The night before is near sleepless for a couple of reasons. Firstly the pillow beneath my head was uncomfortable thanks to it having feather quills sticking out of it- I eventually solved this problem at 3:00 AM by covering it with a sweater and sleeping on that. Secondly, my head is swimming with thoughts of the future and what I might do and where I might be going with my life. I know I have to move on, away from ‘hell’ and the idea to return to Bangor full time is exceedingly tempting. But sleep I do, eventually, and thank goodness as for the day ahead I will need all of it. For I am going to climb… A mountain!!!!
But which? There are so many round here to choose from. There is the mighty Yr Wyddfa but I’ve been up there before, many moons ago when I first came to Bangor- It was the first mountain I climbed actually. I want something new this time around. And besides, almost everybody who comes to these parts climbs it, often shrieking that they must do so, as if it is something special. Actually, so many people climb it or travel to the top by the train that it is no longer anything of the sort. It’s worth climbing for the sake of climbing, as is any mountain, but these days there is little glory there. There is no honour. So many people have climbed the mountain before you that anyone who does so now just becomes the latest in a long line. Bagging the highest peak in Wales isn’t really that big of a deal anymore. In my opinion it should hardly be considered as a mountain and more a tourist attraction.
I want something quieter, more serene, and my mind fixates on the most northerly of all the Snowdonian mountain ranges- The Carneddau. Few people ever go up there and you can walk for miles and miles without seeing another climber or wandering tourist. The peaks are high and the ridges and plains between them run on for miles and miles, interrupted by absolutely nothing. It is a range blanketed by the overwhelming sound of silence- There are wild horses up here and the sense of isolation fills up the soul. Whilst some snobby types and guidebooks will say they are without spectacle and thus not worth bothering with I would seriously disagree. Sure they aren’t as rugged as the other Snowdonian mountains but they aren’t without their ‘spectacle;’ without towering cliffs or jagged abutments. This range just tends to hold all that sort of stuff back and instead of just throwing them all at you it offers them in ‘moments.’ You can climb to the top of a ridge, seeing little of any interest, and then all of a sudden you’re faced with something amazing like a sheer drop or a high rock formation or valley or something of that nature. But the ‘spectacle’ isn’t really the point of these mountains. Their charm actually lies in their wildness and their isolation. The beauty is in the emptiness and, for me at least, there are angels in the architecture of these mountains.
But I’m still left with a choice of which mountain to climb and I can’t fully decide which. After waking up I scan my trusty travelling companion to these parts, an OS map which I bought when I was sixteen- Which means that my travelling companion is nine years old (though it can hardly be considered the child of my first marriage 😉 ) I’m tempted by Carnedd Llewellyn, having never successfully reached the summit, but my eye drifts further south to Pen Yr Ole Wen, a mountain which I have been thinking about climbing for a while. The view from the top, I consider, should be an interesting one- I should see Llyn Ogwen, Llyn Idwal, Nant Ffrancon (where Doctor Who was once filmed back in the sixties) and most of the Glyders, including Tryfan… And perhaps, if the weather is right, the heart of my literary universe- Cythry. I also theorise that I could just go to Cythry, or the spot where it should be, but it would be a long trek. The busses don’t run that far down Dyffryn Ogwen all that often- There were only three a day at my last check. And besides, that isn’t climbing a mountain. That’s called walking up a road. I was told, on my first visit to the Carneddau, a field trip to look at some prehistoric remains which ended up as a rain soaked scramble in search a sheep fold, that there is a mountain which looks easy to climb but is actually super dangerous, which I am intrigued by, but I can’t remember which it is… And that might be one of the Glyders anyway. I seriously think about Ole Wen as I scan my travelling companion but then my eye is caught by another, Foel Fras, to the north. It looks simple to get to… There’s a direct path up from Llanfairfechan, passing across an old roman road, and then straight up the mountain of Drum (pronounced Drim) and along the ridge to the summit. And if there’s time I might consider following the ridge all the way to Llewellyn or maybe, more likely, Bethesda.
