Although the doctor’s diagnosis last October was both unexpected and unwelcome news, I greatly anticipated having another backpacking trip in Snowdonia this year. I had not experienced any further attacks of breathlessness, while the low-fat diet I was adhering to had helped me to get back inside the normal Body Mass Index, along with an increase in the number of day walks I was doing as a result of being told I wasn’t exercising enough. Consequently I felt quite fit and was raring to go. There was one problem, though, which was a stiff and sometimes painful knee for which I was receiving physiotherapy. Something to do with ligaments or muscles, it was never fully explained to me. Even so, there was no doubt in my mind about going, other than what route to tackle. Should it be one of a couple of high level ones, or a low-level one? After sleeping on it for several nights I decided on the low-level one, partly because of uncertainty over how my knee would fare, and partly because there was no settled weather in the forecasts. I also decided that for the very first time I would include my mobile phone with the equipment I carried. Just in case.
The route in question had been in my to-do list for years, partly because I had considered too much of it to be low-level and partly because it was taken from a book now thirty-two years old, Snowdonia Ancient Trackways, Roman Roads, Packhorse Trails by Ralph Maddern, whose directions I have never found that clear to follow. Nevertheless, I could just about see the routes on an Ordnance Survey map, and I set about adapting parts of them to suit my preferences, cutting out bits at the north end, adding a couple of diversions and alternative ways, and plotting a different return from the original one at the south end, the result being a circular course of twenty-something miles in length. Flexibility was the intention.
A start from Betws-y-Coed was what I intended, but I spent my first night at Cwmlanerch, a very good little camp site that was a mile up the B5106 from the village. Here, a study of my map showed that rather than driving down to Betws in the morning, it would be possible for me to take paths directly from the site to a point westwards where they joined the route I had prepared.
When a friendly lady called for my camping fee in the morning, I tentatively asked if it would be possible to leave my car on the site while I went off for three days, to which she readily agreed. Consequently all I had to do was follow the track out of the site, cross the road and ascend a track that started almost directly opposite. After a quarter of a mile of gentle climbing I turned right onto a side path that disappeared into the Gwydyr Forest. This was steeper and to make matters worse there became different paths to choose from, the correct one not being clear to me, but I more or less got it right when, after rounding an area of disused mines, I found a track that climbed northwestwards, passing more old mines to reach Llyn y Parc that looked gloomy and uninviting in the day’s dull light.
The paths westwards from the lake were less distinct, but I followed my nose and once again I reached the right place, which was Coedmawr, a very isolated house in the forest. From here a track headed northwestwards, soon to join up with the route I had originally planned, but not very far along it there was red tape across the track, with ‘Keep Out’ notices warning of a construction site ahead. Sure enough a large project could be seen being worked on, with large yellow vehicles and machinery moving about. Blow! I hadn’t anticipated anything like that! A study of my map showed there was a parallel path just a little to the south of this track, so I returned to the house, cut across its adjoining pasture and started on the alternative way.
Unfortunately, my ‘Plan B’ became the access route for the construction site. Even as I walked, JCBs were at work widening and “improving” it, the result being that, unrealised at the time, I followed it round to the southwest, having failed to see the continuation of my route westwards. Eventually the track curved round so much that I woke up to the fact that I was heading in the wrong direction. I was well lost. A footpath sign on a post pointed to my right, this was vaguely the right way to go, even though I couldn’t see the path on the map, and it eventually reached an unnamed smallholding that might have been any one of a few in the general area. The only path around the house then plunged down an exceedingly steep slope into the forest. Not wanting to go that way, I retraced my steps to climb a stile into a grazed pasture.
Using my compass as a guide now, I continued blindly. Anything leading in the general direction I wanted would do. Ahead I could hear the occasional car, and soon enough there were glimpses through the trees of a road far below my left side. Thinking at first it was a minor lane that I was due to reach in the forest, my initial relief was short-lived, for the road was too wide, it had good markings, and there were more vehicles using it than you would expect. The awful truth came when I could see further up the road the start of the white hatch marks in the middle where it widens at Swallow Falls. This was the A5! Well, at least I had a vague idea where I was now, even if it was in the wrong direction and a long way from where I should have been.
On I stumbled, on little-used paths through the trees, until I turned onto the tiniest of trod ways that climbed northwards. Instinct took over, until I eventually passed a farm whose name was confirmed on my map. The little lane I wanted was not far away now, but finally I had to cross two barbed wire fences to get onto it, three-quarters of a mile from where I should have been a couple of hours ago.
