Sunday 15 November 2015

Cadair Berwyn

Having finally got the northern edge of Kinder under my belt, it was time to turn my attention back to Wales and another oft-postponed trip, the summits of which had been worrying away at me and demanding to be climbed since late spring. This was a ridge walk to Cadair Berwyn, described on Wikipedia as "the highest significant summit in Wales outside the National Parks". As a bonus this walk started and ended with a charming cafe that does a mighty fine mug of coffee and a spectacular waterfall, which is well worth a visit on its own terms even without heading into the hills that surround it.

Following the Afon Rhaeadr upstream
When we crossed the border into Wales around 8.30 am conditions were poor, with the morning fog making visibility extremely limited. We knew from prior experience of these roads that we were passing deep valleys and steep hillsides on our route but there was no sign of them through the murk today. As the journey went on it became more and more hair-raising, and the single-car-width lanes twisted and turned in front of us without warning in the thick mist. We proceeded with the driving equivalent of the slow, steady plod that is our walking style. Thankfully, by the time we passed through Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in the Tanat Valley, the fog had broken up somewhat and lurked only as stubborn clumps of mist over the river. The road was following the course of the Afon Rhaeadr upstream now to its source at the Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall and for the first time we began to get views of the massive crags that tower over this part of the valley. 

Pistyll Rhaeadr
The patches of low cloud certainly lent the scenery an atmospheric quality but the conditions weren't exactly great for photography and the new filters I'd ordered for my camera were still in the postal system. 

We parked up at the Pistyll Rhaeadr cafe and, before setting out on our route upwards, paused to admire the waterfall itself, a truly beautiful and impressive sight (though not, apparently, the tallest, single drop waterfall in either Wales or the UK, as claimed on the waterfall website - in fact, not a single drop waterfall at all). There were some fine views to be had ahead of us here looking north into the wild and rugged looking upper valley that we were to skirt on our way back. It made for a marked contrast with the cultivated, pastoral scenes we had encountered around the banks of the Afon Rhaeadr below.

The initial stage of our walk was a short and fairly steep climb that came as a shock to the calf muscles and we paused "to admire the scenery" more than a couple of times (actually the scenery was worth stopping to take in, both looking back down into the valley and over to the crags that towered above it to the south-west).  After a bit of huffing and puffing on our part, we noticed the ground levelling off and we found ourselves on a grassy, gently sloping patch of land. To our right, the hillside climbed steeply again - our route to the ridge - and to our left, the ground dropped down to a clump of trees that concealed the top of the waterfall. 

Our route back later would follow the path cutting a line through the heather halfway up the hillside.
The pastoral scenes we were leaving behind in the lower valley.
The crags on the south western side of the valley.

We made a diversion to the waterfall, crossing a fence and following a crumbly, rocky path down to the pools and cascades at its head. The water had carved a pretty landscape out of the stone and the outlook across the valley, over which skeins of flimsy cloud were still hanging, added to the idyllic aspect of the location. As I was clambering over the massive rocks and exploring the pools, there was little sense of the calamitous drop awaiting the water just a few feet away.

Some of the many cascades at the top of the waterfall.
It's hard to provide a sense of scale but the overhang on the right
is probably around twice my height (5' 9").
The drop.
Rich, with Talfryn behind on the far side of the valley.
Back on the right track here, we had wandered out to the rocks below on the left.

It was a delightful spot to linger but the bulk of our walk was still ahead of us so we made our way back to the start of the ridge. The route ahead seemed clear at first, the tread of previous walkers' boots having made bald patches in the grass but - Occasionally Lost by name, occasionally lost by nature - we inadvertently found ourselves bearing to the west along what I'm pretty sure in hindsight was a dead-end sheep trail through the heather. We had been chatting as we walked, sometimes just concentrating on negotiating the quite narrow, loosely-packed trail along a steep slope without going head-over-heels or admiring the vast, sweeping moorland that began to open out before us to the west. A stream wound its way through this expanse towards the falls and further ridges of hills stood over the plateau protectively. Bleak it might look - and indeed be - but to me it looked like perfect walking territory... 

An enticing prospect.
Back to the walk in hand though, we'd just received an object lesson on paying attention to your direction rather than just following what seems to be the path of least resistance. We'd wandered off route along this tiny track for around 15 minutes or more and now had to retrace our sometimes laborious steps back to rejoin the correct route, adding a good half an hour at least to our trip by the time we got to the point we'd gone wrong. Navigational aids checked and noses pointed in the right direction, we resumed our journey to the ridge.

It was a gentle and steady climb from here, and the ground made for surprisingly good walking underfoot. The next target was Trum Felen, an unremarkable mound ahead of us across an expanse of coarse grass. Only when we got to the top of that unremarkable mound (which had, to be honest, seemed far too easy) did we realise Trum Felen was actually a larger unremarkable mound ahead, that had been hidden from our view until now. Tricky devils these unremarkable mounds.

Not Trum Felen ahead.
Trum Felen ahead.

