Friday, 9 September 2016

Aran Fawddwy

After you've driven past Lake Bala on the way to the coast, a line of hills to the south east of the A494 can't help but catch your eye. It starts in relatively humble fashion with the rocks of Moel Ddu in the north but a ridge of increasingly high, rugged crags draws your gaze steadily upwards as the range stretches out to the south. Frustratingly, as the Aran mountains rise ever more magnificently above you, the road you're following begins to descend and pull away to the west, leaving their tempting summits hidden behind the slopes of smaller hills and screens of tree plantations. The highest of these mountains is Aran Fawddwy, at 905 metres (2969 feet) above sea level. I originally planned a walk to its summit along the ridge from the north but the logistics of turning this into a circular route proved difficult and made for a very long day that would've already involved a two-hour drive from Manchester just to get to the starting point.

Making our way into Cwm Cywarch.
Instead, I settled on an approach from the south, starting in the secluded valley of Cwm Cwyarch. I was a little dejected at the thought of missing out on the airy walk up the ridge I'd looked at so many times but once we were on the tiny, single lane into (and out of) the valley, any lingering sense of disappointment melted in the face of the beautiful vista that opened up around us. At one point we stopped the car to get a picture or two of the scenery that awaited us further ahead.


Cwm Cwyarch is mostly pasture, a quiet valley that's home to a couple of farms and lush fields, watched over by dramatic cliffs on its western side. You'd hardly guess, looking at this picturesque idyll now, that up to the end of the Victorian period it was the focal point of a lead mining community, with a village and all the associated mine workings; nor would you think that centuries earlier it was the sometime hiding hole of a group of bloodthirsty brigands - the Red Bandits of Mawddwy - whose criminal escapades earned them an honourable (or perhaps dishonourable would be more apt) place in Welsh folklore.

With tawny-haired footpads and highwaymen relegated to the the distant past, our main concern as we drove down the valley was keeping an eye out for passing points in case we encountered any oncoming vehicles but we arrived at the parking area without seeing another soul, aside from a couple of walkers who were setting off as we pulled in. The car park, which is free at the time of writing, seems to be maintained by the local authority and there is an information board there that provides some background on Cwyarch.

Once we'd sorted our gear out, we headed north off the lane and onto a clearly marked public footpath. The head of the valley offered contrasting views - vast crags ahead and to the left of us and on our right, the equally huge but smooth slopes of Pen yr Allt Uchaf, its grass-covered sides almost iridescent green in the late morning sunlight.

After a short walk, we came to a ladder stile on our left, which marked the start of our climb out of the valley. We turned our backs on Pen yr Allt Uchaf here and began to trace a route north-west towards the cleft between the crags.

Creigiau Camddwr ahead - our route lies round to the left below it.
Pen yr Allt Uchaf on the far side of the valley.

These lower slopes were thick with bracken and there was little or no breeze as we ascended, which made it tough going. The silver lining was that our frequent stops to catch our breath and drink meant we got plenty of opportunities to look back along the valley we were leaving behind us.

Skirting the crags through bracken.
Looking back into Cwm Cywarch.
Our aim is the col at the head of the valley.

It was a relief when the bracken finally cleared and we found ourselves looking onto the principal one of several streams that were coursing down from the tops in lively fashion around us; below the soaring rocks that lined our route, patches of heather were breaking out their late summer garb, adding broad splashes of colour to the landscape. 

We both agreed it was one of the loveliest settings we'd experienced on a walk and it took us completely by surprise. The ground grew steeper here but for me that made the ascent easier and when we stopped now, rather than it being to catch our breath or rest our legs, it was more often to explore a hidden waterfall tucked away behind a mighty boulder or to look at some of the flowers blossoming to the side of the trail. Unless you're pressed for time, it's well-worth wandering off the path and exploring here, there's a wealth of things to see - in fact, it would make a nice little ramble even without going further than the head of the valley.

Common grasshopper.
Stonecrop...I think!
One of many waterfalls around the hillside.

Our ultimate aim was to get to the plateau that lies between Aran Fawddwy and Glasgwm, the latter being the last significant top along the Aran range that had begun near Lake Bala. Navigation was easy enough as the path followed the main stream that flowed down from the col above us. We were presented with a choice of crossing a new-looking wooden bridge and heading up a well-trodden route to the right of the stream or following a boot-worn trail that roughly traced the left hand bank. 

