2001, The Moelwyns from Betws-y-Coed

After telling the whole world last year that I would not be going backpacking again, pangs of doubt set in. I had largely forgotten the sheer misery of the constant rain (one benefit of the decreasing short-term memory that arrives with middle age), and I needed to justify the expense in February of having a new groundsheet fitted in my inner tent, even though I did nothing but moan about it because it came back navy blue instead of the agreed olive, and it was bulkier than before, so that it no longer fitted in its nylon bag. I kept trying to convince myself, and anyone else that might listen, that maybe I ought to have one last crack at it…

For a route, I settled on a circuit I had prepared in 1999 as a poor weather alternative, very roughly sketched out at the time, but having the advantage that it could be lengthened or shortened to suit the conditions. This would lead me into the Moelwyns group of mountains, by now my favourite area of Snowdonia, which would be rather fitting if this turned out to be my final trek. I spent a great deal of time poring over maps and guide books, and later at the word processor, refining the route in as much detail as possible. Particular attention was paid to making it a reasonable length, in keeping with my capabilities, rather than too long like last year’s.

I fully expected the new groundsheet to give me back my confidence in my equipment, and at the same time I took a long, hard look at what I had, resulting in me replacing the Forces “woolly-pully” with a superb fleece pull-on; this has a large, zipped collar, which does away with the need for my old Meraklon neck-band. My knitted hat I replaced with fleece, too. I used to strongly believe in wearing wool but I now feel that synthetics are far superior in terms of warmth, comfort, drying time, easy care and durability. My aluminium Sigg water bottle was made redundant by one of the new American collapsible plastic flasks. A new addition to the list was a lightweight sun hat of synthetic material, unlike cotton ones that shrink to become the size of a pimple on the head, while another item was changed after the trip (details later).

My summer holiday was spent on the extremely sloping Cycladean island of Anafi, which must have done me the power of good, even though it sometimes felt more like punishment than a holiday, while two weeks prior to my departure to Wales I limbered up by breezing through an 8½-miles walk in the Chiltern Hills.

During the year, much of the countryside was “out of bounds” due to a foot-and-mouth epidemic. Although this had not reportedly reached Snowdonia, footpaths had been closed there, and access denied, so I telephoned a couple of the help lines listed on a government leaflet I had picked up. All I experienced was muddle and uncertainty; each person I spoke to tried to be helpful, but did not really know anything for sure, and suggested other phone numbers. Thirty minutes and several calls later, I was none the wiser. In the event, I need not have worried; there was no sign of any restrictions, other than a couple of four-months-old notices.

Before setting off on Saturday 22 September I dialled a £1-a-minute number to receive a 5-day weather forecast for Snowdonia on three fax pages. It was grey and cool on my journey, which was uneventful except for a stop in Shropshire to buy a low-priced Guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, for the garden. I have seen the village of Betws-y-Coed much busier (the agricultural epidemic had affected tourism drastically) but surprisingly Riverside Camping was almost crowded. This year the site seemed to have even fewer blades of grass, which in my opinion they cut too short, resulting in more mud than ever.

Day 1

There was a tiny shower of rain in the night, just enough to ensure I had a wet tent to pack in the grey morning which failed to dry it. Walking behind the church to the south edge of the village, I found the end house had a large number of bird feeders and nut holders in its garden, which backed on to Gwydir Forest, to and from which flitted a multitude of tits and finches. The householder, emerging from his kitchen door, was considerate enough to pause on his way to his shed while I stood enjoying the spectacle.

I was headed south towards Llyn Elsi reservoir. I recognised the beginning of the forest track, having ascended it during a Field Studies course ten years earlier. It continues relentlessly uphill for over a mile, only levelling out when it reaches the lake, at 732 feet above sea level. This was a popular destination today for local ramblers, but I saw no more of them when I continued southwards, steeply downhill now, through the forest to the Lledr valley, through which runs the A470 road.

After using the road to pass under the end of Pont Gethin railway viaduct, also known as Gethin’s Bridge, a magnificent piece of 19th century architecture that is largely hidden from view by the forest, I crossed the pretty torrents of the Afon Lledr via a sturdy footbridge. A couple of miles of lane-walking soon followed, steeply and tiresomely uphill for the first mile, but as I climbed, rewarding views of the valley and the surrounding wooded hills opened up, and there were no cars to bother me. After the lane levelled off, it followed a stream, further along which some smooth rocks by a two-plank bridge provided a suitable spot for my lunch break.

