2010, The Arans from Llanuwchllyn

As my age increases, my annually renewed urge to go backpacking again is treated by my inner self with mild surprise and even suspicion, followed by much self questioning to check that I am really sure. The cautious side of me wonders, how will I feel about all of that climbing, carrying a load, will it be too much for me? Will I be able to cope with cold and rain? For the past four months there had not been much of either of the latter in the South East, so I had forgotten what they were like. The devil-may-care side of me won, as usual, telling me what an adventure it would be.

Anyway, I was more or less committed because after a long spell of not spending anything, I suddenly discovered I could more than easily afford the new top of the range pair of walking boots I desired, so I couldn’t not go, could I? Before my cautious side made me change my mind, I bought all the food and other bits and pieces I would need, and I sprayed fresh waterproofing on my tent flysheet and both sides of the groundsheet. For a route, I decided I would copy “The Main Ridge of the Arans”, a 26 miles circuit from Graham Uney’s book “Backpacker’s Britain Volume 2: Wales” (2004, Cicerone). After all, this was one of the few mountain areas of Snowdonia that I had yet to walk fully: I had crossed a col on the southern end of the ridge and experienced appalling rain in 1990, I had walked from Llanuwchllyn up to Aran Benllyn and back in hazy conditions in 1997, while an optional extension to add the south-east of the Arans area to my 2008 Dovey Hills walk was not attempted.

When I was due to go, which was in the second week of September, unwelcome weather fronts were making their way across the Atlantic towards western Britain, causing me to constantly check meteorological reports, but my departure date was set in stone because I had booked my part-time job off, and I had an appointment to keep the following week. After leaving home halfway through the Monday morning, I was pleased to find every road fairly empty, even including the usually jammed stretch of the M6 through Birmingham.

My pre-decided campsite for the night was ideally situated on the edge of Llanuwchllyn village, from where my walk was to start, but for me the site failed to match its website description or its online reviews. The owner’s house had a bit of paper stuck on the door, giving a phone number for enquiries, but I decided to go ahead and pitch my tent anyway. A drive led past a small area of hard standing with electric hook ups, this was occupied by half a dozen touring caravans and motorhomes. Below the left of the drive was the utility block, which looked like a converted barn, where although clean the gents contained just two urinals and two tiny, cold-water-only hand basins, one WC with a hot-and-cold hand basin, one shower cubicle, and that was all. Beyond the hard standing area was an extensive grass field with a solitary tent on one side of it. Down by a river and out of view, were half a dozen portaloos standing like sentry boxes. Stretched entirely along the right-hand side of the site were an unattractive collection of sheds and buildings of the Bala Lake Railway terminus, but this is where I placed my little tent, by a small tree that gave a slight bit of shelter from the breeze.

By the time I was ready to walk to the village pub to eat and drink, continuous heavy rain was falling. The pub was a bit stark inside, with bare white walls, and it was quiet on such a wet night, but the food was good and they had the local Glaslyn beer. On my return, with rain still pouring, I somehow managed to trip and tumble, and knock the top of my head on a concrete post. I insist it was nothing to do with the beer, for I’d only had two pints. If I could do this on a pavement, I wondered, what was I going to be like up in the mountains? Viewing myself in the washroom mirror back on the campsite, I saw that I now had red hair, which I dried with a wad of toilet paper. Not a very good start to my trip, but at least there was no pain. (No sense, no feeling, as the old saying goes.) A shower the following morning restored my hair to its normal colour, after which I was able to forget about the problem.

The rain ceased by bedtime, leaving star-filled heavens, but the morning sky consisted of moving grey clouds, from which spattered occasional light raindrops. Nothing was going to get aired before I left. By leaning to one side of my tent I could see the dark lower slopes of the Arans ridge disappearing into the murk above. My breakfast was made more interesting by a steam locomotive being prepared for its day’s work right in front of me. Contrary to my assumption at the time that it was of relatively modern construction, I have since learned from the Bala Lake Railway website that this particular loco was made in 1903 for use in the Dinorwic Slate Quarry. Meanwhile, a friendly man motored across the field and relieved me of seven pounds for my night’s camping.

