|Four long months have passed since our 2010 Offa’s Dyke Path campaign came to an end at Rhuthun last September. This year, we resolve to Try Harder and make some proper inroads into what could otherwise become a ten year odyssey. So with the harsh snows of Christmas gone, we turn our attention northwest again.
This trip represents a minor watershed of sorts, being the first time that we won’t have taken the train along the North Wales coast to get to our base for the weekend. Instead, a bus from Wrexham has brought us to the charming little town of Rhuthun, one of the nicest places we will stay on our Offa’s Dyke adventures. Set in the lee of the steep Clwydian Hills, Rhuthun boasts good views of Foel Fenlli, the imposing hillfort we visited last time out. Arriving the day before our planned walk, we have a good opportunity for a mooch about.
As well as a fine church and a decent medieval castle converted into a hotel, Rhuthun has a piece of enigmatic rock parked in its centre. Maen Huail now resides next to a bank, after it was moved to make room for a car park. It is a rough, unworked block of limestone, its age impossible to determine and its purpose less so. Arthurian enthusiasts will be impressed to know that Arthur was reputed to have used it as an executioner’s block to behead Huail (see Folklore). The setting is not the most atmospheric or inspiring, but certainly worthy of our attention. No bankers have yet been publicly executed on it, as far as I know.
Saturday morning dawns very cold and the town is enveloped in a freezing fog, not really much of an enticement to the long walk on the agenda. But as the bus takes us up the steeply ascending A494, we climb up out of the gloom and into a crisp morning. At Clwyd Gate we don warm outer layers and step onto fields of crystal, crunching into a hard frost.
We look down at Rhuthun far below us in the Vale of Clwyd, where the fog has lifted slightly to form a band above the town. In the far distance, the peaks of Snowdonia rise above the cloud, my first sight of these wondrous ranges, enough to set the spine tingling. Snowdon, the Glyderau and the Carneddau are particularly clear, though at this point I don’t even know these names. One day I shall get closer.
But today, our objective is to finally have done with the Clwydian hills that have been our constant companion every step of the way since we first climbed out of Prestatyn, both delight and trial. Although we reached the highest part of the range, Moel Famau, last time, we still have a couple more sizeable hills to negotiate, the very up-and-down nature of the range making for a tiring start to today’s route.
The first of the hills to be tackled is Moel Gyw, surmounted by a barrow to add incentive. Offa’s Dyke path has been re-routed to avoid the climb up to the summit, but on such a beautiful day there is no way I was going to miss out on the views. Rashly, I choose to go for a direct approach from the northwest, which turns into a mistake that can’t easily be rectified once started. The climb is extremely steep, through and over dense, deep heather. I find myself clinging to the bushes above me as the only way to gain enough purchase to carry on upwards. By the time I finally emerge on to the hilltop next to the cairn, I am knackered, my knees are aching from scrambling over the heather, the laces of my boots are festooned with bits of vegetation and under my warm winter clothes I’m boiling alive. Not the best route to choose, it would seem. But, oh boy, was it worth the effort. The views are utterly magnificent. To the south, the flat moorland expanse of Cryn y Brain
that we hope to be tackling later can be seen, the shapely, Sugarloaf-esque peak of Llantisylio Mountain further to the SSW, with the start of the Berwyns range beyond. And then, rising over the temperature inversion of the valleys, the serried ranks of the ranges of Snowdonia, that I will later come to know as the Arans, Cadair Idris and the Arenigs, and the mightiest peaks of the Snowdon massif itself, the Glyderau and Carneddau. Eyes dragged away north from this vista also get a view of Foel Fenlli
, illuminated briefly in the rays of the early winter sun.
The sides of the cairn itself are buried in heather, but the centre is clear and an inevitable excavation scoop into the stone construction is visible. The positioning is interesting, being set back from the steep western edge of the summit, where the Ordnance Survey have built their trig pillar and a slate upright marks Offa’s Dyke Path, which no longer comes up here. For such a modest height (whatever my legs tell me), this is a spectacular place, one of the undoubted highlights of the Clwydian range.
G/F hasn’t made the climb to the summit after me, preferring to follow the Path’s route along the western flank of the hill. As I descend to her, it is obvious that a much easier route up to the barrow can be found from this side. And from where she is, the views are still pretty damn epic.
The next Clwydian, Moel Llanfair, is one we don’t have to tackle. The path skirts the western slopes, giving a great retrospective view of both Foel Fenlli and Moel Gyw.