The lane led to a small community of about five scattered cottages, where I struck off westwards up a steep footpath. In this area I encountered four separate pairs of walkers; I mention this because they were the last people I was to see for two days. The path twisted and turned its way up a hillside that had until recent months been forested, but this had been felled and was now a mess of dead conifer branches and churned-up ground. Four stone walls, all that remained of an old homestead that would originally have been on open land, before being hidden by the trees for many years, were once again exposed to daylight. This landscape changed as I passed though a gap in a wall at the western boundary of the ex-forest, for the path now crossed grass and bracken that covered the broad northern end of a ridge of hills. The sun was breaking through the grey clouds, and some distant mountain peaks were becoming visible.

All I had to do from here was to follow the path for a quarter of a mile till it passed a crossing wall shown on the 1:25,000 map. Here I would turn left to follow the wall to its end, and then continue southwards to reach a track, also shown on the map, which would lead me over an un-named 455m summit and on to Bwlch y Groes. Oh, if life was as simple as the map-makers! When I had long passed where the non-existent wall should have been, I headed south up tussocky slopes on a compass bearing, searching in vain for an equally non-existent track, and becoming frustrated at my now slower progress. Just to rub salt in, as I dropped into Bwlch y Groes, an excellent track, which was not marked on the map, became visible ascending southwards on the hillside ahead, but to reach it I first had to cross a lot of rough country.

I made up for lost time on the track, which led me over a mile-and-a-half to the 1,950-foot summit of Y Ro Wen, which held a cairn turned into a wind shelter, and was a fine viewpoint in the weak, late-afternoon sunshine. Continuing from here west of south, on nothing more now than sheep’s paths, I followed the upper rim of forested Cwm Penamnen to reach a path I had followed in 1988. Well, I found the old stile where the path climbed out of the forest, but to find my way across the grassland on my side, it was out with the compass again.

My objective was the disused Cwt-y-bugail Quarry, which was unmissable when I saw the ruinous shell of the long barrack building below me, side-lit by the golden rays of the lowering sun. Although I could have spent some time here, exploring the old buildings, rusting machinery, slate tips and, around a corner, the quarry itself, I was becoming tired and I was anxious to press on for about a third of a mile westwards along a very boggy old track (the route of the Rhiwbach Tramway, I learned later) to reach Llyn Bowydd reservoir, where I hoped to stop for the night.

Near to the southeast corner of the lake, which is situated at 1,550-feet above sea level, I was fortunate enough to find a decent spot to camp: an area of reasonably level and fairly dry grass close to sheltering rocks that also provided both seat and backrest, and with a trickle of fresh water passing by. There were attractive views across the lake in front, and of 2,160-foot Manod Mawr to the rear. If there was any drawback, it was a little chilly in the northeasterly air stream; however, this was compensated for by my immense satisfaction with the good progress I had made on my first day out.

Day 2

In the morning, the previous evening’s cirrus clouds lit yellow by the setting sun had been replaced by chilly grey mist, but the worst of this cleared while I breakfasted. When my home and belongings were eventually packed away in my rucksack, I carried on westwards along the same old track that had brought me to Llyn Bowydd. The track goes through a rock cutting where, as when I passed the same spot in 1994, I paused to marvel at no fewer than eight species of fern and fern ally that grow here. After this I soon reached the neighbouring reservoir of Llyn Newydd, where I left the track and headed northwards along the west bank of the lake. It was my intention to follow a footpath shown on the map as heading towards 1,922-foot Foel Fras, and then another path westwards towards Llynnau Barlwyd reservoir. Initially I was on a very faint and sketchy anglers’ path following the shore of Llyn Newydd, but that ended at the far corner of the lake, after which it was down to intuition and compass work to cross half a mile of rough grass and rushes towards the bank of mist that hid the upper slopes of Foel Fras.