Day 1

When I was finally packed up, I drove a short distance to a little parking area at the side of the main road in the middle of the village, where I had left my car similarly in 2006. I felt it would be safer here than in the rather isolated walkers’ car park by Pont y Pandy at the end of the village, nevertheless I carefully positioned it with the tailgate practically touching a wire fence and hedge. Although it was now halfway through the morning, there was scarcely a soul about as I marched along the road with my poles and backpack, and as I turned onto a track that headed southwards towards the Arans ridge, a postman calling at the corner house was the last person I would see till late that afternoon.

The track made its way up through green, sheep grazed pastures, with views of Bala Lake receding behind me, till shortly a footpath branched off to the right. This curved around the far side of a little hill and, soon passing the 1,000 feet mark, climbed steadily up the ridge. There was little evidence of the blustery winds that had been forecast, but showers there were aplenty, with scarcely a pause between the end of one and the start of the next one, and even the odd rumble of thunder, therefore I kept my waterproofs on permanently. As a consequence I sweltered, for while it may have been wet the wind was from the south so the weather was also quite warm (and it remained so for the whole of my walk). On the plus side, I looked down onto any number of rainbows that formed in the long valley on my right, the west, where they poised themselves above green and brown slopes with the black silhouettes of the Arenig mountains beyond them.

One thing I had noticed in my planning stage was that much of the Arans area lacked Wales’ usual abundance of streams and pools, so when after much uphill walking I felt the need for a lunch break, it was a while before I found somewhere suitable. The mantra in my head became, “The first decent bit of water I come across, I’m stopping!” This wasn’t possible until I reached a little lake beside the path on the ridge top at something like 2,700 feet above sea level. Fortunately the showers had by now receded, so I was able to enjoy a well-earned rest.

A few hundred yards further on I clambered up to the 2,901 ft summit of Aran Benllyn, from where I marvelled at the currently clear views around me; I could even make out the peak of Snowdon on the horizon far to the north. Experimenting with my digital camera, I attempted making a panoramic video. The results were too fast, extremely jerky, and rather disturbingly a heavy breather can be heard in the background!

Beyond Benllyn the ridge continues southwards towards Aran Fawddwy which is 68 feet higher than the former, though there are a few ups and downs in the intervening mile-and-a-bit. I passed huge slopes that drop off to the east and below which sits Creiglyn Dyfi, the lake that is the source of the River Dovey, but here there was a combination of ragged clouds drifting across the summit of Fawddwy and larger masses billowing up from the cwm below. An oversized, parallel-sided cairn is perched on the slopes above a big drop; I attempted to capture a couple of dramatic photos, but with my vertigo I was scared of going anywhere near the edge.

Just before the final summit of Aran Fawddwy, which was reasonably clear at the time I reached it, there is a little dip with a ladder stile and an old wall, beyond which the way goes exceedingly steeply up rocks. Climbing only about a dozen feet up, I decided it was a bit risky with my large pack, so instead I contoured around the west side of the peak and turned back to the top via easier slopes from the south. An “Oh my God!” drop on the far side made me scurry quickly back down again. From this point I was supposed to ignore the main path and “skirt around some cliffs to a narrow ridge” where there is a memorial to a RAF Mountain Rescue Team member aged 18 who died there in 1960 after being struck by lightning, and a visitor’s book in a tin box. Much as I would have liked to have seen these, clouds were rolling back up from below me to obscure everything, leaving me with no idea of which way I should go, as well as denying me the chance of previewing the route from above so that I could decide if I was capable of it. Perhaps this was just as well, for I felt rather apprehensive about further instructions which referred to “handrailing” around the rim of some cliffs. It was not a risk I was going to take, so I continued safely on the main path down the ridge. Looking back at the mountaintop as I left, I saw that it was once again covered by cloud, so I had been very lucky with the clear interlude.

