2006, Southern Arenigs from Llanuwchllyn

After a stupendously hot July and then a grotty wet August, an “Indian summer” developed in September, and I was more than eager to go backpacking in Snowdonia once more. Again I did not feel too fussed exactly where I went so long as I went! Maybe this was partly inevitable, as by now there were no really new areas up there for me to walk in. For a route, I made a complete steal from an outstanding website, V-G Backpacking in Britain. All I had to do was scroll down the list of walks and select one I liked the sound of, something that was made easier by a summary of each walk with several mouth-watering photos. The benefits to me over working a route out for myself were enormous. I chose the Southern Arenigs for quite a few reasons: they were not too rugged although the walk did take in a few summits, it was a quiet, little-visited area, I had not walked there for nine years, and I could spend my first night at Bala, a town I had only been to once before and which would be a slightly shorter drive to reach. I expected the walk to take me three-and-a-half days, but just in case, I carried sufficient food for four days; apart from this, I made no changes to my equipment.

The time slot I had available to go away between commitments was complicated by my wife having booked to go on a ten days holiday at the same time, so that I drove her to Gatwick Airport literally in the middle of the night, returned home to snatch a further three hours sleep to add to the four I had earlier, before driving to Surrey to attend a Fern Society meeting. Then the following day, a Sunday, I packed my car and set off for North Wales. I made a rather late getaway, which turned out to be a blessing, for not only did I find the motorways much emptier than usual, but the further I progressed into Wales, the more the traffic was heading towards me, homeward bound, rather than going my way, especially on the final road to Bala.

I went to Pen-y-Garth camp site at Rhos-y-gwaliau, close to Bala, as I remembered it being quite good nine years ago, but this time I was a little shocked to be charged ten pounds for a night’s pitch; perhaps that was why there was only one other tent in the camping area. The facilities were of a high standard except that for ten pounds I would have expected the hand basins to have plugs. For a small town, Bala had as many as six pubs but they were nothing to write home about. To me, two were pretentious and pricey while the remainder were downright grotty. I ate a basic out-of-the-freezer-into-the-microwave dinner in one whose decor brought back memories of the early 1980s, after which I went in search of a better pint of beer, finding Greene King IPA at the last one I looked in, whose furnishings were on a par with the one where I ate.

Day 1

After a very warm night, Monday morning was bright, with some mist around the distant hills, but that had cleared by the time I was ready to drive the length of Bala Lake to the village of Llanuwchllyn at its far end. Here I not only found a small off-street parking area but I also persuaded an elderly gentleman with a lockup workshop there to keep an eye on my car for me. One thing I did before setting off was to put on my old aviator-style glasses, which give far better protection against eye-watering winds than my modern small-lens ones. Walking out of the village and along a short length of the A494, I crossed a stone bridge over the Afon Lliw, which did not have a great deal of water flowing in it. This rather surprised me, because in the previous three weeks the Met Office kept giving severe weather warnings for Wales, with forecasts of two to three inches of rain at a time.

The couple whose website route I was copying had encountered difficulties with unsigned and overgrown rights of way at the start of their walk out of Llanuwchllyn, so I had adapted it by beginning with lanes. My first footpath, following the north bank of the river, was covered with tarmac like an urban path; this was probably so the congregation of the chapel at the path’s far end could reach it without getting their shoes muddy. From there, a lane led me for a short distance to another footpath that headed diagonally across a field to reach a second lane, thus cutting a corner off. The top end of this lane was where I had unintentionally herded some cattle nine years ago; I was pleased not to see any today.

Reaching a point where the lane turned sharp left, I entered the southern end of Y Lordship Forest, whose trees had been felled on the previous occasion; by now the new plantings were tall and dense. The gently climbing stony track made easy walking for the start of my trip, but the further I progressed the less used it became, particularly after I had clambered over a fallen tree. From there, the herbaceous vegetation gradually closed in until eventually there was just a faint trod way that switched from side to side of the wide gap between the trees. Just when I was beginning to get a bit fed up with this, the forest gave way to open land that rose to a series of inviting looking mountain slopes ahead of me.

At the edge of the forest I had to turn westwards on a bridleway parallel with the forest boundary, but this was an old sunken way that was filled with dense rushes and grass, so it was easier to follow its route from the relative comfort of the edge of an adjoining pasture. This was not to last for long, for the field ended at more forest, through which the bridleway continued uphill as a broad green swathe, and this slope was the first today that made me puff and blow as I ascended it. The path improved as it reached the top, but all too soon it left the western edge of the forest at a gap in a stone wall. Here I picked up a couple of nicely laminated route cards and maps that had belonged to someone doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It was not clear whether the cards had been lost or jettisoned. They looked clean and new, but contained every bit of information except a date. Well, if you want them back, 1st Barry Sea Scouts, I tucked them in the end of the wall!

