1992, Northern Carneddau from Conwy

This autumn saw me keen to try out some changes to my equipment. Firstly, I had found in successive years that the groundsheet of my inner tent, purchased in 1983, was no longer waterproof. From 1986 onwards, it appeared to be wicking up moisture, evidenced by looking a darker colour around the rectangle of my kipmat beneath it, until in 1989 the underside of my sleeping bag became wet on that wild night beside Llyn Cowlyd. I then treated the groundsheet with Nikwax Texnik waterproofing, which was extremely successful, but only in the short-term – after keeping me dry in the Arans in 1990, wet patches appeared again in 1991. I also found that the silicones in the treatment made the groundsheet very slippery, so that I slid around all over the place in my sleeping bag. Grasping my stuff-sack pillow with one hand, while clinging with the other hand onto the lump made by a rush tussock , was not conducive to a good night’s sleep. I located a company called the Camping Repair Centre in Bristol, just in time as the proprietors were about to retire, but they sent me some samples, including some camouflage-pattern coated nylon they had left over from a previous order. I was keen to have this, and a satisfactory repair was carried out.

I also replaced my sleeping bag. My old synthetic one was clearly getting flatter, and consequently less warm, so I paid what was for me almost a king’s ransom for a 3-4 season down one by Rab, a top maker. Down is much warmer, lighter in weight and longer lasting than fibre; it packs smaller, and this particular one came in olive-green as supplied to the armed forces. I should mention here that I had by now become obsessive about being as inconspicuous as possible in the mountains; virtually every piece of my backpacking clothing and equipment is olive or green coloured, flying in the face of the general convention that you dress as brightly as possible in case the rescue services have to find you. Where does a sleeping bag come into this? It has to be hung up or spread out for airing in the mornings, and I do not want any farmer spotting it from half a mile away. This bag has since proved to be so snug and comfortable that I prefer it to my bed at home, well, almost! The only disadvantage of down is that it loses its insulation properties if it becomes wet, following which it takes an age to dry, which is something that I have to be extremely careful about.

I think it must have been around this time, too, that I bought a new jacket to replace my draughty fleece one. I chose a laminated pile one, again in olive-green, but unfortunately it turned out to be a poor choice. It kept the wind out well but it was bulky, stiff and heavy, and it restricted my movements. Furthermore, it was never a jacket that I could snuggle into and feel warm and cosy in, consequently I replaced this in 1997.

My route in 1992 was inspired by David and Kathleen MacInnes’ 1984 book Walking in Wales, which I had recently picked up very cheaply as an ex-library copy. My plan was to walk westwards from Conwy to Aber, keeping parallel with the coast, and then head south to the Carneddau summits, to spend whatever time was available up there before heading back, this time parallel with the valley of the River Conwy.

After arriving in North Wales, I spent my first night on a large campsite high on a hill overlooking the Conwy estuary. The site had excellent facilities and was very well organised, but this was also its downside, for it was organised to the point where you were allocated a numbered pitch on booking in, and if there is one thing I hate, it is having no choice where to erect my tent. In my opinion, it takes away some of the freedom associated with camping. I like to choose a relatively isolated spot with dense shortish grass, preferably slightly higher than the surrounding ground in case of waterlogging, and of course I want it as near level as possible. I also look for shelter from the prevailing wind, and ideally the entrance of the tent facing east, to warm in morning sun, if any. Pitch No. 47 met a couple of those criteria, but it was rather muddy so I stood my tent a little to one side of the numbered marker, in direct contravention of Site Rules and Regulations, as printed on the back of my receipt. Tut, tut!

Day 1

Leaving my van in the busy square in the centre of Conwy (there were no parking restrictions then), I quickly made my way out of the residential roads up onto Conwy Mountain. From the heights, I viewed for my first time the A55 Expressway (the nearest thing they have to a motorway in North Wales) disappearing into the recently constructed tunnel that conveys it out of sight beneath the river estuary, very different to how I remember it as a boy. (Did I really write that last bit? I was 50 this year, and showing my age already!) The tracks I walked on were proportionately like major routes, too, for they were flat, straight and extremely wide. It being a bright and settled Sunday morning, a fair number of people were out taking exercise.

Passing the head of Sychnant Pass at Dwygyfylchi, well-known to me from childhood days (there I go again!), I continued above Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan to eventually arrive at the car park by the start of the path to Aber Falls. I found a lovely grassy corner by a forestry track not too far from the car park, incidentally seeing a stoat cross the track on my way there, and that night I slept well, aided no doubt by my luxurious new sleeping bag.