During the long descent which followed a wire fence south-westwards from Aran Fawddwy, a problem with my boots needed addressing. Overall they were quite comfortable and my feet were less tired, while the superb grip of the soles compared to my worn old ones increased my confidence. However, the joints on the tops of my toes were pressing painfully against the underside of the toecap, most particularly when walking downhill. The obvious remedy was to tighten the lacing, to hold my feet and ankles more firmly in place. This hadn’t been necessary with my old boots, which had become moulded to my feet and fitted me like gloves even when loosely laced. Tightening my new boots certainly helped, but the problem did not entirely go away. Although the boots are long enough, with the tips of my toes not touching the ends, and the width is good, it is as if there is insufficient height inside the toecap, something I am currently going to have to find a solution to, starting with seeking the advice of a good cobbler.

Quite late in the afternoon I was surprised to meet a tall young man making his way up the path towards me with walking poles but carrying minimal equipment, . This was the first person I had seen all day, since the postman back at Llanuwchllyn. Greeting each other, we swapped details of our routes, and off he strode. By now I was thinking ahead for somewhere to pitch my tent for the night, and lack of water was again a concern (though at the time I completely failed to notice that streams are shown on my map, fairly close by and running parallel with my route). I looked down on what appeared to be two pools in the distance ahead of me, but as I neared them they turned out to be white quartz outcrops. A small lake far to my right was genuine, but long before I got closer to this I found a little one in a hollow area on my left. It was rather boggy around it, and after much searching for a dry spot, I settled on a flat-topped little hillock at the back where there was a nice level grassy spot for my tent and next to it a rock ledge of perfect proportions to use as a seat.

Day 2

With a sun and cloud morning and mild temperature, I was out of my sleeping bag an hour earlier than usual, and as soon as the dew evaporated I used a line of old fenceposts to air my sleeping bag and dry my still damp waterproofs. When I was eventually ready to leave, I made my way back up to the ridgetop path where I continued my journey south-westwards. Rhobell Fawr and Dduallt, both of which I had climbed in 2006, were easily distinguishable a little over four-and-a-half miles to the north-west; to the left of these was the unmistakable outline of the Rhinogs, almost twelve miles distant; the dark ridge of Cadair Idris rose nine miles to the south-west, with the Mawddach estuary to its right, while not much more than three miles away was the scarp edge of the Dovey Hills, along which I had walked just two years ago.

On a wide and boggy area, a lengthy line of planks had been laid to aid progress; I suppose the alternative would have been extensive erosion, but as I approached the col where a public footpath runs up from Cwm Cywarch, what I found unnecessary and irksome were little direction signs tacked onto fence posts. This was becoming like the Lake District! Two plastic-protected notices on the fence announced that the adjoining land was to become a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) but after reading through these I was none the wiser; it would have been of greater interest if the information included why it merited becoming one. It was around here that I met another walker heading towards me. We shared a brief exchange, after which I cautiously enquired about his mid-Atlantic accent, to learn that, originally from Birmingham, he had been living and working in New York for the last twenty years.

Twenty years ago it was that I had spent a night in my tent somewhere by the footpath in the col here, though I now barely recognised the area when I reached it. My way today went straight up a steep hill in front of me, following a faintly trod path beside the fence, and steep it certainly was, needing many pauses to catch my breath. After the slope had eased off a little, the trod way mysteriously terminated at a crossing fence. Perhaps walkers had continued up some scree ahead, but I contoured around to the north on what appeared to be nothing more than a sheep’s path. A change of course and a little climbing on pathless grass brought me to a huge pointed cairn that stands on the summit of 2,557 ft Glasgwm, a little below which the sun sparkled on the blue water of Llyn y Fign, while all around a glorious panorama of hills stretched away into the distance.

Continuing south-westwards down the broad ridge from here, and still following the same fence, I descended towards an area of conifer forest whose edge I was supposed to follow in order to reach a bare hill beyond it, and after the summit of this I was to return on forestry tracks. However, I could see from a distance that not only had over fifty percent of the forest been felled, leaving acres of dead branches and disturbed ground, but this was taking place right now, though “felled” is perhaps not the right word, for men in machines appeared to be either ripping the trees out of the ground, or pushing them over.