I was supposed to turn north-westwards here, following the edge of the forest on my right, which I did, but not without being puzzled, because the path had disappeared, and the lie of the land did not match the map; for example I could see blocks of forest to the west where none were drawn. I walked this way for far longer than I expected, during which time I became fairly certain that much of the forest shown to my south on the map did not exist, and maybe never had existed. My theory was confirmed when I reached a decent track that headed westwards while the forest boundary curved away, climbing slopes to the north. This was the point where the map showed the path coming out of the forest! It was not the first time I had come across this sort of inaccuracy. I was now confident in knowing my exact location, but I was in fact off my intended route, which crossed pathless country to my north to climb the south ridge of 2,802 ft Arenig Fawr. An easy decision was made: I had been up there before and it was too hot for it today, and, so I would omit that bit.

I halted for a slightly late lunch break by a tumbling little tributary of the Afon Erwent, where I was pestered by small flying ants, following which I continued on the good track for a while before I struck off northwards across pathless grass directly towards the lower flanks of Moel Llyfant, which is the western neighbour of Arenig Fawr. The author of my route recommended going straight up the steep pathless slopes to the summit. Thank you, but I am not a masochist, I could see a less steep way going diagonally up the side of the mountain towards its far end, just below the scree beds on its west side, so this was the way I went, initially using faint sheep’s paths along the top edge of a deep stream valley. I eventually arrived at a wire fence on the main ridge just a little below the 2,464 ft summit, and, removing my backpack, I climbed the hundred-and-fifty feet necessary to stand on its cairn, feeling elated

Easy walking followed, for all I had to do now was follow the fence downhill towards the north-west, although it was slowish going as there was no path, and my legs were getting a bit tired, too. Along the boundary of yet another block of forest it proved to be a bit squishy, but my 1:25,000 map showed many stream tributaries rising just north of here, by one of which I hoped to pitch my tent for the night. The shallow valley of the closest stream was plain enough, but a sea of dense heather, grasses and rushes deterred me from going that way. Instead, I continued to partially ascend the gentle slopes of Moel y Slates ahead of me, in order to contour on comparatively shorter grass to reach other tributaries. I was dismayed to find first one empty stream, then a second and then a third, all with no water in them! This was an unexpected blow. What about all that rain they were supposed to have had up here? In desperation I set off “downstream”, which was not easy on the pathless, overgrown terrain, and after a worrying trek I was eventually rewarded with running water at the confluence of two streams, where there was also some level grass for my tent. It was a bit open for my liking, although there appeared to be little likelihood of winds developing in the night. Making sure, however, that I would be above the level of possible flooding, I selected my precise spot by laying on it in the exact position that I would sleep. As my reproofed groundsheet had yet to be really put to the test, I spread my waterproof jacket under the head and shoulder area of my sleeping bag as a precaution. (Quite what I would do if the coat was dripping wet after a day in the rain I do not know; I would cross that bridge when I came to it.)

Day 2

I need not have worried about the weather, for Tuesday morning continued clear and sunny, and I rose earlier than of habit because I was hot with the sun shining onto the porch of my east-facing tent. When I was ready I made my way up a shallow stream valley, ploughing through pathless vegetation to return to the soft path that I had been on yesterday, along the edge of a block of forest. To give an idea of how far I had strayed from my route in search of water, this took 25 minutes. On my way I found some water that I did not want, when my leg went shin deep into a hidden hole, necessitating removing my boot to wring the two socks out.

Soon up at the top of 1,838 ft Moel y Slates, I turned to the south to follow a wire fence along an undulating ridge with panoramic views of the Arenigs over my left shoulder, Moelwyns Mawr and Bach behind me, Llyn Trawsfynydd and the Rhinogs on my right, while ahead of me were the Rhobells with the Arans beyond their left and Cadair Idris far beyond their right. In one hollow I treated the same foot to another bootful of water, and had to wring out the socks for a second time. The trouble with SealSkinz waterproof socks, I was reminded, is that they are useless once your feet have gone into water deep enough to go over the tops and fill them, because not only do they never dry, but they also develop a strong smell worse than rotting cardboard. The ridge culminated in an easy climb to the twin tops of Gallt y Daren and Foel Boeth, each at around 2,031 ft, after which a steep descent through more pathless and boggy grass brought me to a little single-track road that runs across the hills between Trawsfynydd and Llanuwchllyn.

