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Llyn y Fan Fach from Bannau Sir Gaer
Llyn y Fan Fach from Bannau Sir Gaer
The Black Mountain

Origin of the Cambrian Way

The Cambrian Way was conceived by Tony Drake in 1968 and developed with help of a survey committee. The Countryside Commission was enthusiastic as to future designation as a national trail but there was much opposition from farmers, conservationists, mountaineers, the rural counties of Wales, and Snowdonia and Brecons Beacons national parks, whilst the Ramblers' Association and Youth Hostels Association strongly supported.

An officially designated national trail has to be on public rights of way. Much of the route proposed was across open moorland where access was permitted but was not actually a right of way as shown on the Ordnance Survey maps. The likely opposition from some landowners to creation of new rights of way and other factors influenced the Commission to abandon the project in 1982, following which Tony Drake produced a practical guide and handbook, following a line on public rights of way or where there was permissive or de facto access. Over 7000 copies have been sold and it is now at the sixth edition.

Since 1982 the Cambrian Way has been in a state of limbo, not merely that it is not a national trail, but is still officially opposed. Meanwhile, walkers who have tackled it have been ecstatic as to the experience, and some are at a loss what to do next.

When the Countryside Council for Wales (successors to the Countryside Commission) considered the Cambrian Way in 2000, it was decided that the time was not ripe, at least until the access to mountains and moorlands took effect. Other objections were said to be still valid, notably public safety and erosion. In 2001 the Foot and Mouth crisis highlighted the value of walking tourism to the economy of Wales. The access provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 have meant that the public has a legal right of access to vast areas of Wales including all the sections of the Cambrian Way that were permissive or de facto access. All this means that there is a case for at least some recognition of the Way's existence, even if not as a National Trail with all its razzmatazz. Marking on Ordnance Survey maps at 1:25,000 scale will be sought, but walkers will still need the sketch maps in the guidebook. The Ramblers' Association strongly advocates recognition of the Cambrian Way.

by Tony Drake

Below is a detailed history of the Cambrian Way in Tony's own words (extracted from the 2008 guidebook). It must be noted that since this was written there has been a considerable improvement in the attitudes of many of those who were opposed to the Cambrian Way and the National Park Authorities and many County Coucils are now co-operating well with the Cambrian Way Trust. However, some County Councils, are still opposed to the walk, with Powys refusing point blank to allow any waymarking of the Cambrian Way throughout their area of jurisdiction. However, this is less of a problem than it may seem, as a large proportion of the route through Powys is within the Brecon Beacons National Park, where these issues are controlled by the National Park Authority.     George Tod

My first involvement in long distance path planning was in the early 1950s when the Ramblers' Association in Gloucestershire did the initial planning for the Cotswold Way. About the same time I was involved in negotiations for amendments to the designated route for the Offa's Dyke Path in the Wye Valley. Between 1957 and 1960 I was involved in the planning of a serial walk along the Dyke path for the three Gloucestershire rambling clubs. These were very popular and when it was over the cry was "What can we do next?" I did some preliminary planning for a route from Gloucester to Snowdon via the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons and Plynlimon. The enormous attraction of this mostly mountain route was apparent, but the Gloucestershire Ramblers did not take it up. It was not until 1967 that it occurred to me to wonder why no one had proposed a long distance route over the principal mountains of Wales. Soundings in the Ramblers' Association and the Youth Hostel Association circles in Wales brought an immediate and enthusiastic response. Both the RA and YHA passed motions at their respective national council meetings in March 1968 calling for the creation of a Cambrian Way Long Distance Footpath.

The Cambrian Way Committee. Roger Brickell, the South Wales RA secretary at that time, convened a meeting at Kington on June 23rd 1968 at which a Cambrian Way Committee was formed with myself as chairman and Roger as secretary. A predominantly high level mountain route was to be surveyed and various organisations undertook sections by counties. The southern part was divided between the RA, YHA, the Brecon Beacons Voluntary Wardens Association and the Pontypool Group of the RA. In the north the British Mountaineering Council was offered the Caernarvonshire section but turned out to be hostile to the whole concept. Subsequently the RA and YHA based in Liverpool joined forces, led by Bill Hall and Brian Steventon respectively, and surveyed all the northern half.

