The only way is up
The joy and satisfaction after a punishing Snowdonian route transcend the debate on landscape use
Fiona Reynolds revels in a gruelling walk through the Rhinogau hills in Snowdonia
‘These are rough, tough landscapes, but they have a power and spiritual meaning that are transformative’
EVERY now and again, there’s a walk that’s so uncompromisingly difficult you can’t forget it. Mine is the Barmouth Ridge: a long, rough walk through the Rhinogau to the seaside town of Barmouth in Snowdonia in North Wales.
I did it once before, in my early twenties, to celebrate my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. The following day, we were stiff and aching: we’d seriously underestimated the walk and had ended up descending in the dark, cursing its length and difficulty.
Perhaps because of that, I’ve always wanted to do it again, so I persuaded my niece and her boyfriend to join me. Actually, it felt as if I joined them, because they were mountain goats—younger, longerlegged and fitter than me. However, it was a treat for us all to be in Snowdonia, at the heart of current debates about protected landscapes in Wales. What and who are they for? Ecosystem services or spiritual refreshment?
We set off from Cwm Bychan, a magical, wooded lake a few miles from Harlech, and began at the so-called Roman Steps. Easy, this, as we powered up, but when we reached the col and then struck up to the hidden Llyn Du, we felt the curse of the Rhinogau. They’re famously the wildest and roughest hills in Wales, laced with a confusion of sheep and goat tracks, deep scratchy heather, lakes and mica-laden granite rocks, ready to bash your legs and feet to pieces. The ascent of Rhinog Fawr is steep and scree-ravaged and it was a long pull up.
Once there, however, the spectacle of Snowdonia is laid out in front of you. To the north, the horseshoe, with Snowdon’s peak rising magisterially through it; to the south, the great bulk of Cadair Idris; and, to the west, the glorious sweep of Cardigan Bay.
On, on—we had barely begun and had 15 miles to walk. Descending Rhinog Fawr was harder than the ascent: almost no path now, just a precipitous gully and heavily screed slopes all too ready to slip away underneath us. Finally, our aching legs and backs landed us in the marshy Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, the sharp cleft between Rhinog Fawr and Fach, where the way forward was… up.
First, a steep rocky path past Llyn Cwmhosan, then to Llyn Hywel, a mirror-black lake surrounded by steep slabs and a brimful of childhood memories for me. We thought we’d earned a rest, but were attacked by a million midges, so we sped on, muscles screaming, to the col below the summit of Rhinog Fawr.
There, we could see our next challenge: the apparently vertical face of Y Llethr and no choice but to climb it. Its summit was our highest point, at 2,480ft way lower than Snowdon (3,560ft), but our satisfaction levels made it feel far more momentous.
At the top of Y Llethr, everything changed. The rocky chaos of the Rhinogau was suddenly behind us; ahead was a smooth, undulating path alongside a well-maintained wall. It was grassy, wide and easy and we could swing out, cramped muscles stretching, and no stumbling over hidden chasms and obstacles.
All that remained for us was length. Real length: at Y Llethr, we were less than six miles in and, although our way was smooth, there were still (too) many hills. The last big one is Diffwys, but just as you can’t face another, there’s a dip down and up, then another and another. In the end, our wall accompanied us for eight long miles before we dropped into a rough field to pick up a grassy track into Barmouth. We emerged down a steep stone staircase, exhausted but very proud.
What did we learn? These are rough, tough landscapes, but they have a power and spiritual meaning that are transformative. Of course, these places catch water, nurture wildlife and even feed a few sheep, but their value is also joyously incalculable, experienced through sheer physical effort surrounded by exceptional beauty. Let’s not reduce it all to numbers. Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and her book, ‘The Fight for Beauty’, is available from Oneworld
The wildest and roughest hills in Wales: John Varley’s A Welsh Valley (1819)