1994, The Moelwyns from Beddgelert

Having by now walked eleven long circuits in Snowdonia, I had reached the stage where I had done all of the main areas – well, all of the easy ones, anyway. So this time I concocted a route around my favourite mountain mass, the Moelwyns, inspired partly by my as yet unaccomplished desire to reach the summit of 2,860 ft Moel Siabod, and partly by the praises sung in one of my guidebooks of the long and lonely ridge down the western side of the range.

Stopping off in Betws-y-Coed on route to the Forestry Commission campsite at Beddgelert, I browsed around its cluster of outdoors equipment shops, where I made an impulse purchase of a Thermarest self-inflating mattress, a three-quarter length lightweight model, to replace my kipmat with last year’s black-edged hole burnt in it. At a price to make anyone more sensible than me think twice, it was a little bit weightier than its predecessor but, as it turned out, more than made up for it in extra comfort.

Day 1

The following morning, Sunday 25 September, I parked my van at the side of the main road in the heart of Beddgelert village (the car park was free, but with no lighting it was inky black at night, and therefore not safe, I felt). From here I set off north-eastwards along the south side of Nantgwynant, at first on a rocky path beside the Afon Glaslyn, then on a minor lane, and soon escaping the local amblers and ramblers. A little way beyond the tourist attraction of Sygun Copper Mine, a feral goat with fine horns could clearly be seen on top of the rocky eminence of Dinas Emrys which rose above the far side of the river.

At Llyn Dinas my path crossed open, boggy grassland before climbing the hillside eastwards to pass first the uninhabited farmhouse of Hafod-Owen and then the converted chapel beside the old Nanmor lane, last seen by me at the start of a walk nine years previously. From here I could see that clouds covered the top of the Moelwyns massif, and in fact I had a rather depressing lunch break at about 1,300 feet above sea level, which was just below the cloud line. I had little difficulty in finding my way in thick mist up to Llyn yr Adar, at 1,874 feet, but somehow I arrived a long way down the west side of the lake instead of at its northern tip from where, according to the map, a footpath led south-eastwards. Not to be thwarted, I squelched through the sphagnum bogs and beds of rushes around the perimeter of the lake, searching, in vain as it turned out, for a path when I reached what I judged to be the right area. With a slight feeling of unease, I realised there was nothing for it but to get the compass out and walk on a bearing to my objective, which was the old Rhosydd slate quarry.

I had not gone many yards when I heard voices, and out of the fog materialised the slightly incongruous sight of a dozen middle-aged walkers marching in a crocodile behind a leader who was hunched over his compass. They crossed my route at an angle, while I called out, “The lake’s that way,” and pointed, but they completely ignored me as though I was not there, and just as quickly they were gone again. I was really pleased with myself when a faint path appeared on the ground, going in the direction my compass led me, but I lost it almost as soon as I had found it. On I marched, on land that at first gently climbed, and then stayed relatively level on a plateau containing flat rock slabs. Of the little lakes shown beside the path on the map, I saw nothing. Then I started to descend, for what seemed to be too long. I became slightly concerned about losing so much height, because if I had got it wrong, I would have to put a lot of effort into regaining that height.

All of a sudden, a black sheepdog materialised out of the fog, trotting up the slope towards me, then before I had time to close my gaping jaw, a man appeared, carrying a bag and a fishing rod. Well, I thought, he obviously knows where he is. “Excuse me,” I enquired, “Am I very far from Rhosydd quarry buildings, please?” Looking slightly surprised, the man said, “Yes, it’s here!”, and pointed backwards over his shoulder, where sure enough the outline of the ruin was just about visible as a dark shape in the gloom behind him. I was absolutely elated. What better proof could there be of putting one’s trust in a compass?

It was not as easy to find my way from here to the old quarry track that would lead me down to Tanygrisiau, and I cursed the fog for preventing me from seeing where I needed to head. After a couple of false starts along what turned out to be old waste tips, which were horribly steep and loose to get down from without retracing my footsteps, I found the track which I followed down to the village, from where roads led me around to the north of the adjacent town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Looking at the condition of many of the little terraced houses, and having had glimpses into the hallways of one or two of them as the inhabitants went in and out, I was struck by the apparent poverty of the area.

A concreted quarry road, nastily steep, led me from the north edge of the town back up into the hills. At some disused quarry buildings a path shown on my map and described in one of my previously studied guidebooks as “overgrown”, was totally obscured by rhododendrons, so I was forced to painstakingly find a way around. After this obstacle, I toiled up steep, grassy slopes towards the noise of running water, the source of which turned out to be a man made leat. Evening was approaching, and I was physically tired, so a flat spot here was going to have to do for the night. I was rudely woken from my slumbers at 2:00 a.m. by the report of a shotgun being fired not too far away! Who, what, why, I have no idea, and it took a while to get back to sleep again after that.

Day 2

A less than pleasant panorama greeted me in the morning, for far to my left and also to my right the hillsides had been carved up by quarries, with huge terraces where large yellow earth moving vehicles and tipper trucks groaned back and forth along sweeping tracks. This was part of the little circle in the centre of Snowdonia that is excluded from the National Park. But once I was packed up and on the move again, rather like a snail with its home on its back, I was soon in the wilds again, walking eastwards on a long-disused quarry track that passed two lakes, Llyns Newydd and Bowydd, before reaching a large old quarry where I spent a little time scrambling around looking at ferns. From here I turned northwards, following paths and forest tracks for about three miles to Dolwyddelan. Part of this was the reverse of a route I had walked in 1988, not that I can say I recognised any of it, no more than I recognised much of the old packhorse trail I subsequently followed northwards after Dolwyddelan; this I had also walked, in both directions, in 1998.

