Another year on, and I was as eager as ever to go backpacking in Snowdonia again, in spite of my negative feelings following last year’s washout. Now more than a year into my early retirement, I was enjoying the novelty of no longer feeling permanently knackered, which I was when I was working, and I felt that a random pattern of gentle exercise was keeping me moderately fit. I bought myself a little car in March, so now there would be no more hiring when I wanted to go away, and in May I took on two free local newspaper rounds that would pay for petrol and running costs. Three to four hours weekly of pounding pavements and garden paths provided further exercise, supplemented in July by several 45-minutes treks over hills to and from a secluded cove on the remote Greek island of Sikinos, while in August the open spaces of Iceland, visited on a week’s tour, rekindled my desire to be out in the wilds. On the minus side, I tore a tendon in my left heel on the 1st of June, for no obvious reason, and this left me hobbling for some months. As it improved a little, I found that walking boots and poles appeared to support it, although that was not the view of either my GP or my physiotherapist, who both grounded me later in the year.
Instead of pondering for hours, I made a very quick decision to have another try at walking the Nantlle Ridge, which I had failed to achieve in 1991 and again in 2000, though this time I intended to shorten my route by approaching the Moel hills directly from the Beddgelert camp site, via Cwm Meillionen instead of a long walk-in around the south of Moel Hebog. A part of me felt that at my age I was running out of time to achieve such things, while another part felt that it did not matter exactly where I went, I just wanted to be up there enjoying the experience. With the shorter route in mind, I planned to carry a day’s less rations than I had always taken in the past, which would lighten my load a fraction.
Hoping to avoid the bad weather of winds and rain that had spoilt the previous year’s walk (and indeed so many prior to that) I went in the second week of September, which was a fortnight earlier than of habit. Strangely, I could not get accustomed to the fact that I could go whenever I wanted now that I was retired; I was set in my ways after years of only being allowed the last week of that month. The temperature was, in fact, over 80 degrees Fahrenheit when I set off from home, and North Wales too was very warm. At Beddgelert I found an excellent tent pitch beside a 10 ft-long flat-topped rock, a table and seat all in one, but here, thanks to the earlier date and the hot weather, I had my first encounter with midges, something I had not experienced on any of my previous backpacking trips
Forest Enterprise camping fees appeared to have doubled since my last stay here, and when I enquired about the possibility of leaving my car on the site while I went on my walk, I learned that there would be a charge of £3 a day. Explaining why I would not be happy about leaving my car in the village, after having a van window smashed by the police in 2002, I was advised to have a word with the man in the Post Office, so that everyone would know this time!
There was no way I was going to part with £9 or possibly £12 to leave my car at the camp site, so I drove down to the village where I parked on the A4085 and then, after popping into the Post Office-cum-newsagent and leaving my registration number, I walked back the way I had just come. This was going to add about a mile-and-a-half to each end of my route. Up the road, instead of an expected footpath sign on the first track on the left, to Cwm Cloch Isaf, a ‘Private’ notice was quite prominent, so, undecided, I gave it a miss, as my map showed there was another path further on. (I learned later the track is a right of way, but the lack of a sign suggests to me that the land owners do not want to advertise the fact.) Continuing along the road to the next path, I was delighted to spot a fair-sized Broad buckler fern, Dryopteris dilatata, growing about 9 feet up on an Oak tree, as I had very recently read an article about ferns living on trees,
My second choice of path went from a stile in the roadside wall and down across a grassy field to a little footbridge over the Afon Colwyn. From there it rose through two more fields towards a stone house, before which grazed a donkey, a couple of tame lambs and some white geese. However, it was anyone’s guess where the path went from the top of the field near the house. According to my 1:25,000 map it swung towards a bit of deciduous woodland on my right, but this part of the field was covered in dense bracken, through which I forged my way on a sort of path that was probably made by one of the animals. Under the trees, I came to a taut barbed wire fence and an old stone wall, with no way out. Returning to the house, I scanned the land and stared at the map till I was cross-eyed, before I thought, “To Hell with it!” and scrambled over some scattered large sheets of corrugated plastic material that appeared to be from a dismantled building, to reach a straggly hedge and barbed wire fence bordering the field, on the other side of which was a track to which I easily gained access.
