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