This was the long-delayed and much anticipated repeat of the glorious walk my son Nick and I did in 2015/16 through the length of Wales, following the Cambrian Way. It is a demanding route which seeks out the mountainous areas of the country, linking Cardiff in the south to Conwy in the north and was devised by one Tony Drake of the RA, now deceased. He made it his life's work to get the route planned and accepted and as a concept it is completely inspiring and has always been for me something of a special challenge. In the 1980s, I remember receiving a number of route sheets produced on an old Gestetner copier and printed out using the methylated spirits ink that those machines used to employ. The route was scarcely decipherable and it was a great improvement when the Cambrian Way Trust brought out the first of their many-times reprinted little guide. Even that guide was not easy to follow with its split maps in black and white and its changing scales. Now we have the resources of the Cicerone Publishing Company together with the work of the indefatigable George Tod, supported by the Trust, and they have given us the magnificent guide which will surely place the walk firmly on the list of any long distance walking enthusiast. This has to be one of the great walks of these islands.
For reasons of stamina and logistics we split our walk into two parts, though I still dream that one day I shall do it as one continuous walk. At my age (71), it's no little undertaking, but so far so good and this is my remembered account of the first part, walked with my son between 29th May and 11th June 2021. We had good walking weather and, although we had walked the route a few years earlier, the interesting thing was that in many ways, it felt like a new route. On our previous experience, we had been captivated and challenged, but sometimes put out by problems over route-finding and, occasionally, the very tough terrain. This time we had the inestimable advantage of a GPS device which delivered the route with certainty and allowed us to enjoy our beautiful surroundings without any anxieties.
Saturday May 29th Cardiff to Coryton 11.6 km, 129m
Nick at Cardiff Castle
This was a short day just to get us started, having arrived in Cardiff by train at around midday. We were staying at the Village Hotel, Coryton on the outskirts of Cardiff and we set out from the Castle following the river Taff through the lovely Bute Park, walking through a glorious summer's afternoon amidst families and children relaxing, students playing ping-pong and with all the feel of a world coming out of the covid nightmare and rediscovering the joy of being uninhibitedly together in the open air.
Forest Farm Country Park, Whitchurch, Cardiff
The Village Hotel was probably a suburban business hotel in normal times, but this bank holiday weekend, it was populated with a few escaping couples and the odd group of men who seemed interested in the sport on the big screen. We had a plan to catch the local train from Coryton back into Cardiff for a beer sampling and to get a curry. Our plan was thwarted by the vast bank holiday crowds in the city centre that night and the difficulty of getting a table without having pre-booked. However we did locate my previously remembered, decent curry place called Spice Quarter in the Old Brewery quarter of the City. The trip out and back by train was interesting too and an unusual thing to do at the start of one of our walks.
Sunday May 30th Coryton to Pontywaen 24.9 km, 706m
The suburb of Coryton was a pleasant enough place, though its peace was somewhat undermined by the ever-present rumble of the motorway traffic nearby. In fact, our first navigational task was to negotiate the complex junction of motorway, 'A' road and associated slip roads before we could start to ascend the lovely wooded area around Castell Coch, (a feature which we somehow succeeded in only seeing from a distance this time). The weather was pleasant without being too hot, but we were protected from the sun anyway because we were strolling for much of the time through glorious beech woods. It was very much a feature of this whole day that we were bathed in woodland green for so much of the time. It was a wonderful start to the walk and brought us into immediate contact with all the sounds and smells of late spring in Wales. We were now on the the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway walk and every so often the views started to open up with Caerphilly clearly the settlement over to our left, our first proper mountain, Mynydd Machen way up ahead and the Severn estuary and the coast of Somerset over to the right. We were truly heading up into the valleys now and the physical beauty of their surroundings struck me as being extraordinary, perhaps the more obvious now that mining and other industries have long departed. Mention must be made of the farm of Cefn Onn, a total eyesore in all this scenic beauty. It was a complete tip on a huge scale too, with all manner of discarded vehicles, farm machinery and other detritus surrounding an inhabited but otherwise run down and desolate farmhouse. Strategically positioned on the route was a caravan in which drinks and ice cream were being sold, but neither of us wanted to give money to such an enterprise, whatever the true circumstances were behind such obvious need.
It became a regular refrain that we would ask ourselves as we went along how much of the route we were remembering from our earlier walk and, although there was a general sense of familiarity, it was surprising how much of the detail seemed fresh. We were experiencing the walk anew and it was a joy to sense that we were reconnecting with something already known, but seen in a subtly changed way and with slightly different eyes.
At times we really did think we were not on the same route. We came to places that we had no memory of, even though on checking the old guide, we found that we had clearly gone that way on the earlier walk. Something like this happened now when we suddenly arrived at a charming-looking pub, the Maenllwyd Inn which was just opening for lunch. A pint would be welcome we thought, but, as we were to increasingly find out, walking into a pub casually and without forethought was, in the time of Covid at least, an impossibility. As he busied himself with unlocking, the landlord himself gave us the thumbs down on any sort of refreshment, unless we had booked way in advance! A lesson quickly learnt.
We were approaching the small town of Machen and it was necessary to find a spot for our lunch before we reached busy roads and civilisation. We came through an area of clear-cut forestry, not the most beautiful place for a stop, but logs for sitting on were handy and so our filling station-bought sandwiches and crisps and pre-prepared packs of fruit and yogurt were brought out and enjoyed - the first of our many and varied picnics to come.
Machen is a rather strung-out place, spoilt by its busy main road, but there were a few reasons to pause here. One was for me to get a razor - something I'd stupidly forgotten - and another was to get an ice cream before tackling Mynydd Machen, the hill that dominates the town and whose radio mast we had been picking out from the view to the north all day. Again there were considerable changes in the aspect of the hill. Much forestry had been cut but there had also clearly been a damaging forest fire within the last year or so and there were signs of scorched trunks and large areas of burnt undergrowth everywhere you looked.
We paused again at the top of the mountain to take in the considerable view and to work out our forward route. It was best in the end partially to retrace our steps before contouring and finally dropping down into the Cross Keys/Risca area, a strung-out settlement of linked villages. Our plan was to walk the tow path of the Monmouth and Brecon canal up to Pontywaun, but they were draining part of the canal for some reason and the tow path was fenced-off. It took ingenuity and some desperation to finally access the tow path, probably illegally, but we figured that if we could somehow get on to it, we would likely find a way to get off it again!
The first pub we came to in Pontywaun was called the Philanthropic and I thought that that really must be our lodging, only re-titled with a fancy name. I couldn't believe there were 2 pubs in this small, straggling village. But there were. I had no hope that our own pub, when we found it further up the street and called the Castle Inn and Lodge, would be anything very much, as we were well off the tourist trail in this former mining village of the valleys. But it was really quite a special place. We were shown into the 'lodge' part of the establishment which was essentially a bedroom and kitchenette all in one. We therefore had the means to make our own hot drinks and breakfast and, if we had wanted, to cook a meal. I took the opportunity to do some hand washing in the sink and, after studying the pile of take-away menus, we opted for a Chinese meal to be delivered to the pub adjoining. There was no real ale in either pub, but each place exuded the friendliness and sociability of the valleys for which they are famous. These tight-knit communities still have the feel of a place slightly apart, where everybody knows each other and where neighbourliness is born of struggle and the need to support one another, and where the culture is, or has been dominated by sport and the chapel.
The rather rowdy group of non-locals drinking outside at the table next to ours were annoying the landlord I think rather more than they were us as we tucked into our Chinese meal and pints of Guinness with some abandon. There was plenty of food and with the microwave in our room, Nick served up a beautiful hot Chinese breakfast the next morning made with the left-overs from the night before.
We found the landlord up and about the next morning bright and early, stripped to the waist and busy with his cleaning. He asked where we were heading and on hearing that we were going to Pontypool, he looked at us as though we were mad and, shaking his head, he made a near-verticle hand gesture whilst muttering something to the effect that such an uphill climb was not for the likes of normal , right-thinking people like himself. His generous girth, which he was displaying without inhibition, was a reminder that for some, our particular pleasure would be their purgatory!
Monday May 31st Pontywaun to Pontypool 16.8 km, 420 m
It was indeed a very sharp pull up out of Pontywaun following a faint zig-zag route through the trees and the undergrowth. I had the feeling that more of the folk of Pontywaun agreed with our landlord than with us about the pleasures of hill walking! It was a hot and sticky morning to boot so it was a bit of a relief to find the relatively level track which contoured the hill before we got stuck into the main ascent of the day, which was a hill called Twmbarlwm, which at 419 m was the highest point of our climbing that day. As we climbed amongst the lightly clad joggers and families just out from the car park about half way up, I was to become a little self-consciously aware of our formidable rucksacks, the size of which occasionally drew comments from our fellow exercisers. It might have been here, or somewhere else that I found myself explaining that we were on the road for 2 weeks and that we needed a bit more on our backs than a simple day sack.
Twmbarlwm's summit is in fact a hill fort stretching back to the iron age Celts and is a scheduled ancient monument. It has splendid views and from here a ridge walk over the common land of Mynydd Henllys begins. This is fine wide track, with views over to the new town of Cwmbran on the right. It is possible to bowl along on this track without thinking too much about the direction - but beware! The track was the cause of a major navigational error the first time we did the route in 2015. The track swings gently round to the north in the direction of Mynydd Maen, but this is not the right way. Back then, we were without the navigational tool (the GPS) and without the caution that is bred from experience, and we were lulled into a false sense of security. We carried on the wrong way for several miles, trying and failing to make sense of the map and of everything that we were seeing about us. We got into all sorts of trouble and lost half a day's walking out of an already very long day, Abergavenny being the objective. We were forced to make a detour to Pontypool where, ignominiously, we had to get a train to Abergavenny, just so that we could stay with the schedule. (A few months later in darkest January, we travelled all the way back to Pontpool from Liverpool to patch in the missing half day, but the weather was so atrocious that we were still unable to follow the route precisely, although we did make it to Abergavenny!). The Cambrian Way route silently, stealthily, deceptively, and without any announcement, (certainly not with any well placed sign, a few of which we were beginning to become aware of), changes its course and deviates ever so cautiously to the right of the main track, continuing at first on the level and then after some power lines, descending more steeply and tracklessly to a farm near a wood. Here we paused by a style. We had taken photos of the very place where we had gone wrong before and now we were able to reassure ourselves that it really was an easy mistake to make. Without an effective sign, it was all too possible to fall into such a trap. In the intervening years we had rather beaten ourselves up about that mistake, but now we told ourselves that we were not quite the idiots that we thought we were!
It was a lovely morning and it was approaching lunchtime as we were headed into an area near Blaen Bran Reservoir called Coed Gwaen-y-'feir lad, which means 'the fair ground heath wood'. I don't know about any fair ground but we could tell we were in a popular spot where Pontypool families would come with their children and their dogs for exercise and picnics. We could hear the sounds of happy children coming up from the reservoir. It was a good place to look for a lunch spot and we managed to duck down through some trees to a stream and a small waterfall and here we found one of our many idyllic places for a rest and a bite to eat.
We were going well, but the route ran alongside a yellow road on the map, using a parallel path that was obviously no longer in use. Nick insisted on trying to find this path and so we wandered hither and thither amongst the gorse and the thorn bushes, me silently thinking why on earth we were not giving in and going over to the tarmac road. Nick persisted for a while longer before giving up and admitting that this path was a lost cause and we returned to the road. We needed to get down off the higher ground above Pontypool to reach our motel which was on the other side of a number of traffic arteries: the Monmouth and Brecon canal, the A4042 Newport trunk road (easily the noisiest and smelliest) and the Cardiff to Hereford railway line. (It was clear that Pontypool was too well connected for its own good!) So at this point, we turned down a path by a cottage where some ladies were sun bathing in the garden. It was an embarrassment to find this footpath blocked so we were forced to retreat, passing the sunbathers again and looking for an alternative. As we passed by the front of the cottage, one of the ladies called out the oft-heard question by walkers seeking a path, 'can I help you?', which is often a euphemism for 'what are you doing on my land?'. In this case it was a genuine offer and I think was a recognition that the path did indeed exist, but needed to be avoided using a slight detour. She gave us good instructions as to how to get down to a place called Griffifthstown, which was the key to getting across all these transport routes and finding our motel. Once down amongst all the traffic, we at first missed the route alongside the railway but we eventually found our way to a motorists pull-in area which had no provision for pedestrians at all, but was more-or-less a continuous car park with a filling station, a Burger King and of course our Best Western Pontypool Metro motel at the far end of it. Not the most attractive place to land up for the night, it dampened the mood a bit for sure, but, though still early, we were allowed to check into our room. The trunk road was metres from our room so the room was noisy but otherwise clean and comfortable.
We had been recommended a good canalside pub a mile or so south of the town for the evening meal and I was all for getting there since it was 'walk-ins' only and it was a Bank Holiday Monday. Nick was for exploring the town, so I tagged along rather grudgingly as he forged ahead across the impenetrable traffic roundabouts and pavement-less roadside scrub, to try to find the rest of the town proper. My arthritic toe, which had been cocooned in my ultra-cushioned Hoka hiking boots all day, was now being woken up by my altogether more basic Merrell sandals and it was complaining somewhat.
For the second time that day, Nick had to demur, agreeing that the battle to cross the fast-moving traffic gyratory that is Pontypool's grim 70s legacy, was not worth the candle. At first, rather disconsolately we retraced our steps to find the canal towpath for what turned out to be a very pleasant walk in the early evening sunshine to the pub. There were crowds both inside and outside the attractive pub called the 'Open Hearth' but we blagged our way inside to get a table for 2 tucked away in a corner somewhere, only to be quickly whisked outside again and given a prime waterside position, much to the consternation of the several waiting groups standing nearby.
Tuesday June 1st Pontypool to Abergavenny 25.05 km 566m
I think I slept well because I was up early and ready to go, but not before experiencing one of the most bizarre breakfasts I can recall. There was no restaurant or designated area for eating in the motel, so we joined a queue at a coffee station opposite the reception where a chatty and very Welsh lady was taking orders for a 'breakfast box' which you could then take somewhere to eat, although there were only a very few chairs and tables scattered about in the reception area for this purpose. I was veggie on this trip and so a couple of veggie breakfast boxes was a big ask at this pit stop for lorry drivers and travelling salesmen. The order was passed down the line to get the veggie sausages on (at least they had some) and meanwhile we were presented with brown paper bags containing the rest of the box - a sweet yogurt a stale croissant and lukewarm coffee. Breakfast is an important meal for me and I look forward to it every day. This was, by some measure, a long way from the quality of my regular morning meal and certainly not what I have come to look forward to on these walking trips, where sometimes the breakfast has been nothing short of magnificent and indeed on occasion, even the very best meal of the day!
The sausages, when they came were edible but tasteless and full of water, which made the bap soggy. The sachets of coloured red and brown sauces were a help, but there was no mustard of course which would have aded a bit of welcome piquancy to the flimsy snack. The croissant was by now flaccid and again of course, there was no marmalade, nor even any jam to perk it up a bit.
We stocked up with lunch supplies at the filling station and got underway. I felt sorry for Pontypool, which was riven by busy roads, but I think we saw at least some of the best of it along by the canal and then by the splendid Pontymoile gates which form the entrance to Pontypool Park. They are now corroded to a pale green colour and do indeed look as if they need some TLC.
The morning was beautiful and as we gained height the views were wide-ranging and inspiring in every direction. We stopped for a drink and a snack where the route crosses a lane and were joined by a group of friendly and interested wild ponies. We encountered these creatures quite often and marvelled at the way the foals especially would suddenly take off at a fast gallop through the undergrowth, oblivious of the wild terrain and this for no other apparent reason than they just felt like it.
Soon we came to a rather run down farm which did not look like it welcomed walkers. The gate was hard to open and for a moment we thought we were wrong and tried to skirt the farm. We were not and our faithful GPS was telling us that the footpath lay directly ahead through the farmyard. There was a rather bowed, elderly gentleman doing something in the yard and so we greeted him and he spoke to us in a way that made me feel he did not often speak to anybody at all. In his quiet, what I thought was a West Country accent, he directed us through the tangle of difficult gates and pointed us in the right direction. It was good of him, but we were left with the feeling that the isolated position of the farm and the lonely lifestyle were all getting a bit on top of him. The farm was called Coed Ithel.
The land was becoming more and more marginal and moorland-like and we were trying to recall where it was exactly that we had bailed out when we re-did this day's walk in dreadful weather just a few years back. On that day, we had come to a road where we could descend to the canal and take the towpath route to Abergavenny - a sensible course for a couple of soaked-to-the-skin walkers. I think our lunch stop on this day was at the very same place that we made that decision back then. But now the sun blazed and we needed to find shade and a place to sit where we could eat our grub and replenish our energy for the next bit. This was to be a moorland trek of a couple of hours where views were limited and the going was relatively uneventful but still quite tiring. Nick was pounding ahead as usual and the path was really quite well marked but rather tricky under foot I found, with heather masking boulders and other awkward places that needed avoiding. At last we came to a pair of aerial masts where apparently a high-achieving racehorse called Foxhunter is buried. He has a plaque to note his successes, but sadly we were unaware of this interesting detail! (Note to self - read the guidebook more. It's interesting!). We were for moving on with the elusive summit of Blorenge now in our sights. Elusive because it was a case of 3rd time lucky getting to the top of this hill. Twice before we had missed it and its splendid view of the town of Abergavenny as well as all the developing mountainous country round about. We took our fill of the view before heading off in the opposite direction to the town, to look for the noted declivity called the Punchbowl by which we preferred to make our descent from Blorenge. The guide strongly advised against the direct descent which is evidently ferociously steep.
