It was fairly easy to decide where to walk this year, as a result of the choice of places new to me becoming smaller. I had yet to set foot on the summit of 2,565 ft Moel Hebog, which fills the skyline behind the Forestry campsite at Beddgelert, nor had I touched any of the seven peaks on the nearby 5-miles-long Nantlle Ridge. This ridge is not easy to fit into a backpacking circuit, but I concocted a route (which turned out to be grossly over ambitious) that would take me over Hebog and its satellites, then up onto the ridge where I would “bag” the eastern end before doubling back to complete the western end. Dropping down to valley footpaths in the Drws-y-coed Pass, I would then head eastwards to Llyn Cwellyn, and return to my start via the north-western foothills of the Snowdon massif. With hindsight, I can say I must have been dreaming!
There was an addition this year to the gear I carried. In one of their rare moments of generosity, my employers loaned me a gift catalogue from a top London retailer, so that I could choose an award for my twenty-five years of service (this was not something I was particularly proud of, it was just that a combination of recessions and my age had left me married to the job). Skipping past all of the jewellery, cut glass ornaments and clocks that were of no interest to me, I chose a Olympus Mju Zoom compact camera. This, I am pleased to say, produces quite reasonable transparencies with 200 ASA slide film, maybe not as sharp as with a SLR camera, but acceptable nonetheless, and I carry it in a padded case slid onto the waistband of my rucksack, where the additional weight is not felt.
After driving to North Wales on the warmest and calmest late-September Saturday imaginable, I found the forest campsite decidedly soggy (the month of September was to end the wettest for 19 years). Although I worked hard at finding a less-wet spot for my tent, I discovered to my dismay in the morning that my inner tent groundsheet, replaced 8 years earlier, was once again letting dampness seep through.
On the overcast Sunday morning, I walked southwards out of Beddgelert on the A498, and straight away found a problem, for on the western side of the road there was absolutely no trace of the first footpath that I had planned to use. I checked over and again that I was at the right spot, which I most definitely was, but the wood and pasture boundaries differed slightly from those shown on my map, while a cemetery and its access drive, which clearly pre-dated the map, were not shown on it. Not to be outdone, I was soon over a couple of walls, from where I made my way up to the edge of the wood, high above the road. I found that even where my map showed the footpath entering the wood in an obvious corner, it did not look as if there had ever been one there. I was annoyed at this, and followed the field edge southwards until the woodland thinned, where I was able to struggle uphill through long grass and bracken where no human or animal appeared to have stepped before. This was a bad start to my walk, I felt.
Things improved after I eventually reached the far edge of the woodland, for here was short-grazed upland grassland with features such as stone walls and rock outcrops that corresponded with the map, while, further south, I even found hints of a path of sorts, or at least signs that others had walked this way. The only downhill bit of the whole day, which was otherwise entirely spent walking in an uphill direction, was the steep descent to the disused Gorseddau Quarry, where my map quaintly showed the path continuing westwards in a straight line. Oh, if it was that simple! Although on the far side an obvious old track could be seen leading away, a number of linear spoil tips had to be negotiated, all of them crossing the route. To get around these I climbed down to the lower perimeter of this area, where I had to pick my way through scattered rocks, before climbing back up again.
Somewhere in the midst of the foregoing, it started to rain from a huge dark cloud that I had observed approaching from over the sea to the south. My lunch break was overdue, because I had yet to pass any stream or pool, but at the start of the track that led away from the quarry was a spring, beside a high wall that gave a little shelter from the rain while I ate. Not only was this rain persistent and niggling, it also turned my continuing route into a drainage channel. I missed the footpath I intended to take (if it existed) off the right of my track, but, no worry, a bit more climbing of walls and up a steep grass slope, brought me to where I wanted to be. The south-west ridge of Moel Hebog, I found, was rounded and featureless stony grassland, but this came as no surprise, as one of my guidebooks had described it as dull. As the upper part of the mountain was shrouded in cloud I saw little point in continuing up to its summit. Instead, I followed old walls northwards to contour around the cloud base. In spite of the rain, visibility below the cloud was quite reasonable, but I was still glad to have such obvious landmarks as walls to follow.
By early evening I reached an area of disused mines just below the rocky northwest of the mountain. Streams abounded here, and I set about selecting a suitable spot for my tent. Ahead of me the land dropped from Moel Hebog to Bwlch Meillionen, the latter being slightly above my present position, before it climbed very sharply up again to the southern edge of 2,149 ft Moel yr Ogof. Studying my map, I was dismayed to see not only how few miles I had walked today, but also that due to my circuitous route I was currently only 2 or 3 miles from the Forestry campsite that was my starting point.
In the morning, wetness had again seeped in through my worn groundsheet, making my clothing and the outside of my sleeping bag damp and cold. There was no chance of airing them, as I discovered when I looked outside to find mist reducing the horizon to about 20 feet. I pottered about in the gloom, feeling rather dispirited, but the mist gradually cleared during the couple of hours it took me to get ready. First, bits of rocky mountainside became visible on one side of me, then the depths of Cwm Pennant, yawned below my other side, followed by the lower parts of Moel yr Ogof ahead of me – this was to be the next point on my route.
