A lot of ingredients went into this year’s planned route: a start from Bala, which was somewhere I had not been to before, while its position in the south of Snowdonia meant it would not be an overlong journey; I would have another look at the Arenig mountains, from a different direction to that made in 1987; I would have another try at walking the ridge of the Aran mountains; and overall it was to be a lower level route, relatively speaking, than last year’s.
One of the two zips that closes up my inner tent had been giving me problems, and this had been replaced with a near-identical one by my mother-in-law, while to replace the stiff and heavy laminated pile jacket I purchased a miracle of modern technology, a Snugpak Sleeka pertex-shelled insulated jacket that weighs next to nothing for its size and yet crams into a tiny stuff-sack. With a high zipped collar, making my old Meraklon headover redundant, it has proved to be unrestrictive, absolutely windproof, quick drying and extremely warm and cosy to wear. And, of course, it is olive coloured! One other factor made this year above average: I had four days holiday owing, which my supervisor allotted me in the week preceding the one I had already booked. Consequently I went away on a Wednesday instead of the following Saturday, and I made a more leisurely affair of it.
An unhurried drive was made to Bridgmere Garden World and Stapely Water Gardens, both near Nantwich in Cheshire, thence on via Wrexham and Llangollen to Bala, where my pre-chosen campsite for the night was nearly empty and I had the luxury of a wooden picnic table with benches to pitch next to and make use of. Bala turned out to be the most Welsh of all places I have visited, where all the little notices that shopkeepers display in their windows and on their walls were entirely in Welsh, while I heard nothing but Welsh spoken.
On a dull and hazy but mild Thursday, I walked up through fields north-eastwards of the town, having left my van in a parking bay on the edge of a small housing estate. I was following a route sketchily outlined by a regular contributor to an outdoors magazine (a contributor whose routes I have actually found to be so vague that I now view them with caution, but at least they inspire me). I passed a small lake, Llyn Maen Bras, continued northwards to become ever so slightly lost on the featureless 1,800 ft top of Garnedd Fawr, before descending westwards to cross the Afon Mynach valley at Nant-y-Cyrtiau, where I found a telephone kiosk from which I greeted my wife. “Where am I? Don’t ask, I can’t pronounce it!”
On the west of the valley the footpaths shown on the 1:25,000 map have fallen into disuse on the ground. The barking of the dogs at a farm, where I paused to try to check which side of the buildings I should pass, attracted the attention of a slightly cross young woman, who claimed, not very convincingly, that the path was further to the north, and then rather grudgingly said I could continue across her land. Half a mile further to the west, I was puzzled again, this time by the absence of the structures marked “Pentre” on the map. Whilst I was trying to get my bearings, a farmer astride a quad bike roared across the grassland towards me. In his sixties, ruddy-faced and dressed in a very worn Barbour jacket, with a flat hat and Wellingtons, he asked me where I wanted to go. When I told him I was heading for Llyn Hesgyn, he stared at my rucksack and asked, in the strongest possible Welsh lilt, “Are you going cam-ping? Up by the la-ake?” This was followed by a gabble of directions, more in Welsh than in English, which I could barely understand, and with that he roared off, back in the direction from which he had come. What a kind man! I near enough had his blessing to camp as I had intended. The enchanting little lake lay in a hollow in high moorland; it is difficult to imagine a more peaceful spot. Unfortunately it was also very boggy, and though I chose the driest spot I could find, I think I would have had problems if it had rained.
There was absolutely no path from the lake directly up to the circa 2,200 ft summit of Carnedd y Ffiliast which lay to the west, and a lot of effort, not to mention time, was spent in the morning forging my way through deep heather and bracken to reach a track I could see on the map, that would lead me to my destination from a different angle. At the top, I found a lady seated on a rock, gazing at the open view. Living somewhere near the coast, she had caught a bus to Bala this morning and walked this far. She was obviously a lover of solitude. For the next few miles, all I had to do was follow a fence that gradually descended westwards in the remotest moorland imaginable, the illusion being spoiled by the fact that someone had to have been here before, to put the fence up. When I reached the base of the remote hump of 2,264 ft Arenig Fach, for the second time in my backpacking career I decided against climbing it. I do not mind gaining height if I am going to stay up there, but this peak has nothing else around it. Turning southwards, I followed more fences to reach a junction of roads at Pont Rhyd-y-fen.
From the road junction, a 2½ mile plod eastwards along a minor lane brought me to the start of a track that gently climbs southwards up heather-clad slopes to reach the shore of Llyn Arenig Fawr, named after the 2,802 ft mountain beneath which it sits. Here, at its southern end, I found a lakeside patch of grass just big enough for my tent. It was a beautiful spot, with soaring cliffs on the western side.
While I was getting ready in the morning, there was an almighty, echoing “B-A-N-G!” at about 8:45 that frightened the life out me. The cause was a portion of rock breaking away from high on the mountain cliff, followed by it roaring downhill. Surprisingly little of the debris actually got as far as the surface of the lake, but for the next half an hour the silence was punctuated by the clattering of stones as the screes shifted and settled again. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever experienced.
