Snowdonia to Gower – the first crossing

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Aber Falls (in the daylight!)

The black ball rolled slowly over the baize and into the pocket. Roy beamed. No rapturous applause here: the pool room of the Aber Falls Hotel was empty, and silent, except for the ticking of an old wooden clock on the wall. Through the window the skies had darkened.

“Come on then, the mountains are waiting.”

This was to be the start of a 200-mile coast-to-coast walk across the great mountain ranges of Wales. Delaying it no further, we left the warmth of the hotel for the cool of the evening.

As we headed south along the lane, the streetlights flickered into life. A squeaky iron gate let us into the glen, then a narrow path led us into the darkness of a forest.

After fumbling around for twenty minutes we escaped the clutches of the wicked pine branches to reach the sanctuary of scree-covered hillside. At the head of the glen, the cascades of Aber Falls splashed down shadowy cliffs.

Across the screes, a tricky bit of rock reminded us that we should have been here at least an hour earlier, but soon we were strolling through the remote corrie of the Afon Goch above the falls.

At ten our eyes were making harder work of the darkness than our feet were of the terrain – no moon here to light the hillsides, just fading torches. Stomping our boots into the invisible nothingness that was the ground, we found by trial and error a firm pitch for the tent. Onlookers with bright torches would have surely reported a strange ritual dance.

Morning sunlight transformed the mysterious marshlands back into the high moorland corrie we had been expecting. But what a long corrie this was, and what a climb to the ridge! Somehow my rucksack seemed to weigh more than it did yesterday.

“You’re a little slow today,” Roy quipped, making somewhat easier progress up the grass and boulder slopes of Bera Bach.

We made the ridge at eleven and were soon striding the grassy Carneddau whalebacks onto the stony 3000ft plateau of Carnedd Llewelyn. From here you can look back to the Irish Sea, and look forward to Snowdon, whose pointed summits peer over the Glyder range.

By mid-afternoon we were down in the valley again, at Helyg. Tryfan soars into the clouds – a giant wedge of rock and scree just waiting to be climbed. Beneath it, the dwarfed orange tents of a campsite promised the comforts of a loo, running hot water and the possibility of a bar meal at nearby Capel Curig. But these were to be Spartan days. I had been searching the map for an idyllic wild campsite high in the mountains and had come up with Braich y Ddeugwm, a rugged spur next to Tryfan.

Climbing the spur’s tangled moor grasses and gritty slabs of rock, I was again hampered by the weight of my rucksack, and I lagged some distance behind Roy. A luxurious grassy shelf to lie on, views across to Tryfan, and sizzling sausages made up for the hardship. Braich y Ddeugwm was indeed good.

Looking for a toothbrush, I found four cans of lager at the bottom of my rucksack.

“What’s this?”

Roy looked sheepish.

“Fosters: I thought you’d like them.” He had stowed them there the previous night. “They weren’t heavy were they?”

“You’ll carry the empties tomorrow, I suppose?”

Tomorrow starts with a morning on the Glyderau. A scramble over boulders led to Glyder Fach. We were the first there, and had the whole fairground of rock to ourselves. First, the Cantilever, a gigantic slab supported at one end by vertical pillars – no queues of rock stars waiting to pose on the end today. Next in line was the a huge pile of boulders forming the  summit cairn, and finally, Castell y Gwynt (Castle of the Winds), a wall of spiky rocks, and the start of the rollercoaster. You swoop down over boulderfields to the col, climb back up to Glyder Fawr, then plunge to the depths of the Pass of Llanberis. Just when you think it’s all over, you look up and see the ramparts of Snowdon.

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Roy on Glyder Fawr with the waterproof that would eventually be robbed from him

Doing Snowdon and the Glyderau in one day proved to be a bit of a grind, and I felt like checking my rucksack for bottles or cans. Snowdon’s little steam trains, and the afternoon trippers in sandals, were wounding our pride by racing past on their eager ways to the summit. The hurt turned to frustration as the cafe closed its doors, leaving us to descend into the depths of Nantgwynant without the cool beer we’d been expecting.

