When the wear and tear of last year’s walk was months behind me and just a memory, I became keen to have another go at walking and wild camping in Snowdonia, though this was not without some apprehension as to how I would fare this time. Even though it increased my concerns I also wanted it to be in a more a more mountainous area than the less rugged ones of my previous three years.
As always, I pored over guidebooks, maps and my old uncompleted routes, yet finding reasons for not committing myself to anything. Turning next to my lazy way of copying something someone else had already done, I looked on the Web, where I found on the invaluable V-G Backpacking site two relatively short routes in the Cnicht area of the Moelwyns, one starting from Nantmor, the other from Beddgelert. With a bit of juggling about, I used these to create one linear route beginning at Beddgelert and another one ending there, while the bit in between the two was unplanned. Not very good if rescuers had to find me, perhaps, but the idea was that I would be able to get up into the mountains and do as much or as little as I felt capable of, before returning on a different route to my outward one.
A minor detail was when to go, because a couple of short holidays, a number of meetings to attend and other commitments in August and early September left me without much free time. Eventually I got away on Saturday 19 September, which was only five days after I had returned from a trip to Cornwall, and in those five days I managed to create some route instructions, get all of my kit together and buy the necessities such as food.
One problem resolved before I set off was that of my Thermarest mattress sliding around on my groundsheet in the night. A query I had posted earlier on the Walking Forum drew a response from a bright chap with the username Arenig (North Wales is the location given in his profile) who suggested anti-slip matting. From a choice of products in a hardware store, I selected a 100 cm x 30 cm roll (roughly 39 in x 12 in) for £1.99. When tested in my tent which I hastily erected for the purpose in the garden, it worked a treat, it was as though the mattress was glued to the groundsheet; furthermore it takes up no room in my rucksack and at only 100 gm (3.5 oz) the extra weight is not noticeable.
Leaving home almost in the middle of the day, I arrived at Beddgelert in the early evening, where a good weather forecast for the weekend meant that the Forestry camp site was very full, in fact I drove round and around several times looking for a decent place for my little tent. All the empty spots I checked were either sloping, or stony, or boggy, or too close to other tents. The site had gone downhill in my opinion, for so much of it was currently unusable by me: a large grass area on the south side was filled with identical pre-pitched frame tents, beyond which the track to a bigger grassy area was coned off, while much of the north end of the site was now “Premium Pitches” with electric hook-ups. Coupled with this, the trees and shrubs have become so overgrown in the passing years that they could now do with some thinning out, while there appears to have been little or no work done in this time to improve the existing spots or create new ones. When the light started fading I reluctantly pitched beneath trees on a grassy trackside verge, with a motorhome to one side of me and an unoccupied caravan to the other. I had similar difficulties in finding a decent spot on my last stay here, after my 2007 walk, and for the amount Forest Holidays charge, I expect better, so it is unlikely I will choose this site again, in spite of its good facilities.
During the night there was a light shower, when drips of water from the trees above me were annoyingly loud on my flysheet, while in the morning it was necessary to unpeel a large number of fallen leaves from it. Clear skies were visible beyond my damp and gloomy pitch, with early rays of sun appearing over the edges of the surrounding hills. Feeling slightly dejected at my situation, I made a snap decision to go for a shave and shower straight away, and then get the hell out of here. After swiftly bundling my tent and everything else into the back of my car, I drove out of the still sleepy campsite to a forest car park a mile up the road, where I sat on my folding chair basking in autumn sunshine while eating a leisurely breakfast, with my camping equipment hung for airing and drying on open car doors. To a group of walkers who arrived in their cars before I departed, it must have appeared that I had spent the night here.
When it came to repacking my backpack, I was confronted with the same fear I always experience at this stage, which is that some vital thing needed on my walk might get overlooked, mixed up with the base camp gear and other stuff I was leaving in my car, therefore I always end up nervously checking everything about three times over.