At my insistence, we stuck with the most obvious path and went over the bridge. In the event, it turned out that after several twists and turns as we climbed, we ended up having to make a treacherously slippery crossing back to the left hand side of the stream anyway. So if you're in the area, I'd advise using the bridge only for photo opportunities and to stay left for walking!

Eventually, the ground became less rocky and began to flatten out around us. A few isolated boulders remained but were few and far between. The path continued up a fairly gentle incline, following the stream and disappearing behind a massive outcrop of rock. The ground was noticeably wetter around us here now it was more level and, not knowing what the terrain would be like ahead, we decided to find a boulder to sit on and have lunch looking back down at our route so far.

More waterfalls near the top of the valley.
Not far to go... 
Not a bad spot for lunch...

It wasn't much further on from here that we got our first glimpse of Aran Fawddwy's summit, a grey pyramid in the distance, lit up by the sun. It looked disconcertingly far away, though still alluring. Closer by, we were now near the top of the crags that had towered above us a couple of hours earlier and the sun made play on the rock and grass all around us.

The crags that had towered above us as we walked up.
Creigiau Camddwr with Pen yr Allt Uchaf across the valley (r).
The summit of Aran Fawddwy in the distance.

Glasgwm behind us and the boards we used to cross the bogs.
We were glad we'd stopped to eat when we did as our concerns about the terrain proved quite prescient. 

Route finding was not itself a problem as the path pretty much followed a fence line north east along the plateau and this was to provide a handrail all the way to the summit. 

The grass beneath our feet became increasingly waterlogged as we went along though and soon we were grateful to find wooden boards laid across the worst of the bogs. Without these makeshift bridges, crossing the extensive mires would have been impossible - at one point I tested the dank ground that lay beneath us with my fully-extended walking pole and it went in right up to the handle and still hadn't reached anything solid.

There were small islands of solid earth and grass between these extensive bogs and on these we felt secure stopping to admire the scenery around us. It was a little hazy but you could still make out the Rhinogs to the east and the Arenigs in the north; when we turned to look back from further along the path, Cadair Idris began appear from behind Glasgwm, though the best views of that iconic mountain would only come later on when we were on our way back down from the summit.

Panorama looking northwest - Glasgwm (l) and Aran Fawddwy (r); the Rhinogs, Rhobell Fawr and the Arenigs inbetween.
The Rhinogs.
The Arenigs.

The wooden boards made for surprisingly fast walking, even if  the way they bent underfoot or flipped momentarily into the air gave us occasional pause for thought, and thankfully the ground began to dry out as we gained height. The rocky nature of Aran Fawddwy's highest reaches had been obvious from afar and I was grateful to reach the base of the summit area as the solidity of stone beneath my boots made the ascent much easier and quicker. We passed a couple of fellow walkers on their way down as we reached this point, the first people we'd seen for a good few hours and the last ones we'd see until we were driving back out of the valley later that day. It truly did feel like we were out in the wilderness.

A meadow pipit.
Looking back at our route so far.
The summit.

It had been a warm afternoon and the sudden arrival of a strong breeze from the west was appreciated for its cooling effect. In the heat and humidity we'd been flagging somewhat and at first the wind refreshed us and spurred us on across the boulder-strewn landscape to the trig. 

By the time we reached the column though, it felt like we were in a gale. Posing for the summit pictures, we kept a cautious eye on how far we were from the precipitous drops on Aran Fawddwy's eastern face and held on to the trig point. Looking at the pictures now, with blue skies and barely a patch of white cloud above, they give little sense of just how windy it had suddenly become. 

We wandered around up here for a while, impressed with what a fine summit it was. Had we been here earlier in the day with time to spare, we might have been tempted to walk along the ridge to the next highest point, which is Aran Benllyn to the north but we knew we had a fair distance to cover to get back down into the Cwm Cywarch so we had to satisfy ourselves with admiring its dramatic cliffs from a distance.  

We clambered over rocks and peered gingerly into the vast valley beneath Aran Fawddwy, always mindful that if we strayed too close to the edge we might find ourselves blown down into it; beyond the valley, lay more valleys and rolling hills that drew your gaze eastwards towards the Berwyn mountain range, a hazy line on the horizon where the border between land and sky played tricks on the eyes.

