I can't remember how I found out about it, but somehow I had got interested in doing the Cambrian Way, a 275 mile route, from Cardiff to Conway, via (to quote the book) "much of the highest, wildest, and most scenically beautiful parts of Wales", and also "most of the well known summits of Wales". Taking in the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons, Carmarthen Vans, Elenydd, Plynlimon, Cadair Idris, Rhinog, Snowdon, Glyders, and the Carnedds, it read like a who's who of the best high ground in Wales. It sounded superb. I had two weeks of vacation in the middle of June, so I had a simple plan to do the first two weeks worth, and then fit in anything left in a second trip.
As luck would have it there was a brand new 6th (2008) edition of the guidebook due out about a month before I was planning to do it, so I would have up to the minute route information. I also bought the ten (!!) OS maps needed, and it took me nearly a whole day to mark the route from start to finish with highlighter, which really brought home how long and involved the route was. Not only that, the full set of maps weighed 1.2 kg, which I didn't fancy lugging about, so I spent another morning carefully cutting up the £70 worth of maps that I had just bought into 21 sequential pieces, which got the weight down to a more manageable 400g.
As it happened I was working up North the week before anyway, and I settled on Crewe as a good compromise for trains to Cardiff early enough on Saturday morning, and good connections for getting back from wherever I ended up. I went straight over there from work on Friday night, stayed the night in a hotel beside the station, and then was on a super-early train down to Cardiff.
I got in to Cardiff Central station at half nine. It was a warm sunny day. I didn't hang about, and got going straight up to Bute Park. A quick photo of the official start point, the castle, through the trees and then I was off. The route took easy paths through the park, following the river, past some interesting flower beds. After the water wheel I almost missed the canal and had to backtrack, just a couple of hundred metres up a small street. It looked like the river would actually have taken me all the way to Coch Castle anyway, along the Taff Trail, but the old canal was very pleasant, full of lillies and other plants, lots of bird life, and dragonflies. I came to the massive road junction, where views of the castle appeared over on the tree covered hillside, and made my way round the twists and turns and ups and downs to get over and under the various roads.
At the castle, the proper tracks started, and I sat down and lengthened my walking poles. There was a wedding on, and as I stood there a huge white stretch-hummer turned up, with 'simply the best' blaring from the inside as it opened the doors. After Thornhill there was a pleasant section along the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway walk, following a sort of grassy shoulder, with good views, past a small quarry, then after a farm and some rather ragged looking sheep, into beech forest with strong smells of wild garlic. The path popped out right at the door of the Maenllwyd Inn, which was rather tempting, but I pushed on along a narrow road and then more forestry track. I could see the large hill of Mynydd Machen looming above the small village of Machen, and stopped in the village for a quick sit down and some energy drink and bombay mix. It turned out to be a very pleasant walk out of Machen, climbing through conifers with clumps of bracken, before coming out on open hillside coated with ferns and gorse. There were superb views from the top, back to Cardiff and the sea, and even across to the SW coast of England. The path descended past a strange shaped lump, which looked like an old spoil heap that had grassed over.
At Risca, I sat down on the edge of the sports field and made a few calls to see if I could sort out a place to stay for the first night. But the Forest Drive campsite was full up and so were the couple of B&Bs that I tried. Never mind, I pushed on along a nice section along a canal. I had a quick camelback check, it was almost empty, so I descended the short distance back down over the railway line to the garage in Risca to get some more water and fill up. Some road climbing, then a grassy path surrounded by larches with new light-green needles as I climbed up to Pegwn-y-bwlch. There was a bit of a pull up to Twmbarlwm, with more great views back to the sea, and an interesting ditch surrounding the whole top. Twmbarlwm seemed like far enough for the first day, so I dropped back off the top, and found a secluded after-dark bivi spot near the road.
It was another sunny day with clear blue skies, so I woke up quite early on, and was already on the move by about seven. Even this early in the morning it was warm and windless. The route continued along 4x4 track on the top of Mynydd Henllys, there were deep ruts in places, and in places people had driven round them, making the track even wider still. On the left I passed Ebbw forest, and I spotted what looked like some good purpose built MTB tracks, and some jumps. Somewhere along here my camera stopped working, with the rather vague message "Card Error". That was worrying, I hoped that I hadn't lost all my shots up to now, and it also left me with an unuseable camera if the second card started giving problems. There were still superb views down to the much flatter landscape below, and out to the coast and back to Cardiff. Near Blaen Blan reservoirs, the route dropped down into a valley, along a pleasant rocky track, through big deciduous trees, and under some small cliffs.
Eventually the route came to the end of the common and dropped down a small road to the Lamb Inn, then some pleasant fields full of buttercups, followed by a short section of dirt track with tall earth banks and overhanging trees that was totally in the shade. I went past a petrol station, which seemed to be the last facility until Abergavenny, so I filled up my camelback and then sat at the side of the forecourt and had a tin of cold soup and some sports drink. The path climbed out of Pontypool on rocky dirt track, followed by grass fields, and about half way up I stopped and did some ringing ahead for a place to stay in Abergavenny. The YHA was apparently full, but there was a B&B with a single room (and almost the same price as the YHA anyway). One snag, they were on their way back from London, so wouldn't be in until 7pm, but that didn't seem too much of a problem and I was sure I could amuse myself.
Further up there was a small folly, surrounded by cows trying to stay out of the sun, then a rocky jeep track crossing a stream, where there was a pair of huge dragonflies chasing each other about. On Garn Wen I could see people on trials bikes blasting about. There were lumps of a strange conglomerate type of rock. From Garn Wen there was a long stretch of featureless moor to cross to get to Blorenge, heading for two large radio masts in the distance, which were an excellent landmark. Now and then I could hear trials bikes buzzing about in the distance. At a crossing of a small road I sat down for a rest for a while and was excited to see a red kite soaring overhead. The path got rockier, through black peaty ground, and patches of cotton grass, although there were some small waymark posts which made it easier to stay on course. It was quite slow going this bit, and felt like it took a long time, it was windless too so warm in the sun. Eventually I arrived at the radio masts, and then soon after the summit of Blorenge, where there was a big jumble of rocks, and a few walkers appeared, the first I had seen since Pontypool.