When the slope ahead of me steepened, I turned westwards to contour along the lower flanks of Moel Penamnen, helped now by many sheep walks. I was not surprised that the footpaths shown on the map were not on the ground, because one of Peter Hermon’s routes in Hillwalking in Wales (1991) cuts diagonally across this area; he would have mentioned the paths if they existed. The weather was a mixture of sun and cloud by the time I reached the Barlwyd lakes, where I chose the rocky dam wall that separates the upper lake from its lower companion, as here I could air my sleeping bag and tent while I stopped for lunch. Unfortunately, before I had finished eating, the sky became black and I had to hurriedly pack everything away and don waterproofs as a soaking shower commenced.

Following my break I set off, still wearing my waterproofs in the vain hope that they would dry, to descend 300 feet westwards to the A470 road in the Crimea Pass, the name of which, I have read, comes from an inn there that was closed in 1910 due to rowdiness, and was subsequently pulled down. Quite how an inn in such an unpopulated area could be rowdy is beyond my imagination; even the slate quarrymen would have had a couple of miles hike to reach it. I am afraid I must once again take exception with Peter Hermon (refer to my climb from Melynllyn Reservoir in 1999), whose otherwise first class book this time describes a “green track rambling up the hillside, leading round the flank of Moel Farlwyd.” All I saw of a green track was about 100 yards long, at the lower end, after I had picked my way down pathless slopes.

Just before I reached the road, I crossed a bare, muddy area that was littered with what I took to be old ponies’ horseshoes, something to do with the quarries, I thought. At home after the trip, I read in Geraint Roberts’ anecdote-filled little book, The Lakes of Eryri (1995) that this is “the remains of a series of fires used to burn ex-army boots at the end of the second world war.” The story continues, “An old character who had a market stall at Blaenau would buy mountains of war surplus equipment and have the boots patched up for resale, those too tatty would go on the Crimea Pass bonfire. Grass has so far been reluctant to re-establish itself.”

Three hundred yards up the currently empty trunk road, I crossed it to the start of a track that swung down the side of the valley. Taking my directions now from John and Ann Nuttall’s book, The Mountains of England and Wales (1995 edition), I was here instructed to “climb west up steep grassy slopes to the left of an old trial level, aiming for the stile silhouetted on the skyline.” Well, although the map marks a “Level (disused)” I was not too sure exactly what I was supposed to be looking for, while “steep” was too polite a word for the grassy slopes, and however hard I looked I could not see any stile on the skyline. After I had hauled my way up the end of the ridge via a slightly gentler 45-degrees slope I found around the corner, I did later pass a stile, but it was in a position where it would not be visible from below.

About half a mile west of and 500 feet up from the Crimea Pass, I looked back to see the end of a rainbow portrayed on my side of advancing black clouds. I could plainly see where the crock of gold lay but I did not feel inclined to go back down for it, contenting myself instead with capturing it on a photograph. The rain, which soon arrived, was so forceful that it hurt my shoulders and head through my waterproof jacket. Fortunately it was not too prolonged a shower, but it was enough to thoroughly wet everything. Undeterred, I continued on my way, for this was turning into a tremendous ridge walk, and I was (almost) thoroughly enjoying it, but I must confess that I copped-out and contoured around the north side of the 2,290-foot summit of Allt-fawr, for I was tired and it looked a long way up, although as I stumbled through tussocky grass I found myself wondering whether the faint ridge path I had abandoned would have been easier. Another slight concern was with the amount of mist that, following the rain, was now filling all of the valleys and cwms, and drifting across the tops of ridges in places.

Just to the west of the slopes of Allt-fawr lies a small un-named lake the Nuttall’s refer to as “the little lake north of Llyn Conglong” (which is a larger body of water nearby). The land dropped from the ridge to the lake, and in between was a flat bit of grass for my tent, where the ridge would provide shelter from the northerly air stream, the lake my water supply, and rock faces that I could dry things on in the morning. A faint path passed close by, running down from Allt-fawr then along the north side of the little lake, not that anyone used it while I was there, in fact I had not seen another human all day. The map showed a footpath passing between the two lakes but it did not exist on the ground, nor did another path depicted as approaching from the north of All-fawr (which was the rough way I had reached here).

To the north and the west of me, dense mist rolled about in the valleys, leaving just two mountain ridges visible, the furthest of these being the one I would be following in the morning. Strands of mist were pouring over the edges of the ridges, looking for all the world like white manes on black horses. To the south it was fairly clear; the sea was just visible in the vicinity of the Mawddach estuary, and I was treated to some beautiful yellow colours in the sky as the sun went down at around 8 o’clock.

