2003, Western Carneddau from Llanfairfechan

When I came to plan this year’s trip, about four weeks prior to my departure date near the end of September, I still had strong memories of what I had achieved last year with my circuit around Snowdon, which I felt was going to be a hard act to follow.  I still had an unwalked “Low-level/Poor weather” route I had created a couple of years earlier, but it really was low-level, so I put it aside for another year.  Looking at a map and consulting my list of previous walks, I decided to have another go at the Carnedds from the north coast, last attempted by me 11 years earlier.  In spite of repeated visits over the years, this area is not wholly a favourite, being mainly just enormous green rolling hills, but for one reason or another I had so far failed to complete any circuit here exactly as planned.  This time I made up an anti-clockwise route that would take in parts I had not trodden previously, these being the western side and the southern summits.

Conscious of my wish in recent years to lighten my pack weight, together with the fact that I was yet another year older, I spent a small fortune on a new stove and lantern, technological miracles of Japanese miniaturisation made from lightweight titanium, and self-igniting, so I could also do away with carrying matches.  Not only that, but the increased efficiency of the lantern meant I could use a smaller gas cartridge than before, thus saving more weight.  I also hit upon the idea of carrying artificial sweetener tablets for coffee, a dozen in a tiny plastic pillbox weighing next to nothing compared with a small Tetra fish food pot full of sugar.  I even saved another 1½ ounces by removing the ice-axe buckle and shortening all the surplus from the straps on my rucksack.  The overall difference in weight was discernible when I first lifted my packed rucksack.

For the first time, I travelled in a hire car instead of an emptied-out company van, as I was prevented from driving this by Health & Safety due to a minor health problem of occasional vertigo caused by an inner ear problem, and as a result of which I was due to take early retirement at the end of this year.  Wales was wet and misty as I drove up the A5, and to add to the gloom I was delayed in an almighty rush hour queue of traffic on the north coast A55 Expressway.  Express it certainly was not, as there was a contraflow, with one of the twin tunnels beneath the Penmaen-bach headland closed.  Light was fading as I turned off the main road towards the village of Dwygyfylchi, where I had pre-selected Woodlands Camping Park at Pendyffrin Hall.  Here I followed a long, winding drive, passing acres of caravans and not seeing one tent.  The grand house itself appeared to have the reception area in its huge entrance hall.  Lights were on but the door was locked; there was no one to be seen and my ring of the bell was unanswered.  With rain dripping down my neck, I knew that I was wasting my time here, so I drove away.  On rejoining the lane outside, I spotted a hand painted sign above a chained-up five-bar gate opposite, announcing “Camping Field.”  On the horizon of the spacious but empty field was a solitary breezeblock structure that was presumably the toilets.  It was clear that the “4-star graded park” with its long list of facilities I had read about was only for the benefit of caravanners.

My Ordnance Survey map showed another site on the far side of the village.  Picking my way through the roads, I found myself at the walled back edge of the site.  Peering over, I felt that it did not look too different from where I had just left.  After finding the correct side, there was a straight entrance road leading in.  On the left of this road was a wood-and-glass summer-house that was evidently the office, but this was closed, and a prominent notice on the door said, “No tent pitches available.”   I was now becoming worried, but I had seen a “Camping” sign by the road that had led me to the back of this site.  Praying that this one would be open, I soon found it, and drove in.  A semi-sloping field had a tent, a touring caravan and a motorhome at varying points on it.  A quick inspection of the gents revealed reasonable but bare necessities facilities: hand basins had only cold taps, but showers were hot, and there was a shaver socket.  It would have to do.

