2004, The Tarrens from Dolgoch

The Tarrens, as the hills are known, form a chain of grassy summits rising to over 2,000 feet in height, south of and parallel to the ridge of Cadair Idris. The possibility of a walk combining these had long been in my list of ideas for future backpacking trips, and details of routes in this area were amongst the features I had saved over the years from various walking magazines.

The real deciding factor was a 35-miles-long route in a newly published book, Backpacker’s Britain, Volume 2: Wales, by Graham Uney. I chose this to form the bulk of the walk, adding a bit around the western end, and an extension at the eastern end to include the Dovey Hills. The latter would give me an opportunity to explore this ridge of hills that soars above the main A470 road between Dinas Mawddwy and Dolgellau, while at the same time it would extend the walk to a challenging length, although this section could easily be omitted if need be.

I had high hopes for this walk. I had not visited this part of the National Park since 1990, and I felt that the less rugged Tarrens and Dovey Hills would be easier for my 62-years-old legs, while I relished the prospect of walking the entire Cadair ridge from east to west, having previously walked only about fifty percent of it, and in the opposite direction. However, I kept my options open by including a lower, poor weather route around the north side of Cadair Idris, also cribbed from a magazine feature.

The length of the entire walk worried me a little, as it would mean maintaining an average distance of 12½ miles a day, something above the norm for me, as I tend to cover a reasonable mileage on my first day out, decreasing sharply thereafter (particularly in rugged or pathless terrain) and only picking up again on my final day. Another worry was the weather. The month of August was the wettest for fifty years, while no Indian summer developed during September. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico and the state of Florida were hit by four hurricanes in the space of three weeks, and the remnants of these were right now crossing the Atlantic towards the western side of the British Isles.

I was committed, however, having pre-booked a hire car for nine days. (I no longer had a company van to use, as I had taken early retirement at the end of 2003 and I currently shared my wife’s car when she did not need it.) I picked this up on Friday 17th September and set off towards the Midlands, which were wet and murky, while the traffic was heavy. My favourite route would have involved forging a way through Bromsgrove, Kidderminster and Bridgnorth on a busy Friday, and being stuck at low speeds on narrow A-roads, so I stayed on motorways, following the M40, M42, M5, M6 and M54 to Shrewsbury where I turned off its bypass onto the Welshpool and Dolgellau roads.
I headed for a previously decided upon campsite near the village of Arthog on the south side of the Mawddach estuary. I had mistakenly thought this journey would be a shorter distance than that to the north of Snowdonia. In fact it is the same – I drove 230 miles, which took me five hours including a 45 minutes break. Stretches of the A493 to Arthog, I found, were very narrow with stone walls on both sides, frequently making it necessary for oncoming vehicles to give way to each other.

Any preview of the campsite was obscured by the owners’ elongated bungalow that was also a B&B. All I could see was a group of semi-permanent, there-for-the-season touring caravans beyond a five bar gate at the end of the drive. My suspicions were aroused when I was asked for just £3 for a tent pitch. On enquiring what coins I would need for a shower, I was told I required a token for 40 pence, two if I wanted a nice, long shower. I was also advised to put my tent between two of the currently unoccupied caravans at the front, where I would be sheltered. That did not sound too encouraging.

Through the gate, I found nine caravans crammed around a tiny piece of flat land to one end of the bungalow. In front of these, a small and draughty area of grass was in full view of the bungalow windows, so I pitched between two of the vans as suggested. A little building nearby housed w.c.s and hand basins with the usual cold taps only (there was a small electric water heater but it did not work). The showers, however, were in a decaying shed-like structure attached to the other end of the bungalow. A further 40 acres of land reached down to the estuary; I had been told I could go anywhere down there if I wanted to, so I took a stroll down an extremely steep track, but saw no other facilities. My earlier suspicions were right, the site was a dump. Its only saving grace was the good view.

Before driving around the estuary to the seaside town of Barmouth for my dinner, I turned in the opposite direction to check out the village of Arthog, less than a mile along the road. This was where I planned to leave my car and start my four days’ walk. I was in for a nasty shock, for the road was bordered by stone walls and there was absolutely nowhere to park. The clusters of houses I had seen on the O.S. map turned out to be either right on the edge of the road or up private drives. I also failed to see any signpost for the attraction of Arthog Waterfalls. This was not at all what I had expected, and I was clearly going to have to find a different starting point for my walk.

During the night the wind became increasingly strong, roaring in the close-by belt of trees that mercifully sheltered me, though stray gusts still managed to shake my tent. Did the site owner know something when she suggested I pitch my tent between two caravans?

