Almost all routes across Snowdonia take in Snowdon. This one doesn’t. It’s a fine and wonderful mountain, without doubt, but I had been that way before, and for me discovery lay elsewhere.
Stage 13, Saturday 15 October 2005: Dolgellau to Llanfachreth, 6 miles
The hills to the north and west of the Dolgellau-Bala road, crowned by Arenig Fawr, are some of the least known in Snowdonia. For a high mountain area, it’s still free of well-trodden paths, and the onus is on the walker to use their knowledge of terrain to find routes that bring out the variety of landscape. Indeed you do not need high mountains to discover that.
My first goal was Llanfachreth, a four mile road walk from Dolgellau. But there is another, more interesting way, using part of the popular Precipice Walk, with views down into and across the Mawddach valley. It involves 500 metres on a clear track that is not alas a right of way, before access land is reached, and so I can recommend it only if permission has been granted to you by the Nannau Estate. They are by no means anti-walker – the Precipice Walk itself is only available thanks to their consent – so it may well be worth asking.
Stage 14, Sunday 16 October 2005: Llanfachreth to Arenig bothy, 15 miles
The previous day’s little prelude set up the biggest single day of the whole walk, with two Fawrs, two valleys and a high forest to cross. There are only a few farmsteads on route and a couple of little roads; and there is no accomodation close to the end of the walk apart from the tiny bothy by the shore of Llyn Arenig Fawr and a groups-only bunkhouse a mile or so on. So all in all a pretty good day out.
It starts with a pretty bridleway through woods to pick up the track heading to Bwlch Goriwared, where follow the wall to close to the summit of Rhobell Fawr. I had planned to head pretty much due north to Cwm yr Allt-llwyd, but on the ground it’s more sensible to edge east when the summit slope eases, picking up a track close to Nant yr Helyg. Entering forest the other side of the Cwm, you find typical Forestry Commission walking, a mix of bulldozed tracks and long-standing rights of way, exiting at just about the most rickety ladder stile of them all.
North from Blaen-Lliw, it’s simply grand: contour round the southern slopes of Moel Llynfnant, a tremendous hill from this aspect, before cutting across wild empty country to the Haystacks-style ridge that leads to the double-topped Arenig Fawr. Take care down its east ridge, and enjoy a quiet night in the bothy by the Llyn. Please join the Mountain Bothies Association, who maintain this valuable link in my cross-Wales chain.
Stage 15, Monday 17 October 2005: Arenig bothy to Penmachno, 14 miles
The next day is the crossing of the Migneint, the Welsh Rannoch Moor, a remote unfrequented land of few heights and fewer paths. It gave me a truly exceptional day, one of those remarkable passages that make rough walking such a life-affirming experience.
It’s a simple enough start from the bothy, down to the old railway track at Arenig station and across to the Bala – Ffestiniog road. From here I cut over access land to Llyn Arenig Fach and ascended Arenig Fach itself by its rough heathery north-east ridge. Already the day was shaping well, with mapped walls and fences proving to be turned without too much difficulty, albeit with a few awkward moments of decision at the brand new fence guarding the summit plateau. But the weather was already promising: and reaching Arenig Fach’s summit cairn, with the expanse of the Migneint in front of me, the craggy Moelwyns beyond and a temperate blue sky above, you know you are in for a rewarding day.
So it proved. The sheep had been taken down, so across the moor I was certain that I was not only the sole human but also the one large mammal over a dozen or so square miles. I had not, perhaps, ever been so isolated in all my life (though that will have changed crossing the north-west Highlands!). Rehearsed checkpoints came and went: Carnedd y Gors-gam, crossing the Serw, skirting south of Cefngarw (two ladder stiles are a clue), height 479. It was all a bit too easy, despite a bootfull from an injudicious short cut, and caught up in the pleasure on Llechwedd Mawr I veered a little too far west. After working out a way to the B road, a bonus; the retired couple at the cottage of Ty-cipar, by the track to Llyn Conwy, were enjoying the sun too, and invited me to share tea and biscuits in their garden, with the wide panorama of the Arenigs in front of us. As good as it gets.
I had rather expected some sort of path beside Llyn Conwy but going was very rough and tussocky until eventually the right of way beside the forest built itself up into something worthwhile. Perhaps then a late afternoon anti-climax, but rolling into the Eagles bunkhouse I could reflect on one of my best-ever hill days.
