A number of factors influenced this year’s choice of walk. I had read in one of my books that the Berwyns range contains the longest continuous ridge walk in North Wales, the thought of which greatly appealed to me. Also appealing was the comparatively “short” drive to south-eastern Snowdonia, as I had temporarily had enough of ploughing all of the way to the northern parts. It was also an area I had never previously visited, and it is home to Wales’ highest waterfall, which I wanted to see. Many years before, I had planned to detour there on the way home from a holiday with my wife and sons, but it turned out to be a very hot and close day, leaving the boys feeling a bit carsick, so we drove straight home instead.
Once again, I relied heavily on David and Kathleen MacInnes’ book Walking Through Wales for inspiration, following great chunks of their circuit, particularly for the southern and eastern sections of my route. The initial approach, and the main ridge, I cribbed from other books, while some of it was my own invention.
So, on a grey and cool September Saturday, I drove to the delightful little town of Llangollen, where I spent the night at Wern Isaf Farm, which is up in the hills above the far side of the River Dee. As sites go, it was so-so; the facilities were basic, no hot water for example, while the only flat ground was down by the farm buildings and this was already occupied by a handful of touring caravans and motorhomes. I pitched my small tent up at the top of the campsite, on a little flat spot by a disused gate, from where I could look down onto the whole farm.
On Sunday morning, I drove a few miles westwards on the A5, to leave my van in the tiny village of Llidiart y Parc (I was struck by the beauty of so many of the place names this year) from where I set off, climbing steadily due south, first on woodland track and then on heather moorland path. This was grouse shooting country, made evident by shooting butts, numbered posts and landrover tracks. When I was due east of Moel Fferna, the faintest and narrowest of side paths took me through the heather up to its 2,071 ft summit. Here I viewed even more heather and even more cold, grey skies. A peaty path led downhill from the top and then up again, to the minor summit of Cerrig Coediog, after which I lost the path and my bearings, but charged on nonetheless, using my instinct.
With a little bit of skill and a lot of good luck, I arrived at a major intersecting track, close to the “Wayfarer” memorial stone which commemorated a cyclist who liked to get off the beaten track, particularly up here. Opposite here, oh joy of joys, there was a large notice board informing me this was the start of a Courtesy Path along the Berwyn Ridge. As with a similar path I found along the Rhinogs in 1986, I had absolutely no previous knowledge of its presence; it amazes me that the Ordnance Survey chooses to give no clue whatsoever of such paths on their maps.
It was a tiring slog up a narrow, and often wet, peaty path towards the first major summit, 2,572 ft Cadair Bronwen. At a col just before the final ascent, a flat grassy ledge literally just below the edge of the ridge, offered shelter from the chill westerly air stream. It was a bit early to be stopping for the night, but as I had the whole of the main part of the ridge ahead of me, I felt I might find no better place to camp (as it happened, I was right, there was nowhere as suitable for many miles). Space was a bit limited, but the view of the extensive slopes leading down to the cwm below me, more than made up for it.
Come the morning, I continued along the ridge, first up to Cadair Bronwen, then down a little and up a little to 2,712 ft Cadair Berwyn, and down a little bit more and up again to 2,713 ft Moel Sych. Between the last two summits, I was surprised to see two boys aged about fourteen, pushing bikes up the flank of the mountain. As we exchanged a few words, they looked rather cold and uncomfortable, but the wild glint of adventure shone in their eyes, something, I fondly imagined, that might have shown on my face when I was that age.
From Moel Sych an arduous descent on a very wet peat path following a wire fence led me for over three miles in the direction of Milltir Gerrig, while a chilly, eye-watering wind blew from my right side. My original plan was to have descended as far as Milltir Gerrig itself, followed by up to three miles of road bashing, and then all the lost height to be regained climbing a path to the Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall that was my next major objective. Ahead of me, though, I could see a broad and fairly level ridge on the left, that the map showed would lead me south-eastwards towards the waterfall. As my progress had been rather slow in the peat-and-heather terrain, I now I figured that I might just as well go by the most direct way possible, even though it was pathless. A decision was made that when I reached a point opposite the end of this ridge I would cut across country to it.
I eventually reached a new-looking wire fence that branched southwards towards the aforementioned ridge, and I was glad to follow this fence, for it gave me a point of reference in the otherwise empty moorland. The ridge itself turned out to be slow going with plenty of heather and tussocky grass to forge a way through, but I persevered and eventually found myself at the head of an old quarry track from where I looked down a bracken-covered hillside into the Afon Rhaeadr valley. Once again, it was slightly early to stop for the night, but there were little streams here, and patches of level grass in the bracken, while to have continued would have brought me to the waterfall at the wrong time of the day, as well as being within earshot of it (I had learnt over the years how difficult it is to sleep with the noise of water close by).
So there I was, pottering about putting everything in its place to make the preparation of my evening meal easier, when I heard the distinct sound of a motorcycle heading my way. The noise grew louder, and I froze in a crouched position, peering through the bracken to see a large farmer perched on a small bike, singing a hymn in Welsh as he slowly ascended the quarry track, not a hundred feet before me. I prayed that the tip of my tent (green, of course) was not visible above the bracken, but I had not reckoned on his two black-and-white sheepdogs, which raced up the hill and found me straight away! I tried to make soft, friendly noises to them while they crouched barking at me, then to my surprise and relief the farmer called them off, and continued on his way. He must have thought they were after a rabbit or something, I am sure he never saw me. Nevertheless, I moved about cautiously with my ears pricked for the next twenty minutes, not relaxing until after the farmer had ridden back down the track, still singing, but this time without his dogs paying any attention to me.
