Part Cambrian Way 2017

Author: George Tod

Click on small photo to enlarge in situ. For photos in better weather see Cambrian Way website.
Part 1 - Preparation and First Day

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Events leading up to the walk

In June 2016, after a break from long distance walking since 2010, I completed a walk from Cardiff to Barmouth, about two thirds of the Cambrian Way. I didn't complete the whole walk because it was difficult to fit in a three week holiday in which to do so and also because accommodation has become very expensive in many places, making the whole thing including meals add up to a substantial sum of money. Unfortunately, I overdid things on the last day of the walk from Dinas Mawddwy to Barmouth, which should really have been split into a day and a half, and I ended up with a very painful and swollen right knee. This took some time to recover, and I had to gradually build up from fairly short walks to more serious walks over the winter months until I was just about back to normal.

Easter came along and I was looking forward to doing some good day walks in Pembrokeshire and the Brecon Beacons to make sure that I was fit enough to plan another long distance walk in the summer. No sooner had I started than I slipped down a wet grassy slope, bending my right knee double and straining the muscle at the front of my thigh. This put a stop to any long walks and limited me to walks of no more than two or three hours before it started to get painful. Of course, my long distance walking plans were thrown into doubt again until I had recovered enough to take on more demanding walks. This meant that it was getting close to the summer before I felt confident enough to start making plans, and even then I had a few reservations as to whether I would manage to keep going day after day without a recurrence of one or other of my problems.

Planning the Walk

Having only walked two thirds of the Cambrian Way from Cardiff last year, I decided to complete the walk from Barmouth to Conwy to round things off in order to make this my fourth complete walk of the route to date. Apart from just doing this to complete the walk, there was a secondary reason. The Cambrian Way Trust, of which I am a Trustee, were in negotiations with guidebook publisher Cicerone to produce a more professional guidebook of the Cambrian Way. As this will give a much more detailed description of the route, it is necessary to re-walk the whole of the route taking detailed notes. This would have to be a group effort, as it would be a mammoth task for one individual to take on in the timescales involved. It, therefore, seemed a good opportunity for me to to start the ball rolling by surveying this part of the route as I went along.

Trying to take copious notes whilst having a demanding walking schedule is no easy matter, so I decided that the best way was to make use of my camera, with the capacity to hold about 2000 photographs, to take pictures at every twist and turn in the route so that I would then be able to put together an accurate route description afterwards. My camera has built-in GPS, so is able to geo-tag photographs as well as keeping a track log, so this would ensure that I wouldn't make mistakes as to exactly where each photo was taken. I also have a Garmin etrex 10 GPS into which I could load route sections for each day both to help me find the right way and to validate the GPX files on the Cambrian Way website and make any corrections that may be necessary. I intended to get a full set of log files for my walk last year, but was very disappointed to find that my GPS had only enough memory to hold logs of about five days of walking before earlier logs started to be overwritten, even with logging set to the least frequent setting. This time I thought I could overcome this problem by having a backup set of GPS logs from my camera, which has much more memory.

One of the most difficult parts of planning walks such as the Cambrian Way is finding accommodation in suitable places, and this is particularly true in the section I was planning this time. For a start, there is no accommodation in the middle part of the Rhinogs without going off-route for five or six miles either to the east or the west. There are campsites or the possibility of rough camping for those who are backpacking, but that means taking on the burden of carrying a tent, sleeping bag, food and cooking facilities, which would be too much for me. Further north, the route is served by youth hostels at convenient places, which seems to offer very good and economical accommodation, that is until you try to book them at popular times of the year. My preferred time for walking is in June, but there are lots of schools and colleges doing outdoor activities at that time. This year, my younger daughter was expecting a baby early in June, so I didn't like to plan anything until I was sure that everything was alright, hence I decided to defer my walk until July.