The Punchbowl turned out to be a kind of natural basin in which lay a beautiful lake and alongside which a couple of families were relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine with the young children scampering and splashing about in the water in their birthday suits. The whole scene was utterly idyllic and enchanting and if it hadn't been late in the day with still a couple of miles to go, we would have stopped for a paddle I'm sure. As sometimes happens when it's been a long day and you're tired, we somehow missed our way at Little Pen-y-Graig and our entry into Glebe Wood and the final part of the descent to Llanffwyst and Abergavenny was problematic. Rather than retrace steps uphill, we chose to follow a fence bordering the wood. We reached the inevitable corner, having found no scalable options, so we were forced to climb the fence and in so doing I grazed my leg on the barbed wire. Tired and out-of-sorts, this was not what we needed. I got out the first aid, thinking of the rusty wire and its potential to cause Tetanus. Anti-sceptic wipes and plasters were found, and in all the fuss, the wipes were left behind. Not a good finish to our day's walk, but the cut was not serious and there were no repercussions thankfully.
Field of Buttercups near Llanfoist, Abergavenny
We proceeded to cross the Monmouth and Brecon canal in Llanffwyst via a quite long and very dark tunnel which intriguingly goes under the adjoining house too. It felt like the day had quite a long tail as we moved over to google maps to navigate the final stretch across the river meadows and into the town proper for the locating of the Kings Head. I'm not good with spoken directions on a mobile, so my phone was handed over to Nick (who keeps his own buried deep in his rucksack for some reason).
The Kings Head was a rambling old inn with all the necessary comforts, though slightly in need of some renewals and repairs. The wardrobe door came off in my hand and the bathroom was poky and dark, but the covid arrangements had made for a fine line up drinking cubicles on the street outside in front of the pub which quite soon, after essential tea and showers, we tested out. These drinking booths however became handy haunts later on for Abergavenny's homeless and they made a fair bit of noise on the street below us well into the early hours, or so Nick told me!
We renewed our acquaintance with the fine Nepalese restaurant in the town and it was here that I had a by now famous phone conversation with a lady who greeted me with a 'hi Tony', as if I should have known her, but who, at the time was truly unknown to me. It turned out that she had been trying to phone me off and on for a while, but because of the intermittent phone signal, I had not picked up the messages that she thought she had left. She plunged straight into a conversation with me without announcing who she was, assuming that I had somehow instinctively made the connection with the (missing) messages. I got too far into the conversation suddenly to announce that I had no idea who I was talking to and she managed somehow to skirt around the reason for her call, simply asking me repeatedly to confirm my e mail address so she could send me some information. Since I'm unfortunately not in the habit of receiving calls from pleasant-sounding women who don't identify themselves, I carried on the conversation as if I was a life-long buddy, hoping that my cover would not at any moment be blown. I certainly had no objection to giving this attractive-sounding lady my e mail address and she was clearly on first name terms with me! At the end of the call which Nick had been listening to with evident and increasing curiosity, he turned to me and asked who the hell that was. I had to admit that I had, for the moment at least, absolutely no idea whatsoever and it was a genuinely hilarious situation. Later on, I figured out who it must have been and when we finally landed up at the Travellers Rest in Tal-y-bont on Usk, 2 nights later, we were greeted warmly by this lady whose name was Joy and who by this stage had got all the information she was so assiduously seeking concerning our menu choices for when we should finally arrive at her excellent establishment.
Wednesday June 2 nd Abergavenny to Llanthony 18.8 km, 955m
I don't know whether it was the Nepalese food or the shot of Pen Dragon Welsh whisky (on top of the wine and beer) that I had before retiring, but I felt tired and somewhat lacking in energy for this quite demanding day which starts off with a long slow climb to the top of the Sugar Loaf mountain. At 596 m it is technically a hill, but to us, it will always be a mountain and a shapely and strategically placed one at that. I might have felt a bit listless on this morning, but at least my progress up the hill was continuous if a little slow. A group of young men and women, who at the start seemed a long way ahead of us, were taking an absolute age to cover any ground or height at all, and who we eventually by-passed with only a few metres to go to the top. It seemed that they needed to rest after every few paces and I allowed myself the thought that whatever my age and condition, I was still able proceed up a mountain with some sense of continuity and rhythm, even if a little slowly!
We descended to an incredibly rural backwater called Forest Coal Pit whose name apparently has nothing to do with coal, but comes from the charcoal which was used hereabouts for the smelting of iron. We knew we were were in for a long slow climb and the 'white' road on the map was very narrow and potholey. We had paused for a drink on a bend in the road and were having a discussion over our precise whereabouts when we heard a vehicle ascending the hill in our direction at a fast pace. We had quickly to take some avoiding action by squeezing back into the hedgerow behind us and the vehicle turned out to be a post van being driven by a young and incredibly beautiful blond haired woman. So unexpected was this vision that I was completely taken aback. I think the young woman was as surprised by us as we were by her, but we exchanged a rapid smile and then she was gone. Post office vans are driven by…..well, not usually by such people. I can only imagine that the folk of Forest Coal Pit look forward with more than usual eagerness to their postal deliveries from such a beautiful vision of a post lady!
Ruins of Llanthony Priory
The day was overcast and muggy as we settled down to a lunch break on a grassy bank overlooking the valley of the Grwyne Fawr, an important valley lying parallel to the one which shelters the Llanthony Priory and our overnight pub stop. That one is called the Vale of Ewyas and is well known to Offa's Dyke path walkers. The Gwryne Fawr valley is the one which we would have to cross the next day in order to reach one of the principal ridges of the Black Mountains. These mountains present a north-facing bulwark to a vast patchwork quilt of fields, hedges and copses which are such a feature of the landscape of rural mid Wales. Behind and between this wall of north-facing mountains lie peaceful valleys, some glaciated and fanning out in a south easterly direction towards the border. Each of these valleys has an adjoining ridge with the next valley and so a number of horseshoe walks can be made connecting the tops with each other and making for a spectacular ridge walk. This was our plan for the following day, but in the meantime, our gaze was towards our current ridge and its first top, Garn Wen. We had superb views looking south eastwards down into the Vale of Ewyas, views which are apparently denied walkers on the Offa's Dyke path, one ridge over, because of its vast width.
Approaching the Half Moon Hotel, Llanthony
It came on to rain intermittently as we reached our cross roads at Bâl Bach where we descended eastwards to Llanthony and the Half Moon Inn. At the planning stage, when I had suggested a detour to Llanthony to stay at the Half Moon, Nick had spoken enthusiastically about the place which he remembered he had once visited. As we passed by the Priory he went quiet and then admitted that it was the hotel which is built into a part of the abbey ruins which he remembered and not the rather closed-looking and slightly neglected place that we now arrived at, a quarter of a mile up the road from the abbey. A notice in the window advised that the pub was closed on Wednesdays which fazed us a little, it being a Wednesday, but our consternation was redoubled when, after ringing the bell and trying all the doors we could find, there was absolutely no response. We were by this time, tired and bedraggled and in need of a cup of tea and this was most definitely not what we wanted. Eventually I decided to go right round to the rear and more private part of the premises to see if I could find anyone. I opened gates and banged on doors that were most definitely not usually open to the public, but I did eventually track down our host. She was not very apologetic and seemed almost to imply that it was our fault that the front bell was not working. The room which we were put in was not en suite and so the various bathrooms along the corridor were designated as specific to certain bedrooms. There were 2 or 3 in number. Our host had declined our request to do some laundry for us, so I set to in the basin of our bedroom, washing out a few things and finding all kinds of places for the hanging and drying of clothes.
Whilst attending to this, a mixed party of young cyclists was arriving and being shown the other rooms along the lengthy first floor corridor. It was clear from the sound of the voices that the young women were sharing the room next door to us and the young men were in a room further down. There was much to-ing and fro-ing along the corridor which involved a lot of polite door knocking and the working out of a schedule of showers for the group, all to be taken before the evening meal.
Our meal was to be between 6 and 7 pm and we arrived punctually with a strong thirst for a pint of real ale. Our host was happy to serve us, although the pub itself was closed. We got in our food order from a very short menu before our fellow occupants from along the corridor above, commandeered a larger table in another corner of the dining room. Suddenly it all went very quiet and one of the young men began to speak in a low voice, addressing the rest of group on, of all things, the subject of that day's bible reading. There was then quite a long prayer which formed not only a grace for what they were about receive but also an improvised musing on their day and the purpose of their visit.
After supper we wandered down to the abbey ruins and drank in the wonderful atmosphere of the place as well as drinking in some more of the local brews on offer in the cellar bar of the hotel which is built into the priory walls. We were not surprised to see our fellow guests from the Half Moon, emerging from the little church which lies alongside the great priory. No doubt they still had devotions to make before settling down to a chaste night in their separate beds.
Thursday June 3rd Llanthony to Crickhowell 29.5 km, 1087m
I am quite often the subject of amusement bordering on ridicule on the part of my son for my poor memory and consequent bouts of anxiety over what I may or may not have lost, mislaid or just left behind. However there is one area in which my son's memory is far from perfect and that is a rather important one, being the necessity of remembering to fill his water bottles each day. We had walked some distance from the pub back along the road and through a farm campsite tucked in alongside the Afon Henddu. It was as we crossed this stream that he remembered the unfilled water bottles. Since we were retracing our steps from the last part of the day before, I recalled that further on, at the start of the climb back up to Bâl Bach, we had crossed a fast flowing tributary of the Afon Henddu and that it would therefore make a good place to fill the bottles. We have frequently drunk from mountain streams and no harm has come to us. We are pretty careful about this though and make sure the streams are high up and fast flowing. The water from these cascading becks is always cold, utterly refreshing and completely delicious.
Being fresh, we got up, via Cwm Bwchel to the cross roads at Bâl Bach pretty smartish and this was where our way ahead had looked so easy on the map. We had discussed the day's route at some length the night before and had decided that rather than make a direct assault on the eastern flank of Pen y Gadair Fawr, (an important tooth in the black Mountain chain), we would cross the Grwyne Fawr stream and make our way more gently up through the forestry on clearly marked paths (on the map) onto the ridge which culminates in Pen y Gadair and its less distinguished but slightly higher neighbour, Waun Fach, the highest top in the Black Mountains. Our intention now at this point was was to descend, in a westerly direction via these mapped paths, the open hillside in front of us. But it was marginal scrub land with no sign of useable paths that we met, with only the infrequent faint traces of trods, leading nowhere. We got down to an area of cut forestry which was tussocky and had felled trees barring our way. It was hard going for a time with no certainty of improvement, but we eventually came to a more established track running south which we crossed, and then to a path which crossed the Grwynne Fawr and brought us out on a metalled road above Ty Hir. This place was a considerable establishment with electric fences and many caballed horses. We stuck as firmly as we could to our westerly ascent and amazingly we eventually came across a footpath sign saying 'to the Gadair Ridge', which took us darkly and steeply up through dense trees to the high ridge path that had been our goal.
We now embarked on what I remember as being one of the finest ridge walks of the whole trip. We came out of the forestry and hit the path at around 560 m of height and we could immediately see the whole circle of mountains that we were to traverse that day. In order, first going north, we would climb Pen Twyn Mawr (658 m), Pen y Gadair Fawr (800 m) and then the highest Black Mountain, Waun Fach (810 m). We then turned westwards and southwards dropping a little to Pen Trumau (700 m). Then it was fairly level over Mynydd Llysiau (663 m), then on to Pen Twyn Glas (646 m) and the wonderful upturned boat shape of Pen Allt Mawr (719 m) which was a sharp pull up. Finally we topped the wild and stony summit of Pen Cerrig-calch where a school party were enjoying a great adventure. We were blessed with good weather and clear views all day. From both the latter summits, but actually from the whole way round the horsehoe, there were breathtaking views. As the guide book says of the summit of Pen Allt Mawr, 'there are magnificent views from here, particularly of Mynydd Troed to the northwest, which is almost completely encircled by beautiful valleys with patchworks of fields and hedgerows. To the south east is Cwm Bannw and equally magnificent views towards Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, and to the north is the ridge that has already been traversed and other ridges that have not. One mountain that stands out is the table-topped Pen y Gadair Fawr ('head of the big chair'), which is only slightly lower than Waun Fach but much more distinctive in shape.'
Mynydd Troed from Pen Allt-mawr
It might have been on the gentle rise to Mynydd Llysiau (ironically 'the mountain of vegetables') that I finally got a text from Joy (of the Travellers in Tal y Bont), with a photo of the menu on offer for the following night's meal. I felt that Joy was making a really special effort to look after us, not least because of the earlier phone call, but also by sending us their menu and asking us to indicate our meal preferences. I called after Nick, asking him to glance over the menu and could he please make a quick choice. I think I might have caught him at a bad moment but at any rate this, for him, with several more tops ahead, was not the moment to be thinking of menu choices. At first he just blankly refused to consider such a thing, but I persisted, with the thought that whilst I had a signal it would only take a minute or 2 to glance over the choices and send a quick text to the good lady. He finally relented and when we did get to eat that wonderful food a couple of nights later, I think he agreed that Joy and her husband, the chef had spared no effort in giving us a top quality culinary experience!
We rounded rather than ascended the flat topped Table Mountain which dominates Crickhowell and soon found ourselves entering the attractive but traffic dominated town and passing the fine B&B that we had stayed at 5 years before, but which was now unavailable. The Dragon Inn was a very comfortable substitute, and was more than willing to do our washing as well as set up a table for us for evening dining. We sauntered up to the old coaching inn, the Bear which dates back to 1432 and got the feeling that people were just beginning to enjoy a social life again. Certainly the group of half a dozen male Rotary Clubbers sitting opposite us were were having some great repartee, and occasionally including us too in their light-hearted banter.
We drank some Cwrw Gorslas here which was malty and full bodied, but I had the Reverend James' bitter from Brains in Cardiff. It's a commonly-found brew along the CW and in fact, to walk the route would be quite unimaginable without it, - it's so refreshing and well balanced but otherwise actually quite difficult to describe!
Friday June 4th Crickhowell to Tal y Bont on Usk 26.7 km, 604m
The outdoor shop in Crickhowell, (where I had once replaced a lost map), was still there and Nick spent a little while purchasing an additional water bottle which he felt he needed. We got our lunch provisions from one of the small independent stores that Welsh towns are still fortunate in having, and then we set off over the river Usk to the nearby village of Llangattock. From here there's a pleasant walk along the canal tow path before a couple of very steep inclines - (180 m of very quick ascent), which bring you out into a kind of rock amphitheatre called Eglwys Faen. The level path follows an old tramway showing that quarrying was carried out here at one time. Now, it is a national nature reserve and feels like a very special place. It is possible to go wrong on this path and in fact we did just that 5 years ago when, having got ourselves onto very steep, stony and trackless ground, Nick fell forward quite awkwardly, the weight of his rucksack causing him to tumble some way into a thicket of nettles and brambles. We recalled it now with amusement, but it wasn't funny at the time and our effort to find a way to correct our error without turning back was unproductive. We landed up retracing our steps to the fairly obvious bifurcation where we had made the error in the first place.
Setting off from Crickhowell
Back to today, we hit the road knowing we had to face 3 km of hard surface pounding, (with occasional grass verges) and all the time contending with fast-moving traffic. Nick announced that he was going to storm ahead at this point to get the road walking done as fast as possible. He would see me at Blaen Onneu, a landmark group of trees, where we would re-group before the moorland trek to the Chartists' Caves. I decided to give the speed-walking a bash and found that with grit and determination and matching my pace as closely as possible to his, I could, to my surprise, keep up. The more I stayed in his slip-stream, the more determined I was not to fall behind. We kept up a red-hot pace without slackening at all for the full distance and when we reached the famous clump of trees for a leak, we saw that we had covered that length of road in just 40 minutes!
The moorland walk had been done on a compass bearing 5 years earlier, there being no obvious track. Now there was a clear path and although, with satellite technology, we did not need the compass bearing, I took one just the same so as to practise the skill. I was pleased I could have walked on it if I'd have had to have done.
We lunched at the Chartists' Cave which we found easily and it was a fitting place to consider the struggles that working people in the 1830s and 1840s had mounted to achieve some basic political rights. They had marched on Newport in 1839 and the well-hidden cave was used to store an illicit printing press as well as pikestaffs and other weapons. A plaque there tells you all about it, and we were not the only ones to visit the cave that day because on descending the moor to the road, we were asked by a couple who were getting togged up, if we knew where the Chartists' Cave was. We pointed them in the right direction, but they didn't look particularly well-equipped for moorland walking. We kept looking back to see if they were making progress and at least they seemed to be going in the right general direction.
As we left the road on a bend, we suddenly saw up ahead a huge convey of vehicles all parked up above us and strung out in a long line overlooking our route. There were many vans and lorries and what looked like a catering vehicle amongst them and at first I thought it might be a circus, parked up for the night. I think we realised after a while that it might be a film crew and this was confirmed when we met an off-road cyclist some way ahead. He told us that this valley, Dyffryn Crawnon, around the head of which we were now skirting, was a popular place for filming TV series and he mentioned a couple of names of TV series which unsurprisingly did not register with me!
We had met a large number of these off-road cyclists since the very start of the walk, showing what a popular form of exercise it is amongst the people up from the valleys. However this particular stretch of path was very narrow and uneven, with earth-falls in places and very steep drops on one side. I was very surprised when the cyclist told us that he comes this way with his 6 year old lad on his bike!