With no desire to enter that morass, where any tracks would be obliterated and unwalkable, not to mention dangerous, my hastily worked out “Plan B” was to walk in the opposite direction around the forest’s boundary till I found the point where the track exited it. Aided by a sheep’s path that followed the fence, this proved to be fairly straightforward, and after stopping for a lunch break by a little stream that ran down the slopes, I reached the track at a col. From here, a public footpath led on to descend into Cwm Cywarch. The broad and stony path, perhaps an old quarry track, dropped extremely steeply in zigzags down the mountainside; the views of the cwm and the eastern face of the Arans might have been spectacular, but the angle of descent made my progress extremely slow and painful.

It was late afternoon when I reached the tiny lane that runs up the cwm, and once again the prospect arose of where to camp for the night. My planned route was to walk up the lane a little before striking off north-eastwards on a long straight path that gently climbed a hillside into the mountains. The principal problem here was that there was no water along this path, while it was also rather exposed (I had earlier looked down on it from afar, when I was coming down Aran Fawddwy) and it was a popular route, which would increase the possibility of me being disturbed in the morning. Studying my map, I saw that further to the south there was a parallel path, which followed a minor valley, Cwm Terwyn. This contained a stream, it led to roughly the same destination, a summit named Waun Goch, and it should be less used.

Although my map showed a public footpath that would take me to Cwm Terwyn, it was plain that no-one wanted it to be used. At the corner where I wanted to branch off, a prominent footpath sign pointed the way up the main path, while there was nothing other than a little stile hidden in the undergrowth to indicate the way I wanted to go, and this was how it continued, with no trod way across grazing fields and only a very occasional old post or stile, so that I came to feel like an interloper. On the far side of one field were my dread, namely cattle, a couple of which rose to their feet when they spotted me. One of these looked like a bull, but they lost interest when I changed course slightly to put some trees between us, while I prayed I was not going to meet any others. Eventually reaching the foot of Cwm Terwyn, I was relieved to spot a recent ‘Access Land’ badge on a ladder stile, past which I knew there could be no argument about rights of way.

Beyond some trees around the stream, some new posts bearing footpath arrows (but no path!) indicated the way across a plank bridge, on the downstream side of which was the only flat bit of grass that I was likely to find for my tent. This was a bit close to the noise of the running water for my liking, but the edge of the bridge was a perfect sitting place, and it turned out to be a good spot for wildlife, too, for later a hen pheasant pottered past unhurriedly on the far bank, a very small frog hopped onto the bridge and as the light faded two bats zapped back and forth above me.

Day 3

The sound of the water proved not to disturb me, and I woke to another sun and cloud morning, perhaps more cloudy than the preceding one but nevertheless I again successfully aired everything on a wire fence. When I left, the path up the cwm turned out to be an absolute slog, for its drawn-out climb was worse than I had anticipated while its length was thick with rushes through which sheep and perhaps the occasional human had forced a way; the steepness of the slope it crossed ruled out walking along either side of it. Thus it took me over an hour to reach the head of the valley, from where I continued northwards on a compass bearing across pathless moorland, still ascending to the broad and featureless mound of 1,984 ft Waun Goch. With hindsight, I would have done myself a favour if I had now headed to the west, where I could have joined the originally planned path out of Cwm Cywarch that would lead me to my next objective, the 2,398 ft summit of Drysgol. Instead I carried on northwards with the aim of reaching a fence shown on the map, only to find myself in an extensive area of peat hags and wet mires around which I had to thread my way extremely carefully. I was watched from some distance by a farmer who was engaged in hammering in a fencepost; he must have thought I was mad, and perhaps he would have been right. Had it been at all misty at this point, just enough to prevent me seeing where I was heading, I would most definitely have given up my walk right then.

When reached and followed, the fence soon converged with the well trod path up to Drysgol, and I was made glad I hadn’t opted to come up that route by the sight and the sound of a group of a dozen young teens making their way up behind me, with their leader shouting to those lagging behind. However, while toiling up this hill I found I was getting slower and slower; the morning’s exertions had taken their toll on me, and I was already quite tired. At this point I made a decision to skip the climbs over the next two summits. Instead I would turn northwards to drop down into the valley ahead of me, to the east of which I could join earlier than planned a lengthy footpath that ran northwards all the way back to Llanuwchllyn.

