Snowdonia Slate Trail, Day 4 and Day 5: Rest Day & Llan Ffestiniog to Betsw-y-Coed (16.5 miles)

I had plugged in my powerbank to charge the night before and woke up in the morning to discover that the charging cable had decided to stop being operational. This was not great. I had managed to charge my phone completely, but I knew it would take the best part of the day to get to Betsw-y-Coed and whilst I was reasonably sure I would find a cable there, it seemed less clever to go trudging into one of the more remote sections of the trail with compromised communication.

As I pondered my options and raised my bag onto my back, my hip instantly complained. Alarmed, I walked up and down the corridor a bit, then outside and round the hostel itself. No, it wasn’t having any of it. I took the bag off and the pain settled.

Now, I don’t plan in rest days to my itinerary; preferring instead to give myself a shorter day in the middle somewhere figuring that a whole rest day isn’t normally something I need in only a week of walking. However, between the protesting hip and the now defunct cable, it seemed that a rest day might be a good idea.

Thankfully, the hostel owner said I could camp up outside that night so I gratefully left my bag in the drying room and took up an Irish bikepacker’s invitation to join him for breakfast. As we trundled back into Blaenau Ffestiniog he spoke like many of us that had lived alone throughout the lockdowns now tended to – cramming in all the words that we missed out on speaking in our enforced solitude. His sentences smashed into one another, non stop, as he jumped from tangent to tangent. I’m not sure how he managed to breathe, or how it was that he continued talking throughout wolfing down a full Welsh breakfast, but it was quite an impressive feat. He had clearly needed the company.

As the fog started lifting towards midday, he returned to the hostel to continue on on his bright magenta bike whilst I probed around the shops and thankfully found a new cable somewhere in the corner of a co-op. I stopped by the graveyard on the way back as the drizzle started; a quiet space on the edge of town looking back down over the greener valley, facing away from the walls of mountainous slate.

The day continued quietly. My power bank charged and I read in the living area before setting up my tent on the old golf course in the evening and preparing for a more active day tomorrow.

The next morning my hip seemed to have got itself together and I gathered my things for what I anticipated would be a gruelling day. I set off in the direction of Cwm Cynfal – a waterfall hidden in the forest. The nature reserve it sat in was a densely wooded ravine and formed part of the Meirionydd oakwoods, plushly forested with oaks and the odd push of a beech or silver birch and the reddening fruits of rowen trees. I could hear the tapping of a woodpecker as I made my way along the river path.

The Cwm Cynfal was a lovely small waterfall, like a sliver of a silvery secret amid all the trees. The path continued through the woods and up to the edge of a gorge path where it passed under a towering viaduct that had once supported a now disused railway.

I passed through overgrown pastures among the trees, the sheep scattered all about and the long ferns slid against my pack. I eventually rose higher up the valley and took a track by a farm that rose steeply upwards into open moorland.

The moors tumbled up and around me, concealing the Rhaeadr y Cwm waterfall behind banks and tussocks until it suddenly appeared with a roar, crashing down 350ft into deep crevice it had created.

For a region known for its mountains, much of the Snowdonian folklore centres around the water and the creatures that supposedly reside in it. From the Afanc to Mermaids to King Arthur’s Lady of the Lake. The Welsh version of the Kelpie, the Ceffyl Dŵr, inhabits the waterfalls of Snowdonia; a dark and foreboding waterhorse that entices lone travellers to ride him, whereupon he flies upwards and shapeshifts into mist, dropping them to their deaths.

Avoid the ponies. Got it.

There was a choice of paths out of the moors – the one of mud or the one of marsh. I started on the marsh track, regretted it, backtracked and headed instead on the muddy route. I gracelessly slipped and slopped my way to the lane above.

The footpath continued above the lane, but here I took a break. In my notes for my route that I had made prior to starting the trail, I have an entire page for this part that is just the word ‘bogs’ written repeatedly, occasionally underlined, often in capitals, trying to not let my future (now present) self underestimate the bogginess ahead. It was the section of the trail I had actually dreaded. Numerous reports spoke of how unrelenting and difficult it was; only a couple of miles that just ate up hours.