A very short way along the road, I was able to turn south on a track that led for two miles through part of the Coed y Brenin forest. Being hemmed in by tall conifers was slightly claustrophobic after being on the open ridge, but the route proved to be straightforward, which was a relief as the map showed a number of branching paths, most of which I did not see. Some nice ferns along the way included a colony of the uncommon Wood horsetail, Equisetum sylvaticum. I was fortunate in accurately switching to what v-g describe on their website as an “unsigned bridleway track”, along which I readily agreed with their adverse comments about it becoming overgrown with prickly young conifers.

Having struggled along that former path, I emerged from the forest on the edge of a deep valley, Cwm yr Allt-lwyd. Here, a footpath arrow on a post pointed towards pathless slopes. Ho hum! After picking my way down, a large stream had to be crossed but this was easy with rocks well out of the low water level. A track on the far side led me past an isolated farmhouse that had security lights and a CCTV camera, beyond which a stone bridge spanned the infant Afon Mawddach. From there I turned onto a track that followed the river upstream for nearly a mile to the head of the combe, where to me the rounded scenery was more mindful of Mid Wales than North.

A bridleway that climbed uphill on my right was easy to miss because it was quite overgrown, though it appeared to be the right way to go, for it had that man-made cut-into-the-hillside look about it. Unfortunately, dense bracken almost totally blocked it at a point where it turned on the edge of a considerable drop down to a stream in a very deep valley below, after which the hillside reverted to grass with no sign of any further path. I invented my own route following the rim with the stream way below me, until after half a mile I reached a point where the map showed the bridleway entering the forest on the far bank, and here was a very new looking wood-and-metal footbridge over the stream, which appeared to be an unnecessary expense on such an obviously unused route.

Staying on my side of the bridge, I continued for a further half a mile through pathless grass, bracken and heather, with the stream and the forest to my left. It was slow-going and not very pleasant, but it could have been worse. The western corner of the forest had been felled, and beyond this could be seen an expanse of green slopes that rose to the rocky summit of Rhobell Fawr. Deciding that a short cut across a projecting tip of former forest would be no worse than struggling around it, I discovered too late that what had appeared from afar to be solid ground was in fact years’ deposits of needles as soft as snowdrifts, while the area was criss-crossed with old drainage ditches that had to be leaped. After this, though, there was rough grass and low heather in which I found, joy of joys, a rushing little stream, and on its west was a small square of planted conifers. I wasted no time in filling my water carrier and then selecting a level patch of grass for my tent near the shelter, if needed, of the trees.

Day 3

Wednesday morning was not so bright, with light clouds high in the sky, and there was a gentle wind, but this was from the south so it was still quite warm. The immediate climb up the pathless green hill towards Rhobell Fawr was not a good way to start the day, and it seemed much further than its actual half a mile, but it became more interesting when views opened up to the east, revealing the sharp ridge of Ddualt rising above an elongated conifer forest that lay below, while my way ahead became more rugged. The faintest hint of a path, more like a narrow sheep’s track, wound its way around rocky outcrops to eventually reach the highest point at 2,408 ft. On the way up, I abandoned trying to wear my lightweight sun hat after the first half a dozen times it was blown off my head. Descending from the summit, I headed eastwards now, towards a ladder stile that crossed a stone wall, beyond which I had a very steep descent following a fence directly down the mountainside, with some exposed rock faces to bypass on the way.

A short rest was necessary at the foot of the slopes, where a forest track ran south to north. I had walked along this in 1998, to reach a path unmarked on Ordnance Survey maps, which passes from one side of the narrow forest to the other. I do not recall any difficulty in finding the path on the previous occasion, but today I walked right past it! My excuse is that I expected the path to start just prior to a corner of the forest ahead of me, but in fact there was no longer a corner as the forest on one side had been felled, so I walked too far before it dawned on me.

Once I had located the gap in the trees and started along the overgrown way, this was vaguely recognisable to me in places, as it was at the point where it left the trees, but this time I found an easier place to cross a deep gulley that had taxed my tired legs eight years ago. What was less obvious today was how best to ascend the relatively narrow mountain and at the same time find a stream for my lunch break. I wanted to start from the southernmost part of the ridge, but there was no clear way through the long grass and heather in that direction; however there did appear to be a trod way ascending by the boundary of the forest. Trying this, it was unclear to me if the path was made by humans or sheep, nor did it appear to be taking me where I wanted to go; it looked as though it was either going to pass around the mountain’s summit or it would involve a very steep climb up to it, so I abandoned the path, if it was one, and picked my way eastwards towards the south ridge.

