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Over the misty mountains II – Foggy, boggy Berwyns 20 February 2011

It’s day two of our Llangollen long weekend. Yesterday we undertook the important business that brought us here, completing the easy Offa’s Dyke Path section from Llangollen to Chirk Castle Mill without mishap, crossing “that old snake they call the Dee” in good order. After that largely flat route, today is a day reserved for the hills. Weather-dependent, I had a couple of options in mind, including a first-time trip into the Berwyns or a walk up Llantysilio Mountain to Moel y Gaer and Moel y Gamelin. The worse-weather option is to pay a visit to the ring cairn of Moel Ty Uchaf.

Sadly the morning opens similarly to yesterday, thick mist rising above the Dee valley. At least Castell Dinas Bran is (just) visible today, so that’s an improvement, but not really the day for the conical Llantysilio. So the plan that takes shape involves getting to Moel Ty Uchaf and then see how things are.

Moel ty Uchaf — Fieldnotes

We take the bus towards Llandrillo, passing the visible remains of the Tan-y-Coed chambered tomb. The driver very obligingly drops us off at Pont yr Hendwr (“Bridge of the Old Water”), from which a minor road takes us southeast, climbing steadily at first, then with increasing steepness up into the Berwyn foothills. By the time we reach the end of the road to join a rather muddier bridleway, we are both out of breath and overheating under our waterproof coats, while the mist has thickened into a fog that reduces visibility to a hundred yards or so. We hear rather than see some voices ahead, presumably other walkers heading off to the main Berwyns ridge, their voices brought nearer by the weird sonic effects of the fog.

The final approach to the ring cairn is up a steep, grassy slope. The circle doesn’t come into view until we are almost at the top – luckily the fog is thin enough to at least show us where to go. The local sheep look on, bemused by the stupid humans coming into their midst in these conditions. Sadly, the far-reaching views from the ring cairn are entirely absent, but we do at least get plenty of solitude to enjoy the stones themselves.

The name, pronounced “Moil Tee Ickavv”, translates as “house on the highest bare hill”, which certainly seems apt today, when the undoubtedly higher hills normally visible in just about every direction are blanked out.

A rounded boulder lies a little way to the west, described by Burl as an outlier of the circle. The circle itself is made up of chunky stones, some round shouldered, others squared, not graded but nevertheless very aesthetically pleasing. There is a “gap” at the SSW, although the ring continues across it by use of seven or eight much smaller stones. Inside the ring are the remains of a cist or central cairn, on the largest stone of which someone has scratched a crude pentagram. Other than that, the place is devoid of signs of human intrusion, no litter or offerings (tat), just the stones on their grassy hilltop. Perfect.

The fog makes for a strangely intimate visit, not exactly claustrophobic, but there is a sense that the world may not extend much beyond our immediate surroundings. I’m reminded of the Doctor Who story “Warrior’s Gate”, where the TARDIS becomes trapped in a slowly-shrinking, featureless void between universes. A wonderful site this, but a return on a clear day is now assured.

We make our own escape from the void by dropping off the hilltop to the southwest, to investigate the two cairns shown on the map, somewhat unusually placed in the saddle between Moel Ty Uchaf and the rising ground to the east. The two cairns differ greatly in construction, the northeastern being a wide, low platform, kerbed liberally with small blocks of local quartz that stands out brightly against the turf covering much of the contruction. The southwestern cairn is much smaller, covered in several flat slabs of stone and overgrown with reeds. The stones of the circle standing proud on the hill above are visible from the cairns, an obvious relationship between them all.

Moel ty Uchaf — Images

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It’s late morning by now and the fog is showing no signs of lifting. I’m torn between a desire to climb at least one mountain and the more sensible option of heading off the hills, perhaps taking in a visit to Tyfos ring cairn. According to my little Nuttalls book, there is a one summit, the faintly ridiculously-named Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top), within reasonably easy reach of where we are. I suggest this to G/F as an objective and receive no objections, so we leave the cairns and join the stony track heading eastwards and upwards towards Pont Rydd-yr-hydd, an old stone bridge crossing the Nant Cyllyll that tumbles and splashes over broken rocks from the slopes above. Shortly after this we meet a group of trail riders out on their bikes, the first and last people we will encounter today.

Below Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top) is a memorial to “A Wayfarer, a lover of Wales”. We stop here for a snack before leaving the comfort of the track for a rougher path along the fence, heading north to the summit above us. The fog is thickening and progress is slow, but at length we reach the highest point we can find, a small pile of stones on top of an outcrop, at 621m OD. Not the most impressive for my first North Walian summit and G/F’s first Welsh mountain! Sadly there are still no views, so little to recommend this today. Not even a prehistoric summit cairn to cheer us.

