The wind whipped around all night, bringing with it spontaneous showers. I was happy, warm and smug in my cocoon, bedded down in my little piece of cosy territory amongst the angry night. Except it wasn’t really my territory was it. I came to realise this when just after three in the morning I was awakened by the actual sensation of a tearing wind inside my tent and saw the guyline had flown loose to the side. It was only a few more seconds of rapidly increasing horror before I realised I was wet. More specifically, my bag was wet. I dashed outside onto the battered grass and smashed the guyline back into place, firmly this time, all a little bit too late and returned to the drenched interior of the tent.
What now? Did I really think I was going to go back to sleep in a super soaked sleeping bag, when my sleeping pad was now gleefully sledding over the drenched base of the tent? That seemed stupidly optimistic and, instead, I slowly started to pack up my stuff, wringing out what I could just outside and wiping down could be wiped with a microfibre cloth that I would usually use as a towel. There was no hope for the sleeping bag right now, but I’d worry about that later.
At the first glimpse of light, I opened the tent and climbed out, dismantling its sorry wet frame in record time and heading into the early dawn against the mist and the rain. Oddly, I was not as entirely pissed off as I had a right to be; the farm tracks that continued steadily on were oddly soothing – the slate tips started to loom up on one side of me and the peaks of the forest scratched dark pointed shadows down the valley on my left. A forced harmony of nature and man, both ghostly shades of blue and grey in the early light, muffled in the cloud.
As the light grew, the path veered downward, away from the peaceful farm track into the still village of Waunfawr where all the sensible people were still sleeping. Crossing the road, I ascended the other side into a jungle of slick, wet bracken steeply covering the slopes. The earth turned to mud in the rain and I went slowly, two steps forward, sliding one step back. I was hesitant to grab out to the bracken to stop the slipping because you see, the slugs were massive and they were everywhere and there is nothing, nothing, in this world that absolutely sets my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive quite as much as slugs.
Give me a spider, a bee, a snake, a bird, a goddamn lion and I’ll deal with it way better than even the prospect of accidentally grabbing a slug on a piece of bracken. I would rather fall down this hill that grab one of those monstrously fat mountain slugs. Salt the earth and get rid of them (Leave no Trace has exceptions right?).
After my overly careful trudge, I emerged, slug safe, onto the high up fields. First into enclosures where the occasional ruined workshop now lay open and exposed to the elements, stone scattered and sadly sitting, waiting to fall completely. I ate breakfast in the drizzle and continued onto the wide grassy moorland.
In the gloom, what I thought were rounded peaks turned out to be huge slate tips. The dark, slick, wet purple of the stone and the abrupt and lavish heather crashing jewel colour into the pale yellow, mottled grasses. The lonely path continued for a while, my sense of distance impaired by the fog. The great, silent, discarded slate heaps were now being slowly grown over by grasses and mosses. Occasionally, a brave tree had taken root. It seemed nature was reclaiming its own.
An old and abandoned digger lurched out of the greyness like a mechanical dinosaur, a fossil of an industry slowly being forgotten, covered in rust.
It would be easy to lose your way in the grey gloom. As it was I stuck closely to the bearing I had taken, and was grateful for the rare confirming waymark that would appear. Without a compass, I have no doubt I’d have turned myself around a whole bunch of times until I gave up on ever seeing civilisation again and decided to live forever in the abandoned digger because there was no other alternative. Or something similarly dramatic.
The moorland ended eventually, descending down to another silent village, out of the mist and the drizzle, and I left to descend further down Dorothea Quarry. It gouged along the valley with warnings of its instability. The piles of slate looked secure, but a running squirrel was enough to disturb it causing a clatter and a shatter. Buildings sat half intact, just walls now – windows and roofs long gone, the six deep pits now completely flooded. Scuba divers come here, unofficially, to explore these accidental manmade lakes.
The unregulated nature of these dives, means every year one or two divers lose their lives in the flooded quarries. It is far deeper – up to 100 metres – than many realise and plenty deep enough for a diver to get the bends on attempting to surface quickly.
That or maybe the Welsh afanc has found a new home – this creature of legend appears to take many forms; that of a beaver or a crocodile. An animal out of place inhabited by a demon that resides in lakes – which particular lake is disputed, it appears to move around. The original afanc was killed by Sir Percival of King Arthur’s court, but the legend of this waterbound monster that drags those foolish enough to swim in its lakes to their death continues.