Day 3

There was light mist moving past in the morning, but it was brighter above, with the pale luminescence of the sun showing through later on. My little lake was like a sheet of glass, reflecting the sky and the coloured line of low cliffs that formed one bank. The mist receded to give a visibility of about a quarter of a mile during the couple of hours it took me to get ready, but in that time my airing equipment obstinately refused to dry, not even my waterproofs which I had draped over my walking poles stuck in the ground on the top of the ridge above me.

The morning passed as if I was in a dream world. Following the ridge, I went by little lakes that stretched away into the mist, not a breath of wind ruffling their surfaces, while slopes rose steeply to unseen peaks. The remains of an iron fence, I believe it was the old county boundary between Meirionnydd and Caernarfon, made it difficult to lose the way, except when it temporarily disappeared at a point where the faint path split. Here my instructions read, “Past scree slopes”, and it was not immediately clear which branch I should take, as either way passed the scree.

All traces of mist had gone by the time I commenced the lengthy descent off the north end of the ridge, and I delighted not only in the extensive views over typical Moelwyns scenery of rocks, grass and pools, but also of the Snowdon horseshoe clearly filling the northwest skyline: I was able to pick out the summits of Yr Aran, Yr Wyddfa, Y Lliwedd, Crib y Ddysgl and Crib Goch. Changing aspects of these were to remain in view all day.

My lunchtime objective, the large lake of Llyn Edno, lay in a rocky hollow in front of me, but it took longer to reach than I expected. On the way, I saw two groups of people in the distance, the first people I had seen for practically two whole days. They turned out to be novice soldiers being instructed in map reading. The sun shone while I rested on rocks at the northern tip of the lake, successfully drying and airing my tent, sleeping bag and clothing, as well as giving me the opportunity to make use of the new addition to my kit, the sun hat

Continuing my walk, heading northwards now, but still following the old iron fence posts, I was on a well-trod peaty path, with the rocky ridge of 1,991-foot Moel Meirch just above on my left, and the vast area of Cwm Edno below on my right. This was the reverse of the route I had followed seven years previously, in 1994. I made good time (showing off to the rookie soldiers) as far as the col of Bwlch y Rhediad, some 500 feet lower, where I stopped for a breather. There was an escape route eastwards from here, but both time and weather were with me, so it was an easy decision to continue northwards up the vast rocky ridge of 1,938-foot Carnedd y Cribau, regaining that 500 feet in the process.

Halfway up, I reached the end of a large, rounded rock outcrop, where there stood a black-and-white feral goat with long, wavy horns. He did not exactly run away, but nor was he willing to stop and pose for a photograph. With the camera still out, I wandered across to the western rim of the mountain with the intention of getting an uncluttered shot of Snowdon across the Glaslyn valley, and here something strange occurred. I distinctly heard the urgent shout of a male, two words, which sounded like, “Hold on!” followed by three lots of frantic female screams, and then silence. Had I heard a climbing accident, or was someone opposite, or below, being instructed in abseiling, or canoeing, and making a lot of noise about it? I could not see any figures on the mountain flanks opposite, but I walked away fully expecting to hear the arrival of a rescue helicopter. After I had returned home, I even asked if there had been anything on the news. Sound can carry some distance in the mountains, particularly on still days such as this, so, discounting the notion that I heard something spectral from the past, the most likely explanation I can think of is that it came from the valley below.

By about 4:30 p.m. I reached the next col, Bwlch Rhiw’r Ychen, Pass of the Hill of the Oxen. Here I was in a quandary. My planned route was to turn east here and ascend the western shoulder of 2,861-foot Moel Siabod. I was reluctant to do this right now because there would be a lot of climbing to do at the end of the day, and there would be no water for camping on the way up. It was a bit too far to go right the way over, plus the farmers on the other side were not very friendly, to judge by all the notices I saw displayed there in 1994, so that ruled out camping on that side. The col where I was now would be an excellent place to camp, I could see three pools and sheltering rocks from where I stood, but it was way too early to be thinking of stopping. Furthermore, my weather forecast warned of heavy rain, hill fog and local flooding the next day; the military instructor I spoke to today had referred to it as well, and I did not want to be caught up here in foul conditions.

