All the secret places

_MG_8730_resultOne of the great joys for me of living in an area has always been the thrill of exploring all the hidden corners and less well-known places scattered around. It seems very often to be the case that people generate a certain set of ideas about an area and then act accordingly. So it is that Snowdonia has certain areas that are overwhelmed with tourists and visitors every year (Snowdon, the Ogwen Valley area, Cadair Idris) and others, sometimes mere miles away, that see virtually no footfall whatsoever, such as the Arans, Rhinogs and Berwyns.

As I make my hour long drive to work every morning I see roads leading off enticingly into high moorland, and narrow little one track lanes leading off the main trunk roads towards hillsides, forests and lakes, and I try to take note and promise myself I’ll get around to exploring them when I have the time.

Travelling south out of Aberystwyth on the main highway towards Llangurig and Rhyader, you sweep around the flanks of the Plylimon massif, a region of territory in which, as is the case with its larger neighbours to the north, finds itself beset by crowds tackling its namesake peak, but which features vast swathes of wilderness largely unkwon to the casual tourist. Long before you reach the convenient lay by near Eisteddfa Gurig from which the most direct ascent of Plynlimon can be made, you sweep through Ponterwyd, a hamlet a few miles from Devil’s Bridge (home of the famous waterfalls) and itself a place with secrets hidden away, like the mountain bothy tucked into the forests over the ridgeline.

Take the road north out of Aberystwyth towards Machynlleth and distant Snowdonia, and you pass through a chain of hamlets whose names have become etched in my memory as gatekeepers along the road back towards my university town and the many friends I made there down the years; Tre’er Ddol, Tre Taliesin, Glandyfi, Bow Street, Talybont.

Between Ponterwyd, to the south of Aberystwyth, in the heart of the Plynlimons, and Talybont to the north, stretches a fifteen mile long road which climbs steeply up from Talybont, hugging the side of Cwm Ceulan with precipitous drops into the valley below, before reaching a high mountain pass and turning in a series of sweeping corners towards mighty Nant y Moch reservoir. From here the road bowls along through the high, wild moorland plateau before eventually crossing the reservoir and dropping down towards sleepy Ponterwyd far below.

The terrain crossed by this gem of a road is every bit as ancient, windswept, wild and remote as the moorland that cloaks Plynlimon’s subsidiary peaks, where last year I wandered for hours without seeing a soul on my way to the source of the River Severn and the River Wye. It is a land of heather, boggy upland and forest where the wind rushes freely and where you can easily stop and listen to absolute silence.

 

Having recently discovered this wilderness playground, I drove out a few weeks ago and climbed up to the pass from the Ponterwyd side, making mental notes of likely good points for photography and stargazing as I went. Parking my car at the pass, I crossed the infant Afon Ceulan and hiked up to the summit of a small rocky prominence to take in the full sweep of the mountain road plunging into the valley below. From here, nestled among the crags, I could see for miles down into Ceredigion’s coastal plain, and far out to sea. I lingered, taking photographs and playing with perspectives, admiring the stunning view and savouring the solitude.

Turning back, I wandered back to the car and left it behind as I struck off ahead onto the minor track that led away from the mountain road, into the hills beyond. The trackway led to some long-abandoned mining works, traces of a long dead industry that now, as they crumbled slowly away year by year, were being reclaimed by nature, and rebeautified by her. Moving on in the bright sunlight of early afternoon with a sky of intensely deep blue throwing a lovely contrast with the gold of the moorland slopes and the deep greens of the evergreen forests, every view that caught my eye lifted my spirits, and the solitude of my sojourn was refreshing.

Distantly on the map was marked a point which intrigued me, a ‘Plas Y Mynach’ marked as an angler’s retreat by the side of a huge lake apparently generated through the construction of the reservoirs that throng the area. As readers will know I’m always ready to go on a mission to find a secluded cabin in the wilderness, and so I pressed on, wondering what I’d find, and whether it’d be open when I got there. The trudge there was warm in the clear heat of a mid spring day, the year reaching that lovely tipping point where you know that warm days have once again become the norm, and the promise of summer is just around the corner.