The next stage was easy by comparison. We followed the old Welsh Highland Railway track through the gorge of Aberglaslyn, tackled Cnicht (a rugged little hill known as the Matterhorn of Wales) and descended to the green fields of Ffestiniog, where we saw another of those fascinating little narrow-gauge steam trains.

On the Rhinogydd there’s more fun to be had. Purple heather masks a heart of stone, and a mischievous heart at that. Loose boulders lie in wait for their chance to roll you over onto your haunches, and great transverse canyons, only hinted at on the map, make progress tiresome and route-finding troublesome. And yet you always forgive the Rhinogydd their mischief: they’re so different to the rest of Wales, and they let you get to grips with bare rock without the fear of falling from great heights.

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Rhinog Fawr

The weather broke: maybe the gods were angry that we had succumbed to worldly comforts. We had crossed the Mawddach estuary on the mile long foot-and-railway bridge and were about to set foot on Cadair Idris when the skies burst open with the malevolence of a true enemy. Idris himself was warning us to keep off his seat.

 

 

Roy and I had a great time scrambling up and down the rocks, but by the time we were onto the easy grass of Diffwys and Llawlech we were more than ready to stop and admire the Mawddach river as it meandered among sandbars to the sea. It seemed to be as lethargic as we were.Roy, never the one to capitulate first, looked relieved when I suggested a B&B at Barmouth.

“I suppose we could make an exception: after all, we’ve done pretty well today.”

 

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Clouds linger over Cadair Idris

The weather broke: maybe the gods were angry that we had succumbed to worldly comforts. We had crossed the Mawddach estuary on the mile long foot-and-railway bridge and were about to set foot on Cadair Idris when the skies burst open with the malevolence of a true enemy. Idris himself was warning us to keep off his seat.

But good long-distance walkers like warriors do not retreat from the enemy, and battle commenced. Idris waited behind the clouds, ready for the ambush. Boulders, like shiny cannonballs, slithered beneath our boots, and grassy tracks were converted into rivers of mud.

As we took the summit, the cowardly clouds parted to reveal the battleground. Far below Idris’s cliffs, a couple of steel-grey tarns drifted in and out of vision through swirling mist. We marched down to the soft green fields of Dysynni valley, past an old Welsh castle, and into the little village of Abergynolwyn. Now only the Tarren hills barred the way to Machynlleth.

Forest plantations have all but engulfed the Tarrens, and the Sitka spruce we walked among were hung with damp mist. Eventually the tree cover parted to reveal the slate rooftops of Machynlleth. We two ragged warriors, tempered by the elements, hobbled and squelched through the streets in search of another B&B – a place to dry out, rest and recuperate.

Across the Elenydd

We were halfway across Wales. The rocks of the North had disappeared behind the conifers of the Dyfi Forest. They were to be replaced by softer rolling hills of the South.

The rain pounded Machynlleth’s shiny main street, where market traders sheltered beneath their tarpaulins. For them, and for us, it was to be a long, hard day.

Paths threading through dripping conifers led to a wide cart track over soggy ridges. Somewhere in the middle of a thick mist was Pumlumon, where the great Severn and Wye rivers begin their journey to the Bristol Channel. Nineteenth-century traveller, George Borrow drank from the rivers’ sources, but today, finding drier places seemed more important – just finding Pumlumon and the way off it afterwards would be good enough.

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Pumlumon Fawr (Plynlimon)

Compass work got us over the tops, out of the high winds, and through the ever-pounding rain to make it down to the Wye Valley. After an extravagant three-course dinner at the Glansevern Arms we needed to appease the mountain gods, and perhaps earn some good weather – so we camped on high amid some of the most malicious tussocky ground imaginable.

Maybe it worked, for the next day was easy and rewarding. The overnight rains had filled the streams of the Elan Valley so that their waters were roaring down the stone-built reservoir dams. Sunlight gradually showed itself between the boughs of lakeside oaks as the clouds dissipated behind the high moorland skyline.

Now when clouds dissipate, Roy has a habit of tucking spare clothing loosely under the straps at the top of his rucksack. On this day the item was a waterproof jacket. But a branch from some impish tree robbed Roy of his jacket.

The inevitable rain arrived at Elan Village. A rucksack liner, which was really a bin bag, came to the rescue, doubling as waterproof after holes were cut for head and arms. Wearers do get wet arms and get to look like bedraggled spaniels, but that’s better than a wet everything.