Back when the quarry was in operation, the depth of the slate veins required incredible innovation to constantly pump out the water as the miners worked below the water table. The electric pumping machine that had been in operation since 1951, was turned off when the mine was closed in 1970, quickly leading to the great hollows filling with water.
Religion and Science in the Nantlle Valley
In the 19th Century, the Nantlle Valley found itself in the middle of the debate between the Diluvialists and the Glacialists. The former believed that the Biblical Flood was the only natural force great enough to shape the world, while the latter firmly supported the newer glacial theory – that these wide valleys and high tarns were cut by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age. The Diluvialists argued that such a landscape could only be divine.
I entered the small village of Nantlle and traversed to the side of the one huge lake. I sat on a bench off the road, looking down at it and foraged in my bag of chocolates. A car screeched up and parked haphazardly close to me in the layby. A panicked man jumped out.
“What do you know about cars?” He shouted
“Me? Nowt!” He looked equal parts disappointed, bewildered and panicked. I took my hand out the bag “Snickers?”
That was about as helpful as I could be. He shook his head.
“Nah. Y’alright” He popped the hood and stared at the engine with the same complete lack of understanding that I might. I awkwardly chomped on the snickers. He was still staring at the innards of his car as I got up to leave.
“Maybe call someone?” I suggested, stating the obvious.
“My missus will never let me forget it” He replied ruefully.
Fair enough, I set off along and then off the road, quickly into farm tracks again and over tiny bridges over tinier streams for many, many fields before coming to a lane. There was a hostel and campsite ahead of me. I had a magical brainwave and went looking for the warden.
“Is there any way I can use your tumble dryer?” I beseeched him “My sleeping bag got wet last night and I need it dry to sleep in”
“Wales is still in lockdown”
“So we can’t have the laundry open”
Oh. Right. This just got harder. I thanked him anyway and continued. The lane dropped out at a road that was crossed to the lower flanks of Mynedd Mawr. The path was narrow on the steep sides of the mountain, and quickly the lane and all evidence of people disappeared behind me. I looked ahead to a grass covered, craggy vista, the rounded protrusions that formed Y Garn bubbling from the earth to the south.
Mynedd Mawr hunkered above me, its summit obscured in clag. It is colloquially known as Yr Eliffant; noting its resemblance to a sleeping African beast. Huge and grey, it slumbered half in the clouds.
I once again relied on bearings to take me through to Beddgelert Forest. The track would often run into overgrown and indistinct wilder land, most of it remaining narrow and requiring more nimble feet than I am in possession of. I called The Elephant a bastard a number of times as my feet and pole betrayed me to plonk me down hard on my arse. Good thing it didn’t wake.
The Floating Lake of Llyn y Dywarchen
There once was an unsecured island in the middle of Llyn y Dywarchen on the approach to Rhyd Ddu. Legend has it that an overprotective father kept his daughter prisoner there away from her lover until she perished. On the occasion that the island reached shore their ghosts could kiss again. Until she floated away once more.
The island had apparently caused historical havoc when grazing animals were suddenly floated away in the winds after it touched land. The floating nature of the island was confirmed by the astronomer Edmund Halley. Islands like this are often formed of tightly bound turf and moss having separated from the mainland.
Whilst there is plenty of evidence to suggest it existed, the floating island is no more. Presumably broken apart and decomposed. Maybe that means the lady ghost is now free to walk the earth together with her lover.
Once I finally reached the forest, the track was wide and secure amongst the sharp and broad conifers winding my way down to Rhyd Ddu, very ready for a hot meal after all the rain and mud and mist. I pranced into the pub.
“Is lunch open yet?” I asked
“Don’t serve food on Tuesdays”
It transpires that not many places do. Apparently Mondays and Tuesdays are just restaurant dead zones, no tourists around so there’s no point. Except there were tourists here – half of the bloody Midlands seemed packed into every village and town I had come across. Strangely the trails had been so empty.
So nothing on Mondays and Tuesdays. And apparently some places are closed on Wednesdays instead. And in a few villages Thursdays will be down. I must have looked completely shook as the barmaid told me all this. Yes I had the trappings for a decent ham and cheese sarnie thing in my bag, and a fair amount of chocolate, but I’d been looking forward to a lunch in Rhyd Ddu since leaving my wet camp this morning. Speaking of which…
“Do you have a tumble dryer I can use?”
“Can’t love. Lockdown” Fine. “Look, if you can get yourself to Beddgelert they’ll have some places open. Beddgelert’s bigger.”
