The only way is up

The joy and sat­is­fac­tion af­ter a pun­ish­ing Snow­do­nian route tran­scend the de­bate on land­scape use

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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)

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