There is another route I could take… From the village of Abergwyngregyn (Aber)… But I decide that I will instead take the path from Llanfairfechan. It is a place reasonably new to me as I have only ever passed through it in a train and a car, I have never stopped and getting the bus there will give me a chance to look about a bit. I thus leave my room at the inn quite early on, what a nice day it is, and head for the supermarket to buy supplies. Rather insanely I go all the way across the city to Morrisons when there is actually an M&S right next to the bus station. I pass by the usual offers scattered around the entrance- Today they’re selling fresh herbs; parsley, sage, rosemary and… oregano- and I buy a healthy sandwich (Egg Mayo) and a couple of bottles of water to get me through the day. Then it is all the way back across the city and down a very steep hill to the bus station, opposite that M&S. It takes me an absurdly long time to locate the stand I need and for a moment I am once again tempted to climb Ole Wen by the sight of an approaching bus to Bethesda. But I do not give in and I find that bus to Llanfairfechan, which also passes through Aber, and in hindsight maybe I should have got off there instead.
At the start of my third year of university I spent a couple of weeks volunteering on an archaeological dig in Aber- On the site of a royal Llys (an administrative building.) It was connected to my dissertation but three days before I was due to finish I was required to change my dissertation entirely, abandoning all the work I had already done over the summer and I needed those three days to get as much of that work redone as I possibly could. I have only been back once since then. It was on another trip into the Carneddau and I was going to climb Llewellyn but the wind on top of the ridges was so strong that I diverted into a valley and followed that all the way to Aber Falls, above the village. There I made a perilous descent down the side of the falls, finding myself at the top of a scree slope with no chance of going back the way I came. I gradually slid myself down this slope and then walked from the falls to the village and then all the way back home to Bangor along the country lanes between.
So instead of going to Aber I get off somewhere I’ve never been for the sheer thrill of it. The centre of Llanfairfechan is dominated by a main road and lots of traffic. Spreading off from the main road are rows and rows of houses and somewhere to the north is the sea. With my bag across my back I head off in the direction which I think is the path I need to take to get into the mountains- I’m looking for the North Wales coastal path at this point. There are signs for it so I have no need to pull out the travelling companion just yet. I follow them for a while, through the town which seems pleasant enough but looks a bit like it has seen better days. I keep an eye out for more signs. At one point I find myself crossing a bridge over some not so troubled waters and then I’m looking around for another sign. I see one and go to it, start examining it… There’s nothing on it and the way it points isn’t exactly clear. But as I’m staring at it, trying to work out which way to go, I find myself accosted by an old lady, who probably went by the name of Cecilia.
‘Are you looking for the path deary?’ she croaks in an Irish accent… Ok, I added the ‘deary’ bit myself but it was insinuated. I respond that I am indeed looking for the North Wales path so Cecilia points down a road. ‘Just follow this road all the way to the end and you’ll find it.’
Thinking that she’s being helpful and having no reason to doubt her I follow the road, always keeping an eye out for anymore signs. I start to get a bit worried when I don’t see any but there are no turn offs from what I can see and I at least appear to be going in the right direction. It’s a darn long road as it turns out, one that takes me back across the not so troubled waters, and I start to wonder if this is indeed the right way. But I keep going and at last I come to the end of and find myself by a gateway into a deep, tangled forest full of high banks and roots and streams… A sort of fantasy forest but not quite at that level… Though when I find it on the map now it looks far smaller than it felt at the time. Also, looking at the map, I can see the way I should have gone… Cecilia gone done give me faulty directions. What she should have done was pointed me down another road entirely or told me there was an unsignposted and near insignificant, practically invisible turn off half way down the road she did send me down. She didn’t do either and instead sent me to somewhere that is nowhere near where I actually need to go.
Oh Cecilia… You’ve broken my heart. I trusted you and you sent me to this accursed forest… There you were, this kindly old lady and I had no reason to doubt you or check my map and you sent me here… And it is nowhere near close to being an actual route into the mountains. But it is going in the right direction, towards the mountains and at this point I still have little reason to doubt Cecilia’s word. But after meandering through this forest and once again crossing over the not so troubled waters (by way of stepping stones this time) I find myself emerging on another road, this time heading down to a farm. This is where I know that Cecilia has definitely guided me wrong… I should be going right up into the mountains by this point, not heading down a road to a farm. But I don’t check the map yet… I just think that maybe she sent me wrong by only a short distance. I think that I can’t be that far off and this road is going the right way so I assume that if I follow it to the end it will take me where I need to go.
