The tractor driver was totally oblivious to the increasing number of cars building up behind him. On and on he went, down twisty country roads and through villages. There are worse places to be stuck behind a tractor than the Tanat valley, a land of lush green hills. Fiona was at the helm of the vehicle and showed remarkable patience at driving at 15 mph for what seemed to be an eternity. I had been invited to stay at a cottage belonging to friends of Fiona and Pete whilst the owners were away on holiday. A more idyllic place I cannot imagine, a beautiful Welsh cottage surrounded by barns, chickens and a large veg patch. Each evening I kept expecting Hugh Fearnley Shittingstall to walk into the kitchen clutching all manner of greenery and start cooking on the Rayburn.
Living up in Glasgow the Welsh mountains have not been fully explored by Pete and Fiona. I therefore offered to guide them around what I consider to be one of the best ranges, the Moelwyns. We set off from the Tanat valley in pleasant sunny weather, but things turned for the worse as we crossed the high road over the Migneint. The Moelwyns were hidden under a dark mantle of cloud, the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog looking grey and brooding. Pete managed to spend an hour or so on the backseat with two dogs that were determined to sit on his lap, preferably at the same time! A place was found to leave the car at the top of an exceptionally steep road above Tanygrisiau, in a landscape dominated by massive disused slate mines
7.5 miles with 920 metres ascent
Within minutes of leaving the car we were in the mountains, an old track taking us into Cwmorthin. Here past industry has not been kind to the landscape, slate mines disappearing into the clouds on both sides. However there is a grandeur to the place, there is no mistaking that you are in Wales. Dougal the nine month old chocolate lab found an old quarry pool to dive into, Reuben watching him from the safety of the bank wondering what he was doing. Approaching the shore of Llyn Cwmorthin a couple of off-road motorbikes noisily made their way up one of the old quarries, adding an element of menace to the broody air. Peace was soon restored and we contemplated the lovely reed lined lake, eyeing up a couple of buildings that would make a superb weekend retreat.
The track lead us easily towards the head of the valley which was hidden by low clouds. The fence alongside was made up of large slabs of slate, looking a bit like gravestones. A great use of the plentiful local resources.
The track continued into the clouds into a darker more sombre world, views coming and going as mist swirled around us. The higher we got the more of an impact the slate mines had on the landscape.
The old barracks of the Rhosydd quarry were quickly reached. For some reason not clear even in my own mind, this is one of my favourite spots in these mountains. I can remember descending from the hills to the north several years ago, finally dropping out of low cloud that had plagued my day making navigation difficult. The scene in front of me was eerie to say the least, cloud just drifting above the tops of the ruined buildings. It was like something out of a film set, I could almost imagine dark figures peering through dark frameless windows, shuffling out of view.
Back to the present, we found a spot out of the wind for a bite to eat, each of us regretting not bringing a flask of coffee. The only two walkers we were to see all day appeared through the mist like Gore-tex clad ghosts, before quickly disappearing. The surrounding hills were reluctant to show themselves and I was beginning to feel a bit apprehensive about the next bit of the route. These hills can be tough when you cannot see where you are going. I did not want the embarrassment of getting ‘temporarily misplaced’ with other people in tow.
Indeed I did fail to locate the exact line of the right of way as we headed away from the shells of the buildings, they look just as eerie from above. I don’t think that I could wild camp on my own in this area.
The narrow path was soon located further uphill and we followed it past Llyn Croesor as it weaved its way amongst small boggy knolls.
I was relieved to reach the disused Croesor quarry as I had done the following section of the route before. The cloud was beginning to lift a bit now and we began to get glimpses across the deep valley of Cwm Croesor towards Cnicht, the Welsh Matterhorn. From this angle it is simply a large wedge, craggy slopes falling steeply into the valley below.
A drystone wall was to be our guide for a while as we contoured pathless slopes to reach the western ridge of Moelwyn Mawr, still firmly hidden in the clouds. Crossing its shoulder an old mine track is reached, contouring around the side of the hill. This gives a simply lovely promenade, the grassy track is completely level, giving the easiest walking of the day. Every now and then we were treated to glimpses towards the coast far below.
Sadly the track soon came to an end when we reached another disused quarry, there appeared to be no way ahead. Reuben decided it was the right moment to give Fiona some Reuben love.
A bit of scrambling up through piles of shifting slate and we located another narrower track contouring the steep hillside. This is the sort of walking that I love.
Moelwyn Bach was now looming above us, rather than do a there and back using the path up its rocky nose we contoured a bit to climb its grassy southern slopes. Craigysgafn briefly revealed itself, giving us an idea of the route still to come.
On the summit of Moelwyn Bach the mist played games with my perception as we reached the cairn. A spot a hundred or so metres away looked higher so we duly walked over to it, when we reached it and looked back it was clear that we had walked downhill. We passed the same hikers spotted earlier as we made our way down the steep path to Bwlch Stwlan. Craigysgafn gives a good rocky climb up its ridge with excellent views, not this time however. A large boulder gave shelter for some food for the humans whilst the dogs looked on with hungry eyes.
Reaching the trig point on Moelwyn Mawr, the highest point in these range of hills Reuben was ‘encouraged’ to do his usual pose. It took a bit of persuading this time, he has now got wise to my intentions. Dougal was briefly subjected to the same humiliation before we headed off on a compass bearing to locate the right ridge.
I love it when you suddenly drop below the cloud line, colour coming back into vision after a while surrounded by grey. In front of us was a high plateau with the Rhosydd quarries in the distance. This area is dominated by two massive holes carved into the moorland, a place of danger to be avoided on this walk (they are well worth a peek into if you are into big holes).
We followed a narrow path along the edge of the mountains, getting fleeting glimpses of Blaenau Ffestiniog far below. The drifting clouds really adding some drama and perspective to this part of the walk making us feel much higher up than we really were.
The footpath back to the car was found and then lost (I alway loose this path) but we happily drifted north to Llyn-y-Wrysgan and then another large disused quarry. It was here that we heard voices coming out of a passage carved into the hillside. Going to investigate we soon found ourselves in a large chamber filled with a couple of groups of people. It was hard to make out exactly what was going on but it appeared that everyone had a can of beer in their hands, had we stumbled into the local party cave? Reuben went off into the darkness to make friends, whilst Dougal barked at the shifting shapes.
We had now well and truly lost the planned route down so continued working our way through the various inclines, until suddenly we came to the edge.
Instead of backtracking we gingerly made our way down what we initially through was a path through the spoil heaps. It wasn’t and we ended up on slowly shifting lumps of slate before quickly exiting onto rough hillside to pick up our outward route.
Although we had walked less than eight miles, all of us felt like we had done a big mountain day when we got back to the car. A great day in the hills.