It would be wrong to say that this was a walking trip. It was always planned with the camping at the centre but with some walking to build up an appetite. I’d been keeping an eye on the weather forecast during the previous week and I was pleased to see that it was slowly getting colder and drier. Tuesday should now be around freezing overnight with Wednesday a couple of degrees colder and then Thursday a few degrees above. This turned out to be a pretty accurate forecast and I only donned my waterproof trousers for an hour on Friday morning as a precaution against the mist which had surrounded my tent. Some snow would have been nice, but I had no room in my rucksack for crampons so I was very pleased with how things turned out.
I’ve only been to Blaenau Ffestiniog once before. On that occasion it was as grey as a very grey thing on a grey day. The town is built from the local slate, so the buildings, mountains and sky all share the same greyness. However, I think it must have been raining last time as it looked almost pretty in the bright sunshine. Yes, it was still grey … but a more cheerful grey than I remembered. Arriving at 11:30-ish, I was grateful to the train guard who’d phoned ahead when it looked like I’d miss my connection due to the late arrival of my train into Llandudno Junction. Thankfully they held the train for a couple of minutes and I now had 4 or 5 hours to find somewhere to camp rather than the 1 – 2 hours if I’d had to get the later train.
Following the Tanygrisiau route out of Blaenau Ffestiniog there were plenty of signs of the area’s slate mining past:
I had a rough idea of where I might camp that night. I’d follow paths and tracks for a while then look for somewhere off the beaten track next to one of the many lochans. I think they may be called llyns around here but I’ve noticed I do tend to revert to Scottish terms when describing things I see on maps.
A good part of my navigation was based on avoiding people, and there were quite a few out on this Bank Holiday Tuesday, so I weaved a lonely path between the hills in a vaguely NW direction. I didn’t care where I ended up as long as it was a reasonable pitch. Conscious of how quickly the light can fade, and finding myself on tussocky ground with a steep climb up to my intended pitch, I decided to call it a day at around 3pm and set up camp in the valley running down to Llyn-cwm-y-foel – SH657474.
It was a little bumpy but my new Exped mattress meant that I would have easily passed the Princess and the Pea test – although I did slide downhill a few times in the night. Distance walked that day? Oh, at least 4 miles (possibly).
My flysheet was frosty in the morning but I’d slept well. The sky was clear in the morning and, although I was not going to catch the early sun in my valley campsite, I could see that the tops were brightening up and I’d have an excellent sunny day ahead.
Today’s plan was to walk North along the black dashed line on the map. I knew it must be some sort of boundary; it turns out to be the County boundary between Gwynedd and Conwy. Mainly following a ridge on the map, I did not know if I’d see anything on the ground but for much of the way I was following a fence or detouring huge bogs; unfortunately the weather was not cold enough to freeze them.
At times I felt like I was on top of the world; the mountains seemed to go on for ever.
I thought a likely spot for a good campsite would be off to the East where the public footpath comes West / East across Bwlch y Rhediad; halfway between the County bounday and the forest. On the map the ground looks flat and well drained. It isn’t. The footpath is fine but the ground to the left is steep and to the right is swampy and tussocky. I convinced myself that there must be a lovely flat, smooth, dry patch hidden in the swamp and launched myself into the bog. This was not a good idea. Every step was treacherous as I could hear running water but couldn’t see it and I could not trust the ground below my feet. In for a penny, in for a pound, I hoped that there’d be something flatter near the river (Afon Cwm Edno, I think) – as there often is. I was right – although I could have saved myself a lot of grief by missing out two sides of the triangle and just walking straight to this point (SH677522) 45 minutes earlier.
I’d had a bit of a faff buying gas in the week before I went away. I had accidentally bought a C300 cylinder, rather than a C250, and found that it would not fit in my MSR Titan kettle – which is how I pack my gas when I’m walking ….. so I took it back to the shop. I’d brought a partially used canister which had seemed adequate before I left home but I seemed to have used a lot of gas already and I was a bit worried I may run out. Not to worry, though. Since cross-threading my Pocket Rocket on the TGO Challenge a few years ago I’ve been carrying a titanium Esbit stove and some hexamine blocks as a spare stove. I would make that evening’s main meal and hot drink with that.
Spotting a flat rock whilst pitching my tent, I lit half a hexy block and placed a full pan of water on the stove on the rock and carefully placed my windshield round it. The hexy burned nicely and the water was starting to heat up. I turned away and heard a crash. Yes, the rock was flat but not level. The stove and pan had slid off and I’d acheived the dual effect of not only spilling all of the water but the hexy was setting fire to the grass! Luckily the stream was only a few yards away so I refilled my pan and started again. This time I more or less held the pan handle for the entire time that the water was heating. Every time I loosened my grip, the pan slipped or the tiny stove shifted a little. This was the first time I’d used this stove for real (ie not in the back garden) and it was a good way of reminding myself of the challenging nature of ultralight, solid fuel stoves … oh, and of the need to bring a full gas cylinder when camping in winter! By the way, I still had a tiny bit of gas left after breakfast on the final day so who knows whether I did actually need to perform this hexamine debacle.