I chose a flat spot in a small corner to the right of the entrance, and it was while I was putting up my little tent, in the rain and the twilight, that a Ford Granada towing a huge caravan came roaring up the drive.  The car pulled up in front of me.  Four lads of varying ages leapt out and ran to the toilet block.  The driver, a broad-headed Scouser, beamed at me out of his window.  “Orright if I go here?” he called, pointing to the tiny space between my tent and the edge of the field, “Orright if I go here?”  I looked aghast in the direction he was pointing, and back at his caravan.  Sensing that I was not altogether keen on the idea, he then said, “No?  Whorrabout here, then?  Can I go here?”  this time pointing to the other side of me.  I stepped the five paces across to him, and gently explained that it was a big field, there were only three other units on it, and I did not wish to appear unsociable, but when I chose to put my tent up in that corner, I was not exactly planning on having a large caravan right up against me.  He got the message but, not to be outdone, moved across to bag the spot in the morning while I was still packing up.

Not exactly delighted with my luck so far, I set off in search of an evening meal.  Just a few hundred yards down the road was a large pub with notices proclaiming Bars, Family Room, Games Room, Function Room and, most importantly to me, Food.  This would do, I could not be bothered to look any further.  It was Friday night, and three generations of locals were settled in at the best tables, their evening’s supplies of roll-ups prepared and heaped up before them.  My beef and ale pie turned out to be a thin little dried-up wedge, and I left half of the pile of oven chips.  At least the pint was palatable.

Day 1

The starting point of my walk was to be at the back of the small town of Llanfairfechan, just a couple of miles further along the coast.   I was slightly surprised to find my way through the back streets to my intended destination without getting lost.  There was a small parking bay opposite the end house, and while I made a fuss of the little white dog in its garden, the owner appeared, which gave me the opportunity to explain that I hoped to leave my car there (a hired car, actually, I no longer had use of a company van) for a few days, and I did not want the police to come and smash a window again.  The man said he would keep an eye on it for me.  Sorted!

Immediately crossing a bridge over the Afon Llanfairfechan, I then walked along a metalled lane for about a third of a mile to where a footpath branched off across fields and up into the hills.  This was part of a recently opened long distance trail, the North Wales Path (this has not appealed to me, since it merely follows the coastline). The tall new “kissing gate” by the road was too small in dimensions to accommodate both me and my rucksack.  The top of the contraption being enclosed prevented me from holding my sack above my head, and I found the only way was to take it off and balance it on top of the 6-feet-high wall while I went through.  Planners please take note!  I  discovered next that walkers on the North Wales Path would have to be good at map reading, for the number of signposts was far fewer than the number of branching and crossing paths.  I more or less got it right, in spite of this.

The first climb up the green, convex slopes got me puffing and blowing a bit, not helped by wearing waterproofs in the light rain, which had not stopped since my arrival yesterday.  The other campers had told me that I should have been here the week before, when, prior to a lot of heavy rain two days ago, the weather had been glorious…  The view was of the wet slate roofs of the town diminishing in size below me, with the sea a dead-looking listless grey, while ahead of me a double row of huge electricity pylons came into sight, and behind these the first serious hills.  Past the pylons, my way turned right, westwards, to follow the stony track of the Roman Road towards the conifer-covered slopes of Bont Newydd at Aber, which now calls itself Abergwyngregyn, but to me it has always been Aber, and will remain so.

The only practical way to reach the popular path to Aber Falls from the Roman Road is to continue westwards from the roadhead of a minor lane, any other direction being blocked by mountain and forest.  I cheated a little, cutting off two sides of a triangle to reach the lane by heading steeply down rough pastureland.  Once on  the lane, I was quite dismayed to discover that all the hard work I had put in over the first few miles to reach a height of about 1,000 feet above sea level was rapidly being lost as the lane dropped to below half that.

I do not recall such a broad stony path leading to the falls in 1992, the last time I had walked this way, and I observed that the derelict old farmhouse to one side had been turned into an “Exhibition and Information Centre”.  Along the way, I saw quite a number of grazing feral horses, which inhabit the Carneddau.  In spite of the grey weather, there were also large numbers of people visiting the waterfall, which was magnificent, after the recent heavy rain I had been told about.  Today’s rain had at this time temporarily eased off , which made the far riverbank an ideal stopping place for my lunch.   Access to that side was made easier by a new-looking, twee little bridge crossing the small river.  Where was all this going to stop?  The next time I visit, I would not be surprised to find the path concreted over, and steps and railings put in!