The descent from Blorenge came to a superb grassy rim, which had a very three-dimensional crumpled top, and then dropped away steeply, with cracking views over Abergavenny. Just as I got there, a tandem paraglider was taking off, and I watched it for a while as it soared over the hillside and the town. I took the steep descent down the face, in worn footsteps, which was quite hard on the knees. Near the bottom a small spring appeared, which poured into an old bathtub, and I dipped my arms in it for a while to cool down. It was about half-four when I eventually rolled into Abergavenny. The mornings camera problems had convinced me that I better get a new memory card in case anything else went wrong, and there was actually a camera shop in the town, but as it was Sunday it was already closed.
The B&B person wasn't back until seven, so I sat in the sun for a while beside the Tourist Info Centre. The adjoining car park seemed to be the place to go in Abergavenny, with lots of bikers hanging about chatting, teenagers revving their souped up hatchbacks, and even a bunch of adults in vintage porsches. After watching the comings and goings for a while, I adjourned to a friendly small cafe nearby.
After a leisurely breakfast I headed to the camera shop and bought four smaller cards, rather than one big one, working on the basis that I would lose fewer pictures if another one packed in. While I was at it, I nipped into Holland and Barrett and got two large bags of dried apricots and dates to keep me going through the black mountains. I eventually got moving about twenty past nine. It was a lovely day again, blue skies, and I headed past the large houses and leafy gardens of Avenue Road. It was a superb climb up to Sugar Loaf, on grassy path through ferns, with great views back to Blorenge, then nearer the top more sandy and rocky path, with views right back to the sea.
At Forest Coal Pit the route climbed for a while on narrow road, which turned into a rocky track. From the huge cairn at Garn Wen the path traversed a long shoulder past Bal Mawr, with excellent views. As I got further along there were views of the small dam at Grwyne Fawr. Descending to Blacksmith's Anvil, I met another walker coming up from Capel Y Fin, the first I had seen all day. There was a lovely descent to Capel Y Fin, through steep hillside scattered with small trees, on a path with big rocky slabs. Capel Y Fin would have been a nice place to camp, but it still felt a bit early to stop. The woman at the Grange let me refill my camelback from an outside tap, and we chatted as I unpacked and repacked everything to get the camelback back into the rucksac. A chap with a wheelbarrow suggested I would be better off with lager in the camelback.
After inspecting the tiny church at Capel Y Fin, I pushed on up a narrow road, which soon turned into a track, following a pleasant valley, with a stream and small waterfalls, and I reached Twmpa at about six. It had turned into a lovely warm summer evening and from Twmpa I could see down to the small road winding down from Gospel Pass, which I still remembered from cycling the end to end, and looking North a huge expanse of flatter but very green landscape opened up. From the summit of Twmpa I backtracked down to the saddle again, and pushed on towards Rhos Dirion. I was able to go at a good pace, the ground looked like it was normally marshy, but now it was bone dry, and slightly springy to walk on. At Waun Fach, the swamp surrounding the summit was also bone dry and I was able to walk right up to the summit rock without getting so much as a spec of mud on my shoes.
Descending from Waun Fach I met a bloke with lots of tattoos walking along topless and he stopped for a chat. It was after seven by this time, and still sunny, although there was a bit of a cool breeze. He had dropped off a bunch of school kids who were bivying on the hillside, and was now heading back down. He still had another couple of hours before it got dark, and was going to continue on along the tops to Pen Allt-Mawr and then descend. He enthused about the superb walking and scenery, although I certainly didn't need any convincing. He pushed on, and for a while afterwards I could see him in the distance traversing the big whale-like shoulder of Mynydd Llysiau. Soon after I dropped off the shoulder a little way and found a good bivi spot out of the wind, then sat and had dinner of bombay mix and dried apricots while I watched the sun go down.
I got packed up early, and was on the move before seven. There wasn't much to see, everything was covered in low cloud, although it was still dry. The two small slabs on the top of Pen Twyn Glas looked like a pair of tombstones appearing out of the mist. At Pen Allt-Mawr there was no view at all, but by Pen Cerrig-Calch the sun had come out and the views of distant peaks had reappeared. The summit had lots of very white rocks scattered about. It was all downhill now, and I soon passed by the small flat top of Table Mountain, an old iron age hill fort, and then down to Crickhowell. It seemed like a pleasant village, there were quite a few small shops, baskets of hanging flowers, and views of table mountain looming in the background. I adjourned to a small cafe for an excellent houmous and vegetables in Ciabatta bread, and a pot of earl grey tea. I sat inside, it was actually too warm outside in the sun! It didn't look there was much in the way of amenities over the next few days, so after the early lunch, I stocked up with quite a bit of food from one of the small shops and with some effort managed to squeeze it all back into my rucksac.
It was quite hot by the time I got going again, after crossing the river the route went through a small park, then along a canal which was totally dried out. All of a sudden the path climbed steeply up towards Eglwys Faen, which was a bit of a shock to the system, but it was worth it, it arrived on a superb balcony path which traversed under limestone cliffs, occasional bits of flowstone, and interesting looking openings and fissures. In the distance, a line of people in boiler suits and red crash hats disappeared off up the hillside and into a large cave. Further on, the path dropped away from the cliff, through trees, lots of hawthorn covered in blossom, and lovely sweet smells. After the stretch under the cliffs, things went downhill a bit, there was a few kilometres along a B-road, although at least the traffic was fairly quiet, and there was a grass shoulder to walk on most of the time.
Even though the road wasn't too busy, it was still a relief to reach Blaen Onneu and leave it behind. I picked a route across the moor to the not-much-of-a-summit cairn, and then on towards the Chartists cave. It was interesting walking as far as moors go, very three-dimensional landscape, surrounded by sinkholes of all different sizes. The path was reasonably distinct and brought me right to the cave. It was a good place to stop for a snack, the back of the cave was full of small ferns growing from the walls, and there was a plaque describing the use of the cave to hoard weapons for historic uprisings. Further across the moor, there were a few horses with young foals, and I bumped into a farmer on a quad bike who was keeping an eye on one particular foal that was only a couple of days old.