This had all been jolly good fun but, while I’d been setting fire to the swamp, the temperature had dropped significantly and I was getting cold. I left my pasta to cook in my pot cosy while I set up my mattress and sleeping bag and prepared everything I’d need in my tent. After eating, and listening to PM, I rested my eyes for a few minutes ….. and woke up just after 10pm. I’d hung my swamp-soaked socks to dry and they were now frozen solid, as were my boots. I’d decided to wear my Karrimor (so called) waterproof lined fabric boots and they were holding a lot of water … or, rather, ice. This was slightly disconcerting as I only had one pair of footwear so had to wear these boots in the morning, although I was happy to lounge around in the sun while they defrosted. I put them in a bin bag inside the inner tent to stop them getting any worse. I also covered my water bottle, although that still had some ice in it in the morning.
The sky was full of stars; some twinkling and some just shining. I would love to have spent some time properly studying them but didn’t have the will-power to wrap up warm and sit outside my tent. This is where bivi bags are better as you’re outside and wrapped up warm. I wondered where the moon was but I’ve just checked online and found that it was the period between the end of the old moon and the start of the new, so no visible moon.
I made myself a cup of tea and read for a while. This was also the first outing for my Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. This has an illuminated screen so can be read without any background lighting and is ideal for 15 hours of winter camping. I’d downloaded a few classics from Project Gutenberg and I read all of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness over the 3 nights. I can’t say I enjoyed it but it was an interesting book and bound to come in handy on University Challenge or Only Connect at some point in the future.
I’d chosen a spot nearer to Betws y Coed for the following night’s camp so that I was well-placed to catch the midday train home. However, I’d hemmed myself in to a boggy rough area and really did not fancy the physical effort of squelching my way back to the footpath to the North. Instead, I headed SE and used the forest edge (and the mainly good rough path) to reach the minor road.
Relying on map and compass, I could see there was something not quite right about the forest – until I realised that a large part of it had been chopped down.
You can see from the cloud that the weather was now quite a bit warmer than the night before. I’d managed to massage my semi-frozen boots onto my feet, and my tent was dripping rather than frozen by the time I packed up.
In an odd way it was nice to walk along a road. After a couple of days of rough, boggy ground it was comforting to have something solid under my feet. I day-dreamed as I walked through and past farms, setting off the dogs and listening to the birds. I saw “The Station” down in the valley. I use quotation marks as I thought this was Dolwyddelan station – as that was vaguely on my route – so I was quite suprised when I arrived there and it was Roman Bridge / Pont Rufeinig. In my aimless bimble I must’ve missed the turning which would take me past Dolwyddelan Castle and into Dolwyddelan. It didn’t really matter though, I enjoyed a sit-down on the station bench, had a bite to eat then retraced my tracks back to the last farm.
I had great plans for Dolwyddelan. There would be public toilets and somewhere to get a cup of tea. I was not disappointed. I had a jam doughnut too.
After following forest tracks North out of the village I looked for a suitable place to camp. This was now farmland with lots of fences, sheep and quadbike tracks. The track itself was teasingly good; I could have pitched my tent anywhere along this flat, short-cropped sward – although it was the usual tufty bog to either side.
There were occasional patches of good short grass, though; I knew that the sheep would’ve made sure of that. I took a gamble on there being somewhere flat and out-of-sight up a slight hill near where two tracks crossed and I found a reasonable pitch at SH745563. It was not as remote or picturesque as the two previous nights but it was fine. Nipping out in the night I was surprised to see the bright lights of a town – probably Llanrwst – down below.
I made a real effort to get up early in the morning but I do find it difficult to get up while it’s still dark and it didn’t start to get light until 7am. I was on the way by 9:25, which was earlier than the last two days, and I had an easy walk into Betws y Coed. I’m not sure I went exactly the way I’d planned, but East-ish with an occasional check of the map worked well. Where possible I followed the river footpath with a little bit of road walking. This roadsign made me laugh:
Approaching Betws y Coed, I knew that the first shop I would reach would be Cunningham’s. Could I walk past without calling in? Yes. I looked in the window but I wasn’t in the mood for shopping. My feet were uncomfortably wet and I just wanted to get something to eat and change my socks. I also noticed that all the people I passed stank of shower-gel and other perfumed products…. so maybe the retailers of Betws wouldn’t appreciate my presence today.
A little further on, a much more welcome scent reached my nostrils – the chip shop! Despite it still being before 11:30 they were frying chips and I could not resist. Deep-fried carbohydrate; what’s not to like after a few days in the hills?
My journey home was uneventful. As usual, the closer I got to home the wierder the people’s clothing and behaviour became. They could have spent the last three days wandering the hills and sleeping under the stars but, instead, they were going shopping and muttering into mobile phones about sales and parties. Why are normal people so odd?