The first thing to do was to check availability of hostel beds online to see if I could get into Snowdon Bryn Gwynant, Snowdon Pen y Pass, Idwal and Rowen. They all had some dates with beds available, but there was no time when it would be possible to stay at all four on consecutive days. The best I could manage was three days with a gap at Pen y Pass. The way around this was to book a bed in Llanberis instead. I could take a different route down Snowdon to get me to Llanberis without adding much to the walking distance and then I could approach the Glyders from a different route, which added extra mileage and ascent to what is a fairly short section anyway. This decided, I could then go about booking my earlier accommodation in B&Bs at Barmouth, Bronaber and Maentwrog, which was not too difficult to do. This dictated my starting date for the walk as Thursday 13th July for travelling by train to Barmouth, and 14th July as the start of walking. The finish would be on the following Thursday in Conwy after a half day walk from Rowen. Even then I hit a snag with the booking at Idwal. The website showed beds available at about 20, but when I tried to book one it would only offer a private room at 39. As I had already booked a few of the other places, I had not much alternative but to pay the price.

With all my accommodation as well as my train journey to Barmouth booked, I could then make my other preparations. Instead of just using the Cambrian Way GPX files, I modified these to follow my proposed route from accommodation to accommodation for each day of the walk and downloaded them to my GPS. For maps, I already had the Explorer OL17 map for Snowdonia which covered over half of my route, and I printed off A4 sheets for the earlier part of the walk at 1:25,000 scale using OS Maps online software (this requires a subscription, which I already had). Six A4 sheets covered all of the area I needed, so I only had to carry one O.S. map plus 3 double sided A4 sheets of maps.

I referred back to my previous lists of equipment, though I tended to overdo some of the spare clothing, some of which never got worn. With food for packed lunches and over two litres of water, my pack weighed two stones (it also held my boots, as I was wearing my trainers for the journey to the start). I could have trimmed this down somewhat if I had tried, but I felt OK carrying this weight, bearing in mind that it would reduce quite a bit later each day as food and water were consumed.

One thing that always troubles me when planning to use hostels that are self catering only is what food to take with me and what food may be available either locally or in the hostel shop if it has one. In this case, there were two of these to consider, Idwal and Rowen. Idwal has a shop but when I checked with the warden he advised bringing most of my own food as the shop didn't carry a lot of things. Effectively I would need something to make for dinner, breakfast and packed lunch and was concerned about how I could take enough for the required calories without it weighing too much. Looking at the labels on all sorts of dry foods and snacks, the highest number of calories per gram comes with sugary things, which can give over 500 kcal per 100g. Nuts are around 300 kcal per 100g and dried pasta or rice dishes at about 200 kcal. With a male normally expected to have an intake of about 2,500 kcal a day, this takes quite a lot of food if it is not all to be high in sugar. With the strenuous exercise of climbing mountains, the requirement could quite easily be double this amount.

I didn't want to carry all of this from the start, so I decided that I could buy things in Llanberis as I was passing through there from the hostel, but I would not then have the same wide choice that I would have from a large supermarket, only what was on offer in a mini supermarket, so I would just have to take what I could get. One thing, however, that can help add to the calorie count is beer. Although the YHA may not sell very much in their shops, they are very keen on selling all kinds of drinks, both alcoholic and non alcoholic in all but the most basic hostels, as it is a very good source of revenue. I generally have a couple of pints of beer when it is available and this can amount to 400 kcal for the heavier ales.

Rowen hostel is not too far away from a pub serving meals so that would be less of a problem and I wouldn't need a packed lunch as I would arrive in Conwy at lunch time. The only problem with the pub in Rowen is that it is down a very steep road about 400 ft below the hostel, so is not so easy after a hard day's walk.

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Diary of the Walk

Travel - Thursday 13th July - Trains from Rhyl to Barmouth

I was given a lift to Rhyl station by my daughter accompanied by my new granddaughter, who was just over three weeks old. There is a regular bus service, but she insisted on taking me and also collecting me from Conwy at the end of the walk. Being on maternity leave and being tied to the regular demands of a newborn baby, she was glad to have an excuse to get out of the house for a while.

