Kim Jones headed off to North Wales to the Rhinogydd in late Autumn last year. It’s an area that is overshadowed by Snowdon both literally and figuratively – but according to Kim it is well worth exploring
Llyn y Fedw, Llyn Morwynion, Llyn Hywel. Cwm yr Afon, Cwm Bychan, Cwm Moch. Moel y Geifr, Moel Fryn, Moel Goedog.
These are names that roll off the tongue just as the water rolls of these hills filling the rivers, lakes and streams.
The Rhinogydd, perhaps not the oldest hills in Wales, but certainly the wildest, have been in attendance here since Cambrian times. Less visited than the mountains of Snowdonia, they play host to Welsh Black cattle, feral goats and hardy sheep who will stare you down rather than step aside. Think of rocks, then think of more rocks, awash with water and peppered with stone walls, this is the Rhinogydd. A name that doesn’t offer the slightest hint of a welcome, for it is a hard name befitting a hard place. Translated into English it is possibly more imposing. The Rhinogs.
Now imagine you’re a young boy playing for your school rugby team and just before the bell on a Friday afternoon your sports teacher announces that tomorrow morning you are playing host to a team from The Rhinogs. Silence, the word left hanging there like a guillotine, guaranteeing a restless night. Anxious dreams beset with images of long haired, bearded fourteen year olds disembarking a battered old red bus dressed in animal skins and eating raw meat would almost guarantee a fitful night’s sleep.
The land might give an impression of hardness, but the few people who live here are anything but. Those who farm this harsh, severe landscape are kind, and used to its unforgiving ways. For a visitor though, it takes no prisoners; it messes with your compass, will engulf you in its mists, then lose you amongst its precipitous escarpments. It is an area that demands respect.
This desolate tract of land, east of Harlech has remained unchanged for thousands of years, a place where the historic old ways are still in evidence. Tracks and paths that were used by Iron and Bronze Age tribes, drovers and shepherds and those seeking their fortune from gold and manganese are still here, winding their way through an unmanaged, untamed landscape that draws you into it, teasing you with its wild forbidden beauty. Most people ignore them in their rush for the famed hills further north claiming, ‘There is nothing there’. What?! Everything is here.
You just have to work a little bit harder to access it. For here, lurking amongst the clouds in the west are Rhinog Fach and Fawr, the curators of this great free land. Standing at less than 715 mtrs they are of no interest to those who aspire to greater things, but dare to go there and you will experience an area unique amongst the Welsh countryside.
Late autumn last year I came walking here on what can only be described as a typical Rhinogydd day – rain, low cloud, buffeting winds and sodden ground. I found myself wandering, apart from the friends I was with and with my mind far away I stopped and closed my eyes. I had been here before. It wasn’t just a sense of being it was stronger, far stronger than that, a feeling deep within my gut, a sense of coming home. A sense of Place, this is where I once belonged. Suddenly, even though I’d never visited this northern end and had no map with me, I knew where I was, it all seemed strikingly familiar.
There are easier and safer places to ride a bike, but here with little, if any evidence of the modern world, the riding has an edge to it, it is unforgiving. Here is a place that gives the impression of being lost in time, somewhere that has escaped the vagaries of the 21st century. The paths aren’t way-marked or even well trodden, at least not in current times, and the land laughs at you, at your audacity to dare to travel amongst it. I am keen to explore these hills and choose Cwm Bychan to spend the first night. Nestled at the foot of Craig Wion it is home to a lake of the same name, a lake whose waters even at the height of summer are always cold.
It was from here that the old pack horse trail from the castle at Harlech wound its way up to Bwlch Tyddiad and then over to Bronaber on its way to Chester. Mapped now as the Roman Steps, this old way is partially paved, allegedly with two thousand stones, and leads into the heart of these hills. Maybe there is something in the name, as paths overlay paths and it is possible that these stones were simply set on an old way used by the Romans, as they ventured east from their camps in the hills above Trawsfynydd in their search for gold and other raw materials.
For the next two days I intend to follow the old tracks, south of Moel Goedog and north of Cwm Bychan, aimlessly, just mooching, getting a sense of the place and absorbing its history. When they come to an end, I either turn around and retrace my tracks, or continue riding, often pushing and carrying, usually east to the higher peaks and the wild wastelands of the Trawsfynydd moors. There’s no doubt some of these paths were created by the miners, as the easiest access into these almost impenetrable rocks is from the coastal settlements of the west. And if you follow them, they will take you to the remains of the barracks, smithy’s and stables and the holes in the ground where the men spent their days.
