If I’d been asked at the beginning of the day if I wanted to climb 1400 metres and walk 25 miles over often bleak and boggy terrain in poor weather, you can guess what my answer would have been. Harri, of course, didn’t ask, knowing me well enough by now to keep quiet.
When I add that Snowdon – the highest peak in Wales and England – is 1085 metres above sea-level, you’ll get some idea of how tough today’s walking was.
Not that we set out this morning with the intention of walking all three sections of the Ardudwy Way in one day, but as is so often the case in the mountains, there was only one option for overnight accommodation and we reached it too early in the day (we’d decided against more high-level wild camping!).
The Ardudwy Way was devised in 2010 and officially launched during the Barmouth Walking Festival in September 2011. The route follows an ancient commote (an administrative area in the Middle Ages) and is split into three sections: Southern: Barmouth to Tal y Bont, 8 miles; Central: Tal y Bont to Harlech, 13 miles; Northern: Harlech to Llandecwyn, 12 miles. (The additional distance accounts for leaving and re-joining the Ardudwy Way each day).
We’d be following the route in reverse and, not wishing to leave the route overnight, our plan was to stop at a campsite at Dinas roughly halfway. Twelve miles seemed a sensible distance on a day when we were forced to start later than usual due to circumstances beyond our control.
The journey from Penrhyndeudraeth went smoothly enough, despite there being no obvious bus stop at the station – it was also free! Our lady driver was born to work with the public; her cheerful chatter created a jovial atmosphere among passengers and turned what could have been a tedious trip around the estuary into a pleasant journey. She mentioned that her bus had been one of the vehicles caught in a tailback behind runners at last weekend’s Castle Relays Race; fed up with queuing she’d helpfully offered a lift to the female runner at the back of the pack (it was refused of course!).
We joined the Ardudwy Way at Llandecwyn. On a clearer day, as we’d climbed, the views back towards Portmeirion and the Llŷn Peninsula would have been stunning; unfortunately, we were still awaiting the promised good weather so today’s scenery was a tapestry of grey.
We stopped to browse the graveyard of St Tecwyn’s Church (the church itself was locked), perfectly situated for reflection and inspiration. The current church is relatively modern, dating from 1879 but apparently Tecwyn founded the first mission church on the site in the sixth century. Those early saints definitely knew how to choose their real estate!
An hour or two later, we passed the even older burial site at Bryn Cader Faner (about 600 feet off main route but well worth the brief detour). At around 30 feet (9 metres) in diameter this is actually a pretty impressive prehistoric monument with a series of stone slabs leaning at angles from a blanket of large rocks.
The landscape was gradually showing more signs of ‘recent’ human habitation like farmhouses, sheep pens and dry stone walls.
When we were walking the Cambrian Way a few years ago, Harri tackled the Rhinogs alone and in terrible weather. These mountains aren’t easy walking terrain in good weather – there is a lot of bare rock, rough boulders and few obvious footpaths – and can be absolutely treacherous in bad conditions. It was Harri’s unwillingness to encourage long-distance hikers to tackle the Rhinogs in unsuitable weather because they’d reached that stage of the route and were reluctant to linger in Barmouth or Penrhyndeudraeth that was the catalyst for O Fôn i Fynwy.
The Ardudwy Way is a mid-level route and, though it’s long and undulating with several steep climbs, it’s nowhere near as tough as the Cambrian Way ‘proper’.
We hit the campsite at Dinas Farm mid-afternoon (the only accommodation en route) and it looked so enticing in its lovely lakeside setting that I almost regretted our late morning decision to push ahead to Barmouth.
The weather was brightening up by the time we skirted Moelfre, which at 1932 feet (589 metres) is one of the outlying peaks of the Rhinogs (and not to be confused with the Moelfre of the bellowing calves).
We were heading for a high mountain pass called Bwlch y Rhiwgyr (Pass of the Drovers), which has been used as a route between Ardudwy (a historic region – or ‘commote’ between the Mawddach and Dwyryd estuaries) since people first settled in the area and was, until the 18th century, on the main route between Harlech and London.
We could see the pass across the valley; in fact, although it looked depressingly high, it didn’t look that far away. When, oh when, will I learn? Will I have to reach 100 before I accept that just because something looks relatively close, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is close? Having skirted around Moelfre’s entire base, we then seemed to be heading up a valley away from the pass.
The one – the only – highlight of the whole valley detour was a gorgeous little stone bridge we crossed. Pont Scethin now seems completely isolated, a lasting monument to the hordes that once passed over the Afon Ysgethin on their way between Harlech and Dolgellau. We hadn’t passed a single person since we set off at Llandecwyn so it was hard to imagine a time when this route was bustling with activity – as well as being used by drovers, the track and bridge are claimed to be part of an old coach road (though how the coach wheels didn’t get stuck in the wet ground is beyond me).
The descent to Barmouth provided some of the most spectacular views of our Welsh journey so far. From the moment you emerge through the pass, the landscape opens up dramatically to reveal the dramatic peaks of the Cadair Idris mountain range on the far side of the Mawddach estuary. It’s the kind of stunning scenery that makes your mouth drop, literally takes your breath away, so it was a measure of just how drained I was feeling at this point that I didn’t immediately stop and starting taking photograph after photograph.
The final descent into Barmouth is incredibly steep but seeing the Victorian seaside resort spread far out below you in the late evening sunshine is one of the most amazing sights. In the foreground were sheep grazing between rocky outcrops, then the land appeared to drop away completely to reveal the Victorian terraces and the sea beyond.
I suddenly yearned to abandon our hike, hang up the boots and loll around in Barmouth. The long-promised summer had finally arrived, we were back at the coast and I, for one, was in no rush to go anywhere soon.
‘Never too old to backpack: O Fôn i Fynwy: a 364-mile walk through Wales’ by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store and other online bookstores priced at £2.99.