Despite all the adverse publicity about the railway network, everything went smoothly and the trains were on time. Unfortunately, the rail links to Barmouth take a very roundabout route via Chester and Shrewsbury, which involves going east for the first 30 miles, whereas Barmouth is to the west. Hence the journey time is about four and a half hours for a distance of only 48 miles as the crow flies. However, crows can take a straight line over mountains, whereas trains cannot (with the possible exception of the Snowdon Mountain Railway), so the distance travelled by rail is 158 miles, over three times the distance. The train was fairly busy, but there were some seats available, so I could relax as we headed towards Chester, with the Dee estuary on one side and the Clwydian hills, the end of Offa's Dyke Path, on the other in the bright and sunny weather. It was slightly confusing when the train came into Chester and then came back out in the opposite direction in order to fork south towards Shrewsbury, so the front of the train was now the back, but I don't often travel by rail and am not accustomed to the idea that modern trains are designed to run in either direction without having to hitch up to a different engine.

There was a change at Shrewsbury, where there was some confusion about which part of the train people should be on, as the front two carriages were going to Aberystwyth and the back two carriages to Barmouth, the split taking place at Machynlleth. However, the train was doing a similar thing to what I had experienced in Chester, so to those passengers already on the train, the front would now become the back and vice versa. Consequently, there were numerous checks by railway staff to make sure that everyone was in the right place and several passengers had to move. Again, everything ran on time, the split took place and I was happily travelling down the picturesque Dovey valley when the overhead display said 'You have now arrived in Shrewsbury, the final destination'. This was displayed for quite a long time before someone realised and removed the message. In its place were unintelligible announcements over the public address system and, although I had been studying Welsh for four and a half years, I couldn't even work out whether they were being spoken in Welsh or English, so I just had to keep looking at the signs on station platforms to work out where we were.

Although the scenery had been very good for most of the journey, apart from being blocked by trees in many parts, the final stretch from Machynlleth to Barmouth via Aberdovey was particularly spectacular, the route takes a big loop around Cadair Idris and the nearby mountains as it approaches Barmouth along the coast. The weather was rather dull with cloud over the higher mountains, but there were still good views of the lower parts. The only downside was that a group of rather boisterous schoolchildren got on at Tywyn and there was no peace and quiet for the rest of the journey.

I arrived in Barmouth on time at about 4 pm and made my way along the sea front to my guest house in Marine Parade. There are several hotels and guest houses along the front here, but the Mr Wyn is one of the more reasonably priced ones without too many restrictions on single night bookings etc. After checking in and dropping off my rucksack in my room, I took a walk around town with a view to finding somewhere to eat later on. Many places were a bit expensive, but I hit upon a place claiming to have its own micro brewery and a more reasonably priced menu, so I decided to return there later and continued walking around past the harbour towards the place where I would join the Cambrian Way in the morning. This is where the wooden railway and footbridge crosses the Mawddach Estuary towards Coes-faen, a fine building with a clock tower that is in prominent view from the bridge. I have passed close by on occasions by car, but there is no convenient stopping place nearby, so I thought I would take a closer look on foot. When I got there, I found that it was a private property, so there was not a lot to see other than having a closer look from the road. However, the finest view is that from the estuary, as seen from the railway bridge even though it is more distant.

On the way back, I noticed a path going up through Orielton Wood, with various trails marked and signs for the Panorama Walk. It was a steep climb up to the top, where I eventually met up with the route of the Cambrian Way. I hadn't taken my map with me, so I missed the Panorama viewpoint that is shown there, but I did got some good views over the estuary. Returning back into town via the Cambrian Way route, I made my way back to my guest house and then set off for the place where I had decided to eat, only to find that it was very tiny with just a few tables that were already taken and other diners still waiting to be seated, so I abandoned that idea and ended up getting fish and chips nearby, eating them on a seat overlooking the harbour. A pint of beer in the pub nearby set me back 3.60, but then that sort of price is quite commonplace, especially in tourist areas. Another pint in a different pub on the way back was a little cheaper at 3.25.

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