A Welsh Trilogy
by Pat Lloyd
THE NANT BRAICH-Y-RHIW
The Autumn meet at Llangollen YH was a good excuse to extend the weekend into ten days so on the Sunday afternoon when the others returned to the hostel Fred and I made our way to Corwen to find a B&B as the youth hostel at Cynwyd had closed the previous evening. The following morning after a monster breakfast we set off into the teeth of a gale over the Hirnant to Lake Vrynwy where Fred was blown off his bike into a ditch as we crossed over to the Bwlch-y-groes. The strong wind made us some of the few people who can have ridden down the Bwlch-y-groes without having to brake, very exhilarating! A torrential downpour drove us into the Red Lion at Dinas Mawddwy for our second night of B&B as the continuous deluge left us disinclined for the ride on to Corris YH.
After a night of gales and heavy rain the lane down the valley was awash with water and littered with broken twigs and fallen leaves. We crossed the river Dovey by the fancy new cycleway bridge with only one heavy shower sending us into a convenient bus shelter. Armed with several of John's Rough-Stuff membership forms we crossed from the cafe to the cycle shop in Machynlleth's main street ready to spout our spiel about the Rough-Stuff Fellowship and the Easter Meet to find that Annie from the Bogtrotters was now living in the area and working in the cycle shop. It was some time later when we finally left retracing across the river and turning left along the A493 through Pennal to Cwt. Here a narrow lane climbed through woods which sheltered us during our second cloudburst. Our brand new ready-for-Easter map showed a road used as a path crossing the hills by the Nant Braich-y-rhiw which looked an interesting alternative to Cycle Route 8 through Happy Valley.
We left the lane at a cottage at GR669998 just before a nasty looking arrow on the map and once through a gate were on a good two-line track climbing alongside a wall. After a short push up the way veered to the right and became quite a struggle with drainage barriers across the path unsuccessfully directing the running water to the side. We climbed for some time crossing several streams and needing a few diversions where the path was under water; one part must always be wet as there were what looked to be water lily leaves floating on the surface. We were almost at the top at 317 metres when we came to a crossroads of tracks: the one on the left seemed to be a foot path and dropped steeply down into Happy Valley while the right hand path followed the ridge and disappeared off our map. We kept straight ahead and once over the highest part we were able to ride for the first time since leaving tarmac. We dropped down to yet another ford with a ruined bothy on the hillside across on the left; this seemed a good spot for a belated lunch at 3.30.
There had already been several gates to open and there was another after lunch with a deep section of water. Fortunately some kind person had laid a plank over so we were able to cross the worst part dry footed. There was now a deep valley on our left with the track on a shelf above a rushing stream and we were able to ride for the rest of the way to where a new sheep pen appeared on the right. From here we were on tarmac and had a terrific descent down a narrow lane to cross the Talyllyn Railway at Rhyd-yr-onen. It had taken us two hours for approximately four miles so there was no way we would have time to do the other track we had planned by Cwm Uwyd down to the Mawddach estuary, so apart from the lanes by Tonfanam it was the A493 to Fairbourne. As Kings hostel was on the Rent-a-hostel period, it was B&B at the Fairbourne Hotel which we shared with a group of school children on an activity week
We had a rather late start next morning as the hotel wanted to get the children's breakfast over with first. By the time that we had had a look at the narrow gauge railway, which runs down the peninsula to link up with the summer ferry to Barmouth, it had got to 10 o'clock. We found our way onto the Mawddach Trail, this being the disused railway line running alongside the estuary to Dolgellau. We had an easy ride with a helping wind to the George III Hotel beside the wooden toll bridge which crosses the Afon Mawddach at Penmaenpool. After paying our 25 pences we chatted to the toll keeper, Fred almost convincing him to pack it all in and get on his bike and head for Norway.
It was the A496 as far as Bontddu where we turned right up a steep lane which had us walking for the next couple of miles to a gateway. Here a bridleway sign, complete with a picture of a horse, directed us onto the old Harlech to London coach road which we intended to follow to Llanbedr. A short push up a grassy track brought us to a weathered milestone with Harlech 10 miles on one side and Talybont 5 miles on the other. This was decision time as the Harlech track was disappearing up the hillside into dense cloud, while the other path seemed to contour along the hillside and cross the hills lower down over the Bwlch y Rhiwgyr. If we were not going to see anything it was hardly worth the slog up, so with that settled we took the left hand track and were able to ride along a grassy path with all the streams bridged with large flagstones.
It became rather messy underfoot where the track became walled as the black Welsh cattle had infiltrated from the moor and left their marks and had also churned up the surface with their hooves. Our map showed that there should be a wood on our left and as we climbed higher we could see that there had been extensive logging since our 1974 map and that we were on the correct route. It was all rideable to a gate where our good track kept straight ahead towards some farm buildings. The short white wooden posts which had been marking the route directed us to the right and after a hundred yards we turned left up the hillside on a path which zig-zagged up the steeper parts before slanting across to the nick on the skyline which was the Bwlch y Rhiwgyr.