We got into a fine rhythm now on this old tramway route which descended slowly and rather unevenly all the way to Tal y Bont on Usk. There were some striking views of the reservoir through trees, but I was tiring of the stony surface by the time we got near enough to spot Danyrwenallt Youth Hostel through the trees, where we had stayed on the earlier mission.
We reached the tow path of our now familiar Monmouth and Brecon canal and not long after we were eying up with some anticipation the White Horse pub which lies alongside the canal with its garden drinkers. We were were soon to be in that same garden, drinking one of the the best beers of the trip: Felinfoel Dragon Heart. This, at 4.8% was a rich mahogany coloured red ale with some vinous notes and a beautifully smooth texture. One to relish! Our night's lodging was at the Travellers Rest and we were puzzled by this name as there was no trace of another pub in the village. However, it turned out that our host Joy and her husband had taken over what was once a pub by that name, but had long since been converted into a restaurant, with rooms attached, by a previous owner. It was a splendid place, roomy and very comfortable and the food was extraordinarily good. Apart from a couple of elderly diners, we were the only guests and we enjoyed our gourmet quality dining in what seemed like the couple's tastefully furnished and decorated living room.
Saturday June 5th Tal y Bont on Usk to Llwyn y Celin YH 23 km, 1163m
Pen y Fan from Craig Cwareli
This day, we knew, would be a spectacular mountain day taking in the giants of the Brecon Beacons and again we were blessed with splendid weather, sunny but not too hot and with great views. The only down side was that, being a Saturday in a year of covid-restricted access, there were many people out and about on the tops and and a few of them were not, to my mind, treating the environment with the the respect it deserved. Perhaps that reflects a selfish attitude on my part but in any case, that moment when the mountain path turns south on Bwlch y Ddwyallt, and when the full majesty of the Bannau Brycheiniog summit ridge comes into view, that was truly a heart-stopping one, however many people there were around to share it. You have to work hard for that particular drama by the way we came, up over Twyn Du and Carn Pica, but there were always lovely backward views over the Talybont reservoir. I found it tough going to get the height under my belt and a group of youngsters were easily out-pacing me on this particular morning, but there is a huge sense of achievement in walking this whole ridge and this time, we took in all the main summits including both Fan y Big and Cribyn on the way to Pen y Fan, the highest point in South Wales at 886 metres. They were queueing to get photographs of themselves at the OS column on Pen y Fan's summit, so we didn't hang around, but headed the short distance south west, across the col to the sister summit of Corn Du. It was only slightly less busy here so we were anxious to keep moving on through. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because I had plotted it incorrectly, we took the popular route southwards off the mountain, instead of the more interesting one westwards, which soon descends to an obelisk. I wanted to remind myself of the touching and tragic story of poor little 5 year old Tommy Jones who, in 1900, whilst staying at a nearby farm, wandered off up onto the mountain and was lost for 29 days. They found his body at the spot where now this memorial stands.
Pen y Fan and Corn Du from Cribyn
Our route off the mountain followed what Wainwright would have called the 'baby's and grandmother's path', a piece of unpleasant condescension which persists, I believe, to this day in Mountain Walking and Rambling groups and which also suggests on his part a sexist and even misogynistic attitude. Why does the man continue to be revered so much, even by me? Perhaps because love conquers all and in his case, the mountains were the entire object of his love. Let me say that it was good to see, on this pleasant weekend afternoon so many people and families walking (or in some cases staggering) up the mountain even though some were clearly travelling more in hope than with any certainty of success!
Once down, we paused at the busy roadside kiosk at Storey Arms for a cuppa, before heading off towards the Youth Hostel, thankfully on a parallel path to the busy road. The route was not without its knotty navigational details but the hostel was already busy and the pleasant garden area was populated with guests most of whom clearly had not done a day's climbing in the mountains!
The amiable Warden (or manager as we must now call them), thought for a minute before deciding that he liked the look of us and would give us a kind of en suite mini dorm, saying that the previously allocated space was a bit cramped. This palatial space contained a double bed with single bunk atop, a set of normal bunks and a single bed as well, which I promptly claimed, it being Nick's turn for the double. The wet room and shower was over the way but the whole arrangement was self contained, meaning that we could lock ourselves in and remain undisturbed - a luxury unheard of in all my previous experience of hosteling. It has to be said that it was, however, on account of all this extra space that an emergency arose the next day which will be recounted later. On check-in we discovered that the supper and breakfast were very basic - vegetarian sausage baps and chips, and that there was no packed lunch available. This was a decided drawback, but we just doubled up on our breakfast order and the warden, who obviously hated to disappoint us, seemed as pleased as we were with our creative solution!
Hostels these days are licensed, so after supper, we decamped to one of the garden tables with a couple of bottles of beer from Brecon Brewing - a tasty red ale and a somewhat less successful attempt at a lager, described on the bottle as a bohemian style Welsh Pilsener. It reminded me of some of my early attempts at home brewing in both colour and flavour.
Sunday June 6th Llwyn y Celin (Brecon Beacons) YH to The Ancient Briton Pub, Pen y Cae 22.18 km, 880m
We had probably gone only a couple of kilometres from the hostel on this dull and increasingly misty morning before the thought suddenly struck me with an overwhelming force, that I had no memory of packing my rain jacket. This piece of bad news immediately halted our progress and after checking the upper area of my pack where it is always placed and finding that it was not there, we had a conference about what to do. It seemed to me that further progress on an essentially high level mountain route, even in the middle of summer would be hazardous without this essential piece of clothing. Nick gamely offered that, should it rain, we would take turns with his jacket - 30 minutes each! It was strange, and I think reflects my essentially anxious nature, that I had had a dream a couple of nights before this in which I was questioning myself on what item of clothing would be the most disastrous to lose. The answer was of course, my rain jacket!
My first thought was that I had left it behind at the hostel just visited, and because of the spacious layout of the room and the many places in which there were to hang the various bits and pieces of clothing from the rucksack, I had simply overlooked it in my packing. It's a near impossibility I have found, to avoid emptying out the pack almost completely at each stop-over, necessitating a full repack before each departure, which of course increases the chances of something being left behind. Luckily I had sufficient phone reception and set about contacting not only our friendly hostel warden, but also Joy from Tal y Bont, the Dragon Inn at Crickhowell and the King's Head, with the collapsing wardrobe door, in Abergavenny. I left messages in all these places and so we decided simply to push on, but I had managed fairly comprehensively to put a damper on things that morning and the steep ascent up onto Craig Cerrig-gleisiad was all the more tiresome and strenuous as a result. We had some sporadic discussion over the problem and even considered getting a bus into Brecon to find a replacement. In the end, we felt that there was a good possibility that we would find an outdoor clothing shop in Llandovery which was 2 days distant. By appealing to the gods of the weather to be easy on us, we would somehow cope till then. It was misty around the crags of Craig Cerrig so we saw nothing of the imagined drama of the place, but it wasn't raining and as the morning drew on we passed the wonderful monolith of Main Llia. This is a standing stone of haunting shape and great beauty and for some reason I began to feel a bit more confident that I would find a solution to the problem.
We reached the summit cairn of Fan Nedd (663 m) at the same time as a trio of middle aged and chatty women arrived, and after we had taken mutual photos of each other, Nick decided that he would visit the OS column which marks the real top of the mountain and was a couple of hundred metres further on. I decided to stay put and use the time to ensure that we had a table for our evening meal down at the Ancient Briton. I also decided to disgorge the complete contents of my rucksack…..
'Do you want the good news first or the bad?' I asked him on his return to the cairn.
'The bad news I suppose,' he said, and I could see the kind of thing that was crossing his mind.
'They close the kitchen at the pub at 4 pm so it's cold sandwiches tonight, - if we're lucky', I said.
'But the good news is - I've found my rain jacket!' A mixture of relief and exasperation crossed his face.
'Oh Christ! Where was it then?'
'Right at the very bottom - I mustn't have unpacked it at all last night, and I suppose it just stayed there and got pushed to the bottom by all the other stuff. I'm so sorry to have put us both through this Nick. I really am.'
My previous dealings with tonight's pub, The Ancient Briton at Pen y Cae had, at least up to this point, been disappointing and at times downright unfriendly, to say the least. As with many of our overnight bookings, this one was a carry-over not only from the previous month (when we thought things were going to be up and running), but from the previous year, when all was in lockdown and bookings had had to be cancelled. I was in phone contact with the pub on several occasions, trying to rebook and at the same time secure my 20 quid deposit and the twin room that we needed. Each time I rang, I spoke to the same lady who was never very friendly, but with each transferred booking, became increasingly short with me. I probably showed my disappointment too much when finally she told me that there was no twin bedded room available for the new date and that I would just have to take a double and put up with sharing a bed with my son, or leave it. I accepted this with what I thought was good grace, knowing that reservations at this time of Covid could be very fluid and that a twin might become available at short notice. I decided to ring a couple more times, just to see if there was any change, but was finally told in an ultimately irritated voice, 'I can't help you' - and she might just as well have added, 'and bugger off'.
It was with some trepidation therefore that I made the call to the pub from the summit of Fan Nedd. Even though the news was not good about the prospects for an evening meal, my voice must have sounded partially relieved, because at the other end of the phone was not my sour-puss of a bar manager, but clearly the publican himself, who spoke to me in a warm South Walean accent and who was clearly wanting to be helpful. I asked him if something cold might be found for us and put in the fridge for later, possibly even sandwiches or a salad. He was still sounding dubious but said he would speak to chef, and I knew from the tone of his voice that the real master and arbiter of our fate that evening was not he himself, but the man in the kitchen. It was with a timorous voice that I felt I had to top my requests with the further information that we were vegetarians. He took it on the chin like the warm-hearted Welshman that he was!
To say that I was mightily relieved that I had not, after all mislaid my rain jacket would be an understatement. We were soon lunching on cold breakfast baps for the second time that day, but no breakfast bap has ever tasted sweeter, and, as if to reflect my lifting mood, the clouds lifted too and by the time we were on the top of the magnificent Fan Gyhirych (725 m), the top with the sharp nose, we were enjoying wonderful backward views to the Brecon Beacons and other summits which we had traversed. We descended into the village of Glyntawe via the tramway and associated quarry workings of the now near-ghost village of Penwyllt. The going was easy and the afternoon was sunny so we had thoughts of a beer in Glyntawe, but the bus timetable was not to be brooked, and soon we were in a modern bus sailing down the A4067 towards the famous Ancient Briton pub and whatever comforts it might provide.
Our luck was holding because it was the friendly landlord who handed us the room key and we pretty much did a double-take on entering the room to find that there was not just one, but 2 beds in the room. Furthermore one of them was a double, so, by some quirk or other it was a family room that we had been allocated, with 2 beds after all! I think it really was my turn for the double bed, or was it just that Nick felt I'd had a hard day and needed the extra comfort. Whatever, I was very appreciative of our lovely room and the extra space and whilst drinking our tea lying on the beds, there was a knock at the door and it was the landlady of the pub going on her rounds and checking that all was as it should be in our room. She had expected it still to be vacant but we had beaten her to it and she was most apologetic about even disturbing us. The evening was gorgeous and we sat outside in the huge pub garden getting stuck into our pints of Pitchfork Somerset Golden, ('fruity but not citrussy, light and clean tasting', say my notes), when the Landlady appeared again with a tray on which were 2 massive plates of hot (!) food. She introduced herself again and once more apologised for disturbing us earlier on. She laid out the food which consisted of one of the best nut roasts I have ever enjoyed, the roasts overlaid with a variety of whole nuts and accompanied by mashed and roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and a superb vegan gravy. We thought we'd be having a dry cheese sandwich and sleeping in a double bed, but suddenly we were being teated like royalty! From being the most problematic of overnights, the Ancient Briton had suddenly shot to the top of the league. Well done to them, and I must remember to put something on Tripadvisor, which was the only request made of us as the Landlord and his good lady said good night to us later that evening. They would not be there at breakfast because they were due a lie-in, - and never was one more deserved, that's what I say!
Monday June 7th Pen y Cae to Llandovery 29.08 km 889 m
They'd moved the bus stop from outside the pub to just beyond the Spar a couple of hundred metres south, where we hoped to get something for lunch. The shop was due to open at 9 and the bus was at 16 minutes past so it was going to be a bit tight. The manager of the Spar was obviously not at his best this Monday morning, because when we got there on the dot of 9, along with a couple of locals, the shop was still closed. So it remained and it was not until just minutes before the bus was due that one of the locals shouted to us, since we were already at the bus stop, to say the shop was just opening up. Too late! Not to worry (we told ourselves), we figured we could make do with a bit of fruit and some cheese saved from the previous day.
So we returned to yesterday's bus stop and set out on probably the most arduous day of the walk so far. This was the day of the Carmarthen Vans (Van is the anglicisation of Fan, meaning peak) and we knew that we could be in for a treat. Last time, we traversed them almost entirely in mist, and they were busy with many fell-runners taking part in a charity event. This time we really did have the hills to ourselves and what a contrast to the Brecon Beacons a couple of days earlier.
In spite of the murky conditions, we knew that we should be heading north again, slowly ascending the higher ground which forms the western side of the valley of the Afon Tawe. This higher ground begins to drop away in steep cliffs and the path follows this edge, called Fan Hir, quite closely for a mile or so. We continued to climb gently, always aware of the dramatic drop to our right and taking a moment now and again to gaze down over the edge into what seemed like the abyss of the valley below. The first of 2 mountain lakes, Llyn y Fan Fawr, came into view and now we were able to look across the Tawe Valley at yesterday's main peak, Fan Gyhirych with the satisfaction of being able to appraise the full height of this sharp-featured mountain and the ground we had covered since.
We soon topped Fan Brycheiniog (802 m) and at the next top, Fan Foel, whose nose jutted out to the north like the bow of a ship, we rather disconcertingly had to turn back south and west for a while, following the splendid ridge known as Bannau Sir Gaer. Now we were firmly part of this new ridge and ahead were wonderful views of what looked like an exhilarating walk over the summit of Picws Du and then circling round high above the second of the 2 mountain lakes, Llyn y Fan Fach. We debated whether we had the time and energy for this high level excursion, or whether we should find the steep descent to the lake which would begin quite soon at Bwlch Blaen Twrch. We decided on the latter course, having covered not even a quarter of our day's total distance and so we landed up at the shore of the breathtaking Llyn y Fan Fach, probably the most idyllic of our many beautiful lunch stops.
Picws Du from Fan Foel
This was a place of unsurpassed beauty, because not only were we surrounded with wonderfully dramatic mountain scenery at close quarters, but we were also gifted an astonishing display of colour, ranging from the deep and verdant green of the plant cover to the rich red of the bare soil. These colours were separated by layer upon layer of horizontal, greyish-black rock strata and it was these strata. placed as if line by line with almost geometric precision, which gave the buttresses of the mountains a kind of texture which it is almost impossible to reproduce in a photograph.
We left the spot with reluctance bordering on sadness, knowing that for now we were leaving the mountains behind and that it would be only our backward glances that would tell us of this magnificent flank of folded hills, diminishing gradually as we progressed north into deepest rural mid Wales and towards our night's destination, Llandovery.
By Llyn y Fan Fach and Picws Du
From the magic of the lake, the main route heads to Llanddeusant, adding extra distance, but with the gain of a possible night at the Youth Hostel. We were pressing on northwards so, from the Llyn, we found a handy, man-made culvert which seemed to head in a good direction for us and which made the traverse of the wide expanse of sloping, stream-indented ground called Twyn yr Esgair a shade easier. Eventually, after an hour or 2 of slog, we came, via the marked Roman Camp, to a road. This time, our intersection with the road was brief before we continued north on hillside tracks and amidst rolling country, to the hamlet of Sarnau. Then it was ever onwards through the little village of Myddfai, with its Prince of Wales associations until at last, after several more weary miles, we arrived at the town of Llandovery.
Llandovery was to be a real point of rest on our journey and it was planned to be such. For a start we had booked 2 nights at the Kings Head, a comfortable market square inn dating back centuries and now managed by very efficient and personable young Romanian woman and her chef husband. At first a rather inexperienced assistant had started to deny us the twin room we had definitely booked. He wanted to put us into a double, but he was soon sharply corrected by our competent manageress, who, much to our relief, pulled him up on his mistake smartly.
We were tired and so we booked a meal in the hotel, not wanting to mooch about too much, but somehow by default we found ourselves doing just that in the half hour before supper. We were trying, but not succeeding, in finding another pub with a different choice of beer. At that stage in the pandemic, we had not appreciated the acute shortage of labour in the hospitality industry, brought about by Brexit and which was causing pubs to close on certain days of the week. Back in the Kings Head, I remember finding the Fish and Chips and the Gower Gold, ('refreshing, not at all blondish, cascade hops giving a pleasant finish'), pretty much heavenly, before I sank into the deepest of slumbers.
Tuesday June 8th Gallt y Bere Bridge back to Llandovery 17.73 km, 304m
During the previous day's long walk, I had become aware of a problem with the soles of my Hoka Hikers which were otherwise serving my feet pretty well. The boots were made of soft leather with a very thick and well-cushioned rocker sole, finished off with a Vibram cleated pattern glued to the base. I had spent many hours searching for boots that would help me overcome my big toe problem which has the posh name of Hallux Limitus - basically an arthritic toe joint. Hoka make excellent running shoes and these hiking boots used some of that technology to cushion the feet whilst limiting the amount of movement asked of the big toe. The sole is shaped a bit like the base of a rocking chair, making the foot rock through an angle of about 6 degrees as it takes a step. This way of reducing any pronounced movement of my big toe helped hugely in the avoidance of arthritic pain, so much so that I stopped being aware of any such discomfort. Nick, who was used to my occasional moaning, described the boots as 'transformational'.
