Tired of the noises and the dirt and the slime of civilisation, for a long time now I’ve been seeking somewhere I can retreat to. The answer as to where I can retreat to is obvious, those mountains to the west of me, in the far north of Wales, between Ogwen and the sea… The Carneddau. There’s no mountain range I love more. Don’t worry. This isn’t another pining for home essay sort of thing… But it came about because I was and am pining right now. Those mountains, I know for a fact, are solitude and peace and serenity. That is actually what I need right now. I actually thought about running away to them, living out there as a hermit, living off the land. This was a foolish idea because I wouldn’t even last three days. I don’t know the first thing about living off the land. I can’t trap, I can’t hunt, I can’t fish. I’ve no idea what plants are safe to eat and what aren’t. In short, Bear Grylls I am not.
This is all thanks to the fact that I live in an urbanised society and have grown up amongst cars and concrete instead of flowers and nature. Despite half-hearted attempts at being taught about nature in school, attemps which amounted to ‘look… That plant. Give plant water… Plant grow,’ I never got to learn about different types of wild flowers or birds. I can identify the basics thanks to the fact that the urban wilderness isn’t entirely nature free, but beyond that I’m hopeless.
Would it though, were I to know how to survive out there, be at all possible to live wild in the Carneddau?
Let us first talk shelter. What would I do for shelter? The high parts of the mountains are right out of the question for obvious reasons, so I am limited to the lower slopes. The only feasible locations therefore, away from roads or farmland, are around the eastern parts of the region and towards the northern end Llyn Cowlyd or around Llyn Eigiau. Eigiau, in particular, is quite enclosed and remote. There is already a bothy at Dulyn but this would only serve for the short term. I couldn’t just squat there forever. The only real use for the Dulyn bothy in this (hypothetical) situation would be as a temporary shelter whilst I constructed something more permanent.
Fortunately, at Eigiau, there are substantial remains dating from the post medieval period and with a little bit of skill and work they could easily be made into a rudimentary habitation. There is plenty of discarded slate around that valley which would do for rebuilding. Adding some kind of a turf roof would be a good option as well I think, digging it up from the surrounding area. The eventual shelter might be a bit rough, it wouldn’t pass health and safety standards, but it could gradually be improved over time, turned into a proper wilderness homestead. There are other ruins slightly to the east of Dulyn, the remains of old farmsteads, and one of these could also easily be rebuilt. So, therefore, despite whatever else I may conclude, shelter is extremely possible in this area.
Food is another matter entirely. Assuming that I am able to hunt and trap, there are plenty of animals to provide meat. There are, at the extreme end, wild horses, the famous Carneddau pony. Just one of these could provide ample meat to see a winter through whilst the inedible parts, the skin and the hair, could be useful in making other things- Leather and such likes. It would be necessary to only take one or two a year at most.
However, there is a major problem in that they’re protected. They’re rare. They’re a unique species. As such, anybody, hermit or no, who went into the mountains to hunt down and kill them would quickly find themselves incarcerated in HMP Berwyn. Their numbers are regularly monitored and as soon as the relevant authorities see that number starting to fall, even by just a couple a year, they’ll work out that somebody is hunting them down. The other thing… I know the Carneddau are isolated and unvisited by people at large but I’ve seen mountain rescue helicopters circling overhead when I’ve been up there in the past. I’ve also seen the odd other walker in the distance and the last time I was up there someone passed me by and stopped to talk about the weather, horrifically. Somehow I would have to get my dead horse back to Eigau and depending on where the horses were at the time I might have to drag it a fair way. Somebody is going to see that and I’ll be caught. There is a chance of doing it at night but the ponies mostly live high and roaming the high plains and peaks at night can be deadly. They can be deadly in the daytime as well, but not so much.
The second biggest animal group in the area is sheep. Again, however, getting hold of them for meat would be highly illegal. It would in fact be theft. Admittedly sheep rustling would be easier than horse hunting as it could be done at night, but the farmers would soon notice that their sheep were going missing. Any investigation would soon lead to capture. Saying that, it would be fairly easy and less dangerous to take only the wool from their backs, though again I think the farmers might notice.
That limits legal meat to the smaller animals. The local moles are not edible, moles allegedly taste disgusting, but there are mice (a Roman delicacy) and foxes, though the latter should be eaten with caution thanks to disease etc. There are also plenty of Otters around- The latter wasn’t an unusual meat in medieval times but is not eaten so much today.
With birds it is just as bad. Ignoring the fact that catching them would be difficult, some of the birds here, such as the ring ouzel, are either rare or a protected species. There are choughs here and to kill a chough, it is said, is really unlucky. Many of the Carneddau bird species are big, birds of prey types, buzzards and kestrels. Besides the fact that it isn’t advisable to eat buzzard or carrion feeders anyway, both are legally protected. It’s probably for the best to leave all the birds be in all fairness.
So with horses, sheep, and the birds out, that leaves the smaller animals and fish. Fish would end up becoming my most important and readily available source of protein… Unless I had a desire to end up in Berwyn, which I don’t. Eigiau used to be packed with fish, apparently, and there are a few lakes beneath Llewelyn, Ffynnon Llyffant and a couple of tiny unnamed ones, which were once claimed to have mutant fish in them. I should avoid trying to fish in Ffynnon Caseg, between Yr Elen and Llewelyn, as not only is it not supposed to contain no fish, it’s reckoned that leakage from a nearby mine means that the waters are polluted, possibly with arsenic. What fish I might find elsewhere, besides trout, I couldn’t say. The information is not, it seems, available. The only problem with fishing… The environment agency. In order to fish anywhere in the UK you need a licence of one sort or the other. This means, short of committing illegal acts and facing a hefty fine, dealing with civilisation every once in a while.
Then there are the plants, the green sustenance. What is up there is alright for sheep and horses, there is an awful lot of heather, but there isn’t much suitable for human consumption. There are bilberries, which are sadly only in fruit from July to September, and there is angelica root, which does not make for much of a meal. Combined with the bilberries, the angelica might go some way to the process of making a kind of mountain moonshine, as well as the stem providing a flute type instrument (known in Finland as a fadno,) but as a daily foodstuff it is useless.
The final problem comes in the form of wood… Wood for shoring up the shelter, for heat, for fuel, for making tools… The high mountains are practically barren and the only places to get a decent, consistent supply of wood would be at the extremes, around Aber falls, the lower slopes of Pen Yr Ole Wen and the Gwydir forest. All are a considerable distance from my Eigiau shelter and therefore it would not be extremely difficult to achieve the consistent supply needed for survival. Wood, in these mountains, is a scarce commodity.
Effectively, coupled with the other issues, this means that whilst it is possible to survive in the Carneddau in the short term, for a few days, over a long period it would not be sustainable. All good sources of protein would likely have to be obtained illegally, which is not recommended, and edible vegetable matter would be scarce, especially in winter. The nearest plausible place to live wild would in fact be the Gwydir forest, but in that case you are much less remote and much closer to civilisation.
Considering some of the reasons why it is not possible to live in the Carneddau however, I do begin to wonder if it is possible to live wild in the UK at all. I suspect not.