There was a marshy section just before hitting the dusty quarry road near Pyrgad, although there may have been a better path that I missed. I sat down at the side of the road for another snack. A red kite soared overhead, towards the quarry. After the quarry the route was undefined on the ground, and crossed marshy moor, but a bearing got me within sight of a big area of forestry, which was a good landmark. I soon got up to the top of Yr Allt, it was quite churned up in places with tyre marks. There was a very chilly breeze, and I had to put my fleece back on. I descended to Torpantau pass, it was getting fairly late by this time, so I had a look around, and found a nice secluded after-dark bivi spot.
I got going about seven, it was cloudy, but dry, and very windy. It didn't take long to get up to Craig Y Fan Ddu, and looking down I could see a few people camped down in the next valley. The route followed the edge for little while then cut off across the peaty landscape towards Craig Cwarelli. I had a strange moment as I approached an edge which at first glance looked identical to the one I had just left, but as I got closer it was indeed a different edge. I soon passed by Cribin, the top was covered in cloud, so I didn't bother making the detour up via the obvious worn path. There were views back to a small reservoir, and I came across an interesting puddle full of tadpoles. Climbing Pen Y Fan, there was lots of new path built out of rock slabs, some of it still in the process of being laid, and I got overtaken by two blokes in full army uniform. The top was in cloud so there wasn't much to see, a flat area of rock slabs, with a low and rather arty cairn. Down to Carn Ddu, which in the cloud looked exactly like the summit I had just left. Down at the obelisk I met a bloke with a party of kids, who reckoned it was going to clear up a bit between twelve and two, and then get much worse for the rest of the day, which wasn't really what I wanted to hear.
I soon reached Storey Arms, where there was a snack van in the layby. There was a bitter disappointment that they were out of vegi burgers until Thursday, but they knocked me up a cup of tea, and some fried mushrooms in a bun, which tasted excellent in my very hungry state. I got a couple of bags of crisps as a treat for later. I headed up Fforest Fawr, it was a good path at first, but then fizzled out a bit. I was in cloud again on this bit, and it started drizzling, then getting heavier, so I had to put full waterproofs on. I pushed on, walking on a bearing, but overshot a bit, it was quite featureless, so I continued to the boundary fence and took another bearing, which got me to the ford on Sarn Helen. Near Sarn Helen the rain eased off a bit, and there were occasional views through the clouds. By Maen Lilia the cloud had lifted completely and there were good views again.
I took the wall past Fan Nedd, I was almost tempted to do the slight detour up to the top of it, and later I wished I had. But it gives a good excuse for a return trip. There were cracking views from the top of Fan Gihirych, and I stood and took them in for a while. I could see at least three big windmill farms in the distance in different directions, and I'm sure I could see the sea, and a reasonable sized town beside it. I descended down the "suicidal west side", it was quite steep, but otherwise not too bad. It was out the wind too, so I stopped and treated myself to one of the packets of crisps, and sent a few texts since I actually had a signal for a change.
After the snacking and texting, I crossed the A4067, followed by the crossing of the Cnewr, following a distinct'ish path and old fence posts lying on the ground which were almost overgrown. I could see ahead towards Fan Brycheiniog, the top was in cloud, and the rest of it looked rather dark and uninviting. After the stile there was a narrow road, and a very pleasant stream, where I sat down for a while. I headed up, following Nant Y Llyn, nice stream, small waterfalls every so often, and occasional mountain ash. It was getting on a bit by this time, and I spotted a very nice after-dark bivi spot near the stream.
It rained off and on through the night, and there was quite a heavy burst just before I got up. I packed everything except the tent outer, and sat under it for a while. Looking out there seemed to be the odd patch of blue skies, I gave it another five minutes, and by the time I got going at about seven it seemed to be on hold. The top of Fan Brycheiniog was hidden under cloud. The tarn had an unpleasant looking thick foam round the edges, and I wondered what would pollute the water this high up, especially since I had filled my camelback up from the stream leading down from it last night. Through the cloud I could just about spot some small figures climbing up the final steep bit to the top. There seemed to be quite a bit of path building activity going on, in some places there were stones in the process of being set into the path, and in other places gravel had been laid down.
As I neared the summit three blokes and two dogs appeared out of the gloom in the small round wind shelter. They had parked a short drive away from Llandovery and were doing a circuit back across the moor to the car. As we stood there talking, the clouds suddenly opened up and for a moment we were stood in bright sunshine with superb views out over the cloud tops, and I quickly got some shots before they closed in again. The other guys and the dogs headed off towards the steep dropoff on the nose of Fan Foel, but I stuck to the book recommendation and continued on down to the saddle, there were good views ahead to Bannau Sir Gaer. By the time I got down to the moor the clouds seemed to have opened up more permanently. It was quite featureless through, so I traversed round to the front of the mountain, past a bunch of wild horses hanging about, which got me on a higher shoulder and then took a bearing which brought me out at the road, looking down on the small ford at GR803270. I could see three red kites soaring overhead. It was now quite sunny, although every time I looked back, the two peaks of Fan Brycheiniog and Bannau Sir Gaer still looked very dark and ominous.
The book described the next bit as being difficult to navigate, but I didn't find it too bad, there was a track marked on the OS map, which for a change actually existed on the ground. It seemed like an old jeep track, now grown over with grass but still quite distinct. There were cracking views down to the Clydach valley below. Every time I looked back I could still see the two peaks of Fan Brycheiniog and Bannau Sir Gaer on the horizon, looking very dark and gloomy. According to the map, the track crossed a line of some sort of ancient ditch, and right on cue it arrived, followed shortly afterwards by some old pits, at which point the route left the open access land and headed down through a field. There was a road section down to Myddfai, no facilities, but there was a bench, so I had a quick sit down and a small snack. More road walking out of the village, where I spotted another red kite, then a mixture of farm tracks and fields.