From my end of the lake, a path led westwards up an extremely steep grassy spur, and then twisted this way and that to reach the summit of Arenig Fawr. I rate this as the most delectable mountain I have climbed. Progress was slow up the initial slope, but the views of the lake below, gradually becoming smaller as I gained height, made up for it. The upper slopes were neither too taxing nor dangerous, the views from the stone windbreak on the peak were magnificent (even allowing for the fact that haze limited visibility to 2 or 3 miles) after which there was almost a mile of ridge to follow southwards before I descended grassy slopes on the west side to reach the Afon Erwent. I followed this river across pathless country till I came to a track that runs along the north side of the Lliw valley.
The track eventually brought me down to a minor road beside the river. A campsite marked on the map turned out to have a corral of static caravans encircling three touring caravans on the space in the middle. The occupants of the latter must have felt like goldfish in a bowl; it was certainly no place for a backpacking tent. Up an adjacent lane was a Camping Club site that did not appear to be open, sheep were grazing on the small field. There was nothing left but to head for the forest further up this lane, where I came upon a small group of rather large cattle that were blocking the way. Now I do not care what anyone says, I am extremely wary of any cattle. However, as I tap, tap, tapped with my walking pole to get closer to a fence, ready to get a leg over it, the cattle started trotting up the lane away from me, and before I knew it I was herding them, waving my pole and calling out. This was great stuff! On reaching the far end of the lane, I quickly clambered over a five-bar gate, in case the animals changed their minds and came back at me, and now I discovered that the forest was no more; it had been felled about a couple of years previously. The place looked like a First World War battlefield, but it was late and I was worn out, so I made do with a patch of grass by a stream, amid a mess of brushwood and dead branches.
The morning was made more bearable by hazy sunshine. I was soon passing through the sleepy village of Llanuwchllyn, which lies at the southern end of Llyn Tegid, better known as Bala Lake, and to the south of which starts the lengthy ridge of the Aran mountains (the north end of which I crossed in 1990, and got extremely wet on). Hiding my rucksack near the start of the ridge, I set off with nothing more than map case, compass and waterproof jacket. I followed a path that ran uphill in a straight line, where I crossed the 2,901 ft summit of Aran Benllyn and continued beyond this towards the slightly higher summit of Aran Fawddwy. When I had walked some four miles in all, I decided it was time to turn round and walk back down again. The higher parts were interesting but the views, severely limited by haze, were of uniform green fells. Many writers rave about this ridge; I am sorry, but it just did not grab me, I found it so-so, almost boring. Maybe I would enjoy it more in clear conditions.
After a night of secretive camping in a little wood, during which strong winds, peaking between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m., roared in the upper branches of the trees, I traced my way along paths and forestry tracks back to my starting point in Bala. As I mentioned earlier, I had a longer holiday this year, so over the next three days I botanised in a gulley up the side of Eglwyseg Mountain near Llangollen and I visited various nurseries. Wednesday 1st October reached 77 degrees F in the southeast, a fine end to an exceptional break, another one during which it did not rain.
At the end of this trip, I found that my Thermarest mattress no longer inflated. I used to carry it tucked under the two straps that pass under the base of my rucksack, so that I could remove it quickly to sit on during lunch stops, and I was fairly certain I had snagged it while stepping over barbed wire on the last day. I fixed it with the makers’ repair kit, and in future it would be packed inside the top of my pack.
I am guilty of serious omissions in all of the preceding accounts; in particular I have failed to mention how wild camping in the mountains affects my perception of life, if only temporarily.
Firstly, I feel a great sense of awe as I sit on a rock by my little tent, and survey a vast panorama of soaring slopes of green vegetation and grey stone, with the shadows of clouds moving over them, and sprinkled with little off-white dots that are distant sheep, while the wind, repeatedly bending nearby grasses, carries little sound save that of trickling springs and the distant roar of falling water. I become aware of the great age of the landscape, of the geological forces, the ice ages and the weather that shaped it, and of the generations past that tried to wrest a living in this harsh land, leaving the stone walls, old quarries and derelict homesteads as evidence of their presence. This landscape was here hundreds and hundreds of years before I came into existence, and it will still be here when my three score years and ten is over. Who knows how many before me might have sat on the same stone and contemplated the same view, and how many might follow in the future? It brings home to me just what mere specks in the universe we humans are.
Secondly, just as those earlier people tried to live and make themselves comfortable in this harsh land, my whole expedition becomes a challenge of me versus the terrain and the elements. I am out in open mountain country with no shelter, other than my tent at night, for four days in early autumn, with unpredictable weather, no electricity, no heating, no tap water and no means of getting about other than my own legs. I have to keep myself warm, dry, fed and sheltered , I have to be aware of where I am and where I am going, I have to avoid dangers that could result in injury or worse, and these become the overriding considerations, against which my usual daily concerns completely cease to exist. For me personally, the experience is the perfect antidote to my working life of ten-hour days spent constantly stuck in London traffic queues, dodging wardens and clampers, dealing on the one hand with customers who are frequently difficult, and whose first language is often different from mine, while on the other hand dealing with colleagues some of whom I regret to say I cannot always rely on. I return from my trips in a much better frame of mind and with a new view on the world, which lasts up to two weeks before disillusionment and depression return.
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