Sep. 2015, The Rhinogs from Trawsfynydd

After my disappointingly brief trip in the cold May of this year, I was even more keen to have another. There were also some equipment failures in May that needed rectifying; one of these was my leaking self-inflating ground mat, and I am pleased to report that Multimat sent me a new one, for which I was most grateful. Other items, such as my worn out water carrier, I started renewing as soon as the month following, but I also went through my gear item by item, looking to see if I could make it lighter, even if it was only a few grammes. By the time I finished, I had reduced my pack weight by nearly a kilo; details of the savings can be found here.

Where to go was relatively easily decided. At an earlier date I had made a shortlist of areas of Snowdonia that I would like to walk in again, one of which was the Rhinogs, whose main ridge I had traversed in 1986 and the eastern side of which I had fringed in 1998. Clearly a return was overdue, but these parts have a reputation of being the roughest terrain in Wales. However, I intended to avoid climbing the peaks, and when I looked at a map I could see that roughly between Harlech in the west and Trawsfynydd in the east there are four major footpath ways across the area, using passes rather than scaling the heights. Two of these I chose to form part of a circuit.

Starting from Harlech was what I fancied, as I had never really visited it before and there were some good campsites in the area that I wanted to try at the start and end of my walk. But I had stopped to buy a sandwich on my way through the town the previous year and I now recalled narrow roads, crowds of tourists and an abundance of yellow lines. Using the Walking Forum to seek the advice of anyone relatively local to it, my fears were confirmed, there would be nowhere I could leave my car for three or four days.

Plan ‘B’, then, was to start from Trawsfynydd, on the opposite side of my route, where I knew there was free parking. It also had the advantage of avoiding a steady climb up into the hills from the coastal position of Harlech, and it would give me the yet to be achieved goal of walking the lengthy footbridge that spans the south-eastern end of Llyn Trawsfynydd.

The only other thing to be decided on was when in September to go. I wanted the most favourable weather possible but I also had to fit my trip around various commitments, one of which was centered on a holiday my wife had booked – my orders were to be around either to drive her to Gatwick Airport or to bring her home, one of the two. Intensely studying 14-day weather forecasts like I had never done before, these continually warned of winds and rain from the remnants of tropical storms that crossed the Atlantic. In the end I chose the final full week of the month; I couldn’t put it off any longer otherwise I would be going in October.

Thus on Sunday 20th I made my way up the M40 from the south and via Welshpool and Dolgellau to Trawsfynydd, where I drove along a little lane around the south of the lake to reach Cae Adda camp site by the shore. I had camped in the vicinity in 1998 but I don’t think this was the same spot; if it was, it had changed beyond my recognition. The late afternoon was dark and damp, with distant hills black and capped with shreds of grey cloud, while the camp site was completely deserted, I had it entirely to myself. After getting my tent ready and then driving to The Oakley Arms at Tan-y-bwlch for a meal, I returned with nothing else to do but go to bed early and listen to light rain pattering on the flysheet. I had sold on the down sleeping bag in which I was cold last May, and having bought a higher specification one in its place, I found it to be far superior. At some time in the night the rain became heavy, I heard it on a couple of the times that I turned over, but I was snug and comfortable.

Day 1

A uniformly grey sky didn’t look promising in the morning, when I was up at seven. It was no longer raining but my Wellington boots were invaluable when traipsing back and forth in the wet grass of the camp site. Before leaving, I got everything ready for my walk, even down to putting my walking boots on, then I drove back around the lake and into Trawsfynydd village where I left my car in the car park behind the Health Centre. All I had to do was shoulder my rucksack, grab my poles and set off.

Just one street of houses and a short bit of road were trod to reach a track to a farm and a footpath to the north end of the bridge over the lake. Unfortunately there were a couple of rather fearsome looking large cattle in the field the footpath crossed, so I warily made my way around them, only to see I was now close to a third one that was getting to its feet behind a broken wall that had hidden it from my view. My pace quickened as I headed directly to the lake edge and thence to the bridge, but I didn’t relax until I was safely the other side of a gate.

