I’m back in Blaenau Ffestiniog and, as usual, it’s raining stair-rods. In the main square a small child is playing on one of the town’s monuments, a replica of an old slate train, while his mother struggles with her unruly plastic umbrella which looks like it will soon be gone with the wind.
Above the town’s rooftops, great pyramids of slate slag rear up into the sky as they have done for over two centuries, completely obscuring the mountainsides from where they came. The scene of devastation embarrassed the authorities enough to warrant its exclusion from the national park, so Blaenau remains as an urban island set in the heart of the mountains of Snowdonia.
There’s a whistle and a plume of white smoke wafting up to join the clouds as a little narrow-gauge steam train comes chugging by, its red carriages rattling away behind. More slagheaps rise above more terraced housing as I enter Tanygrisiau, Blaenau’s next-door village, which is almost built into the rock-faces. I can now see the power station on the far shores of a huge reservoir, which looks as though the town’s thirsty inhabitants have drunk it up. It turns out that the hydroelectric power station – the first pumped storage scheme in Wales – has pumped most of the water up to the higher Stwlan Reservoir. Looking around the corner into the chasm that is Cwmorthin, it’s obvious that here too the quarrymen have been at work, but on the climb up the tarred Stwlan Dam access road, the damage is less intrusive and more fascinating.
Here are natural rock-faces. On most days you’ll see climbers tackling near vertical routes and hear the jangling of their ironmongery. Among the cliffs there’s a steep pulley incline with a tunnel on top used by some walkers as a quick way to the peaks (despite the danger signs) and a couple of ladder stiles leading over an intermittent wall into a pathless jungle of bracken and dripping moss-fringed outcrops.
At the end of the tarred lane the Stwlan Dam grimaces down on Ffestiniog with a mouthful of reinforced concrete teeth – not a pretty sight at the best of times, but quite menacing on a dismal day like this. Beyond the concrete, the tarn is a good one. Moelwyn Bach on the left is an angular peak with a ‘lion’s head’ crag topping an extensive scree slope. From this angle the loftier Moelwyn Mawr is a grassy dome. Between the two peaks lies Craigysgafn, a rocky arête banded with snow-white quartz, which affords an entertaining, but very easy, scramble route onto Moelwyn Mawr. This is typical Moelwyn country: savaged by Man, but somehow all the more fascinating for it. The Moelwynion, as they are known in the Welsh plural, have the form and presence that overrides such indignities. They will be here when we are no more.
An excerpt from John Gillham’s book A Pictorial Guide to the Mountains of Snowdonia Vol. 3. The Eastern Peaks