As most of my readers will know, I’m on a mission to snag all of the mountains of Wales, and as I found myself with an impromptu week of leave to take this week, I decided it was time to get out and about and get my boots muddy again. There are various definitions of the ‘mountains of Wales’ mostly revolving around their relative height from the surrounding land, giving a total, depending on who you ask, of around 140, 160, or 190 separate peaks to bag. Splitting hairs about relative height is a bit like the hillwalker’s version of train spotting or rivet counting, and while part of me is tempted to be virtuous and go for the ‘190’ set, I’m also aware that (in theory at least!) this is supposed to be fun, so we’ll see how it evolves!
Nevertheless, whatever definition I follow, there are peaks in every corner and nook and cranny of Wales, and this mission will take me to many far-flung places that I might not otherwise have visited. As with all exercises of this nature though, some of the peaks I bag will inevitably involve a bit more determined effort with perhaps a lower pain to reward ratio than others. The sweeping majesty of the high Carneddau is a very different proposition to some of the boggier morasses in other areas of Wales, and on one of my trips this week, it was to a set of peaks like this that I wandered.
Enter the Cwmdauddwr Hills. In Welsh, Cwmdauddwr means ‘Valley of the Two Waters’ and the hills take the name of the small hamlet a few miles from their base. These mountains are two of the most remote anywhere in Wales, and they rise out of more or less trackless moor and bogland close to one of the major reservoirs of the Elan Valley. As peaks that are fairly local to my base of operations they’ve been on my ‘to-do’ list for a while, but due to their nature I’ve been keen to try and keep them for as favourable a day as possible.
It’s not that the Cwmdauddwr Hills are ‘bad’ in any sense of the word, far from it, but all that I’d read on them to this point suggested that they were something of an acquired taste. Rising as they do in undulating moorland and upland bog, they are known to be a tricky navigational proposition to tackle, with few real paths venturing anywhere near them, and with those that do becoming impassable or tediously difficult to negotiate after sustained rainfall. That said, their remoteness lends to them an entirely different character to some of their neighbours to the north; this is one of those regions of Wales where you can truly feel as though you’re exploring real wilderness, with nobody in sight for miles, and not a trace of noise.
As Monday dawned a beautifully bright and clear day, I decided it was time I paid a visit to these elusive hills, and see them for myself. The two peaks I was chasing today were called Drygarn Fawr, at 645 metres the larger of the two, and Gorllwyn, which at 610 metres was only just large enough to register as a mountain by the current legislative definition. My plan of attack was to follow the valley of the Nant Paradwys as far as a pass known as Bwlch y Ddau Faen (Pass of the Two Stones) and from there strike out for Drygarn Fawr, several kilometres distant, and then to return to the pass and strike out in the opposite direction for Gorllwyn.
Parking up at Rhiwnant by Caban Coch Reservoir, I saw a couple of cars in the car park, but otherwise no signs of life. I took a mooch along to the junction of a bridleway with a minor road and got my bearings, taking a look at a very old traditional Welsh farmhouse now preserved for posterity dating to the early 1560s. I struck off along a minor road, from which my path soon led away and fairly sharply up through the farmland above the banks of the reservoir and the babbling river below. Striking along at a fair old clip it felt good to be out and about, with the sun beating down out of a cloudless sky, and the path all to myself.
The views back down to the valley were clear and excellent, and as I pulled away from the main path at a group of sheepfolds, the route ahead swung into the valley of the Nant Paradwys, and left all traces of modern human habitation behind. This was truly a wild upland valley, with smatterings of sheep tracks and, every few hundred yards or so, a bog to negotiate. The landscape here was one of tough, tussocky grassland, moorland bog and peat hag, and reminded me a little of the wilder stretches of the Plynlimons, only with perhaps more of a North Yorkshire Moors-like character to them as well.
After a while, checking the map, I’d reached the bwlch; there was nothing much there but a suggestion of a path leading in one direction, and a suggestion leading in another; neither were really any more distinct than many of the sheep tracks I’d seen earlier, but from my position relative to the river I knew this was the spot; not for the first time, I was glad I wasn’t attempting this hike in the thick mist, where landmarks might have been entirely obliterated.