After Cefn Rhuddau I went a bit off-course thinking I had missed the turn off onto the old road, and headed off on a vague track across some fields. It took me through another couple of fields and a dead end, although on the plus side one of the fields was full of superb pink orchids. A little bit of backtracking got me back to the proper old road, which was actually very obvious when I got there. Llandovery looked very different to Crickhowell, it seemed less up-market and a bit tatty in places. Despite that, it was very well stocked, there was a decent supermarket, an outdoor shop, and even a health food shop where I stocked up on bombay mix and halva. While I was at it, I popped in to the tourist info centre, and they rang up the campsite at Rhandirmwyn for me and checked they had some space. They also rang up the Dyffryn Castell hotel (for two nights time), as I had been unable to get through, but they had exactly the same problem.
The section out of Llandovery left a bit to be desired, a very long climb on a narrow road. On the plus side, there wasn't a lot of traffic, I was passed by one car in over an hour of walking. Nearer to the top I spotted a buzzard and two red kites. There were also views of a long grass shoulder parallel to the road, which would have been the logical route, but presumably didn't have any sort of access. The very last bit into Rhandirmwyn went right beside the River Towy, before popping out right in the campsite. I got the tent up and then walked up the road to the pub, and got a good vegetable curry, very nicely followed by the halva back in the tent. The campsite was very neat and tidy, and even had an award for the best campsite toilets, they were indeed absolutely spotless!
I got going about seven. It was a dull day, but dry at least. There was a road section, with good views of a picturesque waterfall. Then on up the Doethie valley. I stopped to look at the map in a windless spot, and got besieged by a cloud of small biting insects, so quickly got moving again. It was a lovely valley, through ferns, with clumps of trees here and there on the hillside, red kites soaring overhead, although spoilt slightly by some forestry plantations up on the hillside. I soon reached the small Youth Hostel at Tyn Cornel, it looked very quiet, and would have been a great place to stay, but didn't quite fit in with my itinerary.
Soon after the YHA there was a rather bleak section, across tufty grass, with occasional marshy bits. It was easy to navigate though, given that the route went parallel to the edge of a large stretch of forestry plantation. I tried to stay on the higher bits to keep out of the marshy parts, occasionally very faint paths would appear through the grass, and then fizzle out again. Eventually I reached the small phonebox at Nant Y Maen. I had the bright idea to phone ahead and book camping at Pontrhydfendigaid, but the phone box was dead and had a big BT sticker saying it was being decommissioned due to lack of use. The gloomy grey sky, tufty and marshy moor, deserted road, and the defunct phonebox all added to a distinctly bleak feeling about the whole thing.
I pushed on across more moorland. There were a few features, fences and occasional gates and cairns that could be followed on the map with a bit of concentration, which got me up to the marshy top of Garn Gron, surrounded by little white tufts of cotton grass. There was some reception, so I sat down in the little stone windbreak and caught up on some texting. There were some very boggy bits coming down from Garn Gron, and the various tracks marked on the OS map didn't seem to exist at all. This was after quite a few dry days, so I wouldn't like to encounter this bit after prolonged rain.
After getting down from the seemingly endless bog of Garn Gron, the rest of the route to Pontrhydfendigaid was quite pleasant, grassy fields full of buttercups, little lanes surrounded by foxgloves, and lo and behold the sun even came out. At Pontrhydfendigaid I was thinking of camping at the Red Lion, there was a small grassy area just outside the pub beside the car park, but I had a walk round town and found another place, the Black Lion, a very smart little pub, and they just happened to have one free single room. Excellent food too, and I had a superb courgette, cauliflower and potato curry.
It was a fairly late start, the pub breakfasts didn't start until eight, but the breakfast itself was excellent, with accompanying very chunky toast doorstops, and a huge pile of sauted potatoes, and I was quite stuffed by the time I got going. There were blue skies and sunshine. After nice meadows along the river to Strata Florida, I had a quick look round the small churchyard, and peered over into the abbey, which wasn't open yet. There was a narrow road, followed by a climb up to the Teifi pools, which didn't seem like much to speak of. The route arrived at a very small road and track that was signposted as a cycle route. After leaving the road I soon came across the small Claerddu bothy, quite isolated, and very basic, a great place, and if I'd realised that I was going to go right past the front door I would have stayed there instead of Pontrhydfendigaid (although I would have missed the excellent food). I signed the visitors book anyway.
From the bothy there was a sort-of path, which petered out every so often, and I tried to stay on the higher shoulders as much as possible. There were a few marshy sections, but the marsh was dried out which left a sort of spongy springy ground. Standing on the summit of Domen Milwyn in the sun the views were incredible, rolling moorland for as far as the eye could see in almost every direction. And I could see three separate wind farms in different directions in the distance. It was very cold and breezy on the summit though, and I adjourned to a person shaped hollow on the sheltered side, it was warm out of the wind, and had a quick snack.
At Devils Bridge the station was surprisingly deserted, and I had a pot of tea sitting outside in the sun. There was a pleasant forest trail, following the small railway to the bridge over the river. The climb back out of the Rheidol valley up to the old YHA at Ystumtuen was directly in the heat of the afternoon sun and totally windless, so it was rather hot and sweaty work. After that though there was a delightful stretch from Ystumtuen, past small spoil piles, and through thick heather and bilberries crowding in the path, and almost making it difficult to walk in some places. I eventually reached the road and the George Borrows hotel. It was a friendly enough place, quite a few people staying, and I got a curry, and then walked down the road and made a few calls in the telephone box.
It looked like a bit of a hike from Ponterwyd to Gwalia B&B (just after Commins Coch), so I skipped breakfast and got an early start. There was an early morning mist hanging over everything, although it looked like there was some blue sky behind it. Reaching Dyffrn Castell cleared up the mystery of the uncontactable hotel, there was lots of construction work going on, scaffolding everywhere, and the hotel itself was very definitely closed. After a bit of climbing, a long section along a grassy shoulder, following a wire fence, brought me to the summit of Plynlimon. It was sunny and blue skies by this time, and the views from the summit itself were superb. More fence following, past strange marker stones every so often with WWW written on them.