Not used on a regular basis for a hundred years or so now, many of these old ways are overgrown, leaving a snake of sinewy single-track confined within the double-track. My tyres roll in the footsteps of the people who walked these old roads hundreds and thousands of years previously and I wonder of their thoughts, for mine are selfish, voyeuristic in comparison. I have come here for pleasure not out of necessity, my home isn’t a settlement on the tortured slopes of Moel Goedog, a damp barracks sited in the shadow of Y Llethr or a cold shepherd’s hut in Penisarcwm. I have chosen to be here this day, for me.
The first day is cut short when, without warning the mist comes down. The track has come to an abrupt end, but confident of my whereabouts, I lay out the map and take a bearing for the cleft in the rocks down which the waters of the Llyn Eiddew-mawr flow. This entails a short carry with the bike but links up with the track which I can then follow to the watershed. Standing up, I glance at the compass in dismay; the arrow is swinging through a hundred and twenty degrees. I remove my pack and walk away from the bike, checking my pockets for anything that might interfere with the needle and laying the map out, I take another bearing.
Same – the needle sweeps randomly. I check the ground, nothing obvious, so I walk in a ten metre circle, checking the needle every step, no change. This happened here before, though a little further south. Then, unbeknownst to us the needle had done a complete inversion showing south as north and east as west. Being able to see the coast saved us from somewhat blindly following an inaccurate bearing.
It was always drummed into me, ‘trust your compass’, which is right of course, but it pays to be cautious and aware. Someone who spends a lot of time in the hills, develops what can only be described as an intuitive feel for direction, a sense of their where-abouts, a gut feeling for what is right and what is wrong. Whilst the compass is generally reliable, it is also important to trust your instincts.
For now though, I’m stymied and decide to call it a day. I push my bike down to the stream which I follow on a pitted rocky sheep path, before picking up the old mine track that takes me down to the road. Back at the Landrover, I check the compass by taking a bearing on some known points. It’s absolutely fine.
The second day I awake to an unexpected covering of snow, and after a very slow breakfast I decide to drive a little further north to give me more riding time in the light. Though today I’m keen to avoid it, riding at night in the snow is again one of those magical experiences as no lights are needed, the snow reflecting any ambient light there is.
Straight into a climb, I spin slowly upwards, my tyres crunching in the freshly fallen snow; my aim, to follow the mine track that effectively traverses the hills and which hopefully will take me onto Craig Ddrwg where I’ll have a grand view east towards the Arenigs. In conditions like this despite my best efforts, my hands lose all feeling, which is fine as then they don’t hurt, the pain comes when the blood starts to flow again.
In North America, it almost cost a friend three of his toes. Chris had managed to put his foot through the ice when crossing a stream. It was early evening and already the temperature was somewhere around -25C and we would be riding throughout the night. The water froze instantly, encasing his foot in ice which we chipped off and then continued cycling. Every time the pain came, in our naivety, we would stop and push the bikes, then when the pain was gone we would resume our riding. Of course, if his foot was hurting, there was a blood supply and his toes had a chance, but during the hours riding when his feet were inactive, there was little if any blood-flow to his foot which in time would lead to the onset of early frostbite. The following morning when he removed his shoes and socks we both laughed at his black toes assuming it to be dye from his socks. Of course it wasn’t and he spent three days in hospital, before being released with crutches fitted with mini crampons and all ten toes.
The track does a sharp switchback and I’m off, pushing my bike, which gives me a chance to appreciate the work that has gone into this path that in places has been hewn out of the rocks. It feels wild and remote, yet I’m only ten kilometres from the coast where lie row upon row of green caravans.
I love this place, and in this weather, the Rhinogydd is at its best, willing you, no, insisting you abide by its rules.
I’m soon back on the bike and turning the corner, am blown to a standstill by the wind as it howls down the narrow passage way below the appropriately named Llyn Du (black lake), reminding me that today especially, it deserves my respect. The wind has the edge here and again I’m walking as I sneak past the water and then ride behind the old mine workings where I settle into a rocky hollow and gaze east across the empty moorland at Arenig Fawr as she photo bombs Moel Llyfnant.
