2011, The Moelwyns from Dolwyddelan

This year I had no doubts at all about going backpacking again in Snowdonia in September. No qualms, no uncertainty, no fears, I was going, full stop. In fact I started thinking about it several months beforehand, with two or three areas in mind, although I did not actually decide on a route till a couple of weeks before my expected departure date. A new sleeping bag had also been bought to replace my past-its-best old one that was not quite warm enough when I camped in May. With the quick drying properties of a new synthetic one compared to the old down one, I no longer needed to be quite so neurotic about getting it damp. A compression bag squashed it to almost the size of the old one, but it was a bit heavier, although during my walk I did not really notice any difference in the weight I carried. Other fresh items were a new compact camera that replaced my four-years-old one that had died on me, and a new battery shaver whose predecessor was more years old than I can remember.

My walk was a complete steal from Graham Uney’s book Backpacker’s Britain, while I also found trip reports of similar routes on the V-G Backpacking website. I had in fact walked some of it ten years earlier, but in the opposite direction. Graham completed his walk in two days; I was going to allow up to three and a half days.

Around the second week of September is my preferred time to go, but as my globetrotting wife had booked one of her archaeological tours for the middle of that month, I made plans to go at the start of the month instead. Unfortunately the weather in Wales was absolutely appalling then, with much heavy rain and gales, so I postponed my trip till the end of the month in lieu. This turned out to be my good fortune, for there was a late autumn heatwave with record-breaking temperatures.

So, on the last Wednesday in the month, I left home at 11:00 am, with all the time in the world, and enjoyed an easy drive to North Wales. From the A5 between Cerrigydrudion and Pentrefoelas, a mouth-watering vista of the highest peaks of Snowdonia could be seen on the skyline ahead, the like of which I have never observed before because they are usually hidden by clouds or haze.

Continuing as far as Betws-y-Coed, I bought a couple of last-minute items, one of which was a stainless steel mirror to replace the one my old battery shaver had in its case, and while I was there I couldn’t resist topping up my depleted liquid reserves in The Stables bar, before returning to the A470 to drive a further 5 miles to Dolwyddelan.

With my walk to start from this village, my pre-chosen camp site for the night was in the shadow of Dolwyddelan Castle at Bryn Tirion, another half a mile along the road. I was not sure what to expect, for I had found only scant details of it online and it was not listed in the UK Campsite website. It turned out to be adequate for my needs, only £5 per night and I was the only person using it, although I did share the field with a large number of sheep. That evening at the quiet local pub, Y Gwydyr, I dined on Welsh black cattle burger, which was not only very tasty but also gave me a feeling of revenge as I am not fond of the animals when they are alive.

Day 1

Soon down at the village in the morning, I parked my car by the last house on the road to the station. Seeing a curtain twitch while I was getting ready to set off, I took the opportunity to cheekily tap on the front door and ask the lady of the house not to worry that my car would be there for three days, thus ensuring that an eye would be kept on it.

The small settlement was quickly left behind, and soon I was traversing a sloping green meadow. Heading down the footpath towards me was a group of ten teenagers carrying big rucksacks who, I learned, were doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s award. They brightened up when I told them they were only ten minutes away from civilisation, particularly the girls on hearing there was a public toilet, but it seemed they were not allowed to go in the shop. Further along my way I passed two more similar groups, but I was unsure whether the first of these was comprised of Brits or Europeans.
“Are you English?” I innocently asked.
“No,” replied one of the girls, “We’re from Cardiff.”

The next couple of miles were on wide forestry tracks, gently climbing all the while in the direction of the rocky ridge of Moel Siabod that loomed above the trees to the north-west. There was even a finger-post pointing the way at a junction. However, the final stretch of forest was currently being felled, evident initially by Keep Out signs which I ignored and the noise of machinery. At a big churned up area where contractors’ vehicles were parked, the track split, leaving me unsure which way to go. Two walkers had appeared behind me, so I hung back and let them overtake me. They looked as if they knew where they were going, and I was happy to follow them. There was so much in the way of cut conifer branches obliterating the hillside that I should be really grateful to those two guys, for I definitely would not have found the route otherwise. At one point the three of us were held back by a friendly Welsh forestry worker while a tree was brought down. But the other two walked much faster than me because they were younger and fitter, and weren’t weighted down with big packs, so when I reached the bank of a tumbling stream where the continuation of path was not clear to me, they were now out of sight. Reading the landscape I knew that Llyn y Foel, the lake that sits in a big hollow below Moel Siabod, had to be somewhere on the other side of the crest above me, so I made my own way around and up pathless terrain, and sure enough I emerged at the lake’s western end.

