May 2016, The Rhinogs from Trawsfynydd (return)

There was never any question about where my next walk would be, I had known for months that I was simply going to complete last September’s unfinished route. I made preparations well in advance, including further lightening of my kit achieved with the purchase of an unbelievably light down jacket to replace my worn synthetic insulated one. As May approached I scrutinised online weather forecasts daily. Not for my first time they were a letdown, for in this instance none of the outlooks for a fortnight or month ahead foresaw a spell of warm weather that occurred in the second week of the month, by which time I had already committed myself to making my trip in the third week.

After spending a good chunk of my departure day driving under grey skies first on motorways and then on A roads, I arrived at my pre-planned campsite for the first night, near Trawsfynydd. Unfortunately the farmhouse was currently unoccupied, and I could not get a phone signal to call the number given on a notice. This left me in a bit of a quandary. I knew where I could pitch my tent, because I had printed a map of the site from the owners’ website, but they stipulated that no tents were to be erected or cars driven onto the fields without checking at the farmhouse first. With no other users on the site to ask for advice, I wandered around. The camping meadows looked bleak in the greyness and they were rather open, with no shelter from the breeze, while the facilities were unisex and in rustic wooden buildings. Having also observed that the nearby pub where I hoped to have my evening meal was currently closed down, I saw little point in hanging about. I left and drove back towards Dolgellau, to spend a pleasant night on the excellent Vanner site at Llanelltyd.

Day 1

Returning northwards in the morning, I drove with my walking boots on so that when I arrived at Trawsfynydd I was all ready to shoulder my pack and set off. The route from the car park was familiar to me, so there were no awkward pauses to study my map, and on reaching the field leading to the lake I was relieved to find that last year’s intimidating cattle had been replaced by docile sheep and lambs. Half of my way across the lengthy footbridge over the lake, a shower of rain commenced; this grew heavier as I reached the far shore, so I reluctantly put on my waterproofs.

Telling myself to take it easy, there was no need to rush, I slowed my pace to a gentle plod, thus I progressed with little effort up a little lane that leads into the hills. A track that leads from the lane down to the Afon Crawcwellt was nothing like as wet as I had found it eight months previously, which was encouraging. Stopping on the far side of the river for a breather and to remove my waterproofs, I was surprised to see two four-wheel drive cars approaching on the track. One of them stopped before the river, but the other continued towards the two steel girders that have been laid on their sides as a bridge for vehicles. Grabbing my camera, I was hopeful of a shot of the car crossing on it but the driver changed his mind at the last minute.

After exchanging pleasantries with the farmers from the cars, I continued south-westwards on a sketchy path on gently rising rough grassland. This too was much drier than last time, although I somehow went a different way, missing a ruined building that sits in the middle of the area. Again I found the walking easier; maybe I was fitter than before? Or was my lighter pack making that much difference? The way down from the ridge to the ruins of Hafod-Gynfal farm was easily found, and when I reached the forest track beyond it, I made very sure that I turned right onto it this time. Such easy walking followed, unlike the difficulties I encountered on the way I went last September, and in the south-west of the forest a newly renovated stone chip footpath branched westwards through the conifers. Once out of the trees, this became a narrow little path that led easily up to the highest point of Bwlch Drws-Ardudwy; my impression was that it was a quicker way up the pass and with less climbing than the more southerly path I used last time.

While I was descending the far side of the pass, I was tempted to take a peek at the camping spot I used last year, on the other side of a stone wall, but I would have to cross a stream and I didn’t fancy getting wet boots at this time of the afternoon. Further down, I looked out for a possible short cut I could take, something I had spotted while studying the map at home. The contour lines at the south-west corner of Rhinog Fawr suggested there was a pathless but easy way that would avoid continuing as far as the farm buildings in Cwm Nantcol and then back out again.

Sure enough I was proved right, and in this area of rock and grass I found a wide, flat-bottomed gulley with a level and dry place for my tent near a cliff, and with a tiny stream nearby for water. I filled my new plastic water carrier for the first time, using the little collapsible funnel I had bought specially for it. This made the job much quicker and easier, because most of each mugful of water went into the bag rather than half of it missing the spout. While I was later sitting on a boulder by the rock face and preparing my dinner I heard bleating, and I looked up to see a group of wild goats approaching. There were three grey-and-white males with long horns, five females and one kid; they were aware of my presence but not alarmed, though they kept to the foot of the mountain at the far side of the gulley. Spreading out, they gradually made their way up the rocky slopes, browsing on the vegetation on ledges as they went. Alas, the evening light was too poor to be able to get a decent photo of them.