Following my short break, I took a path for half a mile westwards towards the Afon Gam, passing on the way Rhaeadr Bach, a smaller but still impressive waterfall on the slopes on my left.  On my previous walk here in 1992, I followed the advice given in two of my books, to go up the hillside parallel to the Afon Gam.  This had turned out to be very difficult, but at the time I had spotted a distant track that contoured the eastern slopes of Moel Wnion, to reach the saddle above the head of the river.  The track is marked on Ordnance Survey maps, so today I carried on past the river to a point where the path turned 90 degrees northwards.  Here I continued straight on, up an increasingly steep pathless slope, and through increasingly dense and wet bracken, to reach what turned out to be nothing more than a line of rushes marking the edge of a long-disused path with a faint sheepwalk along it.  This is what was visible from afar!  Even this, for what it was worth, petered out after a few hundred yards when it reached the site of  an old small quarry, following which I was forced to work out my own route over rough country.  It really was just as bad as the way I had gone last time.

Having eventually reached the saddle, which was large, flat and featureless, I became concerned as to whether I was now heading in the right direction.  The round hump of Moel Wnion disappeared into mist on my right, the valley behind me was broad and empty, as were  the northern slopes of Drosgl to my left and the grassland before me, while I felt that I should not be aiming so far southwards as my compass  suggested.  (This was later proved to be faulty, leading me to replace it.  I put it alongside new ones in the shop, mine was way out.  It was suggested this could happen if I had kept it next to a mobile ‘phone or a GPS, which I had, I used to put these all in the same pocket of my day rucksack when I went botanising.)  It therefore came as a relief when a landmark, the unmistakable rocky mound of Gyrn, came into sight on my right, and even more of a relief when I found that, beside Gyrn, a path I hoped to use, marked on the map only as a path, not a public footpath, actually existed on the ground as a well-trod way.

This path curved roughly southwestwards towards the town of Bethesda, which I could eventually see in the distance, with Penrhyn slate quarries and the northern end of the Glyders range of mountains soaring up beyond it, but I was due to change to another path, heading south-east at 90 degrees to my left.  The start of this was so indistinct that I actually walked past it, dismissing it as a mere sheep track.  It took a lot of studying of my map before I decided to go back and give it a try.  The little path kept going, it did not peter out as I half expected it to, even though it crossed at least three streams in the broad valley, and eventually it sloped uphill to meet a stone wall where it crossed a surprisingly rocky col on the west spur of Gyrn Wigau.

Here I should have been continuing in a southeastwards direction, but it was now early evening, the light was becoming poor and it was raining again.  The path I was originally following turned eastwards along the north edge of the valley of the Afon Caseg, which has its source in a cwm below the crags of 3,152 ft Yr Elen, lost in the clouds ahead.  My map showed this path crossed several streams, so I walked to the first of these, where, after failing to find any other level spot, I pitched my tent on a patch of grass that was probably the interior of an ancient building, at a disused  small quarry.  While I was setting everything up, the weather rapidly brightened up from the west, which displayed a beautiful rainbow on the retreating clouds in the east, and the remainder of the evening was fine.

