Cadair Idris, Land of Legend

I promised in a recent trip report to write a post about why it is I have such a soft spot for Cadair Idris and its surroundings, and this is it. I’ve been hiking Cadair several times a year since my first year of university and in all of those years and all of those trips to its summit, I’ve never once had a bad hike, regardless of the weather. This is because, for me, Cadair has it all.

The Cadair Idris massif rises near to Dolgellau in the far south of the Snowdonia National Park. As such, Cadair is one of the closest and most accessible of the large peaks of Snowdonia for anyone venturing here from mid or south Wales. Once you hit the Snowdonia National Park boundary at Machynlleth, crossing the River Dovey, you need only drive another twenty minutes or so to reach Cadair Gates, the National Trust car park marked on the map as ‘Dol Y Cae’ near Minffordd.

If you were to hike the standard ‘tourist path’ up from Cadair Gates, you’d be struck by several immediate impressions of the mountain. The first is the awesome glacial cirque housing Llyn Cau, Cadair’s largest lake, and a popular destination in itself for many of the tourists hiking up from the Cadair Gates car park. Cadair has mountain architecture on a truly massive scale, and the Minfordd path route up to the summit sweeps around the full arc of the glacial cirque on its way to the summit and back. Hidden from view as you hike up from Minfordd, but in view for much of the route up the Pony Path from the Dolgellau side is the stunning Cyfrwy Arete, a jagged knife-edge of rock that in winter comprises a serious Alpine-level challenge.

But as you move through this landscape towards the summit you may also be struck by traces of the ancient history of this mountain and its grand place in Welsh mythology and legend. Cadair Idris means the ‘Chair (or throne) of Idris’, a figure reputed to have been either an ancient Welsh giant or a great Welsh warrior. Welsh tradition held that the Druidic bards could not be considered to have completed their training until they had spent a night on the summit, a feat which to this day is meant to bestow the gift of poetry, madness or death upon those who attempt it. Having done this several times over the years I’m either mad, or a poet. I’ll let you decide which.

Llyn Cau, which nestles at the floor of the cirque as you approach from Minfordd, is named for one of King Arthur’s knights, known in the English tradition as Sir Kay, but more properly Cau. Arthur himself and his band of warriors were in fact Welsh, and the key agents of the propagation of the Arthurian legends in England, medieval chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth, borrowed the tomes detailing the exploits of this great Welsh warrior from Welsh monasteries. The patrons who paid for this research weren’t about to allow these men to set the stories in their true setting of Wales, however; they were to be set upon the lands owned by the patrons in English counties such as Somerset and Gloucestershire. When you look at the map of Cadair Idris however the truth of Arthur’s real origins in Wales is laid bare.

For those wishing to spend the night on the summit, Cadair obliges, since its summit plateau is crowned with a stone shelter large enough to accommodate a good number of people, plus there’s ample space for camping if the shelter is full. Hallowe’en, which falls on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain is an especially interesting time to climb to the summit, since if you camp there on Hallowe’en the Hounds of Hell are meant to tear across the mountain top, plucking up the souls of the damned as they pass. There is also a much gentler aspect to Cadair Idris’ nature too though. The National Nature Reserve through which the Minfordd path passes after leaving the car park contains a small Site of Special Scientific Interest, set up to preserve the extremely rare Purple Saxifrage which blooms there each year.

Altogether, the Cadair Idris range has a little bit of something for everyone. If you want Alpine-style challenge, do the arete in winter. If you fancy a good scrambling route to the summit, take the path up from the head wall of Llyn Cau. If you want a straightforward ascent that gives you the full sweeping view of the mountain’s guts, take the Minfordd path, and if you fancy something a bit different, hike up the Pony Path from the Dolgellau side. Whatever you do and however you chose to hike Cadair Idris, make sure you take it all in. This is an incredibly special place, hallowed and steeped in ancient legend; savour your time here, for this is a mountain to be treasured.

 

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