Jenny Wal­ters

Wild and thrilling, re­mote and haunted: dare you walk the Mynydd Hi­raethog?

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - News - WORDS: JENNY WAL­TERS PHO­TOS: TOM BAI­LEY

Fea­tures ed­i­tor Jenny’s in­sa­tiable ap­petite for out­door ex­pe­ri­ence and ar­cana made her the per­fect ar­chi­tect of the is­sue.

THE BREEZE SPRINTS smoothly to the top of the moors be­fore howl­ing into an un­ex­pected snag – the glass­less case­ments, bro­ken chim­neys, empty door­ways and tum­bled rub­ble of a ruin. Known to lo­cals sim­ply as the ‘haunted house,’ this spooky pile crests one of the high­est sum­mits in the Mynydd Hi­raethog or Hills of Great Long­ing – also known less-po­et­i­cally as the Den­bigh Moors – which are them­selves a de­li­ciously eerie place to walk.

Th­ese up­lands curve be­tween the great river vales of the Conwy and the Cl­wyd in North Wales, be­tween the beloved moun­tains of Snow­do­nia to the west and the Cl­wydian Hills Area of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty to the east. They suf­fer from the prox­im­ity to those big names: put th­ese rounded moors with their heather-clad slopes, brood­ing forests and glint­ing llyns any­where else and they’d be adored, but here they’re over­shad­owed and over­looked.

And that pro­duces a lone­li­ness so in­tense it’ll likely twitch the hairs on the back of your neck – maybe have you throw­ing a ner­vous glance over your shoul­der. We bet our last Jaffa Cake that you won’t spot an­other hiker here. Those track­ways you see on the map may well be of an­cient ori­gin, but they now see so few boots – or cy­cle-tyres or hooves – that you’ll rarely find a path on the ground.

In­trepid walk­ers will dis­cover that the 1st Vis­count of Devon­port was on to some­thing, though. Hud­son Ew­banke Kear­ley was the man be­hind that house on the hill, build­ing and ex­tend­ing a wooden chalet into Gwylfa Hi­raethog – the Watch­tower of the Hi­raethog – be­tween 1908 and 1913. Its pur­pose was a hunt­ing lodge

“In its hey­day it was a grand sight… said to be the high­est in­hab­ited build­ing in Wales and claim­ing the widest views of any house in Bri­tain.”

for shoot­ing par­ties and in its hey­day it was a grand sight, and one of many flam­boy­ant and ec­cen­tric builds across Bri­tain (see panel on p 51). But more im­por­tantly for vista-lov­ing walk­ers to­day, it was said to be the high­est in­hab­ited build­ing in Wales and claimed the widest views of any house any­where in Bri­tain.

And they truly are wide. Stand atop the rub­ble of the haunted house and you’ll see the near miles scoot up and down across a great wheel of moor, while the long miles con­certina across a full line-up of Snow­do­nian gi­ants from the Rhin­o­gydd in the south, past the Moel­wynion, Snow­don, and the Gly­derau to the Carned­dau in the north.

De­spite the vis­tas, staffing the lonely lodge proved tricky and Kear­ley sold up in 1925. 30 years later its last res­i­dent, game­keeper Hugh Wil­liams, moved out, leav­ing it a life­less shell. It’s hard to

imag­ine from our era of Grand De­signs and Restora­tion Man that a place so sump­tu­ous would be aban­doned to the el­e­ments, but it was, and to weather so fierce that the house on its ex­posed sum­mit is rapidly splin­ter­ing into dust.

Its only res­i­dents now are spec­tral: its only vis­i­tors the oc­ca­sional stout-hearted walker. Graf­fiti daubs the re­main­ing frag­ments of wall with mes­sages like ‘ Tres­passers will be shot’ – don’t worry, it’s all open ac­cess land so no tres­pass­ing re­quired – and strange noises and lights have been re­ported among the flak­ing de­bris. One cou­ple spot­ted a ‘ tall lu­mi­nous skele­ton that glowed in the dark’ – a vi­sion that sent them peg­ging off across the peaty moors.

As you drop away across those moors to­wards Llyn Aled – sprint­ing if you’ve just spied a glim­mer­ing skele­ton – you’re en­veloped in a world of heather. It feels wild and free, al­though it’s been man­aged for grouse shoot­ing ever since Vis­count Devon­port brought his par­ties here. Un­in­ter­rupted swells of heather like th­ese are a shrink­ing and en­dan­gered habi­tat, and the Hi­raethog hills are home to many red-list rare birds in­clud­ing black grouse, with curlew in the warmer months and redwing in the colder ones, while red kites wing the skies year round. In sum­mer, hare­bells nod del­i­cately in the heather and bil­ber­ries ripen to dusty, indigo pearls, while ad­ders bask in the silent heat.

Weather trans­forms the char­ac­ter of all land­scapes, but here its in­flu­ence is phe­nom­e­nal. Sun­shine kin­dles rich colour from the hills’ curves, lures bird­song from the skies, and draws de­tail on the Snow­do­nian peaks along the western hori­zon. Som­bre days see any mea­gre light sink into the peaty moors like wa­ter down a plug­hole, those high Welsh moun­tains fade to a faint sketch, or van­ish en­tirely, and the land­scape rev­els in its darker side. It’s not pretty or charm­ing, but some­thing more – some­thing el­e­men­tal and af­fect­ing.

An eas­ier in­ter­lude of walk­ing fol­lows, as you reach the shore of Llyn Aled and turn north on a clear lane, which is also part of the Cl­wydian Way, to reach Aled Isaf Reser­voir, be­fore strik­ing out across the lonely moors again. As the ru­ins of Gwylfa Hi­raethog prickle into view once more, a tiny dot in an ocean of empty hills, your mind may wan­der back to spooky tales. It’s not just the lodge that is haunted, but the moun­tains it watches. The 18th cen­tury was rife with tales of were­wolves and enor­mous black beasts, who over­turned coaches on the turn­pike, and at­tacked live­stock and farms. Later re­ports de­tailed a Ro­man Cen­tu­rion in full bat­tle garb roam­ing the slopes, but pray hard you don’t see him as he’s said to be an omen of death.

The Sports­man’s Arms, the high­est pub in Wales, is a warm refuge from the bleak moors at trail end, where non-driv­ers can steady their nerves be­fore tak­ing to the turn­pike them­selves. This place pos­si­bly isn’t for ev­ery walker, but those who like it will love it – for its long views and tall tales, for its skin-prick­ling sense of get­ting away from it all, and for that cu­ri­ous old house crum­bling to dust on the hill­top.

“The land­scape rev­els in its darker side… It’s not pretty or charm­ing, but some­thing more – some­thing el­e­men­tal and af­fect­ing.”

GUIDE­LINES Few paths have been worn on th­ese moors, but a handy fence guides you to the shore of Llyn Aled. IN RU­INS The first lodge was made of Nor­we­gian spruce – the lo­cals called it Plas Pren mean­ing man­sion of wood – but it fared badly in the weather. As did the stone that fol­lowed... GRAND TIMES David Lloyd George ad­dressed a large crowd from the bal­cony, soon af­ter the lodge was built. R E C O R D O F W A L EF SR : ©O M C RH T OE W C NO CL OL PC E Y R I T GN IO HS T : O NF AT T IH OE NN AA LT BO I UN I LA DL I NM GO SN RU EM CE ON RT DS P H O T O :

LONE­SOME LLYN The tea-tinted, peat­stained wa­ters of Llyn Aled lie high in the Hi­raethog.

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