NOTE: This piece is also available in A Journal of Nearby Places (Available from Amazon) and as an audio recording on YouTube (Under the MORFAVERSE channel)
I find myself dreaming of my favourite mountains again, those mountains which seem so near and yet so far away as to be almost unreachable- The Carneddau, the vast expanse of high ground at the northern end of Snowdonia. A lot of people dismiss them as unexciting, not worth bothering with. From the outside they can look that way, particularly from the coast road where they look little more than gentle hillocks. The thing is, you can’t know until you’ve spent a day roaming the high plains and running with the wild horses how beautiful they are. Up there you are alone, lost in the wilderness but only ever a few short miles from civilisation. Just look into my eyes and you’ll see what this place means to me- It means a lot. There’ll always be a special place in my heart for them. Those mountains are calling to me now and I can’t help but recall a long ago lost life, a life beyond a thick and foggy curtain of rain, and a time when I first found myself scrambling up damp, grassy escarpments on my hands and knees, falling hopelessly in love with this demi-paradise.
INTO THE MISTY MOUNTAINS
A Carneddau adventure in which five students and a lecturer go looking for a sheepfold
I had a map of this corner of Wales already and even before I came to live here I would scan it and look at all the places I would like to visit- Blaenau and Caernarfon and Llanberis- and think of all the things I could do like climb Snowdon or gaze upon Pitt’s Head, the British equivalent of Mount Rushmore (actually, don’t bother with that one. It’s a lump of rock by the side of the road and looks nothing like Pitt the Younger, as it is supposed to.) My eye would always go to a spot near the centre crease and a lake by the name of Llyn Dulyn, meaning ‘Lake Black Lake’ in English. It was quite literally in the middle of nowhere but I was determined to get there somehow. I did not know it then but the two times I would get closest the first time it would be shrouded by mist and rain and the second time it would be blocked by a rocky abutment and I wouldn’t have time to go further.
Nearby was the third highest (or second, if you want to go by relative prominence) peak in Wales, Carnedd Llewelyn. On my first full weekend in Wales I would sign up for a trek to the peak of Snowdon and, enjoying it so much, I afterwards began to scan the map looking for more mountains to climb. Llewelyn looked like a challenge. It was a long way from the nearest road and so, so tempting. I already had my eye on doing something about pre-conquest Wales for my undergraduate dissertation and thought that I could somehow get the mountain and its little brother Daffyd involved. I could use it as an excuse to climb them. However, I eventually decided that Llewelyn was too much of a challenge and put the idea of climbing it to one side. In the months that followed I didn’t pay much heed to the rest of the Carneddau, though I passed by them on a number of occasions. There were too many other places to explore. I fell for the trap that everybody falls into, the trap of thinking everywhere else is more interesting.
And so to almost end of my second year, just after Easter (or maybe just before.) I’ve been having a tough time of things of late… I’ve very nearly given up several times and the history themed radio show I’ve been doing for eighteen months is either already toast or about to be. I’ve recently made my biggest mistake and just over a year from now it will (along with help from a dissertation disaster) cost me an entire degree level. There have been good times as well and pretty soon I’ll be enjoying a summer that will seem to last forever, one final summer before everything falls down around my ears. As it stands, that is all to come and, tired and worn out as I am, there is still the year to finish. I can safely say now that there is one module that, having already done the final essay, I’m not going to go back to but the other two, a heritage module and an archaeology module, I’ll stick with because I’m enjoying them.
The good thing about my university was that for most of the non-history modules the lecturers would organise a trip somewhere. Sometimes it was a magical mystery tour of archaeological sites or down an old mine full of waxworks or, in one case, to an empty field- a literal field trip! For the archaeology module this year the lecturer, Gary, has been promising a trip since Christmas. Gary is a brilliant lecturer, an acknowledged expert in his field, but his organisational skills aren’t exactly up to the same standard. Weeks and weeks have gone by and we still don’t even know where this trip is going to be but knowing Gary it will be somewhere prehistoric. Finally, near the end of term, he announces that he’s finally sorted something but gives precious little away. The only thing we’re told is that we need suitable footwear for a hike. Time to get the old walking boots out then!
By the day of the trip most people are either revising for exams or have gone home (which makes me think it was before Easter) others can’t come because they’re leaving on the early train. So there are only about five of us who end up gathering in the car park outside the main university building. The day is not a good one. It is cloudy, overcast and it is probably going to heave it down later on. There are already fairly large drops falling from the sky and for the middle of spring it is phenomenally cold. Gary ambles out of the entrance, looks up into the sky and then declares that he’ll drive us all out towards Rachub and so long as there isn’t cloud obscuring the top he’ll show us the cairns on top of Moel Faban and a few other bits and pieces. Despite pouring over my map for over two years I have no idea where either of these places are.
