2007, East of Trawsfynydd

This year I officially became an old git, in receipt of the state pension, but in no way at all had my desire to go backpacking in North Wales diminished, not even in spite of me giving myself a hernia in August, which was going to need an operation. “Carry on exercising,” my doctor answered my query, “but with care.” So, just to see, I filled my big rucksack with 30lbs weight of books, and practised hoisting it onto my back and off again a few times, which I found I could manage with no problem.

After a very poor summer, it became settled and relatively warm in late August and early September. I decided upon a route in just a few minutes, simply by choosing from the list of trips detailed on the invaluable V-G Backpacking in Britain website. What I selected were a couple of circular two-day routes that were adjacent to each other: one starting eastwards from Ffestiniog, and the other from Trawsfynydd. Then I created simple links to turn them into one long walk that I expected would take me three to three-and-a-half days. The area was one of the few remaining in which I had not previously walked, apart from a visit more than thirty years earlier to see the Cynfal Waterfall and Huw Llwyd’s Pulpit, which had left me with memories of a peaceful, green and scenic spot.

A few changes to my equipment were necessary this year. I had discovered during a walk in the Chiltern Hills that my old Sympatex jacket was no longer waterproof. I thought at the time it was because I had continued crossing a field after it started raining, which wet my fleece jumper before I put the jacket on in the shelter of a hedgerow, but a couple of weeks after that I draped the jacket over my shoulders before I stepped outdoors to attend to something, and in the space of just five minutes my back became soaked. Cleaning the jacket and then treating it with wash-in waterproofing proved to be a waste of time and money; it was clearly beyond help.

As a result of this, I spent a morning trudging from one shop to another in a Hertfordshire “outlet centre” (a large shopping mall filled with stores selling their old lines at allegedly discounted prices), where I found several jackets to try on, but I was dismayed with the short design of most of them. Some did not even cover the hem of the jumper I was wearing, so I returned to a camping store by a nearby garden centre, where I bought the first one I had looked at earlier on. This is an olive-coloured Mountain Pass ‘Wasdale’, which is a good old-fashioned thigh-length, and the sleeves are long enough for me to partially withdraw my hands. The price was a genuine bargain, too, at 25 percent less than identical ones I later saw on the Internet. If there are any drawbacks, it is only made from a coated material, which I expect will have a shorter life, and it is a bit weightier than its predecessor. There is a second, heavy-duty zip (for an “interactive” fleece), which I am tempted to cut out to lighten it, but it seems a shame to mutilate a nicely made product so soon.

With backpacking in mind, I bought a digital compact camera to carry instead of my film one, and I also replaced my worn-out folding map case with a near-identical one (as I failed to find any other that I liked) which I now clip onto my rucksack shoulder strap with a karabiner.

Another thing that needed attention was clean water. This was now trickling very slowly from the screw-top filter that I had bought for my flexible flask in 2002, and according to the instructions this meant it was due for replacement. Unfortunately, the product is no longer available, so I had to consider other means of purification. The highly rated SteriPen seemed ideal, but it was too expensive for me, so for under £20 I bought a little filter called the Travel Well Pocket Water Purifier. This is sold as an emergency item and is only suitable for up to 60 litres of water, after which it should be discarded, but that is much more than enough for one of my trips. What was not clear to me (and still isn’t, for the UK manufacturer did not answer my emailed query ) was whether the product could be stored after use, and re-used at a later date.

One final mention on the subject of gear: a week before my planned departure date, I made a trip to the “superstore” of one of the major outdoors retailers, specifically to buy the right gas for the Japanese stove and lantern that only they sell, as well as some new SealSkinz waterproof socks, some Reiter food and a few other bits and pieces. They were completely out of gas, they did not stock SealSkinz socks, and their range of the meals was limited, so I left empty-handed, without even looking at anything else; my journey there was an utter waste of time. I spent a lot of money at another supplier I visited the following day, as they had everything I wanted and more (though I found that my lantern needed extra tightening on the different gas canister, otherwise it leaked).

