Back to Newport
Stage 9, Friday 22 October 2004: Devil’s Bridge to Dyffryn Castell inn, 6 miles
The first leg, an afternoon not whole day, was due to follow Drake’s Cambrian Way route, with the morning train from London getting Dave Travers and me to Aberystwyth by lunchtime, and the bus for Devil’s Bridge leaving soon after – the Vale of Rheidol train took Fridays off in the autumn. But with a train failure in Shrewsbury we ended up nearly two hours late, well after the last bus of the day, so had to grab a taxi up the Rheidol.
In pouring rain, decision time. Could we reach the Dyffryn Castell inn by nightfall using Drake’s fine route, which drops deeply down to cross the Rheidol before taking tracks back up? It was too tight a schedule, so we decided on a plod along the A4120 before rejoining Drake via Parson’s Bridge. Uneventful enough, save that the footpath shown leaving the main road at 750786 petered out in marsh, so we had to take the (very pretty) alternative leaving from the little chapel a few hundred yards further along.
Stage 10, Saturday 23 October 2004: Dyffryn Castell inn to Machynlleth, 16 miles
Dave summits Plynlimon
Make no mistake: it’s a big day from the (then) inn to Machynlleth over Plynlimon. The mountain climb is straightforward enough, with a fence a sure guide most of the way even in conditions like these, but there is wild country to the north and we see it at its best.
The valley at Hyddgen has the scale of a Scottish strath, and the ridge above is always interesting, with good views into the valley systems to the east. It’s a popular area with mountain bikers too (though we saw none), and their Mach 3 navigation signs simplified route-finding. There’s a descent into forest at a place called The Chute (770948) which drops sharply down smooth, and on our day very wet, slate; how one takes two wheels down that I do not know; its official mountain bike grading is ‘scary and difficult’!
The author at Hyddgen
We had intended to take the path at 756994 directly to Machynlleth, but by then had got used to following the waymarks of the fairly recent Glyndŵr’s Way diversion, so contoured westwards, with fine views over the town tempered by the realisation that it was an extra mile at the end of a long and wet day. This also proved very useful when I came back a few years later to complete the bits of Glyndŵr’s Way that I hadn’t done! We entered the town of Machynlleth through the grounds of Plas Machylleth, rather regretting that our walker’s schedule gave insufficient time to visit its interpretative centre, Celtica. Alas, two years later Celtica closed, a victim of over-optimistic visitor projections.
Tarrenhendre and Cadair Idris
Stage 11, Sunday 24 October 2004: Machynlleth to Eisteddfa, 11 miles
Some years before, Dave and I walked a large part of the Dyfi Valley Way, which traverses a large part of the Tarren range north of Machynlleth. We had taken the opportunity to divert to the summit of Tarren y Gesail, which isn’t a bad hill at all, so it made sense now to tick off its neighbour Tarrenhendre. First though was the crossing of the Dyfi. Yes, there is an A-road bridge, but it had been closed the day before due to floods. Thankfully these had subsided a little by the morning, and our first obstacle was the infamous forestry plantations of the Tarrens’ southern slopes.
There are routes through, without as Drake implies having to footslog along A roads. Ours took us by Tywyllnodwydd to Pennal-isaf, where the open hillside beckoned. In fact the forestry tracks were straightforward enough; it was the land around Pennal-isaf’s farmsteads that was difficult, with a lack of stiles to make one doubt one’s route. No difficulties though on the final ridge.
Dave at Pant Gwyn on the ridge to Tarrenhendre
It has to be said that Tarrenhendre summit is uninspiring, made worse by the weather closing in after a pleasant morning. Further down though is the popular tourist area of Dolgoch Falls, through which runs the Tal-y-llyn railway. We were just in time for a trip up the valley and back again. Back at Dolgoch station, it was just a simple valley walk to our B&B.
Stage 12, Monday 25 October 2004: Eisteddfa to Dolgellau, 13 miles
The final stage of the year was a long west-east traverse of one of the best Welsh hills, and hence a companion piece to the north-south traverse of Plynlimon two days before. Dave had been kept awake by incessant overnight wind and rain, but it was drying as we started out by the high farmland towards Pont Ystumanner. The village of Llanfihangel-y-pennant is a sobering place for the modern hillwalker, Goretexed up and Vibram shod; it was from here in 1800 that one Mari Jones, aged 16, set out to walk 25 miles barefoot to Bala in pusuit of a bible.
