May 2017, West of Llanuwchllyn

The route for this trip had been in my “to-do” list for years, although by the time I finally walked it I had modified it a number of times. Overall, it was a somewhat low-level route but I hoped it would mean less of the rain-swamped or mist-covered tops I had suffered on my preceding two trips. The inspiration came from an article “Across the wilds of Pennamt-Lliw” that was penned by the reputed author Roger Redfern and appeared in an undated magazine-type tourism brochure called Walk Wales. Describing a 12.5 miles linear route between Llanuwchllyn and Trawsfynydd, it must have been published posthumously for Mr Redfern died in 1976 and I acquired the brochure much later than that.

My plan was to turn this into a circular route, but it soon became clear that the article contains a considerable inaccuracy where it instructs to head north-west on “an ancient path” half a mile beyond the highest point of a road. This is shown clearly on a nicely-drawn route map in the article, but no such way appears on any Ordnance Survey map. Maybe the first part of the path was obliterated by forestry planting after the article was originally written, whenever that might have been, but then there is no hint on the OS of where the path might have run beyond the forest. It is a mystery to me.

So I changed this to continue along the road to a definite track that led northwards. But that would have meant far too many miles walking on tarmac, so I worked out another route turning onto a closer northbound track. There was still too much road walking, and then I found tracks and paths that left the road and followed a river for two and a half miles before rejoining the road. Studying the map some more, I next saw there was a parallel way further to the north that swapped the little-used minor road for a dead-end one that should be even quieter, while it was shorter, too, before it became a track. Sorted! That became my route. All I had to do now was to round it off around the western side and plot a return across the south. The resulting circuit totalled a little under 30 miles in length.

With forecasts suggesting a spell of settled weather to come, I set off on Sunday 7 May. North of Shrewsbury I turned off the A5 to follow B roads directly westwards to Bala; these were a little more demanding to drive on but had the advantage, I found, of taking me the length of the highly scenic Tanat Valley. Just before Bala town I turned south, down the east side of the lake on one of those roads where you hope you don’t meet anyone coming the other way, to reach Pant Yr Onnen camp site on the lakeside, where I spent a very peaceful night.

Day 1

Rising at seven in the morning I was amazed to find that the nearest tent to me, a large one some thirty metres away, had gone. It was there when I went to bed, but the couple had packed up and departed this early, and without me hearing a thing! With the sun shining out of a cloudless blue sky I too broke camp when I was ready, and drove the remaining distance down the road to Llanuwchllyn. Here I was dismayed to find that the little car park I had used on previous occasions had new signs attached to the fence stating it was solely for community centre users. After driving to one end of the village and back in an unsuccessful search for somewhere else to leave my car, I put it in the slightly isolated national park car park at the opposite end of the village.

I walked back through the village to the main road, crossed the bridge over the Afon Lliw and turned up a riverside footpath towards a chapel, just as I had done ten years previously, yet it was still fresh in my mind, so too was crossing a pasture on another path to reach a little lane that headed north. A splendid view of the Arans ridge filled the view to the south, while I was delighted to see a red kite circling overhead. Unlike the previous time, though, today I followed the lane round to the left at a ninety-degree bend, instead of continuing straight on into a forest.

Not a single vehicle was encountered on the lane, which ended at the second of two farms that were close to each other. From here the way was not clear apart from a yellow arrow on a post, but that guided me to the start of an ancient hedgerow alongside a completely overgrown track, the route of which was easy to follow across various pastures. Beyond a sizeable lake with wildfowl and a fringe of water lilies, yet it was not marked on my map, I reached the isolated Trawscoed farmhouse, where a stone track commenced. The forest I expected to walk beside now lay in three-metre lengths piled high beside the track. At one point in the latter a large puddle contained hundreds of small tadpoles.

