2008, Dyfi Hills from Dinas Mawddwy

Another year on, and I was again keen to do a multiple day walk with wild camping in Snowdonia.  With September approaching, I looked through my collection of books for inspiration for a route, only to have the words, “Been there,” repeating themselves again and again in my head as I thumbed through pages.  I thought of having a second go at some of the routes I had failed to complete in previous years, but my preference was for something new.  Turning to the collection of walks featured on the  V-G Backpacking web site, I found details of a thirty miles circuit around the Dyfi Hills area, near the southern edge of the National Park.  I had certainly not been there before, and the idea appealed to me.

In a very short space of time, I bought the food items and gas cartridges I would need; this side of things was becoming a bit of a routine by now.  Other important things had been added months ago, such as new waterproof overtrousers.  The cheap ones I had bought in the previous couple of years were a waste of money.  One pair did not stay waterproof for very long, while the other could not be put on over my walking boots. Unhappy with seeing nothing but black ones in the shops, it had taken me much searching on the Internet to source an excellent olive-coloured pair from Vander, a lesser-known manufacturer based in Devon.

Water purification was something else that was satisfactorily resolved.  I left the right information lying around so that Father Christmas bought me a Steripen Adventurer, which sterilizes water with ultraviolet light, to which I added a 1-litre Nalgene flask plus a Mini Sipper which is a plastic insert for the wide neck and contains a slotted hole similar to that in a drink can.  Giving the matter further thought, I later bought a Steripen Prefilter for removing solids.  This is included with the standard model of Steripen, but not with the smaller, lighter and less expensive Adventurer, and the ridiculous thing is that I could not find a UK supplier.  I had to purchase it from the USA for only five pounds, and pay as much again on top of that for the carriage.  [More about the Steripen is at the end of this report.]

With the weather reasonably settled, I set off from home on Friday 12 September, a mainly cloudy day with occasional sun.  My destination was a campsite conveniently by the village of Dinas Mawddwy, from where my walk was to start.  Not unexpectedly, the site turned out to be extremely soggy, as the summer had been one of the wettest on record, with Wales receiving more than its fair share.  I was a bit concerned to find just one w.c., one hand basin and one shower for men, but it was only five pounds for the night, and mine was the only tent there.

The village was a little further along the main road, just off one side of it, with a pub at its far end, which was twelve minutes’ walk from the campsite.  It was what I would call a “proper” pub, with stone floors, beamed ceilings, woodwormed tables, dogs lying around, and filled mainly with locals, with a sprinkling of outsiders.  Everyone was in good spirits, there was a menu of cooked food and some choice beers.  I vaguely remember a local brew called Glaslyn, before I had consumed more than was good for me, though it was not enough to prevent me from finding my way back along the pitch-dark road to my tent, where not surprisingly I slept soundly.

Day 1

An overfull bladder forced me out of my snug sleeping bag earlier than I would have liked to have got up in the morning, when I was dismayed to see a cloak of thick white fog draped over all of the surrounding hills.  However, the sky overhead was blue, with wisps of thin clouds, and while I breakfasted at a picnic table, the fog was evidently lifting and dispersing.  By the time I had packed up it was completely gone.

Saying goodbye to the site owners, I mentioned that I would be leaving my car in the village car park and I did not want anyone worrying about it being there for three days.  I was immediately invited to leave it on the campsite, which I gratefully accepted.  This done, I set off with my big pack and my poles to walk a few hundred yards along the main road to reach a footpath on its far side, that climbed steeply up through a conifer wood towards a disused quarry.  This was not an easy way to start my walk and in the warm temperature, sweat ran down my face and stung my eyes, soon dampening my handkerchief as I frequently mopped my head.

Reaching the quarry, I found some level ground that gave a brief rest from the uphill climb.  For a few minutes, I poked around ruins and holes in the ground, marvelling at an exceptionally dense and luxuriant colony of Maidenhair spleenwort ferns lining a tunnel through which a stream ran.  I was not too sure exactly where my route went from here, so I followed a deep little stream valley northwards, climbing on pathless ground till I reached a moor-like plateau beyond which there was a fine view of the southern end of the Arans mountain ridge.