The survey methods varied considerably. In the south some of the committee, notably Bob Rowson and Keith Mascetti were already knowledgeable of their area. Denis Veasey, David Robinson and Don Sutor made surveys in the lesser known Elenydd area in Central Wales, and concluded that the western side of that wild area had fewer forestry problems. The Liverpool Ramblers and hostellers had different methods and descended on their allotted area by coach and dispersed into several survey groups. Although I had visited much of Wales, particularly on meets of the Gloucestershire Mountaineering Club, my roving commission on all sections took me to delightful parts of Wales I might never have visited.

My first proposal was for a route from Capel-y-ffin to Snowdon but this soon got extended in both directions. Capel-y-ffin was clearly no equivalent of Edale on the Pennine Way but proposals to start a little further south at Abergavenny did not satisfy the South Wales members of the committee, who devised a route from Cardiff skirting the coalfield. At the northern end the natural extension was to the North Wales coast and soon the attraction of the long ridge of the Carneddau and the idea of a coast to coast, castle to castle route, clinched Conwy as the northern terminus.

At the subsequent three meetings of the committee the difficulty of arriving at a consensus view increased and there was a temptation to suggest alternatives because of disagreement. However, certain alternatives were agreed upon for safety reasons, such as a lower level alternative to the Rhinog ridgeline, and the Pyg Track or Crib Goch on Snowdon.

One alternative never properly resolved was whether to go north from Plynlimon to CadaIr Idris via Machynlleth or the longer way via Dylife, Dinas Mawddwy and Maesglase. (See later in the guide for the main arguments.) There was considerable discussion over the Black Mountains, partly as to whether to include them, and, if so where to cross over to the Brecon Beacons. I never liked the variation proposed via Mynydd Llangorse and Talybont, because it omitted the very fine Pen Allt Mawr ridge and the Llangattock cave area. The Brecon Park wardens advocated use of the Brecon and Usk canal towpath from Llangattock and Talybont but I could never see keen mountain walkers wanting to walk nine miles of towpath, however attractive.

The 1971 Proposals. On July 10th 1971, after the ceremony at Knighton declaring the Offa's Dyke Path officially open, I handed John Cripps, chairman of the Countryside Commission, a set of maps giving the Cambrian Way Committee's proposed route for Cambrian Way. In November that year I produced what I called the Interim Report and this lamentably was the only information on the Cambrian Way that I found time to produce until the first edition of this guidebook in 1984. Many hundreds of a scruffy 34 page duplicated report were sold to would be walkers until most of the stencils wore out.

The Countryside Commission had the responsibility for making recommendations to the Secretaries of State for the Environment or for Wales for the creation of long distance paths, (now called National Trails) under provisions of the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act 1949. (Since 1991 these duties in Wales have been taken over by the Countryside Council for Wales). Routes approved by the Secretary of State become the responsibility of the local authorities to create with a 100% grant from national funds. New rights of way can be created by agreement or compulsorily by creation order. The Commission from the beginning made encouraging noises and first mentioned the Cambrian Way in its annual report for 1968. The Interim Report was well received but it was made clear that restricted resources would dictate only limited commitment to the proposals. This proved to be a considerable understatement, such that the Commission's next four annual reports only indicated that the route was "under consideration". It sought to get reactions from the likely user organisations before approaching local authority and landowning interests. The Committee for Wales of the Countryside Commission was enthusiastic both under the chairmanship of Dr. Margaret Davies and later of Trevor Lewis and James Kegie.

In April 1976 the Commission approved the Cambrian Way project in principle and in September 1977 started official consultations on the basis of a map showing both the Cambrian Way Committee's route and the Commission's Preferred Route which differed in many respects. All the principal summits in Snowdonia were omitted. The route was to go over the Arans and the Arenigs instead of the Rhinogs and Cadair Idris. The crossover from Black Mountains to Brecon Beacons was to be via Mynydd Llangorse.

Following opposition from many quarters, the Commission issued another line in January 1980 called a Consultation Route. This time the Cambrian Way Committee's route was not shown on the map, though the new route was closer to it than the 1977 line. Snowdon was included but still not the ridge of the Carneddau, Cadair Idris was included and a route to the seaward side of the Rhinogs instead of a route over the Arans, where in the meantime an access row had blown up. The Black Mountains were omitted altogether following pressure from the national park authority.

