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.


Walking through time

Head out into the countryside almost anywhere in the UK and you’re stepping back into a landscape filled with traces of the past. The UK has been occupied by people since the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, and it was occupied in the preceding interglacial period as well. The truth is that all around us there are dozens of traces of former cultures to be spotted; all you need to do is know where to look for them.

Some of the traces are very obvious of course; there can be no mistaking Stonehenge. But many are much more subtle, tiny little details that belie the ancient past of an area of ground. That sunken lane you wander through, trees over topping it and thick hedgerows on either side, likely marks the ancient boundary between two huge parcels of land. An earthen berm was built at each edge of the two parcels of land to separate them, and the dip between the two became a logical walkway. Over hundreds of years as the ploughs turned at the edge of the berm, the line became a permanent feature of the landscape. Thousands of pairs of feet wandering along in the dip between the berms created a trackway along the boundary, and as time went on and the land was enclosed hedgerows developed on either side. These natural lanes were sometimes developed into proper roads and sometimes left to nature; from them we have the holloways that can be found especially in the softer, chalkier soils of the South of England.

Again, looking across a quiet valley at a field on the other side, you might spot traceable lines underlying the modern surface, where hundreds of years of annual ploughing have left a permanent mark on the land. You may look up to that rounded hill in the distance and wonder why there is a hedge running in a circle near the top, or some definite lines running around the circumference of the hill. Again, it’s probable that the hill you are looking at, even if not marked on the map as such, had an earthen bank and ditch enclosure near the summit and was a defensive point. These were a defining feature of pre-Roman Britain, and the image accompanying this post shows one of my local examples at Coed Alltfedw; in the trees it is still possible to trace details of the earthworks that surrounded this site.

Once you start to know where to look, the whole landscape looks somehow changed and much richer. Each wander out reveals new features and helps to place you in the landscape, gives you a connection to all the hundreds of generations that have walked these paths before, have looked out at the same views, seen the same fields and trees and rivers. You are no longer just walking through the twenty-first century, but are immutably transported back through time, walking through the last four or five thousand years as well.

There are quite a few books out there that go into far more detail than I can here about the way our countryside has developed. A great starting point is F.G. Hoskin’s classic The Making of the English Landscape.  For a really vivid description of life in truly ancient Britain I’d recommend Frances Pryor’s book Britain B.C. Frances is one of the most influential and highly regarded archaeologists in Britain today and was for many years a key team member on Channel 4’s series Time Team. He has an excellent blog, In the Long Run, from where you can purchase many of his books.

Wherever you are in Britain I can guarantee you that the ancient lies beneath your feet and can probably still be seen no more than a few miles from your home in the fields and lanes around you. So next time you shoulder your rucksack and head out, keep your eyes peeled for those telltale lines in the landscape and see how far back in time you can go!