The eponymous Aran hills, Aran Fawddwy and Aran Benllyn, form one of the best ridge walks in Wales, but they’re far from all this range has to offer. Essentially, there are two other groups, one centered around Glasgwm to the south-west, and the other rising above Bwlch Sirddyn to the east. There’s also a single outlier, Moel y Cerrig Duon, which rises east of Bwlch y Groes, and so is nearly one of the Hirnants.
Into the 1990s, the Arans were in the grip of a cabal of local landowners who did all they could to keep walkers off their hills. Anything that wasn’t a right-of-way they did their utmost to restrict, with threatening notices, padlocked gates and barbed wire. Many of the hills described below were essentially off limits. Things were improving by the time I walked the ridge, but only slowly. Thankfully, there’s no issue now, thanks to the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000.
The Aran ridge
The two main summits – Aran Fawddwy (2969ft) and Aran Benllyn (2904ft) – with Erw y Ddafad-ddu (2861ft) between them, form one of the longest and loftiest ridge-walks in all of Wales. Dave Travers and I walked them on Sunday 29 August 1999 as part of a 12-mile linear walk from Dinas Mawddwy to Llanuwchllyn, probably the best way to complete the ridge though awkward if you need an easy return to the start (though not impossible by bus, changing in Dolgellau). We didn’t, we were walking part of the Dyfi Valley Way and used B&Bs at each end.
Two recollections. After a half-hour lunch stop in the mist on Aran Fawddwy, I led us confidently on what I thought was north, only to walk us round in a circle and return to the summit a quarter-hour later. Next time, I used a compass. And we just got down in time for a trip on the Bala Lake Railway. Alas no photographs remain but I’ve been able to reconstruct a gpx of the route.
Glasgwm and its neighbours
The approach to Aran Fawddwy from the south is through the wonderful Cwm Cwyarch, one of the grandest valleys in all Wales. If it were in the Lake District it would be a honeypot but here, somewhat off the beaten track and served only by a long and twisting single-track road, it’s relatively unknown.
Its western side is dominated by the 1000ft cliffs of Craig Cwyarch, above which rise the two Hewitts of Glasgwm and Gwaun y Llwyni; a third, Pen y Brynfforchog, rises a couple or miles further west. Eastwards, it’s all tussocky grass rather than rock, one of them the Hewitt of Pen yr Allt Uchaf.
As Pen y Brynfforchog is a bit cut of from the others, I took it as a simple up-and-down from Bwlch Oerddrws, which gave a nice 1200ft start. The others though form an excellent day out from the head of Cwm Cwyarch.
Looking north from the summit of Pen y Brynfforchog
Wednesday 14 July 2021: Pen y Brynfforchog from Bwlch Oerddrws, 2½ miles
Most people park at the bwlch to head south onto the Dovey Hills (see below), but today I was looking north. It’s a steep start, on the eastern side of the fence, but after I while I trended right on some useful-looking sheep tracks. The going is nowhere especially difficult; take what you fancy, though in poor visibility I would probably have stuck to the fence. It makes sense though to take the fence from spot height 564; the only decision is whether to cross the fence by one of two ladder stiles. I didn’t, which put me on the wrong side of the 2247ft summit, though it was only a moment’s work to reach it from a fence junction.
Thursday 15 July 2021: Glasgwm and its neighbours from Cwm Cwyarch, nine miles
I was staying in an Air BnB at the farm of Blaencwyarch, probably the best spot to begin and end this wonderful round; there’s a car park nearby for day trippers. It’s an easy start, by the slowly-rising Drysgol path north-east out of the valley, before taking a right-hand turn beside the fence on ground that rises steeply to Pen yr Allt Uchaf (2030ft). It’s not masses of fun, just 30 minutes of hard grind, and the summit isn’t that exciting when you get there.
Still, things improve, with long views left down Cwm Hengwm to the left and the Aran ridge ahead of you all the way to the Aspain cairn at Drws Bach. The cairn, which commemorates a victim of summer lightning strike – sobering thought – is an important junction on one of the two main approaches to the Aran ridge. For me, however, it meant striking out on less frequented ground west then veering south, around the cliff edge of Craig Cwyarch, to gain the summit of Gwaun y Llwyni (2247ft). Now, this was a warm, nearly too warm, wall-to-wall summer sunshine day, with light winds; but how come a summit, any summit, manages to be the midgiest place of the day? This was meant to be lunch stop, but I did not linger.
