May 2019, The Mawddach Way

After all the years, this was my first ever ‘proper’ long-distance path! The idea came from the v-g Backpacking in Britain website, whose author published enticingly illustrated trip reports after walking The Mawddach Way in two sections, in September 2018 and February 2019. The idea of a low-to-mid-level route appealed to me as a change from being up in the clouds, while after having  experienced so many untrodden ways in recent years I also liked the thought of following real footpaths. However, the Way is not signposted as such, I learned, so careful routefinding is needed in places.

I quickly discovered that there is an official Mawddach Way website, from which an informative guide book can be purchased in paper or digital form. Initially deterred on learning that there was 2226m total height climbed (the equivalent of going up Snowdon twice from sea level) in the 49.8km length of the route, I ended up up hooked, I had to do it!

Food and other necessities were obtained well in advance. A USB-chargeable lantern that was lighter, in both senses, than my battery one was the only update to my equipment this time. I have literally reached a point where I can scarcely go any further with reducing the weight I carry, short of spending hundreds of pounds which I don’t have on a new rucksack, tent, sleeping bag and waterproofs just to save up to a kilo maybe. My pack weight this time was 8.37kg without food or water, 10.17kg including food and a grand total of 11.17kg with a litre of water. For navigation, my map case contained screen prints on A4 paper of sections of the route from Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps, plus copies of the guide book’s descriptive maps.

Two bank holidays, which I wanted to avoid, and one or two commitments left only a very limited number of days in May for me to go to north Wales for the walk and also to enjoy some post-walk relaxation, but the weather became quite settled by my preferred departure date of Sunday 12 May. Leaving home very late in the morning, I couldn’t have timed it better for the motorways weren’t too busy while after Shrewsbury there were scarcely any vehicles going my way on the A458 and A470 roads, which I practicallly had to myself.

Day 1

The circular walk is expected to be completed in three days, but I was allowing four. Designed to be started from Barmouth, it can be joined at any point, my choice being Llanelltyd, just to the north of Dolgellau, where I spent a peaceful night on the excellent Vanner camp site adjacent to the ruined Cwmer Abbey. Risng early, I spent far too long getting ready before driving the short distance to the village centre where I brazenly left my car behind the community centre, making sure that my little Welsh flag was stuck on the dashboard. The sun shone down from a uniformly blue sky as I strode across the traffic-free old carriage bridge over the Afon Mawddach. The ridge of Cadair Idris was prominent on the horizon, and it was to remain so for much of the walk. After passing banks clothed with flowering wild garlic, my path became a track and then a surfaced road which descended painfully steeply to the edge of Dolgellau. Crossing the river again, I was now at the start of the Mawddach Trail, a 14.5km route going westwards on an old railway track to Barmouth.  I was to walk 3km of this, to Penmaenpool, before heading away from the river and up into the hills.

Busy with dog walkers, strollers and cyclists, the level trail was the easiest start to any long walk I have done, but it was so hot that I was glad of the shade of bordering trees. Before long I approached the attractive toll bridge at Penmaenpool, just beyond which, joy of joys, was the George III pub! Never mind the weight of the coins I received in change from one of the banknotes I carried, a pint of liquid was just what I needed, while it was appreciated all the more for being nearly two pounds cheaper than at home. While I relaxed with my ale, gazing at the outstanding view of the expanse of the tidal river, the picturesque bridge and the hills beyond it, a distant group of cattle with calves wandered onto the exposed sands, where they looked like a detail from a Turner painting.

Leaving the pub, I made a navigational error by continuing along the minor estuary-side road before realising that I should have been on the main road above it, for this I blamed the heat, not the beer. Soon I left the road on a footpath that climbed southeastwards through delightful spring-green woods. The path became a track, then after a kilometre on this I reached a little lane at a sharp bend. Here the official route turned left, but I chose to go the other way that ultimately arrived at the same destination and, to be honest, looked a little shorter on my map.