Day 2

It was another day of light grey sky. When I was ready I continued westwards with the intention of finding the way north to the lake Gloyw Lyn, which sits to the north-west of Rhinog Fawr. Before long, a seven feet high stone wall barred my way. This was where my short cut wasn’t such a good idea, for if I had gone the longer way, following the paths shown on the map, I would have been on the right route (assuming it existed on the ground, and not just on the map). As it was, I spent a very long time following the wall, and not without some difficulty in the rough terrain, unsuccessfully searching for a way over or around it. After looking in the direction towards Rhinog Fawr, I then tried the opposite way. A ladder stile was visible a long way to the west but this was close to the hillside of Foel Wen and was clearly on the line of another path shown on the map, that led to the wrong destination for me. But as it was the only apparent way of crossing the wall, I reluctantly headed towards it. On my way there, I then spotted a nearer ladder stile that had been out of view previously.

There was no path in the grass on the far side of this stile, but I could see a wet and muddy gap in a further wall, towards which I made my way. Beyond this a walled area of rough grass covering many acres climbed the hillside, but as far as I could see there was no way out of it. Again I headed westwards towards the “wrong” route that I didn’t want, but after some yards I looked around and from the different angle I could just about make out a gap in the far wall of the enclosed pasture I had been in. Returning to the nearby muddy gap, I passed through it once more. The long grass was pathless and a bit boggy to cross at first but as the land became higher it was dry. As I approached the gap in the upper wall, I could now see there was a metal five-bar gate across it, while a hundred yards to its right there was also a ladder stile. Faintly trod paths led onward from each of these to join and become one.

Relieved that I was on some sort of path at last, I climbed through dense heather, bilberry and ungrazed grasses. However, the path disappeared where an area of loose grey rocks had to be crossed but I soon picked it up again beyond the rocks. At a second rock field I was not so lucky, and I then had to find my own way through the vegetation, which was difficult and tiring. Eventually I gained the highest point of the flat-topped rise, which was a spur of Rhinog Fawr. Ahead of me rugged land fell steeply to the irregular shape of Gloyw Lyn that lay in a bowl 400 feet below me, and beyond which Cwm Bychan was a further 750 feet lower, and hidden from view. Thick cloud covered the furthest hills. I was rather surprised to be taking all this in from such a height, which was 1,640 feet above sea level, for I had not realised my walk would climb this much; it appeared deceptively lower on the map.

I did not linger for long, for lunch was overdue and down below I could see a stream from which I could obtain the water I would need. Crossing bare patches on the land, I located a small path heading downhill in the direction of the lake. It was clear that the faint paths I was following were well to the east of the green dotted line of a north-south footpath shown on my map; I doubt if that existed on the ground. This trod way was not easily walked, for the steepness meant there were many awkward steps down, and twists and turns. While I was doing this it started raining, and it was fairly pelting down by the time I reached a spot where I could sit down somewhat uncomfortably in the wet, heat some water for a packet soup and munch an energy bar. Never was lunch finished so quickly; in good conditions this would have been a delightful spot to rest, but right now it was miserable.

Although I was only halfway towards the lake from the top, the worst of the descent was over. The rain, however, had become harder, while the wind had rapidly strengthened to the extent that it was difficult to walk steadily in the less sheltered spots. My rucksack soon became saturated, likewise my boots, while my vision was impaired by dripping glasses. A path ran along the top of a low ridge parallel with the lake’s eastern side; I hastened along it to escape the exposure, at the same time looking out for a path that according to my map ran northeastwards from near the tip of the lake and down to Cwm Bychan.