I drove to Wales on Friday 7 September, via Welshpool and Dolgellau. It was warm, with a mix of sun and cloud, while the journey was entirely uneventful. Out of a rather limited choice of camp sites near the start of my intended walk, I had earlier decided upon Llechrwd Riverside Camping, near Maentwrog. (There was another site further to the south, near Coed-y-Brenin, of which a reviewer on a camping website warned that it was very much a cyclists’ site, but I was more deterred by the requirement that you had to pre-book and you had to stay a minimum of two nights, not to mention the lengthy list of rules and regulations displayed on their website. Not for me, thank you!)

Llechrwd was in a beautiful spot, facing a large, wooded hillside that rose beyond the far side of the adjoining Afon Dwyryd, and with the Manod mountains completing the view to one side. With the whole of an empty field to choose from, I put my tent below a bank at one side, which I figured should lessen any possible traffic noise (in the event, there was virtually none). Once I was pitched, the site owner passed by with his two dogs, and informed me that some loose grass close to me had been torn up by badgers a few days ago. I had assumed it was dropped by a mower where it had turned! This lovely camp site was let down a bit by a lack of facilities, for there was only one toilet and one shower for men, likewise I believe for ladies, plus one unisex washroom and one additional toilet. Fortunately, only two other tents went up after mine. (A new toilet block was under construction at the time of my stay.)

In the evening I drove seven miles to Porthmadog in search of food. All I could find in the town were three unappealing pubs that did not appear to do meals, a rather swanky looking bistro with prices to match and two rather plain restaurants, one of which was just shutting at seven-thirty! Diving quickly into the one remaining open, lest it too was soon to close, I had a reasonable dinner but did not greatly enjoy drinking Diet Coke with it. Following this, I needed more liquid inside me, but after taking a second look at each of the three pubs I still did not fancy going into any of them. Disconsolately driving back towards Maentwrog, I stopped in the village of Penrhyndeudraeth which had two pubs in its centre. The moderately better looking one of the two was fairly crowded, and the only ale on tap was Bass, not something I would normally go for. The other pub was less busy, and here the only ale was Banks’, which did not taste quite right. My ears were blasted by loud house music, while two seriously overweight girls playing pool did nothing to improve the ambience.

Day 1

A clear sky and a still night ensured that I had a tent dripping wet with condensation in the morning, which was now lightly clouded. Clearly visible in the dewy grass was a trail of little footprints that led in a straight line from the river to the front of my tent, though I can only guess what species of animal had visited me. I managed to use each of the solitary facilities before anyone else, thus avoiding any queuing, and was packed and ready to go at not too bad a time of the morning.

Arriving at Trawsfynydd, the starting point of my walk, I discovered that the village car park was full, because there was some sort of show on that day. Diving into the nearest side turning, I found a space by some little cottages. Here I waved to a man who was watching me from his kitchen window while I was getting my gear ready. He came outside and we chatted, which gave me the opportunity to check if it was alright to leave my car there for three days, which it was. Great, I had now recruited an innocent person to keep an eye on it for me!

Once I had walked out of the small village and crossed the A470 main road that bypasses it, I headed northwards on an easy track that climbed gently through green fields, with views on my left of the expansive Llyn Trawsfynydd and beyond it the misty bulk of the Rhinogs group of mountains. After two miles, I arrived at the Roman fort of Tomen-y-mur, which turned out to be a huge man-made mound. For its builders, the view from the top would not have included electricity pylons, lengths of walls built in the lake, and a now defunct nuclear power station. A short, battlement-like wall had been restored close to the fort, while work was currently in progress on a ruined building, but to me the results looked more like a total rebuild, leaving little of anything original. The site had attracted a small number of visitors this morning, but disappointingly no-one could find the amphitheatre that was supposed to be there.

Leaving the Roman site by a little single-track road that ran uphill towards a television mast, it was now time to climb pathless, grassy slopes eastwards for just under two miles, up to around 1,500 ft above sea level in a hilly area dotted with small lakes and little pools, though I found many of those shown on the 1:25,000 map were waterless, rushy hollows. As I climbed, the distant peaks of Moelwyn Bach and Moelwyn Mawr became prominent on the skyline over my left shoulder, with the dam of Llyn Stwlan just below them. These were to remain in the view for much of my walk. A weak sun shone while I stopped for lunch by one of the lakes, where I spread my sleeping bag on rocks to air, and my tent to dry. Behind my resting place there was a pleasing growth of Stag’s-horn Clubmoss, Lycopodium clavatum, while in the grass nearby, a yellow-green frog posed obligingly for a photograph. Two passing walkers, who I had seen earlier at the fort, were the first and last I would encounter during this trip.