Into northern Snowdonia
Stage 16, Tuesday 18 October 2005: Penmachno to Pont Cyfyng, 10 miles
Dolwyddelan to Capel Curig via Moel Siabod is a decent mountain walk, but I wasn’t in Dolwyddelan, I was in Penmachno. Fortunately there is a more-or-less-straightforward trail across the Bwlch y Groes, though I was uncertain for a while on route as the OS map had not yet caught up with the forest extension almost to the bwlch itself. There are a couple of places to grab a break in Dolwyddelan, though having stopped at the post office it’s very likely that the coffee is better in the other one. There was however no time to visit Dolwyddelan Castle, a kilometre up the Lledr valley.
From the village, it’s mostly forestry tracks to a turning circle at 727542, and then the going changes radically; a grassy scramble beside the outflow of Llyn y Foel, a short step round this dramatic lake, and then a rocky scramble up Siabod’s Daear Ddu ridge. The weather was closing in as I ascended; always a hazy day, cloud came down and brought a little rain with it. Probably the last person on the hill, I took all the more care off the summit, by the still rocky though nearly level north east ridge, which took up a good deal of time, following sporadic bootprints. One such tread led to the top of a steep gully; thinking “I really don’t want to go down there”, I submitted to a compass check, and found I had come a half circle. Retracing steps and then bearing correctly, I was out of the cloud, and off the rock, in a few paces more. (I was soon to find that this was not the difficult stuff; see the cautionary tale).
Stage 17, Thursday 12 October 2006: Pont Cyfyng to Gwern Gof Isaf, 5 miles
A year later on, and I was back at Pont Cyfyng, for a simple valley walk through Capel Curig, first by the river to the National Mountain Centre of Plas y Brenin, a quick dive into the Pinnacle stores at the road junction, and then along the old road, waiting for that moment when Tryfan comes into full view. I stayed at the Gwern Gof Isaf bunkhouse, what it lacks in creature comforts made up for in situation.
Across the Carneddau
Stage 18, Sunday 15 October 2006: Gwern Gof Isaf to Llanfairfechan, 12 miles
I found this famous traverse to be nowhere near as demanding as it is sometimes made out, at least in the relatively clement conditions I encountered – all the hill tops save Drum were in mist, but from Carnedd Llewellyn onwards the ridges are so broad, with mostly well-trodden paths, that it’s only GCSE navigation work, not A level or beyond. From my start point at Gwern Gof Isaf, it was a simple tramp up the road to Ffynnon Llugwy reservoir before climbing to the saddle above Craig yr Ysfa. Carnedd Llewellyn is a long mile from here, with one little scramble, and it was perhaps a bit reassuring to have travelled the opposite way a couple of days before. The mist briefly broke to show cloud rolling dramatically off the ridges to the west.
Foel Grach, Garnedd Uchaf and Foel-fras all then follow easily enough; the central of these looks the least inspiring from the map but has an intriguing collection of boulders for its summit. If you top out on Foel-fras without noticing a really big wall and a trig point then you’re either on the wrong hill or it really is a claggy day. Shortly after Drum the broad track becomes a lane, dropping to join the North Wales Path at power lines. This passes through a gorsey quasi-park with Llanfairfechan soon in view; enter it by passing around the farm at the top of the small town. On this Sunday afternoon its central area felt a bit nondescript, but after crunching over limpets to the edge of the sea followed by a decent fish tea in a big barn of a seaside cafe, I could think back over many happy miles across a great little country to walk through.
Use + and – keys to zoom to toggle between large-scale and 1:50,000 mapping
There are two B&Bs in Llanfachreth – I stayed at and can recommend the very welcoming Heulwen, and the competition Ty Isaf has been highly praised by the Guardian. Visit the Mountain Bothies Association website for more about the Arenig Fawr bothy. I know of no other alternative (apart from wild camping) than to walk the mile to the road near the old Arenig station and arrange a taxi from there; buses are around twice a week. The Eagles in Penmachno is one of the world’s best bunkhouses, stupidly cheap with real ale attached (except Mondays out of season, curses). I was looking forward to my night at Cobdens Hotel, famous in the climbing fraternity, but frankly it was a bit dead that night and the beer wasn’t in the best shape. For the final leg I started from the bunkhouse at Gwern Gof Isaf farm and ended at the very comfortable Hafod y Coed B&B in Llanfairfechan.