An uncomfortable walk through uneven tussocks brought me close to Llyn Foeldinas, which has no distinguishing features, it merely sits in an elevated flat area of grass and heather.  Disappointed, I almost doubled back on myself, struggling back through the pathless terrain to return to a fence I had crossed earlier.  This pointed in a straight line westwards towards the round grassy hump of Foel Dinas, 1,568 feet above sea level according to my calculations (I can only find the metric height of 478 metres, and I prefer feet).  When the fence turned ninety degrees to the left, a faint path continued ahead, leading me towards the top of the beautiful cliffs of Maesglase, down which ran white threads of waterfalls.

Prior to the cliffs, the route descended a steep hillside overgrown with low gorse so dense that I lost the trod way for a while.  A narrow col lay ahead, at the lowest point of which I spied a flat rock slab in the ground, on which names were scratched in archaic styles.  Among those who had passed this way were L Hughes in June 1910, Brook Perra, J B Rees and someone in 1888.  From the upward climb beyond the col, I diverted steeply down to the bank of a rushing stream where I had a leisurely lunch break in the sunshine.

Returning to the south side of the stream valley, I continued on a thin path that followed the upper edge of the cliffs.  There were a few big drops to pass, so, given my fear of heights together with my vertigo and balance problems, a lot of the time a voice in my head was yelling, “Don’t look down!!!”  Totalling around four miles, the way followed first one sinuous line of cliffs, which topped out at 2,213 feet, before crossing another col, Craig Portas, and going around another set of cliffs of a similar height.  I should have seen the peak of Cadair Idris beyond the last section, but white cloud was starting to drift across the higher parts of my route, so I only caught occasional vague glimpses of something dark in the distance.

By late afternoon I reached a third col, beyond which I would have to climb very steeply to the 2,197 feet top of Waun-oer, at the start of a long ridge.  According to my map, there were streams in the rough grass slopes that descended from the north side of the col, so I went in that direction to find a suitable place to camp for the night.  This proved to be difficult, for everywhere I looked was either sloping or wet.  I almost settled on one flat spot I found, but I was not happy with it as it was in the middle of a wide expanse of featureless grass.  Searching again, I found a preferable pitch on a slightly raised mound that was beside a wire fence at the head of a stream valley.  From afar, the grass here had a pale, almost whitish appearance from old stalks of Mat grass, Nardus stricta, which I discovered for the first time seemed to be an indicator of drier ground.

With my tent up and equipment laid out, I set off downhill on weary legs, with my water carrier which I filled with a mug from a stream.  On my return, I skirted some tall rushes by a boggy bit, where my right foot disappeared with a squelch into wet mire, leaving me with a bootful of water and a trouser leg dripping mud.  Why, oh why, did this have to happen to me right at the end of the day, and on my first day as well?  The socks on my right foot were to remain wet and cold for the rest of the trip.

While there was still enough light, I checked myself for sheep ticks, and sure enough there was one on each of my forearms,  from where I picked them off with the tip of the blade of my penknife.  My legs were clear, as previous experience has taught me to keep my trousers tucked into my socks.  I saw no more ticks during my walk, but five days after it, I discovered one attached to the outside of my elbow.  It had not fed on me but it was alive, because after I had removed it I looked at it through a x10 hand lens, where I could see its legs moving.  Rather worryingly, this creature had survived five showers and a bath.

Day 2

Every time I turned over in the night I had to shuffle my sleeping bag back up to the entrance end of  the tent, because my resting place was not quite level enough, while my groundsheet was slippery from the silicones in the reproofing and the anti-slip treatment on the surface of my Thermarest mattress has worn off.

In my sheltered area there was heavy dew in the night, so I spread damp belongings for airing along a considerable length of the handy wire fence.  Typically, my part of the hillside remained shaded from the morning sunshine until shortly before I vacated it.  As I climbed back up to the col, it became evident that there was a bit of a breeze blowing from the west.  I stopped and surveyed the steep way up to Waun-oer.  Did I really want to start my day with that stiff climb, and then brace myself against the wind on two miles of ridge?  Only a short way below me there was a forestry track that snaked a level course around the slopes to arrive at the same destination.  It was no contest, really, and the wimp in me had an easy victory.