On the move again, I climbed as far as the cairned top of Graig Wen (a feature of this walk was that in spite of the relatively low summits and small number of visitors, every separate peak was crowned with a cairn), before turning north-westwards to reach the southern edge of a large conifer forest, inside which a path in a wide corridor led me with certainty back westwards to where I could transfer, in less than a mile, to stony tracks that gently descended to the northern edge of the forest.

Here the originator of the route had been faced with difficulty, because of footpaths shown on the map that were not on the ground, so he found a way down a track and around a barn to pick up the line of the path again. Unfortunately, this barn had since been converted into a home, with a huge picture window in the end wall that I wanted to pass, plus a Jack Russell terrier that yapped at me incessantly. Not only that, but alongside the property a new fence had been placed across the meadow; this had a five-bar gate in it, but behind it stood a large and rather belligerent horse, which I managed to befriend by feeding it some of my glucose tablets. The occupants of the property must have been out, otherwise I am sure I would have been told off. Beyond the field boundary there was a clear path through a wood, just as the author of the route had found, and this led to a footbridge spanning the Afon Cynfal, in which I was delighted to catch sight of a couple of little brown-spotted trout.

A mile of easy walking north-eastwards along the river valley followed, first on a metalled lane and then on a path, but this later turned and climbed gruesomely to the top of the valley, at the same time becoming overgrown, too. This was made up for by a spectacular v-shaped gorge on my right, through which the river Cynfal tumbled, though with a low flow of water its falls, Rhaeadr-y-Cwm, were not that spectacular at the moment. The path eventually reached a B road that ran along the rim of the valley, and after I had tramped a short distance eastwards along this, I parted company with the “Trawsfynydd” route, to transfer to the adjacent “Ffestiniog” one.

Although a footpath sign pointed north-westwards from the roadside, there was no trace of any path whatsoever through a large, low-lying area of rushes. I walked parallel to it, following the base of a grassy hillside, until I could see a stile by a fence junction on the line of the non-existent route in the dense vegetation. Plunging through the chest-high rushes was relatively straightforward, easier than the stile was to cross, but not far beyond it I was on reasonably short grass for a while, before reaching a dirt track. This led me down to the dam of Llyn Morwynion Reservoir, which is at 1,300 feet above sea level. Here I found signs warning of thin ice and not to swim!

Were it not for a nagging little breeze that was coming across the water, I would have been spoilt for a choice of tent sites, and under the circumstances I selected a draught-free spot to one side of the outlet stream, below the level of the lake. A pair of disused water utility buildings spoiled the near view, but in the distance were part of the Lleyn Peninsula and Tremadog Bay, where the lights of Criccieth and Pwllheli came on and twinkled as the sun went down.

Day 2

Pessimist that I am, I unzipped my tent in the morning expecting the worst conditions, so I was pleased to see light if somewhat grey sky, and mere wafts of dissipating mist around the crags of Y Garnedd and Carreg y Foel-gron on the far side of the lake, which now had a glassy, unrippled surface. As soon as I had my clothes and boots on, my priority was to grab my camera and capture the moment before it was gone.

My route away from Llyn Morwynion took me gently downhill, first westwards and then north-westwards, on good paths until I reached the attractive but uninhabited farmhouse of Garreglwyd, where the path disappeared. This was of no consequence, for it was easy to bypass the building through grazed fields, and beyond it I found old footpath arrows that pointed me across rather more untrod fields till I reached a junction of visible paths, where I turned north-eastwards to enter the valley of the upper Afon Gamallt.

Ahead of me the flat-bottomed valley widened then narrowed again, with green and grey hills on either side and the dark line of cliffs of Graig Goch across the far end. Old quarry tracks ran in straight lines along the right-hand slopes. A rusting five bar gate enclosed nothing, it could be walked around, but before the gate, my path forked, where I took the left turn that led down towards the river. By the left of this fork was a small hillock, named Bryn y Castell on the map. A climb up this proved to be rewarding, for it was an Iron Age fort, I later learned, where smelting had been carried out. Excavations between 1979 and 1985 had revealed the lengths of curving walls I saw, and a circle of stones with lumps of slag in its centre.