We felt like we'd climbed relatively high now but the top of Trum Felen afforded us a view of our first real summit, Moel Sych and, beyond that, Cadair Berwyn itself. Between us and Moel Sych was a broad saddle, golden and ruddy in places with grasses that seemed to be turning in colour like autumn leaves. It was also quite clearly boggy. 

The summit of Cadair Berwyn in the centre, Moel Sych is to the left.
Autumnal colours below the summit of Moel Sych.

The path cut a wet and muddy swathe through the grassland, following a fence in a straight line dead ahead. Dodging the bogs and sometimes ankle-deep mud made the trip across the col a bit of a slog but eventually we began to ascend again. It was a steeper slope here than we'd walked to the top of Trum Felen and that suited me better as we gained height more quickly. The summit cairn was visible ahead and we decided to stop here for lunch, where we were joined for a while by this little chap:

The weather showed little signs of improving sadly. Though Moel Sych promised extensive views to the west, low cloud was cast across the horizon so Snowdonia remained hidden. In the foreground, however, the wild moorland between us and Llandrillo had a kind of rugged beauty of its own. We'd passed only a couple of people since climbing up from the base of the waterfall and it really felt like we were in the middle of a wilderness.

One of the very few other people we saw on the ridge,
walking their dog past the trig column on Cadair Berwyn.
Bellies filled, we now made for the final summits of the day - those of Cadair Berwyn itself. I say "summits" because of the mountain's curious recent history. 

For many years the Ordnance Survey had designated the highest point of Cadair Berwyn as being the site of their trig point. Perhaps the presence of a large, Bronze Age cairn should have made them look more closely for  in 1987 a keen-eyed hillwalker from Cheshire realised that the crag by the cairn and just south of the trig point was notably higher, 3 metres higher in fact. According to Wikipedia, there was something of a dispute between the discoverer of this new peak (which he named Craig Uchaf - "Highest Rock") and the venerable map-makers who were unwilling to admit their mistake. The OS maps now show the correct heights at this part of the ridge, though the highest point at 830 metres remains officially unnamed - you might find it referred to as Cadair Berwyn New Top in some guides and blogs. For its part, the site of the trig column is sometimes referred to as Cadair Berwyn North Top (or Old Top).

Rich forges ahead to Cadair Berwyn.
The highest point of Cadair Berwyn at 830 metres.
The Bronze Age cairn atop Cadair Berwyn, with the old summit and trig column in the background.

Cadair Berwyn trig, with Cadair Bronwen in the distance.
Having paid a visit to the old summit trig we pondered whether to carry on to Cadair Bronwen another mile or so north of us. The skies had cleared somewhat to the west but more cloud was rolling in from the east so we decided to leave Bronwen for another day and include it in an exploration of the northern part of the range. 

We headed back to the col between Cadair Berwyn and Moel Sych, from where we had a fine view of the intriguingly-name Llyn Lluncaws, which translates as "Lake Cheese". A narrow path from the col sidelined the top of Moel Sych and led us along the edge of the crags here onto a spur that juts out south of the lake. There was a considerable drop to our left before we started descending along the spur and we followed this narrow line of mud through the grass slowly and cautiously.

Our route back, left along the spur that crosses the picture and then down into the valleys.
Cloud begins to roll in again from the east.
A look back at Cadair Berwyn as we head down the path, which is thankfully less narrow and further from the edge here.

We skirted the southern edge of the lake as we walked down the spur and from this vantage point its colours really came to life. It looked more like a highly-polished sheet of blue onyx than water. To our right, we found ourselves walking beside a massive wall of peat, that stretched away ahead of us.

Llyn Lluncaws
The wall of peat.
Crossing the Nant y Llyn

When we reached the end of what had felt like the biggest peat hag in the world, we began to head south, following a well-trodden path and fording a stream (or leaping hopefully across to be precise). We managed to cross without getting wet or too muddy but the next stretch was a real quagmire and took some negotiating. We went separate ways and I made the wrong choice, ending up knee-deep in the gloop. It sucked at my boot alarmingly as I pulled my leg out but thankfully my laces firmly held my foot in place.

It was a relief to join an increasingly broad, flat path along here that followed the side of the upper valley as it made the last mile or so of our walk a doddle. We were surprised to see how high up we still were, looking down the course of the Nant y Llyn as it flowed down towards our starting point. With Trum Felen towering over the valley to the west and the crags of Cerrig Poethion looming immediately above us, it'd felt like we were quite low down.

Still quite high up, above the upper valley.
Gorse below Cerrig Poethion.
A last look up at Cadair Berwyn.
We still had some 900ft of descent before we could refresh ourselves at the Pistyll Rhaeadr cafe but this last stretch made for a very pleasant and easygoing end to a great day's walking, despite the cloudy conditions.

Nearing our start point, Pistyll Rhaeadr from the lower slopes of Talfryn.
A sheep on a wall.
A dragon on a chimney.

Date: October 2015

Walk length: 9.5 km

Total ascent: 638 metres



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