Camping in the sublime, unfamiliar sway of this northern outlier of Snowdon.
A substandard campsite beneath a lowly hill? In Snowdonia, this sublime wild night equalled more than the sum of its parts.
Horrible places to camp include bogs, very slopey slopes, boulderfields, car parks, laybys, roundabouts and too close to the sea. But not marshes. You would think that this list would definitely include marshes but not necessarily. One night in Snowdonia made us think that there are some benefits to making your bed among the reeds. Or very near to them at least.
I should be clear that we didn’t actually sleep within the marsh – that would be cold, wet, smelly and insectridden, not to mention life-threateningly dangerous and probably impossible. Could you relax thus? We camped on a little patch of dry land beside it. Our level, dry platform cropped out on the edge of a small lake, cupped towards the end of a long ridge.
I guess the first question is why on earth you would even make the attempt to sleep in a soggy little cwm rather than, really, anywhere else. There are two answers to that, both of which lie at points along that long ridge. At the halting end is Moel Eilio, a peak rising in almost perfectly spaced contours to its 726m top – except on its western face, where those contours are pressed much more closely together, the cliffs dropping down to our lake. One of the answers is up there on its grassy little top. The other is 7.8km away, along that ridge, down-andup-down-and-up until you reach its highest point, which is also the highest point in Wales. This rocking-rolly little ridge leads straight to Snowdon and the second answer can be found right on its summit. So here was the idea: camp at the base of Moel Eilio in the shelter of the cwm, with a ready water supply from the llyn, and watch the first of the sun’s rays illuminate those dramatic cliffs. Then pack up and follow a distinct rocky spur to its summit, and from there survey Snowdonia before nipping down to Llanberis and heading home. With only a brief morning to play with, it seemed like an excellent use of time. That is until we started the walk in, because, in all honesty, this was not a perfectly formed plan. It seemed it until, laden with overnight kit, I lifted my foot and placed it on what was not a perfectly formed hummock. Squelch. Down went the boot, through the surface of the ground and into the roots of the grass, a pond of murky water rising around my laces. I shifted on to the other foot, which was safely
“TWO SUMMER-FAT PONIES AMBLED TO THE SHORE, NIBBLING AT THE GRASS”
pressed into the firm ground and rebalanced, stood up and looked ahead. Photographer Tom and I had followed a narrow road out of Llanberis and joined a wide track before breaking off it to follow the river flowing out of the lake and into Llyn Peris. It was only a short distance and we were already in the mouth of the cwm. Between us and that lake though, lay a puzzle of reeds, hummocks, rushes, vivid mosses and cropped grass. The map around it was marked with symbols for rough grassland heath – and, more concerningly, the little blue symbol with floating dot that indicates marsh. The only safe section lay to the north-east and the only dry land also to the east of the river. Carefully tucking the map away, I surveyed the saturated land ahead. Marsh is seriously dangerous and we didn’t want to accidentally wade anywhere near it. Fortunately, a few years of hillwalking will give you a good eye for changes in ground condition. The types of grasses or reeds, the height of the vegetation and its colour all provide valuable information. Sticking to the slightly higher ground we cautiously made our way towards a heathery bank – this rough plant being a good indicator of firm earth. The educated guesswork proved fruitful and, backed by that heathery rise, on the edge of the llyn, we found the ideal little campsite. Tents up, stoves blazing, the light started to fade from the cwm, the sun dropping early behind that high ridge. We couldn’t see Snowdon but not far away its empty café and stony plinth would be catching the last light of the day. An early night. In the morning, the llyn was ice-still; a reflection of Moel Eilio flipped perfectly on its surface. I climbed out of the tent and breathed in the damp, fresh air with a tang of heather, walked down to the shore and stretched. The sky above was scattered with cotton-wool clouds and the sun hit the tops for the first time that morning. It was quiet, not a soul anywhere – after all, who would think to camp in a marsh? This little cwm was perfectly framed by Snowdonian hills and utterly silent, even though Llanberis was probably only 30 minutes’ walk away. Two summer-fat wild Welsh ponies
ambled to the shore, nibbling at the grass and we sat, munching a less fresh breakfast as the bright sunlight worked its way down the hillside and over the water, erasing the cool shade of night.
Soon we packed up and set off, crossing the river and methodically working our way around the eastern shore, gaining height fast to avoid the marshes. We could have crested the bank behind our campsite and followed a gentler, logical spur onto that rolling ridge. But no. Where we clamber-addicts can see a difficult, steep and spiny way, that’s what we’ll take. This one was relentlessly tall, the bright morning already hot. I pressed my hands
onto my knees, exhaled and pushed upwards, the weight of my pack strongly desiring to go the other way. As soon as we reached the top of our spur, the gradient relented and we stepped onto the rolling ridge. Moel Eilio’s summit was just 1km away, a rise which passed as briefly and gently as the day’s light breeze. At its balding summit, we dropped our bags and turned to face along the ridge and into our view. It was so much more than expected.
I said earlier that there were two answers to the question of our campsite – it turns out there were a hundred, and all of them had names. Glyder Fach, Glyder Fawr, Tryfan, Y Garn, Pen yr Ole Wen, Elidir Fawr, Moel Hebog, Moel Siabod, the Carneddau, and Snowdon, of course. That’s not an exhaustive list – merely a few highlights. Located as it is at the end of Snowdon’s longest limb, and at the edge of the mountain range, Moel Eilio’s summit is a perfect viewing platform for the northern ranges of the National Park. With more time, we would have set off into that view, as dazzled by it as moths by lamplight. It’s a view to be savoured, so we took our time about doing so, brewing coffee as we allowed our eyes to trace the unfamiliar angles of some very familiar hills.
I often wish there were better ways to describe a view: that I could physically conjure up the green hills layered over blue, the sharp angles laid against lazy ones; the delight of beholding almost all of your favourite hills in one or two moments. It’s like scanning an old school photograph, pointing out familiar faces, wondering at how others had changed, gazing curiously at those you don’t recognise. There was Elidir Fawr’s old mine-pitted face; the little heads of the Nantlle ridge poking up at the back; Esgair Felen, Glyder Fawr’s shapely shoulder. I marvelled at seeing so many mountains I loved in blink.
Too soon we had to head down and return home. But that view would stay with me, as would the campsite in the reeds. Nothing about this brief trip to a sub-800m hill screamed that it would be spectacular, but almost everything about it was.
Cover photograph: Fleetwith Edge, on its namesake Pike, Lake District.
An enormous view begins to emerge. Standing centre, Elidir Fawr, despite intensive quarrying, retains its grandeur.
Any sensible person would turn around and walk towards Snowdon (seen in the distance – follow the line of the wall edge straight up to the peak above). This ridge leads nearly 12km over its summit to terminate on Gallt y Wenallt.