Imagine my disappointment then when I became aware of a piece of one of the Vibram cleats actually dragging the ground - especially noticeable on a metalled road. When we got back from yesterday's walk, I had a good look at the soles of each boot and could see that the cleats of the Vibram pattern on the heals were, in some places, developing hanging 'chads' which meant I was able to pull or cut these pieces of cleat right off. We took some photos of the problem and I determined at least to discuss this fault with the manufacturer and see what might be done to remedy the weakness. As it was, once rid of the 'hanging chads', I could walk in them fine, but by the end of this walk, it was clear that, comfortable as they were, they were not robust enough for the job. The search for another kind of boot would certainly have to be resumed before embarking on part 2 of the walk which, amongst other challenges, would include Wales at its very roughest in the traverse of the Rhinogs.
We'd booked a taxi for this morning to take us up to a bridge over the Afon Tywi, beyond the village of Rhandirmwyn ('land of minerals'), the idea being to walk the route backwards today so that we could have another night in Llandovery, enjoying its hot-spots. Rhandirmwyn is where lead mining once took place on a vast scale. The now-disused mines were the most extensive in South Wales and employed around 400 people, many of whom walked over the hills from all around to work there.
Our driver was chatty and clearly steeped in the locality. He was born in the town, educated there, married and had his kids there, divorced there and now was clearly a pillar of the business community there, being a stalwart of the Rotary club. He bemoaned the shortage of labour in the town but praised the get-up-and-go of our Romanian hosts. I found his conversation interesting and with so much Welsh spoken in the town, I wondered if he felt, as a non-Welsh speaker, at all excluded from the rekindled nationalism that we were becoming aware of as we progressed north. He was diplomatic in his response, which suggested that he had a greater knowledge of the language than at first he was prepared to own up to, at least to a couple of English blokes. He knew an awful lot about what was going on in the area and spoke with positive feeling about the hydro scheme and other conservation projects further up the valley.
We booked him again for the same ride next day and set off walking back in a southerly direction, following the beautiful river, and staying with it as much as we could. There were a few detours and some retracing of steps due to flooding, but we saw much of interest along the way, including an idyllic-looking pub by Rhandirmwyn Bridge (only open mid-week onwards sadly), advertising breakfasts and morning coffee as well as decent beer and the rest. We passed a camping and caravanning park which was already alive with visitors, no doubt like us, escaping the lockdowns.
Outside the Towy Bridge Inn
At Gwernpwll, we were approached by a lady who wasn't too helpful about showing us the true route of the right of way that we were seeking through some farm buildings. At first she pretended that we were on the wrong path and when we stuck to our guns, brandishing the GPS and with maps dangling from our shoulders, she relented and began to point out the correct way through a maze of buildings. By contrast, we were soon greeted in enormously friendly fashion by a group of youngsters who I think had learning disabilities and who were taking part in a class of some kind. We got the impression that Gwerpwll might be part of the larger Coleg Elidyr nearby and thus a centre for such youngsters. The Coleg, as their website says, works with young adults with complex learning needs and disabilities, teaching them to self advocate, build skills and find greater independence. What a wonderful place altogether.
The day was baking hot and it was hard to find a shady place to have our lunch, but we were enjoying the gentle walk, which was such a contrast to our preceding days in the high mountains and which was so beautifully rural and pastoral. At times, the fruit farms looked almost like vineyards in the sunshine, against the backdrop of the rolling hills. All was tranquility and peace so it was just a mite odd that we should strike up a rather fascinating discussion about feminism, misogyny and abuse of one kind or another! We are both close observers of the political and social scene in general, so a long walk can be a great chance to air views!
The day's walk was relatively short and undemanding and of course we were packless, so our progress was very fast, even though we felt we were ambling along. We were back in Llandovery by mid afternoon and so a good look around the town was in order. After an interesting visit to the atmospheric castle and learning about Gruffydd ap Rhys and his battles with the Normans, we noticed that the pub opposite our inn, called the White Hall Hotel, was now open, having been firmly shut the day before. This pub was previously remembered for the quality of its beer and so we drifted over there, only to find ourselves gatecrashing a funeral wake that was gathering apace. All the town's great and good seemed to be there suitably dressed, so our slovenly attire made me feel self-conscious, but it seemed not to matter. We hovered around a little and eventually managed to sneak a table for ourselves in the corner of the front yard where the funeral party were gathering in the afternoon sunshine. There we had what I would rate as very fine beer indeed called Cwrw Teifi. My notes say it was deep mahogany in colour, with a beery nose; like a red ale but hoppy and not at all sweet. Despite covid and all the havoc it has reeked, Welsh beer seems to be in fine fettle and there seems to be way more choice than you would ever imagine.
For supper, we'd booked a table at the town's Indian Restaurant, previously remembered as an excellent eatery and so with high hopes, we turned up at the restaurant, to find it much changed. From a bustling and lively Indian, it was now almost empty and a bit spartan in both furnishings and decor. The greeting was friendly and the food was acceptable. As usual we ordered a bottle of the house red as an accompaniment but this caused some surprise as I guess most Llandoveryans drink lager with their curry. Anyhow the bottle was produced, but it was explained that unfortunately the restaurant did not have a corkscrew to open it!. A runner was sent down the road to the Coop store to purchase one and after a while, the bottle was produced for a second time, but now, amidst further profuse apologies, it was explained that, on being drawn, the cork had disintegrated and the remnants of it were now floating in the wine itself! We were thirsty so we waived the apologies to one side, anxious to enjoy the wine whilst our food was still on the table. By way of a coda and as has now almost become a tradition when Nick and I are walking, the generous remnants of the Indian meal were packed up and mightily enjoyed at lunch the next day. Cold curry might mot sound great, but believe you me, using some nan bread as a scoop, the dishes taste absolutely wonderful on the open road!
Wednesday June 9th Llandovery to Tregaron 27.38 km, 517m
Our taxi man greeted us punctually, even though he had been observed the previous night attending the town's weekly Rotary Club function which was taking place in our hotel. We had barely recognised him then, dressed in a dapper suit, the baseball cap having been replaced by a smart trilby, and looking very much the part of the successful businessman of the town. Up we went in his efficient vehicle, serviced by himself so he told us, to the Gallt y Bere bridge where for the second time he warmly wished us bon voyage. As we set off along the soon-to-be-called Afon Doethie and its remarkable valley, we became aware slowly that we were entering truly a world apart. The path follows the course of the river between steep-sided and ever more wild hillsides and the feeling of being deeply remote was becoming more and more intense. At one of the stops, I took a video of the scene and amidst the sounds of birdsong and nature all around, a cuckoo suddenly struck up. It was not the first of the walk, but it was easily the most remote, and it was piercingly beautiful.
The Doethïe Valley
The valley walk is continuous and sustained in its natural glory and lasts for several hours. It's not always easy and our walk on this day was often boggy with detours necessary around some unstable sections. At last the Hostel at Ty'n-y-Cornel is reached and here, although it was still too early for lunch, we had a good pause in order to read the plaque to Tony Drake, the walk's founder and to gaze in through the windows of the hostel where we had spent such a memorable night 5 years before. If there is a place which encapsulates the wild beauty of this whole walk, then this is it. In its quiet and undemonstrative way, it could almost be a shrine. I hadn't been aware that there is a separate hut opposite the old stone cottage where the trust that runs the hostel has provided a kettle and tea and coffee for the refreshment of walkers. There are books and maps available and a little box for contributions to help with the upkeep of this wonderful and quite moving little haven.
We pushed on against a darkening sky, knowing what was up ahead and not relishing the prospect very much. Our experience of the area had been summed-up, completely inadequately, in the old guide by the use of the phrase: 'tussocks undefined', a term which we have bandied about with humour ever since. The continuation of the track from Ty'n-y-Cornel, having been joined by another track from the nearest farm, Blaendoethie, then veers to the north east and begins to peter-out. Conditions under foot worsen rapidly until one is coping with dense tussocks of rough grass between which are nearly invisible cavities, like interlinked channels which head this way and that and which, on some almost subterranean level form an indecipherable maze in which your boot has no choice but to place itself, blind as it were to the direction your foot might land up in. The alternative is to try hopping from tussock to tussock, a game which might be entertaining for a few seconds, but runs the risk of serious ankle injury and in any case is painfully slow. No two tussocks are the same - some may hold you and some may not - so it's a mugs game, trying to figure it all out.
Faced with difficult terrain, be it hilly or just plain hard going, I tend just to plod on. Depending on his mood however, Nick can get quite irritable, - frustrated no doubt that his usual tank-like progress is no longer possible. This mood kicked in fairly quickly on the arrival of the tussocks and even I was beginning to blanche at the thought of an hour or more of this stuff. In the time taken for me to catch him up, I could see that the map and the GPS were being consulted in earnest. When I reached him, a suggestion was being floated for my consideration. Some distance over to our left was the forestry, alongside which it was already planned that we should navigate some kind of a route, till we should reach a road running west to Tregaron. Nick had observed that a whole swathe of this forestry had been cut away and that further over, there now appeared to be an opening in the trees which coincided on the map with the beginning of northwards-heading forestry track. If we could get over to that track, then our progress north, notwithstanding a few kinks in the route here and there, would be so much easier. The gamble was that the tracks might not hold out. Mapped forestry tracks are not reliable and neither are the shape or the frequency of the plantations themselves, which can change substantially from year to year. It took me a nano second to decide that this plan was worth a go. Almost anything was better than the effing tussocks! In the 20 minutes or so it took to get to the track, our spirits became increasingly buoyed and by the time we reached the track and paused to settle into our cold curry lunch, I was for giving my son a huge hug and a medal. It was a genius decision and saved us hour upon hour of agony!
The forest tracks really worked out for us and we minded not at all the rather dull walk through the serried ranks of conifers. We rejoined our route on the minor road to Tregaron, but soon left it to traverse the slopes of Craig Clogan, high above the valley road. Too high in fact, so we had to make a rare correction, losing all of that height. We came to an interesting-looking farm called Pantshiri where we first met some friendly, dumpy little pigs by a gate, before bumping into their owner and his wife. I could tell they were an unusual breed, the pigs that is, so I asked what they were called. Kunekunes apparently, - a breed from New Zealand and the Maori name means 'fat and round', which is exactly what they were, with big spots. The couple were English and had lived in this gloriously remote spot for a number of years. They were selling up though. The winter storm had ripped through their barn tearing off the roof and he said their health was not that good either. It looked like they were almost self sufficient with a productive garden and a hot house teeming with plants. It struck me that they might have been slightly ageing hippies, seeking a dream which had not quite materialised. He hinted that he didn't think much of his neighbours and was contemptuous of the way he said they tended to shoot anything that moved. They were particularly concerned about a pair of Golden Eagles that had come back to the valley. He told us to look out for them. He showed us the best walking route into Tregaron which we felt gave us the right and privilege to leave the footpaths and stick with the shorter farm tracks, though they were not always technically rights of way.
We had one more encounter before arriving at Tregaron. Just before the town and after a stretch of road, we spotted a little path and right of way, which weaved around a row of cottages called Aberdwr. The path was unclear but passed directly across a field right in front of these cottages. We felt unseen eyes as we sought some kind of exit from this field, but all the while we were being closely followed by the sole occupant of this field which was the friendliest and most affectionate horse I have ever come across. He took a particular liking to Nick and followed him up and down and around, as we checked the far fence, looking for a gate or a style. In the end we had to retreat and walk back across the field towards the row of cottages. As I half expected, someone appeared and a rather pale-looking older man limped towards us and started speaking. What he said was barely audible and virtually unintelligible too. From the limpness of one arm to the lopsided features of his face, we knew immediately that he was a stroke victim. He pointed first to his leg, then to his mouth and then to his head and then he gave a shrug which told us immediately that we should try to be patient because he was having difficulty. He was really trying to tell us something about the path that we were searching for, but it was quite impossible to understand him and all the while, the poor man was struggling for his words, desperately trying to find the language that he no longer had at his command. There were long pauses where we felt all we could do was wait for him to find some way of saying whatever it was that he wanted to say. During all of this difficult and at times painful attempt to communicate, the horse was getting up quite remarkably close and personal with Nick, putting its head over his shoulder, nuzzling into his his jacket and practically licking his face. It really was a totally bizarre situation and was quite comical, I suppose except for the tragedy of the man with his sad loss of clear speech. We bade him a grateful farewell, although we were not really any the wiser as to what he was trying to tell us.
I was disappointed to discover that our lodging in Tregaraon, the Glan Brennig Guest House was a kilometre out of town and we had to walk on a busy A road to reach it. The house itself was quite imposing and was set back amidst peaceful grounds bordering on the Afon Brennig. There was nobody to greet us on arrival because we had been given a code and a room number by the owner, previously. As we entered, we got a clear impression that the place was trying to convey a certain ethos, but we couldn't quite put a finger on what that was. There were books and pictures all around and even some statues and figures, but there didn't quite seem to be a theme. It was all rather smart and a bit 'Country Life-ish' and we felt a bit out of place to be honest. We found our room and - shock horror - only the double bed was made up! There was a single bed in a kind of anteroom but it had a bare mattress only. I was not best pleased and rang the telephone number straight away. A woman answered who, it turned out, ran the café which was associated with the place and which was tucked around the back, in part of what were once the outbuildings of the place. She was apologetic and blamed booking.com who, she said told her nothing about her guests and their needs. Someone would be along to make up the bed shortly. An elderly, well-spoken woman soon tapped on the door carrying bedding and proceeded to work on what turned out to be my bed, making me feel quite guilty for standing around and watching her all the while. I did lend a hand eventually and found out that she and her daughter ran the place as a kind of non-aligned retreat, clearly keeping any sense of identification with a specific spiritual pathway quite vague. This approach appeared to be working, judging by the full house at breakfast in the café next morning. It was certainly working better than the hapless Louise, host of the Star at Dylife, where we stayed some years back, who had rechristened the old drovers pub, the Star Retreat and had promptly lost most of her local trade, at least that's what we divined when we heard it was up for sale soon afterwards.
As the English hippy farmer had told us we would, we had a fine meal in the 17th century Talbot Hotel in the town square, having popped into the Llew Coch on the way to see what English incomers (as they turned out to be) would do with their pub project in deepest mid Wales. It wasn't a bad refurb - simple, with whitewashed stone walls and the red theme made very prominent. The trouble was - no real ale, which made the glorious pints of Cwrw Teifi in the Talbot doubly welcome.
Thursday June 10th Tregaron to Pontrhydfendigaid 16.4 km, 303m
This, we knew, would be our easiest day, but the strange thing is that as I write, I can only remember the day with difficulty! It being a short day, we decided to alter the route slightly, opting for higher ground to the east and descending to Strata Florida via forest and woodland paths, to finish up with a riverside path to Pontrhydfendigaid. I do remember that it was not at all clear as we went along, that the forest paths would work out. There were moments of doubt, trial and error, but eventually we hit a good path and descended with ease to the mediaeval ruins of the Abbey at Strata Florida. We paused here because it was another highly atmospheric scene in which it was possible to let the imagination wander and try to visualise the life of such a monastery at that time. We got a free pass to the ruins, as covid had closed up the shop, café and toilets. We relaxed with water, cereal bars and chocolate instead!
It was but a few short kilometres alongside the Afon Teifi to the splendidly-named village of Pontrhydfendigaid, where we reacquainted ourselves with the basic but friendly Red Lion pub, our overnight billet. The name of the village means, 'bridge at the ford of the blessed ones', a reference presumably to the use of this route by the monks from the abbey. With my smattering of Welsh, I liked saying this name a lot, but the locals refer to the place simply as 'Bont'. As we passed by, we were sorry to see the other pub in the village, the Black Lion, closed up and 'Ar Werth': for sale. We reckoned last time we were here, this was the classier of the 2 pubs, but now we figured that, in a place this size, it was unlikely any longer to be able to support 2 hostelries, no matter how they configured themselves to attract all possible trade.
I have to own up at this stage to a slight feeling of guilt because taking the route that we did, west of the main CW route from Ty'n-y-cornel, we were not only making it easier for ourselves in terms of the walking and overnights, but we were also missing a wild and remote route which follows the so-called 'Monks' Trod' from Strata Florida and which then goes on up by the Teifi Pools (a remote area of lakes), and on to Cwmystwyth. On this wild trek, an overnight can be made at a camping bothy at Claerddu, which might well be a rough night if a sleeping bag is not carried, but which sounds amazing. Let me say firmly here in this blog that this is one of the many reasons why I would like to walk this fabulous route again one day.
Friday June 11th Pontrhydfendigaid to Ponterwyd 24.68 km, 836m
Last day of this half of the walk! At last, after wonderful walking weather for almost the whole of the way so far, the weather finally turned against us and not only was it raining, but our boggy field and moorland paths were soaking wet which significantly impacted on our foot comfort on this day. We couldn't understand at first why it was that water was getting so quickly into the inside of our boots and by mid morning at least one of us was wringing out socks to make things more comfortable. My boots had already proved themselves to be nowhere near up to the demands of this route, even in the good weather we'd had, so in a way, I was not surprised that mine were leaking, but Nick's boots were good quality Scarpas, and fairly new at that. Later on, he thought he'd figured it out. We were wearing shorts and the long grass and bushes were constantly dousing our legs with water. It was this water, he believed which was running down our legs and getting into the top of our boots and this did seem to me to be a very plausible explanation.