Once again my hopes of finding water were dashed, for I reached the valley of a stream that was shown on my map but the area was quite dry. There was definitely a stream to the southeast of the mountain because I has seen it earlier from afar, so I now floundered in that direction through dense vegetation. Tediously climbing onto a rise that gave me a better view, I saw ahead of me another little valley that must connect with the stream I had in mind, and sure enough it contained clear water that tumbled down the hillside. What a relief, and what a wonderful spot it was to laze in the hot sunshine after my lunch.

In 1998 I wrote that I was “soon at the 2,172 ft summit of Ddualt, over it almost before I realised.” Well, today I found it a tiring struggle, particularly with the sun blazing down, and I do not think being eight years older had anything to do with it; I am quite convinced that the mountain was now more overgrown than it was then. Perhaps there were fewer sheep stocks since the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic? From the top, the peak of Snowdon itself was just discernible rising above a dark group of mountains on the northern horizon, while closer the length of Llyn Tegid, or Lake Bala, stretched away to the north-east, though I was surprised at its apparent distance from here.

The way down the lengthy north ridge was less easy too, where there appeared to be less of a trod way than before, suggesting that fewer walkers used the mountain now. Part of my way, a startled fox sprang to his feet a few yards ahead of me and bounded away till he was out of sight; he looked a smaller, fitter animal than the ones that visit my garden to be fed. Further down still, I caught sight of a brown reptilian tail disappearing into grass beside my boot. It was too fat to be that of a lizard, too glossy to be the dull scales of an adder, while I would have thought that a grass snake would have been unlikely at about 1,500 ft up. I have seen frogs in the mountains but I am pretty sure it was not an outstretched hind leg. It looked most like the tail of a slow-worm but it darted off too quickly for one. Whichever of those it was will remain a mystery to me.

At a broad grassy gap in the rocky ridge, I followed the instructions of the originators of this route, to descend and cross “a deep dense sea of gruesome tussocks and heather”, which was true to the extreme, although I am not so sure I agreed with their assurance that “the crossing from here is short”. The next objective was the end of a low ridge about 1,500 to 1,600 ft above sea level, that stretched between Cerrig yr Iwrch and Craig y Llestri. To reach this I headed through the knee-high heather towards a forestry boundary fence that I then followed, as it appeared to be an easier way than the direct approach described by v-g. This looked like grouse country but none were to be seen or heard; I understand that their numbers have plummeted due to a parasitic infection. The ridge was pathless but there were wire fences to follow, the afternoon was balmy and the way was not strenuous, until it was time to clamber down the steep east face to reach the valley below, where the Afon Fwy was spanned by a crude bridge made out of large sheets of corrugated iron.

Level grass for my tent was hard to find between the foot of the slopes and the river, and at length I settled for what must have been the base of a former shepherd’s hut or something, where a car-sized rock had beside its vertical end an oval of grass edged with small boulders. This was only just big enough for my tent, but it proved to be perfectly level and free of bumps.

Day 4

When I woke in the morning, it was just starting to rain, lightly at first but soon becoming incessant. The hills around me were lost in thick grey mist; their visible lower parts looked black and gloomy. The rock behind my tent did little to shield it, but the slightly raised platform of grass turned out to be a boon, for peaty hollows around it soon became little pools. With very little distance to walk to return to Llanuwchllyn today, I took my time getting ready, sheltering beneath my flysheet as much as possible and doing everything in a measured and unhurried way. Finally setting off, I plodded in my waterproofs over the river bridge and a little way along a rocky track before turning off it on a trod way through grass towards a ladder stile, as per my instructions. I looked down on shreds of clouds hanging amongst tree tops in a wide valley before me. Some distance after the stile my faint path reached a wet corner where there was a gate in a stone wall on my right, and no sign of any further path ahead of me. I was supposed to be aiming directly for an intake wall (and I am still not sure exactly what that is meant to be) near an old mine which I could see on my map but not in the white mist that lay that way, however I had no inclination to fight my way through pathless long grass and rushes in this wet weather. An Open Access sign on the gate suggested it led to upland rather than the lower parts that I wanted to reach, and my compass confirmed that direction was south, when I wanted to head north-eastwards.

