor down to the A5 road in the Llugwy valley, marvelling none the less at the spectacular view of the lower flanks, when the clouds parted to reveal them , of 3,010 ft Tryfan which was down the valley to the west.

About 3 miles of road bashing came next; wonderful scenery, but not much fun with cars sweeping past (only occasionally, not non-stop as we experience in the South). At least there was a pavement to separate us. I was able to get into a steady pace, and walked all the way past Capel Curig to Pont Cyfyng. Here I retraced my earlier route along the old packhorse trail to reach Dolwyddelan where my van was waiting for me in front of a row of cottages, whose occupants were hopefully keeping an eye on it.

In all, I had completed about seven-eighths of my planned walk (a return over Moel Siabod was what I had intended, but that was absolutely out of the question in the low cloud base) and also I had survived the appalling rainstorm without too much discomfort. Consequently, I was left with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction with this trip that I had not experienced on previous ones.

Footnote

In retrospect, it is telling to observe that I did not go over any mountain summits on this trip, it was entirely around them. I think it is also worth commenting that by now a pattern was emerging of me dashing up to North Wales by the shortest and fastest possible route, usually on motorways, doing my walk, and then spending a couple of days slowly meandering home through the border country and mid-England shires. This year, in particular, marked my first ever visit to Fibrex Nurseries, the fern specialists at Pebworth, near Stratford-upon-Avon, something that became a bit of a tradition in the years that followed. For a while there was a danger of this being considered the highlight of the holiday, the main reason for going!

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