On the far side of the track was woodland, Parc Ty’n-y-coed, where the map showed a footpath continuing westwards. Well, there was indeed a very faintly worn way entering the trees, but this gradually petered out and the vegetation closed in, until after a couple of hundred yards or so there was no way further forward. Gritting my teeth, I backtracked to a point that had looked a little clearer to one side. Trying this, it seemed pretty hopeless at first, with large grass tussocks and wet bits to stumble across, but it did in fact bring me to a slightly better, more definite path of a sort that led me to an edge of the wood near Meillionen farm. Here I was faced with a choice of two paths, and I chose the one that ran along the inside of a wall bounding the wood, rather than the one that headed straight towards the farm buildings. The darkening sky now commenced to deliver a sharp shower, and after my trousers became nicely wetted by overhanging bracken fronds, I wished I had gone the other way. To get away from the soaking bracken I took a short cut across grassland, which only brought me to a barbed wire fence that had to be crossed, while further on I found myself wading through long, wet grass with yet another prickly fence between me and a decent track on its other side.
At last I was out of the “lowlands” and into the forested Cwm Meillionen with its soaring conifers and tumbling streams, and here I found little posts with prominent yellow footpath arrows pointing my way up the slopes. Unfortunately the forest was not pleasant for too long, for I soon reached a higher area where the trees had been felled, maybe three or four years earlier, and what a rotten path it was for the next mile, climbing steadily with nothing but roots, rocks and old branches to stumble over, not to mention all the wet bits to splash through.
Eventually reaching the upper boundary of the former forest, I stood below the slopes of 2,148 ft Moel yr Ogof, whose higher parts were lost in mist, along with those of its 2,565 ft neighbour, Moel Hebog. A little way uphill of me the remains of an old stone wall followed the way up a dry valley towards Bwlch Meillionen, the col between the two mountains, and it was to this that I slowly plodded. There were no views to be had at the top, only mist swirling around. Turning to my right, northwards, I inched my way up a very steep incline that passes through an incredible sheer-sided rock crevice, down which blew a damp and buffeting mountain wind, but my mind was taken off this a little by the sight of a sheet of a filmy fern, Hymenophyllum, in a fissure to one side.
Above the crevice are some large pools, which I was sure contained more water now than when I came this way five years before, as this time it would have been impossible to follow my previous route, beside a stone wall on my left, without getting my boots full. My choice now was to pick a way around the eastern shores of the little lakes, which turned out to be relatively easy, and while I was doing so I was overtaken by a young couple who, oblivious to my presence, went around the wet way. This turned out to be rather convenient, for I was able to copy the way they climbed up the loose rocks that led onto the summit of Moel yr Ogof, which would have been much more difficult if I had to work it out for myself in the wet mist. I caught up with them on the far side of the mountain, where they were eating sandwiches while sheltering behind a large rock. I remarked on how wet they looked, and learned that the shower I had experienced at Meillionen was, for them, a prolonged downpour as they traversed Moel Hebog.
Continuing northwards, I too stopped for my lunch break when I found some water and shelter on my way to 2,094 ft Moel Llefn. I fully expected the young couple to pass me again, but I saw no more of them; perhaps they had given up and gone back down. The strong north-easterly airstream was a bit of a pain, along with the wet mist that limited visibility, dampened my clothes and continually fogged my glasses. I was glad that I had previous experience of this ridge and its summits, without which I would have felt less secure. The vertiginous descent off the north side of Moel Llefn seemed slightly easier and less scary this time, too, helped perhaps by ragged holes beginning to appear in the mist, revealing, for the first time this day, expanses of green hillsides. When I finally reached the bottom, I still got the collywobbles when I cautiously picked my way around the rim of the sheer sides of the disused Princess Quarry; one trip on a piece of heather and I would not be writing this now.
To reach Bwlch-y-Ddwy-Elor at the upper end of Cwm Pennant involved an unavoidable paddle around a marshy area. From there I set off north-westwards up a spur that would eventually bring me onto the Nantlle Ridge, but it was my intention first to strike off towards some streams that were shown on my map as running downhill to my left, where I hoped to set up my tent for the night. Although their rush-lined routes were clear on the ground below me, I was dismayed to find that none of them contained any water. Never before have I come across totally empty streams in North Wales, not even in semi-drought conditions; perhaps these ones were similar to winterbournes that only fill during the wetter months of the year. What was I to do now? I could not camp without water. The obvious thing would be to contour back across open grassland to some disused quarry lakes on the east edge of Cwm Pennant. Another upset awaited me when I reached the lake I had in mind, for down below me I saw a small mixed group of teenagers with packs, doing what youngsters of their age always do, such as shouting, running around, throwing rocks and so on. This was a blow, it was clearly going to be out of the question to stay anywhere within some distance of them, and I did not have a “Plan C”.