The route coincided with the Glyndrs Way for a short section, and there was lots of waymarking. Soon the views down to Dylife and the Star Inn appeared. The pub seemed to have more dogs than people inside, but I got a very welcome pint of lemonade and some crisps. The next bit went through fields, not a very clear path but a few bearings got me from gate to gate OK. On a post on the last bit was the one and only Cambrian Way waymark that I passed on the whole route! (although there are apparently a few others that I missed by taking the alternative route via Pontrhydfendigaid). I was now walking in warm evening sunshine. A grassy bank just before Commins Coch was a bit of a suntrap, so I had a sit down for a snack before the final road section, and as I had another rare patch of reception sent a few texts. It was a hot climb up the road to Gwalia B&B. It had a basic but pleasant camping field nearby, and the B&B chap walked along to it with me. He mentioned that he got a reasonable number of Cambrian Way walkers, and for some reason a lot of Dutch walkers doing it!
The chap from Gwalia advised that the next section varied from undefined to non-existent on the ground, and that quite a few people took the windmill access track up on the top of Mynydd y Cemmaes instead. So I did likewise. I could almost imagine coming across a comment in the guidebook along the lines of "Of course your true mountain connossieur would never walk along a windmill access track". However it wasn't too bad, and gave cracking views in all directions. After a bit of a dogleg through marshy ground, it descended into Tafalog valley, past an abandoned farm house. I went a bit wrong here, and missed the correct track which traversed along the hillside towards Mallyd, and ended up heading down towards the road. Not to worry, it looked I could take another track off to the left, which would take me back up to it. But that never appeared either, and before I knew it I was down at the minor road which followed the Afon Tafalog! A bit more map studying, and I pushed on along the road, and then took another track at Ty-Mawr, third time lucky, which finally brought me back up to where I was supposed to be.
Once I was on the proper track it was easy enough, and I soon arrived at Gweinion, where it turned into narrow road, all the way down to Mallyd. I stocked up on more snacks from the small shop at the garage. The Dinas Mawddwy campsite was in a pleasant spot, and very quiet, there were a total of three tents pitched up, including a vintage Vango Force Ten in the trademark faded orange canvas. I was still early enough to get to the mill across the road before it closed at five, so I quickly got the tent up and drying out, and then nipped across and got a very welcome pot of tea and toasted teacake at the small cafe. It sold a few gift-type snacks too, so I bought some dark chocolate as a little treat for later on, and a large crunchy peanut bar. Just outside the mill is a superb old packhorse bridge crossing the river. After an excellent hot shower, I took the track from the campsite up to upper Dinas Mawddwy, and adjourned to the Red Lion, nice old pub with wooden beams everywhere, adorned by horse brasses.
From Dinas Mawddwy there was a pleasant climb up through the forest, sometimes thick with ferns and plants, and I needed full waterproofs on as they deposited their load of water over me as I brushed through. This was followed by traversing through heather and bilberies on a reasonably distinct path. It was a dry but dull morning, although it was a strong and cold wind, and there were dark clouds ahead. I was on the summit of Maesglase by about nine. There were good views back to the windmill ridge from the previous day. The route stayed high on the shoulder, along to Crag Portas, and then to Waun-oer, then traversing the edge of a forest, where I passed four walkers coming in the other direction. Cadair Idris, and the nearer summit of Mynydd Moel were both in cloud, and looked a bit ominous. I got down to the A487 by about midday and sat down for a short snack.
I could see a bunch of people sitting up on the hillside beside a flag, and the route seemed to head up to them. It was a steep start, quite heathery, and it took me a while to reach them, a dog with them barked at me for the last ten minutes as I got nearer. It seemed to be a bunch of RAF cadets, they had the flag up behind them, and they had small walkie-talkies. After more steep climbing, through a rocky section, it levelled out a bit, before easy climbing up to Mynydd Moel. It didn't even get a mention in the book, but it was a pleasant summit in itself, with steep rock slopes dropping off to the North, and only 30m lower than Cadair Idris itself. From there it was easy walking to Cadair Idris, on grassy path, getting rockier near the top. The summit was still hidden in cloud, but it was blowing through very fast, and looked like it might clear. There were occasional views across to the crags on the horseshoe surrounding Llyn Cau, and it looked like it would make a superb circuit. After a quick inspection of the very substantial shelter at the summit I spent a while looking for some decent shots, but there wasn't really much to see and I was starting to get quite cold. I hadn't seen that many people up to now, but there were quite a few milling round the summit, it looked like quite a popular walk, and some people were in jeans and trainers.
I headed down from the summit, feeling distinctly chilly by this time. Down at the pony path junction, just after the stile, there was a small hump which gave a bit of shelter from the wind, and I sat down for a snack. Out of the cold wind the temperature actually wasn't too bad, and I had warmed up a bit by the time I got going again. I pushed on over Tyrrau Mawr. The descent to the ruined house started from a ladder stile, but I took one that was a bit too early and had to traverse across to get back on the correct descent. It was easy enough though, and I soon popped out at the narrow road beside a ruined house. There were superb views back to Tyrrau Mawr, it just feels like a grassy shoulder when you are standing on it, but there are actually some impressive cliffs on the North side. A couple of cyclists appeared and stopped for a chat and had a look at my map.
At the small lakes of Llynnau Cregennen, the route turned off into a series of fields separated by dry stone walls. I managed to get a bit off route, but soon found my way back to the top of the Arthog Waterfall track. It was a lovely section, through deciduous trees, beside the small stream, with little waterfalls every so often. After crossing the A493, there was easy flat walking, which brought me out right on the shoreline of the estuary. It was a pleasant spot, with great views of the estuary and bridge, and I sat down for a little while and rang ahead and booked a B&B room in Barmouth. There was a strong wind crossing the long wooden bridge, but on the plus side, the toll person had gone home for the day, so I saved 50p.