Towards the end of the day I contemplated hiding my tent in a belt of deciduous woodland near the edge of the Llugwy valley, but it was damp, gloomy and autumnal, so I carried on to a campsite between the far side of the river and the A5 road, making use of stepping-stones to cross. The river was not high and the stones were reasonably exposed, but I still managed to get a bootful of water. The site had basic but clean facilities, no hot water for example, but it only cost £1.50 per night. Its drawback, I was to discover, was that it is very popular with leaders of youth groups and the like. After pitching my tent on slightly higher ground in a sheltered corner between a stone wall and a barn, a number of minibuses entered the site shortly afterwards, and I was soon surrounded by a sea of Vango Force 10 tents, with people trekking back and forth.

Day 3

To give them their due, the young people were fairly quiet when they returned from the pub at closing time, and they scarcely made a sound when they quickly packed up and departed around 7:00 a.m. The farmer who arrived later with his Landrover and his sheepdog could not have been more typically Welsh; a very pleasant exchange about weather and walking and farming was enjoyed before he finally came around to asking for £1.50, almost as an afterthought.

Moel Siabod, visible from the campsite, had cloud well down its flanks, and this did not rise one bit during the couple of hours that it took me to get ready. The approach to the mountain from Pont Cyfyng bore the largest proliferation of unfriendly “Keep to the path” and “Keep dogs on leads” notices that I have seen anywhere. In spite of the weather conditions, there were two small groups of walkers ahead of me, while I overtook a huge party of school kids who were stopped for elevenses by the first lake on the way up. For the next mile I could just about see the trio of students ahead of me in the mist, while I could hear the advance members of the school party hot on my heels.

The land drops down towards the shores of Llyn y Foel, which is at 1,756 feet, and here I lost sight of the three people I had been following, but the path was plain enough, and I could still hear all the youngsters behind me. However, my path began to steepen more and more, and it eventually became apparent that, although I was on a trodden path of sorts, which other walkers had obviously used, I was ascending what appeared to be a slight gulley directly up the side of the mountain, when I should have been scrambling up the East Ridge. This, I guessed, was further to my left where I could just about make out the land rising in the murk, and from which direction I could now hear the occasional shouts of the youngsters. Unfortunately, I had now climbed so much that it was going to be extremely difficult to get back down again, so, unnerving though it was to look down and see nothing but grey mist below my feet, I slowly and cautiously continued upwards, praying all the while that I was not going to reach any seriously challenging obstacles such as rocks that needed climbing, or overhangs that needed working around. My spirits were lifted just a mite by seeing rosettes of starry saxifrage, Saxifraga stellaria, along the way.

My relief was enormous when I eventually hauled myself onto the main ridge of the mountain, close to the 2,860 ft summit. I tumbled into a windbreak, to find myself alongside a pair of white-faced and worried looking middle-aged men who told me in Brummie accents that they had got lost in the mist and had arrived ahead of me by what sounded like the same route! Since then I have studied photographs of Moel Siabod countless times, trying to work out where I climbed it. There only appears to be one such place and it leaves me shaking my head in disbelief that I did it, complete with a 28lb rucksack.

The worst was not yet over, for up on the mountain-top an icy westerly wind tore at me relentlessly, flattening to my frame the waterproofs I had donned for windproofing and extra warmth. In spite of this wind, the mist obstinately remained as dense, with visibility less than 50 feet. Setting a compass bearing from the summit trig point to a T-junction of fences that were shown on my 1:25,000 map, I marched westwards down the pathless rock-and-turf slopes. After what seemed far too long to walk just a quarter of a mile, a fence appeared in front of me, and to my utter delight I was only about 25 feet to one side of the junction. With my compass put away, I now followed old fence posts for much of the remainder of my journey. Once I got below the cloud line the wind was less fierce and the nearby views improved, though distant panoramas were obscured by murk. At one point I was startled by a helicopter that put-put-putted up the hillside from below me, like a scene from a James Bond film. After circling around me it departed; presumably I was not who they were looking for.

The lengthy ridge walk was pleasant but unfortunately unspectacular because of the lack of any views. There was nothing on my right where I should have been able to see the Snowdon massif, while on my left I could just make out the bottom of the huge Cwm Edno but nothing beyond it. In two or three places tiny streams emerged at wide, boggy gaps in the ridge, necessitating either unsteadily forging on, ankle-deep in mire, or lengthy and more strenuous detours around the dry higher perimeters. Below the left of my route, a grassy ledge with a trickle of water alongside it made a convenient camp site, disregarding the twenty-foot scramble down to it.

Day 4

Mist reduced visibility to about 150 feet in the morning, with brighter light from above trying to penetrate it. I felt honoured to have the entertaining company of a pair of grouse going about their business about 50 feet away from me. Apparently unperturbed by my presence, their clucks and guttural noises sounded at times almost like humans talking nearby.

The mist was thinning by the time I left my overnight stop, but after passing beyond Moel Meirch I still managed to miss the gap in the ridge that I needed, only realising I had gone too far when I could make out the large sheet of Llyn Edno before me. This at least pinpointed my position, making the correct way easier to find after I had about-turned. Once I was on my way down the valley of the Afon Llynedno, though, there was no trace on the ground of the footpath shown on the map, and very wet it was, too. Further down there did become a small path, but part of the way along this a mini cliff about 15 feet high had to be negotiated. This stretched as far as I could see to either side, and there was no alternative but to climb down it. After this obstacle, however, all was plain sailing: pleasant paths led to the top of the old Nanmor lane, from where I retraced my outward route back to Beddgelert.

Summary: nice walk, shame about the murky weather.

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