As it was still moderately early, I had no trouble in finding a prime parking position beside the main road in Beddgelert village, from where I set off, crossing first the hump-backed road bridge over the Afon Colwyn and then a footbridge over the Afon Glaslyn just below the confluence of the two rivers. From here I followed a path down the east bank.
After half a mile, the river was spanned by a new bridge carrying the recently rebuilt Welsh Highland Railway, whose track my path now crossed. To me, the amount of new construction work of bridge, railway, paths and crossing gave this rural spot an overdeveloped, almost urban look. Beyond this point, the right of way used to follow the old trackbed along the Pass of Aberglaslyn, going through tunnels on the way, but as these had been restored to use by the railway, the way to go now is along what was formerly known as the Anglers’ Path. This was much more interesting, for it follows the river’s edge, at times going up and down and around rocks above the water, where at one point iron handles have been fixed for the timid to hold onto.
Approaching the main road at Pont Aberglaslyn, the onward route was less clear, for none of the new railway appeared on my 2008 map, while there were no signposts to help either. A group of older walkers were equally unsure; they were headed for Cwm Bychan but I saw them coming back from the path they had followed because it was blocked off. It had been my assumption that there would be a path leading directly to the village of Nantmor, but after a couple of false starts, I found no way around the railway myself, so I warily trod a couple of hundred yards of the dangerously narrow and vergeless A4085 road to get to a minor side turning, along which the village lies.
On a corner where I was going to branch off the little road, I spied a red telephone kiosk, which I used to greet my wife.
“Thought you were on a walk in the mountains?” she asked suspiciously.
“I am, I’m on my way,” I assured her.
To make the call, I used the account number of a phone chargecard that I have had for many years, this was written on my route guide (no point in carrying the card itself); you simply dial your account number followed by a PIN and the number you wish to call. I scarcely use it from one year to another, and it was surprising that it was still active, especially in these days of mobile phones. (Update: it no longer works.) Interestingly, I was never billed for this call.
My way now led me eastwards from the village, crossing gently-rising sheep pastures and open grazing land, before reaching the most minor of lanes, little more than a hard-surfaced track, which climbed to a hilltop farm. Here I needed to go through a gate that led onto more pasture, but to do this I had to pass between a black Welsh highland cow standing on one side, and a large calf on the other. To my great relief, neither did more than stare at me, though I was ready to race the remaining few feet to the gate if either of them moved.
A gentle stroll, at first downhill, took me along the wooded Nanmor valley, till I crossed first the tiny river on a footbridge, and then a little road, on the opposite side of which a footpath continued through oak trees. Now the serious work commenced, for the path climbed increasingly steeply up the hillside flanking the valley. Things eased off a bit when I reached a wall and rounded its outer corner, but here there were large pools of water to be negotiated.
Worse was to come, for the wall had to be left at its highest point, from where it was necessary to climb the flank of Yr Arddu on nothing more than sheep’s tracks through dense heather. The trouble was, there were a number of these faint little ways to follow, so it was constantly difficult to decide which one to take, and climbing it really became, for it was that steep I frequently had to use my hands as well as my feet, grasping the basal stems of heather plants while I hauled myself up, not easy when you are carrying a weighty backpack and with walking poles dangling from their wrist straps.
Up and up I struggled, forever stopping to work out which way was best, until at long last I reached exposed grey rocks which I clambered up to find a small cairn of stones
on a summit that was only 1,266 feet above sea level but after all the effort it seemed double that. In the 360 degrees panorama on this clear afternoon, the first thing my eyes settled on was the cloud-free Snowdon horseshoe, and the second thing was the classic outline of the Nantlle ridge to its left. Continuing anticlockwise, there was the expanse of Tremadoc Bay, with the sea lit up pale gold by the sun, while further round still the rearing summits of Moelwyn Mawr and Moelwyn Bach looked almost close enough to touch. Lastly, there was the majestic bulk of Cnicht, above whose flanks its conical peak at one end pointed skywards. While I rested, I was rather surprised that my efforts so far did not appear to have had any lasting ill effects on me, in fact I felt fine, which is not quite what I had expected.
