Friday 15 September 2017

Foel Fadian

Foel Fadian is a hill of relatively small prominence on the fringe of the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales. North of its summit, the ground drops away into the fertile farmland of the Dyfi Valley and rises again onto the southern face of Cadair Idris, which stands on the horizon like a fortress guarding the entrance to Snowdonia. To the south, the Cambrian Mountains themselves stretch out before you, vast rolling uplands of moor and heath that have the curious distinction of forming the first proposed National Park to be rejected in England and Wales.

It's quite a drive from Derbyshire to Foel Fadian, at the edge really of what we'd consider do-able on a day trip, but we decided to break up the journey home by taking a leisurely detour back along the coastal road and including a stop off at Barmouth or Conwy for a fish-and-chips supper en route. I planned a circular walk from the tiny village of Aberhosan, near Machynlleth, which lies - we discovered - down disconcertingly narrow lanes with disconcertingly few passing places. It was with some relief that we arrived by a small green in the middle of the village, having only passed one other car and that one thankfully near the entrance to a field.

After some faffing about and tense discussion, the result of which was that we managed to set off out of the village in the opposite direction to the one we wanted, we returned to where we'd parked and joined the start of the route proper. This was along a public footpath that you could practically step onto from the car's passenger door.

This footpath led downhill into woodland, along a trail of loose rocks and wet mud that was quite slippy underfoot, to a stream (Nant Blaen-y-cwm) and a wooden bridge. The stream was fairly broad but shallow enough to cross without getting your boots too wet and once across the water, we began to head uphill again. It was, as forecast, a beautiful morning and the canopy above was a feast of birdsong and dappled sunlight. I'm not a huge fan of walking through woods and forests, much as I love trees. I prefer to be out in open country or on a hilltop but it was quite idyllic here and I could happily have lingered longer than we did.

Nant Blaen-y-cwm.
The canopy above.
Heading out of the wood.

Eventually we came to a lane leading up to farm and left the woods behind. Out from the tree cover we could finally see the countryside around the village, including one enticing looking peak that I zoomed in on for future reference - except now I can't remember in which direction I pointed my camera and I'm having trouble identifying where it is. It looks from the cliff-face in the foreground as though it might lie beyond a quarry.

The mystery hill.

No matter. The views were becoming splendid all around. In front of the farmhouse, where we were watched suspiciously but silently by two sheep dogs and eyed curiously by a grey wagtail, we left the lane. A track south-east led us uphill, until it was time to begin crossing the fields themselves. There was no signpost to indicate the right of way here but it was clear enough on the map. Once we were on the other side of the metal gate (which was - literally - crying out for a good dose of WD40), we picked a way across the grass and through the thistles.

Grey wagtail.
One of the residents on the farm.
The views began to open up around us as we left the farm.
The western end of the Cadair Idris range.

The watcher on the hill.
We'd seen plenty of cattle as well as sheep dotted across the surrounding countryside so we proceeded fairly cautiously, keeping an eye out not just for the cows themselves but also for a suitable escape-route should they turn out to be unfriendly. Happily, there proved to be none along our path and our only interaction with Mother Nature was with the midges that invariably materialised out of nowhere whenever we paused. In the field above ours there seemed to be some sort of teddy bear, watching our progress intently. A closer examination revealed a pair of tiny, juvenile horns on our cuddly observer, a solitary highland calf looking rather forlorn and lonely in his pasture.

We'd reached a crest now on one of the spurs that runs north-west from Foel Fadian. This vantage point provided cracking views of the forested hills to the west and of the cliffs that marked the northern reaches of the Cambrian massif. From this point, we were to head south and then south east, through a small plantation and ultimately down into the valley below, losing much of the height we'd gained so far - I really need to plan these things better. There, after crossing the Afon Fadian, we'd join Glyndŵr's Way, a long-distance trail that weaves through central Wales.

The hills to the west of us.
The northern edge of the Cambrian Mountains.

A quite new-looking wooden gate provided an entrance to the trees but our suspicions that we were on rarely-used footpaths were confirmed by the mass of nettles around it. Some taller nettle fronds had woven through the slats and wafted in the breeze above the gate. Not for the first time that morning, I began to wonder whether wearing shorts had been a good idea.

We couldn't see a track or path as such beyond the gate so it was a matter of picking a route through the trees and maintaining a line to the end of the enclosure. There was little in the way of undergrowth so it was relatively easygoing underfoot and didn't take long to reach the next wall.

On the OS map, the footpath at the other end of the plantation followed a clear line alongside a wall and across open hillside but when we reached this point on the ground the way ahead wasn't quite so straightforward.

There was a clear opening into the next field but the way was blocked by head-high bracken, bramble, nettles, and all manner of bushes and small trees - some with disproportionately large thorns. The field that ran parallel with this was clear but there was no right of way across it on paper. What's more, barbed wire blocked the entrance to it and a huge lump of dead tree had been dragged up to the fence and its branches woven through the wire to form an extra barrier.

We tried to pick our way through the undergrowth and to anyone who might have been within earshot, I apologise unreservedly now for the foul language that ensued. We probably got no further than twenty feet before we had to give it up as a bad job and head back, a task no less fraught than the journey outwards had been. Eventually we found ourselves, scratched to buggery and not in the best of moods, back at the edge of the plantation.