A lengthy march up the lane went a little way towards making up for lost time, but it was broken by a late lunch stop beside an unnamed reservoir whose gate I clambered over to sit on rocks by the water. Not much further along the road I turned off to my left on a forest track that provided more easy walking. After about three miles the track started to curve to the east, and here I left it for a tiny path that descended past an extensive series of old mine workings on one side, before I emerged at the farm of Llanrhychwyn, from where a track continued to the hamlet of Tai-Isaf. Here I should have turned left onto a lane and then right on a footpath, but a lane ahead of me continued to the same destination, namely Trefriw, so that is the way I went.
After a painfully steep drop into the valley of the Afon Crafnant, I skirted around the edge of the village, pausing to study a notice for a cat lost from Tai-Isaf; he looked identical to the one I had earlier stopped to stroke there. Perhaps he had been found and the notice hadn’t been taken down. Entering another bit of forest beyond the houses, I was very soon confronted with a fork in the tracks, where only one track was shown on my map. Which way to go? I opted for the one on the left, which climbed reassuringly, although there was much more of the hill on my left, hidden in the trees. Then the track began to descend and curve to the right. This was not the way I wanted to go! For the second time today, I took pot luck and followed whatever seemed to be right, which in this case was a little trod way that wound through the forest. It eventually reached a rickety stile on the edge of the wood, with meadows beyond. I knew from my map that somewhere up the hillside on my left was a little lane that I wanted to be on eventually, so I knew that if the worst came to the worst I could make my way up to it.
That is what I ended up doing, after my grassy route re-entered woodland that was nigh on impenetrable. Getting onto the lane was the only sensible option, but the final slope up to it was so steep that hands were needed as well as feet, and I took a tumble when what appeared to be part of the earth bank turned out to be a rotten tree stump that gave way beneath me when I put my weight on it. Finally at the top, the wire fence was too high for even my long legs to straddle, so climbing it was necessary, but as I eased myself over the top it suddenly twisted, and pitched me in a tangled heap on the ground. After straightening myself up and dusting myself down, I was just about to walk off when I spotted my compact camera half hidden in the grass on the other side of the fence, where it had fallen out of its pouch on my rucksack waist strap. It was sickening to think that I had nearly left it there! A walking pole helped to retrieve it without going back over the fence
Out of the forest at last and at over 800 feet above sea level, views opened out across the Conwy valley on my right. A little more lost time was regained with a couple of miles of lane walking, along which the barking of dogs at an isolated cottage caused a woman to peer out at me. This was not surprising for there was only one more property and a farm up the dead-end road. The next house, Rhibo, looked far too large and well maintained to be a home, perhaps it was a residential centre of some sort. Beyond this, my map was inaccurate for it showed the lane was still metalled when in fact it became a stony track. From up here I could see along the convolutions of the tidal River Conwy, with the bulk of Llandudno’s Great Orme on the horizon ten miles distant. At the terminus of the track, the farm, Tyddyn Wilym, was the usual sprawl of ramshackle buildings, old machinery and years’ worth of accumulated junk, and it appeared to be devoid of life at that moment. What was not apparent was the precise line of my route. Somewhere around here I was supposed to turn north onto what Maddern described as a “stream path” to reach an iron footbridge spanning the Afon Ddu, but apart from the track I had followed there was not a hint of any other path, here or along the way. It had been my intention to make a detour to look at a deserted village a bit further to the north, but now I couldn’t even find my way past this farm.
After some indecision I erred on the cautious side and picked my way around the left of the buildings rather than though the middle. Over a metal fence or two later, I was on a green track that headed southwestwards. Not quite what I had planned, but there was no guarantee there would still be a bridge over the river even if I did find the right spot, which seemed unlikely. The track passed a graveyard of tombstones and four walls, all that remained of an old church, which was not marked on the map as you would expect it to be. Along the far side of the valley a large black pipeline stretched as far as could be seen in either direction; this, I believe, carries water from Llyn Cowlyd (which I would be passing later) down to a power station at Dolgarrog.
My track now followed the line of a disused leat, along which stood a derelict farmhouse, Tyddyn-du. After bypassing this, I was on the lookout for somewhere to pitch my tent for the night. The land here was all sheep pastures while the far side of the valley was open moor, but I came across an ungrazed triangular acre with a stream along one side and bordered by trees. The advantage of the site was that I would be relatively hidden from any farmer who might pass by, but its drawback was that it was on a hillside, a gentle one but the least sloping part I could find turned out to be far from level enough, while the stream was so low due to an uncharacteristic dry spell for North Wales that it was not easy to fill my water bag.
