I was up bright and early, trying as quietly as I could to gather my things together to exit the bunkhouse and meet the taxi driver. His son has somehow further disappointed him in the last twelve hours and now his wife was overfeeding the dog as well and everyone kept saying how they needed a holiday but he never understood the need for a holiday, he hated holidays, him and the wife once took a holiday to Turkey and he came back after two days because he was so bored and went back to work. I started to feel bad for his son. And his wife and the dog.
Back in Beddgelert, I set off along the Afon Glaswyn that quickly took me into brilliant riverside forests, traipsing over a nervously rough stone path above the river. The trees flew wide across the landscape, up the hills to the sides, rich and green and vibrant. In a nation which has so starkly deforested our wild spaces, here was what we could have all once had.
UK folklore and legend loves a good, loyal pooch. Just look at Greyfriar’s Bobby sitting by his owner’s grave for fourteen years. Wales’ answer to Bobby is Gelert. In fact the whole town of Beddgelert is named for him. And his grave.
Gelert was the faithful hound of Prince Llewellyn, a prince of North Wales in the 13th Century. One day the prince returned from a solitary hunt to be greeted by Gelert covered in blood. In horror, Llewellyn ran to the cot of his infant son and found it empty, the blankets bloodstained and ruined.
Assuming the worst of Gelert, the anguished prince thrust his sword into his dog’s side whose dying calls were answered by a baby’s cry.
Llewellyn rushed to find his son unharmed, near to the slain body of a great wolf. A wolf whom Gelert had killed as he had valiantly protected the infant.
Full of remorse, Llewellyn buried Gelert here and promised that his loyalty would never be forgotten.
The great, green gorge rose up on either side of me as I trundled along the boulder strewn bank until I eventually reached the bridge at Aberglaswyn. Apparently the devil built the bridge on an understanding with the magician Robin Ddu that he would claim the first soul to cross it. On completion he went to find Robin to come and examine how he had upheld his side of the bargain. The magician carried with him a loaf of bread and was followed by a dog from the village.
On seeing the bridge, Robin reacted with skepticism, saying that it did not look sturdy enough to even carry the weight of this here loaf of bread. Outraged the devil demanded he throw the bread onto the bridge to see for himself how sturdy it was. Robin did so, and the bread was swiftly followed by the hungry dog who, on crossing the bridge, lost his soul to the devil. The devil was deceived and, well, it seems that not all dogs were valued as highly as Gelert.
The path turned off by Nantmor, following a lane for around a mile until the lane became a track; an old drove road that lead onto the open hillside. The trail crossed paths with the Cambrian Way; a famously challenging path stretching south to north across Wales, known as the ‘mountain connoisseur’s trail’. It traverses the highest points of the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains and the most famous and challenging peaks here in Snowdonia. Not one for the faint hearted. Or the normal hearted.
The hills rambled and rustled to all sides as I passed the front of Cnicht. The ground like a disheveled patchwork as Autumn had tried to start breaking into the summer sheen of the grasses. A vast, old quilt, full of gathered lumps, cast on this bed below the mountains. Slick from the constant drizzle, the bracken and the grasses were slowed down in the windy dances.
The drove road spilled me out at the village of Croeser, where I refilled my water, ate my breakfast, and started up again, turning to walk up the side of the valley across from the long bulk of Cnicht. This upwards path was gradual but long. It seemed to just keep going and going as it crept up and up, into the clag. I paused every so often to try squint ahead, hoping to see a point at which it would flatten, becoming more and more aware of the weight of my pack as my legs started to protest.
Across the wide swing of the valley Cnicht slouched, like Yeats’ rough beast. Equally as imposing and formidable in its centuries of stony sleep to await a different incarnation. Eventually I was high enough in the clag that the valley disappeared, and Cnicht with it. I had forgotten by now what Aled Owen’s point of this slow, labourious clamber was. Initially it had been exhilarating, now it was hard work. As the clag would dip visibility down to only thirty feet or so at times, I quickly took a bearing to the highest point of the track on Moelwyn Moer, by the side of a summit-top lake.
I reached the Croeser mine but could barely see it; the fog and cloud was thick around me and all that I saw were brutalist outlines of industrial shells. The trail itself was lost at a short scramble and I mistook an area of flattened ground for my continuation. Except the flattened ground was simply grass that sneakily covered a small stream and, once again, I ended up with wet feet, flat on my arse, calling a mountain a bastard as I felt a pull and a twinge in my hip. I followed the bearing back and up, starting to lose patience, and emerged to the wind blown heights by the lake; a dam that once supplied the quarry below. I finally skirted the ridge, full of bad faith towards Aled Owen, only to stop short with a completely entranced “Oh. Wow”
Down ahead of me, in this high up plain that felt a million miles from anywhere, the quiet, sprawled and bleak remains of Rhosydd Barracks opened up ahead. Oh. So this was the point. And it was spectacular.
I approached the depleted and scattered street of dark and tumbled stone. Roofless, windowless, doorless; many just a half walled foundation now of tiny rooms, perhaps with a triangle of stone on a higher wall to show where a roof would once have been supported. The mist swung down from the ridges, passing briefly through the gaps and the spaces like last words and final breaths all trapped together in this haunting space.