Working my way around rocky outcrops, I climbed to the head of Bwlch Meillionen. Here, a stone wall that swoops down from the heights of Moel Hebog continues across the pass and on up to a very narrow gap through the rocky cliff that encircles Moel yr Ogof. Climbing a ladder stile over the wall, I found a well-worn path following its far side. This took me very steeply up through a remarkable crevice in the cliff, where I was pleased to spot lime-loving ferns including Green spleenwort, Asplenium viride, growing on the sheer rock face. A slow, rocky climb brought me to the 2,020 ft summit ridge, where the clear conditions (the only few hours I was to experience, as it happened) gave me limitless views of the Lleyn Peninsula and the northern sweep of Cardigan Bay on my left, Snowdon and its foothills on my right, while ahead of me lay the line of the Nantlle Ridge with just a glimpse of Caernarfon Bay beyond.
Descending northwards from Moel Yr Ogof, I found a pool of water on the broad ridge, which prompted an early lunch stop. My first priority was to spread my damp camping equipment and clothing over rocks, where they dried in the warm sunshine. When I got on the move again, much later, I could discern a change due in the weather, for haze was building up over the sea and the horizon was grey.
My continuation to 2,094 ft Moel Lefn was another rocky ramble, following which I had a bit of a shock. The faint path now petered out, on a broad, convex grassy shoulder that literally fell steeply off the north edge of the mountain. After much indecision, I cautiously descended for a few steps, making good use of my walking poles, while straining my eyes in search of clues as to which way others before me had gone. My guidebooks at home had not prepared me for this, they gave no indication that it was this steep! Bit by bit I worked my way down, without coming to any sheer drops that I feared, until eventually I could see below me a narrow path on less-steep parts. This path twisted and turned its way around rocky cliffs, at long last bringing me to the fern-filled hole in the ground that was once Princess Quarry. Looking back at the flank of the mountain soaring up into the sky above me, I would never have believed there was a route to the top!
A descent westwards via Bwlch Cwm-trwsgl brought me to an area at the north of Cwm Pennant much scarred by remnants of quarrying, the scenery not improved by darkening skies and the onset of rain. I was in a bit of a quandary, for the end of my second day out was nigh. I had not done many miles yet, and furthermore I would need another two days just to complete my planned circuit of the Nantlle Ridge. If I continued with that plan now, from here, I would have to spend the night on the exposed ridge, with little chance of a water supply, a great chance that it would remain cloud covered, and all this in an area where they were reported to be very touchy about access. I decided on a compromise, by testing my proposed route up a spur on the west of Beddgelert Forest, to reach the Nantlle Ridge between the peaks of Mynydd Tal-y-Mignedd and Trum y Ddysgl. The route turned out to be fine, just a steep plod on a faint path up grass-covered slopes, but I only followed it as far as the cloud line before turning back.
I had thought I would camp for the night beside a forest stream in Cwm Du, but this was forest no more. Not only had the whole of it been cleared, I also discovered that the ground was extremely wet and boggy. In steady rain, I marched disconsolately on tracks down into Beddgelert Forest, checking for potential tent sites, and finding nothing suitable. As dusk approached I found myself at the beautiful, even in this weather, Llyn Llewelyn that lay deep in the forest. There was just about enough room for my tent on a small peninsula of land containing a picnic table. Nice though it would have been to use this, it was fully in the rain. A miserable evening was spent in wet waterproofs, crouched against the trunk of a tree that was chosen because it dripped the least, while I ate my dinner by the poor light of my gas lantern.
An equally miserable morning was spent eating breakfast in a similar manner to the previous evening’s meal. If I was in any doubt before as to how I was going to end my walk, the weather decided it for me. I’d had enough of walking in the rain, meals in the rain and wild camping in the rain, and the Forestry campsite was very few miles away, though it seemed double the distance on paths that alternated between being brooks and quagmires. It possibly was double the distance after I took a wrong turn and needlessly walked around three sides of a huge square, thus encountering the same group of walkers twice. “We can’t go on meeting like this!” exclaimed the leading female. Yes, I was not the only one mad enough to be out in these conditions!
Previously unknown to me, the campsite had a laundry room, whose tumble dryer did a grand job on my sleeping bag in exchange for enough 20p coins to supply a bank. It was wonderful to plod around wearing the Wellingtons I had in my van, and to shelter beneath my umbrella. My carefully selected tent pitch, on top of a slight hillock, proved a wise choice, for the rain was coming down in sheets as I drove to the village pub that evening.
Arriving home on Wednesday evening, earlier in the week than I had planned, but not without having stopped off at various nurseries on the way, including the fern one of course, I announced to my family that this was my final trip. Although I had felt fitter at the start than I had the preceding year, at the same time I was feeling my age more. Furthermore, I was fed up with humping a heavy rucksack around all the time, I did not enjoy the wild camping bits any more, I was growing attached to my comforts, and I certainly did not enjoy all of that flipping rain! Not only that, but I feel that somewhere along the way I have lost my old sense of awe and of wonder.
As mentioned in my second paragraph, the month of September ended the wettest for 19 years. By the end of November, however, it was declared to be the wettest autumn since records began in 1776.
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