Barmouth was a very well stocked place, there was a big supermarket open until ten, and a smaller one in the main street open until eleven, and plenty of cafes and ATMs. After dropping my stuff off at the B&B I went straight out and stocked up on snacks for the next couple of days, followed by a quick vegetable curry. I was keen to get an early start the next day for the Rhinogs section, which according to the book seemed to be the crux of the Cambrian Way. The forecast on the telly didn't look particularly good though. There was apparently a very heavy band of rain coming in that was going to last all day.
I set my alarm for early, and re-checked the forecast at six, but it was still predicting heavy downpours all day. It seemed a shame to waste a day, but on the other hand I really didn't fancy doing one of the more tricky bits of the Cambrian Way in torrential rain. So in the end I spent the day in Barmouth. I went to a cafe and got a pot of tea, and spent a couple of hours on the internet. And then I found an excellent book called "A Guide to Walking the Welsh Hewitts" that was on the shelves at the B&B. I would highly recommend reading this, it gives good descriptions of all the different areas, and it has left me keen on going back and doing some more of the summits of the various areas that I had passed through. It also made me wish I'd done more of the "optional" summits that I had passed by.
Much to my disappointment, the morning weather didn't seem too bad, only a little drizzle here and there, and I began to think that I had made a mistake trusting the forecast. But then in the afternoon it started chucking it down, and by the evening it was even heavier still, which was quite a relief. There were deep puddles everywhere, and it was still hammering down when I went to bed.
By the morning the rain seemed to have passed over, there were still clouds about on the tops, but there was blue sky out to sea, so it looked promising. I got an early start, and was climbing up the steps from Barmouth by about 6 am. However I got a bit off-course on the way to the radio mast, and wasted some time working out where I was, and getting back on route. After the mast the navigation was easy enough though, staying up high on a shoulder, and following a stone wall all the way to Y Llethr. There was a strong and quite chilly wind blowing, and despite the good forecast I was walking in cloud, so there wasn't much to see at all, but at least it was dry. I amused myself by estimating walking times between each mini-summit or change of wall direction. After the rather featureless summit of Y Llethr, with a tiny stack of rocks, was the descent down to Llyn Hywel. I started off down the front, as suggested by the book, it was interesting rocky terrain sure enough, but picking the route through the rocks felt a bit dodgy given that I couldn't see much in the thick cloud, and I though better of it, and backtracked to take the obvious eroded path instead, down to the saddle between Llyn Hywel and Llyn y Bi.
I started the climb up to Rhinog Fach, every so often the clouds would part giving excellent views back down to the tarns, and the surrounding rugged rocky landscape. On the way up I passed a nice sheltered spot behind some rocks, out of the cold wind for a change, and had a short snack stop. There wasn't much to see at the top of Rhinog Fach, and given the lack of visibility and strong wind, I took the advice in the book and backtracked back down to the tarn, and a spot of boulder-hopping as I picked my way round it. There was a thick heathery section down to Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, past another little tarn, and I bumped into a chap in wellies with a pair of binoculars, the first person I had seen since leaving Barmouth, who was doing a short circuit from a cottage down the valley. He stopped for a chat, and explained that Charles Darwin had walked the route from Capel Curig to Barmouth in 1831, just before receiving a letter telling him he had a place on the Beagle. So I was following (in reverse) rather esteemed footsteps. As I descended to Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, I could see the very rocky face of Rhinog Fawr ahead of me, although the top was in very thick cloud.
The start of the route up Rhinog Fawr wasn't particularly obvious, in fact more like non-existent, and I followed a short section of stone wall to get started, through steep knee deep heather and rocks. Fairly slow going, but it soon came out on a flatter rocky shoulder which was much easier. Through the gloom of the cloud above I spotted some small figures who seemed to be descending from a gully, and pushed on towards them. It seemed to be some sort of school party, all young women, with an instructor at the front, and another at the back, and I stopped to let them go past. There wasn't really much to see on the top of Rhinog Fawr either, and I quickly pushed on down to Llyn Du, and then on to the Roman Steps.
At Cwm Bychan I stopped and refilled my camelback from the very full and fast flowing stream. The farmer stopped for a chat and told me how the river had been drying up, and the fish dying, so he was very relieved that the heavy rain had arrived yesterday. I sat down and had a quick snack while I decided what to do next. It looked like a nice spot to camp, quite basic, just a portaloo, a field, an honesty box, and great views all around. And very quiet, I would probably be the only person there. On the other hand, I was still feeling reasonably energetic, and seemed to be on a bit of a roll. It was nearly five, so I still had a good five hours of daylight left.
It didn't take long to convince myself, and I pushed on just after 5 pm, although it felt later, it was quite gloomy and dark, and the tops were still covered in cloud. The route up to Clip was obvious enough, a ladder stile over a wall gave a good clue, and there was a reasonably distinct path. From there to Moel Ysgyfanogod it got a bit more tricky, and most of it was walking on a bearing through the cloud. Very atmospheric though. And despite the lack of visibility, it was great walking, often across stone-strewn rock slabs, strange cracks and fissures in the rock, clambering up and down and round short cliffs of rough grey gritstone-like rock. Rather usefully, two tiny tarns enroute confirmed that I was still on course. Needless to say I didn't come across a single other person. What with the thick cloud, the gloomy darkness, and the strong cold wind blowing through, and with the tricky terrain, it all felt quite exhilarating!
I eventually reached the last bit up to Moel Ysgyfanogod. Through the clouds I could only just see steep dark cliffs looming above, but on the map it looked easier to the left and and I skirted round until I could climb up steep grass and heather. I reached the summit at about quarter past eight. There wasn't much to see, so after a quick shot of the cairn for posterity I pushed on. Following a bearing brought me to another steep rocky summit at Foel Penolau and I skirted round to the left to get past it, and then across more stone strewn slabs, sometimes with streaks of white crystalline rock. Despite being in cloud most of the day, it had at least stayed dry, but now it started drizzling a bit. I reached the edge of the small valley that separated Diffwys from Moel Gyrafolen and dropped down it to meet the footpath. Looking down the valley I could see occasional views of the two huge rectangular buildings of the old power station, as the cloud blew in and out. The path was reasonably easy to follow down to the road, it was fairly distinct, and occasional stiles verified that I was on the right track. There was a short stretch down to the road in a pleasant sunken path through oak trees.