There were extensive views in front to the sea and behind us the Mawddach estuary glinted steel grey under the clouds while on our right the Harlech to London coach road was still hidden in thick mist. It had taken us an hour and a half from the milestone to here and as the wind was whistling through the gap we hastily opened the gate in the wall which crossed the summit of the pass and with a cairn on our right we headed down a steep narrow valley with a wall on our right. At the next gate the ground levelled enough for us to ride and with the wall now on our left we rode across moorland, dropping gradually for the next couple of miles to where we joined a well made track alongside an ancient wood. A gate on the left opened onto a metalled lane with another horse bridleway sign pointing back the way we had come. It was now 2 o'clock, it having taken us 2 hours for 4 miles, so we had lunch out of the wind.
With only about 5 miles to Llanbedr, where we hoped to stay at the hostel, Fred was persuaded to extend our roughstuff by turning right along a good track which according to our map joined the Harlech to London road above the Pont Seethin. This had the yellow footpath signs but was shown as a bridleway on our map. A wide two rutted track gradually climbed towards the hills and was rideable in parts but very wet underfoot. There was a deep fast flowing ford where the stream from Llyn Irddyn crossed the path but higher up a large flag bridged the water. An old broken water main ran alongside and Fred wondered how many people it had seen off as it was made out of asbestos. We had several gates which fortunately all opened with varying degrees of difficulty and lastly a very boggy stretch thick with reeds before we finally joined the old Harlech road. This we could see slanting up the hillside and disappearing into the clouds which still had not dispersed.
The way down to the Pont Seethin was made up of large uneven flags so hopefully the surface had been better in the past or the coach passengers would have had a rough ride. We took the obligatory photo of the bridge and wondered how many other cyclists had done the same over the years. A very wet climb brought us to a good metalled track which seemed to be a water board road leading from Llyn Bodlyn higher up on the right. We turned left and had an easy ride for half a mile before turning right through a gate back onto the Harlech road. This was now a sunken trench filled with water and reeds, so we did as everyone else seemed to have done and walked on the right above it. Once through another gate things improved and it became a wide grassy track that we could ride. After the next gate we had a double line metalled lane with grass down the middle and reached the final gate which had flowerpots filled with plants on the gate post, a sign that we were near civilisation. From here we were on tarmac and keeping straight on at every junction we had a superb drop down to Llanbedr for 4.30. An excellent day with 15.5 miles off-road counting the Mawddach Cycleway.
BWLCH Y DDEUFAEN
The following day was easier, keeping on roads through Beddgelert to the excellent Snowdon Ranger hostel. We were to meet Fred's son at Bangor the next day so spent some time at the Electric Mountain Exhibition at Llanberis before joining the cycleway along the disused railway from Tregarth. This deposited us on the quay at Bangor only a few hundred yards from the hostel. It was a good few years since we had used the Roman road from Aber to Roewen which had been the way from the fort at Caerhun to Caernarvon. We were soon on the cycleway which took us firstly along the old main road and then along a narrow lane which brought us to Aber where unfortunately the cafe didn't open until 11 o'clock. The steep lane had us walking, passing start of the nature trail to the Aber Falls. These would have been spectacular after all the rain. The map showed lots of Vs so we kept on walking passing brambles loaded with luscious blackberries to where the tarmac ended at a gate.
The first 100 yards of the Roman road were stony but we were soon able to ride where the gradient allowed. After doubling back towards the lane the track slanted across the hillside following the ugly electricity pylons and with extensive views of Anglesey and Puffin Island on our left. After about a mile we reached a crossroads where a substantial wooden signpost pointed ahead for Roewen. All the fords had been rideable until we reached the one before the summit. This was deep and fast flowing but a helpful line of boulders made a dry crossing.
Once at the highest point a gate in the wall brought us to the standing stones which gave the pass its name - Bwlch y Ddeufaen, the Pass of the Two Stones. There was one on the left with the second about a hundred yards further on to the right of the path. A short ride and we were at the gate which marked the end of the track, alongside a small car park, and then we were on tarmac. It had taken us 1.5 hours for approx 3 miles but we hadn't quite finished as where the lane veered to the right we kept straight on along a wet stony lane which we rode in parts. Once through a gate near where the burial chamber of Maen y Bardd was above on the hillside we had along stretch of excellent turf which brought us to Roewen YH.
We had had a mixed bag on accommodation ranging from hotel to B and B and youth hostel but our final night found us at St Winifride's Pilgrims Rest at Holywell. There had been a dearth of B&B on the lanes from St Asaph and it was getting dark as we stood in the main street of Holywell looking lost. A man took pity on us and told us the nuns would look after us and directed us to the hospice where a Buddhist monk opened the door and sent us to Sister Mary who produced an excellent meal long after the other guests had eaten. We had a twin room and an excellent breakfast all for the princely sum of £20 each so next morning we felt obliged to find out rather more about St Winifride and walked down the hill to visit the holy well.
Apparently St Winifride was a religious young woman who lived about 600AD. She unfortunately attracted the unwelcome attention of the local chief's son who, on being spurned, cut off her head. Where her head fell a spring appeared with curative powers and luckily for her she had an uncle who was a saint who restored her head. Since then the spring has been made into a rectangular pool with a ramp and is known as the Lourdes of Wales. Set amongst gardens with a very old chapel to St Winifride it is rather a special place. The lady herself is in the abbey church at Shrewsbury. Thanks to some excellent new gaiters we managed to keep our feet dry in spite of hitting the monsoon part of the promised Indian summer.
Maps used: OS 146 and 147
First published the RSF Journal in 2002