Gellilwyd-Fawr farm, when I reached it, had been converted into holiday lets, as was practically every dwelling-place I had passed so far. Here I satisfyingly regained my direction westwards, though it was a little while before I realised that I was quite innocently following the route taken by V-G Backpacking in Britain instead of the more southerly official way that passes Llyn Gwernan. As far as I was concerned it was probably the best way because the guide describes the area of the ‘proper’ one as “a hub of human activity” with campsites  and people starting climbs of Cadair Idris.

This alternative route went roughly westwards in a fairly straight line for a couple of

W from Gellilwyd Fawr

kilometres or more, with a low wall on either side and far-reaching views beyond. The only downside was that the narrow path had been turned into a stony rut by offroad motorcycles, evident by tyremarks, so it was not comfortable to walk on. Eventually dropping down into a river valley, I passed a youth hostel where a one-eyed black cat on a table appreciated a stroke from me. Climbing out of the other side of the valley through woodland, I reached a tiny lane where a there were a small graveyard and a ruined chapel with a plaque dated 1883.

Heading more to the southwest now, the route became a green track that contoured the sides of low hills above a river valley with, of course, Cadair Idris along the southern skyline. It was disturbing to see that not so long ago there had been an extensive wildfire along this side of the valley, where all of the low heather and gorse were blackened stems, although the grass below them was green. This suggeted to me that the ground had been wet at the time, while the fire had raced across the woody plants in a strong breeze.

Pared y Cefn hir

It was now late afternoon/early evening and I was getting tired; I also knew that the little river below was one of the few water sources in the area, which unlike many other parts of Snowdonia is not filled with numerous streams and springs. Descending to the grassy land bordering the watercourse in search of a tent pitch, I was dismayed to find it was either boggy, filled with large tussocks, or not level. After much exploration I found a suitable spot against a dilapidated wall that was beside the path I had been following.

Day 2

Just to demonstrate how easily a fire could start in the current dry conditions, my stove set light to an adjacent tussock of moor grass, this I quickly stamped out with my boots. The path continued southwestwards to Llynnau Cregennen where there is a remote car park, whose vehicles at the time included two Winnebago-type motorhomes. As I had expected, close to here was where the wildfire had started, for there was an end to the burnt vegetation.

A slight climb brought me to the minor access road, over a rise of which I was delighted to see the land dropping away to reveal blue sea in the distance. After leaving the winding road at a bend, the footpath southwestwards which looked so straightforward on the map turned out to be anything but. Posts bearing arrows were sparse, but the worst offender was one which suggested the route continued straight on when in fact, I had to work out, it turned left through a wall gap and then right through a gap in an adjoining wall. Sad to say, I didn’t find the guide book’s descriptive maps much help as each one showed the direction of travel from left to right, so the north orientation switched one way and the other. As I was following the route on OS maps, the upside down maps continually confused me.

With the land becoming less wild and more pastoral as I descended, I took a few steps off the route to look for Arthog Stones, a small Megalithic stone circle. It seems I looked in the wrong place, for what I saw was a very large shallow circular depression with a few rocks around it, this left me unimpressed, it wasn’t worth a photo. But a short distance further my camera came out for an attractive old clapper bridge with two spans crossing a small river.

There followed a lengthy descent through beautiful woodland, but the steepness made it painful on my feet. The contrast to this was a level track crossing Arthog Bog; it brought me to a lane with houses along one side and then I rejoined the Mawddach Trail at its western end. A shaded picnic bench by a car park was an ideal stopping place for my lunch, with water taken from the tap in the public convenience; although it was clean I still took the precaution of using my Steripen.

A highlight of the trip followed, this was the crossing of Barmouth Bridge, the 699m long,

N on Barmouth Bridge

152 years-old wooden railway viaduct over the Mawddach estuary (thanks to Wikipedia for the figures). It also marked an achievement for me, having completed the southern section of the walk. Numerous friendly pedestrians and cyclists passed while I walked with my poles tucked under my arms, for the tips kept getting stuck between planks, and at last I was on the edge of Barmouth.