I took the first path I came across, even though it led in the wrong direction at first, but at least it went downhill and away from the worst of the wind, although there was no escape from the sheets of rain. After a few turns there became little doubt that the path led to Cwm Bychan, but volumes of rainwater were also running the same way, so it was a very splashy walk for me, as if I wasn’t already wet enough. After passing though some deciduous woodland I eventually reached the old farmhouse that sits at the road end at the eastern end of Llyn Cwmbychan. The parking area by the lake contained one car with a person sitting in it and a Land Rover beside a wind-blasted ridge tent. On I plodded, just noticing an ancient standing stone in a pasture to my right, but as soon as the lane was clear of its canopy of trees, the full force of the wind caught me, almost preventing my forward motion. Here I turned sharp right onto an uphill footpath for a short distance before turning left onto one that climbed parallel to the road.

It had been my intention to camp wild somewhere in the hills ahead of me, but I realised that the chances of finding a suitable spot in this near-gale and lashing rain were going to be extremely slim. I had no choice but to return to the comparative shelter of the camping place at the lake end. This is marked on the map as a camp site, but it lacks any facilities that I am aware of. Nevertheless, it had a six-foot wall behind which I pitched my tent where it was completely sheltered from the wind and out of the worst of the rain, though I made sure I was between two stunted oak trees and not under them in case any branches came down onto me. I was joined by grazing ewes and lambs who also wanted to be out of the weather.

After a while a large pickup headed across the grass in my direction. The driver, I learnt, was the owner of the land.
“Is there a charge for camping here?” I innocently asked. “This wasn’t part of the plan,” I explained, “I should have been wild camping up in the hills, but I had to come back here because of the weather.”
“Shall we say two pounds?” said the amiable man. “Put it in the box on the gate on your way out.” And with that, he was gone.

Day 3

The rain ceased and the wind dropped some time during the night, and although the sky had reverted to its familiar light grey it was much brighter than it had been previously. But everything was sodden; large pools of water lay on the turf, while the adjacent river had doubled in volume. I festooned one of the oak trees with my waterproofs and other damp items, which were partially dried when I left, by which time day walkers were arriving in the car park. The walk back down the lane was more pleasant this time, following which the climb diagonally up the hillside on the path parallel with the road made me overheat. Beyond the ridge, however, I had to drop down onto a footpath that was no more than a vaguely trod way through a large, low-lying area of grassland most of which was covered with a couple of inches of water, so the way across was more of a paddle than a walk.

Worse was to come, for on ascending to a low rise on which stood a ruin, I saw before me Cwm-mawr where the foaming torrent of a large stream was split in two channels around a long narrow island. There was no way I would be able to cross that! Beyond the watercourses was an isolated old dwelling that was currently being renovated, to judge by two vans and heaped building materials outside it, and just then a man appeared. Giving him a wave, I pointed first to the water, then one way and then the other way, followed by outstretched hands raised in question; this was because I would not have made myself heard above the roar of the water. The builder pointed upstream, where after a little distance I found the crudest of stone bridges spanning the cascade. Slabs propped on each bank supported two long and uneven rocks, with a small third one jammed in the centre. Flat it most certainly was not. If I were not laden with a backpack I might have crossed it with a hop, skip and jump, but as it was I threw my poles to the far bank and then shuffled across the structure on my hands and knees.

Joining two workmen at the property, I was asked where I was heading. In reply, I said I was looking for a footpath that headed up the slopes to the west.
“We’re only builders, we don’t know anything about footpaths around here,” came the response in a strong accent, “There’s a cratch up the hill there, look, but I don’t know how you get to it.”
He was referring to a visible ladder stile, and I was delighted to recognise his Welsh word, which I was familiar with from Ralph Maddern’s 1970s/80s series of Snowdonia walking guides, in which he constantly calls a stile a critch-cratch.

Initially there was no path, but one shortly became clear and I followed this, climbing steeply to the stile pointed out by the builder, and then more gently. I arrived at another ladder stile at a tee-junction of walls, beyond which I could see no further path through the rough grasses. Puzzled, I checked with my compass to find that way led south, when I should be going to the west. There was no way over the wall on the hill to my right, so I crossed the stile and followed the other side of the wall westwards, where I found another stile that took me back over the wall. It was simply the way of bypassing the wall that joined at right-angles, only it wasn’t so clear on my map.