I made my way along side trails, crossing, and criss-crossing the main track just to see what lay around each corner, part of my process of exploration, of getting to know the land and of taking the time to uncover its secrets. Gradually, I reached a vantage point from where I could see the hut nestled below, and worked my way down to the trail which led over boggy ground towards its back gate.

Here, unfortunately, I found the gate padlocked, and the whole building sadly locked up, although the carefully mown lawn outside the front door by the path leading down to the small jetty and boathouse showed that someone clearly looked in on the place on a regular basis. It was definitely a secluded spot, and I knew just from a cursory view of the skyline that this would be an incredible place for astronomy on a clear night. I vowed to come back.

After a placid half hour just taking in the peace and tranquility, I made a gradual way back along the tracks and pathways towards the road over the pass. It had been an excellent afternoon of hiking and general exploration, and underpinning it all was the knowledge that this entire vast landscape was mine to explore freely, whenever I had the chance. I will never be a rich man in worldly goods, but I have the freedom of the hills, which give riches beyond measure, and fill my life with treasures of peace and fulfilment which money could never buy. Not for the first time, as I drove back down towards civilisation, I left the hills feeling incredibly lucky, already planning my return.

Trail into the unknown

There’s a misconception out there that basically says that adventures have to be grandiose things, expeditions requiring supply drops, remote unexplored territories and, if the weather’s polar, a team of huskies for good measure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking epic adventures and I’m the first to admit I’m captivated by the great tales of exploration out there brought to us by the likes of Shackleton and Magellan.

But we mustn’t forget that the unknown is everywhere around us, and that unless you happen to know every inch of your local area in detail, there’s very likely an unexplored corner of your world just on your doorstep. Seen in this light, adventure is all around us waiting to be had; all it takes is to don on a pair of hiking boots and decide it’s time for a hike.

I’ve been exploring the trail local to chez moi for a few months now, and it never ceases to amaze me how much beauty and tranquility there is packed away in this peaceful little valley in which I live. Not far from my home runs a trail which, in one direction, beelines towards the hills and high moorland around Cwmystwyth, and from which I could strike out onto the rest of the national trail network, hiking or biking as far as the Welsh border, if I wanted to (and further beyond, too). Until now however I haven’t hiked along the trail in the other direction, because that direction heads eventually after a peaceful mile or two towards a well-known Welsh seaside town and it was the direction that led off into the hills that had my interest first.

But the thing is, much as I might be very familiar with the eventual destination of the trail, I hadn’t a baldy what really lay along the route to get there as I hadn’t actually bothered to hike it yet. Therefore, a trail into the unknown lay at my feet, and I decided to hike. I set off under a beautiful blue sky, the storm of the previous evening having well and truly passed through leaving warmth and far more summer-like conditions in its wake. The trail ran along the river, eventually meeting a side trail to a secluded beach, probably known only to locals. As I headed further on, I moved past the disused railway bridge at which there is a junction for a minor road back onto the main road through the valley, and pressed on down the bridleway that led enticingly into the trees beyond.

The trail afforded sweeping views over peaceful meadows, and once again I felt lucky to live in such a beautiful little corner of Wales, with pastoral  vistas everywhere I looked and tranquility to be found around every corner. About a mile further on I stopped to take a look at a noticeboard and a few benches placed just off the trail, to discover that Natural Resources Wales had handed the woodland here over to a charity community group who were replanting ancient native species in order to improve biodiversity. They’d set up trails in the forestry beyond, and looking at my map I began hatching a plan for my return route.

I hiked the next mile into the hamlet beyond rapidly, and as the trail dropped down to meet the main road into town a few miles beyond I turned about and began heading back, with the weather still holding up nicely. It wasn’t long before I was back in the forestry again and, taking a more detailed look at the map, I plotted out a route that would take me up to the top of the ridge and then over the farmland beyond, from where I could intercept the tiny minor road that would then drop steeply back into the valley and leave me with only a short walk back to the house.