From here we have to decide on a route onward, either to go back to the track and homewards or continue on to the most northerly of the Berwyns’ summits, Moel Fferna. With hindsight, the decision made here was the wrong one, but hey, that’s the problem with hindsight! We decide to go on, rather more my choice than G/F’s, it has to be said.

Moel Fferna — Fieldnotes

On the map, the route looks straightforward, with little in the way of ascent or descent over the three miles or so between Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top) and Moel Fferna. The Nuttalls helpfully inform us “a path has developed beside the fence which runs the whole way, making walking and route-finding quite straightforward”. Sounds fine, even on such a fog-bound day as today. What neither map nor guidebook tell us is just how miserable a slog the next three miles will turn out to be. For a start, on heading northeast we have found ourselves more exposed to a wind now blowing in keenly from our front-right. The wind carries with it a stinging rain, quickly lowering our temperature and splattering my glasses to render the already limited visibility almost non-existent. Secondly, the “path” that “has developed” is barely anything more than a boggy rut cutting through heather and mud. The surface is anything but level, every few steps requiring a detour around a crumbling peat hag or muddy pool. The heather drags at our shins, making each lift of the leg a trial.

With no visibility, it becomes near-impossible to gauge how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Instead, we concentrate all our efforts into placing our feet and forcing ourselves on into the soaking, freezing wind. Although there is little real up-and-down, each minor rise becomes an impediment of cliff-like proportions. By the time we reach Cerrig Coediog, we’ve pretty much had enough, but we’re so close that it would be a waste of our efforts so far to turn back. We plod on down to the bwlch, from where one last climb to the summit awaits us.

At first a broad, muddy path heads away north, but soon reaches an area of waterlogged, impassable bog. The only option is to divert around to the west, but this involves leaving the path to force a way through the tough heather that characterises these Berwyns slopes. Progress is very, very difficult. G/F’s leg is playing up at the constant lifting needed to negotiate the vegetation. Despite waterproof boots, her feet are now quite wet (mine aren’t much better) and there is little in the way of enjoyment to be had from any of this. Eventually we hit a narrow path running laterally across our route, we still can’t see the summit so it’s difficult to know how far we have left to go. We take this and soon meet up with the main path again, still making its way north and upwards.

The final straw looms out of the mist in the shape of a stile. You know those stiles that you sometimes find on uphill routes where even getting your leg onto the lowest board is a struggle? One of those. I have been with my G/F for a long time, but never have I seen such an expression of “I’m going to kill you” as I do when she sees this stile. Any comment I could make along the lines of “nearly there” is unlikely to help now. But we climb the stile and plod on, across yet more featureless bog.

At last, a shape looms out of the mist ahead of us. The unmistakable shape of a sizeable summit cairn. We’ve made it! It’s taken us 1 hour and 50 minutes since leaving Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top) but it feels like several weeks have passed. Much as I dislike the idea of a Bronze Age summit cairn being turned into a shelter, we have little choice but to embrace its waiting charms. The only solution now is hot tea, and quickly.

Perhaps it’s because we’re British, but the restorative power of hot tea, even the metallic variety from a cheap flask, should not be underestimated. Out of the wind and rain, we start to feel like we may survive the walk back to the bus. Suitably envigorated, I also take some time to have a look at the cairn that we’ve come so far to see. It’s a big bugger, despite its mistreatment over the years. Slumped on one side, there is still a substantial amount of material here. Just a shame that the undoubtedly superb views are absent today. Some snow still clings to the base of the cairn, a reminder that it’s only February and we’re above 2,000 ft here.

Moel Fferna — Images

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We take our leave once we’re feeling warmer and re-energised. We head back the way we had come, but somehow manage to find a slightly easier route back to the bwlch without resorting to quite the heathery nightmare of the way up. We elect to take the easiest route we can back to Cynwyd, following a relatively easy footpath heading WNW. A few days earlier I had discovered the Nant Croes-Y-Wernen stone circle on Coflein, but although it’s only a few hundred yards away, it might as well be a thousand miles now. One for Postie to be the first to get to!

The way through Cynwyd Forest is easy, losing height rapidly along firm forestry tracks. At length and with much relief we reach the village, where we have a cold and tired 40 minute wait for the next bus back to Llangollen. Our introduction to the mountains of North Wales has hardly been auspicious, but what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, so they say. To misquote a certain northern singer, we can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible. Here’s to the foggy, boggy Berwyns.
thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
28th July 2013ce
Edited 28th July 2013ce

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