We were determined not to be defeated and decided to work on the basis that if the designated footpath hadn't been maintained we had the right to bypass it and rejoin it on the far side of the adjoining field. We didn't know if this was an actual right, though, so after unpicking the dead tree and stepping gingerly over the barbed wire, we re-attached the branches to the fence and crossed the field as quickly and quietly as we could. Oddly, when we got to the far side, there was a stile in the fence and it was a simple matter of climbing over this to resume our journey down to the Afon Fadian. Our target was in plain view now above us and - thankfully - from here onward the walk became much less complicated!

Foel Fadian in clear view as we descend to the valley floor.
We did a short zig-zag to double back on ourselves and join Glyndŵr's Way and from here the course was clear - in both senses of the word. It led us gradually upwards towards the summit of Foel Fadian and we could see it curving round the side of the hill. On the way up we were treated to the sight of several red kites wheeling around in the sky above - a beautiful vision but they moved too fast for me to get a decent picture of them unfortunately.

Joining Glyndwr's Way.
Looking west to Ffridd Rhosygarreg.
A ham-fisted attempt to get a picture of the red kites.
Looking back into the valley. The Cadair Idris range is in the background, descending west to Cardigan Bay.

We were soon below the top of Foel Fadian and the trail began to level out. It actually bypasses the highest point of this outlying peak, and then weaves a convoluted route east and south around the rolling summits of the Plumlumon mountain range. This meant we find our own way up the steep ground to the top. The contrast with the lush valleys we'd left behind was striking and the sandy, treacherous-looking cliffs that fringed these uplands underlined the stark difference between the adjacent landscapes.

The trail began to level out just below the summit of Foel Fadian.
The huge bands of rock strata bear witness to the geological forces that created these mountains.
The steep cliffs below Glaslyn form a boundary between contrasting worlds.

A couple of wooden posts gave us a general indication where to head and we could see narrow trods in the occasionally marshy grass - the fact that these headed very purposefully upwards reassured me that they were human in origin rather than the product of randomly-wandering hungry sheep. I expected it to be much more of a slog to the trig than it was and I was taken by surprise when it suddenly appeared just above me.

Looking east to Bryn y Fedwen as we headed up to the summit.
The summit of Foel Fadian.

In all directions, the vistas that opened up were breathtaking - Cadair Idris, Aran Fawddwy, a vast landscape of hills and woods and valleys stretching as far as the eye could see. Perhaps most striking, though, was the feature that'd first caught my eye when I was browsing the map looking for somewhere new to walk. This was the mountain lake, Glaslyn (which means "Blue Lake" in English), just on the edge of the plateau below us.

Cadair Idris.
The distinctive knobbly ridge of the Aran Mountains.
A vast landscape of hills and woods and valleys.
Glaslyn was our next port of call and we retraced our steps down the hillside to get back onto the trail. Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust's largest nature reserve is situated here and takes its name from the lake, which is just a short walk south of Foel Fadian. The water itself is quite acidic and nutrient poor but the surrounding heather moorland is what makes this site so important for both flora and fauna.

Back on the trail.
Foel Fadian from the track to Glaslyn.

We'd already seen the red kite for which this location is renowned but according to the information board by the lake, you can also see merlin and peregrine falcon here. We weren't that lucky, though we did see a wheatear and a meadow pipit on our way to the lake. Across the blooming heather, Penygadair, the summit of Cadair Idris, and Craig Cwm Amarch looked spectacular - and reminded me forcefully that I needed to return to that iconic mountain and experience its many beauties on a clear day.

Craig Cwm Amarch and Penygadair.
Craig Cwn Amarch and Penygadair.

We sat on the shore of the lake for a while, taking advantage of this tranquil spot to have some coffee and a sandwich, before heading back along the access track. The wind sent a succession of tiny waves scudding across the surface of the water, which was beautifully clear. Despite the modest height of this upland lake and the fact that there was a road close-by, it felt like we were miles from civilisation.


When we reached the junction of tracks by Foel Fadian we carried on north east to join the road connecting Dylife to Machynlleth. We followed this downhill to the spot where a viewpoint and memorial were marked on the map. I'd expected this to be perhaps a war memorial, a cenotaph or similar structure with a plaque, so I was quite surprised to find it was a memorial to the broadcaster and author Wynford Vaughan-Thomas - and a very handsome monument it is too, complete with a topograph illustrating the mountains of Snowdonia to the north.

Looking east from the Dylife road.
Information board by the memorial.
Wynford Vaughan-Thomas Memorial.

We joined a byway here that would lead us directly back down into Aberhosan, first alongside a small plantation and then across farmland and onto a farm track. This eventually changed into a proper lane - the one we'd inadvertently set off along at the start of the walk - and brought us back into the village centre.

The route back down into the valley.
Looking north east towards Aran Fawddwy.
Looking back up.

Foel Fadian and Glaslyn are real gems, set in a beautiful nature reserve that feels deceptively-isolated. Although we did a circular walk from Aberhosan, there is some limited roadside parking by the entrance to the nature reserve. If you're in the area and have an hour to spare, you could easily nip up to the trig point from there and/or visit the lake - either way you'll be rewarded with some fantastic views in all directions for very little effort. It's definitely somewhere we intend to revisit.

Date: September 2017

Walk length: 10.75 km

Total ascent: 568 metres


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