If I went to the west side of the cwm, it would bring me closer to “civilisation” as there were farm buildings and a metalled road, while to go southwards would take me too far away from the route I wanted to follow in the morning, which was the spur leading up to the Nantlle Ridge. The only other alternative was to descend a path north-eastwards into Beddgelert Forest, to reach the Afon Cwm-du two miles away. Having decided on the latter, I climbed up to the bwlch and down a rocky path on the far side into the forest, where I found a small group of people consisting of a youngster on the ground buried under a mound of kipmats, clothing and space blankets, only his eyes visible, with an adult and three teenagers all looking concerned. I learned that they were part of a group doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s award, the sick lad had banged his head earlier in the day and was now showing signs of concussion, the kids I had seen up at the lake were part of the same group, while another lot had returned back down to the main road at Rhyd-Ddu, and Mountain Rescue had been called some 45 minutes ago.
Wishing them all the best that I could under the circumstances, I continued on my way, but at a junction of paths some way further down I came across two men with walkie-talkie radios and huge rucksacks. They were part of the awaited Mountain Rescue team, and they were lost; they had a GPS reference but could not locate it in the dense forest. I did the obvious thing – dumping my own heavy backpack I led them up to the spot where I had encountered the casualty and his carers. A helicopter promptly arrived and, after circling low above the treetops several times, another member of the rescue team was lowered down on a winch. The proceedings were lengthy, but eventually the boy was winched up to the helicopter, which set off. It soon reappeared, this time to hover over Cwm Pennant where it became obvious to me that the progress of the return of the group I had seen by the quarry lake was being monitored, for after a time they filed along the track past me, with the helicopter following overhead.
At long last all was quiet once more; I was left in peace to pitch my tent on a small patch of grass by a forest track close to the small river, with a rather watery sunset colouring the clearing evening sky. It was so mild that I was able to sit and eat my dinner with just my fleece pull-on over my shirt; for once I did not need to huddle in my insulated jacket and fleece hat, and how different it was from my last sojourn in this same forest, in 2000, when it had poured with non-stop rain for over 24 hours.
I left both the inner tent and the flysheet fully unzipped in the night, and in the morning I found I was sharing my sleeping quarters with a huge black slug that was promptly evicted. The warm temperature helped to limit the stiffness of my joints and muscles as I started my day, but behind me white mist billowed around the flanks of Mynydd Drws-y-coed that yesterday evening had been visible above the trees, while in the other direction further haze limited the view down the forest track.
Once ready, I slogged back up the tracks through the forest that was now still and quiet without its complement of noisy helicopter and chattering D.o.E.-ers. On reaching the wall and ladder stile at Bwlch-y-Ddwy-Elor I turned right, waded through the marshy area for the second time in two days, and again started to climb the grassy spur that reaches the Nantlle Ridge just to the west of the summit of 2,329 ft Trum y Ddysgl. This was the route I tested in 2000, when I had walked up to the cloud line and returned. It was little better today, although this was not rain cloud. There was nothing but white mist up ahead, currently obscuring the whole of the ridge, while on my left only patches of green could be seen down in Cwm Pennant, and on my right I could just make out the nearest forest track below me in Cwm Du, but as I climbed higher even that ceased to be visible.
A faint trod way on the short grass followed the apex of the spur, so it would have been difficult to lose the way, but I was less happy after I was fully in the mist, for the climb became steeper and steeper until it appeared to be ascending at an angle of about 45 degrees. I would have been more at ease if I could have seen how far down went the slopes that fell sharply on either side of me, or what lay below them. Then, on one of the toughest sections, a man with two black labradors descended out of the mist above me. One of the dogs was timid, and ran round and round me, barking, while the other one was over-friendly and pressed against my legs with all its weight. Much as I like dogs, I was literally afraid that I would be knocked from my precarious perch on the slope, to tumble down goodness knows where. Surprised to see someone who was on their way down from the top already, I greeted the man, who appeared to be senior in years to me,
“You must have started out very early?”
“No, not really,” he replied, before continuing modestly, “I’ve just been around and over the top, and I thought I’d make a short day of it. I’m going home now to have some lunch and watch a bit of cricket.”
That left me lost for words, and I was rather relieved when the dogs followed their owner, disappearing into the mist below me.
After more of the 45 degrees stuff, I clambered up onto a part of the spur that was unexpectedly almost as flat as a cricket pitch, and as long, but only about 40 feet wide. According to my compass I was still walking in the right direction, and according to the altimeter on my wristwatch, that I had reset when I was at a known height earlier, I had reached 700 metres (about 2,300 ft.) which was the height of the Nantlle Ridge at the point I was aiming for. (Contours on maps are in metres, so therefore I have set my altimeter to metres too, even though I prefer feet.) Although the level ground was no longer strenuous, I found I was now fully exposed to the airstream in the wet mist that quickly built up a coating of white beads on my clothing and, in particular, my glasses, which needed wiping every two minutes. There was no longer any sign of a trodden way on the short turf, and I was careful not to stray from the centre of the flat top, for I knew not what was down below the sides.