The weather was damp and our boots were soggy and the route, at least in the morning, was not very inspiring, even conspiring against us in the village of Pont-rhyd-y-groes, where at first it failed to show on the ground and then later on, barred our way at a point where I had plotted a connecting link. It meant more road walking than planned, but we were looking forward to a break and possibly a cup of tea or an ice cream in Devil's Bridge. This last wish was deliciously fulfilled!
The next part of the walk took us deeply down into the vale of Rheidol where the ancient conifers have grown to a tremendous height and where you can, as you descend gaze at the crown of these trees whose roots are at least a couple of hundred feet below you. I took one of my best pictures of the trip here, because the rain had stopped and the trees were steaming, like a scene from a Nordic forest. We crossed the narrow gauge railway, which we were sure was covid-suspended and later the Afon Rheidol, which is so scenic, before selecting a route up through the forest on the other side of the valley which worked out well for us. Suddenly we heard the whistle of the little steam engine and I whipped out the phone to make a video of its progress, often its plume of smoke and the sound of the whistle being the only indication of its position, high up amongst the trees.
Through the thick forest in the Rheidol Valley
The steep path up through the dense forest became a minor road and soon we were in the charming hamlet of Ystumtuen where I paused to take in the majestic frontage of the chapel there, which in some ways I would have liked to have entered, to get a feel for the deeply Welsh community it served and how they entered into their own very individual way of worship. Next door was the old school which had for a long while been a Youth Hostel, but which, like so many other unique places run by the YHA, had been disposed of by the bean counters of the organisation some years back.
After Ystumtuen, the path leaves the road and climbs up to Bwlch Gwyn, on the southern flank of which and high above us, stood a man and his dog. He stayed there a while and seemed to be observing us as we made our way up to the top of the pass. As we reached the summit he too had descended to that point, perhaps with the purpose of passing the time of day. We had a short but interesting conversation and he told us that he had been born in Wales but had moved to the house just below us from Leicester only 4 months ago. Something about him breathed the fresh excitement of a dream truly fulfilled and he told us of his daily walks and his thrill at living in such a beautiful place. It was quite uplifting to hear of someone who, despite the bleakness of the covid lock-downs, had still managed to follow his dream and find a life so full of riches and adventure.
The wonderfully verdant upper Cwm Rheidol was spread out before us as we rounded Bryn Brâs and it was not long after this that our day's and our journey's end at Ponterwyd came into view. They were not quite ready for us at the George Borrow Hotel, but we were not worried. We had some hugs to catch up on and some sweet words of congratulation to utter to each other, before we settled into the familiar place, occupying the same room with the lovely view as 5 years before.
I was pretty pleased with myself and my ability to keep walking. I wasn't in bad shape considering that we had covered 380 km and had climbed 9361m. Wouldn't like to have done it without Nick though!
A well earned pint at the end of the walk
Here's to our success in the second part of journey which begins tomorrow!
Tony Ovenell 27th August 2021
Continuing the blog of our epic 2nd instalment of a journey through Wales on foot, following the Cambrian Way
All summer we had been eagerly looking forward to getting back to our big walk and so it was with excitement and enthusiasm that we travelled down this late summer bank holiday weekend by train and bus, from Liverpool to Ponterwyd and the George Borrow Hotel. Aberystwyth looked fine in the afternoon sunshine and we found a café in a converted school near the bus station in which to slake our thirst for tea and toasted tea cakes. The welcome at the George Borrow was friendly and we had a relaxing night before setting out the following morning for our assault on Pen Pumlumon Fawr.
Sunday August 29th Ponterwyd to Dylife 24.9 km, 857m
The filling station in Ponterwyd was a good place to get lunch supplies, and because we weren't too sure of the overnight arrangements for a meal, we bought a bottle of wine which we distributed between our reserve water bottles - just in case! The location of the overnight stay had been a slight cause for concern as, much earlier in the year, I had taken a phone call from the lady who was running the Star Inn at Dylife to say that she was selling up and that the pub would no longer be available to put us up. She had already farmed us out to a local B&B called Plas Esgair in the village of Llan, some 7 miles distant from Dylife and run by one Martin Mason. When he himself rang later that same day, he said he was happy to pick us up from the Star on our arrival there, and drop us back there the next morning and that an evening meal was available at his establishment. We were sorry not to be staying at the Star, of which we had good memories. On a previous visit (2016) it was being run by an outsider with an impossible business plan and with the apparent dream of presenting it as a 'retreat' rather than as a locals pub, which had clearly not worked. Her name was Louise and she did her very best to look after us then, but we were the only guests. In the intervening years the inn had gone to an ex-policewoman who clearly knew how to run a successful rural pub, but was now getting out of the business for reasons not fully explained.
The day was indeed warm and so very different from the squally showers and the light snow covering that we had experienced the first time we came this way. The views were panoramic at the summit and we were joyfully hailed by other walkers and runners out for a Sunday bash, enjoying such a fine late summer's day. Our progress was fast and we covered the mostly trackless summits of the Pumlumon massif down to the Afon Hengwm pretty quickly. Nick, who had fresh legs and clearly some energy to burn, led from way out in front, as is his wont. Unlike the occasion of our previous walk, when we had thrashed around for a bit, we hit off the secret little bridge which gets you over the Afon Hengwm without any trouble. Here we made a pause for our first picnic lunch which I photographed, since the look of it spread out on the mossy bank, seemed so emblematic of our lunches on these remote treks. And remote this spot certainly was, with something of the sense scale, the wildness and the isolation of Scotland about it, I felt.
Pen Pumlumon Summit
We probably took more pictures on this trip than on any of our others. I had given over my rather fancy Lumix camera to Nick, who was very much more in tune with all its features than I was and who, after at first doubting whether it was really practical to carry, had found a way of threading it onto the belt of his shorts and who was now snapping away merrily and enjoying the gain in quality and versatility over his regular little pocket camera.
There was moment of haunting beauty as we crossed the isthmus between Bugeilyn and Llyn Cwm-Byr where a ramshackle boat house spoke of former activities on the lake. But the farm at Bugeilyn was long since a sad ruin, one of the many, possibly even scores of such crumbling habitations that we passed on this journey through remotest mid Wales.
We teamed up with the Glyndwr Way for the last portion of the day, finally descending to our rendezvous point, the Star Inn, Dylife, with an hour to spare. As Martin Mason had warned us, there was no phone signal at the pub so we had given him the pick up time of 5.30 pm. There was nothing for it but to wait it out, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some un-used concrete flags In the pub car park. We kind of hoped someone might appear from the pub, where there were definite signs of life, to offer us tea or at least a fill of our bottles, but sadly we were ignored. As the pick up time came and went, I was reminded of the other recent non-appearance of a taxi lift at the end of my Lancashire Bowland walk In Abbeystead - another signal-less area. It does underline how reliant we have become on the instant communication provided by mobiles and how vulnerable the walker in remote areas can be if events take an unexpected turn.
Eventually, after about another 20 minutes, a car did draw up, driven by someone who said he was Martin's partner, Roger. He was remarkably unapologetic and his conversation was desultory and not particularly friendly as we drove the 7 miles to the pretty village of Llan (where they make superb organic yogurt btw) and then up a long drive to the isolated and rather rambling country house called Plas Esgair, where Martin and Roger run their B&B. We thought there was a bit of an atmosphere between the two of them as we were more or less dumped outside the front door, without any clear instruction as to whether we were to let ourselves in or wait for one of them to usher us up to our room. Martin eventually appeared and opened up saying that this should have been his day off and that the evening meal should anyway have been completed by 7 pm, - which time was fast-approaching! We were left feeling that the lateness of our pickup (though scarcely our fault) was in some way the cause of this soured atmosphere. Anyway, we were obliged to have our showers quickly and get down to the dining room as fast as we could so we could deliver our order for supper.
Plas Esgair was clearly a work in progress, though in many ways it was an impressive and in parts, extremely old country house. Martin was clearly the Chef de Cuisine and Roger was the Maître de Maison and they had furnished the place in a suitably tasteful if somewhat chaotic way with a large number of artefacts and paintings. Despite the lateness of the hour, we were not to be rushed out of our cup of tea and the room was thoughtfully provided with a fine selection of tea varieties plus a little bottle of fresh milk - which is always welcome.
We had noticed the massive lounge and a solitary guest on our way in and we were encouraged to make use of this facility later, the idea being I suspect, that it is good in such an historic and remote place, to encourage guests to mingle and converse, thereby making their own connections with each other and ensuring that their stay is memorable. It's an idea that I'm sure often works well for any solitary traveller who is moderately gregarious.
So it was that we found ourselves seated at the one, very large, very impressive polished dining table together with the other guest from the lounge who was already (much to Martin's satisfaction no doubt), well on in the course of her meal. She was a young woman in her 30s whom you might describe as generously curvacious and she greeted us in a friendly manner and with whom we quickly struck up a conversation. It turned out that she had stayed at the same rather weird place, Glan Brennig, in Tregaron where we also had stayed in Part One of our walk. I was looking forward to more conversation with this personable young woman, but on the arrival of another couple at the dining table, she promptly excused herself, got up and left. The other couple were quite entertaining in their way. They were in late middle age and from Oxford; clearly southern, upper middle class and most certainly affluent. He, (Clive I think) was a journalist and quite witty, and she, (can't remember her name) was an English teacher at a private girls' school. She was very much the well-groomed, socially adept conversationalist - a product of her class and background you might say. Just as we had done earlier, they quickly found the fridge with the drinks and helped themselves, to white wine, (in our case, it had been Polish lager and Butty Bach beer). The conversation flowed well and you felt that their relationship pivoted around his faux hen-pecked role and her keeping up of appearances. He was apt to drop in the odd swear word and utter a more worldly and possibly non politically correct viewpoint. She, on the other hand, whilst putting down with a look, took surreptitious pleasure, one felt, in his risqué remarks and in the degree to which she was able to exert ultimate control over these exchanges. It was a fascinating and enjoyable thing to observe.
Our evening concluded, not in the magnificent lounge, but upstairs in our room, swigging the much shaken-up and aerated wine which we had brought all the the way from Ponterwyd in order to accompany this evening's meal. It was pressing that we consume this wine to free-up the much-needed capacity in our spare water bottles. At least, that's what we told ourselves!
Monday August 30th Dylife to Cemmaes 20 km, 574m
This was a relatively easy day of quiet walking with much undulating grassy moorland and a few forestry tracks thrown into the mix. The weather was overcast and a bit sultry for much of the day, making the ascents sweaty. The route on the map was quite complex too, but the GPS was thankfully unwavering in its guidance and, apart from one brief attempt at entering an impenetrable thicket near Maesteg, I don't think we put a foot wrong all day.
Somewhere, quite soon after leaving Dylife, on this stretch of upland country looking north, a sudden vista opens up of the developing mountain-scape north of the Dyfi valley. The great flank of Cadair Idris begins to occupy the far skyline. At first, little more than a hazy bluish outline, it shows a lower western top, then a bulky summit and finally a steeper, sharper nose at the eastern edge. This moment, when we reached it, was savoured in 2016 and so it was again now as we paused to record the scene, in photographs and in our minds' imprint. Between us and these mountains was archetypal Mid Wales country, with remote farms and collections of dwellings, too small even to be called hamlets, sprinkled here and there amongst the woods and hills. By mid afternoon we were at Commins Coch where the Afon Twymyn and the railway both weave a path, bending this way and that round the steep, wooded slopes to make their way to the river Dyfi and thence to Machynlleth and the sea.
Dyfi Valley and Cadair Idris
Dyfi Valley and Cadair Idris
From Commins Coch, it was but an easy stroll, breasting the hill which overlooks Glyntwymyn, to achieve the outstanding viewpoint above Pant-y-no, where the glorious valley of the Dyfi opens out properly before you, like the classic patchwork quilt of a million descriptions. Then, it was quickly and easily on down to the village of Cemmaes where we were billeted at the comfortable Penrhos Inn. It was just before 4 pm when we arrived and so the pub was technically shut, but we found some of the staff outside at a table round the back and one of them, the friendliest of managers, showed us up to our comfortable room which overlooked the large back garden. He sportingly agreed to take in our washing without a second thought.
Later on, when we came down to the bar for a drink, I had the bag of washing already to give to our friendly manager, but he was otherwise engaged, so I explained to his co-manageress what had been agreed and she took the bag from me in a slightly surprised manner, which had me thinking fleetingly as to whether I shouldn't after all have waited to give it directly to our man - but I thought no more about it after that.
Our enjoyment of the Wye Valley Butty Bach ale and the evening's pub grub was only slightly marred by the behaviour of the male partner of the couple sat opposite us in the bar. They were both in their sixties and he was heavily-built and dressed in shorts and looked brown and weather-beaten, and I'm sure came from the local farming community. They were both enjoying large plates of food and pints of fizzy lager, at the same time as greeting the other locals loudly and heartily in Welsh. Much to our astonishment and without causing so much as a raised eyebrow from his lady partner or indeed any one else in the bar, he started to let out a sequence of thunderous burps from the depths of his digestive tracts that echoed and reverberated around the bar like side drum rolls. We both tried to pretend that nothing was amiss, always following the principle that local custom and practise should never be questioned. However, this was an indiscretion too far, even for a couple of seasoned men of the road, such as ourselves. We were both a tad shocked I think, perhaps as much by the obvious tolerance of his behaviour shown by his partner and the other drinkers and diners, as by the somewhat gross conduct itself. We had a good laugh about it later though.
Tuesday August 31th Cemmaes to Dinas Mawddwy 20.9 km, 691m
The breakfast delivered by our friendly pub manager in a windowless back room dominated by the TV was somewhat less than inspiring. It was just the bare bones of a fry up with no fresh fruit, no yogurt, minimal toast and no marmalade. I'm not sure there was even fruit juice provided. It was a poor offering, but it occurred to me afterwards that the manager was perhaps serving up exactly what he himself would have wanted - no more, no less. I'm quite certain that the pub did have fruit juice, probably yogurt and even fresh fruit as well, but I didn't ask for any of these things and I don't think it occurred to the guy that anything was missing. I resolved to be much more forthcoming in expressing my wishes at breakfast time in future - especially as I really did suspect that a better, more interesting breakfast might have been available just for the asking.
What, it seemed, was not available for the asking was our washing. As I half suspected and feared, the lady manager to whom I had handed our bag of laundry the previous night, had put it by the washer and then had promptly forgotten all about it. Our friendly host saw no problem whatsoever in taking the time and trouble to get it done during the day as we walked, dropping it up at the 'Red' as he called it, or the Llew Coch pub in Dinas Mawddwy where we were staying that night. That was really very good of him.
The village of Cemmaes has a rather wonderful shop opposite the pub with locally grown produce and baked bread. We were a bit too early to get stocked up with the latter but we got some George Cave apples which were in fact mixed in quality, but the one I landed up with at lunchtime was characterful, sharp and delicious. It has to be said that Nick hated his!
Our day began with a climb up onto the broad ridge of Mynydd y Cemmaes where there is an extensive wind farm whose turbines are connected to each other by a made-up track. The original right of way follows the edge of the escarpment rather more closely and we took this route to begin with. All the way up onto this ridge and for a little further as we walked north, we got the most captivating views of the astonishingly beautiful Dyfi Valley whose cupped shape and pastoral beauty we could see right down to its huge estuary at Aberdyfi. At its head were the tightly enclosing hills that we assumed cradled the village of Dinas Mawddwy, our day's goal.
Rather disconcertingly, and beyond the last of the windmills, the route goes into an elaborate and long drawn-out 'S' shape configuration where, starting at the bottom of the S, you must trek east for a bit alongside a dense plantation, then look for a thin path that manages to penetrate that same plantation before coming out on the other side. You must then make a left turn to trek west back along the top side of the plantation to reach a point where a simple, if rough descent from the last windmill would have brought you out, probably half an hour earlier. This area is called Waun Llinau. The top half of the 'S' must now be negotiated and although a short cut might also be made here, it's probably not advisable, since the ground is boggy and tussocky and there is a fence to scale.
Towards Dinas Mawddwy
We found a lovely perch high above the deserted farm of Craig-For to have our picnic and the views over the secretive valley of Cwm Tafàlog were quite uplifting. Who has ever heard of these wonderfully secluded valleys, each with its own name: Tafàlog, Dugoed, Gweinion and Cleifion? They snake around and between the hills, their courses merging with each other inexorably to flow into the magnificent Afon Dyfi and its gorgeous valley. The remote farm at Gweinion was a pure joy with geese and chickens wandering about the yard and a sleeping dog, either too old or too wise to be perturbed by our footfall.
Towards Dinas Mawddwy
On our way into the village of Mallwyd, we passed two women walking a beautiful Labrador dog and for the first time, without volunteering the information, we were asked if we walking the Cambrian Way. At long last people seem to have heard of this wonderful walk and it has only taken 50 years! We stocked up with a few provisions at the Filling Station shop and then granted ourselves a pint at the Brigands Inn hard by. We had only 2 or 3 miles to go.
All was quiet and secured, both front and back at the 'Red' when we arrived around 5 o'clock, but our washing had been placed by the back door and fortunately it hadn't rained during the day. The publican, Berwyn Hughes and his wife and young family drove up in their car soon afterwards; they had been shopping for new shoes for the children in readiness for the start of the new school term. He guided us through this rabbit warren of a pub up to our spacious family room where it was Nick's turn to have the double bed.
