2012, West Berwyn from Cynwyd

There was no lack of enthusiasm on my part to go backpacking again this year, in fact it was never far from my mind throughout the summer months. I even sat down well in advance and prepared some routes I would like to do, as well as working out the most convenient date in September to go, subject to the weather of course.

As the time approached, however, my dilemma was which of my routes to tackle. Two of these were high level ones in the Carneddau and although I most of all wanted to walk either of these, I was unsure of my capability, especially as one of them involved a little bit of scrambling. That left a third route in the eastern Carneddau that was a bit fiddly to follow, two alternatives in the Berwyns area and a very low-level route too much of which I felt was on tarmac.

The Berwyns is what I decided on, and although I had walked there nineteen years previously I had not realised till now that it is in fact outside the national park. The chosen route was 30 miles in length, not too strenuous overall and it traversed the main ridge in the opposite direction to the way I had walked before. It was also a shorter distance from home (thinking of the cost of petrol!) with an easy hop across to Cheshire afterwards for some relaxation.

The camp site I used for my first night was just a couple of miles from the village where my walk would start, and it received good user reviews on ukcampsite.co.uk. Well, it had some good points but with a mini-estate of park homes to look at on one side of me and an unbroken line of  mainly unoccupied touring caravans on the other side, it was not the scenic rural idyll I had hoped for.

Day 1

Parking proved to be limited on the village’s cramped roads, with yellow lines on many of them, but I found some marked bays between houses and a school in a cul-de-sac. Striding off down the road towards the bridge that crossed the River Dee, I greeted an old fellow with “Bore da!” (Good morning) but he replied with a question in Welsh, so I was forced to sheepishly admit to him that was the only phrase I knew.

Very soon I was able to step off the lane at a footpath sign, and this was where the day’s problems started. The land consisted of a number of smallish grazing fields enclosed by wire fences and hedges or trees, with no hint whatsoever of any actual footpaths. The green-coloured ‘Llwybr cyhoeddus‘ (Public footpath) pointer on a post at the roadside was the only indication. The route looked simple enough on the 1:25,000 map which shows the right of way crossing fields or following their boundaries, but in practice it was impossible to work out, so it wasn’t long before I was blindly heading in what I hoped was the right direction while stepping over barbed wire and circumventing livestock. This set the pattern for much of the remainder of this trip. In a nutshell, the area simply wasn’t used by walkers. It slowed me down dreadfully, and what with the gloomy grey skies as well, I was far from enjoying it.

Something worse occurred when I resumed walking after my lunch break, which I spent sitting on a boulder in thick herbaceous vegetation near the outflow stream of a small lake. On starting off up a moderately sloping green pasture, I soon found myself gasping for breath and subsequently hyperventilating. Something I had never experienced before, it felt as if I could not fill my lungs fully. This gradually eased off, till I was able to cautiously continue on my way. Fortunately there was no further occurrence once I was past the brow of the rise.

Even though I had refound my intended course by then, I was faced with much indecision at a junction of paths after a corner, for they did not head in the directions I expected from my map. Happily the one I chose curved round to correct itself, but after following this for a mile it ceased to exist beyond what my map showed as another junction. There was no crossroads of paths where my bridleway should have gone straight on, only a solitary track curving downhill to the left. The track turned to head back roughly in the direction I had just come, as well as passing an alert brown bull who spotted me from some distance, so again I had to pick my way across fields, scrub and fences till I mercifully reached a little lane I wanted to be on. This led me down to another bridge that took me back over the Dee near a village.

At this point it started raining, and this became a heavy downpour so that after crossing the river I sat dolefully on the parapet of the roadside wall for fifteen minutes, sheltering beneath a large coniferous tree while several cars passed me. When the rain eased a bit I continued a short distance to the turning to a quieter road, where a pub stood on the far corner of the junction. ‘Open all day’, the board outside proclaimed, but I uncharacteristically walked on past it, such was my gloom. After a further quarter of a mile I was glad to get off the road where a footpath sign pointed up a long pasture bordered by woodland, but of course the path itself was non-existent, while the stile over the roadside wall at the top end was a real challenge to get over, even for my long legs, as it was built for a giant.

With evening approaching and no let up in the rain, the coming part of my route climbed onto open hill farming country, where there was going to be little shelter from the rising westerly wind and not much in the way of streams for the water I would need, so I decided to stop early and find somewhere to camp in my present area. At length a moderately level spot was selected by some trees at the foot of a secluded ungrazed field, but there proved to be no access to the nearby river which here ran in a deep rocky ravine. Leaving my rucksack and setting off with my water carrier, I found an unoccupied cottage which regrettably did not have an outside tap, unlike a similar property where I had filled my drinking flask earlier in the afternoon. Continuing down the lane I turned off onto a track through woods where I was able to reach the river and fill my carrier at a series of rapids, before squelching the long way back to where I was going to pitch my tent.

Day 2

The pouring rain stopped some time during the night, but not before I had reached an arm out of my inner tent with my little torch to see water dripping from a seam that crosses the flysheet. Being on a slightly sloping pitch I slept from one corner to the opposite corner, and in the morning I found the foot of my sleeping bag was soaking wet where it had pressed the inner tent against the flysheet. Fortunately this had not gone right through, and with the wind still strong I was able to completely dry it hung on tree branches, together with my waterproofs and other damp gear which were strung out along the edge of the wood while I was breakfasting and packing up.