During my leisurely lunch break by the shore I saw any number of walkers appear on the path up from Capel Curig, which passed on the far side of the lake. It was going to be busy at the top. The well trod path climbed this way and that through rocks at the base of Daear Ddu, the east ridge of the mountain. With my heavy load I found this hard work in the windless heat, but information I had read earlier indicated that you could use different ways to make it as hard or as easy as you liked. My easiest-of-all way was to omit the ridge altogether and climb the green slopes on the far side of it, in fact I eventually contoured about 100 metres below the 872m summit and kept going till I reached the broad grassy ridge that descends on its western side. This brought me onto Moel Gid, from where it was a very pleasant amble in the afternoon sunshine down to the col at Bwlch Rhiw’r ychen.

At this point my guide-book warns that “careful navigation is needed now in anything but the best weather”. This had puzzled me when I read it, because I had passed this way on a previous occasion and I could remember nothing particularly difficult about it. It was now apparent, however, that the path turns a few corners close to some almighty drops down cliffs to the twin lakes of Llynau Diwaunydd, something I was blissfully unaware of in thick mist last time! Today, a solitary person could be seen trying out the stepping-stones where the two water bodies joined way down below me; this happened to be my last sight of a human for twenty-four hours.

Continuing southwards from the col, the path climbed 80 metres or so and squeezed around the end of a little tarn close to the 591 metre summit of Carnedd y Cribau. Nant Gwynant was almost out of sight below me, the sun was soon to disappear behind the bulk of the Snowdon Horseshoe opposite me, while on its right the upper end of the Llanberis Pass was already in shadow. To the right of the pass from where I stood was the “wrong” side of the Glyders (better viewed from the north) and further along still were the southern summits of the Carneddau. Above the pool and just to one side of Carnedd y Cribau’s summit there was a level area of fairly dry grass sheltered by a wall of exposed rock. A more perfect place for my tent would be hard to find, provided I did not sleepwalk in the direction of cliffs that were on the other side of the grass.

Day 2

A cloudless sky and heat got me up early in the morning, when I found that the new battery shaver gave me a surprisingly close shave, especially compared with the old one. I was so delighted with this particular spot that I was reluctant to leave it, but I still had a lot of walking to do. The long descent southwards off the mountain, to first Bwlch Maen Pig and then Bwlch y Rhediad, was harder and slower than I had imagined, with not much in the way of a path, many boggy parts and many steep bits, some of which I had to find a way around rather than down. From the last bwlch there followed a long and gentle climb on a slightly more used path up to Moel Meirch, but along the way were some really wet areas; the worst of these could be bypassed with the help of some thoughtfully placed ladder stiles that enabled access to dryer ground.

Lunch was due by the time I reached the large body of Llyn Edno, but here an unpleasant breeze was funneling across the water, forcing me to shelter behind the end of an ancient stone wall. South of the lake the path climbed to follow the ridge of Ysgafell Wen, on one of whose three peaks I briefly spotted two figures silhouetted against the sky. More small lakes were passed, including below me the three Dog Lakes, Llynnau’r Cwn, which I visited in my walks of 1982 and 1985. South of here my planned route included a diversion to the southwest to the summit of Cnicht, which was plainly visible on the skyline, with the waters of Tremadog Bay just about discernible beyond it. There and back by a slightly different route would have been about two miles each way. However, with many miles of my walk still to cover I was anxious about completing it on time, so I decided to omit this. In the event, the good weather helped me to finish the walk in less time than I expected, and with hindsight I sincerely regret not having included it. In addition to adding to the adventure, to have done so would have helped build my mental jigsaw of how the different parts of the landscape known to me all fitted together.

On my way southeastwards now, the wildness of the terrain continued, with nothing but exposed rocks, windblown rough grass and small lakes in all directions, little of which I had seen in concealing mist when I walked here in 2001. Passing the unnamed lake where I had spent a night then, I found the spot where I had pitched my tent, although I now scarcely recognised it. From this lake, I followed a faint little path, not much more than a sheep’s track, that contoured all around the north of the 698 metre summit of Allt-fawr. It is marked on the 1:25,000 map though not as a public footpath. This brought me onto a grassy ridge high above the small cwm in which Llyn Iwerddon lies at 550m. This former quarry reservoir is unusual in having dam walls along two of its sides. After descending the steep slope down to it, I found a good pitch for my tent on level grass by the outlet stream, though there was so little flow I was unable to take water from it; I had to walk back round the dam to the lake and fill my water carrier instead.