Day 2

A sunny morning greeted me, and before me to the south I could clearly see my intended route, which was to be up the north ridge of Carnedd Dafydd, to the ridge connecting that with Carnedd Llewelyn, the third highest summit in Wales, and continuing round in an arc to the hills in the east, which were on my left.  However, during the couple of hours it took me to breakfast, get cleaned up, and pack up, cloud and mist rolled over the high tops from the far side, obscuring them from view.  Before I left, I wandered over to see if there were any interesting ferns growing on the rock walls of the man-made cleft in the hillside by the path behind me.  The fairly level floor was overgrown with grasses, rushes and ferns, but not very far in I was horrified to find an almost hidden hole in the ground, about 50 feet long by up to 20 feet wide, and about 30 feet deep with absolutely sheer sides.  Anyone who fell in that would not get out again, even if they did survive the fall.  I could barely see the bottom; there must have been a few sheep’s skeletons in there at least.  Such things are usually fenced off, or at least display a warning notice.  What if I had gone in there in the fading light to look for a tent site?  It does not bear thinking about.

Perhaps this was a bad omen, for from this point my plans started to go awry.  It was a short return westward, back along the stony path, to where my map showed a footpath heading southeastwards to cross the Afon Caseg.  There was no sign of any path on the rough grass, rush and bracken covered ground, nor could I see a continuation on the far side of the river, where it should have been visible, as the land rose gently over the low western spur of Foel Ganol.  This was a bit worrying, for there was about a mile and a half to walk on this section, and either attempting the route or finding an alternative (probably by continuing westwards to Gerlan on the outskirts of Bethesda, and then coming back out following the Afon Llafar) would seriously delay me.

In addition to this dilemma, the mountain summits were still cloud covered, in spite of the sky currently being about eighty percent clear, and the wind was rising, making me wonder whether I should be attempting the high ridges.  After much deliberation, I decided to attempt the pathless route, so that, if nothing else, I could at least have a look at Cwm Llafar, which had sounded interesting from what I had previously read.  Heading slightly downhill south-eastwards, I aimed for a solitary tree on the riverbank, this seemed to be by the bend where the path should have been, as shown on the map.  I found that I could only walk on short, sheep-grazed patches of grass, twisting and turning through waist-high bracken and beds of rushes; many wet bits had to be leaped across as well.

I had been aware from my camping place that the river was in spate, for I had seen it foaming white in the valley below me, and it was audible.  Now that I was approaching the river, it was clear that I would have difficulty finding somewhere to cross it, as it flowed deep and fast between boulders.  Stopping to re-check my directions, I found to my dismay that I had dropped my map case, which I clip by means of its press-stud around the lower end of my rucksack shoulder strap.  Looking behind me, I very speedily realised that I would have a hell of a job retracing my footsteps exactly through the vegetation; it was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, particularly as the outside of the case was military camouflage material.  I walked back and forth between the river and my starting point so many times that I could not remember whether I recognised little bits of the ground from when I first trod them, or from when I had passed them during my search.  My perseverance was rewarded over an hour later when I at last found the case beside a boulder.

With most of the morning gone, no path and an uncrossable river (two rivers, probably, if the Afon Llafar, which had to be crossed as well, was the same), plus the wind now uncomfortably strong from the south-west, it was time for ‘Plan B’, which was to abandon the southern section of my route, and cut across the middle.  Retreating to the rocky col that I had crossed yesterday afternoon, I turned up a well-trod little path (this was not shown on the map!) that led up extremely steep grass slopes to the 2,110 ft top of Gyrn Wigau, where, finding a small pool of water, I lunched behind a rock that was not quite big enough to shield me from the worst of the wind.  Continuing towards Drosgl, 2,487 ft, I joined a slightly larger path, sections of which were marked with small standing stones, contouring eastwards past 2,648 ft Bera Bach before gently climbing to 3,038 ft Garnedd Uchaf.  The sunshine was pleasant, but the wind was becoming a problem.  Blowing hard from slightly behind my right side, it forced me to lean into it and made me walk with a stumbling gait instead of a steady stride.  At times it threatened to topple me, and it probably would have succeeded were it not for my walking poles.