I set off up the trail taking the highest of the available routes, steadily climbing on the graded tracks. Here and there, information boards had been placed by examples of particular species of tree, including one I couldn’t remember encountering in the UK before, the Noble Fir. As I pressed on I spotted a wooden building through the trees, and sure enough, it looked as though the volunteers who’d built all the benches by the trail below had put together a small shack in the trees, complete with a fully enclosed roof, benches and seats for a group. It had the feeling of a secluded, secret hideaway, nestled as it was amongst the trees, hidden even from the other nearby trails that formed part of the woods. This in a nutshell pointed up what I love about hiking around with no particular aim in mind but to explore all the local trails and side trails. If I’d just stuck to the main trail through the valley below and not come exploring, I’d have had no idea that this place even existed; I felt as though I’d been let in on a secret known only to a few people.

Leaving the shack behind, I pressed on upwards and gained impressive views through the trees to the other side of the valley beyond. Eventually the trail left the treeline and broke out onto high pasture. Crossing fields, I got ever improving views in all directions as I neared the height of the land, before finally topping out as I joined the minor road and got a brilliant view out to Cardigan Bay behind me with the grey-green brooding hills of Plynlimon, Cwmystwyth and the Elan region completing the panorama.

Wherever I go on my travels I try to keep an eye out for good sites for astronomy, and this place seemed ideal. There was an almost completely unobstructed view of the sky in all directions, and high up at the top of the ridgeline overlooking the peaceful valley below, there was no chance of light pollution posing any real problems. With a clear night, especially in winter, this spot should provide an excellent base for observing deep sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the beautiful Triangulum Galaxy, three million light years distant.

As I headed back down the road wended its way through wildflowers, and butterflies were making the most of the sunlight and warmth. It wasn’t long before I was back down at the original trail again, and making the short journey from there back to the house. It had been an enjoyable afternoon hike and, as with all good hikes, I’d found plenty of interesting details just off the beaten track where they’d been waiting to be discovered. If I’d not headed out this afternoon, I’d still be oblivious to the existence of a peaceful hideaway in the woods, and I’d have had no idea that there’s a window to the deep cosmos less than a mile from home. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to find adventure on your doorstep.

Thoughts

It’s occurred to me that one feature that might be nice to add to this blog would be range profiles. A few of my blog posts stray pretty close to giving a detailed description of some of the mountain ranges of Wales anyway, so creating a distinct feature on the site for each range struck me as a logical step forward.

Another reason for doing this is that as I continue to make progress on the Welsh 2000+ list, I’m going to be delving into all sorts of uncharted territory that I’ve never hiked before, and it’s only natural that I’ll get to know a given range of mountains quite well as time goes by. As such, readers who might not be all that familiar with the Welsh mountain ranges can discover them with me as I encounter them for the first time myself. Readers who know the ranges well will doubtless have suggestions as to interesting places to visit within each range, good routes to try or wild camping options. Hopefully, the range profiles can become another way in which I can interact with readers as the blog grows and gather a bit of a community of hikers around it. Also, they’d provide a logical place to attach my trip reports to, helping to anchor these more firmly into the fabric of the blog’s content.

Well, those are my thoughts for now, let me know what you think, and if you have any other suggestions for the direction of the blog, let me know.

Plans, plans plans!

I’ve found over the years that much of the fun of striking out on the trail is in the planning of a trip, and planning is something of an art form. In the ideal plan, you need to have the basic elements of an adventure but you also need to leave things flexible enough that things don’t become too prescriptive and you end up becoming a slave to your timetable. After all, the purpose of having an adventure in the first place is to get away from the normal and for most of us that involves a 9-5 routine.

At present I’m planning the details of an upcoming week off work in mid-August. Towards the end of the week I’ve got plans to hike the ten mile Mawddach Trail which runs between Dolgellau and Barmouth along the route of the old Barmouth-Ruabon railway line. In terms of distance it’s not a huge trail but I’ll be hiking it with some old friends and we’re likely to be investigating the pubs en-route so it should be memorable!