Looking north - in the foreground, Erw y Ddafad-ddu (872m) and Aran Benllyn (885m) behind it.
Zoom in on the Aran's second and third highest summits.
Looking east towards the Berwyns.
Drysgol, the broad ridge that would be our route back down.

The wind was becoming unpleasantly ferocious now so we had a quick coffee to warm us up and give us a kick-start of energy before retracing our steps along the summit. To the west, a bank of cloud hung above Cadair Idris, though some sunlight was breaking through onto its lower slopes. The skies generally were darker now in that direction and the air felt damp. It became clear that this was no time to hang about on the tops.

Cadair Idris in front of us as we retrace our steps down from the summit.

Another fence acts as a handrail on the way to Drysgol.
The route I'd plotted back down took us over the rather plain, grass-covered hump that is Drysgol, a subsidiary summit just south east of Aran Fawddwy but to get to across it we had to pass what looked on the map like quite a narrow ridge section. 

We were wearing our jackets now because of the ferocious wind, which buffeted us continuously from the west, and I'd even put my gloves on as my fingers started to go numb in the sudden drop in temperature. It was a reminder of how drastically conditions can change in the mountains and we were glad of our everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude to packing our rucksacks even in summer.

I was keen to get across the narrowest section before conditions got any worse but in the event the wind dropped just as we were approaching the tall cairn that is an eye-catching feature of the ridge, even from quite a distance; in clear weather, it prominence would make it a useful navigational tool, which is apt as well as poignant considering it was raised in memory of a local MRT member struck by lightning while on a rescue mission.

The plaque reads:

THIS CAIRN WAS BUILT BY MEMBERS OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE ST. ATHAN MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM IN MEMORY OF 

S.A.C. MICHAEL ("MIKE") ROBERT ASPAIN 

WHO ON 5TH JUNE 1960 WAS KILLED BY LIGHTNING NEAR THIS SPOT WHILST ON DUTY WITH THE TEAM

The narrowest point of the ridge was just in front of us now and - as so often is the case - it felt a lot wider when we walked across it than it had seemed from afar or on the map. There were fine views to be had now of the main Aran ridge above us and the small lake Creigllyn Dyfi that lies far below the summit, from which the River Dyfi begins its journey to the coast. Looking south we could see the Hengwm Valley, which lies above Cwm Cywarch; the contrast between the rough terrain in Hengwm and the pastoral scenes in Cwm Cywarch was striking.

Aran Fawddwy, Erw y Ddafad-ddu and Aran Benllyn (l to r), with the waters of Creiglyn Dyfi below.
Looking north east to the Hirnantau hills and the Berwyns beyond.
The Hengwm valley below Drysgol and Cwm Cywarch at the end of it.

The boggy crossing to between Drysgol and Waun Goch.
Our path was clearly visible on the far side of Hengwm, an unerring diagonal line that follows what I assume was an old tramway. There was a wide col between us and the start of this track, which begins just below the top of Waun Goch, and it was a boggy crossing to get to it. Straightforward though it was, the path was barely visible on the ground, especially at the lowest, wettest point, and I imagine in poor visibility navigation here could be tricky.

Once on the track, however, the walk to Cwm Cywarch was unremarkable. Although the wind was much less fierce than earlier, we could see cloud was now swirling around the cliffs on the far side of the valley where we'd climbed up a few hours back. The walk down the flank of Pen yr Allt Uchaf was a long one, or it certainly seemed it.

"I think we're about to get rained on."
Gwaun y Llwyni on the western side of Hengwm.
Following the path down the side of Pen yr Allt Uchaf.

Although there were droplets of rain in the air around us, enough to make photography difficult, the precipitation wasn't heavy enough to get us wet. Looking at the view ahead, however, it seemed like a downpour was imminent and we resigned ourselves to getting drenched at some point in the near future. Luckily, by the time we got back to the car the cloud was retreating again and just a few wisps clung atmospherically to the crags.

Looking across the valley at the pass we climbed at the beginning of the walk.
By the time we reached Cwm Cywarch, the weather had mosty cleared again.

Much like our walk in the Brecon Beacons last year, it felt like we had gone from summer to winter and back to summer in the space of a few hours but at least this time we stayed dry and had been rewarded with the fantastic views we'd hoped for  - and some beautiful scenery we hadn't expected.


Date: August 2016

Walk length: c. 7 miles

Duration: 7 hours, including breaks

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