I continued in a state of apprehension, and was far from enjoying myself. After several minutes I arrived at what appeared to be the end of this section, for some low jagged rocks rose in front of me. Nothing but grey mist was visible beyond or below these rocks, but to their right a little stony path, only about 20 inches wide and on the very edge of the spur, disappeared into the murk. With the moving mist constantly thinning and thickening, the vague shapes of further bare rocks could just about be discerned in that direction. I realised that I did not have the foggiest idea (the pun is unintentional) of where I was in relation to the Nantlle Ridge that I wanted to reach. There was no way I was going to set foot on that little path, on the edge of what appeared to be a big drop, although it might not have been; one stumble and I would find out. Perhaps I was already beyond where I should have been, if I had missed an unclear crossing path. Just before the level section, I had seen a vague little one, more like a sheep’s path, dipping down a convex grass slope into the mist, leading to goodness knows where. Anyway, the rest of the ridge was going to be just like this, so what was the point of continuing if I was already so uncertain? The only thing I could safely do was to turn round and go all the way back down again, which I did, disappointed at facing defeat after so much effort.
Sod’s Law being what it is, the mist on the ridge thinned more and more while I was painstakingly descending the spur. Looking back, first one then more sections of dark grey upper mountain became visible above me. I saw two alpinists, dot-like figures in the distance, racing along what I presume was the ridge path, and then there were other walkers as it became clearer. At one stage there was a whole crocodile of people picking their way along; it was really busy up there. Apart from the fact that I had no inclination to turn back now and suffer the 45 degrees slope all over again, the highest sections of the ridge remained cloud covered (and stayed that way for the rest of my trip), so I felt I had done the most sensible thing.
On reaching, yet again, the upper end of Cwm Pennant, I turned south to head down the cwm’s eastern edge, below the flanks of Moel Lefn whose summit I had crossed only the previous day. With time now well and truly on my side, I was able to explore the many relics of mining in the area, including a couple of old tunnels that disappeared into rockfaces and around which hung attractive arrays of ferns. In the middle of a flat, grassy area, a huge vertical-sided hole in the ground was covered with an iron grille of 9 inch squares, across which it was an adventure to walk. A gaunt pair of stone columns, visible from afar, presumably once held the wheel of some winding mechanism, while lower down the cwm were the bare walls of a large former industrial building.
The day had by now become beautiful, with a clear blue sky and a high temperature, which was perfect for my continuing tramp southwards, now on a lengthy old track. To my right, across the cwm, were wonderful views of the southern part of the Nantlle Ridge, although the high tops still wore a cap of cream-coloured cloud. By mid-afternoon I turned eastwards onto a crossing footpath that gently climbed Cwm Llefrith, following the north side of a river of the same name. On my way up this faint path, I spotted a fellow human loitering on a rock-strewn grassy hillside some distance to my right. It is strange how people can be seen from so far off in these empty landscapes. I wondered what he was doing there; was he, too, a walker planning to do a bit of wild camping, or maybe he was just a lad from a farm a mile away in the cwm, perhaps trying to get a signal for his mobile phone?
As the cwm steepened higher up, towards the col of Bwlch Meillionen, I was casting my eyes about for a suitable spot to spend the night. Initially I was attracted to the river, but discounted it as it was a trifle noisy and also a bit exposed. I also wanted to increase the distance between me and a farmhouse that was visible in the lower cwm behind me, even though it was now 2 miles away. However, as I gained height, a south-easterly airstream became apparent and my search became a compromise between privacy, proximity of a water supply and shelter from the breeze, without the shade of rocks, hillside or a wall concealing the morning sun in the east. Several possible spots I checked were lacking in at least one of these requirements, until I eventually found one that fitted the bill, high in an area of rocks and grass.
A beautiful morning, with blue sky above and a trace of mist partially obscuring the valleys below, greeted me as I emerged from my little nylon home, and it was still mild. With a whole day ahead of me and very little walking to do to return to Beddgelert, I lingered over getting ready, now and again breaking off whatever chore I was doing to wander around, explore the nearby streams or climb rocks. The exposed twelve feet high rock faces immediately behind me must have contained lime, for plants such as wild thyme, roseroot, brittle bladder fern and maidenhair spleenwort grew on them, while around the corner a large fissure made a cave into which I was able to walk for some thirty feet.