What sort of life would this have been? Living here, right all the way up here, in those tiny rooms where four people would have lived together with no fresh water and no plumbing, sometimes just thick paper for extra insulation. Christ it must have been freezing in winter. What joy could you find in a whole life here? Trapped by your poverty, a poverty ensured by the only work available, accepting the devastating and brutal labour that would one day end your life many, many years before your time. And if you were lucky enough to have one of the family rooms, to know that almost nothing you could do would spare your own sons this fate also. If you grew up here, in this harsh and brutal home, far up and away from anywhere, what else would you ever know? How would you ever leave? Where could you go on a minimal education and your father’s debts?
This ruin was just a grave. There might not be any bodies here, but there had been plenty of wasted life. As the slate industry roofed the whole damn world, those that dug it lived like slaves.
You do not have to believe in a single otherworldly thing to feel the weight of a maudlin pain left behind in places of immense desolation.
I quietly left the ruined barracks, passing down their wind-whipped street and between the slate piles beyond. As I started to steeply descend out of the clag, a waterfall crashed down beside the path. Nearby the old chapel and schoolhouse stood. Where did one even begin to provide for the spiritual and educational needs of such a trapped and remote place?
Down, down, past yet more tips, I left the clag behind, blinking into a far brighter day as the path trundled down straight before me down to Tanygrisiau in the distance. I had gone up alone, and stood amongst the barracks alone, and it was only now after leaving it all behind me that I started to see others. People strolled up from the car park half a mile away. A group of three older gentlemen, each gripping two trekking poles so firmly their knuckles were white, stopped me.
“Are there ruins up there?” Asked one.
“Are they worth the hike?”
I looked at the three of them. To be honest, they all looked a bit creaky with best days behind them by quite a while. They were all trying to conceal being out of breath though their incline had barely started.
“Yes. Absolutely. They’re absolutely worth it.” With that, the group continued by me and I carried on to eventually reach the banks of the reservoir. I hoped I hadn’t sent three old men to an exhausting end.
I arrived blinking into the small village of Tanygrisiau. I had only been out of modern life a few hours since leaving Croeser, but it felt like I had travelled a whole century back and forward.
Another hour further, along roads and through bracken bands, I came to Blaenau Ffestiniog with its towering backdrop of tumbled slate scree. It was a town that had grown, bustled and prospered as the slate industry prospered, and fallen into declination along with it too. From once having a population of 17,000 people, today it has only 4,000. Huge attempts at regeneration have taken place; with the nearby tourist attractions of the Zipworld adventures down and above the slate caverns in the valley, the establishment of many mountain bike routes, and this path I was now hiking, people were being brought into the town again. And whilst through this it had managed to popularise its own music and arts heritage and build a large train station and pretty up the centre with slabs of engraved poetry, it didn’t take far walking off the main high street to fall into dilapidated and struggling streets.
Blaenau Ffestiniog and UNESCO Status
Despite being snubbed so completely from inclusion in Snowdonia National Park, Blaenau Ffestiniog and the surrounding area was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO not even a month before I set off on the Slate Trail.
This status recognises areas that are ‘deemed worthy of preservation due to their universal value to humanity, both in the present and for future generations’. The slate landscapes around Blaenau Ffestiniog were recognised for its contribution to human history; for all the engineering and industrial advances that came from the mining industry, for the architecture it created and, last but not least, for the movements towards socioeconomic change that the Penrhyn Quarry strikes inspired.
I went into a café for a much desired plate of scrambled eggs and toast. This small grey town had played a particular role in the Second World War; after Churchill declared that the collection of the National Gallery needed to be hidden ‘in caves and cellars, not one picture shall leave this island’, the whole trove of priceless art was concealed in the mines of the Manod Quarry nearby. Less romantically, the Glas Rhonwy Mine was used as a secret munitions store.
It was another three miles or so along the valley to Llan Ffestiniog; an even tinier hamlet, where I had booked a night at a hostel. I had expected to have spent two night camping in the rain by now and felt slightly guilty, like I was cheating, sliding into my second night indoors after last night’s unexpected shelter. The hostel was on the edge of the hamlet, though I suppose it was so small that everything was on an edge. It was on the site of the old golf course; the course itself long given over to wild grasses. I can’t imagine playing golf in the wind that would batter the hills could be particularly successful.
There was no washing machine, just a drying room, but it at least sufficed for getting the rest of the damp out of my things and giving me the space to hang the still wet tent. I pushed my shoes beneath the hot water pipe, hoping for a less sloshy journey onwards.
The evening was spent lazily, slowly eating chunks off a block of bara brith and reading, shifting every so often to try and ignore the ache in my hip from the tumble in the stream. It was fine. It would be fine. I’d just sleep on it and it would all be alright again tomorrow.
- Distance: 18 miles
- Total Elevation: 2065ft
- Terrain: Gorge and riverside paths, exposed moorland, mountain tracks, field paths, long ascents
- Toughness: 6/10
- Maps Used: OS Explorer Map OL17 Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa, Conwy Valley/Dyffryn Conwy & OS Explorer OL18 Harlech, Porthmadog & Bala / Y Bala