Information on the web tells that the bridge was built to compensate for the loss of public rights of way when the land was flooded to create the reservoir. It has been estimated at being more than 300m in length and is speculated to be the longest footbridge in the country. It boasts a distant view of the currently cloud capped mountains of Rhinog Fach and Rhinog Fawr on the horizon, but after a short time the crossing became a bit monotonous, while the boards are a bit springy underfoot and I wondered about their strength, particularly as recent replacements were evident here and there; therefore I was happy to step off the far end.

Having crossed the lake I followed about a mile and a half of a little lane that climbed gently into the hills, this was quite pleasant as the day had lightened up a little. A docile-looking pair of Welsh highland cattle by the roadside did no more than stare at me as I passed them. On the other side was an enclosure of large pink pigs, followed by a walled pasture containing sheep. At its highest point the lane curved round into a beautiful cwm with a lonely farm standing at its far end, the flanks of mountains rising behind it. I had been at this spot in 1998. Did I recognise it? Not a bit.

Turning left at this point onto an overgrown but moderately level track, I headed south-west towards a distant pair of long, stone-walled agricultural buildings with tin roofs, the nearest one being a rusty-red colour. Sections of the track were under water, making it necessary to step out and walk alongside it. Just in front of the buildings, a stone and concrete footbridge with a solitary side guard crossed a river, the Afon Crawcwellt. Alongside this bridge the river was also spanned by two lengths of steel girder laid on their sides, positioned at the right space apart to accommodate the wheels of vehicles. At the far side of the buildings a yellow footpath arrow on a short post pointed vaguely at a large expanse of grassy moor that rose gently to a low ridge on the skyline, but I found a faint and boggy path to follow.

The moor was flat and featureless, so progress seemed slow and I just didn’t appear to be getting anywhere, until the walls of a ruined stone building came into view, with the trod way heading in its direction, and that gave something to focus on. On this stretch came the first of a number of rain showers that made me don my waterproofs. Beyond the ruin the land was bisected by a wire fence, by which I could see a tall pole with a yellow band, but when I reached it there was absolutely no trace of the path carrying on southwards on the far side, as shown on my map. I was in a bit of a quandary now; I knew where I needed to get to, that was not a problem, but to go that way with no path seemed like it would be hard work. So I turned right instead, climbing alongside the fence towards a corner of fences higher up, below a loftier ridge. On reaching the corner, I crossed over the fence, which I could see was bowed from others having done it before, and lo and behold here was a faint trod way heading southwards! I had unknowingly chosen exactly the same way as walkers before me had done in the absence of a path beyond the pole by the fence.

Plodding on in further showers, I followed this trod way that headed up to the crest of the low ridge I had wanted to get to. Beyond the top was a forest, made evident before I reached it by occasional self seeded conifers and the tops of mature trees becoming visible as I climbed. An unmistakable path continued downhill after the ridge, leaving me in no doubt that this was the right way. It was even marked with short yellow-topped posts where it went around the ruined stone structures of Hafod Gynfal, which was an old farm according to one source of information on the web.

After the old buildings the path descended amongst taller and denser conifers to a crossing forestry track, where I made a great navigational error. There were about three ways through this large forest, the easiest two of which appeared to be by following tracks, but for some reason I was sure at the time that I had to cross the first track and turn onto the second that I came to. Wrong! There was no second track, the first was the one I should have turned onto. Call it overconfidence, and I should have checked my map. So I mistakenly plunged into the trees on the far side of the track, where a footpath arrow on a short post lured me.

Though an official footpath through the middle of the forest, it was little used, overgrown and extremely boggy, while for the first ten minutes I was asking myself over and over, “Where’s my track?”, still expecting one to come into view. When it eventually sank in that I had made an error, I just gritted my teeth and unhappily got on with it. After some way I was suddenly aware of the sound of running water where the path crossed a tiny stream, and now the voice in my head cried “Lunch!”. Sitting on a mound on the path, I took a gloomy break in the trees, still clad in my waterproofs.