It was good to get on the move again, even though this involved slowly gaining height on a lengthy track that ascended hard-grazed land. My spirits were lifted a little by seeing quantities of colourful harebells, Campanula rotundifolia, flowering on the bank beside me. At last reaching a col, I was able to turn left onto a signed right of way that followed the course of a barely discernible, overgrown old track. This ran for some distance south-eastwards, with moorland ahead and conifer forest to my right. All was well till after some time I reached a point where the old track dipped down to the right and disappeared in rank undergrowth, while a faintly trod way continued more or less ahead. Which was the correct way? Nothing appeared to have passed through the herbage below me, so the faint path up on my left must be the one. Well, I could not have been more wrong, the mistake compounded  by the sight ahead of me of the distant B4391 road, which I knew I must reach, while a rounded hill I passed on my right turned out to be a different one to what I thought it was. Both of these lured me into thinking I was going the right way.

With half a brain I should have turned round and gone back to the old track, but I had adopted a “might as well carry on” attitude, with the result that I ended up painfully struggling across acres of overgrown moor grass and heather that were interspersed with large rectangular patches with strimmed vegetation, these I presume were something to do with habitat management for grouse. Of those I saw four, while a large raptor that rose and flapped away from near me might or might not have been a hen harrier, which are said to breed in the area.

The temptation was to stay on the cleared bits as much as possible, which led me more and more off course, consequently I reached the road two miles north of where I should have done. I suppose I could then have tramped along the road to the right spot, but by now I was so fed up that I no longer wanted to continue with my plan. My only interest now was to return to my starting point by the shortest and most practical route possible, even though this meant I would not set foot on the Berwyns ridge itself, and my map showed that I could do this by using a series of footpaths northwards following the line of valleys which were also used by minor roads.

The first stage of the new plan was to pass through an extensive forest that I approached on an unmissable stone track, though my newly purchased map did not depict any continuation of this within the wood, it only showed a blank white line through the trees. At the five bar gate across the entrance of the privately managed forest there was the biggest concentration of Health & Safety inspired notices I have ever seen, but the track proceeded ahead as I expected, and it had plainly been there for a number of years. It also became apparent that there were other tracks that were not shown on my map which I then put away, letting my own judgment and sense of direction take over.

After eventually stepping out of the north end of the forest and onto a little lane, as planned, I continued along this to reach a bridleway on my right. Here I crossed a footbridge over a river and guessed my way, with no paths or signs again, till I was following a bouldery ancient track beneath hazel trees. Between this track and a small river was a secluded if rather overgrown glade, which is where I pitched my tent for the night. Before I could do this, however, I had to sit out a heavy shower of rain, but it was followed by late evening sunshine that streamed almost horizontally through the trees.

Day 3

My night in the wet glade was not the most pleasant, though I did rather enjoy having the run of this unused bit of land for a while, it felt as if it was my own. The upper end of the stony track passed a couple of cottages and then one side of a farmyard where I walked back and forth scratching my head as to where I was supposed to leave it. Around the left of the buildings turned out to be correct, for it led to a proper path and a stile onto a lane which I followed for half a mile to where a footpath sign pointed up a steeply sloping pasture on the right.

Needless to say there was no path to be seen, most particularly halfway up the hillside where it was supposed to have turned ninety degrees to the left. As far as I could tell from my map it should have followed the other side of the boundary fence, but that way was overgrown so I stayed on the side I was on. And so it remained, with only one other footpath sign seen in the next two and a half miles and me guessing the route as best I could. At one stage I had to pass a dozen brown cattle, but they did no more than raise their heads and look at me before continuing with their grazing. Another field I crossed contained a tall grey horse that immediately trotted across and followed me. A bit wary of him, I kept stopping and turning round, and each time I did so he stopped as well, about six feet behind me, it was rather comical really. I was quite probably trespassing in some places, and must have been seen by at least four people along the way, yet I was not challenged.

Eventually reaching a little lane, I passed over a river and turned right up a forestry track; here it started raining. Quite some way along the track I realised I was still following the river when I should have been much higher above it. To my dismay I saw from my map that I should have turned from the lane onto the second track on the right and not the first one. I had walked too far along it to turn back, but a further distance ahead of me was another track branching on my left that would double back to the one I should have been on. This was the way I went, but the extra loop added an unwanted mile to my walk.

The little-used path through the broadleaved wood at the top was damp and miserable. At the far side of the wood it continued by a boundary wall, here I pushed through sodden bracken while wet branches slapped me in the face. Beyond the wood the path reached the end of a track, and where this crossed a tiny stream I slumped down against the wall which kept eighty percent of the rain off me while I had an uncomfortable lunch.

My stopping point was within sight of a minor lane from which my map showed a lengthy track and then lanes that headed northwards to the village where I had left my car, but the start of the track proved to be elusive as it was unsigned and hidden, while being closer to the end of a conifer plantation than it appeared on my map. Once found, its surface was short green turf and would have been quite pleasant to walk on were it not for the rain, albeit lighter now, and the curtains of low grey clouds passing over the landscape. On my way, a surprise was to see a red kite forlornly circling around overhead, while further along I was downwind of a hare that sat upright in the centre of the track, unaware for a while of my approach.

Reunited with my transport by late afternoon, I drove straight to my favourite Cheshire camp site where I spent this night and the next two in a spacious tent before returning home. In due course I visited a doctor for the first time in five years, where I learned that the cause of my breathlessness is narrowed arteries, so I must now adhere to a low cholesterol diet. It seems that I am paying the price for too many years spent sitting in front of a computer and snacking on crisps and biscuits, while my exercise is too infrequent. As for the trip, I became fed up with carrying a big heavy rucksack all the time and I no longer liked spending the nights in a coffin-sized lightweight tent. Nothing was helped by the unexciting rural countryside I had walked through on this trip, rather than majestic mountains. In short, I simply didn’t enjoy it. I think in the future I will go to North Wales and camp in comparative luxury while going for day walks, although I must admit that while I was writing this piece I looked again at the routes I had prepared, and to be honest I really wouldn’t mind having a go at the eastern Carneddau one….

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