The head of Cwm Cwyarch, with Craig Cwyarch to the left
Cwm Hengwm, with the Pen yr Allt Uchaf ridge to the left
Gwaun y Llwyni
The summit of Glasgwm
The section from here to Glasgwm (2556ft) is the most complex of the day. Two stream-heads have to be negotiated, and there’s some boggy ground between them, plus this round is not so well-travelled that paths have resolved themselves into one obvious track. In mist this would need a great deal of careful thought, and even today I had to keep careful note of my navigation. Once the fence heading SW to Glasgwm is encountered, of course, things are much easier.
And the summit of Glasgwm is a wonderful place to be. It has not one but two summit llyns, the tiny Llyn Bach and the bigger Llyn y Fign. This would be a great place for a summit wild camp, and a dip was sorely tempting – I had not seen a soul all day, other than a lone walker half a mile away earky on, remarkably for such great weather.
Skirting the larger llyn, it’s then easy to drop slowly southwards and pick up the miners’ track that slices through the crags – always good to have a straightforward way home in dramatic surroundings.
The Bwlch Sirddyn hills
Easily forgotten, these, a small group of three hills rising above Bwlch Sirddyn to the east of the main Aran ridge. They are probably fantastic for views of the ridge but the day I climbed them the mist and drizzle put paid to any such fancy ideas.
Plus, just fitting in to Snowdonia’s eastern boundary, there’s one other hill, Moel y Cerrig Duon, on the other side of the motor road that runs across Bwlch y Groes. No doubt one could walk to it from the other bunch but by all accounts it’s peat hags all the way. I did what seemed sensible and drove up to the bwlch after finishing the others.
Tuesday 17 August 2021: the Bwlch Sirddyn hills from Blaen-pennant, six miles
There’s room for a couple of small cars at the bottom of the Bwlch y Groes road, where a gate gives access to the farm of Blaen-pennant. Go a few paces and look right: the magnificent notched ridge of Tap Nyth-yr-eryr, the Eagle’s Nest, gloriously worthy as a home for the greatest raptors. What delight to scramble along this airy crest!
The Tap Nyth-yr-eryr ridge
Well maybe. This ridge is quite disconnected from the three hills of this round and trust me gazing up towards it was as exciting as the day was to get.
Let’s press on. A right-of-way runs west into Cwm Llaethnant and later north across Bwlch Sirddyn into Cwm Croes. In the bad old days when access was a problem in the Arans, it was one of the few routes that walkers could use; I remembered that Dave Travers and I took it in 1999, when walking back from Llanuwchllyn the day after the Aran ridge.
The path/track rises up into a hanging valley and then turns north by a couple of zig-zags. Across the Ceunant y Briddell – ‘ceunant’ means ravine or canyon, which seems a bit excessive here – rises Foel Hafod-fynydd, which was to be the last of this group today; I noted the fence running down from its summit, which I would be taking later. Projecting its line to my track, I turned off left up the steep slope to Llechwedd Du (2014ft).
That section to the summit was pathless, but I was pleased to see a reasonably clear path running north and cleverly avoiding the worst of the peat. I lost it a bit after the dip but there’s a fence to help you all the way to the top of Esgeiriau Gwynion (2201ft). With the deep cwm of Cwm Du to the west, I guessed this would be a great spot to view Aran Benllyn, if not the whole main ridge.
Alas no such joys for me today. I turned down the south-west slope to the high point of Bwlch Sirddyn, wondered what it was like back in the twentieth century, and continued up the other side. The cloud broke a little and I could see that the third hill, Foel Hafod-fynydd (2260ft), had a proper ridge of its own; easily the best walking of the day. Indeed this could be an attractive route onto the main Aran ridge, after dropping down nearly as far as Creiglyn Dyfi, source of the river. I had to take this on trust today of course.
The route back is quite steep down into the ‘ravine’ – maybe not a bad word after all – but I was soon back on the track to Blaen-pennant, and one last wistful glance to where the eagles live.
The summit of Foel Hafod-fynydd
Looking back to Foel Hafod-fynydd from Cwm Llaethnant