Day 1

By dawn, the wind was less forceful but it started raining, a steady downpour that showed no sign of easing. I slowly got ready and packed my equipment away while clad in waterproofs and Wellingtons. I resigned myself to the prospect of postponing the start of my walk till the following day, but after 11 a.m. the sky lightened and the rain eased off, stopping completely by half past and leaving a sky filled with broken clouds of differing shades of grey.

I drove southwards following the coast, and then inland along a valley to reach Dolgoch, which was a further point on the walk I had planned. Here there was a decent-sized car park in front of a café and a hotel. With the café proprietor’s blessing to leave my car there, I donned my walking boots and gladly set off with my backpack and walking poles.

A wide path gently climbed a narrow wooded valley, with a river thundering over rocks in a series of waterfalls, the grandest one being at the head of the woodland, repaying the efforts of those who walked this far, a third of a mile from the start. Here I made my way out of the wood via a vague trodden way that soon petered out, leaving me to find my own way from the rocks and bogs by the river and up a very steep grass and bracken covered slope to reach a good track that climbed the valley eastwards, towards the great grassy mound of 2,076 ft Tarrenhendre.

The sun was now shining, and as I climbed, views of Barmouth Bay opened up behind me, but at the same time the wind was felt more keenly, so that it was necessary to seek shelter when I wanted to stop for a lunch break. The best I could find was behind a bank of rushes. While I was seated here I watched the progress of a pair of walkers who were heading down the mountain towards me, plainly unsure of their way at first. As they approached, I saw that they were a man and a woman almost my age and both clad in Buffalo pile garments. The man proudly informed me that they had walked over the two main Tarrens summits today, which for him were the final two of the 137 Welsh Hewitts (Hills of England, Wales and Ireland above Two Thousand feet).

Lunch eaten, I continued up the steepening track to reach a col below the northwest shoulder of Tarrenhendre. Here I turned to the south-east and followed a wire fence up a cruelly steep grass slope that rose 600 feet to the summit, with the wind now barging into my right side, making me breathless and making my eyes run with water. Actually, summit is not a fitting description, it was more like a huge plateau of grass, heather and bogs, and there appeared to be more wire fences than my freshly-purchased 1:25,000 map showed, which made navigation difficult. At one stage I found it necessary to step over a fence and walk to the edge of the plateau to orientate myself and work out where I should be descending.

After following a way down that was shorter but steeper than the way up, with views of the distant Dovey estuary on my right to distract me, I strode on in the direction of the rocky minor top of Foel y Geifr. Half a mile prior to this, there was a stile in the fence at the point where my map showed a minor path that headed in a straight line towards a col that was my next objective. Ever keen to cut corners, I crossed the stile and headed along the faintest of faint ways that soon disappeared, leaving me ploughing my way through large grass tussocks and over old forestry drainage ditches, far beyond where any sensible person would have seen the futility of continuing, until I reached an area where the lower branches of conifer trees touched each other and proved to be impenetrable. Here I circled back in the direction I had come, eventually re-crossing the fence not that many yards from the stile that I had used some 30 minutes earlier. I then found that easy walking led me around the outer perimeter of the forestry land to the col. I was cross with myself for wasting so much time and energy.

Northwest of the col, the green whaleback of 2,186 ft. Tarren y Gesail filled the sky. As it is the highest summit in the range, I had included it in my route as it had appeared to be a short there-and-back diversion, but now the way up looked to be even worse than the ascent of Tarrenhendre. I was still tired from that, and also I did not want to be battered by the wind again, so I headed north-eastwards, passing an area of long-disused quarries, towards a vast tract of forest on undulating land that gently dropped towards the valley of the Afon Dulais.

In 1991 Peter Hermon wrote of this area in Volume 2 of his book Hillwalking in Wales, “Be sure you are armed with the latest OS maps…or you may find the forest trails hard to fathom,” while in 1999 Graham Uney commented, in The High Summits of Wales, “The hillside hereabouts was nowhere near as forested as my map suggested,” adding, “Quarries are marked on the map as being totally surrounded by the forests, but those I passed…looked as though they had always been well above the tree line.” These remarks, I learned, were still true for I found it difficult to relate the forest tracks on the land before me (or at times contouring above me) with those shown on my new map.