My next objective was Llyn yr Arddu, which I could see down below me, to the north of where I stood, and this was fairly easy to reach through grass and heather. A faint trod way appeared around the east bank of the lake, and close to the start of this, a flattened square of grass showed that a two-man tent had been pitched here very recently. So engrossed was I with circling the lake that I overshot where I should have branched off, so I had to backtrack before climbing a tiny path through grass and on upwards to pass through a saddle between two minor peaks. Again, I was surprised at the relative ease with which I did this, and at the lack of any real complaint from my legs.
From the top, I looked down onto one of a pair of lakes, Llynnau Cerrig-y-myllt. This was half surrounded by rock faces, and it contained two small rock-and-grass islands. To see the other lake, I left my rucksack behind to climb north-westwards to a ridge to gain a view of where it sits in a heathery hollow.
The question arose of where to go next, for I had more or less completed the first linear leg of my route and was at the start of the unplanned bit, so I was now a free spirit without having to slavishly follow a predetermined route and complete a quantity of miles. I now needed to plan ahead so that I would reach a suitable camping place at the right time of the day. Too early, and I would be hanging around with little to do and getting cold, as well as wasting quality walking time; too late and I would be more worn out, it would be dark while I was trying to eat and the temperature would be dropping. The top of my list of priorities for a tent pitch is water, and as V-G’s route headed around and south-eastwards in the direction of an unnamed lake, I decided I might as well stick with that. Whilst on my way there, I observed that there were a number of trod ways on the grass, none of which were footpaths marked on the map, thus giving some indication of the popularity of the area with hill walkers.
The unnamed lake, which is situated at 1,100 feet above sea level, turned out to be quite shallow, with bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata, growing in it, but I found a near-perfect spot for my tent on grass by its northwest corner; this was level and on a slight rise that made it dryer, while it was sheltered by rocky slopes behind. At the base of the nearest slope were boulders I could sit on while eating, while the openness to the east, across the lake, gave me some chance of receiving sunshine in the morning.
Alas, the hope of morning sunshine did not materialise, for I woke to sounds of my flysheet rustling in a breeze, and looking outside I saw thick grey cloud moving past only a hundred or so feet above me, obscuring every hillside and summit. I dawdled about getting ready, deliberately wasting time, waiting for the cloud to lift, and I even went for about three little strolls, but in all this time the weather did not change one little bit. Staring at a bit of hillside, I would try to convince myself that more of it was becoming visible, that the cloud was thinning, before it undeniably thickened again. The wind itself was quite stiff, it needed sheltering from, but being from the south-west it was not cold.
One of my short walks was to investigate the word “Cave” marked on the map a little to the south of my present position. In an area of shattered rocks, I found a massive flat slab resting on others, so that a low but reasonably sized cavity lay beneath it. The width of the “entrance” had been reduced by blocking it with suitable sized stones, the floor was strewn with dried bracken and the word “Hotel” had been scratched in large letters along one side of the slab. It might once have said “Hell Hotel”, but the first word was heavily scored out. It was such a surprise to me, because I had recently read about this very spot in the July issue of Trail magazine, which contained an illustrated feature by a young female writer/walker who had slept in the cave for a night, allegedly. I think she must have been rather uncomfortable, for she would have been resting on a floor of uneven rocks.
EDIT: I have recently found a similar photo of the cave in Phoebe Smith’s book Wilderness Weekends (Bradt, 2015) and I think she may have been the author of the magazine article I referred to above. There is no way of telling if her picture dates from before or after mine, but in it the slab appears to be inscribed 4⁕ Hotel.