Here the official route followed the main road into the town and then left it northeastwards on a narrow road described as very steep in the V-G Backpacking in Britain trip report. Always keen to cut corners off, I had seen a closer footpath marked on the map; this would later join the other route, but it turned out to be an absolute killer, nothing but hundreds of steps ascending the hillside. Matters didn’t improve at the top, where there were a number of well-trod paths, including National Trust ones that were not shown on my map. I followed a little lane until it started to descend, that was clearly wrong; retracing my way, I spotted a group of young climbers with helmets and coils of rope who were coming down a hill above me. Racing (as best as I could) up a path to interecpt them, I found the party where they had stopped for a rest. Did they know which path led to Gellfawr farm? The leader hadn’t heard of it but he whipped out his phone, dabbed on it and said, “Follow the wall on your left and take the path on your right.” Hooray for today’s technology (in which I lag slightly behind)!

More climbing followed, with me struggling in the heat, but I reached a track that passed by the old building I was looking for and continued beyond, till at around 300m height it forked. My route was eastwards, up to the col of Bwlch y Llan, but it was now late afternoon and the map showed no water that way, whereas I should find streams if I continued off-route to the north. Green grazing fields sloped down towards the coast, and it was difficult to tell where any watercourses might be. Eventually I left the track to enter a sheep pasture via a five-bar gate and here I found a trickle of running water beside a tumbledown wall; rough Open Access land on the other side of the track would do for my tent.

Above Llanaber

Out to sea the prominent ups and downs of the Lleyn peninsula lay on the northern horizon, while to the southwest I could see what I can only presume was the north coast of Pembrokeshire. At 8:30 p.m. I watched in awe as a fox ran up the pasture before me, carrying something long and white in its jaws; perhaps it had found the foreleg of a deceased lamb that had been left laying about at a farm. To my great surprise the fox passed through the middle of a flock of ewes and lambs that did not appear to take the slightest bit of notice of it, and after pausing to look back over its shoulder, the animal slipped through a wire fence before reaching a rocky area where it was gone from my view.

Day 3

Although my tent pitch was the best I had been able to find, it turned out to be not quite level, so that every time I turned over in the night I had to shrug my sleeping bag back up to the end.  Twenty minutes after setting off in the morning I was back at the junction of tracks, that’s how far I had travelled to find water. Along the way I had passed grassy hollows in the ground which, I have learned, were old manganese mines; successions of them could be seen where a seam had been followed. Up at Bwlch y Llan col I paused for a last look at the blue sea before pressing on into the enticing landscape ahead, gently descending from the open land to green sheep pastures with a backdrop of high hills.

Following a dusty track alongside a wall I encountered a ewe with an injured lanb that wasn’t using one of its front legs. Sheep are such stupid animals that they keep running away ahead of you, on and on, instead of going to one side, but eventually I was able to catch up with the lamb and arrest its progress with a stretched-out walking pole, which had the intended effect of making it about-turn, followed by its mother. Later I paused for a rest on a boulder under the shade of a hawthorn tree, when a farmer roared along the track on a quad bike. He was so intent on standing up on his machine and looking over the wall as he passed that he failed to see me, but we met on his return, when he stopped for a friendly chat. After he had continued on his way I cursed myself for forgetting to mention the lame lamb, though I am sure he would have found out before long.

In a pasture below me were Arthur’s Stones, three small Bronze Age monoliths that mark

18th c. milestone

the centre of a large but not so visible stone circle. A couple of kilometres past Arthur’s Stones the track passed over a rushing little river where I stopped for lunch, sitting on a low wall beneath the shade of a ash tree. While I was here an offroad motorcyclist came along, with a helmet and Darth Vader-like face visor, and baggage strapped to his machine. He paused to talk, but sensing that he was not welcome he wisely continued on his way.

Further along the route I passed huge stone gateposts that may have been constructed using ‘robbed’ artefacts, but the most impressive sight was a large stone milepost which, I understand, is at the side of a former 18th century carriage road. Although very weathered and encrusted with lichens, the name Harlech could be discerned within the inscription on one side, and Talybont on the other side.