Further on, I was greatly relieved to reach another track, beyond which a large area of trees had been cleared some years previously. It was pleasing to come out into the open, and it had stopped raining, too; however I was still worryingly only part of the way through the forest, with no clear route. I opted to turn right, westwards, and soon reached a small river. Stopping to fill my water bottle here, I discovered to my dismay that the batteries in my Steripen sterilizer were flat. The maker instructs to renew them annually, and although mine were nearly eighteen months old, the unit had not been used much in this time. I had tested it before my trip but only as far as seeing the “ready” led was flashing. What I had not done was immerse the lamp in water to see that the ultraviolet light came on, something I would do in future. From this point my drinking water was untreated, but I didn’t suffer any ill effects.

A lot of recent work with a bulldozer had taken place around here, apparently to strengthen the banks of a small elevated lake, consequently it was quite unpleasant to walk on, with piles of soil, boulders and dead branches; worse still, any trace of a footpath, shown on the map as heading south from here, was obliterated. After a number of failed attempts at finding it, I merely crossed the devastated land in the right direction, a task not made any easier by numerous water-filled hollows that had to be avoided. After a struggle through a final area of wet undergrowth I reached another crossing track. According to my map it was a dead-end to my right, but if I went left, a couple of right turns at junctions would bring me back on course.

Only a little way along the track, I spotted on its south side short orange-topped posts at intervals through the scrubby land, presumably marking the continuation of the same footpath shown on my map. It would be better than going the long way round on tracks, I reasoned. The posts might have marked the way, but there was no path, and after a while there were no more posts, either! How I wished I had stayed on the tracks! Another struggle followed, till I reached and crossed a wire fence onto grass pasture at Graigddu-isaf farm where a donkey headed towards me to investigate. But here there was a track that headed southwards, one I could have been on ages ago if I hadn’t been so stupid, to reach the south-west corner of the forest in a mile. What bliss it would have been to do some decent walking if I wasn’t now so tired from the earlier exertions, while I was still passing nothing but boring conifer trees, too.

Nearing the end of the track, a white minibus appeared and stopped. Its driver, I learned, was expecting a group doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to be passing soon, so when I turned onto a track of stone chippings that climbed out of the forest into the mountains, it was no surprise to meet four backpack-toting older teenagers, three lads and a girl, coming towards me. They appeared overdressed in fleeces, waterproofs and hats, the opposite of me with just my microfleece shirt on my top, but it was a real surprise to find they lived in a London borough adjoining my one!

A stream valley, moor and mountain filled the view on my left as I headed to the last corner of the forest. At its exit stood an information board for the Rhinog National Nature Reserve, while the good track changed to a well trod but extremely narrow and uneven path that was alternately peaty soil, puddles and rocks. This gradually climbed, with the valley narrowing, to a cairn that marks the highest point of the pass of Bwlch Drws-Ardudwy, between Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach. The land here was nothing but heather, grasses and rocks, traversed by ancient stone walls. Down the pass to the west the sea was visible in Cardigan Bay.

As I began my gradual descent the path seemed even worse than it was earlier. At the same time I was looking out for a possible spot to pitch my tent for the night, but I could tell one was going to be hard to find, because there were no flat places and everywhere was incredibly wet; no matter where I stood, water started welling up around the soles of my boots. A wall ran down the centre of the pass, and further downhill a somewhat swollen stream flowed beside it; this was good, it meant I would have water, but there was still nowhere for my tent, and time was getting on.

When I saw a ladder stile crossing the wall at a point where a foaming white side stream tumbled down from the heights above, I thought I should investigate the far side, even though this involved leaping across the brim-full stream on my side of the wall. It was worth it, because next to the stile there was a flat patch of not-too-wet grass just big enough for my tent. Unfortunately it was only feet away from the roaring side stream, whose noise had to be heard to be believed, but I didn’t have any choice.