The track with its scenic views across a deep cwm eventually descended beside a river and dropped me off at a lane.  Here my map showed a telephone symbol, but I could not see one  (many rural phone boxes are being removed due to lack of use).  I had thought of greeting my wife, who I had not spoken to since the morning of my departure, using the numbers of a chargecard that I had written on my route guide.  With this, I can make calls from any BT phone  and be billed for them later.  Rather surprisingly, the account is still live after many years with extremely little use.

A short way along the lane, I was supposed to turn left onto a path just beyond some houses, and cross a footbridge.  Unsure of the exact way, I asked a woman who happened to be passing.  There were two paths, I was told, one around the back of the nearest house which, she said, “looks as if it’s going through someone’s garden but it is a right of way,” and the other one was a little further along the road.  Thanking her, I opted for the closest one, which appeared to be marked on my map, though not clearly, hence my confusion.  It certainly did pass through a garden, and having crossed the bridge, I settled myself on the riverbank for my lunch.  Half hidden behind a bush, I observed a man come out of the house whose garden paths and steps I had used;  he seemed to be looking around and checking his outbuildings.  Perhaps someone had seen me and thought I was an intruder!

Lunch over, I walked south-eastwards on paths that climbed gently through an oak wood.  When my path emerged from the trees and crossed open land, I needed to branch left onto what was marked on my map as a “road used as a public path” but I could see no sign of it whatsoever.  Carrying on as far as a hedge, I turned left alongside this to follow a little-used way that was overhung with branches and greatly churned up by the hooves of cattle, after which I joined a track that was clearly the far end of the one I had been looking for.  That was a mystery!

Passing a derelict stone building, I continued south-eastwards, following farm tracks which became less and less distinct until I was simply crossing grazed grass.  Cowpats warned of the presence of cattle, and sure enough I came across a scattered number of them, some black, some brown and some with calves, from which I made a long detour out of their sight.  Then there was a second lot on a far slope, watching me with curiosity while I hastened towards the safe side of a fence.

Skirting the north side of a hillock named Fedw-lwyd, I headed towards my next objective, the bare 1,538 feet top of Mynydd Cwmcelli that rose above the southern edge of a large expanse of forest.  The sudden roar of a motorcycle engine rent the air, and a large flock of frightened sheep raced towards and around me.  Expecting to see a farmer on a quad bike, I found instead five off-road  bikers roaring up and down the slopes of the hill I wanted to climb, with soil and stones flying in all directions.  The path to the summit was thoroughly churned up, as were other paths around me, while wide ruts had been gouged down the east face of the hill, whose summit was an ancient hill fort.  Another scar stretched a long way to a hill to the south-east.  There was no way I was going up that mess, and I felt intimidated by the bikers’ presence, too.  I was cross that such people could be getting away with causing all this damage in a National Park, and immediately after my return home I filed reports with every authority I could think of.

Somewhat saddened, I followed a lengthy track that descended north-eastwards and then eastwards through the monotonous conifers of Dyfi Forest, and emerged at a steep lane in the continuing woodland.  The lane reached a multiple junction, where again my map showed a telephone symbol but there was no phone box.  Here I switched to an even smaller lane, and then to an extremely muddy footpath that followed the south side of a river.  Three quarters of the way along this path I encountered another herd of black and brown cattle.  The only practical way to avoid them was to turn ninety degrees and climb up the field to rejoin the little lane I had left earlier.

It was by now quite late in the afternoon, or early in the evening, take your pick, and I was faced with the problem of where to pitch my tent for the night.  I would have to find somewhere soon, for I was heading for the houses of the little village of Aberangell, beyond which there was a main road, followed by farmland.  The river alongside was noisy, and its banks were wooded, but when I passed a little side stream on my right, I squeezed through overgrown laurels lining that side of the lane and found a long strip of ungrazed field.  It was far from ideal, for the grass was rank, there was a house beyond the far end, though largely screened by trees, and there was a loud roar in the background from the river.  On the other hand, there was water in the stream and there was privacy, so long as I did not advertise my presence.