It was by now late in the afternoon, and as I progressed I was on the lookout for a suitable spot to spend the night, but without any success, for everywhere was too sloping, too stony, too exposed or too shaded. Eventually I came upon a near-perfect site past a padlocked forest building called Hafotty, which had just beyond its door a stream of water shooting out of a six-inch pipe. A minor, grassy path ran from here alongside a mature conifer plantation, and it was on this path that I pitched my tent. There was comfortable, level grass, a water supply nearby, trees that sheltered me from the wind, while things could be hung on their lower branches for airing, and the morning light, if any, could fall on me.

My map showed I had walked 8½ miles in an afternoon. I also learned that this path I was on was one of a series of paths and tracks that led northeast then east across the forest to reach the main road down in the valley at Pont Evans, which is one of the few bridges that cross the river Dulais. My original plan had been to follow Graham Uney’s published backpacking route that uses a crossing point near Pantperthog, but that is further downstream. The new way I had just devised would shorten a stretch of lane-walking on the other side of the river by two miles.

Day 2

Setting off in a morning of light cloud and still-strong wind, I found that the paths were little used but easy to follow, until after the third or fourth crossing forestry track, in an area named Cwm Cadian on the map. Here I had to find my way through fallen birch trees to reach a wooden footbridge over a small stream, the other side of which was a felled area with an incomprehensible notice about footpath diversions. I reached another track but was unsure which one it was on the map, consequently I was unsure which way to turn. I had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right, and fortunately I did, for I came to a remote old house that was shown on my map, but here I was uncertain again, as there was no sign of a path shown that should have led from the house to a further track. Through the few remaining trees I could see up to the edge of the track contouring the slope above, so I decided to go for it.

As I passed the house, a large man in his forties, a southerner by the sound of him, came flying out of the door.
“Are you on your own?” he demanded, peering suspiciously down the way I had come.
I explained that I was looking for the footpath shown on the map, in order to reach the higher track.
“The paths round here are all buggered,” he replied, “They’ve all been diverted. Where are you heading for?”
I told him I wanted to get down to Pont Evans, after which I sensed he relented a little, when he said I could carry on, or words to that effect. Well, thank you very much, Mister, that’s very good of you! (Said in my head, of course.)

The track, after I climbed to it, did not seem to run quite as it was depicted on my map. The bends differed and there were more junctions, so it was not too long before I was frustratingly lost. I retraced my steps to investigate a side turning but that eventually came to a dead-end, however on my way back I spotted purely by chance a little gap in the edge of the track, beyond which a tiny path headed down through the forest. There should have been a corresponding path on the opposite side of the track, but of this there was no sign. However, I felt there was a good chance that this path must be the one I was looking for, and I decided to try it; after all I had little to lose.

As I progressed, I was encouraged by traffic sounds from below filtering through the trees, and when I reached a section where the path, here less than eighteen inches wide and literally cut into the bare hillside, led downhill across an extremely steep forested slope, I was absolutely certain that this was the right way, for it corresponded with my map.

The main road was busy with vehicles on a dry and mild September Sunday, but after I had crossed Pont Evans to a parallel lane on the far side of the river, only two cars passed me in a mile of walking. When I was opposite the start of the little town of Corris, I turned up a rather wet track that, according to the map, should have taken me to Aberllefenni, a good way further up the Afon Dulais valley, but after half a mile the track ended abruptly, and here I continued up a tiny, overgrown path that climbed up the hillside, above the gorge of a stream. Ducking under the boughs of fallen trees, I followed the path down to the water, where a large, old trunk provided the only means of crossing. I lunched here, before searching in vain for a continuation of the path through the trees on the far bank. Alas, there really was nothing for it but to retrace my footsteps all of the way back to the lane. Events so far today were beginning to get me down.

The lane led steeply down to the river, where, before a bridge, a footpath sign pointed across fields, but I was done with taking any further chances today – what if a footbridge the map showed upstream was not be there? Instead, I crossed the road bridge and took a riverside path that soon brought me to another lane, on which I tramped for 1½ miles to reach the little habitation of Aberllefenni, after ‘phoning home from a call box I passed on the way.

This village was the point where I could have started a circuit that would take me over the Dovey Hills, but I had long ago abandoned any thoughts of doing that. Here I started walking the “Shorter Route” on my homemade guide, and I turned north-westwards, initially passing a mess of old quarry tips, to commence the ascent of the lengthy Cwm Hen-gae, my goal being to reach the eastern end of the Cadair Idris ridge.