From Moelfryn it was easy going, starting off on a tree lined path, and then through ferns, and surprisingly some great views opened up of distant peaks silhouetted against the orange and yellow sunset. Over the dam, with accompanying "No Abseiling" notices, then through forest on well marked route. From Bryntirion it was all on quiet road to Maentwrog, accompanied by occasional bats. I finally rolled in to Maentwrog just before ten. The campsite was a little way past the village, but just on spec I popped into the hotel on the way past, and they happened to have a free room. It was a bit pricey but I felt that I had earned a bit of extra comfort, it had been quite a long day, from door to door I was on the go for about 16 hours in total. The book does warn that you may take longer than the distances suggest......
I got moving reasonably early, the hotel was all locked up, and nobody was up, but I was able to slip out a back door that the manager had demonstrated to me the previous evening. The road was quiet and I soon reached the turn off into the forest. A bit of climbing got me up to the small station and loop of track at Duallt. I followed the track along towards the Tanygrisiau reservoir, which looked rather empty. I almost missed the turn off up towards the pumped storage reservoir at Llyn Stwlan, and went a bit too far, but quickly backracked to the small stream and started climbing. There was a bit of a path, although quite faint. All of a sudden the huge dam appeared, and Moelwyn Mawr behind it. It was turning into a lovely morning, blue skies and sunshine.
After getting above the dam, I wasn't quite sure how to approach Moelwyn Mawr, my first though was to take a rightward traverse underneath it and then climb some easier looking slopes, but in the end I climbed straight up to the saddle where there was actually a decent track leading along the rocky shoulder, a little airy in places, but excellent walking, before climbing the last grassy ascent to the summit. There were cracking views right across to Cnicht and even all the way to the sea. I headed down the other side towards the quarry buildings and then to two columns, where a hidden track lead down through huge slate spoil heaps. There was a flat area with more old quarry buildings, various ruins, and bits of rusting machinery.
I climbed up to Llyn Cwm-Corsiog, it was very marshy in places on the way, and I was rather glad of the sealskin socks. There was a vague path that could be seen across the grass, so it wasn't too bad to navigate, although it would be much harder in cloud. At Llyn Yr Adar there was an obvious and fairly well worn track up the shoulder toward Cnicht, it was an easy ascent, the summit wasn't actually that much higher than the tarn. It was a superb summit approach, undulating over a series of rocky lumps. There were excellent views back to Moelwyn Mawr and down to the slate quarries. I started down, I hadn't seen other walkers up to now, but now I passed quite a few coming up. It was an interesting downhill, starting off rocky with some very easy scrambling in one place, and then turning into a grassy path, then a pleasant track through ferns and small outcrops of grey rock. From Pont Aberglaslyn there was a superb riverside path, quite narrow in places, right beside the vivid green water.
I reached Beddgelert early in the afternoon. From here, I had to decide what to do next. I had a day and a bit worth of walking left, which would probably get me to the middle of the Carnedds, and frustratingly near to the end at Conwy, but not quite there. According to the forecast, there was another band of rain coming in, and the thought of not seeing anything of Snowdon and the Glyders clinched it. So i decided to finish Part 1 here, with good bus links, and pick up Part 2 from here next time. The tourist info centre sorted me out with times for the two buses to Bangor, and then the one train to crewe, which left just enough time for a celebratory pot of Earl Grey tea!
I managed to get the next section pencilled in for a weekend a couple of weeks later. I was impatient to get stuck in to the superb remaining sections over the Glyders and the Carnedds, and couldn't stop thinking about it. The forecast was mixed, and I found myself compulsively poring over the latest metcheck stats every six hourly update. In the end it looked like it was going to be showery on saturday morning, brightening up later, then mostly dry on sunday, and very strong winds all weekend. It wasn't perfect but it seemed workable, and if I waited until the perfect weekend it could be months! I headed over to Conwy straight after work on Friday night. Interestingly, there was a program on the radio about the new cafe being built on the summit of Snowdon, and how it was months behind schedule because the weather had been so bad this year, constantly wet, or snowing, and up to 100 mph winds at times.
I was on the first bus from Caernarfon on Saturday morning, and arrived in Beddgelert at just before 8 am. It was dull, and there were thick clouds on the tops, but it was still dry at least. It was an easy walk along the valley, past the entrance to the Sygun copper mine, and a pleasant stretch through heather and trees over a small rise, next to Llyn Dinas. At the A498 the route passed by the Cwn Gwynant cafe, it was already open, and it was a tough struggle to get past it, I could have just done with a pot of tea. But I managed to keep going, and soon headed up the Watkins path towards Snowdon. It started off on easy wide path through trees, then on stony wide track, with some nice waterfalls in view, heading up to some old ruined slate buildings.
Just after the buildings I left the Watkins path and headed towards Bwlch Cwm Llan. There was a flat stretch along an old mining track, then it climbed on a reasonably distinct grassy track, through some short boggy bits. At the saddle I was hit by a strong gusty wind, I was now walking in cloud, it was quite chilly too, and I stopped and put full waterproofs on to stay warm. The route went along the rocky shoulder of Allt Maenderyn, it was great walking, sometimes over rock stretches, and the occasional bit of easy scrambling, little bits of white quartzite rock strewn over the path. There was a steep drop off to the right, and I felt like it would have been quite airy, had I been able to see anything through the cloud! The wind had really got up by now, and I had to be quite careful of my footing to avoid getting overbalanced by one of the gusts. Nearer the top the path traversed along the East of a ridge, which gave some very welcome shelter from the wind.