Things improved when I turned northeastwards at Garnedd Uchaf, for the wind was now behind me.  From this height I could see a wind farm on the Clwydian Hills many miles to the east, where the vanes must have been working flat out.  On reaching 3,091 ft  Foel Fras, I hobbled over the rock covered summit to touch its pillar, more out of a sense of duty now than from a genuine desire, then I continued on the path until I reached the saddle between here and 2,526 ft Drum.  I was at this stage thinking ahead for somewhere to spend the night, shelter being the utmost priority.  To my right, uniform green slopes lay all the way round from the east to the north, but way down on my left, Llyn Anafon lay in a deep hollow, sheltered from the wind by the high ridge connecting Foel Fras with 2,785 ft Llwytmor.

Without going too far down, using a very faint trod way that was not a path, but walkers obviously favoured this route, a grass and rock area on the south side of the cwm looked ideal from a distance.  Despite prolonged searching there, I had difficulty finding anywhere level enough or dry enough.  Eventually I compromised with a patch of grass barely large enough for my tent, and not really level enough (far from level enough, as I later found out), but it did have a trickle of water passing close by (too close, as I found out even later), while its best feature was a bilberry-covered ledge along the base of an adjacent high rock; this provided the most comfortable and relaxing seat, with the back at just the right distance and angle, that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in the wild.

My primary choice of this site was for how sheltered it was from the wind, which even so was still eddying around in down-draughts from above.  Unfortunately, while I had  a few hours of bad sleep (thanks to that slope) the anticyclone deepened and it shifted, so that the wind now roared straight in from the west, causing both the inner and the flysheet of my little tent to lift and flatten, and shake and bang about, for the remaining pre-dawn hours, as if it was in the grip of a furious giant’s hand.

Day 3

At eight, I dragged myself from half awake to fully awake, glumly thinking that at least it was not raining.  Famous last thoughts!  An initial spitter-spatter on my flysheet had turned into a wind-blown downpour before I had even finished dressing.  Breakfast and washing were accomplished with great difficulty within the confines of my dog- kennel sized tent while it absolutely slammed it down outside, it was the most ferocious rain I have experienced to date.  It says a lot for my 20-years-old tent that it stayed dry inside, but at some stage I discovered that the tiny spring to one side of me had expanded to flow through my porch.  I kicked the original channel clear of grassy obstructions with the toe of my walking boot, and used the spoil to dam the overflowing low points on the side nearest my tent.  This improved matters slightly, but in truth every piece of ground was running with water, such was the force of the rain.

After that task, I packed my rucksack with everything except my insulated jacket and mittens, which I was wearing, and my Thermarest mattress, on  which I lay curled up, dozing until the storm eased.  I was to lay there till gone one p.m., when the rain ceased almost as abruptly as it had started.  The wind, however, was still very strong, hampering my efforts to fold up my dripping tent, and battering me mercilessly as I contoured back across the head of the cwm to re-find the faint little path that I intended to follow down to Llyn Anafon, for no way was I going back up onto the ridge.  Surface water was on most of the land; it ran down the path, where it spread wide and took short cuts across grassy corners; mini streams that were not normally watercourses crossed the path, while below slopes, wet curtains ran off the tops of rock faces.  The streams proper  were brim full, foaming white and roaring.

After I had descended 600 feet to the lake, which itself is 1,630 feet above sea level, the wind was marginally more bearable, while clear sky was following the clouds.  An excellent stony track led down from here , and after a mile it passed a large complex of ancient stone sheep pens, inside which I found shelter from the wind for a prolonged, somewhat late lunch break, while the sun and wind dried all of my wet equipment which I spread along the wall tops and weighted down with large stones.

The track continued all the way to the Roman Road near Aber, from where I retraced my footsteps back to my car at my starting point.   I drove some distance to the comparative luxury of the Forestry camp site at Beddgelert, from where my telephone call to announce my homecoming in a couple of days was greeted with surprise, but I insisted I’d had enough.  All in all, I regarded this year’s trip as a bit of a disaster.  Just to rub salt in, the weather was excellent for the next few days.

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