My sleep turned out to be the most disturbed ever. Because of the slight slope I spent the entire night sliding down the tent off my self-inflating ground mat, whose surface had become highly polished over the years, while dragging myself back up again was not easy in a sleeping bag. Consequently I wasn’t sorry to leave this site behind after I was ready in the morning, which was mild and windless with light cloud and hazy sun.
Regaining the green path of yesterday, it led me down to the Afon Ddu which I was able to cross on a footbridge beside a concreted spillway that was currently dry. The obvious way for me to go from here was across country towards a fenced-off Welsh Water construction site, because from this a stone track led to one that ran parallel with the black pipeline. It was an easy tramp and only a mile and a half, but the dam of Llyn Cowlyd Reservoir and the two mountains that rose on either side of it were a long time getting any closer.
Ahead of me were some alternative routes I had preplanned; one of these was to cross the hills between here and the scenic Llyn Eigiau which lay a short distance to the northwest, and from there I had the option of a traverse of 2,621 ft Pen Llithrig y Wrach. Beyond the ruined Siglen farmhouse, a well trod little green path was obviously the one shown on my map, so off I went, first crossing a nice new stile over a fence and then passing through a gap in a crumbling stone wall. But at the top of the first rise the path levelled off and curved around a relatively flat area where about ten black Welsh highland cattle were sitting in a group. One of them had horns, so I assumed this was a bull. They were all looking my way, a couple started getting to their feet, and there was no way I was going to walk by them, particularly as the one with horns was right on the path. The only way of bypassing them would have meant climbing higher around the surrounding slopes, through pathless heather, and hope they didn’t come after me. As I didn’t feel inclined to struggle like that, plus I might want to come back the same way, I abandoned the idea and returned to the track.
Had I climbed Pen Llithrig y Wrach I could have continued from there to further high ridges if I wanted, while the other alternative would have been to climb and traverse Creigiau Gleision on the opposite side of Llyn Cowlyd but this would have been just an up and down again job, something I am always reluctant to do on when backpacking. The only option left, which was not a bad one, just a great deal tamer, was to follow the two miles length of the lake. This I had done before, but it was twenty-five years ago and in heavy rain, so it is not surprising that I remembered little of it.
Beyond the southern end of the lake is a lengthy descent on grassy moorland to the A5 road in the Llugwy valley. The path is usually very wet and boggy, but now it was unimaginably dry so my boots became covered in dust. I had looked forward to stunning views from here of Tryfan and the Glyders range of mountains on the far side of the valley, but I was disappointed because today these were hidden by cloud and mist. A walk along half a mile of the main road towards Capel Curig was unavoidable, there is no footpath that can be used instead. A narrow pavement runs along the far side of the road but unfortunately much of this was blocked by overgrown trees and shrubs so I was constantly forced to walk in the road, and I frequently had to wait for traffic to pass before I could step off the walkway.
The little village safely reached, I left the road on a bridleway that headed eastwards, along it seeing a group of middle-aged walkers, two male, two female, homeward bound at the end of their day, who passed me with no greeting or acknowledgment, as though I were invisible. A few spits of rain turned into a shower that I sat out on a convenient boulder beneath a stunted oak tree. Although the worst of this passed, it never completely stopped raining afterwards. Another walker passed me, this time a solo woman who eyed me a bit warily. Oh dear, I didn’t look that wild, did I? Other paths appeared that weren’t on my map, causing me confusion, while the light rain dampened both the land and my spirit. A nearby stream tempted me to go in search of a camping spot near it, but the surroundings were open, the grasses were long and it was a little bit early to stop just yet.
Eventually reaching the southwest corner of Gwydyr Forest, I followed a track that initially ran along its boundary, but after some length I seemed to be getting deeper and deeper into the trees and still on a stone track when I should by now have been on a footpath. Having seen nothing of the path I should have turned onto to continue eastwards, I checked with my compass to find I was heading north instead of east. These forest tracks are so deceptive! To add to my gloom, my six years’ old jacket was clearly no longer waterproof, as my body and arms were wet beneath it; at the same time my rucksack was sodden, likewise my boots and socks. I had not put my gaiters on as the rain was reasonably light, but too late it was clear that I should have done. The socks beneath my SealSkinz – whose waterproofness was now suspect – were medium thickness and of synthetic material, one of whose properties was wicking moisture away. I strongly suspect that as the few inches that protruded above the SealSkinz had become wet from rain and vegetation, water was now wicking down onto my feet, rather than the opposite.