There had been much criticism of lack of consultation by the Commission, so to meet this it had decided to appoint field officers to meet landowners and other authorities. The first field officer, John Tetlow, a lecturer of the Department of Town Planning at the University of Wales, was appointed for a year and asked to report on the southern section up to Llandovery. He started off full of enthusiasm and the right ideas but when confronted with the opposition of commoners' committees and the national park authority, came up with some extraordinary compromises. Neither Pen y Fan nor the Carmarthen Van summits were to be part of the route, Pen y Fan which had erosion problems on the obvious route, and the Vans because the commoners would only agree to a route creeping round the base of the common and through conifer woods. The Cnewr Estate would not agree to any access during the lambing period (April 15th to May 10th) and the Countryside Commission was not prepared to have a long distance path with such a limitation.

The second field officer to be appointed, Donald Hoare, a former principal of an outdoor pursuits centre in Wales, fared better than John Tetlow and found general acceptance of the Cambrian Way proposals in the central section.

After years of support for the project and considerable determination to see the Cambrian Way designated, the Countryside Commission suddenly caved in and, with regret, abandoned it in January 1982. It concluded that there was continuing and widespread opposition to the proposed route, even when alternatives were considered. It was one of the earliest major decisions of the Commission following the appointment of Derek (later Sir Derek) Barber as its new chairman and who was advised to abandon the project by Martin Fitton, then the Principal Welsh Officer of the Commission. The decision was seen as an act of appeasement to the Welsh farmers in the hope of more cooperation on other countryside issues.

Donald Hoare's contract was terminated and the Commission never got round to appointing a field officer for the northern section. Who knows what ghastly compromises he or she might have been forced into in the Snowdonia National Park?

The Recreational Organisations

The Ramblers (formerly The Ramblers' Association)

has consistently supported the Cambrian Way concept. Its National Executive Committee approved the principle of a Cambrian Way following a meeting, which I attended in July 1972, but agreed that any guide on the subject should stress that it was a mountain route. It was proposed that the title should be "The Cambrian Mountain Way". In the late 80s support for the Cambrian Way was confirmed as the RA's preferred additional national trail in Wales. A Welsh coastal path was later added to its priority list. In 2006 the Welsh Council of the RA called for recognition of the Cambrian Way as at least recreational status.

The Youth Hostels Association likewise consistently supported the idea of a high level route with low level alternatives. It looked forward to an exciting new outlet for the energies of young travellers.

The British Mountaineering Council's North Wales Committee was bitterly opposed to the idea of a Cambrian Way and in particular to it going over the Rhinogs. At a meeting in February 1972, at which I was representing the Gloucestershire Mountaineering Club, only the London Mountaineering Club representative gave support. The BMC's South-west and Southern Committee, covering South Wales decided in favour so that the matter was called in nationally. I attended a meeting of the Committee of Management in October 1972 and after an hour and a half's debate Cambrian Way was approved by 11 votes to 4. Subsequently however the BMC Safety Committee secured a reversal of the decision on safety grounds, and thought that designation would "encourage peak baggers and merit badge enthusiasts into difficult and remote areas". The North Wales Committee was asked to work out an alternative to the Rhinogs and it was their route over the relatively dull Arenig Fawr and moorland to the south-east of Ffestiniog that appeared as part of the Countryside Commission's preferred route in 1977.

The County Councils and the National Parks

Numerically the county councils were equally divided as to the merits of a Cambrian Way. Gwent, South Glamorgan and Mid Glamorgan being in favour with Dyfed, Gwynedd and Powys against. Those against however controlled 87% of the proposed route.

Both of the national park authorities opposed the Cambrian Way. Brecon Beacons National Park claimed that the route proposed was neither logical nor in keeping with the policies of the national park plan. That plan defined the Carmarthen Vans as a remote and vulnerable area where additional recreational activity would not be encouraged by the provision of further facilities. The use of two further ridges of the Black Mountains for a long distance path was said to be difficult to accept and support. Despite the 100% grants available for national trails it was argued that concentration of limited resources on long distance paths reduced the amount of work carried out on the path network generally. It was pointed out that the cost of erosion work in the Brecon Beacons was falling entirely on the national park and the National Trust, but no mention was made that 100% grant could be available if the erosion was on an official national trail. The national park committee went to the length of passing a resolution in 1986 to ban the sales of this book from its Mountain Centre near Brecon. Attitudes have changed and sales are now permitted.

Snowdonia National Park in its national park plan (1977) said "The National Park Authority is not convinced of the desirability of the proposed Cambrian Way long distance footpath. In particular they are opposed to the suggested route linking more of the principal summits of Snowdonia. The Authority will therefore seek further discussions on the topic with the Countryside Commission and other interested bodies?. They certainly had discussions with the Commission but not with the RA or YHA.