The map shows a pair of barrows in the pass between Moel Llanfair and Moel y Plas (that Coflein only notes as possibles), which I had intended to have a quick look for, but as we descend to the narrow road, our ears are assailed with barking and we encounter two covered pick-ups full of snarling and growling dogs, together with a large group of men with guns, who greet us in a way that doesn’t exactly seem cordial. There is a palpable air of menace in the narrow lane and we’re more than pleased to be past the trucks and back on the footpath, where we climb to the saddle between the two tops of Moel y Plas as fast as we can, glad to be on our way. The growling, snarling and barking continues behind us and we decide that we don’t want to be anywhere near when the grilles are opened and the pack is loosed.
Consequently we don’t stop to look for the barrow on the top of Moel y Plas itself. Instead we stop over on the other side of the hill, to get breath back and regain some kind of calm (best achieved by eating chocolate). From our rest spot, we have a decent view of the dark moorland expanse of Cryn y Brain, but the fog of earlier is creeping up on us from the southwest and the last of the Clwydian hills ahead are slowly being enveloped. There is no sign of Moel y Waun, the last of the range to be marked with prehistoric cairns.
Equanimity restored, we make our way around the side of Moel y Gelli, from where Offa’s Dyke path finally leaves the Clwydians and turns eastwards, towards the village of Llandegla. The map and Coflein show a holy well (St Garmon’s) and a couple of ancient caves, which might be worth a look. Unfortunately, just as we approach, we encounter yet more men with guns and a dog, right near the well. We nod in passing, definitely getting the feeling that we’re interrupting something. A lithe brown shape breaks cover close by and we are rewarded with the sight of a hare streaking away. It looks like our timing may have aided his escape just nicely. We certainly hope so.
After tea and sandwiches in the cold churchyard at Llandegla, we cross a couple of busy A-roads and then it’s time for the last big ascent of the day, into Llandegla Forest and the onto the open moor of Cryn y Brain. The climb through the conifers is steep and muddy in places, with little light penetrating through to the path on this gloomy afternoon. I’m not a huge fan of the Welsh conifer plantations and I’m pleased when we finally come to the edge of the woods and the moorland opens out ahead of us.
We still have a long way to go today and I have to resist any temptation to go and see the cairns that cluster the moor’s highest part, around the transmitter mast and Sir Watkin’s Tower.
Offa’s Dyke Path has been routed across the moor on a snaking network of duckboards, making our progress across what would be tough terrain much quicker and smoother than expected. It doesn’t take us long to reach Aber Sychnant cairn, which is skirted by the Path itself – probably a little too close for comfort, but tired legs and receding daylight make me grateful for the ease of access today.
The cairn is all but buried under a heather toupee, but is a good size and largely intact apart from the inevitable central scoop. The views are not that extensive, as the cairn sits in a shallow valley, with higher parts of the moor rising on all sides. Substantial enough to be worth a visit though, despite the irritation of dropping my glove and having to come back again to retrieve it.
From the cairn, our route follows a minor road, slowly dropping off the top of the moor. We look in vain for the cairn marked on the map above the Nant Craig y Moch, but the vegetation hides anything that might be there. There is a fine view of the next moorland “lump”, Eglwyseg Mountain, ahead of us, with one of the cairns at the highest point prominent.
The road drops steeply to a hairpin at World’s End, where stepping stones cross a stream that falls away down a series of artificial terraces. The sheer cliffs of Craig y Forwyn, a climber’s paradise, rise vertically above us, while the fine timber-framed manor house of Plas Uchaf can be seen below.
From here our way takes a turn for the slightly alarming, passing under the formidable cliffs of Creigiau Eglwyseg. The path is very narrow with loose scree above and below on the steep hillside. The fog has closed right in on us again, making for a claustrophobic crossing of the seemingly shifting slopes. The cliffs are one of the natural wonders of the Offa’s Dyke Path route and above their forbidding bastions are a substantial number of cairns and round barrows.
Rejoining the road, we should have a view over the Dee/Dyfrdwy valley, but sadly the fog blocks out everything in that direction. Eventually we reach Tan-y-Castell, near to the evocative ruins of Castell Dinas Bran. Here we finally say our goodbyes to Offa’s Dyke Path for the day, after completing around 15 miles of it today. By now it’s late, visibility is poor and we are completely knackered, so a visit to the shrouded hillfort is postponed. Instead we stagger down winding lanes into Llangolllen, tired but happy with our efforts, the biggest chunk we’ve taken out of the Path so far. In reaching the mighty Dee, we’re at one of the major river crossings of our route and we’ve left the Clwydians far behind. Next time, we might even finally make the acquaintance of Offa’s Dyke itself.
Posted by thesweetcheat
24th January 2013ce
Edited 24th January 2013ce
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