It turns out they’ve been right under my nose the entire time for as Gary drives the minibus down the old country lanes I realise we’re headed towards Bethesda and all the signs for Rachub are pointing north. I know that there aren’t many roads going north. Thanks to the lie of the mountains the only direction a road can take for any significant distance is straight east, towards the sunrise. Having never before heard of this Rachub place I start to wonder how far it is… And before I know it we’re there. Turns out it is just before Bethesda. It is a village so small you have to squint to be able to see it on the map.
An old myth reckons that the name of Rachub comes from ‘Yr Achub,’ meaning safe place. Supposedly this was the place locals would come and hide during times of attack. It isn’t true, just to put that one out there, and the name probably means no more than ‘bit of land.’ Not that you can see much land at the moment because it’s all a bit grey and yickety, though the tops of the mountains can be seen. It could be getting better actually. Rachub is little more than an outer suburb of Bethesda these days, though it does have its own post office which is more than can be said for most modern villages.
Gary parks the minibus on a more or less empty stretch of road, a few cars about, nothing more, and then we trudge up the road and down a track which leads to a scrubby old farm. The ground looks well sodden and the surrounding area not somewhere I want to hang around. It looks like the kind of place where you might get shot just for passing through. It’s actually really common for this end of the Carneddau… I don’t mean getting shot at, I mean having to pass through farms to get into the mountains. The other end not so much. There you can just walk in straight off the road. In my inexperienced mind, however, I don’t expect this and I get a bit uneasy, thinking that some angry Welsh farmer is going to come along and say ‘Oy… What are ‘ee doin’ ‘ere? Ger’ off moi lond!’ I wouldn’t trust Gary to deal with that situation to tell you the truth. Like I said… Brilliant lecturer… But completely disorganised and probably not the person you want in charge when an angry farmer comes your way. Judging by the state of this place I’ll bet the farmer is a particularly trigger happy sort.
According to the map this is a public right of way so if Mr Angry Farmer does come and shoot us (and if he does I’m using Gary as a human shield) he actually doesn’t have a leg to stand on as we aren’t trespassing. Now that I look again I see there’s a medieval settlement here and a vague memory resurfaces of Gary stopping us to give a mini lecture about the settlement, making my fear of ending up on the front page of the North Wales Post even worse. After an uncomfortable period we move off and start up Moel Faban.
Moel Faban isn’t even a mountain. It’s a hill, a small bump at the point where the high land trickles down to the low lying pasture. At 1341 feet it isn’t the smallest bump in this range (homage to Mynydd Y Dref at only 800ft) but it is nothing when you think that a short distance away are the third, fourth and seventh highest mountains in Wales. In fact a total of seven of the fifteen highest mountains in Wales (the 3000s) are in this region. Don’t, however, allow Moel Faban’s minority to be off putting. Every hill is worth climbing, if only to see what you can see, and here you’re sandwiched between two worlds- The world of the Carneddau, a lonely wilderness like no other; And the world of pastureland and of towns and villages and country lanes that race away to the Menai and the sea. What’s not to like?
Halfway up Gary again stops us to point out some of the sights. The weather has lifted enough for us to be able to see quite far. He points to various mountains, gives us a potted history of Bethesda, the slate quarry and a few other things. He then points to one particular mountain, the trouble is that I can’t remember which one.
‘People think it looks easy,’ he says, ‘so a lot of people go up there unprepared and get into trouble.’ He makes it sound like a mountain of death. I want to go up it… Every mountain is worth climbing, one with a dodgy reputation even more so. I have to get to the top. You can’t tell me it’s not worth dying for! Alright, it probably isn’t worth dying for but it would still be cool to climb, if only I could remember which mountain it was. I have a feeling it was Mynydd Perfedd but could be wrong. Mynydd Perfedd certainly rings a bell for some reason.
Further up and it looks as though the hill has recently been the subject of a burning. Large sections of the land have been blackened and charred, devastated. It looks dead, apocalyptic. There’s a simple explanation for this, as there is for most things, and it isn’t that a bunch of Bethesdan barbarians have come along and set fire to the hill for the fun of it. It’s heathland conservation, burning away some of the old heather to encourage new growth and biodiversity. It’s been going on for thousands of years. The prehistoric people whose remains litter this range were the ones who probably started it, initially clearing away all the woodland which must have once covered the lower slopes to make way for farm and pastureland. The sad part is that it was probably this clearance which eventually rendered the uplands uninhabitable apart from for a flock of wild horses and some sheep.