Llyn Brianne lies to the south of the Elan reservoirs. Surrounded by plantations of spruce and larch in two narrow valleys, it mimics a Norwegian fjord. The splendid countryside beyond could only belong to Wales. Here the boisterous Tywi and Doethie rivers twist and turn among rocky, oak-clad peaks. Beneath a particularly conical hill called Dinas, the rivers meet in a violent cauldron of foam. There’s a cave in the crags, where Twm Sion Catti, the Welsh Robin Hood, used to hide from his enemies. We didn’t find it. But I did see my first red kite soaring above the woods and the summit rocks. These lovely birds were, in the last century, common on the streets of London, but had been hunted to near extinction, before their recent reintroduction.

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The River Tywi near Rhandirmwyn

After being in the Elenydd wilderness for three days, finding the Royal Oak at Rhandirmwyn was like finding an oasis in the desert. After a lunchtime tipple of Welsh Bitter and plates of piping hot chilli con carne we ambled down country lanes to Llanddeusant, where a low-level campsite provided an excellent overnight rest before tackling the great escarpment of Mynydd Du (the Black Mountain).

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the cliifs of Bannau Sir Gaer

It was good to be among real mountains again, but these mountains were not black at all, the were red! Their rugged sandstone cliffs were layered with gritstone strata. The climb to the tops, which rise to over 2600 feet at Fan Brycheiniog, was delightfully easy, as was the grassy spur of Fan Hir, which descended right to the door of the Tafarn y Garreg Inn. Unfortunately, it was mid-afternoon and the door was closed.

Now battle hardened, we decided to keep going across the little urban hills on the north-west side of the Swansea Valley and get as near to the coast we could. In semi-darkness we pitched the tent by the shores of the Upper Lliw Reservoir. Through the steam of crunchy pot noodles, we watched the wind whip up white horses across the lake. The day’s efforts meant that we could go for the coast a day ahead of schedule, but it would need an early start.

To The Coast

The quiet world of the golden Lliw Hills allows the first real glimpses of Gower and thus strengthens the resolve to press on – an ambition aided by superb paths over smooth terrain. These moors were the last high ground of the route. The remainder would be across the flatlands of Gower, through woods, across fields and to the coast. Small landscapes, but pleasing landscapes too.

The going was fast: at four we were on the Gower Coast at Pwll du. Pwll du means Blackpool, but there were no crowds, donkeys or candy floss; just a limestone headland, a storm beach of white pebbles, and a couple of cottages.

Spurred on by the bracing coastal air and sight of crashing waves against the rocks, we completed the clifftop finale to Three Cliffs Bay.

Spurred on by the bracing coastal air and sight of crashing waves against the rocks, we completed the clifftop finale to Three Cliffs Bay. Climbers with their eyes to the skyline grappled with shoreline crags,  and a links golfer was lining up a putt with his stern eyes to the ground.

Watching the surf bubble beneath my wrinkly, blistered feet I couldn’t help wondering why I put myself through this when the climber was having such fun on his piece of rock. I watched the golfer miss his put, then throw his putter to the ground, and I had my answer. I would do it all again – next year.

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The cliifs of Gower near journey’s end

Roy headed for the nearest bar with me following. The pool championship recommenced. He won: but then, he always does.

Excerpt from the book Coast to Coasting by John Gillham and Ronald Turnbull (PB David and Charles)

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Author: johngillhamshillwalkingsite

A full-time professional writer, illustrator and photographer since 1989, John Gillham is best known for his lavishly-illustrated coffee-table books. His first, Snowdonia to the Gower, has been described as one of the classic books on Wales. Gillham is a regular contributor to TGO and has recently completed the highly acclaimed 4-volume series of Pictorial Guides to the Mountains of Snowdonia for Wainwright’s publisher Frances Lincoln. John is also the proprietor of Grey Stone Books, which specialised in walking, climbing and fell-running guides. John won the 2012 Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild ‘Award for Excellence’ Best Guidebook Award for his Best Day Walks in Snowdonia, a book which was also book of the week in the Mail on Sunday, who said "John Gillham has become Snowdonia’s answer to Wainwright."

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