The solution I settled on was to descend eastwards from the bwlch down a steep grassy gully to reach the dumbbell-shaped twin lakes, Llynau Diwaunydd, below me. From the height I was at, I could see large grassy areas surrounded by conifer forest on the farthest bank, which looked OK for camping. From there I would be able to find tracks leading around Moel Siabod, which would be preferable in tomorrow’s bad weather.

It was a struggle to carry out the plan. Firstly, the gulley was so steep I had to hang on to a wire fence for most of the way down, and then, along the north side of the lakes, the tussocks of grass must have been the largest in the world! When I eventually reached the open bank that I had chosen from 500 feet above, it seemed ideal; there was even a stream running down one side of it.

Day 4

At 8 o’clock the next morning, I was startled out of my dreams by a lot of shouts and hollering. I cautiously unzipped the flysheet and poked my head outside. A farmer and his dogs were rounding up a flock of sheep high up on the hillside of Llechwedd Garnedd above the lakes. What really upset me, though, was to see that it was the most crystal-clear, cloudless, blue-skied morning imaginable. So much for the weather forecast! The colours on the sunlit flank of Carnedd y Cribau and its reflection on the lake were out of this world, but I spent the rest of the morning casting my eyes to the top of Bwlch Rhiw’r Ychen and muttering, “I should have been up there!” What a splendid morning it would have been to have set off over Moel Siabod, and how superb the views would be. Not only that, but my grassy bank remained shaded by the conifer forest, so it was chilly and wet with dew until I left.

Following a fine forest track gently downhill from the lake, I found a well-trodden path that seemed to head in the direction I wanted to go. (I have since observed that the track and the path are more apparent on the smaller scale 1:50,000 map than on the 1:25,000 map that I carried!) Descending out of the forest into the Lledr valley, I passed through agricultural land, where I came across a large bull with cows in a field through which the public footpath ran, so I stepped over a wire fence into a parallel field, rejoining the path on the safe side of a five-bar gate at the far end. After half a mile of lane, the next footpath led through a farmyard, where about ten sheepdogs leapt at me from the ends of their tethers and from within transporters. The path continued though some pens where a couple of hundred sheep were gathered. The farmhands all stopped what they were doing to watch me. If they were expecting some diversionary entertainment, they did not get it, for the nearest bunch of sheep ran in a wide arc around me, and the black-and-white dog that was guarding them was a friendly soul.

The path became a track, difficult to walk on because it was deeply churned up by cattle hooves. It led downhill to Dolwyddelan Castle, where the second bull of the morning was wandering about, with a couple of cows, so to bypass these I forced my way through some undergrowth and climbed onto the mound of the castle itself. If the castle was open to the public, then I gained a free close inspection of it!

Half a mile along the amazingly quiet A470 trunk road, the same road which runs through the Crimea Pass, lies the sleepy village of Dolwyddelan, where I was able to report myself alive and well from a phone box, opposite which was a conveniently situated pub where I was able to refresh myself with something other than iodine-purified lake water for a change. Northeast of the village, indistinct paths (nothing to do with the beer!) led me through mixed woodland to a vast tract of flat marshy land where there were old wooden footpath signposts, two-and-a-half feet high, every 50 yards or so, but precious little in the way of a path. It was a case of wading through wet sedges to a post and then searching for the next one to head for. This brought me at length to the little lane on the south side of the Llugwy valley, from where it was a long hike on a familiar route back to Betws-y-Coed, where I had deliberately left my van outside a bungalow whose owners had an Old English sheepdog that barked whenever anyone walked past after dark (as I had discovered earlier, on my way back to Riverside Camping from the Royal Oak).

Well, after two rotten, wet years, when I was on the verge of quitting backpacking, I ended up having one of my most enjoyable trips of all. Although the better weather was a major factor, I must have been fitter and less tired at the start, the new high-tech clothing increased comfort, while the new groundsheet kept the inner tent dry (even if it was bulkier, and navy blue). And what item was changed after the trip? One thing that bugged me was that I had permanently wet feet throughout, and when I eventually removed my Meraklon inner socks, the skin of my feet was white and puffy. Before driving home I visited one of Betws-y-Coed’s many outdoors equipment stores, where I forked out no less than £20 for a pair of SealSkinz waterproof socks. Having since field-tested them, I am able to say that I am really impressed with their performance, and delighted to end a day with dry, warm and cosy feet. Roll on September 2002….

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