After a night that was not one of my most comfortable, for the little bit of grass I had pitched my tent on seemed to slope two ways at once beneath my recumbent body, I woke to a beautiful cloudless autumn morning (the only fine day of this year’s trip, as it turned out). I revelled in the warmth as I ate my muesli breakfast, surrounded by sleeping bag and clothing spread out to air on nearby rocks, but until I was packed and ready to leave, I was still listening out in case that farmer returned!
A pleasant downhill walk of about a mile brought me to Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall. There was a real feeling of smug self-satisfaction in avoiding the 50p charge for using the small car park! The waterfall itself was an absolute wonder to behold – a long, narrow drop from the skyline down a cliff, then diagonally down a short stretch, through a natural little rock arch, and then down a second drop into a rocky pool in front of the little bridge from which I viewed it. I felt quite emotional, having anticipated this moment for so long, and no less for arriving here on foot by such a circuitous and laborious route. Finally tearing myself away, not so much tired of the vision as tired of standing in one spot for so long, I made my way back to the house by the car park, where refreshments were available. This brief brush with civilisation was enjoyed by ordering a scone and coffee that I supped on the sunny veranda within sight and sound of the falls.
For the rest of the day I had pleasant and not-too-strenuous walking on empty little lanes and grassy footpaths heading roughly north-eastwards in gently rolling sheep farming country, but by the end of the afternoon I found myself faced with the problem of finding somewhere to pitch my tent that met the criteria of a water supply, shelter and privacy. In this open landscape, with, I presumed, a higher ratio of farmers than up in the mountains, a suitable site was hard to find. Furthermore, I was approaching the village of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog (another delightful name!) from where I intended to follow a little valley road for a few miles, and this meant there would be a number of dwellings and humans about. In the end, I had to compromise. I considered, and then discounted, the idea of sleeping on the first floor of an uninhabited old cottage that stood beside a lane I reached. I would not have hesitated to have done so thirty years earlier, but now there was the worry of dust and dirt, spiders and rodents, and ghosts…. A narrow thicket of secondary woodland that bordered a stream is what I settled for. This was rather gloomy, and slightly muddy because the ground vegetation was sparse, but it had to do.
Somewhere along the way, probably when I was straddling the fence to get into or out of that wood, the two legs of my walking trousers partially parted company at the point where they were joined, and I could feel a cold draught where there should not have been one, so when I chanced upon a little general store on my way into Llanarmon D. C. village the following morning, I shot inside to enquire if they had any safety-pins. An elderly couple behind the counter were bent over some presumably complex paperwork and, as is the way with rural folk, this had to be sorted out before my presence was acknowledged. Safety-pins? Did they have any safety-pins? They had sticky tape, reels of ribbon, sweets, envelopes, dog food, cards of buttons, you name it, but, no, they could not find any safety-pins, which they probably knew the minute I asked. Perhaps a bonanza awaited the next safety-pin sales rep to call there.
The village also, I discovered, had an inn, which was evidently open when I passed it. With visions of a dimly lit rustic bar propped up by local characters, while sheepdogs littered the sawdust-strewn floor, I cautiously pushed open the old oak door, already mentally savouring the thirst-quenching pint of ale from a brewery I had not previously heard of. My eyes fell upon half a dozen couples in their seventies and eighties, the men all in their best tweeds with matching ties, and the ladies dressed as if they had been invited to a ball. They were seated in pairs at little tables, with halves and shorts before them. We stared back at each other before I hurriedly closed the door again, and even more hurriedly continued on my way out of the village.
Pleasant though the deserted lanes were, deserted, that is, except for amazing numbers of semi-tame pheasants that wandered around, no doubt introduced to give the grouse shooters something different to kill, it was a relief to reach the terminus of the road beyond the tiny hamlet of Pentre, where I was able to walk on upland moorland again instead of tarmac. I instantly felt more at home, although it was apparent as I gained height that the weather was becoming rather windy
I foresaw that there was very little of my planned route ahead of me, for I could have slogged all of the way back to my van that very afternoon if I had wanted to, but I was enjoying myself and I wanted to prolong the experience, so when I reached a crossing track at around the 1,500-foot mark, I changed course to the east to reach a projecting block of forest, where there was shelter from the wind, plus a small stream, and a five bar gate and wire fence on which I could hang my condensation-wet tent to dry. I settled down for a late lunch and a long rest, and here a minor mishap occurred, for when I got up to attend to my inner tent which had blown off the gate for the third or fourth time, I returned to my resting place to find that the wind had flipped my foam kipmat, on which I had been sitting, onto my hot stove which had burnt large hole in it.
The damage apart, I was so enhanced with this spot that I did not want to leave it. The wind, though aurally evident, was not felt in the lee of the trees, the ground was bright green with lush grass and thick carpets of moss, while the stream was so picturesque. I decided I would hide my rucksack in the trees and go for a weightless amble around Ceiriog Forest, then I would camp here for the night, and walk the few miles across the moors to my van in the morning. The plan decided on, everything went accordingly, except that in the first half of the night there was the mother and father of all gales. While I was asleep branches, trees, tumbleweed, sheep, cars and houses were swept over the top of the forest that sheltered me, and during the number of times that I woke, I lay wondering what the chances were of one of the conifers toppling onto my tent.
The following morning, I made a reasonably early start on a walk back to Llidiart y Parc, following my rather déjà vu outward route and reflecting on the fact that it had not rained at all during this year’s trip. From the village I drove to look at bookshops in Ruthin and in Holt, before spending yet another homeward-bound night in Shrewsbury and yet again visiting the fern nursery at Pebworth.
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