Day 3

The noise of the river did not disturb me overnight as I had expected, but the morning was depressingly grey, misty, drizzly and gloomy.  There would be no airing of my gear today.  When I was ready, I was relieved to be out of my little field and on the lane again.  Forty-five years ago, and even more recently than that, I would have thought nothing of camping in such a place, but now I felt guilty.  Seniority brings with it a greater feeling of responsibility.

Aberangell was small enough to be barely noticed, and beyond it I crossed a bridge over the River Dovey to reach the A470 road, whose grass verge I followed for a few hundred yards to reach a bridleway on the far side.  The right of way passed through the yard of a large stone-built farm where dogs barked at me.  Standing on the track beyond the farm was a large brown one of my horned enemies, which gazed at me while I bypassed it atop a grassy bank.

The track gently climbed north-eastwards into green hills.  On my left there was a view down onto the Dovey valley and the village, but above the hills on my right the tops of some wind turbines were visible, and audible as well.  I successfully transferred from the track I was on to a further one, by crossing a pathless field that was overgrown with rushes and thistles, but as I climbed higher I entered the cloud line and became less certain of where I should be going.  A cwm to my right looked far deeper than it appeared on my map, the hills behind it looked higher and there were blocks of conifers that were  not shown.  I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the misty hill on the left of these was 1,522 feet Esgair Du, where I should be heading.

If there was a summit on that grassy dome, it was not to be seen in the poor visibility, which caused me to use my compass to find my way eastwards across a featureless moor, uncertain of my precise whereabouts and feeling a little anxious.  After bypassing some bogs I descended very steeply into a green cwm, at the base of which were with some old farm buildings and a track.  Here I stopped for lunch beside a tumbling stream, before continuing on the track that crossed fields to a little lane.  On the way I encountered the forerunners of the hordes of pheasants that are reared in this area.  The first one gave me a heart attack as it unexpectedly clattered skywards from almost under my feet, while subsequent ones made me chuckle at their apparent stupidity.  Beyond a hundred the novelty wore off.

Less than two miles along the car-free lane, I turned right onto a track which ran through trees along the south edge of a valley that had a main road, the A458, along its far side.  This track was no great pleasure to walk on for a mile and a half, because much of it was extremely wet and muddy, so it was a relief to reach the isolated Talglanau farm, where I turned down its access drive to the main road.  Shortly before reaching the road, I was confronted with a black cow and two calves, just before a cattle grid.  Side-stepping towards a fence bordering the drive, I was about to climb over it when to my surprise the cow actually ran away from me!  Even more surprising, though, was its agility, for it bounded up a very steep bank with the greatest of ease, something I needed to remember in the future if circumstances were reversed.

The moderately busy A-road had a grass verge just wide enough for me to walk on, but after a couple of hundred yards I was glad when I was able to cross it, to clamber over a five-bar gate in the opposite hedge, beyond which an old path climbed through trees.  The path took me along the edges of two fields to reach a track that stretched northwards along the east side of a river valley.  For the first one of its two-and-a-half miles, there were more pheasants than I have ever seen in my whole life, droves of them, along the track and across the lower fields.  I found their presence an annoyance because they were an introduction that did not belong in this landscape, especially in such vast numbers.  My attitude was not helped by the grey and gloomy weather conditions which gave a dismal feel to the surroundings.

At one point I was faced with some uncertainty when the river curved to the right more than was apparent from my map.  Here there was a ford, and I thought I had reached the bend where my map showed a footbridge that I was to cross.  A track on the far side falsely appeared to be a continuation of the one I was on, while my confusion was compounded by the presence of a stone building with a windbreak of trees that was not marked on the map.  However, it was my compass that told me I should continue following the river, and in fact this spot was only halfway to my correct destination.