The sun has dropped behind the ridge behind me dragging the temperature down with it, I shiver as I get back on the bike. I hurtle past the wave-lapped waters of the lake, my back wheel almost drifting over the edge as I make the turn back onto the miners path. I’m simply retracing my steps now and aware of what is coming, caution is filed away and I descend like a teenager, ride it like you stole it! Ploughing through virgin snow I try not to think of what lies hidden below.
In my haste, I overshoot the junction that leads to the horseshoe Llyn Dywarchen which partially fills the small plateau below Moel Ysgyrfarnogod and have to push back up the path. I’ve never seen what, to all intents and purposes is an oxbow lake so far from a water source and assume it to be just a geological quirk.
Today has been a dry day, the first since arriving here and with the afternoon drawing to a close and aware of a front building up over the Irish Sea heading my way, I am keen to get back. With only a few km to go and most of it downhill I enjoy a crazy, anarchic ride back to the Landrover, where I quickly change and light the stove, just as the heavens open; again The Rhinogydd having the last laugh. With the rain quickly turning to sleet I opt to sit inside. Reviewing the day’s events I am suddenly aware of a bellowing noise nearby, sounding a little like a badly played trombone. Then a little closer, a schnuffing sound just as the Landy starts rocking. Slightly bemused and mindful from previous experiences as to what it could be, I peer out of the window. A Welsh Black is rubbing her flank against the front wing!
In the Himalaya, it had been slightly different; in a tent, not a Landrover and this time at 5000mts just below the Ke La pass. I’d made the classic mountaineering mistake of climbing too high too soon and now at the end of the day was lying in the tent nursing a throbbing headache, when something pinged the guy rope.
Sitting up with a jolt, I screamed involuntarily. Silence. Again, ping. The other side this time, I banged the tent and shouted. Silence, for a little longer this time.
Then came a pawing, scraping sound together with the noise of something or some-things walking around the tent. They were clearly animals and rather worryingly more than one, I surmised them to be wolves or bears as nothing else would be this bold. Inside my tent I was absolutely terrified. It was late in the season and the snows hadn’t arrived yet, so concerned about the availability of water I’d carried an extra four litres in two plastic water bottles which I’d left in my rucksack in the porch of the tent. These were wolves, definitely, I could now hear them panting and also, a bear would have been more aggressive. This small pack was gaining in confidence, one at least had moved to the rear of the tent and I could hear the crackle of the plastic as the rucksack was slowly being dragged out of the porch. What do I do? I only had my axe and there was no way I was going outside, not this time. So I screamed, and shouted, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed. I’m not sure when they left but eventually I stopped, the silence even more profound now I had stopped screaming. I don’t think I slept that night, and in the morning when I nervously left the tent, there were wolf prints everywhere and by the porch was a stool which I wrapped in some tissue and carried with me as a testimony to my fearful night. Sshh….listen. I awake to silence, the storm that at times in the night had the Landy rocking like a rodeo horse has passed. Today I’m going to sneak up on Rhinog Fach, hoping to catch her unawares and whilst she’s not looking explore her lakes and one in particular.
Llyn Perfeddau, the free spirited little sister of Llyn Hywel is one of those mythical places where you imagine that as a child, if you were conceived here, you would be born with a fairy spirit. Banished by Hywel to the bowels of Y Llethr for homing a vagrant mermaid, it remains out of sight, tucked away in the bowl it fills beneath Llethrs’ steep northern slopes. These somewhat imposing cliffs act as a barrier to the southerly winds and add to the feeling of serenity that presides over this lake. However, despite the feeling of calm that abides here, as with a lot of Wales’ mountain pools it plays host to a dark legend.
A farmer, despite being betrothed to another, fell in love with the mermaid who lived in these waters. I’m sure you’d agree, having a mermaid as your true love would be quite a difficult thing to hide, so of course it was only a matter of time before his other girlfriend found out. Being a good Welsh girl she decided to take matters into her own hands and together with some friends laid siege to the lake, killing the mermaid. Not content with merely slaughtering the poor woman, and to avoid any chance of her being reincarnated, she went on to disembowel the body and when done, threw the remains into the lake. You can almost hear Hywel saying ‘told you so!’.
The two hills from which this area is named stand imposingly at the head of Cwm Nantcol where they tumble down to meet each other at the pass of Bwlch Drws–Ardudwy. This area is littered with old manganese mines, seven in all and I intend using the old access track to the eponymous Rhinog mine to get within a short walk of the lake. Firstly though, I have to get to the valley itself.