Initially the way down to Llaethnant, which is the upper reach of the River Dovey, was painfully steep, but I persevered, picking the easiest ways until I reached gentler slopes. A quite followable sheep’s path ran along my side of the river for over a mile, to a point where I could cross over and head northwards up the side of a smaller valley. Here I basked on rocks in sunshine during a leisurely lunch break, watching a dipper hopping downstream from stone to stone, as well as a group of birds that I was convinced were peregrines, soaring and diving with anchor silhouettes above the hills to my right. A while later, I was treated to the spectacle of a large number of sheep being driven along the far slopes by just two dogs and four men, whose energy seemed boundless; one young chap in particular was wearing a jumper and had a coat tied round his waist, he must have been so hot, but one minute he was clambering down the steep slopes on my side of the ravine-like side valley, to deter any wayward animals that had crossed the stream, then after I had blinked I refound him charging up the incline on the other side, whirling his coat in the air to round up some others. Their passing must have taken less than ten minutes; how far they had come and how far they had yet to go I do not know, but I watched absolutely spellbound.

Lunch over, I easily crossed the river without getting wet, and climbed up to the visible scar of the footpath on the other side. For some distance this was a pleasant track that later narrowed to a little green path across grassland that was surrounded by rounded hills and had fine views of the rocky east face of the Arans ridge. The path became less distinct, though, and when I had reached the top of the impressively deep Cwm Ddu it had dwindled to little more than a sheep’s trod. Perhaps I missed the correct way, but I found myself contouring at a considerable height on an incredibly steep hillside above the cwm, with barely more than four inches width to place my feet. Feeling increasingly uneasy, I finally took action when the path was fit for nothing bigger than a rabbit and a loose divot slipped under my boot, though my painstakingly slow descent from here to the valley floor far below seemed equally fraught with danger.

Passing an attractive but boarded up old farm, Cwm-ffynnon, I followed a track that ended abruptly on the edge of a huge, recently mowed field on which there was no sign of any path. Continuing in the direction of the footpath shown on my map, I was halfway across when I spotted black cattle ahead. I refuse to go near cattle, so a ninety degrees turn to my left brought me to a stony farm track that headed the way I wanted, and from here on all was plain sailing. I was able to get into a good walking rhythm along a tarmac lane, that was broken only while I made a fuss of friendly sheepdogs at two separate farms, then later on I left the lane for footpaths and tracks that terminated at Pont y Pandy, from where I had started three mornings ago.

Although it was now early evening, I did not particularly want to use the local campsite again, so I drove to the north of Bala where I spent the night on an absolutely superb Camping & Caravanning Club site. Rain poured all night and during the following morning, when my suspicions were confirmed that my flysheet was leaking; the seams at the apex of the bell end needed sealing. The weather pattern for the following few days was sunshine and very heavy showers, so I think I timed my walk just right.

Post-Walk:

Driving next day the relatively short distance to Cheshire, I pitched our big tent, in which I can stand up and there is room to move about, on a quiet campsite where I spent a couple of days recuperating, visiting gardens and nurseries by day, and in the evenings dining and sampling local beer in the pub that was a ten minutes walk up the road; my favourite was a summer ale called Dizzy Blonde, though when I returned home and told my other half I had enjoyed a few dizzy blondes while I was away, I was in trouble!

So, what were my feelings about this year’s walk? Superb scenery and views, I was lucky with the weather, the load carrying was no problem, in fact I was far more comfortable with it than I used to be on my early trips, but there was more climbing this time than I would have liked. I actually took with me details of an alternative, low-level walk in case the weather was abysmal, and at times I found myself wishing I had done that one instead. It was rather telling that Graham Uney did his walk in two days, whereas it took me three days, and it slightly worries me to find that my average speed works out at less than one-and-a-half miles an hour. Perhaps I’ll do that low one next year, though I wouldn’t mind having another crack at the Carneddau….

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