The Farming Interests Both the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales were vociferous in their opposition to Cambrian Way and used their powerful lobby to influence the local authorities and park committees. The Country Landowners Association was apparently not opposed to the project.


The arguments raged furiously from 1968 to 1982 as to whether a Cambrian Way was desirable and if so where it should go. If the project had not been abandoned, the arguments would probably have gone on for decades and the end result, if any, would at best have been a set of miserable compromises.

It was becoming apparent, even before abandonment, that if the compromises being considered were adopted, there would have arisen the anomalous situation of Cambrian Way walkers watching others go the obvious well established ways while they were plodding round the edges of commons and missing the tops. Guidebooks would have appeared advocating different routes to the official line and the whole concept of national trails would have fallen into disrepute.

Following abandonment there was a freedom to choose any way over which the public has a right of way or access, or where there is permissive use. On commons and other open country it is reasonable to describe well used routes - there would have been no books on mountain walks in Wales if rights of way only had to be followed.

With hindsight it is perhaps a pity I did not produce a guidebook during the mid 70s but the need not to prejudice possible new rights of way was felt to be paramount. After abandonment, much further survey was carried out to make more use of existing rights of way. In the event I was "pipped at the post" by Richard Sale, whose "A Cambrian Way" was published in February 1984. Subtitled " A personal guide to an unofficial route", the book was not a practical guide and handbook as this book sets out to be, but has 270 pages packed with fascinating reading, mostly historical, and which makes excellent reading after a day on the Cambrian Way. Richard and I had several meetings to coordinate routes but we agreed to differ on some.

How can it be that the Cambrian Way, officially abandoned after much opposition, suddenly came into existence at the behest of Messrs Drake and Sale? Is it thought irresponsible to take advantage of the right of any citizen to suggest to others where they may walk? Some books have undoubtedly caused embarrassment where insufficient research has been carried out as to rights of way and as to possible impacts on wildlife and erosion problems. The public status of the routes in this guidebook has been the subject of all reasonable checks and has been made by one who has a background of 58 years experience in dealing with rights of way matters. The sections of the route over de facto access land on rural commons (10%) and other mountain and moorland (2%) were carefully chosen to be along well established routes where even the most law abiding walker would not have felt it necessary to try to ascertain who the owner was and to ask permission to use.

Five editions of this book have been published between 1984 and 2000. About 7700 copies have been sold without, as far as I am aware, any dispute over rights of way or access: at least no problems have filtered back to me as author. There have been a few obstructions and maintenance problems, which have been reported to the appropriate highway authority.

None of the county councils have sought to designate the Cambrian Way as a recreational route or pressed for national trail status although Ceredigion has given priority to some major problems. The Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) actively sabotaged efforts to encourage use of the route by banning promotion by the Wales Tourist Board. In particular it banned the enterprising walking package offered by Nick Bointon, using transport and navigational aids, from Llanerchinda, near Llandovery. This enabled walkers to traverse the Brecon Beacons section and on into Central Wales. CCW disapproved of the televising of Janet Street-Porter?s walk. Welsh Minister, Peter Hain, openly criticised the CCW policy.

A meeting was held in April 2000, attended by representatives of CCW, RA and the rural counties involved, (but not the author of this guidebook), at which it was assumed by CCW that the counties and national parks still held to the policy of opposition agreed forty years previous. They appeared to ignore the promised access which would legalise the permissive access which had existed for years without dispute. Clearly designation of any kind should await legal access but there seemed to be an assumption that the highway authorities would not want to maintain the route.

The Right to Roam.

For over a century there was a clamour for a right to roam over open country. Access to grouse moors in the north of England was the main bone of contention, particularly from the Ramblers' Association. Success came with the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Grouse shooting is not a problem in Wales so the effect of the act has been mainly to legalise the de facto access already enjoyed. Much of the Cambrian Way is over land where public use has been accepted, often with ladder stiles erected by the highway authority or warden service where fences crossed walkers' regular desired lines. Thus the principle objection to designation suddenly disappeared and gained legal public status, albeit with possible restrictions.

The Ramblers' Association Welsh Council in April 2006 passed a resolution calling for recognition of the Cambrian Way as following an existing high level challenging mountain route of great scenic beauty and that it is worthy of at least recreational path status. This brings the main history of the Cambrian Way up to 2008.

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