Beyond the quarries, I had three choices: I could walk on a dead-end lane up the centre of the cwm, or on a parallel footpath that contoured the hillside, or on a forestry track that climbed to the top of the ridge. I’d had enough of lane walking for one day, while the forestry track was lengthier and being high it would be more exposed to the still-strong wind, so I chose the footpath. This turned out to be a big mistake, for once I had committed myself it became evident that it was little used. The route was unclear in places, while sections were very overgrown, particularly a long stretch where I had to force my way through gorse bushes and brambles that covered my arms in a multitude of scratches.

Daylight was beginning to fade when I eventually emerged at a point where the footpath joined the lane near the top end of the cwm. Here there was a farmhouse hidden behind trees, with ‘Private Property’ signs and barking dogs. It was important that I soon found a sheltered spot to pitch my tent, away from human eyes, canine ears and the wretched wind, and I must do this before I crossed the watershed, for the far side would be more exposed to the elements.

Initially there were only sheep pastures either side of the lane. These were unsuitable for my purpose but further along I stepped over a wire fence into a field full of rushes, on the far side of which a tumbling mountain stream had carved itself a deep trough. Over the edge of this I found a decent tent-sized area of level grass, with rock slabs on three sides that would give me all the shelter I needed. The big drawback was that the swollen stream was roaring down below the fourth side. I knew from past experience that the noise would hinder my sleep, but I did not have a lot of choice.

Checking with my map measurer, I found that I had not walked much more than 10 miles in total today, and that was including the bits where I had to retrace my steps. Considering a lot of it had been on good tracks and on lanes, I was dismayed with this. With only 8½ miles walked the preceding day because of the late start, the average was way below the 12½ miles that I had hoped to achieve, although this was no longer important now that I had omitted the Dovey Hills section.

When I had later stopped reading my paperback book and had turned off my little gas lantern, it started to lash down with rain, and what with the noise of this drumming against my flysheet, together with the noises of the wind and the stream, I drifted in and out of sleep for the next few hours. Waking for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night, with rain still pouring, I was convinced that the noise of the stream had increased significantly in volume. Peering outside with the aid of my bright little LED keyring torch, I was alarmed to see that the stream had indeed risen considerably, and it was now only about one foot below the side of my tent. The mossy bank that I had clambered down to in the evening, where I had crouched to fill my billycan, was now beneath a large, swirling eddy. This was worrying, to put it mildly. What if it rose any higher?

By the time of my third inspection, the rain had almost ceased and the water level had not climbed any closer, but I now discovered that my groundsheet was letting water in. I sleep with my insulated jacket folded in half inside the stuff sack for my sleeping bag, it makes a comfortable pillow, and the underside of this was dripping wet. My sleeping bag, too, was damp around the shoulder area – this was more serious, for whereas my synthetic jacket dries in a trice, down-filled bags lose their insulation properties when wet, and take a very long time to dry. Mine had been sent off to Paramo, the makers of Nikwax, for treatment when it was fairly new, but that was 11 or 12 years ago, and I had no way of telling how effective that was. I temporarily attended to the crisis by spreading my rainwear over the offending area of the groundsheet, and resumed my intermittent sleep.

Day 3

In the morning I rose earlier than usual, and wasted no time in preparing to leave. With a leaking groundsheet and a partially damp sleeping bag, I did not want to continue with my expedition. All I wanted to do was to get back to my car, even though it was 12 miles away, and then I could go to a ‘civilised’ campsite where I could use my larger tent. Outside, it was grey and windy. Cloud hid the hill tops and puddles covered the ground. The noisy stream had receded since the night, but it was still a great deal fuller than when I had arrived in the evening.

Returning to the metalled lane, which soon became a stony track, I followed it for over a mile before turning left onto a squishy footpath that led steeply down a rocky gulley that tested my leg muscles and my balance, to reach the A487 road. Here I turned downhill, south-westwards, with the eastern crags of Cadair Idris filling the sky on my right, though I was more concerned with keeping an eye on the fast vehicles as they approached me. After half a mile I was fortunately able to divert onto an old green lane along the valley bottom, partially flooded as it was, leaving the more recent highway clinging to the hillside far above my head.

After the green lane rejoined the main road, I came in a short distance to Minffordd, whose only building appeared to be its Hotel, a grand name, surely, for a large bungalow. I rather fancied the idea of coffee and refreshments, as advertised outside on their “Open All Day” board, but far from being open the place was in darkness and locked up. Maybe fate lent a hand, because at the nearby junction of the B4405 road, a tiny bus was parked. I found the driver in the field behind it, a good spot to collect conkers for his son, he informed me. I also learned that his route led to Tywyn (Towyn in English), passing Dolgoch Falls on the way. What a stroke of luck! I would have missed it if I had stopped for elevenses. For the cheap fare of £1.30 I was transported the remaining 8 miles back to my car. I would have been happy to sit back and admire the scenery, but I was the only passenger and the driver wanted to talk for the entire journey, though I did catch sight of large, wind-generated waves rolling the length of Tal-y-llyn Lake when we passed it.