So that’s the end of the week sorted, what about the rest? Well my partner Liz is off to go and train in Kung Fu at a Shaolin temple in Maylasia soon (as you do!) and should be returning mid week, so I think a spot of bivvying or bothying somewhere in Snowdonia should be in order. With regard to mountains I have two big target ranges to investigate at the moment, the Arans, a spectacular set of peaks rising not far from Cadair Idris, and of course the Carneddau. I suspect the eventual winner of the ‘which range will I go and climb’ contest will have a lot to do with my general energy levels, the weather and how far I can be bothered to drive, but I have good reasons to set myself up for a hike of either range.

For one, both are ranges I’ve never set foot on before which is a good enough reason to go to either of them in itself, but also each range harbours several peaks on the list of Welsh 2000+ ft mountains, with the Carneddau hosting a whopping 22 of them. Don’t worry, I’m not planning to do all 22 Carneddau peaks in one massive outing, but each of the ranges has interesting options for camping and bivvying, and there’s a little-known bothy tucked away in a quiet corner of the Carneddau which needs to be visited.

All in all there’s plenty for me to get my teeth into and there should be a good few trip reports generated by it all, so watch this space!

A new Corbett!

Scotland has a new Corbett! Yes that’s right, it turns out there’s another mountain north of the border that qualifies as a member of the Scottish 2500-3000ft mountain club. The ‘new’ Corbett in question is the mighty Cnoch Coinnich, which lies close to Loch Goil in Argyll and Bute. How can there be a ‘new’ member of a list of mountains above a certain height, I hear you ask?

Well the answer in this case lies in improvements in surveying technology. The process of mapping the British Isles has been one of continual improvements since the original nineteenth century surveys were undertaken by the Ordnance Survey, those brilliant folks who not only mapped our mountains for us but have left their iconic calling cards, the venerable trig pillars, as testament to their hard work, effort and expertise. As time has gone by, errors and discrepancies have been ironed out, improved datasets have enabled more stringent calculations to be made, and technological advances have enabled ever more accurate measurements of even the tiniest details of the terrain to be mapped out. A major improvement over the 1930s-era surveys came when the Ordnance Survey began a comprehensive aerial study of Britain from the late 1940s onwards, and one of the favoured technologies used to refine contour mapping datasets these days is the use of air to ground lasers to build up a detailed picture of the exact nature of the surface, in the same way that a ship might use sonar to create an accurate map of the ocean floor. Additionally, the Ordnance Survey have two aircraft as part of their Flying Unit which, equipped with 196 megapixel cameras, take high resolution images of the ground from November to February every year in order to refine mapping information (by capturing, for example, newly-built areas of towns, changes in field boundaries, etc).

Despite the increasing precision of measurement afforded in general surveying however there is incredibly still room for refinement, and there are numerous mountains whose height is at or near the borderline of a category that might end up being promoted or demoted as survey accuracy improves. So it is that Sgurr nan Ceannaichean and Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh, previously considered Munros, were recently demoted to Corbett status following more detailed survey work.

For a mountain to reach Corbett status it must pass the magic 762 m (2500 ft) mark, and must have at least 500 ft of vertical height separating it from its nearest neighbours (a requirement that doesn’t apply to the Munros, interestingly). In the case of Cnoch Coinnich, a survey team headed up the previously 761m mountain in May with a Global Navigation Satellite System receiver and allowed two hours to pass as the relative altitude of the receiver to the satellites above was precisely calculated. The result? Cnoch Coinnich is actually 763.5 metres high, comfortably making it a Corbett, and meaning that future editions of OS maps mark it with a rounded up 764m height. I suppose this means I’ve got another one to put on the list now!

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.

 

Photoshop Working Again!

Just a quick update this evening to let you all know that I have Photoshop working. I’d not updated it in some time due to my recent house move but it’s finally back up to speed and fully updated, too. This is good news because it means I can fairly effortlessly update this blog with photographs from my various hikes, and to start as I mean to go on, I’ve uploaded the image given here to my recent trip report about my hike up Goatfell last year.