The track reached a little lane, a kilometre along which the official route turned south on paths down a valley, pasing old gold mines before returning up the other side of the valley. It was plain to me that if I stayed on the lane for a few hundred metres I could omit this diversion, which I did, but I then not-so-smartly took the first footpath on my left instead of the second. Passing a disused mine tunnel hewn into a rockface, a track led up to an isolated house, another holiday home, beyond which any path disappeared. After much searching I found a very faint way starting from the back of the house, it’s a good job it was unoccupied, and climbing inside the edge of a wood. An uncertain ascent followed before I reached a 2 metres-height wall with steps consisting of three large stones projecting from either side. Placing my rucksack on the top and dropping my poles over, I found on climbing the steps to the top of the broad wall that I had nothing but moveable stones to hold onto while getting my leg over to the other side, a very wobbly situation for me to be in, but somehow I achieved it without falling off. From here it was only a short pull to a decent track that ran north-eastwards.

The track descended to an area of trees and pastures where just before Garth Gell farm I spied a little stream. With that selected as the water source to fill my 5 litre plastic carrier, I went along a little side path where just far enough from the track to be out of sight of anyone passing along it, I found a lawn-like area of grass amongst scattered small trees. With boulders to sit on, too, it was perfect!

Day 4

W of Garth-gell

Garth Gell farm was a very short distance away, almost in sight from my camp. The large building was well-maintained but plainly unoccupied. My guide referred to a permissive path but I could not see where it commenced, and this was the point where I started to do my own thing. The official route went southwards down the west side of the Afon Cwm-mynach to the little village of Taicynhaeaf and almost to the main road on the north of the Afon Mawddach before returning northeastwards to cross Foel Ispri and continue some distance in that direction before looping southwards down  the upper Mawddach valley. I did not fancy any more climbing in the heat, even though the peak wasn’t a lot more than 300m in height, and I didn’t fancy what I saw as a long extension. I could see from my map that if I went a more direct way back to my starting point at Llaneltyd, which was roughly southeast of my present position, I could follow the New Precipice Walk, which had been on my to-do list for a while.

With that in mind, I found a track leading eastwards from Garth Gell to where the map said ‘Ford’, confident that in the current dry conditions I shouldn’t have too much trouble crossing the Afon Cwm-mynach, but to my surprise and pleasure there was a bridge. Now I walked southwards on a minor road till I saw a footpath sign on my left. There was no path, surprise, surprise, but it was relatively easy finding my way southeastwards across many different bits of farmland where all I had to fear was meeting cattle; fortunately there were none. At length I reached a single-track lane, now not having a clue where I was, not even with the help of the gps locator on my phone, but it appeared it was best to turn left, to the north. Imagine my delight when I reached a fork in the lane with a sign pointing to New Precipice Walk!

The lane led to another old farm, Foel-Ispri-uchaf, at the start of the trail which follows the

New Precipice Walk

flat course of an old mine tramway on the hillside. Finding I had a phone signal, I called my wife and attempted to describe the stunning views of the river valley and estuary below me. “I don’t think ‘precipice’ is quite you?” she cautioned, knowing how nervous I am of big  drops. “Don’t worry, “ I reassured her, “old tram lines have been put along the edge. It’s quite safe  – unless I trip over one!”

Reaching a path junction on the edge of a conifer forest beyond the end of the trail, I chose the lesser path which, I could see from my map, would cut a loop off. Except that it didn’t, because I became lost in all the near-identical tree trunks. Finding my way back onto the proper path took me twice as long as staying on it would have taken.  On the far side of the forest I passed one end of Llyn Tan-y-graig reservoir and then open hillsides where I followed a track that wound down the slopes.

After some length and a fair descent, the track rounded a curve where in front of me was a five bar gate with a ‘Private No Access’ sign. What the? I thought I had come the right way, but obviously that was not the case. To the right of the gate was a side-on detatched house, with a couple of parked vehicles, while ahead was a drive which must surely connect with a road in Llaneltyd village. At the end of  my walk there was no way I wanted to climb all the way back up that hill to find another path, so I took a deep breath and went undetected down the drive, which as I expected led to a public road, though I remained on edge until I reached it.

Soon I was back at the community centre and my car, my return being observed, I noticed, by two or three residents of properties on the hill above; it was good to know they were keeping an eye on it!  From here I drove to a Shropshire camp site where I spent three nights before I returned home, already thinking about the next trip.

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