It was getting on for lunch time and the sight of the water of the pool reminded me that apart from the earlier lake I hadn’t seen much that I could use. In the current un-Welsh weather conditions, at this minute rather hot and airless, every ditch and tiny stream along the way had been bone dry, but I would soon be approaching the valley of the Afon Erwent, which I prayed would be a sufficiently large enough river to have running water.

It was a great relief when I could see that the river had ample water for making my soup and filling my flask; all that was lacking was shade from the sun. My continuing way westwards was no longer easy, as the green track was disused and overgrown, making it necessary to pick a way alongside it through rough grass and rushes. It was in fact the same bridleway that I had given up trying to follow in the opposite direction thirty years previously! (See Day 2, My aim now was to reach a point where a gate crosses the little east-to-west Llanuwchllyn to Trawsfynydd road, the road that I had gone to such pains in the planning stage to avoid walking on. Such was the poor state of the bridleway that I lost it completely and completed this section by descending rough grass hillsides.

Only a few hundred metres along the lane I turned right onto a stone track that headed north-westwards into Blaen-Lliw (which as far as I can make out is the name for this section of the Lliw valley). Large numbers of sheep grazed the adjacent hillsides. On reaching a derelict farm I had a choice of staying on the track, which led through a forest, or taking what was marked on the map as a footpath, that online reports stated was non-existent on the land. Warnings were given for boggy ground whichever way I went, although that would not be a problem today, but what clinched it for me were the alternatives of easy track or rough grassland.

Once in the shade of the conifers I was able to remove my sunhat for the first time since setting off this morning. Unfortunately, the kilometre-long track terminated just short of the north-west side of the forest, while none of the side ways shown on my map seemed to exist. I was not going to be beaten by this, so I searched for away out. There seemed to be more light coming through the trees on my left so I tried that way, and after passing countless trunks and branches I found myself on an overgrown fire break. Mentally crossing my fingers, I ploughed uphill through huge mounds of moss, grasses and heather – thank goodness for my walking poles! – until at the top of the rise I could see the edge of the forest and open land beyond.

A short distance along a wire perimeter fence was a wooden five-bar gate, beyond which I climbed pathless grass to a low ridge, only about 50 metres higher although the distance to get there felt three times longer than it appeared on the map. For much of the day the huge humps of Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfant mountains had filled the skyline to the north of me; now I was looking across to their western sides.

An uphill slog following a wire fence took me south-westwards over the minor top of Bwlch y Bi and on towards the summits of Gallt y Daren and Foel Boeth. The way became steeper and I was feeling tired near the end of a long day. Looking up at the climb to come, I studied my map and decided on a short cut following a fence that would omit the final peaks. I needed to turn right at the second fence junction I came to but when I reached the first junction I was unsure if it was the right one, so I extracted my few months-old smartphone from my camera pouch and used an app that displayed my present grid reference to eight figures. This made it very clear which fence junction I was at, leaving me delighted that the phone could be so useful. Although a shorter way, my new route descended very steeply at first but it brought me to a stream flanked by grass and rushes where I found a flat spot for my tent for the night.

Day 2

With yet again a cloudless sky and heat from the sun I was soon getting ready in the morning, though an additional chore was to remove a number of sheep ticks that I found on my upper forearms which had been exposed the previous day with sleeves rolled up. More were around my biceps under the sleeves, and on my chest. Even though my trousers had remained tucked into my socks except at bedtime, some got onto my thighs. Four were what I would call “normal” size (adults?) and the special lasso I had purchased was effective at removing them, but the majority were smaller-than-a-pinhead little black dots (juveniles?) on which the tool was no use at all, they were too small to lasso. I had no choice but to  resort to my old method of picking them off one at a time with the point of my knife.

It was also evident that one side of my face had become extremely sunburnt, for not only was it very sore but it also felt swollen. Given North Wales’ usual cloud, rain and wind, sunscreen was not something I had ever considered adding to my kit. Once I was on the move again, a green track commenced just a short distance down the stream valley, and I followed it westwards. After passing the ruins of an old farm inside which lay the shattered remains of its cast iron range, the track turned southwards, where I branched onto another track, still heading west, that rounded the outlying slopes of Moel Oernant. The dryness and the dust put me more in mind of walking in Greece than Wales. From the highest point of the track the summits of Moelwyn Mawr and Moelwyn Bach were clear on the distant skyline while to the right of these and even further away was the peak of Snowdon itself.