Beddgelert was three miles away which suddenly seemed like a forever. I kicked my way stroppily down the road and sat down in a bus stop out the rain for a moment. Just as I sat, a bus pulled up – ‘Beddgelert’ on its screen. What witchery was this?
The door opened with a clank, “you getting in pet?” yelled the driver. I found myself shaking my head. Wait. What? No! NO! Too late, he had closed up and driven off. No! What had I done!
No choice now. Thankfully the trail to Beddgelert was clear and straightforward. There was only one brave climber heading out the car park presumably to tackle the Rhyd Ddu path up Yr Wyddfa. This approach is strenuous, the climber is often exposed and needs their wits about them on narrow ridges. I glanced at the heavy clag. Good luck to him, hope he’d find somewhere open for a post climb meal. Couldn’t imagine the devastation of returning after that gruelling trip to be told “Sorry love, no food on Tuesdays”.
I went through the forest, occasionally passing the small railway, with a reassuring river to my side. I came across another campsite and went, again, to find the warden.
“Is there a tumble dryer I can use?”
“Sorry love, it’s…”
“Lockdown. That’s OK.” I sighed and soldiered onwards to finally enter Beddgelert.
What a bustling joy this place seemed. A lot of the villages I had passed through had been concrete, utilitarian and somewhat run down. Part of Aled Owen’s initiative for putting the trail together was to bring more people, and their money, to these more forgotten and neglected spaces. The path intentionally ran by many community run cafes and pubs. Which is all great and lovely and a brilliant, wonderful and noble idea and I completely support it…until they’re all closed up on a Tuesday and then the bigger, more endowed alternatives like Beddgelert are instantly attractive.
I still went to the community café that Aled’s book suggested and sat down to a great big lasagna. I got out my phone to start to research; if nowhere was going to let me dry my bag I was going to have to find a hostel or something and hang it up overnight. With the deluge of people all about me, I had no illusions that finding such a space would be an easy task.
The internet, however, was atrocious. Pages were timing out before I could find phone numbers and loading failed time and time again. Was I going to just have to sleep in my wet bag? I swear I could have cried. So I did what any self respecting 33 year old would do and called my mum, wailed out the situation – that my guyline came loose and my bag was all wet and nowhere would let me dry it and now the internet was so shit I couldn’t research hostels and please could she fix everything please?
Within the hour my mum had sorted it; I had a bed in a bunkhouse back in Llanberis and a taxi there today and a taxi back tomorrow and my bag could dry out and the trail would go on. My mum is magic.
The taxi driver that picked me up went on a half hour rant about how useless his son was. How he moved back in the pandemic but he needs a lift to work every morning because he can’t drive a car and he doesn’t know how to cook anything, he burns pasta, and he can’t operate a washing machine and he’s a completely useless waste of space.
“He’s just taking his time to adapt, he’ll grow into being a grown up” I said with an attempt at kindness
“HE’S FORTY YEARS OLD”
Maybe I wasn’t the most useless, overly reliant firstborn out there after all.
The taxi went through the foggy passes and the undulating mountain roads. I had expected to feel deflated seeing how fast a car could travel the distance it took me the best part of a day to walk, but instead I was in awe of the scenery I had travelled among. I was dropped off at the bunkhouse in Llanberis with the driver arranging to return at six the next morning. I hung my bag up on the end of my bunk and went to have dinner with two others in the room – a young Mountain Leader taking her exams, and a Feng Shui consultant looking to move from Uxbridge. For some odd reason, considering her chosen career, she’d chosen to move into shared housing last year despite being able to afford otherwise and predictably found it a disaster. The young Mountain Leader was reasonably casual about taking her exams in the rain and fog.
“We already know we’ve all passed ropes” she told us “Because if someone isn’t passing, they bring out the ropes later on other tasks to give them another shot and we haven’t seen ropes again”
She was most of the way through her Outdoor Education degree. I’m not sure how an Outdoor Education degree worked over the last year of lockdowns, but she seemed more than competent.
The noises from the bar below continued late into the night, but that barely mattered when the alternative had been to crawl into the woods beyond Beddgelert and spend a miserable, wet night in a sodden and sloppy bag.
If you have a good mum, please call her. Call her right now. I’ll wait.
- Distance: 20 miles
- Total Elevation: 1475ft
- Terrain: Farm tracks, moorland, woodland, overgrown paths, short, steep ascents and descents
- Toughness: 5/10
- Maps Used: OS Explorer Map OL 17 Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa, Conwy Valley/Dyffryn Conwy