A footbridge crossed the river, which was a great deal smaller than the size of its valley suggested it would be, after which I slowly climbed north-eastwards to reach the top of the line of hills on that side. The grass was largely pathless; the few I followed were made by sheep or were the indentations of the tyres of hill farmers’ quad bikes. A large pool I passed appeared to be drying up, and its shallow water did not look suitable for filtering for my lunch, but on my descent from the col I found a tiny stream running along a dip before me, near an old mine.

Settled on a grassy slope by the stream, in weak sunshine, I became aware of several little black specks on my forearms. A close look at them, followed by an inspection of my shins, revealed the worst – I had a number of very tiny sheep ticks on me, some on the move and some already starting to dig their way in. Bearing in mind the way Llandudno A&E removed a couple from me three years earlier (they made incisions), I put the point of the small blade of my little Swiss Army Pocket Pal under each one and lifted it off. A few had reached my upper arms, and there were some on my thighs too.

From this point, my trousers remained tucked into my socks (and will do in the future), but my biggest worry was whether any ticks were in my sleeping bag, my inner tent, or my clothing, all of which I now gave a thorough shaking out. For the remainder of the walk I examined myself at every opportunity; if anyone witnessed this strange man who kept dropping his trousers in the middle of nowhere, and scrutinising his legs, I apologise. In several sessions, I must have removed over forty in total, the last ones being the following morning. (In the next few weeks, I was free from any rashes and I did not experience any flu-like symptoms, so I guess I have not contracted Lyme disease.)

After my unfortunately extended lunch break, I found a faint path that led eastwards to reach the densely heather-clad shore of the smaller of the two Llynnau Gamallt. An old stone building by the lake, marked on my map as a Shooting Box, was semi derelict, with the interior in a very dirty condition. It contained three battered chairs, some cobwebby bottles and containers with dubious contents, and a filthy table on which was spread out a previously much-folded sheet of paper that was someone’s bail form. I could not see what he had been charged with; it might have been something quite minor, but I felt rather uneasy at the thought that this hovel might possibly have provided a refuge for someone evading justice.

The dark foliage of the heather and the dark cliffs of Graig Goch, together with the currently overcast sky, gave the whole area a rather gloomy appearance. A sort of trod way followed the shore, to pass the isthmus between the two lakes, where I turned towards the base of the cliffs and threaded a route up pathless terrain, in search of what the author of my route described as a thin path up a ravine. This was unmistakable when I found it, though I would argue it was in fact a dry stream bed. What I failed to find was where the path was said to turn back towards the summit of Y Clochdy. The tiniest of sheep tracks led onwards, far past where I imagined I should have changed direction, and the prospect of now having a long climb through rough heather and tussocky grasses did not appeal to me, so I stayed on the little path, which contoured the slopes along the back of the ridge. I was able to take in the view when I reached its southern end, from where I was able to make reasonable progress downhill on grass towards a stream valley. Following the stream brought me to a good stony track that led to a B road.

Beyond the far side of the road, a large area of dense, chin-high rushes had to be slowly ploughed through to reach an old, man-made structure that was visible ahead of me on the lower slopes of the 1,680 foot mountain of Cerrig y leirch. Unmarked on the map, it appeared to be a long stone bridge or causeway crossing the upper reaches of a stream, but there were no paths at all before or after it. The centre had collapsed but it was safe to walk on the wide, grass-covered parapet. Past this, I climbed grass-and-rock slopes to the summit of the hill, and this is where I left the “Ffestiniog” route to rejoin the “Trawsfynydd” one. All I had to do was stay on the higher ground I had attained, and head south-eastwards in as straight a line as possible towards the lake of Llyn y Dywarchen, which I hoped would be a good place to camp for the night.