I think we both felt instantly relaxed in this rambling old pub with its signs of family life all round and its huge areas given over to eating, drinking and probably, from time to time, celebrating too. Where in another pub, these huge spaces would have had an air of neglect and redundancy, here there was a feeling that everywhere had a purpose and that such spaces were being and would continue to be used by the community of Dinas Mawddwy for its health and enjoyment.
In the Llew Coch Dinas Mawddwy
If it is the case that an establishment takes on its complexion and atmosphere from the outlook and demeanour of its bosses, then this relaxed couple were indeed running a happy place. The bar maid and waitress, who had apparently worked in the pub since she was a teenager, was unfailingly friendly and the families who came to eat there that night were all clearly having a great time. We certainly ate and drank to elegant sufficiency, particularly enjoying the sharp, hoppy bitterness of the Snowdonia Ale from Purple Moose. There was a little bar at the front where the real ale was drawn, which was cosy and friendly. It had a wood burning stove and the most amazing table occupying one corner, which was deeply scored and indented, ingrained by years of use and slopped beer. The photo I took of its surface looks like a textured art work.
Wednesday September 1st Dinas Mawddwy to Minfordd 25.05, km 566 m
This proved to be a demanding but immensely satisfying day in the little-known hills to the east of Cadair Idris. These are the hills that you might see from the A470 trunk road as you approach Dolgellau from the east and for some of this walking route, you spy this road from on high. We were now walking westwards again, as if to emphasise that this is most definitely a route that seeks out the best in height gain and beautiful scenery, as opposed to maintaining a beeline in one direction. I took what I definitely feel is my best photograph of the trip on this particular day.
There are at least a couple of very sharp ascents out of Dinas Mawddwy, via the area of the disused quarry above the village. The route then contours the trackless Waun Fach, avoiding the summit of the imposing Foel Dinas (478m), to reach, at Bwlch Siglen, a fine view of the head of a new valley, that of Nant Maesglase. Yet another sinew-straining ascent takes you up alongside the forestry of Coed Blaen-y-cwm from where you can branch out over the top of the dramatic Craig Maesglase with its impressive drops right down to the valley below. I spotted a frightened squirrel running amongst the heather up here and well out of its regular habitat so I assumed that it had wriggled free from the claws of some bird of prey. Its chances of survival would be pretty much zero I guess. The views to north and to the west from hereon in for the whole of the rest of the day are quite sensational and make the effort spent in getting here, as well as the switch-backs to come, hugely worthwhile.
Foel Dinas and Nant Maesglase
Such are the quality of the views from this extended ridge walk, that you are absolutely obliged to stop with more frequency than usual, just to take it all in and try to grasp how the evolving panorama is revealing new ranges and new summits all the time. I took a 360 degree video from the summit of Maen Du (Black Stone - 674m) and it included Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs, the valley of Afon Cerist below us, Aran Fawddwy, Foel Dinas, Mynnydd Cemaes with its wind farm and possibly in the distance, even Pumlimon Fawr. I had to take another such video when we got to Waen Oer, (Cold Heath - 670m), but even before that, I took that photo I spoke of, which manages to convey both the texture and the implied motion of this phenomenal landscape. The near-view in the photo is of our ridge as it curves gently, descending from Maen Du to a declivity - Craig Portas, which is just out of sight, but which was our fabulous lunch stop. The photo then shows our ridge continuing up towards Cribin Fawr, (The Big Rake - 659m) but behind Cribin Fawr is one further rise which must be Mynnydd Caeswyn, (White Mountain - 605m). Above and beyond all these overlapping lines of breadth and colour, towers Cadair Idris itself, dark and brooding with its constituent parts clearly revealing the 'chair' of its name. It was all just fantastic.
Best picture. Descending to Craig Portas from Maen Du
We were heading for the hotel at Minfordd that night so we could enjoy one of the best, if not the best route up and over Cadair on the following day. We had stayed at this B&B hard on the A487 on our previous walk and although we were no great lovers of the place, its position on that side of the mountain alongside the entrance to the Minfordd path made it an obvious choice for the night's lodging. I remembered it being run by an elderly gentleman with a Lancashire accent and forthright views, and the day before, whilst in a rare moment of phone coverage in the area of Mynydd Cemaes, I had received a phone call from this very gentleman. His voice sounded much weaker than I remembered it, as if things were all getting a bit on top of him. His message was that if we were thinking of having an evening meal at his establishment, then we must think again, because his chef had gone off sick. I explained that we were walkers and were therefore without our own transport. Could he perhaps do us soup and sandwiches or even possibly run us up to a nearby pub, (the Cross Foxes for instance, 4 miles distant) where we could get an evening meal? No he couldn't do that because his car was out of action so he was stuck for provisions himself. I became, perhaps unfairly, a little exasperated with him - he was so negative and unhelpful. I could see we were not going to get any joy out of him and I could hear his wife in the background telling him to say that they were only a B&B and not a hotel! I finished the call with a curt, 'leave it with me', to which he responded surprisingly in a much relieved way.
View from Cribin Fawr
After a little thought, I asked Nick, (being the public transport pro that he is), if the Minfordd Hotel was not on a bus route, the A487 being a major trunk route in North Wales. It took him just a few seconds to ascertain that the T2 Trawscymru bus would be passing our B&B shortly after 7 pm on its way to Dolgellau and that a return bus would be leaving the town around 9.45 pm! Perfect! A pint and a curry were suddenly on, and this is just what we did that night - and it turned out to be one of the best. After a pint of Cwrw Llyn's Porth Neigwl IPA, (has a richly hoppy through-flavour, well-sustained - and apparently uses gorse flowers in the boil!), we located the local BYO curry house which was superb. This time we decided to eat up all the food, so there were no left-overs whatsoever. We finished off with a Penderyn Welsh whisky sitting outside the Royal Ship in the main square, just down from the bus stop. What a lovely night!
Thursday September 2nd Minfordd to Barmouth 19.34, km 983 m
We much looked forward to this day of mountain traversing and nostalgic reminiscing and our gloomy host, whilst presiding over the monastic silence of the breakfast room, had told us that the weather would brighten up later in the day, which indeed it did. I didn't hold out the same hope for his mood, but we were off and away betimes and he wished us well in his own way. In fact I think a younger self began to emerge just as we set off, showing a knowledge of the mountain and an enthusiasm for our outing which might have had some connection to his own store of recollections of mountain days long since passed.
We climbed to the shores of Llyn Cau in good time, but the cloud was not for lifting, except for one brief moment when I caught the summit of Craig Cau in a snatched photo shot as we clambered up Craig Lwyd. The classic view of that beautiful cirque of crags cradling the lake was not for us today. How many times in a lifetime will you climb such a mountain and how many times will you climb it by that route? Out of that number, how many times will it be given to you to glimpse that breathtaking view? The answer is, even for mountain lovers like myself, vanishingly few. We did see it the last time we came by, so that is one more than the many who will never climb to that place and who know nothing of it.
Craig Cau on Cadair Idris
We picked our way down and around Craig Cau in the mist, finally to ascend to the summit of Pen y Gadair itself, - always an emotional moment. We both remembered the time many years before when Heather and I and a few friends had brought Nick, as a child of 5 or 6, on his first big mountain adventure, an ascent to the summit of this very mountain, which he completed with heroic enthusiasm.
The descent of the mountain via the Pony Path is quite long but very straightforward and we met many folk on the way up, from elderly couples asking if it was all worth it, to single male athletic types talking continuously on the phone, to families with children and dogs, not necessarily geared up for the climb ahead but looking hopeful, as indeed were we on that day long ago.
The next port of call on our trip down memory lane was the incomparable Llynnau Cregennan. By now we had had our picnic and the sun was out, lighting up the scree slopes and the rocky crest of Tyrrau Mawr whose wave-like shape formed a backdrop for most of the rest of this day's walk. This mountain shape is so evocative for me and I remember sitting in the window seat of the now-vanished Plas Cregennan lodge and gazing out over the lakes towards this mountain edifice which in all weathers never looked less than arresting, but which in the evening sunshine could almost glow with the warmth and colour of its rocks. We have video footage of this view taken in the 1980s when our children and the Marsdens' children would play together right here by the lodge, the lake and the mountain, and where we had returned, several years in a row for wonderful holidays.
Cregennan Lakes and Tyrrau Mawr
Plas Cregennan had burnt down in the 1990s but we lingered here, as linger we must, at the spot where the lodge once stood and where now there is a simple engraved stone set in the ground to mark its position. Just as before when we were here, we drank in the view and allowed the memories to flood back.
Eventually we tore ourselves away and focussed on the wonderful view to the west where the Mawddach estuary is bridged by the miraculous Barmouth viaduct. We tramped down the gated road and through the woods to the little village of Arthog where the ground flattens at last and the path picks its way along and around the sandbanks and widening streams that here flow into the graceful Mawddach.
Again as we climbed up onto the viaduct (for pedestrians and railway traffic only), a train trundled its way across and we marvelled at this still-surviving monument to the railway age. We noted with hope, the floating platforms beneath that supported the workmen who were repairing the viaduct, perhaps to herald the dawning of a new railway age for Barmouth and West Wales. One can only hope.
We crossed into town to get some supplies and for Nick to post home a few clothes extra to his requirements. His kit was way too voluminous in my opinion and even he had to agree that he needed to ditch some items! I had a hankering for a fish and chip supper and Barmouth, being a coastal fishing town, was clearly the place for such a feast. I tried to find the excellent café where we had eaten on our previous visit, but without success so we walked back up the road and past the viaduct to find our B&B called Lawrenny Lodge. This was a small, purpose-built, 19th century seaside hotel overlooking the estuary and the harbour, and is now run by a couple called Kevin and Marie. We were welcomed warmly by the soft-spoken Marie who had a trace of a Norwegian accent and who was immediately helpful in suggesting that we could, if we wished, bring back take-away fish and chips from the local chippy to eat in the lovely conservatory on the front of the house overlooking the sea. Our room was a delight with extensive harbour views and two chairs placed strategically in front of the window for gazing out to sea. It was just the place for recouping energy and taking stock of where we were up to and I was thrilled that we were here for two nights. Marie was generous enough to take in our washing too, although she didn't want us to publicise the fact! It wasn't long before we were sampling the Reverend James' nectar in the the Last Inn before queuing for the superb fish and chips from the Harbour Fish Bar next door.
Friday September 3rd Pont Cerrig (Cwm Nantcol) nr Llanbedr to Barmouth 22.3 km, 1067m
The plan for this day was a reverse-direction walk, north to south to cover the necessary distance including the tops, but land us back in Barmouth for a 2nd night. The reason for doing it this way was because a south to north walk would land you in the environs of the remote Cwm Nantcol with perhaps another 7 miles to walk to Llanbedr for there to be any possibility of accommodation. Phone coverage is as good as non-existent in the area too. The plan worked well last time, so why alter it?
Our man with the taxi picked us up on the dot of 8.30 am and although he spoke with a pronounced Black Country accent, it became clear that he had good local knowledge and more than a rough idea of exactly where in Cwm Nantcol we wanted to be dropped off. He revealed that he used to drive a delivery van for Asda so he was a bit dubious about our suggested route because of the number of gates across the road to open and close. However he stuck with the route and anyway, he had Nick to jump out and perform the opening and closing function so he wasn't too bothered. It turned out he'd married his childhood sweetheart from Wolverhampton, following her to West Wales later on as an adult, after her family had moved there from the city when she was still a teenager. Now they had 3 kids and were happily settled in the town with his kids fluent in Welsh and his Dad on the point of joining him there.
We were anxious that Adrian, (I think that was the taxi man's name) shouldn't find himself on a rutted cart track, so we actually bailed out of the journey a mile too soon at Pont Cerrig. We should have got him to take us on to Maes-y-garnedd, a beautiful farm and the last in the valley at the top of the (it turned out) metalled road we were on. As we drew up at the farm by Pont Cerrig, we were inspected with great curiosity by the lady of the house who it turned out, had been expecting a delivery of her new kitchen units. She thought we were the delivery men! She wanted to know all about our day's walking route and asked us if we were following a hill-walking guide by some writer who had mistakenly stated in his book that her farm was offering B&B accommodation. She got back home one day to find a party of walkers camped out on her lawn and waiting expectantly for the B&B to open up and welcome them!
The lady was an ex-teacher and had an authority about her which was not to be easily countered. On hearing that we intended to climb Rhinog Fach by ascending to the top of Bwlch Drws Ardudwy and then climbing it from there, she was insistent that that was not our best way. She was for having us take the path from her farm, avoiding Maes-y-garnedd, and branching off to Llyn Hywel, turning northwards above the lake, (against our day's direction), to take in the summit that way. The trouble was that not only would that route involve a doubling back on ourselves, but it was the way we had tackled years before when I had fallen on the tricky descent from the summit, hurting my arm and damaging my rucksack. That injury was not serious, but I did have an uncomfortable night feeling that our walk might be compromised in some way. For once, we stuck to our guns and I think she was actually quite exasperated with us, so sure was she of the correctness of her advice. In truth, her way was perfectly fine if all you wanted to do was climb to the summit of Rhinog Fach and back. On a summer's day, with a pause at the lake for a picnic or a dip, what could be better?
Up by Mes-y-garnedd, where the metalled road gives way to a rough track, there is now a small parking area and turning space and here too is a roughly painted sign which says that cars may be left on payment of £3 at the farm. We noted all this for future reference and set out on the boggy, undulating path which leads up into the magnificent mountain amphitheatre which is the hallowed territory between the two Rhinog mountains, Fawr on the left and Fach on the right.
We passed a couple of people on the increasingly rough and boggy track, including a young pair who were walking several metres apart and who, by their grim-looking faces and their spat-out responses, had clearly had a major row. Another wild-looking man of the mountains, whom we met at the top of a tricky flight of rocks, began to open up to us, telling us about his lengthy Rhinog trek and about his night on the bald hill in such a way as made me consider even further the savagery of our surroundings and how it might drive people into this half-crazed state!
By this time, we had strayed a little from the line of the pass of Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, being on a faint path slightly above and to the north of the bwlch. From this point of elevation, looking south, we were able to see what looked like a vertiginous path rising somewhat to the west of the famous wall here and beginning to ascend the lower slopes of Rhinog Fach. It is often the case that, due to foreshortening, a gradient looks steeper than it actually is and this was most certainly the case here, or so we hoped!
We toiled up this slope, following its deviations until we arrived, in a billowing mist, at the summit ridge. I had actually lost sight of Nick some way back and our separate arrival at this point was accompanied on my part by some mild anxiety because I was not sure if we had both followed exactly the same path to this broad ridge. I was deliberating whether or not to move on south towards the real summit, when he suddenly appeared out of the mist to the north, having first visited the false summit at the far end of our ridge. The arrival at of the true summit of Rhinog Fach gave us both a great sense of achievement and as the mist was beginning to clear, there opened up before us the makings of a wonderful view to the West and the sea. I felt that we were going really well.
Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach
We now had the company of the wall on our left but I found the descent to the col above Llyn Hywel quite tortuous and my progress was slow. Nick was clearly on a roll and barely had I arrived at the col before he had blasted off again, keen to get the next mountain top, Y Llethr (Steep Crag) under his belt. The climb was again steep and, at times the path was unstable, but I took my time knowing that we would be able to re-group, once at the top of the mountain. I knew too that Nick likes to get stuck in when coping with a fierce ascent and that a sense of momentum is all. The backward views towards Rhinog Fach with Llyn Hywel held fast between its two arms was utterly beautiful to behold and I had to keep stopping to see how the view might be subtly changing as I gained height.
The summit of Y Llethr is by comparison, disappointing and the large dome-shaped area precludes the enjoyment of any extensive views. We thought we had the day cracked and that each of the long line of tops still to come would be progressively lower and that therefore all we needed to do was bowl along with the momentum of the many downs behind us to help us get up over the tops. It wasn't quite like that! For a start, we had expended a good bit energy to get to where we were and furthermore Barmouth was still quite a long way off. The route became a fair old switchback with quite a few twists and turns, and was tiring; but we were able to mark our progress by intermittently leap-frogging a couple of older chaps, both with strong Midland accents, who'd driven over for a day in the hills and with whom we exchanged pleasantries at regular intervals.
Mawddach Estuary showing Barmouth Viaduct
Our progress was solid rather than spectacular but the views of the idyllic Mawddach Estuary were opening up to the left and we especially enjoyed the moment when the distant viaduct came into view. As we approached Barmouth, the intricate network of paths became increasingly well-used, but for one puzzling obstacle below Dinas Oleu where our path was obstructed by the retaining wall of a bungalow garden and some 'private' signs. We were off-route here anyway because we were attempting a short-cut to the longed-for cup of tea at our excellent digs; however, a short retrace and some necessary improvisation had us quickly back on track. We soon had the cuppa in hand and it was not long after that that we communed with the Reverend James before heading for a delicious curry.
Saturday September 4th Maes-y-garnedd (Cwm Nantcol) to Trawsfynydd 10.0 km, 928m
After another superb breakfast, we said farewell to our charming hosts at Lawrenny Lodge, knowing that this place was a must for any return trip in the future. Adrian, the taxi man was bang on time so up we went again to Cwm Nantcol using his preferred route, (the one without gates across the road), but, contrary to what he maintained, it was a bit longer, even allowing for the fact that this time we got him to drop us off at the very end of the road - Maes-y-garnedd farm.