At the top of Moel Faban are three Bronze Age cairns and Gary drops another mini lecture on why they’re here and the people who built them. I’m listening but all the time I’m wondering which is the way to Dulyn and which of the many mountains in the distance is Llewelyn, the places which my eye has so often fallen upon whilst striding the map. As we set off into a valley to look at another bit of archaeology I wonder how far in we’ll go, wonder if we’ll reach Dulyn. From where we are there is no chance, not today anyway, and with the weather the way it is I would now (today) say that going in that deep wouldn’t be safe. Reaching the lake would be against all odds. These days I’d actually think twice about going up there in that weather at all- The mountains are about to show their true colours and it’s going to rain down. You can literally feel it coming in the air.
Before I know it I’m on my knees and scrambling up a grassy hillside with rain blasting in my face. I start to shiver, can’t control the quivering inside. I can’t see a thing, whatever view there was of the distant mountains has disappeared. My strength is almost gone. I really don’t like rain and usually do everything I can to avoid going outside in it. This is like hell. At the peak Gary points to a sheer cliff face, a mountain that looks impossible to climb, Drosgl. He mentions that there’s a massive cairn at the top. I worry that he’s going to make us climb up there but no, I’ll just have to wait for that one- I will see it, but not until a future expedition- I will also find that it’s not as difficult to get to the top as I think it will be. Instead Gary has another bright idea… He’s going to show us a sheepfold! In his defence he knows this sounds utterly demented and in this weather, it is getting worse, looking for a sheepfold sounds like the worst thing in the world. That is why he tells us that this sheepfold is a truly spectacular sheepfold and like no other sheepfold we’ve ever seen. I really want to take his word for it and just go home but my curiosity is tugging at my sleeve, wanting to see how spectacular it really is. It could be the greatest sheepfold in the world or it could be another Pitt’s head, a bunch of stones scattered about the countryside and nothing like it is supposed to be. So off we trot.
More scrambling, more rain, more unpleasantness. It’s actually now becoming fun. There’s something exhilarating about this, something about being lost in this wilderness in the thick, heavy rain… I don’t hate it anymore. It feels like we’re in deep now, but we’re not. We’ve only come just over a single mile into an area that has two hundred squares of them. Then we reach Gyrn and below us…
Gary wasn’t exaggerating when he said this sheepfold was spectacular. It’s like a little village spread out at the base of the slope, a kind of Skara Brae in the middle of Wales. I love it. This makes all the rain and the scrambling up slopes and the thick, now impenetrable mist worth it. I’d have been happy if the trip had just been for this. Forget looking at cairns and Bronze Age remains and bits of settlement that you can hardly see. This is what it’s all about- Sheepfolds, good looking ones that resemble villages.
I don’t want this to end now. I want to go on… Deeper. More sheepfolds… Is there anything else this spectacular in there? I wanna see… Not today my friend! This weather is getting worse so we head back to civilisation. Half way there Gary stops again to make a point about where there’s a settlement, marked by a white stone on a pillar which is mentioned in some fifty year old guidebook. Then, all of a sudden, we’re back at the farm and back in Rachub where the rain and the mists have decided to stay behind in the mountains. It acts now like a curtain, a veil dividing the real world from a magnificent wilderness.
I don’t think anybody else on the trip was quite so taken by those mountains as I was. Maybe it was because I had already spent an age staring at the map and was already falling for them anyway. Or maybe the mountains chose me, chose me to be their champion… Or maybe we’re getting a bit silly. I’d come back, not long after. I’d go right to the other end, which is a very different kind of landscape to this one. I’d explore this part more, I’d get to know this fantastic world where few ever roam. I’d set out for Dulyn and to climb Llewelyn, though I’d never get to either. I’d almost freeze at the top of Foel Grach. I’d see Aber Falls from on high as I made my way down a scree slope on my rear end. Those were the best days of my life.
In time the Carneddau would become my fantasy playground, a place I’d pay homage too in my work, and I’d eventually decide that what they really needed was some Walter Scott style romanticism. Subconsciously a lot of elements of this trip would make their way into the attempt- The burns on Moel Faban, the driving rain, the mist, even the sheepfold that looked a bit like an abandoned village. It was only recently that I actually worked out that what I ended up with wasn’t Walter Scott style romanticism at all. It was a bleeding Western!