On I plodded in the rain. Neither of two streams that the track crossed had anywhere suitable by them for my tent. The track started to curve around the contour of the hills and head back towards the south again. I had a pretty good idea where I was on the map now, which was confirmed when a t-junction was reached. Here I turned left, it was away from the route I wanted but somewhere through the trees on my right was a large lake, Llyn Goddionduon, which would have the water I needed for camping. The lake did not reveal itself until after I had turned right at another junction, but there was no access to it through birch and conifer saplings. The next track on the right, though, led right to the water’s edge and where it terminated there was a clearing with just about room for my tent to one side of it.
Even while I was putting the tent up, conscious at the time of my wet microfleece shirt against my back, puddles of water were appearing in the short grass, necessitating removing pegs and repositioning the tent, not easy in the limited space available. Everything I had on was wet, even down to the handkerchief in my pocket and my underpants. I knew from past experience that you can sleep with a wet pair of socks in a synthetic sleeping bag and everything will be dry in the morning from your body heat, but I think my entire wardrobe overloaded the system a bit, for all remained damp. My camera, too, was a casualty; the new Samsonite pouch I had bought for it soaked up water like a sponge; first the playback button stopped working, followed by the others. Nothing was helped by my ageing tent, in which I glumly watched water dripping through the flysheet, then at some time in the middle of the night I rolled over and put my hand in a pool of water that had come up through the groundsheet.
I was half expecting an early wake-up from the arrival of members of the Betws-y-Coed Angling Club, who had the fishing rights on the lake, but fortunately it did not happen. The rain had stopped at some time in the night, though while I was getting ready the number of items I draped over or hung from branches of neighbouring sallows remained damp, for there was no breeze and the vegetation was dripping wet.
The track back past the lake headed due south as expected, to reach where I should have been yesterday afternoon, from where it was a fairly straightforward matter to follow tracks and paths in the direction of Betws-y-Coed. It was almost a relief to know that I shouldn’t get lost from now. It being a Sunday, a few walkers were out and about. The first pairs I met were serious ones, equipped with poles, while those after were more like weekend amblers. Perhaps I should not have felt sneery about such a couple striding along a lane in spick and span new-looking gear and polished boots, only a hundred yards from a parked Range Rover that I bet was theirs, but then I was gobsmacked by three young women who approached me and asked,
“Is this the way to Betws-y-Coed?”
The response to me telling them they were going in the opposite direction was,
“Oh, we must have gone wrong somewhere.”
Fine thoughts from someone who could not find his way through a forest, but how could they possibly go wrong on a lane? I presume they had just come over the Miners Bridge, clearly they had no map, but could they not have told from the direction of flow of the river?
Prior to reaching the village, I turned into a cul-de-sac of 1960s detached houses, from the end of which a long, straight track ran high above the west side of the Conwy valley to reach my starting point opposite Cwm Llanerch camp site entrance. I would happily have pitched my big tent here for the next couple of nights, but there was a large group of young men with tents, car and minibus in one corner, and four tents huddled together in the opposite corner. Thinking of the site’s one and only male shower*, I removed my car, rather rude of me considering I had been allowed to leave it there, and I went instead to a large site that is some miles up the same road.
(*Update: On a visit to the site two years later, I found two additional unisex showers.)
My useless waterproof jacket went straight in the bin at the camp site, and during my stay I searched Betwys-y-Coed’s number of outdoors gear shops where I bought a lightweight Gore-Tex one, olive-green of course, priced lower in a sale than I later found it to be on Amazon. On my return home, my slippery nineteen years’ old Thermarest mattress was binned, too, together with my thirty years’ old tent, and these were later followed by my camera which sadly still failed to work after a week in the airing cupboard (though I did manage to salvage my pictures from the SD card). Of the walk I had done, my feelings were that far too much of this one was in the forest and too little of it in the uplands, but I was pleased that I had completed the basic circuit I had set out to do, even if I had gone off-route at times.
So, what of the future? Well, to tell the truth I very soon replaced the inflatable mat with a military camouflage one that was online at such a low price I had to have it, after all I might need it for ordinary camping. Likewise, I snapped up a special offer of an updated model of the same camera at half the RRP, and for it I bought a waterproof pouch, although I am not taking any chances, I am keeping a small plastic bag with it. What is more, I have my eye on a particular lightweight one-man tent at the budget end, half a kilo lighter than my old one and highly regarded by its users. Watch this space!
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