A gentle climb through sheep-grazing land brought me to a good track that headed roughly north-eastwards. This was part of an ancient way between Harlech and Trawsfynydd, but unrealised by me when I planned my route I was now on a section of a 23 mile trail called the Ardudwy Way, consequently it was well maintained and easy to walk. What is more, the sun was almost breaking out now as well. After a couple of miles of this, with the sea occasionally visible on my left, I came to the highlight of my trip, which was the Bronze Age cairn of Bryn Cader Faner that sits on an isolated hill to one side of the track. Never have I been so enthralled on one of my walks as I was with this; my own words cannot describe it well enough, the following succinct information does it far better:

Nicely rested after some time spent admiring the site, which I climbed to minus my backpack, I continued on my way through more sheep-grazed land, and passing the peaks of the northern Rhinogs on my right; I carried details of an alternative way across these, but I was content to skip this. Eventually the terrain became a little more wild as I descended into the extensive area of Cwm Moch, beneath the high ramparts of Diffwys and Moel Gyrafolen. Here I became unsure of my way, which was largely because a prominent stream that ran the length of the cwm did not show on my map; I later worked out that it was there but it was hidden beneath the black dotted line of a parish boundary. My compass more or less settled it for me, but I would worry about that tomorrow, for although it was a bit early I was going to find a spot to camp for the night in this lovely place.

Level ground was even harder to find than dry ground, but after much searching I settled on a raised patch above the north side of the stream, where new bracken shoots were just beginning to break through. To reach it I had to cross another makeshift stone bridge, but this one was flat enough for me to confidently walk over it. Cloud was quickly rolling in while I was pitching my tent, and it started raining steadily. This was at 5:30 pm, and I was forced to spend the remainder of the evening crouched in my tent, with a modification I had done to hold the open door up on a walking pole giving me a bit more space.

Day 4

It rained non-stop for twelve hours. Soon after I got out of my sleeping bag, it started again. After doing everything I could in the entrance of my tent, such as washing and breakfasting, I packed all of my gear away in my rucksack and simply lay in the tent waiting for the rain to stop. By about 10:30 I was bored stiff and as the rain seemed a fraction lighter than it had been earlier, I resigned myself to a wet walk. Immediately after I had stood in dripping waterproofs taking the tent down, the rain stopped.

How fortuitous it was that I had pitched on a well-drained hummock, for all the land around was swamped. Water was running everywhere, or simply laying in huge puddles. Any number of silvery rivulets could be seen pouring down the far mountainside, while the path I was to take up out of the cwm had itself become a running stream. The main one in the cwm was now a wide river, with the rock bridge I had crossed yesterday half-submerged in the middle of a pool; what a good job I was on the side I needed to be!

At the top of the rise I got my first view of Llyn Trawsfynydd, just about, for it was all but lost in mist. I still had a few hundred feet of descent to reach it, and there was some serious flooding to negotiate on the way, with temporary ponds to work ways around and torrents racing down paths. After that the tramp along the lane on the south side of the lake seemed something of an anticlimax. On reaching a bend in the road, I could see a straight line through the open gates of three adjoining sheep pastures that led directly to the footbridge on the lake, and so I trespassed to cut a corner off.

Back at my car, I drove to a favourite camp site near Wales’ north coast; here I put up my large tent and spent three days relaxing and doing touristy things, sleeping at night on the luxury of a newly-acquired king-size camp bed with a thick mattress topper and a pillow. Of the new kit I used for my walk, the down insulated jacket was a fraction less warm than its synthetic predecessor but its feather weight, pardon the pun, more than made up for it. As its standup collar is not quite as high as that of my previous jacket, I bought a fleece snood on eBay to wear as a neckwarmer, hood or hat. This turned out to be very poor quality and I binned it after the trip; when used as a hood its length was insufficient to cover both the back of my neck and the front of my head, yet its circumference stretched to make it far too large when folded as a hat; furthermore, the least bit of wind shot straight through the material. When any reliable company introduces a quality fleece snood, I’ll be the first in the queue to buy one (so long as it is olive/brown/green). Also thrown away was my so-called waterproof camera case; it might have had a hard front and a waterproof zip but the back was a woven nylon material that allowed the inside of the case to get wet. A better new purchase was an Aquaquest “The Trail” map case, this turned out to be the first case I have ever had that kept my map completely dry.

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