Suddenly out of the gloom the rather wind battered building site of the new cafe appeared! Despite it being a saturday there were a few people still working on it too. It was raining quite heavily by now. I had not seen many people on the way up the shoulder, but there were loads of people milling round the summit. I picked my way carefully up the steps, trying to avoid being blown off, to the little plinth with viewpoints marked out, although there was absolutely nothing to see. I quickly headed down, following the railway track, there were lots of small groups coming up this last stretch, a couple of people stopped me and asked how far it was to the top, some people were in trainers and jeans, soaked through, and didn't look like they were particularly enjoying it!
At the obelisk I turned off and joined the queues of people snaking down the pyg track. It was a relief to get out of the wind, although it was still raining. By the junction with the miners track, the path came out of the cloud, the rain eased off a bit, and there were some views down to the tarns below. It was a quite a long descent, but by Pen Y Pass it had dried up a bit, and was looking brighter. The cafe was very quiet and I got stuck into a very welcome vegi burger and chips and large cup of tea. The route up to Glyder Fawr was a bit of a contrast to the crowds on the Snowdon path, I didn't see a single person all the way to the summit. Every time I looked back the huge dark grey cloud was still hanging over Snowdon, but literally the moment I got to Glyder Fawr it lifted and I had superb views of the whole of Snowdon and the surrounding ridges and summits.
The stretch from Glyder Fawr across the plateau to Glyder Fach was an incredible piece of walking, picking its way over rock strewn ground, past spiky pinnacles, haphazard piles of jagged rocks, with steep cliffs below, and superb views down to the valley. There was still a strong cold wind, but it was much brighter and some sunshine even appeared. I clambered up to the top of Glyder Fawr over the massive grey boulders, definitely not a place to mess up your footing. It was quite a long descent, on a pleasant heathery track to the East of Tryfan, which brought me out right at the campsite at Gwern Gof Uchaf, at about 6 pm.
It was a very windy night, and I got woken up quite a few times by the tent being buffeted by strong gusts. In the morning I found it hard to get going, and sat up for a while in my sleeping bag before I managed to cajole myself into action. I was finally on the move about 7 am. It was dry, and dull, but very cold, so I had all my waterproofs on to try and keep warm. I crossed the road and headed up the Afon Loer, following grassy path, marshy in places, but well waymarked with yellow posts. Nearer to the tarn, the route veered off into the mist, up the shoulder towards Pen Yr Ole Wen, it was an interesting climb, some easy rock sections, with big bands of white quartz. At the top there was hardly any visibility, and a strong cold wind. By Carnedd Fach I could hardly feel my hands, and sat down in the little stone windbreak for a while to warm them up. As I was sitting there a solitary bloke appeared out of the mist, made some comments about the weather forecast (which was supposed to be clear) and then disappeared again.
I pushed on to Carnedd Daffyd, the navigation was fairly easy, with obvious shoulders to follow, a fairly distinct path (apart from when it petered out in rocky sections), and the occasional bearing to keep me in the right direction. At Carnedd Daffyd my hands had gone numb again, and I sat down and repeated the hand warming exercise. From Carnedd Daffyd the path descended down a narrow shoulder, I could just about make out what looked like impressive cliffs on the left hand side. As I got lower the situation seemed to be improving, and the clouds opened up a bit, and there were good views of the small tarn of Fynnan Loer, and the valley down to Bethesda.
The path climbed back up into the cloud as it headed for Carnedd Llewellyn. I adjourned to the windbreak, there were two guys already there, who were doing some Mountain Leadership navigation practice, so they were quite pleased about the poor visibility! One of them was wearing his sealskin socks on his hands to keep them warm, which seemed like an excellent idea, apart from the fact that I was already wearing mine on my feet. I started descending from the summit, still in cloud at first, but then it cleared up, walking over rock strewn ground, and past some interesting spiky pinnacles. The wind didn't seem quite as cold now, my hands were still cold, but not to the extent that they were going numb. There was an easy, and very clear path to Foel Grach, and then on past Garnedd Uchaf, to Foel Fras where there were a couple going in the other direction. I stopped for a short sit down out of the wind in a small stone windbreak, and found some interesting lichen growing in the various rock crevices, with small pale green cup-like tendrils protruding out.
From Foel Fras the character of the walking changed a bit, it got less rocky, and more rolling peat moor, up to the summit of Drum. There was a long descent down to the pass of Bwlch Y Ddeufaen, with good views of Tal Y Fan ahead, then a rather stiff ascent up to the Tal Y Fan summit. There were cracking views down to Conwy and further along the coast to Llandudno. I reached the large standing stone of Maen Penddu at half three, and now I was out of the cold wind on the tops, and in the sun, I was able to take my waterproofs off for the first time all day. Literally all the way from Tal Y Fan right down to the edge of Conwy is pleasant walking through heather and gorse covered moor, much of the time following the North Wales Path, with excellent views of Conwy and the rest of the coast. All that remained was the short stroll through town to the castle, the final checkpoint of the route, then quickly on to the local Spar to get some food, as I was feeling distinctly hungry by this time!
So it turned out to be an absolutely superb trail, it must qualify as the best long distance trail in Britain for sheer quality of walking. I'm surprised it doesn't get more traffic, I didn't bump into a single other person who was doing it, and there are very few trip reports on the internet about it. I found it a rather different kettle of fish to other trails that I have done, the combination of the total amount of ascent (22,595m according to my altitude watch, an average of 1530m, or 5020 ft, a day), the lack of waymarking (I found only one sign on the entire trail!), the distances between facilities, the fact that there aren't even paths on many bits, the detailed navigation needed, and the remoteness in some places, make this a more serious and altogether more exciting proposition.
Here are some interesting vital statistics for the route:
Its clear from reading the guide that a lot of thought has gone into this route, not just picking out the best and most exciting hill and mountain walking, but also carefully routing to avoid badly eroded or otherwise problematic areas. Given the high quality, its seems amazing that it has never got any sort of official status. The guide gives a potted history of the attempts to get it recognised, and the various objections might have been OK back in the seventies, but they all sound pretty irrelevant these days. Just one problem now, after the Cambrian Way, I fear that I might find a lot of other UK trails a little tame in comparison. A Scottish version would be particularly good, but all the long distance trails seem to just walk along valley bottoms. Any suggestions gratefully received!