The walk might now be ended, but my experiences were not. I drove all of the way via Maentwrog, Beddgelert, Capel Curig and Betws-y-Coed to Conwy (not the most direct route, but I had not thought it out clearly enough), seeing many flooded riverside meadows on the way, while at Llanrwst anxious residents were peering over walls to view the swollen River Conwy.

I booked in for two nights at Conwy Touring Park, on a hillside high above the estuary. The site is so huge they give you a map for finding your way around. With reasonable prices and excellent facilities, it is intended more for caravans, and they insist on giving you a numbered pitch. Mine was Green 23, which was very muddy, but I am sure I had the only tent on the entire site. In the modern toilet block nearby, I found a drying room, joy of joys, that I soon filled with a lot of my equipment, including my sleeping bag, but there were no showers here – these were in the next block, which was a short drive away! Towelling myself after my clean-up, I picked at a little scratch on my inner thigh. Putting my glasses on revealed that it was the rear end of a sheep tick that was embedded in my leg. I had never seen one before, not in 23 years of backpacking, but I was in no doubt this is what it was.

In the morning I drove into Conwy, where I parked and soon found a pharmacy. The three assistants laughed, they thought only dogs got ticks. I expected to be offered a lotion to dab on, something, I hoped, that would kill the offending animal without killing me, but to my surprise I was told I should go to a local surgery for a nurse to remove it. Following the directions I was given, I presented myself at the reception counter, where I was now told I must go to Llandudno A&E to have it removed surgically! This proved easy to find (“You can’t miss it, it’s in Hospital Road”), and I was in and out in less than an hour, complete with paper stitches, a dressing and a tetanus jab, even after a second tick was found on my arm when I rolled up my sleeve for the injection. Oh, and I was also given instructions to get my wife to give me “an intimate examination” on my return home!

So, that was the morning gone. I then drove in the general direction of Bangor to visit to a specialist fern nursery that had recently relocated to a remote spot nearby. The sales polytunnel was open, but I failed to find anyone on the whole site, it was a bit like the Marie Celeste. In desperation I used my mobile to call the number given in their catalogue, only to be informed that the owner and staff were down in London with a big delivery! If I would like to take what plants I wanted, and leave a note with details, I would be sent a bill. Refusing to let temptation get the better of me, though I did have a nose around to see what other stock there was, I selected four pots, and left. (I later received an e-mail thanking me for my honesty!)

The following day, Wednesday 22nd September, I left the campsite and, after visiting Llangollen, drove all of the way home in one go. The hire car was not due for return until Saturday 25th, and just to rub salt in, when I went outside to move it from outside my house on Friday, just three minutes into the restricted parking time, I had already been issued with a £40 penalty ticket.

At the time of writing this, my feelings are that I do not really want to go backpacking again. I cannot say I particularly enjoyed any part of what I did this year – then again, maybe the tamer area I walked in did not give me the mental and spiritual stimulation that a more rugged and wilder area might have done? I thought I was reasonably fit, but my legs tired more easily, and I found steep uphill slopes harder work than previously. I had in fact completed an 11-miles walk in the Chilterns only a week beforehand, as a limbering-up exercise, but in truth my legs had not completely recovered from that. I have noticed in the last year or so that they go dead from the knees downwards after the first seven or eight miles, feeling as if I am suspended above wooden stumps that I am swinging back and forth. An enforced change of food did not help, either – Raven Outdoor Cuisine, which I genuinely used to enjoy, had disappeared from the shops (the distributors, Gelert, did not reply to my emailed query about this). It was replaced by a German (?) product, Reiter, which by comparison was nothing to look forward to after a rough and tiring day, I did not find it particularly nice at all. In addition, my flexible flask had developed a small leak at the neck, while water trickled much more slowly from its screw-on filter, which was a sign that the latter needed replacing.

Soon after returning home, I gave my inner tent groundsheet a double treatment with Nikwax Tent Proof, just in case I used it again… Perhaps I could go at a different time of the year, though in Wales that is no guarantee of dryer or calmer weather. Lighter evenings would be nicer, but not higher temperatures, I do not like strenuous walking in heat Would this be my last backpacking trip, or not?

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