Whilst not particularly high, there are some steep climbs here, really steep, and having had a three cuppa breakfast and not feeling particularly motivated by a tarmac cycle, I opt to drive some of the way be-fore parking the Landy in a lay-by near the Afon Artro. I cross the Artro and follow the river upstream for a short while before turning towards the Nantcol valley.
This gradual meandering climb provides a gentle introduction to what lies ahead as almost reluctantly the valley reveals itself, initially teasing with enticing, fleeting glimpses that give a brief insight into what I’m entering. As I turn and cycle towards the bridge over the stream, which at this point seems to have changed its mind about joining the Artro, I catch the gaze of Moelfre as she stares down the shorter, but broader Foel Wen, her dark northern slopes like a dried lava flow spilling down towards the road. This valley, unlike her wild northerly cousin Bychan, feels orderly and well kept; the walls all in a good state of repair, and the fences well maintained. Superficially, there is little evidence of the mining that took place here, as now it is agricultural land, its surface this time providing an income for those who live here.
It feels safe here (unless you happen to be a mermaid) a haven within a wall of ancient rugged hills; but to one who is unfamiliar with their ways, it can feel inti-midating. Today it seems hungry for me as I am seemingly blown into it by a strong westerly wind that has started to build, carrying with it a hint of rain.
Taking advantage of the empty red telephone box, I unpack a jacket from the rucksack. Opposite, is the old Capel Nantcol, the only chapel I have seen with white upvc windows. They say your Lord moves in mysterious ways, well here’s your proof, a traditional old Welsh chapel within the national park with plastic windows, who’d have thought?!
Walls, there are walls everywhere here, their pre-sence contributing to the sense of security, through streams, into (and out of) lakes, around fields and one seemingly built from its scree on the upper slopes of Rhinog Fawr. This certainly is a bold state-ment of ownership, This is mine! And also a testa-ment to whoever built it, for in the main it is still standing.
I wonder what those slopes play host to, for this area is home to many birds of prey, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Hen Harrier and Kestrel, and gazing across the valley you can see why, there must be rich pickings here, voles, shrews, wood mice, small birds and an abundance of sumptuous insects. But today again, they are all hiding, and apart from the ubiquitous sheep, my senses remain unawakened to the life that potentially is here.
The boisterous wind though is making its presence felt, seeking out any gap in my clothing, and doing its best to unseat me when the track turns across it. In the main though, like a sailor out at sea, I use it to my advantage as it buffets me upwards. Passing through the stone walled sheep pens I come across the first evidence of this valleys mining history, a disused level to my left and on my right, an old tip. Tucked away in the shadow of these hills, this must have been an awful place to work, pitifully cold and wet in the winter, uncomfortably humid in the summer; they were hard men who worked this ground.
I shudder involuntarily as I wander across the old causeway to an entrance of one of the many underground workings.
How must it have felt to have spent your day, with only a candle for light, kneeling or lying down in the filthy, frigid water, swinging away with your pick and clawing with your hands, only to emerge from your tunnel and feel your surroundings seemingly kneeling down on you? I can only begin to imagine. On a Sunday, would the miners have gone to the chapel lower down the valley to seek solace and to pray, or were the hills themselves sacred to them, a sanctuary perhaps?
Yes, we have ridiculously grand cathedrals and churches aplenty, but we don’t view hills as sacred. Whoever, or whatever your God, wouldn’t there be a certain joy in celebrating him or her outside where surely you’re closer to them than amongst the ‘do not touch’ opulence of some places of worship?
As if punishing me for my temerity, the ‘heavens’ release a mighty deluge that has me running for cover to the roofless smithy, where I shelter from the wind driven rain against one of the still intact walls. Sometimes you just know, you can feel that the weather, at least in the short while is here to stay, so I beat a hasty retreat and as I do, The Rhinogydd delivers a wondrous parting shot, a large buzzard drops out of the sky landing in the field next to me, then, to my absolute joy, hops up onto the wall where she lingers as I pass by. I want to stop, but know if I do she will instantly take flight, instead I slow a little and she tracks me with her sharp eye, her head slowly turning ensuring a direct view. Moments like this move me, they touch my soul, and remind me of how insignificant I am in the eyes of the natural world.
Unfortunately, I managed to misplace the photos for this route, but the shots here will certainly give you a taste of what this area has to offer. On the return leg, if you have the time, Llyn Irddyn is certainly worth a visit – turn right onto the track at 609 224 and follow it for 2km.