When I was at last ready to move on, I picked my way up through more rocks and grass to Bwlch Meillionen. Here I deposited my rucksack by a stone wall, placing beside it a piece of slate on which I had scratched the date and, “I’m OK, please leave it!” before I scrambled up the southern end of Moel yr Ogof to botanise. I spent a pleasant hour or more methodically checking all of the high rock faces, which were linked by sloping grassy terraces. While I saw some interesting alpine plants, the rare species of fern that is recorded from this spot eluded me, although I learned later that it has not been seen here for some years. Returning down to the col, I spent a while admiring the cloudless view of peaks to the east, where I could plainly see a column of black smoke from a steam engine as it neared the summit of Snowdon. Checking later on a map, I was surprised to find that this was six miles away as the crow flies.
I found the steep way down beside the old stone wall rather tiring, and nothing better can be said about the awful footpath through the cleared upper forest. The route was longer than I had thought, and I was surprised to realise how energetic I must have been on my first day out; I had done well to climb all that way in a morning! As I descended the bare hillside towards the boundary of the existing trees, I saw below me a man with a rucksack who was striding along a crossing forestry track. We exchanged pleasantries, then he continued along the track while I went down through the conifers on the next section of footpath. When this crossed another track, we met again! Finding that he too was on his way to Beddgelert, this time I joined him. I learned that he was a Scotsman who lived in South Wales, and he was on his first visit to Snowdonia, where he had just climbed Moel Hebog. What intrigued me, however, was that he was visibly struggling with the weight of something extremely heavy in his day sack. This, I was informed, was a rock, a piece of quartz.
“You are an amateur geologist?” I enquired.
“No, it is a present,” he gasped, “for my wife.”
“I see. It’s, um, a rather unusual present to be taking for your wife, particularly as it’s so heavy. Do you think she will appreciate it?”
“She’d better, otherwise she’ll get it thrown at her!”
It did not occur to me to enquire of the man exactly why he was going to give his wife a large piece of quartz; perhaps it would be added to a rockery, or maybe she wanted a doorstop. Anyway, we chatted amiably all of the way down to Beddgelert, reaching the main road via the track that I had been reluctant to use at the start of my walk because of its ‘Private’ sign.
Thus ended what were for me three splendid days out in the hills. I was a bit disappointed to have failed yet again to have walked the Nantlle Ridge, and I would have liked to have walked a greater distance overall (in fact I had probably walked no more than some people might manage in a day), but considering I was suffering from an Achilles tendon injury which I should have been resting, I think I did rather well, particularly as I went directly over more rocky tops this year, rather than round them, as in past years. At the time of writing this, I want to go again next year, and it would certainly be earlier in September again!
Many months later I looked at a website of walks, one of which includes a photo taken from Moel Lefn that shows the Nantlle ridge in the distance. The spur that I climbed up to the ridge is quite clear in the picture, particularly the very steep upper part, above which it appears to be quite level. Of course, the camera angle might give a false impression, there could be further rises hidden beyond, but on the same website is a walk that descends from the Nantlle Ridge by the same spur (i.e. the opposite way to which I went ), and the route from the summit of Trum y Ddysgl is described as follows:
“An almost level, grassy plateau with no very clear path leads onwards [from the summit]. Follow the edge of the steep ground to your left. The route soon turns almost southeast onto a broad, grassy ridge which descends quite steeply at first before continuing at an easier angle into the valley. As the ridge ends, follow the edge of the Forestry plantation down to Bwlch-y-ddwy-elor.”
Reading the above in conjunction with looking at a 1:25,000 map and the aforementioned photograph, and taking my altimeter reading of 700m into account, I really get the impression that I had practically reached my goal. Hopefully I might one day have the opportunity of returning in clear conditions, to find out.
Well, I was able to return to North Wales for a few days in May 2007. As the weather was perfectly clear, I could not wait to return to Trum y Ddysgl to find out where I had reached in the mist in 2005. Starting as close as I could, which was from a forest car park that is reached down a long track on the west side of the A4085 between Rhyd-Ddu and Beddgelert, I soon encountered a newly constructed loop of the narrow gauge railway that is being rebuilt as a tourist attraction. This may have rendered my map obsolete, but the trackbed quickly led me to the paths I needed to reach Bwlch-y-Ddwy-Elor and the spur leading to the ridge. How much easier the walk seemed this time, with only a light day sack on my back instead of a 28lb backpack!
On reaching the flat, pathless grass above the steep spur, I was delighted to find that it was in fact the summit ridge, although on the previous occasion I had in fact changed direction here in the mist, instead of continuing straight on, as I had thought at that time. So I had been at the top after all!
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