Day 2

Although my pitch was level and sheltered, I did not have the best night’s sleep because of the din of the adjacent stream, a noise that increased even more after some hours of rain during the night. But worse was to come. As soon as I levered myself up on an elbow to get up in the morning, everything span in front of my eyes and I quickly collapsed down again. It was a return of the vertigo that had plagued me for five years, during which I had to take early retirement because of it, until it was cured seven years ago, or so I had thought. There was little doubt in my mind that this recurrence was the result of four failed attempts in as many weeks by nurses at my medical centre to syringe my ears, the most recent treatment being only three days before I came away.

What a state to be in when wild camping in the middle of the mountains! Getting down was the only option. After the difficulty of dressing and putting my boots on, I staggered outside and clung onto the wall for support, then I was sick. It was only dry retching, because I hadn’t eaten anything, but I felt awful. Somehow I got everything packed away in my rucksack, which I donned by supporting it on a tread of the ladder stile while I leaned back into it and got the straps on my shoulders. The side stream by my pitch was absolutely bombing down, while the one over the wall was much wider than it had been the previous evening, so crossing it was going to be a problem. With the wall supporting my wobbly body, I made my way upstream on the few inches of bank that remained on this side, my object being to find a narrower spot. After some yards I could see two green tussocks of grass that showed beneath the surface of the water in midstream. With the help of my poles for support, I jumped and landed my left foot on the furthest clump and my right foot on the far bank, but there I fell in a heap because of my condition, resulting in wet trouser legs, backside and elbows.

Slowly and clumsily I staggered my way down the remainder of the pass, falling over another couple of times, each time getting soaked again because the ground and vegetation were so wet; at one stage I sat on a rock and was sick again. Lower down, the path had been restored with stones and long narrow slabs of rock, but they were all under water so it was a case of looking for the shallowest bits to paddle through.

About a mile and a half from where I started there was a farmhouse just off to one side. This was close to the point where I would have turned north if I had been continuing my planned circuit. A delightfully friendly old sheepdog greeted me. Knocking at the door and feeling very sorry for myself, I explained to the farmer that I was unwell, and could he possibly call a taxi to take me back to my car? I was taken into the large kitchen and sat on a wooden chair, and the transport duly arrived to take me back to Trawsfynydd. There was one big problem for me, which was that I was now on the wrong side of the mountains, that have no roads across them, so it was a very long journey around them and it cost me a great deal of money.

Fortunately the vertigo only affects me when I am standing or moving about, so sitting comfortably in a driving seat and handling steering wheel, gear lever and foot pedals is not a problem and I was able to get myself to an excellent camp site by a little village a bit inland from Wales’ north coast, where I had a whole field to myself. What was hard in my condition was getting a large tent erected on my own, when I felt nauseous again, but once I had made myself at home I did nothing but lay about for two days, and I was able to eat the next day, too. On the third day I drove to Llandudno A&E where I persuaded the staff to perform the Epley Manouevre on me, which rearranges the crystals in the tubes of the middle ear, following which my condition was much improved.

On my return to the camp site, though, the rear box became detached from the exhaust of my ten years old car. Learning that there was a garage in the village, I paid them a visit and the new part was obtained for me and fitted the following day. More expense for me, but the repair cost a great deal less than London prices. Meanwhile, the weather had turned beautiful, even if the nights were cold, so I extended my stay by a couple of days. It is interesting to note that when I was checking weather forecasts before my trip, not one site predicted this Indian summer, and I was really choked that I went a week too early, as it turned out. Who knows, maybe I would not have got the vertigo if I had not gone away just three days after the last ear treatment? But that is pure speculation. What I do know is, I now have an unfinished trip to complete! And next time I will know which way to go through the forest on the first day!

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