Here I turned south-westwards to climb over Moel Oernant. The number of rises and dips made taking a straight course difficult, while it was tiring to walk on the pathless rough grass, but after going some distance I spotted parallel lines where it had been flattened by a quad bike. Although these tracks seemed to be going nowhere in particular, they eventually took me past an unnamed lake which I had hoped to see and they stopped quite close to the 503m (1,650ft) summit. This had not been on my itinerary but having got this close it would be silly not to visit the top, so I continued up to its old trig point, from where I was able to gaze across to Llyn Trawsfynydd and the Rhinog mountains where I had walked eight months previously.

South-west of where I stood could be seen my next objective, which was the large lake Llyn Gelli-Gain that nestled in a hollow surrounded by a ring of hills. The way was again pathless, very steep at first and then quite overgrown as a wide valley was approached. Here I hoped to stop for lunch, but the first little streams were dry while what might once have been elongated pools in the lowest part were now swamps with floating oval leaves of Potomageton pondweed, though eventually I found enough running water to fill my billycan.

After eating, it was a bit of a puff to climb to a col above the lake and then down to its shore, on the far side of which stood a large sign warning of no swimming, no diving or jumping, danger of drowning, blue/green algae and leptospirosis health hazards, submerged hazards, deep drops and thin ice. From here a good green track gently descended to a point where I was able to cut down an open hillside to reach an unfenced road. Then followed unavoidable kilometres walking on tarmac, but at least it was a straight route with no obstacles, and I only saw two vehicles. One aspect of this walk was of the number of small lambs I saw that had wriggled through the wire fences that enclosed their pastures, and on my approach they would keep running away from me, with their mothers anxiously following on the other side of the fence; not one lamb had the sense to let me pass it and then double back the way it had come. Their only salvation came when the fence turned a corner, but I feared that by then they might never re-find the spot where they had escaped.

At one point the road made a big loop to the north around a valley, and here I planned to switch to footpaths that were shown on the map to the south of the road. These cut out a lot of the road before rejoining it further along, but when I reached the anticipated fingerpost it merely pointed across rough grassland with no hint of any path. Furthermore, the disused way passed a remote farmhouse where, in this little-visited area, the occupants might not take too kindly to strangers going by their property, alternatively they might have loose dogs. Somewhat regretfully, I stayed on the road, but this turned out to be to my fortune, for where it crossed the small river in its deep valley, a footpath (another nonexistent one) led onto open land to the north. This was largely dense rushes and tussocky grass, while it had the great disadvantage of being in the view of any vehicle approaching on the road, however there was a perfect spot to hide my tent behind a fallen but still-green conifer tree. I only had to be careful not to be seen when going to fill my water carrier and coming back.

Day 3

The morning had a hint of haze in the sky but it was just as hot. The road took me steeply south then east to the north side of the Afon Mawddach valley. Bluebells grew amongst fresh green grasses and unfurling fern fronds in an oak wood. My map showed a footpath forking off the road, which would cut a couple of hundred metres off my route as well as being more pleasant to walk on, but I saw absolutely no sign of it. At a sharp bend in the road I switched to a tarmacked drive leading to a small farm, just before which I crossed a bridge over a tributary river. From here a little-used and sometimes boggy path went along the inside edge of a forest for more than half a mile and then continued across a pasture towards another small farm.

On emerging from the trees, a Specsavers-type error led me to mistake a well-trodden sheep path for the one I should have taken across the grass, and this led to a change of plan, for I swapped my intended north side of Cwm yr Allt-lwyd for the south side by descending the hillside to a footbridge over the river and climbing the far slope to a tarmacked lane which soon became a stone track. This was easier to walk, and without any worries about routefinding! After a mile of this I recrossed the river and climbed a steep track that led out of the eastern end of the cwm, gaining 130m (425ft) of height in the process.