The real change of course of the river was plain enough when I eventually reached it, for the way ahead was blocked by rounded hills, while a whole new flat-bottomed valley opened up to my right.  The solidly built wooden footbridge was also impossible to miss.  With water close by, plenty of level grass and at just the right time of the day, I was glad to stop walking here, for my legs were extremely tired.

Day 4

The faint drizzle of the previous evening had turned to patchy light rain long before dawn, though it gradually became more persistent while I was preparing to pack up.  The surrounding hills were lost in drifting mist.  I had less than half a day’s walk to reach my car at Dinas Mawddwy, but it turned into a slog, with wet grass and rushes, puddle-filled paths and mud, not to mention wet waterproofs.

As on the previous day, blocks of trees that were not shown on my map caused confusion.  The map was dated 2002, and stated it “had been converted from the previous Outdoor Leisure map and revised for selected change 2001”.   Well, the “selected change” obviously did not include conifers that had plainly been there for longer than seven years.  Reaching the furthest outside corner of one such plantation, I was confronted with a junction of fences on the edge of a hillside that fell steeply into a misty void.  Using my compass to decide, I turned left, hoping for the best, and after walking along the top edge of some very steep slopes, down which I could only see about forty or fifty feet, I picked up a grassy track from which a stony track later wound its way down to a farm and a lane.

Half a mile down this lane, I forked right onto a smaller one.  That became a track, which then dwindled into a series of wet and muddy paths.  My boots had become totally sodden by now, reminding me that they were overdue for replacement.  The route was not at all clear, and I relied heavily on a combination of map reading and my good sense of direction to bring me to a large block of mixed woodland that sits on the hillside above the east of Dinas Mawddwy.  Finding no way through the trees, I worked my way around their perimeter, losing count of the number of times I was slapped in the face by wet branches.  Finally, I reached a point where I was able to stride down a sloping field and into the campsite.  Arriving there, my first priority was to phone my other half, who said, “What rain?” while my second priority was to have a shower and dress in clean, dry clothes.

With my wife’s words in my mind, I grabbed something for my lunch at the filling station shop down the road, and fled back to England, where it was indeed dry.  Using my larger tent, I spent two nights at the Camping Club site at Wolverley, near Kidderminster.  Ideally situated for touring, this site is unfortunately spoiled by traffic noise, especially in the early morning, but I still managed to relax, spending a day visiting north Worcestershire garden centres and the evenings sampling the offerings of the nearby pubs.  One of these was a very short walk from the back gate of the campsite, and here I made my acquaintance with Big Bertha, promoted as “Beer With Balls”.

Post-walk, I must say how pleased I am with the Steripen Adventurer water sterilizer.  The procedure is to remove the screw cap from the Nalgene flask, push the Prefilter onto it, and then dunk the flask into a pool or hold it in falling water till it is filled.  Pull the filter off, press a button on the Steripen, a green light comes on and you fully immerse the end of the Steripen into the flask.  The tip lights up blue for ninety seconds during which time you stir it about.  When the light goes out the water is ready to drink.  This sounds fiddly but it soon becomes like riding a bike, and it gives clear, good tasting water which in fact encouraged me to drink more (important for me, with only one fully functioning kidney).

Of the walk itself, I was a bit disappointed.  The first day was spent among high hills but the way was green and rounded, I was not treading exposed rock amid jagged outcrops, and following this the remainder was in rolling hill country.  It may have been very scenic, but it was not the same as being up in wild mountains.  It would be sad to say that this trip was to be remembered as much for the beers I sampled as it was for the walk itself!

Of greater concern to me was that after the walk my legs were so tired and aching,  in the bones, not the muscles.  They slowly improved over a couple of weeks, but I do not feel as if they have really completely recovered.   I walked over thirty miles in total, which is no more than I have done in some recent years.  This was evenly spread over the days, with easier ground than on some of my previous walks, and with a lot less climbing, but I ended the walk feeling certain it would not be possible for me to do another.  I can only put it down to my increasing age, though strangely enough, I did a seven miles walk in the Chilterns a few weeks later, following which I felt much better than I had done since Wales.  Perhaps if I keep that up at regular intervals, I might be able to manage a couple of days in the mountains next year….

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