I struck out right, dropping initially down a grassy slope, and finding myself ploughing through the first of several sections of bog on this part of the trail to Drygarn Fawr. Over the next hour or so, under a blazing sun I began the ‘Cwmdauddwr Dance’; following the path, negotiating a bog, veering off, retracing the line of the path, pressing up and over peat hags, and repeating from scratch, all the while keeping a reasonable view of one of the cairns of Drygarn Fawr in my line of sight. Eventually, I intersected a path that led away by slow degrees down the opposite side of the Nant Paradwys towards the valley, which happened to lead up over the shoulder of Drygarn Fawr and then dropped me just shy of the summit. It was here that I started to understand the challenge of these mountains; it was not so much to do with their height, but more the energy-sapping back and forth over the undulating terrain, coupled to a vast sense of space which was at once both arrestingly beautiful and occasionally unnerving; the sense of isolation was pronounced.
I stormed over the final few metres of the ascent to Drygarn Fawr, its majestic cairns well worth the hike to get here, the view opening up over a huge landscape, with the distant Brecon Beacons on the hazy horizon. Registering a trace of thirst, I began to retrace my steps, at first along the clear path that I’d joined earlier, before striking out once again to rediscover the path down to the bwlch. I had to admit, as I neared the bwlch, that I was feeling a little more worn out than I’d expected, and the constant to-ing and fro-ing over the moorland had taken more time than I’d realised; it was not the first time that day that I’d become aware of what seemed like a strange time dilation effect in those hills, where perspective and distance were so radically altered from the norm by the sheer sense of wide-open space.
Slightly grudgingly, I pressed on up the sides of a grassy slope, the path becoming less and less distinct with every step. With clear visibility my destination was always in view, but the key for me at this point was to find the most efficient way to get there, one that, where possible, avoided the bogs and peat hags without meandering so far around them that it added needless kilometres to my hike. In this quest I was greatly aided by boundary markers laid across the land, which I would find led more or less to the summit of Gorllwyn and which were, by and large, sited on the more reliable, less marshy ground. I say ‘by and large’ because on more than one occasion there was one plonked in the middle of a swamp, but on the whole it wasn’t too bad, and it was only every now and again I had to start doing some bog hopping. Nevertheless, the route there did have a few false perspectives, and I’d occasionally find that I had to drop down into a peaty morass between two folds in the land and emerge on the other side to get back up to altitude, all of which was pretty tiring by this point in the day.
Eventually however, I prevailed, reached the summit, and bagged it. Looking back over to Drgarn Fawr I realised how far I’d travelled; the peak with its cairns now looked miniscule on the far horizon, which was something of a vindicating relief given how tired, and particularly thirsty, I felt. It was as I was leaving Gorllwyn that I finished the last of my water, but I knew that, by and large, I was now on my way ‘home’ on the final stretch, so rather than stop to replenish it I pressed on. The rest of the hike back was uneventful save for a sudden roar which shook me; I looked up and saw a mountain rescue helicopter making a beeline over towards Gorllwyn and away down the valley. It was so peaceful up there, so silent with only the wind and occasional bleat of a sheep to disturb my thoughts, that the sound of modern machinery genuinely startled me at first.
I dropped down to the bwlch and, with a sense of satisfaction tinged with relief that I had actually done both the peaks rather than just the one, I headed back down to the valley. I realised that for all their essential beauty, a charm that was of a different character entirely to that of any of the other peaks of Wales I’ve so far tackled, I was glad that I’d got these peaks off my list. For all that the Cwmdauddwr Hills have their charms, I think it’ll be quite some time before I venture to them again; after about 20k of hiking in the heat over some deceptively energy-sapping terrain, I was looking forward to some hikes without bog hopping to do.
These are, in their own way I suppose, good hills, and would certainly be a brilliant place to run a navigation workshop; but, I have to admit, they weren’t my favourites, and I was glad that I’d chosen to tackle them under the most ideal of weather conditions; I doubt I’d have wanted to tackle Gorllwyn ‘as well’ if it had been tipping it down in thick clag! With that said, I now have only a handful of peaks to do on the border before Mid Wales is complete!