We moved up the valley at a good pace and in probably less than an hour of walking, we were at that particular field of fractured rock where yesterday we had turned south for Rhinog Fach. Now it was the turn of Rhinog Fawr and we thought we were ready for it. We carried on to the top of the pass at which point, on our previous trek, we had turned directly north and taken the mountain, as it were, head on. Now we were following the route on the OS map, (which did seem to correspond with the one suggested in the guide), and which heads north-east from the pass, skirting the base of the mountain till it reaches the nearly invisible ruin of an old sheepfold. To be fair, it doesn't mention this sheepfold in the guide, and I now think that the route the guide recommends from the top of the pass, runs in a slightly more northerly direction than the one we took, which is, as I say, shown on the OS map. No matter, because at some point, (and the sheepfold is as good a place as any), you are going to have to make a sharp turn to the left, westwards, to begin the trackless ascent to the summit in earnest.
We made the sharp turn and the view, both ahead and upwards was wild, desolate and inhospitable - unless you are a mountain goat. In short, what we faced was a succession of boulder-strewn slopes, usually culminating in fractured rock faces, often near vertical, some of them climbable, some of them not. Interspersed with these megaliths of stone were sloping, heather-clad terraces that masked all manner of rocks, from huge, camouflaged slabs to the scattered geological spoil from another era of Earth's history. We quickly found out that taking a step amongst the deceptively beautiful heather, now fully in bloom, was a hazardous business to say the least! We hadn't ventured long into this ultimately challenging terrain before Nick suddenly burst forth with what to me sounded like a howl of despair, the gist of which was that he could no longer see how further progress was possible in this martian-like wilderness. We both came to a halt and after a period of reflection in which we regretted not having taken our former route, we came to the inevitable conclusion that there was no way out of this place, except by going onwards and upwards. In a calmer frame of mind, we mapped out the various possible routes visually, spying ones that we thought would get us across our immediate field of view, whatever there was that lay beyond.
We set off again and following our planned route, we found that once across the deadly heather slopes, the rock scrambling was actually quite manageable, even enjoyable. I knew that my son was cheering up when he started to offer me advice, telling me that this or that slab or boulder was quite safe to trust! I was grateful for the advice and for the lightening of the mood for sure. The gradient began to ease, the rocks became smaller and even a trace of a path appeared. It was not long after that that we were celebrating reaching the summit of this extraordinary mountain.
It occurred to me later that the struggle Nick was having with this admittedly difficult and testing ground was not so much to do with the ground itself, as to do with the weight of his rucksack, about which we were later to have some discussion, to put it mildly. More on this later.
Triumph at The summit of Rhinog Fawr
From the summit of Rhinog Fawr, it was a steep, zig-zag route eventually leading down through a rocky crevice to the bouldery north shore of Llyn Du, where we began to pass others coming up to the lake via the Roman Steps route from Cwm Bychan. It was a fine Saturday in early September so it was not surprising that this wild and beautiful spot was a magnet for those who love such places. We spied a family spread out on a high rock, having clearly bathed in the lake. On the south side of this rather austere sheet of water, there seemed to be an incredibly steep line of ascent with no obvious exit route and this was being laboriously negotiated by a group of 3 or 4 youngsters. Their tortuous progress was attracting not only our attention, but that of a few other 'mature' walkers in the vicinity, and the various comments went along the lines of, 'do you think they know what they are doing?' to, 'looks pretty foolhardy to me', and then all the way to, 'silly buggers!' There is actually a more direct descent path from the top of Rhinog Fawr than the one we took and it's marked on the OS map. Where these youngsters were was most certainly not it.
Not long after leaving Llyn Du, I heard the voices of two young women some way off, but coming up towards me. They were talking loudly and animatedly and I soon realised that they were talking in Welsh, a language that I used to have a little knowledge of. There was something about their noisy and uninhibited chatter as they approached, that inspired me with massively incautious overconfidence to greet them in Welsh. 'Bore da, mae'n ddiwrnod hyfryd!', said I. Naturally, with faces wreathed in smiles, this brought forth a glorious torrent of Welsh from the two ladies, to which I could only limply reply, 'I'm sorry, that's all I can say!' This, not surprisingly caused much amusement and was followed by a confession that the two friends were simply having a whale of a day whilst their respective husbands were on family duties down in the valley.
Actually it was not all I could say in Welsh. For general effect and in the right company, I can also say, 'Iechyd da pob Cymru, a twll din pob Sais', which means: 'Good health to all Welsh people and arseholes to the English!', but I didn't think this was quite the moment.
We continued to descend to Cwm Bychan via Bwlch Tyddiad or the 'Roman Steps', a roughly and inconsistently paved path that had us wondering if it really did date back to Roman times. Our out-loud speculations were heard by an oncoming walker who helpfully filled in the answer as he passed, saying no, it's not Roman but a mediaeval packhorse route, apparently. The flags are still an impressive sight being around 2000 in number and providing a solid path on which good progress can be made, in contrast to our earlier circumstances.
Llyn Cwm Bychan is a glorious spot and if there had been any kind of refreshment available, we would have gladly taken it, for the day was stiflingly hot, especially down here in the valley. We perhaps unwisely took the first sign that we came across for Clip, the mountain towering above us and as a result, found ourselves climbing across a fiercely vertiginous slope towards the main path which rose diagonally and somewhat more comfortably from the lake. We surveyed the ridge to our left, of which Clip was merely the first of several summits and were thankful that on this occasion we were not asking yet more of ourselves than we could comfortably give. This was in contrast to our first attempt where, already towards the end of a long day, we tackled the stiff pull-up to the ridge as the route dictates, to find our progress north along it was far from straightforward. Then, after negotiating a series of rock terraces with tricky drops between them, we decided, for reasons of time and flagging energy, that we had to bail out and descend, on our backsides, a steep gully which brought us to friendlier ground, but still a long way from Maentwrog. To finish the tale, we arrived at the shoreline road of Trawsfynydd with no hope of making Maentwrog that night. Thankfully the phone signal returned sufficiently for us to arrange a pick-up in Trawsfynydd and thus we guiltily made it into our beds that night, in the village of Maentwrog after all.
As we continued to ascend towards a clear pass beneath the fearsome Craig Ddrwg (Bad Crag), we spotted a group of four walkers on the crest of the pass who were now heading towards us. They were a quartet of youngsters, two girls and two boys who told us they were camping down at the lake and had had a fine circular walk, ascending the Roman Steps and then heading north on the other side of the rocky ridge to our east, finally to climb back up to the pass which we were now approaching. On this blisteringly hot day, I noticed that they carried only one water bottle between them, and that particular one was empty. I asked them if they were ok and they said that they were, adding that they had been dreaming of getting back to the tent where they would immediately be pouring the 2 litre bottles of Coke down their throats that they had stored there, not even pausing to swallow! I felt afterwards that I should have given them a swig from my own fast diminishing supply, but that would have satisfied no-one's need. They had a few miles to go still, but it was all downhill to the lake shore and there might have been water to be had somewhere or other on the way. With the heat and the exertion, the amount of water you need on such a day would be almost impossible to carry. The sweat pours off you and you need a constant intake of liquid. We have taken chances with drinking from mountain streams (as indeed must our youngsters have done), but never with ill effects. However, I think if such broiling weather becomes normal in our summers, purifying tablets will be needed.
The rocky high ground to our east was in fact the continuation of the Rhinog ridge north of Rhinog Fawr, which we had side-stepped by coming down to Cwm Bychan. As I gazed up at it, I half wondered if there was any kind of a route through those seemingly impenetrable craters of rock, but I dismissed the idea pretty much the second it occurred to me. Much later on, I read, on the CW website, Matthew Hand's account of his Rhinog route in which he did just that, trekking across those tops north of the Roman Steps and then going on to camp above Llyn Trawsfynydd on the slopes of Moelfryn. He clearly enjoyed the walk but advised against trying it unless you had prior knowledge of the route and excellent weather. I do want to complete the companion ridge though, which forms the CW route from Clip on through to Moel Ysgyfarnogod and across all those tops of the northern Rhinogydd to Moelfryn. What a walk that must be, but done fresh and with a start somehow arranged from Cwm Bychan. That would be my only way!
The path from the pass below Craig Ddrwg was increasingly boggy and the going was slow, especially as we neared the water course of Afon Crawcwellt. We both went down at different times into the boggy undergrowth, causing shouts of, 'not another wettie!', - sounds not heard since we were on the Hebridean Way and certainly unexpected on this hot day in late summer.
Our overnight stay in Trawsfynydd was at the hostel called Llys Ednowain and I was relieved to get a text from a lady called Rachel who was looking after the place and wondered at what time we would be arriving. The splendid building in the centre of Trawsfynydd which houses the hostel was, I think the former community hall and is now, in part, a Heritage Centre and Museum as well as a fine lodging with room for 20 guests. The building was developed and converted on the initiative of the community in Trawsfynydd and is run entirely by volunteers. We were shown round by Rachel and then offered the free run of the place because, amazingly, we were the only guests that night.
Before finally settling down, we made a quick visit to the Cross Foxes down the road, for some deliciously rich and red 'Dark Side of the Moose' ale from Porth Madoc. Surprisingly, it was drawn only with great difficulty and much repeated hand-pumping by the poor barmaid; but she was remarkably good-humoured about the task and it seemed none the worse for its bumpy journey from cellar to bar. We sat outside the pub and the ale came to us eventually, clearing like a rising mist from the glass bottom and showing a top brimming with foam. We watched the setting sun sink beneath the Rhinog mountains and surveyed with huge satisfaction and a massive sense of achievement the heights we had scaled and the distance we had tramped that day. We bought microwave food from the shop where English seemed but a foreign language and made haste back to the hostel where the resources of the beautifully clean and well-equipped kitchen were pressed into service for, perhaps not the best meal of the walk, but a decent and welcome feed all the same.
Sunday September 5th Trawsfynydd to Maentwrog 11.3 km, 151m
I didn't have a great night's sleep in the hostel, though it was hardly the hostel's fault. I was beset once again by middle-of-the-night anxieties, this time about losing my expensive ear buds which I had been enjoying so much in my late night music listening and in my early morning German learning, (an effort to delay cognitive decline!). This pair were already replacements for an earlier pair which had by accident gone into the washing machine and were ruined. Whilst still half asleep, I got up and rifled through my pockets and my stuff sacks, but couldn't find them, so I convinced myself that I had left them behind in Barmouth. The next morning I found them easily enough, lying loose on the spare bed under some clothing, but that was too late to save my night's sleep! So it was just as well that today's walk was only a short distance over easy ground to our next overnight stop.
We decided to take the longer, western route round the lake, a route which we were familiar with, so we headed back over the footbridge at the southern end and followed the lane and track up over Moelfryn and down to the dam at the northern end of the reservoir. The extraordinary grey and foreboding nuclear power station (now disused) looms over this end of the lake and it has the appearance (and function) of a mausoleum. It generated electricity for just 23 years from 1968 to 1991, and its decommissioning, long since started, will take 92 years! Apparently the Welsh government has, just this year (2021), given the go-ahead for the installation of two mini reactors at the plant, bringing it back into service, though what the argument might be for taking this step, I cannot quite imagine.
It was a lovely day, a bit cooler than of late and we had a chocolate break on a grassy bank by the dam in the company of a few Sunday morning runners and dog walkers. It was barely mid morning by this stage and clearly we could be at our digs in Maentwrog by mid-afternoon, even if we dawdled. I took the opportunity of ringing Evaline, the friendly Dutch lady who runs the Glanddwyryd B&B in the village, to ask if we might arrive a bit earlier than usual. We were lucky to be staying at Evaline's again. We stayed there in 2016 and she and her husband were the ones who rescued us from Trawsfynydd village when we were unable to make Maentwrog on foot by nightfall that time. When I booked with her earlier in the year, she told me that their place was up for sale and, should it be sold by the summer, they would not be sticking around. Later we were to learn that they'd had enough of living in Brexit Britain and were heading to Portugal where they hoped they would feel more at home. What a tragedy. Eveline's B&B was a gem, a beautiful, civilised place to stay with good conversation and lovely Dutch pancakes for breakfast!
This day's route was familiar to us because, a year or two back, we had decided that we couldn't live with ourselves without 'patching-in' the miles that we had missed, making up for the lift we had had in Evaline's car from Trawsfynydd to Maentwrog. Nick, being the transport planner that he is, had worked out that we could get all the way from Liverpool to Trawsfynydd by train and bus for early on a Saturday afternoon. Now, on this day, we were retracing that route, enjoying both its familiarity and its surprisingly tricky sections. In the period between walking the route back then and now, huge areas of forestry had been cut down, obviously with little thought for preserving the outline of the paths. For a while, we had to battle our way across deep trenches and the felled and unwanted detritus of forest harvesting. Nothing looked familiar until we suddenly emerged form one of these forlorn sections to arrive at an idyllic cottage which we instantly recognised. This was Ty'n-y-bryn, and its owner was coming towards us, waving in friendly greeting.
We had an interesting conversation with this man who, along with his siblings, had inherited the cottage from his parents. He and his wider family were from Essex and this was their jointly-owned holiday home. But there the similarity between it and the huge number of mostly vacant, ill cared-for holiday lets that blight rural communities up and down Wales, comes to an end. This beautiful place was clearly well looked after and loved. He spoke to us about how he was trying to return his patch of land to its more natural state and how he loved to see how plant and animal species were increasing year by year as the land flourished. The cottage looked out over the Vale of Ffestiniog to the shoulders of Moelwyn Bach and he described how he and his children loved to climb the mountain and wave something colourful from the top, to be spotted by someone back at the house. He told us too about a lovely viewpoint just up ahead, which overlooked the village of Maentwrog and so, after waving farewell, we made for that very place. It was indeed an idyllic spot with the picturesque church and its collection of surrounding houses making for a touching pastoral scene. It was the perfect place for a lunch stop.
We settled in at Glanddwyryd and since it was early, we had a stroll up to the Oakley Arms on the busy main road outside the village. We were remembering how we had just pipped last orders for food at this place when we were kindly dropped off here by Evaline's husband. Then, still dressed in our sweaty walking clothes and tired beyond words, we were decidedly thankful that we would eventually have a bed to sleep in that night. But now, mindful that we had a tough day to come, we headed back to the Grapes in the village where we had some fine Glaslyn Ale with our supper, (full bodied for a golden), before returning to our comfortable digs and our welcome beds.
Monday September 6th Maentwrog to Beddgelert 23.8 km 1132m
Evaline's breakfast did not disappoint. Her delicate pancakes contained thinnest slices of apple fried in butter and cinnamon and then served with sour cream, homemade fruit jam and honey. They were utterly delicious and such a contrast to the often over-facing fry-ups mostly served in B&Bs.
We took our leave regretfully as it seemed likely that we would not meet Evaline and her husband again. We took some photos of Glanddwyryd and the amazing, ramshackle house opposite that we heard was disgracefully being allowed to fall into disrepair by its absentee owner, and then off we set for the Moelwyns.
We knew the whole of the day's route, but earlier on CW1 we had bailed out of Moelwyn Mawr and Cnicht because of bad weather, descending from Bwlch Stwlan to Croesor. So this was actually yet another day's walking that we had patched-in later, to fulfil our objective of covering the whole route from start to finish. In truth, over the intervening years, I think we patched it twice, - once from Maentwrog to Blaenau Festiniog to climb the big Moelwyn and then again on a cold day in January with snow on the ground, from Tanygrisiau to Beddgelert over Cnicht. That was the day I think I persuaded my son of the pleasures of cold curry for lunch!
There was no train to wave at this time on the Ffestiniog line and it would have been fun to see one negotiate the loop at Duallt, but we took the customary photo at the station and then pressed on up the steep and rocky slopes to the dam at Llyn Stwlan. Everything was eerily quiet and shrouded in mist at the dam, which made my imagination work overtime as I thought of the weight of water behind it, especially as sections of the dam were being repaired and looked quite fragile!
There was quite a lot of easy scrambling on the ascent to Moelwyn Mawr's summit which made it entertaining, especially as the mist was obstinately not budging in the humid air. The exact route off the top needed careful navigation, but the mist gave us the feeling that we were entirely alone on the mountain. We were engaging in a musical discussion and I think I was singing a line or two of a well-known Beatles number to prove a point when suddenly, out of the mist, a young couple were coming towards us. They didn't bat an eyelid at our antics and so we pretended that there was nothing untoward about singing out loudly on the mountain, and neither is there!
Care was needed to navigate our way through the extraordinary, dormant and doomed workings of Rhosydd Slate Quarry. There were several false trails beckoning us on amidst the tons and tons of slate spoil heaped up all around into small mountains. It was a grey and shattered landscape and everywhere you looked, there were the abandoned remnants of an industry that once roofed the country and probably much of the world. Nick was ahead of me (as usual) and I heard him calling from some subterranean depth, telling me that I had to come over and see what he had found. He was standing between two high walls of slate either side of a track that appeared to lead into a cavern of some kind. 'Just put your head down inside there', he said, 'and see what happens'. I was amazed. The air that was emerging from the mouth of the cave, as if blown by a giant fan, was many, many degrees colder than the outside temperature. Its icy chill seemed to be coming from deep within the cavern and although its cooling effect was at first pleasant on such a hot day, its wintry chill soon penetrated the bones. Emerging from it was like getting back into a warm bath after briefly being outside on a nippy winter's day.