This view was taken from the summit of Goatfell in the early evening September sunlight, looking out to sea over the island. I hope it conveys what a brilliant place Arran is. I can highly recommend this island and I plan to go back in the not too distant future and tackle the remaining hills that I’ve not yet done. That’s all for me for this evening but there’ll be plenty more to follow tomorrow.

When you can’t be on the hills

When I’m not actually hiking on the hills and mountains, I’m usually reading something related to them. This doesn’t always have to be a book of course (I spend far more of my time than is probably healthy poring over maps planning out new routes to try out one day, even more so now I have the excellent OS Maps app for Android). But, generally speaking, I’ve found that I tend to have a book about the hills relatively close at hand most of the time.

From time to time I’ll do reviews of mountain-related books, but for today I’m going to go over a few of the books I’ve really enjoyed reading over the years, many of which I dip into time and again, especially on the winter nights where darkness precludes hiking (unless I get into night hiking at some point in the future I suppose!)

An absolute favourite series of books (I’m sure a great many of you reading this will concur) has to be Alfred Wainwright’s classic Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, produced in seven volumes. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the 50th Anniversary edition at Christmas a few years ago and they’ve travelled with me everywhere since, always kept close at hand. These books, from the character of their presentation, to the traces of Wainwright’s humour sprinkled throughout, to the beautiful imagery within them, are a true homage to hill walking, managing to capture something of that sense of adventure we all feel when heading out onto the fells and contain it within each volume. Each individual fell is lovingly presented with all sorts of details about the surroundings, local traditions and individual features that no other guide somehow manages to capture. These are books to relish.

Another of my favourite books is Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, which explores Western civilization’s changing perceptions of and attitudes to mountains. Macfarlane charts the change from a general shunning of mountains to the veritable mountain worship we see around us today, where every high street has an outdoors shop and hiking up to the hills is one of the nation’s favourite pastimes. More than this however, Macfarlane also details his own changing attitudes to the mountains (going from adrenaline junkie to more placid connoisseur of the hills) and parallels this with Mallory’s obsession with climbing Everest, an obsession which eventually proved to be fatal. I’ve read all of Macfarlane’s books bar his latest (which is on my list of books to buy) and can highly recommend them all. They’re beautifully written and thought-provoking works that’ll inspire you to put on a pair of boots and get out to the hills.

Another must have for all British peak baggers has to be The Mountains of England and Wales by John and Anne Nutall. The Nutalls catalogued the English and Welsh peaks over 2000ft, for which service to peak-bagging these peaks now hold their surname as an eponym, in just the same way that Lakeland fells are now often referred to as ‘Wainwrights’. We can go further down the rabbit hole by saying all Wainwrights are Nutalls of course, but not every Nutall is a Wainwright…anyway I digress. This two volume book is an essential resource for anyone seriously contemplating bagging all the Welsh 2000 footers (as I am), but one of the many things I like about it is that the artwork and drawings for the book hark back to Wainwright, having something of that surveyor’s hand-drawn quality about them. This is a great book to read while you can’t be out hiking, and it’ll spur you on to making many more trips into the hills.

Finally, I love reading about a bona fide adventure, and in my younger years was seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada, spurred on in no small part by the sheer beauty of Canada’s vast wildernesses. In my avid quest to find out as much about Canada as I possibly could stumbled upon the writings of R.M. Patterson, a former banker from England who emigrated to Canada in the early twentieth century and settled first in Alberta and latterly in British Columbia. During his time there he took up ranching and also went to great lengths to explore the Canadian interior both on foot and by canoe as the voyageurs, the commercial fur-trappers who explored so much of Canada, had done. His accounts of his epic trips make for fascinating reading, and two that I’d recommend are Trail to the Interior and Finlay’s River.

But enough from me; what are your favourite mountain/exploration books, and why?

Creating a mountain hit list

If you’ve been in to peak bagging for any length of time it’s probable that you’ve developed something of a mountain ‘hit list,’ peaks that for one reason or another you feel you just have to bag at some point. You’ll also probably notice that, often in the process of planning to bag one, you stumble across another peak on the map that you feel needs to be added to the list.