The seven acre lake sits in a slightly elevated position at 1,400 feet, at the western end of a huge area of boggy moorland known as the Migneint. The lake margins and surrounding land, I discovered, were wet, rough and pathless, as well as being without any shelter from a light breeze. After much searching, I found a dry and level spot of shorter grass for my tent beyond a low rise, away from the north-west of the lake.

Day 3

In the early hours of the morning I was woken by an intermittent patter of light rain on my tent, which caused me to utter a few oaths, but it had ceased long before I emerged at around 7:45. Ragged dark clouds moved from the west across the sky, which I watched anxiously, but as time passed it was evident that they were becoming fewer and lighter.

Although pleased that I had enjoyed a comfortable night and not suffered any bad weather, I was not over-sorry to leave this rather characterless pitch. It was now necessary for me to find a boundary stone that was about half a mile to the east of my present position in this featureless and pathless moorland. Initially I walked parallel to the north edge of the lake, after which I used my compass. The way was not easy, for there were some extensive boggy sections, with standing water, where it was necessary to keep stopping and looking around to work out the safest route, without deviating too much from my course.

By now, there was more blue sky than there were clouds, so the land and water sparkled in the sunshine. I reflected on how different and how extremely difficult it would have been if it was dark and raining, while the thought of attempting this in mist made me shudder. However, even in the present good conditions, it was such a remote spot that I wouldn’t stand much of a chance if anything went badly wrong. Eventually I spotted the boundary stone I was looking for, only a wee bit off course. This was triangular in section, because, I have read, it marks the meeting point of the three old counties of Caernarfon, Denbigh and Merioneth.

Turning approximately southwards here, I headed on dryer yet still pathless land towards the edge of a conifer forest that was just visible on the horizon. After a further half a mile I passed another boundary stone, this was rectangular in section, and appeared to be more recent than the triangular one. Even though it was in the middle of nowhere, its flat sides were much scratched with graffiti, most of it Welsh names and language. The forest gave me something positive to aim for, without having to rely on a compass, not that the walking was any easier when I reached its wire boundary fence, alongside which I made my way south-eastwards to reach the grassy summit of Carnedd Iago.

The retrospective view from the domed top, at about 1,750 ft, showed the expanse of the Mignient moorland, a corner of which I had just traversed, while before me was yet another stone column, this time an ancient standing stone that was nearly my height. It was by a junction of wire fences, one of which I followed downhill southwards towards a further edge of the forest. Just inside the trees, a wide stony track proved to be the prefect antidote to the rough country I had just crossed, allowing me to get into a pleasing rhythmic stride on my way downhill towards a minor road.

I tramped westwards for a good half a mile on the tarmac, without seeing any vehicles, before the road crossed a little brook, the Nant y Lladron, where a public footpath sign pointed downstream. The path was evidently little used, as it was somewhat overgrown; on one stretch it was necessary to jump the stream more than once to find the easiest way. On reaching a crossing stone track, I now put myself entirely in the hands of the trailblazing originators of the route, who evidently had difficulty find a way out of the west side of the forest, but were successful on their third attempt by making use of the cleared area along a line of power pylons that traversed the woods. In their report, they described the going as “very rough with large tussocks and dense grasses”. Oh boy, that was an understatement! The grasses reached halfway up my thighs, there was scarcely a flat spot under my feet, and there were a number of deep drainage channels that I could only just about leap across. My progress was extremely slow, while towards the end the land was becoming increasingly wetter, too. The only highlight was a large area made hazy blue with flowering Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis.

Beyond the forest boundary, long grasses still hindered me, but as the land rose these thinned and at last a hint of a path followed the pylons. Nearing the brow of a hill, the sparkling water of Llyn Conglong-mawr came into view down on my left. I picked my way down the slopes to reach its shore, around which I crossed the outlet stream and a rather difficult fence, where it was rather wet and boggy. I was certain that in wet weather one would be unable to accomplish this without getting boots filled with water.

After that lake, the smaller Llyn Conglong-bach lay in a marshy hollow, by which I found it easier to first climb a small hill that was not only a dry way but also gave me a vantage point from where I could look for the best route below me. From the far side of the lake, the land started to climb towards the rounded, heather clad hump of 1,555 ft Y Garn Here again the grass was extremely long and dense. On reaching a stone wall that encircled the upper slopes of the mountain, I removed my rucksack and climbed steeply beside the wall to view Llyn y Garn that sits below steep banks on the north-east side. Surrounded by nothing but rock and heather, the lake’s surface was grey and choppy in a faint breeze. To me the area looked cold and uninviting.