We had a picnic by Llyn Cwm-corsiog as the mist began to lift, allowing a watery sun to break through at last. Another couple had the same idea on the far side of the Llyn and we watched their dog scampering in and out of the water, delighting us all, including himself. The aim was to find the path that rises up above Llyn yr Adar and onto the ridge that culminates eventually in the wonderful summit of Cnicht. The path from our picnic spot was not clear on the ground so we made it up as we went, scrambling over a sequence of rocky crests until we saw Llyn yr Adar up ahead and the shoulder needed over to the left, rising up into the still-lingering mist above Cnicht. We were almost at the summit when Nick suddenly shouted down to me to look over to the north from where he himself was standing, transfixed by an astonishing view that soon we were both beholding with held breaths. The peculiar weather conditions of the day had caused a layer of cloud to position itself just below the summit of Snowdon. It meant that only the beautiful apex of the mountain itself was entirely clear of the line of cloud. Even more wonderful was the way in which the suspended curtain of cloud became thinner and more transparent, the closer it got to the valley floor. You could see the detailed relief of the lower part of the mountain, but as if through a translucent membrane of vapour. It was a mesmerising moment and one of the great views of the walk, or indeed of any walk!
Nant Gwynant and Snowdon summit from Cnicht
Nant Gwynant and Snowdon summit from Cnicht
As we topped the mountain, we met a young couple coming towards us carrying a very young baby in a sling. I asked therm how old the little one was and if it was the baby's first ever ascent. Yes it was they replied and so I had to admire their determination not to be compromised by the arrival of a new family member. As I began to tackle the tricky descent from Cnicht's summit, I admired even more their courage and athleticism, because the steep, eroded slopes did not make for simple or trouble-free progress, never mind having a baby dangling from your front!
Our day was becoming long and we still had a good way to go. As was now our precautionary habit, I had, the day before made a booking for an evening meal at the only pub in Beddgelert that night where I could get us in - the Saracen's Head. However, the time they had for us, 6.45 pm, was really too early, considering the distance we had still to cover. Incautiously I decided to cancel the booking, hoping that in such a tourist hot-spot we would have no problem in somehow getting a meal. Big mistake! Brexit has been responsible for a critical shortage of labour in the hospitality industry and nowhere was that more painfully obvious than in Beddgerlert that night! As it turned out, we were checking into the Coach House B&B, (situated behind its owner's tiny take-away coffee and sandwich bar), soon after 6 pm and probably could have made the Saracen's Head for 6.45 without too much extra effort. I was still thinking casually that we should saunter over there when we were ready and see if they could still do something for us; after all, we did once have a booking. Dream on squire! After queueing for 20 minutes just to get a pint, we were beginning to wonder if this was the night when we should have to go to bed hungry. Then I remembered our little take-away coffee bar and I got on the phone to Regan Sloan, the owner, (and yes that really was his name), straightaway.
'Hi Regan, it's me, Tony, as in Tony and Nick, your two hungry hikers!'
'A-ha', says Regan. 'I was wondering when you'd call. We have a couple of wraps and just 2 humous and feta paninis left. Do you want me to save them for you?'
Actually, we really enjoyed our sandwich supper sitting outside Regan's little coffee place in the lovely Beddgelert evening. The room wasn't bad either, although it had a kind of DIY breakfast, already placed in the room, - a thing I suppose we must begin to get used to in this world of labour shortages and high cost services.
Tuesday September 7th Beddgelert to Pen y Pass Youth Hostel 18.3 km, 1051m
So this was the big day when Wales' highest and noblest peak would be conquered and when we would begin to feel that at last the entirety of this grand walk was truly becoming within our grasp. The day turned out to be the hottest of the walk and although the common complaint is that Snowdon's summit is visible on only a very few days every year, we were clearly not going to be disappointed that day.
Regan was already taking deliveries by 7 am, so I procured 2 coffees from him to have with our room-breakfast. The good man would take nothing for them; but he did want to know our proposed route and on hearing that we were ascending the peak via Bwlch Main, he gave us his blessing, saying that the Watkin path was not a good idea with our heavy packs.
We took our leave of Beddgelert and enjoyed the peaceful start to the day, walking alongside the tranquil Llyn Dinas, but aware at the same time, that the traffic was building on the busy A road on the opposite side of the lake. By the time we got to the gates at the start of the Watkin Path, the line of parked cars was enormous and I felt that we would be lost in a mighty throng of Snowdon tourists, slowly plodding its way up the mountain. Actually, although we were far from alone, the climb was not really like that at all - not that is, until we reached the very top.
The heat was already building steadily and we were quite envious of the groups of youngsters cooling themselves off in the tempting waters of the Afon Cwm Llan, from which we were already replenishing our own drinking supplies. The route soon takes its leave of the Watkin Path on its way to Bwlch Cwm Llan, and not long after that we were being made aware that the mountain, far from being just a pleasurable playground, is for some, their place of work. We were becoming embroiled in a pincer movement of sheep gathering and from the shouts of men coming from a number of different directions, we thought we should stay put for a bit, lest we should interfere with the job in hand. It was no problem anyway to pause awhile and watch the work of the dogs, admiring the way in which, through a combination of command and instinct, these intelligent creatures perform their task with such precision.
We had to have a good rest at Bwlch Cwm Llan because the heat was draining our reserves of energy and bodily hydration fast. We sat down in the shade of a wall, out of the direct sunlight and I was astonished when Nick took his T-shirt off and proceeded literally to wring it out, so thoroughly was it soaked in sweat! It can't have been very pleasant to put it back on, but protection from the strength of this sun was essential. It was a toilsome ascent for sure, broken up by some sections of quite entertaining scrambling and of course the magnificent views, mainly of the fine ridge which connects Snowdon to its neighbour, Y Lliwedd. We had in fact for a moment or two on the night before, toyed with the idea of missing out Snowdon altogether and climbing Y Lliwedd instead, the rational being to avoid the crowds on the summit of the peak and on its popular descent paths. We dismissed the idea fairly smartly when we considered how we would ever be able to tell our family and friends with a straight face that we had completed the Cambrian Way, but without climbing Snowdon!
Queue to get to Snowdon’s summit
As expected the summit was crawling with all manner of visitors, garbed in all states of dress and undress. At least they had all walked up, there being no train service (and disappointingly for once no café either). The queue to reach the summit was virtually stationary and stretched way back down beyond the rail terminus. What on earth possessed that group of people to stand virtually motionless in the broiling sun in order to take their turn at the top, where the view was exactly the same as the one just a few feet below, I cannot imagine.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, - not the multitudes, not the mums and dads with their their toddlers and babes in arms, not the overweight strugglers in their unsuitable shoes, nor the arguing couples who had misjudged the whole enterprise - none of these distractions could detract from the overwhelming beauty and magnificence of this Prince of Mountains. And anyway, who is to say how the mountains should be enjoyed? Provided you are safe, they surely are for everyone!
Glaslyn and Y Lliwedd
It was, needless to say with some relief that we finally got down to the café and the hostel at Pen y Pass where there was a welcome cuppa and an ice cream. The presence of the service bus picking people up in the car park gave Nick the idea that we should consider reversing our route on the following day, getting an early bus down to Capel Curig and walking back to Pen y Pass following the route over the Glyders, then taking the bus back down to Capel Curig again for our night's lodging. The rational for this was that, in so doing, we would avoid the punishing ascent of Glyder Fawr direct from the hostel. For both of us, the painful memory of that extraordinary climb had been etched upon our memories over the intervening years. But in truth, I was beginning to think that this suggestion of Nick's might in fact be a hint that the weight of his pack was getting him down.
Glaslyn and Snowdon
The mini-dorm assigned to us in the hostel, (which we had all to ourselves), would have been fine but for the heat that the room seemed to trap. There was a large window, but situated so high up that it was impossible to open. The only workable window in the room was tiny and was set to open the merest fraction. It was an uncomfortable night for us both and I think little sleep was had by either of us.
Wednesday September 8th Pen y Pass to Capel Curig 13.6 km, 805m
It was always our intention to follow the route over the Glyders and down to Idwal Cottage Hostel at the foot of Llyn Ogwen, but we were frustrated in that wish because the hostel was sadly fully booked. Our alternative was to descend from the Glyder ridge and continue on past Bwlch Tryfan over several lesser tops, till we got down to Capel Curig where we could put up at a decent independent hostel there.
Despite the lack of sleep, calmer heads prevailed in the morning, and we decided to put our best foot forward and throw our backs into the testing climb ahead. In the end it was not quite as punishing as we had remembered, but it was at least a couple of hours of hard graft to get to the top of Glyder Fawr, finding the odd suggestion of a path and frequently resorting to the hands in the rocky sections. The backward views were stunning, particularly of the Snowdon Horseshoe and it was satisfying to see how quickly the hostel at Pen y Pass became a diminutive dot far below.
The Snowdon Horseshoe from slopes of Glyder Fawr
The landscape of the Glyder is truly astonishing and its barren, other-worldly quality always leaves a deep and lasting impression. We skirted the base of Castell y Gwynt, that extraordinary sculpture in natural rock that thrusts itself up defiantly from the scattered and disordered slabs strewn all around. Soon afterwards we somehow became separated and I couldn't be absolutely certain that I did in fact put both feet on the summit of Glyder Fach. We found each other again by the cantilever rock and of course Nick managed to pose with nonchalant ease on the very tip of the rock. I got to up there with rather more difficulty and was suddenly a bit unnerved by the fierce wind which buffeted me half way along the slab. At any rate, it was further than I got the time before and with a photo to prove it, I was happy!
The Cantilever on Glyder Fach
The backward view of Bristly Ridge as we descended towards Bwlch Tryfan, was spectacular and the 'bad step', like a missing tooth from an otherwise complete comb, was plain to see. I had memories of that bad step from years gone by. We found a pleasant lunch stop by the edge of Llyn Caseg-fraith and from here it was the dramatic view of Tryfan's half profile that dominated the scene. However it was at this lunch spot that Nick and I had a bit of a tiff.
Clearly, we were both suffering from a lack of good quality sleep, having spent the night in that horrendously hot hostel room. Furthermore, we had just climbed the full Glyder ridge straight up from Pen y Pass and were low on reserves of energy. Whatever the reason, the subject of the weight of Nick's rucksack came up and I incautiously said too much about where I believed he could cut down on that weight. He reacted badly and took off at a great speed towards the next summit, Y Foel Goch. I followed on at my own speed, feeling guilty for not having been more sensitive to the incendiary nature of the topic and for voicing an opinion that was not asked for. I realised that I came across as being far too paternalistic and patronising and I hoped that an apology and expression of regret would enable us to recover our excellent sense of team play, which we have always effortlessly enjoyed. He was waiting for me at the top, his anger dispelled by the furious energy of his ascent. I think we were both feeling contrite. At any rate, we apologised to each other and soon all was forgotten.
Tryfan and the Ogwen Valley from Y Braich
Tryfan and the Ogwen Valley from Y Braich
The switch-back route down into Capel Curig was a bit of a trudge but we refreshed ourselves with a cuppa at the excellent Moel Siabod café before gaining entrance to our welcome hostel accommodation at Plas Curig. For some rather less than obvious reason this place is called 'The Rocks'. For non-catered, non en-suite accommodation, the hostel was not cheap, but it was otherwise a well-appointed and friendly place and the vast kitchen was beautifully clean and well-equipped. Later on we strolled a mile down the road to the Tyn-y-coed pub which stands at the foot of the solitary but impressive Moel Siabod. Here we had the pleasure once again of tasting the superb offerings from the Porthmadog brewery: Snowdonia Ale and Dark Side of the Moose, the latter being in my opinion, one of the best Red Ales around.
Thursday September 9th Capel Curig to Llanfairfechan 24.8 km, 1055m
In 2016, we covered the distance from Ogwen to Conwy over the Carneddau in one walk, a journey of some 30 km and 1600m of ascent - a tough assignment and making one long final day of the whole walk. This time, setting out from Capel Curig, such a walk seemed inadvisable, so we concocted an interesting route taking in the unfamiliar (to me) Pen yr Helgi Du (hill of the black hound), but sadly missing out Pen yr Ole Wen and Carnedd Dafydd. The day started out fine and the long, slow climb up along the shoulder of Y Braich (the Arm) was uneventful except for the wonderful views over to Tryfan and Llyn Ogwen. As we skirted the summit of Pen yr Helgi Du, high above the waters of the Ffynon Llugwy reservoir, an exciting-looking and quite narrow arête came into view. This is the thin and rocky ridge called Bwlch Eryl Farchog that connects Pen yr Helgi Du with the main Carneddau ridge. The cloud was beginning to descend however, and I had a few moments of anxiety, because the faint path that we were following seemed to be clinging ever more precariously to the steep slopes over which we crossed. It was difficult to imagine how the current traverse would deliver us safely to the thin, rocky ridge up ahead. My imagination, as usual was working overtime, but all was well, at least for the time being. Despite the gathering cloud and hints of rain, the arête was inspiring and took us all too quickly to the more formidable arrangement of slabs that form the south-western edge of Craig yr Ysfa. Where once I would have been quite confident on these rock steps, now I felt myself to be a little too dependent on Nick's suggestions as to hand holds and foot placements, notwithstanding how helpful they were.
Bwlch Eryl Farchog and Craig yr Ysfa. Carnedd Llewelyn in the distance
Once negotiated, the walk to the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn was easy if only slightly disappointing because the now enveloping cloud was obscuring what I imagine would have been the great drama of Craig yr Ysfa and Cwm Eigiau over to our right. But there was absolutely no cause for complaint about the weather overall on this mountain trek. We had had way above any normal expectation of clear skies and fine views and we were taking back with us a treasury of memories of this wholly wonderful landscape.
The Ridge of the Carneddau
We paused at the shelter on Carnedd Llewelyn and the clouds were kind enough to lift just enough to give us some tantalising views over to Carnedd Dafydd and the Ogwen hills beyond. The route ahead was now clear on the ground and in its entirety forms a splendid ridge walk taking in the whole Carneddau range, all the way to Conwy mountain. Our lunch was taken by the shelter on Foel Grach and by the time we got to Drum, some 5 km further on, we were being engulfed by a soaking, misty rain which made our decision to descend to Llanfairfechan for a further overnight seem quite sensible. In truth, if the weather had been kinder, we might well have decided to keep going, just as we had on the earlier march. As we descended, the rain became more intense and I began to feel a certain clammy dampness against my skin which is the sure sign of yet another failing waterproof! Do any of them ever really work properly?
Between Drum and Drosgl in the Carneddau
Our afternoon plod was indeed an uncomfortably wet one and our single-minded purpose was to get ourselves to the Village Inn in the centre of the town as quickly and as directly as we could. The pub was barely set up for guests and indeed, if I had not rung them the previous night to confirm our booking, they would not even have been expecting us. We did our best with drying our gear in the somewhat spartan room and additionally we were told not to expect any breakfast. However the landlady did give us a good recommendation for supper. After another rain-soaked dash, we found ourselves at the Split Willow restaurant and, amidst the company of a group of elderly ballroom dancers who were tucking into a magnificent-looking buffet, post the dance work-out, we too got ourselves a fine meal at a very decent price. We washed it down with some well-balanced, light and refreshing Snowdon IPA from Colwyn Bay.
Friday September 10th Llanfairfechan to Conwy 15.1 km, 508m
I woke early to the sound of continuous rain spattering against the window panes and I formulated the thought that if our our final day of the walk was to be a sodden one, it would be better at least to be able to see something ahead, rather than be totally enveloped in mist and rain on the high tops. I looked at the map and saw that the North Wales Path (as distinct from the Wales Coast Path), climbs to a decent height on the escarpment of hills behind Penmaenmawr and would, in about 8 km, lead us back to the main CW route, some way short of the Sychnant Pass. Fair enough, we would be missing out Tal y Fan (610 m), but this was a pragmatic decision, the kind of which all long distance walkers find themselves taking at some point or other on such a trek as this. I had no difficulty whatsoever in persuading Nick that this should be the day's plan.
After a rather good breakfast foraged by me from the CoOp over the road, we set out with a song in our hearts and the thought that within a few hours we would reach our goal and the celebrations could begin. It was Nick's 40th birthday on the morrow and a group of family and friends would be joining us for the weekend in Conwy to welcome us back and raise a cheer for him on his big day. Although I think we were both just a trifle apprehensive about how the disparate group would get along at the following day's lunch party, after 2 weeks on the road, we were excited to be gathering with our nearest and dearest to be doing some normal things again.
Our route, for the record, took us out of Llanfairfechan on a paved RoW up to Henar Farm where we then climbed steeply behind the farm in the direction of Plas Heulog. A road gave way to grassy hill tracks on the northern side of Moelfre and all the while, in spite of the heavy showers, we got wonderful backward views of the coastline stretching over to Anglesey and Puffin Island. Beyond a beautiful and secluded cottage called Bryn Derwydd, we entered shockingly boggy ground and it was quite an undertaking to find a passable route crossing the Afon Gyrach. Just above the piece of woodland evocatively named Fairy Glen, we rejoined the Cambrian Way for the final segment of our journey.
Llainfairfechan and the coast
We dropped down to the dramatic Sychnant Pass before rising up over Castell Caer Seion to glimpse, first the estuary of the river Conwy with the Great Orme rising up behind like some prehistoric beast, and then, at long last, the turrets, towers and battlements of that magnificent mediaeval fortress that has dominated the town for 700 years, - yes! - Conwy Castle itself.
On Conwy Mountain
The Conwy Estuary and the Great Orme
Conwy and its Castle
We delayed our arrival in the town by having a last picnic lunch in Coed Ffridd and then we made haste to the Castle for that ultimate rush of a sense of achievement, some warm hugs and a few selfies. Two passing ladies were observing us with interest during this moment of celebration, so I felt I simply had to tell them, though in a voice rather breaking with emotion, that we had just walked all the way from Cardiff!