I glanced up the road. I was sure I could find a way around it if I really wanted to. Truth being told, I really wanted to. But I thought ahead to my plans for next month’s hike up in the Isle of Skye – I wouldn’t be able to escape the difficulties of the Trotternish Ridge quite so simply, and if I wanted to prove to myself that I remained up to the challenge, I was going to have to go through the bogs of Snowdonia first.

The Migneint Marshes are a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is a blanket bog covering 77 square miles of central Snowdonia – thankfully I was not required to cover all that. Bogs and marshes make up over 50% of it, while dry grassland barely 15%. I have spoken a few times here about the environmental relevance of blanket bog as both a carbon sink and as a habitat, and celebrated when new laws restricting bog burning were enacted a few months back. I stand by that, I just don’t want to be standing on it.

There were no paths, how could there be? I’m sure waymarks would have sunk or, at least, toppled even if they had been allowed in open country. Only a bearing and a rough descriptor of a supposed best route would take me across. It wasn’t long before I started sinking and sloshing, trying to find higher areas for relief to no avail. The heather was deep and equally as restrictive. As my boots filled over and over, roots of the mosses and the plants slipped around the toes and ankles of my shoes, willing me caught and further in.

An hour later and I had barely covered a mile. I could still see back to where I had entered the moor. Guides had happily informed me that these moors are home to a thriving population of various ground nesting birds and water voles and, if you look carefully, you’ll find bilberries and carniverous bog plants. I was interested in all of this last night, and I’d probably think it was cool again by evening, but I had no idea how I was meant to look out for voles and tiny plants when every ounce of energy was taken up trying not to sink.

It was an exhausting and completely demoralising trudge. I could not stop for a break or risk the drag of the earth further. Eventually, I allowed myself to stop at a point when it seemed safe and, to my despair, just instantly started sinking again down, down to my knees. The Swamp of Sadness from a Neverending Story plopped uselessly into my mind – the mire that rids those that try to travel through it of all joy, until they succomb to grief and simply allow themselves to be swallowed by the swamp. I was just standing and watching myself slowly sink like Artax, rain and mist now just my constant miserable companions.

I looked up for the first time, across the bleak nothingness. The deceiving grasses and bright heather waving, laughing across the pale horizon. I sighed and scanned round to my left. Not eight feet from me lay the bloated, half submerged carcass of a sheep. Dammit, anytime I had considered dying out on one of my adventures it was somewhere in the rough exposures of a mountaintop or crushed beneath a dramatic avalanche or flung into a raging sea by a extraordinary gale. It wasn’t sunk into the wet Welsh bogs next to an already dead sheep.

I heaved my one leg out the earth and then the other, scrambling slickly to stand again. I was covered in mud and completely soaked. I carried on. A while later the ‘path’ would join that of Sarn Elen, an old Roman Road, but my hopes that the word ‘road’ would mean a firmer ground were quashed. I mentally crossed Sarn Elen from the list of next year’s trails. June is now empty. Eventually I reached the crags and stumbled onto a drier track.

I sat heavily on the rocks and caught my breath. I opened my hipbag and took out my wet wipes to try and remove at least some of the copious mud that now stained my exposed arms and even my face. The panda on the packet giggled up at me under its declaration of the contents being environmentally friendly. I looked back at the marshy fields of absolute carnage and the stupid transluscent wet wipes in my hand and wanted to yell to some anthropomorphised version of the land that Look! I love you! I bought the expensive wet wipes because I love you! It has a cheeky panda on it and everything! Stop trying to kill me!

I went on, crossing lonely land that yesterday I might have described as ‘wet’ but now became a huge relief. I was shattered. I barely noticed the quarry I passed or the mining ruins. I was grateful to eventually pass through slate tips – even uneven ground was better than bogs. I absolutely crawled the last while to Penmancho – up into the forest tracks and gratefully down the biking trail. Once in the village, I bought a pint of milk and downed it at the bus stop.

Rhiwbach Quarry School

In 1909 Blaenau teacher Kate Griffiths established the proper schooling of the 23 children of the workers at Rhiwbach Quarry, taking on the teaching herself and travelling each day to and from her home. Prior to this, many of the children would simply not go to school as the nearest one was many difficult miles away and already overcrowded.

The journey there involved a trip up three quarry inclines in a slate wagon and a further three miles walk. For the journey back she would climb to the highest point of the quarry and descend the 1300ft on a handmade skateboard with a brake. This method of transport, known as a car gwyllt (wild car) was illegal, but I think it’s fair to say no one was willing to try and stop the dedicated headmistress.