Day 3

In the morning, occasional noises of machinery and banging indicated that there was Saturday overtime at Blaenau Ffestiniog’s vast Gloddfa Ganol state quarry, whose ugly presence was mercifully out of sight way below my present position. A very faint path, probably another sheep’s way, went steeply downhill beside the outlet stream though it disappeared after a while, leaving me to work out my own route. My objective was plain to see, nevertheless, it was a stone turret-like structure sitting on top of a large mound of scree. This was in fact an air shaft for the railway from Betwys-y-Coed to Blaenau that runs in a tunnel far beneath. From there a grass access track runs straight down to the A470 road, passing some old slate fences on the way. I must confess to some confusion as to exactly where I would reach the road, because I had just changed from one map to another. It took me a while to realise that not one but two air shafts are shown near the edge of the second map, and I was looking at the wrong one.

In each of the three trip reports of this route on the V-G Backpacking website, the comment is made that a barbed wire fence along the far side of the road prevents access to the land beyond it. On two occasions the author struggled over the fence at a car park half a mile to the north (where I am informed a ladder stile has since been installed) while on the third and most recent he walked southwards down the road to a five bar gate, which is probably the one I used in 2001. Now, however, almost opposite where the green track reaches the road, there was currently a construction site with the start of a brand new access road that currently ran as far as the foot of the hills. Two young men had parked a car and were looking around, one of them using a video camera. The one I spoke to was so Welsh that he struggled to find some of the English words, but I learned that they were viewing the progress of what was going to be a large biking centre, and they were very enthusiastic about the benefits it was going to bring to the area. It must be remembered that this was taking place just inside the edge of the circle around Blaenau Ffestiniog that is not included in the national park, thus planning regulations would be less strict.

So there was no barbed wire, all I had to do was enter a gate and walk up the new bit of road, although beyond this it was a little struggle up pathless slopes made worse by the land not having been sheep grazed, to reach a col by the south side of Moel Farlwyd. The going was less hard once I reached terrain that was more level, where I headed in the direction of Llynnau Barlwyd Reservoirs. However, I became rather disorientated in this area and for the first time on this walk I had to check with my compass. The reason was that I had imagined a more-or-less continuous ridge running west to east, consisting of Moel Farlwyd, Moel Penamnen and Foel-fras, but in fact the gap between the two Moels was large enough to look like an open-ended valley running between them, and that was the direction I thought I should be going. Without checking, I would have walked northwards around the side of Moel Farlwyd, mistakenly thinking this was the west-east line of hills.

A surprise awaited me when I reached a low rise overlooking the larger, lower reservoir, for it had been drained, leaving an expansive shallow muddy basin. Why this had been done I have yet to find out. I was able to take a short cut across its southern end where the ground was more or less firm and grasses were already growing. Contouring on sheep’s paths around the base of Moel Penamnen (the footpath shown on the map does not exist on the ground) I reached a point where I found a faint path up which I toiled to the top. A narrow trod way continued the whole length of the broad grassy ridge until the far end of Foel-fras was reached, where I had to descend really steeply towards a path that followed the upper boundary of the forested Cwm Penamnen. A tiny pool offered the water I needed for a lunch break, but when I settled myself down I found myself sinking into the wet ground, so I abandoned the idea. Carrying on along the edge of the forest for some distance northwards, I finally stopped at a similar pool that had a dry bit of heather-clad higher ground close to it.

If I had wanted I could have taken a path that descended into the cwm for the most direct route back to Dolwyddelan, but I continued around its rim, where great views across its depth included the bulk of Moel Siabod on the skyline beyond it, for I was nearing the end of my circular route. My little path now veered away from the cwm and began gently rising across grassland towards the slopes of the final mountain, Y Ro Wen, that rose up ahead of me. The distance seemed more than twice as far as it appeared on the map, and I was uncomfortable for a blister had developed across my left heel, something I have never previously suffered from, Eventually I reached the summit with its cairn of rocks that had been hollowed out to create a wind shelter. Here I lingered for a while, enjoying the warm sunshine and the absolute peacefulness of the spot.

Immediately below the cairn, a stony track commences that continues the entire way to Dolwyddelan. Its purpose is a mystery to me, for it doesn’t serve a quarry or anything, although halfway down, at Bwlch y Groes, it joins the route of an ancient coach road to the village. In the high moorland I was surprised to come across a group of four brown feral horses. Their manes were less long and thick than those of their Carneddau counterparts though they were undoubtedly wild. Perhaps someone had simply abandoned them at some time. Below the bwlch the land was heavily grazed by numbers of sheep, and at one point I made a detour around a pair of black cattle that were on the track. “I’ve eaten a bit of one of your relatives,” I gloated. They merely rose to their feet and stared at me. One thing was for sure, this would not have been a suitable area to spend another night wild camping if I had needed to.

Crossing the bridge over the Afon Lledr on the edge of the village, where children played in the placid water, I finally reached my car. Offloading my backpack and poles, my first job was to phone my wife to let her know I had completed my walk safely, following which I headed for Y Gwydyr where I downed a pint of Conwy Brewery’s “Celebration” ale, which was just right for the occasion.

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