With no sign of any improvement in the weather, I decided I might as well continue with my walk, with the hope that it would get better later on. Walking northwards, I followed the edge of the western flank of Cnicht, until I found a little path climbing in the direction of its ridge. Assuming it to be the path V-G referred to, I followed it upwards, though I couldn’t see exactly where it was taking me, in fact as I climbed I could see very little of anything. All I know is it appeared to be going up one side of a large, fog-filled cwm, beyond which the way twisted up an increasingly steep scree chute where I became forced to proceed with hands on loose rocks as well as my feet, while there was no visibility up or down. Part of me knew that this was absolute folly, I was putting myself in danger, but another part of me was determined not to give up, and anyway it would have been almost as dangerous to try to go back down again.
I was so glad to literally haul myself out onto grass at the top, but here things were not much better, for I was now in dark and wetting cloud that was rushing past me in a stiff wind that made it difficult to walk with ease. Not only that, but to one side of me I could just about make out the dim outline of a huge triangular rock face that I would have to find a way up to reach the mountain’s 2,265 feet summit, which would have to be gained before I could walk north-eastwards down its lengthy ridge. I groaned inwardly, for just here many years previously, I had decided against attempting that scramble, which I remember had big drops below, and then it was in perfect conditions and I was unencumbered by a weighty backpack. It was my fault this time, I had totally misinterpreted the author’s description, blithely assuming his route reached the ridge further along, beyond the summit, when he actually wrote of “climbing steeply through the rocks and passing some day walkers trying to find their way down.”
The only alternative now was to descend the mountain by its well-used route to the south-west, at the foot of which I would be able to gain footpaths going around its east side; in new territory for me, these should prove to be a satisfying walk. However, I soon found that trying to get down a wet and unfamiliar rocky rib in an off-balancing wind and nil visibility was only going to lead me to a wooden box. Getting a little desperate now, I cautiously investigated what might have been a narrow trod way that disappeared down one side of the ridge. I was not sure if it was only a sheep’s path, but I was able to follow it for some way; it definitely seemed to be taking me somewhere, though I knew not where, until I could see with enormous relief that it joined the lower end of the scree-filled channel that I had laboriously and riskily climbed earlier.
The mist became less dense as my altitude decreased, but at one point I still managed to lose the path I had trod previously, not that this mattered greatly as it was all such easy going now, in comparison with what I had just experienced, and anyway I soon refound the path lower down. A decision needed to be made on where to go next. I most certainly did not want to climb any more today, and while it was nice to be able to see something of my surroundings I did not want to descend too much, which would bring me too far out of the mountains and closer to “civilisation”. My solution was to make my way towards a wall that I could then follow north-eastwards for some way to reach another lake, Llyn Llagi.
When I reached the wall, it had no path beside it but the grass was not too long, and it would have been quite reasonable going were it not for the fact there was a steady ascent for about three-quarters of a mile. Conditions were none too pleasant, either, what with the clouds close at hand, every single blade of grass, every stone and even me beaded with water droplets, and a continual strong breeze, mercifully from behind me. I would not say I was disliking it, but I cannot say I was enjoying it, either, and I was beginning to feel as if I was walking to get somewhere out of necessity, rather than for pleasure. Oh, dear! Was I showing my age? How would I have felt if this was happening ten or twenty years ago? Would I have shrugged my shoulders and ignored it, keen to carry on, or would I have been wondering if I should quit? Perhaps my lack of a planned circuit to complete had removed some of the essence of the trip. These were some of the thoughts that were going through my head.
After entering the clouds again for a depressing while, I reached a point where the land fell steeply away in front of me, and I was looking down on the almost circular lake. The shoulder-height wall continued right into the edge of the water, and I had no choice but to cross over it, for sheer cliffs prevented any way around my side of the lake. It was rather surprising that there was no ladder stile, for surely others must find themselves on this side of the wall. Selecting a point where it was a fraction lower and had projecting rocks on which I could get toeholds, I hoisted my rucksack onto its flat top before clambering up and over, taking care to avoid a single strand of rusty barbed wire.