The toilet block in the car park came in handy in the morning, well before any visitors arrived, and I set off for the Falls in brilliant sunshine, very different from when I last stepped this way in 1983. The waterfall was as impressive as ever, so too were the lesser ones of Rhaeadr Bach to the west, even allowing from the small amount of water that was coming down either of them. From the latter falls, my book had instructed me to cross the next stream and follow it, “at first near its bank but gradually moving high above it as the valley narrows.” Well, never was anything more impractical! The valley was very steep, while the stream banks were densely overgrown with totally pathless bracken, and furthermore, it was now a sunny and baking hot autumn day. I persevered, I perspired and I succeeded, but once I gained the saddle above the stream, I could see that it would have been far more logical to have remained on the path I was on when crossed the stream, before climbing straight on to reach an obvious track that I could now see contouring the far hillside. That track was marked on my map, and it would have brought me easily to within a short distance of where I now stood.

Having gained the height I was at, with so much effort and in such hot conditions, I was now reluctant to take any steps in a downward direction, so it was at this point that I abandoned the authors’ route and started doing my own thing. Starting from a flattish, grassy area at about 1,500 feet up, just to the east of a summit named Gyrn, I walked southwards until I found a distinct footpath that slowly climbed to the southwest of 2,484 ft Drosgl, then eastwards past 2,647 ft Bera Bach and on to 3,038 ft Garnedd Uchaf. At this height, the terrain was mainly bare rock slabs and rubble. The sun, still blazing from a clear sky, gave the feeling of a lunar landscape.

After sitting amongst the rocks for a long and lazy lunch break, I buttoned up my shirt (in those days, slightly itchy wool plaid, as sold by every outdoors shop) that I had opened up to air my sweaty body, whereupon I was promptly stung on the chest by a wasp that had crawled inside without me noticing. This resulted in a very sore third nipple between the other two for the next few days. I was rather indignant that this could have happened to me at about 3,000 feet above sea level, and I doubt if the wasp thought much of it, either.

From Garnedd Uchaf, a long straight footpath, later a track, leads northeastwards down towards the Conwy Valley, and pleasantly easy walking it was. Somewhere along the upper edge of the valley I spent my second night wild camping. It was near the prehistoric hill fort of Pen-y-gaer, where I picked up a stone in the shape of an axe head or something similar. I doubt if it really was one, but anyway I forgot it the next morning and left it behind.

Day 2

Moving dark clouds rolled across the sky in the morning, as I set off north-eastwards on very minor lanes, along which I felt self-satisfied at positively identifying plants of Mountain male-fern, Dryopteris oreades, on the verges. A tricky species to tell, I had been introduced to it on a Field Studies course in the preceding year. On one of my frequent backward glances to check on the weather, I caught sight of bright shafts of sunlight piercing the black clouds to light up an individual green hillside. Oh, to have had a camera ready at that moment! (I did not start carrying one until 2000.)

Leaving the lanes at a t-junction, I was back on footpaths again. I headed first northeast, then northwest, skirting the eastern flanks of 2,001 ft Tal-y-Fan, on the way passing the engine of an aircraft that had crashed there over thirty years ago, so I have since read. (The subject of a lot of research and much literature, the crags of Snowdonia are apparently littered with the remains of many planes, mainly wartime ones, not that I had previously seen any, though I do remember seeing mortar bomb flights in streams when I was a boy, but I believe those were from army exercises.) Then I came upon a wonderful little disused quarry that was entered through a short tunnel in a rock wall. Here I whiled away time by botanising, climbing and generally messing around.

Miles ceased to matter on this walk; it was nice to just potter about and amuse myself (and less tiring, too) rather than feel I had a schedule to keep to – this was something that was, unfortunately, becoming inevitable on these trips. I had one week’s autumn holiday from work. To make the most of it, I had to drive to North Wales on the first Saturday, and commence my walk on the Sunday. I needed to walk a certain proportion of my planned circular route each day if I was to get back to my starting point in time – I was always conscious of the fact that to walk on for another day inevitably meant a further day to walk back as well. I carry enough food for 4½ days, but I generally finish walking during the fourth day, or sometimes the third day; however that still only leaves me a couple of days afterwards to do things like looking in second-hand book shops and calling at the Warwickshire fern nursery during their hours. Then I need at least a day at home to clean and dry all of my wet equipment, before returning to work on Monday morning. Much as I wanted to get away from it all, everything was having to be done to a timetable.

The end of the afternoon became decidedly damp, though this was of the heavy drizzle sort rather than the torrential sort. My desire for shelter led me to pitch my tent within the four walls of one of a pair of ruined stone buildings. My tent only just fitted in the space available, leaving it a little bit cramped around its entrance. Had there been any wind, I would certainly have been sheltered from it; whether I was sheltered from the rain or not is debatable. I suspect I was not, for Welsh drizzle is highly penetrating.

Day 3

Not only was it still drizzling in the morning, as well as being very grey, dull and murky, it was also much cooler, though this was not surprising considering how hot it had been two days previously. However, I had only a few downhill miles to walk on clear paths to reach Conwy, from where I drove straight to Shrewsbury. Here, as of habit, I spent the night before returning home, via the fern nursery of course, on Thursday 1st October.

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