After much indecision, I went through the gate, from where I turned downhill and became a trespasser, following hedgerows and field edges that I hoped were taking me towards a minor road that follows the south side of the Afon Lliw. I reached a junction of tracks where to one side of me a small farmhouse was just visible on the edge of the blanketing mist, but I could not determine which one it was on the map, which strengthened my realisation that I was well and truly lost. Never mind, checking the way with my compass I pressed on up a track at the side of a grass field. Over a rise there was a group of black cattle that included a huge bull, who was the first to spot me and the first to rise to his feet. Halfway along the left side of this field, my track went through a five bar gate which I speedily reached while the animals trotted towards me. Now with just a wire fence and a thin hedge between us, they ran along beside me, gloating at my predicament. I prayed there was no gap ahead with the two fields joining, and fortunately there was not. A farm lay beyond, where I was able to clamber safely into a further field, while my pursuers found themselves in a blind alley, their way barred by a gate. The house was plainly occupied but no-one appeared to notice the strange man with a backpack and walking poles who was sneaking across their field.

Soon reaching a metalled little lane that served the farm, I now became confident that I knew where I was on the map, and in a while I was on the minor road along the south of the Afon Lliw, that took me to the main road at the end of Llanuwchllyn. I looked longingly at the village pub when I passed it at about 12:30, for I would have enjoyed a celebratory pint on completing my walk, but this was not a touristy spot and I did not think I would be welcome in my dripping waterproofs and stale clothes. When I reached my car I discovered anyway that my trousers were soaking under my overtrousers, which I promptly put in a refuse bin.

(What I did not know then was how much trouble I would have finding another pair in green or brown, for all of the outdoors supplier’s stores I looked in, and those on the Internet, only sold black ones. I do not want to go in the hills looking like a motorcyclist; I want to blend in with the land. I eventually found an inexpensive olive-coloured pair, lightweight and breathable, in a camping store next to a garden centre in Hertfordshire. Even if these only last me a couple of years, I would have to buy at least eight pairs before spending as much as the three figures asked for some of those I had seen.)

After putting a little note through the door of the old fellow’s workshop, I drove by a direct route towards Conwy, for I wanted to visit the specialist fern nursery near Bangor the following day. I intended to stay at Conwy Touring Park, a camp site with excellent facilities that I had used on previous occasions, and which is not too far from Llandudno’s large Wetherspoons pub with its good value meals. The girl at the site’s reception desk was unsure of the condition of the pitch I was allocated, and brightly explained that if it was too muddy I could select another one there so long as I let her know, so that she could alter the computer system (!). It is a huge site, and when I had navigated my car all the way down to the correct area, I found that not only was the pitch I had been given quite muddy, but it was also right next to the one and only other tent there! I was not having that, so I selected a nice green spot at the end of the area, where I could also position my tent facing the east (although to have it this way round was against the site’s rules, they wanted them all pitched tail end to a marker – which explains the muddiness, with everyone using the same spots).

The rain having earlier eased off into nothing more than a few light spits and spats, I speedily put up our large family ridge tent, which was just as well because it started pouring again while I was moving everything into it. With that done, I jumped into my car and drove back up to the reception building. The girl spent an eternity at the computer, till I eventually asked if everything was alright. I was informed that the pitch I was now on was for “a larger unit” which should be a higher charge, but she could offer me two other pitches in another area. By now becoming a little weary of all this regimentation, I told her, perhaps a little testily, that my tent was up, it was now pouring with rain, and I was hardly in a position to take it all down again and move to another part of the site. The girl’s last words were that she would have to inform the manager. It is a shame that the site makes people feel so unwelcome, and I am not so sure I will be staying there again.

My trip to the fern nursery the next day was extremely fruitful, although I did have to sleep with my new purchases next to me inside my tent, lest they were devoured by the camp site’s hordes of wild rabbits. After I had journeyed home, I felt quite pleased at having completed the walk I had set out to do, which was not too taxing or strenuous, it was relatively easy to follow, there were no dangerous parts and I had covered a good mileage each day. (Just how well I would have done if the weather was bad is another matter.) Some paths would have made it more pleasant, as too much of it was without any, but on the other hand I did not see another walker in three-and-a-half days. My only other gripe was the incessant noise of military aircraft each day; when they weren’t screaming past ten feet above the ground, they could constantly be heard roaring around the skies. Disappointingly, though, I was left with an absolute lack of emotion about the trip. The whole thing, including the walking, routefinding, meals, collecting water, camping and sleeping had all become little more than a routine; I had driven up to Wales, done a walk, bought some ferns and driven home again; I felt no sense of adventure in it any more. Maybe I had done it too often before (this was my 25th time in 26 years), maybe I was maturing at last, but then maybe if I went to a more rugged area next time, and if the weather was a bit more challenging…..

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