I get some good signs at the end… There’s a path and it looks to be going upwards so I follow it. But after five minutes I find an obstacle in my path: A field full of sheep. Now I’m concerned. This shouldn’t be here so I finally check the map and (cue lots of expletives) I am way off course. I should be about half a mile across the map from where I currently am. Judging by where I am it looks like would take longer to go back the way I came than it would to go on and cut across the landscape… So I skirt the field full of sheep, following a track and I start to think things aren’t so bad. I’m getting into the mountains after all. I’ll just be a little delayed.
And then the path stops. I find myself surrounded by sheep, lots of them, all with bright eyes, burning like fire and staring at me, and there is nothing beneath my feet but a deep carpet of gorse and heather. I really have gone too far to turn back now and the only way is forwards through the heather (and at one stage jumping over a very high dry stone wall.) I know that the roman road is marked by electricity pylons and when I start to see them in the distance I make straight for them, although they’re still a fair way over from where I am. Eventually, after two hours of spinning in infinity through the heather I reach the roman road and it is a glorious moment, so glorious I need to sit down and have a photo opportunity. Then, my photographs taken, it is a case of following this ancient road to where it hits Drum.
Unfortunately, thanks to Cecilia and my trawl through the heather time is now slip slidin’ away- I’ve only got the one day to climb this mountain and I need to be making my way back down by mid afternoon, back in Bangor by early evening at the latest. I don’t want to be caught in the mountains after five if you get my drift- The mountains are dangerous in the fading light and that’s when accidents and tragedies happen. But I’m relieved to reach Drum and I climb it with gusto, at first. What surprises me is the amount of people up here… Nobody ever comes into the Carneddau and yet I come across a ridiculous number… SEVEN! SEVEN AND TWO DOGS! One man even stops to talk… We do the British thing and talk about the weather, at a beautiful spot overlooking Llyn Anafon, the most northern of the Carneddau lakes according to Wikipedia- Its starkness and its bare wildness is its beauty. I’m more interested in that than I am in the conversation actually… And I don’t particularly want to talk because I don’t have all day. I’m already thinking that I might not make it to the top of Foel Fras and there’s still a fair way to the top of Drum yet.
I get away and battle on and thankfully nobody else tries to talk to me. There’s a high ridge to the side of the path but near the top this drops away to reveal one of those Carneddau ‘moments’ I described earlier- Dyffryn Conwy… The valley of the river Conwy, the moorlands stretching down the side of the mountains towards a patchwork of fields, small villages and in the distance some larger settlements. The river cuts through the middle and although the weather has become a bit gymylog (cloudy) it still shines… It’s shining like a national guitar! If this view isn’t worth the climb up then what is? And when I reach the top there is another view- Foel Fras. And ooooh shit! It looks high. It’s looks too high to climb and get all the way back down to Llanfairfechen in what is left of the afternoon. Plus I have to find the right track back into town and the two hour trawl through the heather has started to set my knees off. They are literally screaming that if I climb that mountain right now then come tommorow morning I’ll be unable to walk for the next two weeks. I so want to climb that mountain, I can see the rest of the Carneddau rising beside it; the top of the crags of Dulyn, Llewellyn in the distance… Wonders are waiting up that steep track, up that mountain, but today they are not for me to see. They’ll have to wait till I come back again.
On my way down my legs really start to ache and I begin to know for certain that had I headed up Foel Fras I’d have ended up crawling back to Llanfairfechan. I wouldn’t have got there till after dark and all the busses would have stopped running and then I’d have had to somehow get the number for a local taxi firm in order to get back to Bangor… So it’s kind of lucky I didn’t. Half way down I’m cursing Cecilia for sending me in the wrong direction and I’m starting to pity myself, feeling like I can’t get back to Llanfairfechan. But then I find the solution after all these years- Music! For some reason I decide to pull my iPod from my pocket and as soon as I’ve got the earphones in and the music is playing the pain eases… Not spectatcularly but enough that I can ignore it for now. By the time I’ve reached the bottom of Drum I’m almost dancing and at one point I start singing in the direction of a sheep. It looks at this poet and one man band as though he is absolutely mad. But I don’t care… Thanks to the music I make it back to Llanfairfechan, a bit tired and with sore but not entirely troublesome knees but in one piece. I’ve learned something though: Next time you want to climb the Carneddau from the northern side do it from Aber so there’s no chance of spending two hours in Heather. And never take directions from old ladies either.