Nowadays the village is the starting point for the pony track ascent of Cadair Idris, which while never the most exciting way up the hill gives a sense of the grand sweep of its bulk. It was pretty rough on top and we met one family group who were pretty dispirited and about to turn back before the summit, where we ourselves struggled to grip the summit cairn (Penygadair) in the high wind and were pleased to eat our sandwiches in the shelter just below. Then another family saunters in with dog! They had waltzed up from Minfford, in the lee of the hill, and indeed conditions rapidly improved for us, as we sat for a while on Mynydd Moel looking beyond Penygadair to the sea beyond. The descent of Gau Graig seemed to take ages, but the route was never in real doubt until the very bottom, and lanes led quickly into Dolgellau itself.
Cadair Idris from Mynydd Moel
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 Fawr 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 very decent day out, which starts with a pretty bridleway through woods. I soon picked up the track heading to Bwlch Goriwared, and then followed the wall to close to the summit of Rhobell Fawr.
From here 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 what was 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.
Had there been a B&B on the main road to the north of the hill, I am sure I would have used it; and I took a lot of trouble to find out. I even tracked down the local tourist board at an outdoor show a couple of months before the trip to ask if they knew of anything. No, they said, but there is a bothy. I discounted it, there and then; but the more I thought, not least back to Claerddu bothy when I passed it a couple of years before, the more it seemed sensible. Sling in a sleeping bag, get a stove and some freeze-dried food – not too much extra weight, especially if I chucked some of the rubbish I usually carried with me. And so I took care down Arenig Fawr’s east ridge and enjoyed my first-ever bothy night in a tiny hut 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 Fawr 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, and then over access land to Llyn Arenig Fach.
From here I 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, I knew I was in for a rewarding day.
Carnedd y Gors-gam and the Moelwyns
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 would have been better in the other one. There was however no time to visit Dolwyddelan Castle, a kilometre up the Lledr valley.
Moel Siabod from above Dolwyddelan
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 on the Across Wales home page). Then in the valley at Pont Cyfyng, I was only a few steps from my accommodation on the outskirts of Capel Curig.
Stage 17, Thursday 12 October 2006: Pont Cyfyng to Gwern Gof Isaf, five 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 lacked then in creature comforts it made up for in situation – the two days in between stages 17 and 18 were taken up with mountain walks on the Carneddau and Glyderau which will be described on my Welsh 3000-footers page.
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 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.
Ffynnon Llugwy reservoir
There’s a steep climb to the saddle above Craig yr Ysfa, with Carnedd Llewellyn a long mile from here, one little scramble intervening, and so 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 (since renamed Carnedd Gwenllian) and Foel-fras, all 3000-footers, then followed 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.
Accommodation and logistics
As mentioned above, the trip up to Devil’s Bridge fell victim to a train failure, so we missed our bus from Aberystwyth and had to grab a taxi. There are only school buses now, so best to schedule it when the Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge railway is running. Another narrow gauge line, the Talyllyn railway, is crossed at Dolgoch. Dolgellau has a decent bus service to National Rail at Machynlleth. Pont Cyfyng might look a dubious place for a stage break but it’s well served by the Snowdon Sherpa bus to Betws-y-Coed, which has both rail and bus services to Llandudno Junction. Finally, Llanfairfechan has a station on the north Wales coastal line.
The Dyffryn Castell Inn was an obvious choice for our first night, but it’s now closed. The George Borrow hotel in Ponterwyd would be an alternative if you don’t mind an extra few miles tagged on to Plynlimon. Machynlleth has a very wide variety of accommodation; we stayed at Maenllwyd B&B, which understood the travails of walkers on wet Welsh days. Eisteddfa is a comfortable farmhouse B&B in the Fathew valley. Dolgellau, like Machynlleth, is a significant town with much accommodation, though we stayed at the very pretty Dolgun Uchaf B&B just outside; Dave’s wife Rachel had journeyed up that day and played taxi.
In Llanfachreth I stayed at the very welcoming Heulwen B&B. As noted above, you’re on your own in the Arenigs, other than a tent, the bothy, or a taxi from the main road. On the next day, I decided the Eagles in Penmachno was one of the world’s best bunkhouses, stupidly cheap and with real ale attached (except Mondays out of season, when I had chosen to stay). 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; it closed in 2019. For the final leg I started from the bunkhouse at Gwern Gof Isaf farm (which is still going) and ended at the very comfortable Hafod y Coed B&B in Llanfairfechan (which isn’t, but there are plenty of local alternatives).