The track eventually descended to the river at a point where the map states “Ford” but even though the track can be seen continuing up the hillside on the far bank, no way was it possible to cross the river here. Even with the present extremely low water level, the pools were still too deep to avoid wet legs and filled boots, while any attempt at hopping across the slippery exposed boulders would be far too risky. Fortunately I had been here before and I knew the solution: a few hundred metres upstream the river rounded a bend where a large bed of shingle had accumulated, and here it was but a mere step for me to cross a narrow channel of water.

Back at the track, a recently deceased fox was curled up beside it, though whether its demise was from natural causes or brought about by a farmer I will never know. The route leads southwards up the north spur of the mountain Dduallt, though I only went as far as a point where a wire fence branches downwhill to the east. I used this as a guide, for there was no path through the dense grass tussocks and heather, but I was confident as I had successfully walked this way eleven years previously. When the fence turned away I continued straight on as I knew I should, towards the corner of a conifer forest, though it seemed further away than I remembered. Eventually I reached another wire fence that stretched across my route, and now it dawned on me that much of the forest had been felled in the intervening years; this was its original boundary, while the trees I was aiming for were remnants that were indeed more distant!

Heading northeast now, I entered a shallow valley flanked on its north side by a long ridge of between 450m and 490m height. I had walked along that the last time I was here, so now I went by its base where a footpath is marked on the map. It was no surprise to find there was no path in the dense grasses and rushes, though for part of the way the going was made easier by quad bike tracks alongside a newly replaced length of wire fence. When I drew close to the valley’s stream I was relieved to see that it contained sufficient water, so I selected a spot of level ground for my tent; finding somewhere that was also dry was not a problem in the current conditions.

Day 4

It was another day of cloudless sky, and shortly after setting off I was delighted to spot a green hairstreak butterfly, a bright little species I had never seen before. A long, close-boarded wood panel was laid across the stream as a bridge where I had crossed it previously on an even more makeshift corrugated iron one; the latter now lay discarded some metres downstream. On a track now, I climbed a low rise and then, where the track started to curve more to the east, I continued northwest across pathless country, though here the going was easy. Continuing with the green theme, I was surprised to see a male lizard darting across my way.

My objective was the ruins of Castell Carndochan, a former medieval castle that sat atop a rocky hill in front of me. There was little to see other than piles of stones, while recent archaeological work looked to me to have been aimed more at reconstructing bits (I hope I am not being too unkind). The previous day, on my way  along the valley that had led me here, I had passed half a dozen small cairns that seemed to be quite old, judging by their weathered look and the long-established lichens and mosses on them, and I couldn’t help wondering if there was a connection between those and the castle.

With a sheer drop below the other side of the ruins, the only way off the hill was to one side of it. This was on painfully steep grass but eventually I was down on a little lane, from where a couple of miles’ plod on tarmac brought me back to Llanuwchllyn. It is worth commenting that apart from a car and a van on roads and the driver of a tractor in a field, I did not see a single person during my three and a half days walk. That was soon to change, for my arrival at the village pub, Yr Eagles, where I intended to celebrate the successful completion of my walk with a pint, coincided with the disembarkation of a coachful of snowy-haired elderly ladies, so I waited in the garden for ten minutes while they settled themselves down in the dining area before I went in to buy my drink.

On tired legs I trudged the entire length of the village to the car park at its far end, from where I drove immediately to north Shropshire where I spent three days relaxing and recuperating. I was greatly pleased at having achieved all that I had set out to do; with little doubt this was helped by the exceptional fine weather, but there was a cost to me in the form of a severely sunburnt face. I had never previously considered including sunscreen in my kit, given Wales’ usual cloud and rain, but it was something I needed to think of in the future.

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