Mine developed over a number of years while I was at university, and while I’ve managed to bag a fair number of them I’ve definitely succumbed to the tendency to add more peaks than you bag. To illustrate this, take my hit list from about ten years ago, with links to information about each peak:

Scafell Pike (978m/3209 feet)- England’s highest, enough said.

Yewbarrow (628m/2060ft)- Because who doesn’t want to climb a hill shaped like an upturned Viking longboat?

Buachaille Etive Mòr (1021m/3,350 ft)- One of the most iconic mountains in the Scottish Highlands

Goat Fell, Arran (874m/2876ft)- Highest peak on the Isle of Arran, one of the Clyde Islands of Scotland. Again, an iconic peak with a very distinctive profile, and you have to take a ferry just to get there!

Ingleborough (723m/2372 ft) A mighty mountain in the Yorkshire Dales in England, one of Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks’ with (you guessed it) an Iron-Age hill fort on top.

Five years on, what’s happened to the hit list?

Scafell Pike– still outstanding because, I know, I know, I’m rubbish!

Yewbarrow– knocked off the list on a day hike with an old mate from university some years ago.Highly recommended, a great peak to bag.

Buachaille Etive Mòr– knocked off the list on a week long trip to Glencoe with my university hiking club in 2006. Brilliant day out and we even got a view!

Goat Fell, Arran– blasted out in September last year despite my desperate unfitness at the time. This one was a real labour of love; a trip report will be coming soon.

Ingleborough– I bagged this one several times during my time living in Leeds. This is a peak I could return to again and again; the Yorkshire Dales have a special appeal as I spent a lot of time there when I was younger.

So that looks fairly promising, doesn’t it? Only Scafell Pike to do and then my hit list is complete, no? Well….no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from bagging peaks it’s that the more you bag, the more you want to hike into another range of hills and bag all the summits there one day too. So here’s a current hitlist (not the complete one though or we’d be here all day!) along with reasons as to why they made the list.

Pen Llithrig Y Wrach (799m/2621 ft) Who on earth doesn’t want to climb a peak called ‘slippery peak of the witch?’

Pen Yr Ole Wen (978m/3209 ft) This mountain has an incredible presence as it looms over the A5 near Ogwen Cottage, with several formidably steep routes of ascent. It’s an excellent vantage point and one I can’t wait to bag.

Carnedd Dafydd (1044m/3425 ft) and Carnedd Llewellyn (1064m/3491ft) I’d actually like to bag all of the Carneddau, which incorporate some 22 of the Welsh 2000 footers, but these two are on my hit list in particular because they offer the prospect of a spectacular ridge traverse to bag them, and they reference the names of two medieval Welsh kings.

Ben Macdui (1309m/4295ft) Allegedly home to Britain’s very own yeti, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui. Need I say more?

Suilven (731m/2398ft). Just take a look at the picture. And it has a bothy nearby too!

Pic du Canigou (2784m/9134ft) I spent a week on holiday in the Villefranche de Conflent area of the Eastern Pyrenees a couple of years ago, and this huge peak loomed large over the entire area. One of the driving purposes of my upcoming trip to France is to go back and bag this peak from the refuge 2000 feet below the summit.

Mount Toubkal (4167m/13,671ft) The highest peak in the Atlas Mountains, and the highest in both Morocco and North Africa as a whole. It’s also one of the highest peaks you can reach without the need for technical climbing skills (at least in summer). Plus it’s located in Morocco, a country I’ve always wanted to visit.

Mulhacén (3478m/11,413ft) The highest in Spain, and gives me an excuse to spend some time in the Sierra Nevada and explore southern Spain properly.

So there’s a selection of mountains on my hit list as it stands in 2016. Many of these should be done within a year, I hope, but I suspect some of the others will take longer to plan to go and bag. But each one should provide an adventure, and plenty to write about. What peaks are on your hit lists, and why?

 

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!