I don’t really remember much of the next couple miles to Betsw-y-Coed. I was plodding slowly, just putting one foot in front of the other, and actually grateful for long stretches of road walking. From Conwy I joined a sedate straight footpath through the woods almost directly to deposit me on Betsw-y-Coed high street.

Despite the town’s huge and impressive array of outdoor sports stores, it definitely appeared that I was the only hiker about. At least the only person in hiking boots that actually looked like they’d been hiking, and what an extreme I appeared to be. Plastered in mud, soaked through and completely stinking. I was absolutely ravenous.

Thankfully the polite waiter at the restaurant I arrived at made no comments to my appearance and discretely placed me on the far side of the outdoor seating, far away from the good clean patrons. I absolutely demolished a fish supper, then got up and went to find ice cream. The child behind me in the line shouted to her embarrassed mother “Pooey! What IS that smell?!” It didn’t matter; I was long past the point of feeling shame.

With my last reserves for the day, I hauled myself up to find my camping spot for the evening. I had circled a lake up above the town, accessed by a steep kilometre’s walk, reasoning that with the incline and the rain it would be far less likely that I would be bothered by many people out for a casual evening stroll. I eventually lumbered up it and started to circle the lake, eventually coming to a small piece of flattish shore right by the water, obscured from the paths by a bank of shrubs and bushes.

Traditional Food of Snowdonia

For most of its history, life in Snowdonia was dominated by farming and often lengthy periods where family members stayed away from home to work, whether that was to move their animals between hilltop and valley ot going down the quarries as a miner. This meant meals were often community centred rather than household centred, with a central large stew that everyone contributed to. This was probably the very early origins of Cawl, a simple meat and vegetable soup.

Vegetables are hard to grow up in the mountains, which meant the sturdy leek that grew plentifully is found in many recipes. It is therefore now a national symbol of the country and has been for at least four hundred years.

Welsh poverty was often mocked in England. The development of the Welsh Rarebit, originally ‘Rabbit, was a comment on the Welsh being so poor that they would use cheese instead of meat.

The spiced, dense fruitloaf of Bara Brith is thought to have originally been made from the last piece of dough of the day to be baked – the now drying dough plumped up with fruit and spices and cooked slowly on the dying embers of the fire

I could hear two men diagonal across the water to my left. I could not see them, but a squint made out the outline of their tents. A couple passed by me on a way to find their own spot and I pointed out a similar piece of bank on the other diagonal. Before they headed off, we cracked open the last of our snackpacks together – I still had a small handful of funsize chocolate remaining and they had half a pack of hobnobs and some jerky. The two of them had climbed Snowdon today; it was the girl’s first proper outdoor excursion and she was clearly drained and overwhelmed.

“How do you do it on your own?” She asked

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you get scared?”

“I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to eat me.”

“My housemate told me a ghost story that keeps going on in my mind now. She’s from Bedfordshire and they have a local legend of the Lamp Men that attract lost hikers with their lights and then finish them. But you also shouldn’t use and torch or anything because that’ll alert them to your presence and they’ll close in; if you do and you see a light then drop yours and run. And don’t whistle. Never whistle after dark.”

“But it won’t eat me right?”

“Nah, it’ll just suffocate you”

They continued on to their spot. After I raised my tent, I plodded down to the water’s edge and scrubbed myself as best I could. My aching feet and knees crying in relief on being submerged, the rain let up and I was granted a beautiful sunset as I read my book outside. Eventually I climbed into my tent and my bag and settled in to continue reading, reached for my headlight, hesitated, thought better of it, and just decided to try for an early sleep instead.

  • Distance: 16.5 miles
  • Total Elevation: 1970ft
  • Terrain: Brief, steep ascents an descents, forest track, riverside paths, open moorland, marsh and bogs
  • Toughness: 9/10
  • Maps Used: OS Explorer Map OL17 Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa, Conwy Valley/Dyffryn Conwy & OS Explorer OL18 Harlech, Porthmadog & Bala / Y Bala

5 thoughts on “Snowdonia Slate Trail, Day 4 and Day 5: Rest Day & Llan Ffestiniog to Betsw-y-Coed (16.5 miles)

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