Returning to where I had left my pack on the north of the mountain, I clambered over the wall, nearly five feet high at this point, and contoured around the western slopes, making use of faint lengths of sheep’s paths, until I reached a wall with a wire-covered gap where it crossed a tiny stream. Squeezing through a loose corner of the wire panel, and taking the trouble to secure it after me, I entered a steeply sloping pasture of grass and bracken. Way down below me were a five bar gate and a fence, on the other side of which lay the trackbed of the old Trawsfynydd to Bala railway that dated from the latter part of the 19th century and was closed in 1961.

The railway line ran along the north edge of the Afon Prysor valley, while the A4212 main road followed the river’s south side. Twenty years previously, in 1987, I had walked eastwards along the old track from roughly this point but today I followed it to the west, which would take me practically all of the way back to Trawsfynydd. I soon passed under a bridge and entered a cutting, where I quickly made a mental tally of ten different fern species on the rocks, two of which indicated the presence of some lime. In some further cuttings it was very wet underfoot, but for most of the way I was on raised embankments. The line looped northwards to cross the valley of the Afon Llafar, where there was the prospect of good places upstream for my tent, for it was now late afternoon, but there seemed little point in stopping here as I was now only a couple of miles from Trawsfynydd.

When I reached a minor lane that crossed the line on a high bridge, I had to leave the route. Walking parallel to it on the main road, I could see that this section of the line had been virtually erased in agricultural land. However, a few hundred yards along the road, I turned up a track and climbed a wooden fence to rejoin the old line where it was visible again. It was plain that this part was not an official footpath, and while I walked I rehearsed defences in my head in case I was challenged. Shortly, it was definitely the end of the line for me when I reached a crossing footpath that commenced from where a lane branched from the main road. The final three-quarters of a mile of my walk was on tarmac, till I reached my car in Trawsfynydd.

I had it in mind to camp for the night at Llechrwd again, which was not too far away, but as I approached it I could see from the road that a number of tents were pitched there. With those limited facilities it was out of the question, so the hastily formed Plan B was to drive on to the Forestry camp site at Beddgelert. This was surprisingly full for a Monday night in September, and even though it is a large site I had a very limited choice of level and dry pitches that were a reasonable distance from other tents, and not beneath trees. Although the facilities here are very good, I was a little miffed at the charge of over fifteen pounds for the night.

I left Beddgelert very late the following morning, mainly because I spent ages swapping experiences with an engaging character whose lightweight tent was not far from mine; from his home in south London, he was cycling to the Lake District, via Bristol and Wales! With the weather still fine, I extended my stay in North Wales by a further two days (one of the benefits of retirement), pitching my large ridge tent this time at Conwy Touring Park where two nights cost me a little less than one night on the Forest Enterprise site, although the facilities are on a par. The numbered pitch I was allocated was like a dust bowl; in the more usual Welsh weather conditions it would have been a mud bath.

I passed my time by visiting the fern nursery near Bangor (for the second time this year!), the little known Treborth Botanic Garden (interesting glasshouses, which weren’t really open to the public, disappointing gardens but lots of ferns in the wood), and the Welsh Mountain Zoo at Colwyn, where I found the native polecats, red squirrels and Welsh mountain goats of more interest than the exotic species. Armed with details from an Internet book guide, I visited several secondhand bookshops, although unfortunately only five out of the nine were open on the days I went. I was painfully aware of the fact that after so many visits to North Wales, I was running out of things to do following my walk; there is a limit to how many times one can see the same attractions and photograph the same scenes.

In retrospect, I was quite satisfied with this year’s walk. It was not over-taxing, in fact my route could have been a bit longer, but to be honest it is unlikely I would have completed all of it if the weather had been bad. I had very few problems routefinding, but poor visibility would have made it extremely difficult. Some parts, particularly the Mignient moor, would have been nasty in winds, while wet weather would have made it really miserable, as well as tricky in the boggy areas.

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