All that was necessary now was to cross open grassland to reach a well-used path that ran roughly westwards past the north of the lake and descended to the old Nanmor lane. I shared this with a large group of geology students on their way down to their transport at the end of their day in the hills. The path seemed interminably long, far more than its length on the map, and some parts were extremely wet and boggy. At the lane, another footpath on the far side continued in the same direction as before, though this was less well used and it lacked signposts, so much map reading and a little guesswork were necessary to find the route.
It was now late afternoon, the time of day I must be on the lookout for somewhere to camp for the night. Water was the most important thing, as usual, and there was not a lot of it in this area; so far I had only seen boggy mires or near-dry drainage channels. Next in importance would be shelter from the wind, and thirdly, somewhere that would not flood, for with the clouds getting heavier and darker, it was clear that the wind would be bringing rain. Finally, there were three or more farm buildings and cottages in view far away, and, distant though these may have been, I wanted to be out of their sight.
The best pitch I could find was in rough but level grass in a sort of corner below two small slopes. It was in the lee of a small plantation of lofty conifer trees, while there were a couple of large boulders for sitting on, but I had to walk a short distance to a little stream to fill my water carrier. As dusk approached, ragged gaps in the inky clouds revealed a glowing pink colour cast by the setting sun on the underside of another layer of clouds above them, creating a very stormy-looking sky the like of which I had not seen for a very long time. While I sat in the twilight eating a dinner pack, I was entertained by a larger than average bat swooping around above my head. Reflecting on the walk so far, I was both surprised and a little puzzled that my body was still not feeling any ill effects, especially considering some of the climbing I had done this time. Why was I OK now when last year I felt so physically beaten? Was it really just the lesser mileage, or was there more to it than that?
The anticipated rain arrived some part of the way through the night, and was still coming down when I got up, which I had delayed for as long as I could. It was not too heavy, but it was persistent, and putting on full waterproofs was necessary. When my chores were out of the way, I loitered for some time under just my flysheet, with everything else including the inner tent packed away. Eventually tiring of lying around reading, I wanted to be on the move again, and so I got going.
Not very far to the south-west, it had been my original intention to turn left off the footpath and up pathless slopes in order to traverse three summits ranging from 980 feet to 1250 feet, and then to descend via Cwm Bychan to Pont Aberglaslyn. Did I want a long uphill slog through pathless heather in this rain, I asked myself in my head? No, was my answer. Did I want to be up on some tops in the mist, unable to see much? No. Where the rain would be harder? No. And walking into the wind? Definitely no. But only a little further along, I saw a very narrow little path going up the hillside through the heather, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to see where it went. Initially, I was brushing past plants of bog myrtle, Myrica gale, whose sharp perfume from the leaves lingered on my trouser legs, but the way must have been a sheep’s path, for after leading over a rounded hill it petered out and disappeared on its way down towards a cwm. Oh, well, at least I tried.
Back on the public footpath, the remainder of it took me down to the shore of Llyn Dinas, prior to which I passed through a patch of woodland, whose trees hid a picturesque ruined stone house and outbuildings that were green with ferns and moss. I also passed a flat rock resting on two others near the path, but I was uncertain if it was of any archaeological significance; to me it looked too small to be a cromlech.
A wide path, later a lane, led all the way from the lake to Beddgelert, along which discarded plastic bottles and confectionery wrappers reminded me that I was now in tourist territory. But the rain had ceased and the sky was brightening, in fact the sun was shining by the time I stopped by a stream for a lunch break. This was much better, and my reflections during the remaining mile were that perhaps I should have stayed up in the hills under my flysheet until the weather cleared, and then continued with my original plan, which would have been far preferable. But of course it was easy to think that now, when in fact I had no way then of telling when it would stop raining. What was a fact was that I had accomplished this short walk with ease, including some stiff climbs that earlier I would have doubted I was capable of, I still felt fit and well at the end of it, and I most certainly wanted to do another backpack in North Wales in the future, but probably with a return to following a predetermined circuit, while most definitely without any near-vertical bits!
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