Wales – Denbighshire.
Finding your own unique way across an entire country is completely different from following a Way. It’s mentally harder, in planning and in execution. Concentration on navigation diminishes awareness and remembrance of places passed through. It has to self-justify – there’s no trail lore, no heritage, no endorsement. There’s no badge to sew on your rucksack and when you share the day’s highlights on Facebook it isn’t the famous mountain, the notorious high traverse, the remote Highland bothy: just fields, nettles and obscure suburbs.
It’s lonely – no fellow-Wayfarers, no trail markers to comfortingly suggest other fools have done this before, no encouraging banter at the legendary oases in the official trail guide. All in all, I felt I’d achieved something strange and singular in wangling my weary way in thirteen long days of hiking from North Norfolk into distant and mysterious Wales. About four hours journey in a car.
The feeling persists, even though while writing this blog I’ve discovered that, accidentally and unknowingly, I’d slept in a small protruding segment of Wales the night before! I’m actually glad I didn’t know what country I was in at the time, it would have taken the shine off my subsequently ambling over a spectacular aqueduct into the Principality proper, at what most people would consider lunchtime. Taking no chances with foreign food, I’d already had an excellent lunch in England.
The going along the canal was very easy and it wasn’t even raining, for a change. Another reason to be cheerful was that although I’d walked probably two thousand miles in my ‘waterproof’ jacket, only on this morning did I finally work out how to adjust the hood. This was a wonderful revelation as when it next rained I’d no longer have to blunder along with it drooping over my eyes.
Apart from my sore foot everything was set fair and an even more spectacular aqueduct was imminent. Before that, though, it was necessary to venture into the dank and crepuscular Chirk tunnel.
How on Earth did Offa get planning permission for his dyke?
He was an Offa you couldn’t refuse. Chortle.
Having disparaged my route for lacking highlights, of course I’d tried to include as many as made geographic sense and this was one of them – the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
Built between 1795 and 1805 by Thomas Telford, this aqueduct has 18 arches and is 126 feet high. Every five years they pull the plug from its long iron bathtub for maintenance, the water cascading into the Dee below, which must be quite a sight.
It’s an amazing engineering achievement, although of course an aqueduct is simpler to design than a viaduct with its constantly changing load of vehicles, nor do you need to limit the number of boats crossing at once. By Archimedes’ Principle the vertical loading of an aqueduct is constant. Until a hiker comes along with a heavy rucksack…
The Llangollen Canal is a 1980’s re-brand of what’s still shown on maps as the Shropshire Union Canal – Llangollen Branch. Back in the day when these things mattered business and politics impeded the extension of the network north of Trevor Basin, where it was now also my time to turn due west, straight into the green heart of Welsh Wales.
I’d planned to take a high route, for the views, but, feeling a bit jaded and looking forward to a bustling town and a dry, warm hostel I cravenly walked along the canal instead.
Intermittent drizzle enlivened my towpath meditations, but as I approached the town a warm, comforting sun broke from the clouds and more effectively enlivened both the scene and my mood. The river, swollen by some recent downpours you may recall reading about, was spectacular; Llangollen appeared cautiously prosperous, even, dare I say, coyly gay. I’d been walking alone through muddy fields for a long time…
The independent hostel at Llangollen was an absolute treasure, so friendly, cosy and well-appointed, with a magnificent drying room as you’d hope in Wales. I fear for these lovely havens in the present emergency; I fail to see how hostels can possibly survive social distancing given that a certain informal intimacy is in their DNA.
The self-catering kitchen was lavishly equipped and there was a supermarket over the road for provisions to cook in it. In fact Llangollen Hostel is so great that my roomie, working away from home, was choosing to stay there four nights a week, every week, spending his evenings reading Stephen King and his nights snoring in grey underpants. By this stage of the trip I fear my companionship was equally edifying. I’d thought lots of thoughts and seen lots of places, but also stumbled alone and lonely through a heck of a lot of rain, when I’d thought this was going to be such fun in the sun and perhaps sociable to boot. Ah well, as the song says we carry our weather with us. Still, at Llangollen mine visibly brightened
The next day for the first time I was due to climb some actual wild and woolly hills. In view of this, I was going to need an actual map and so I was forced to return to the hostel’s WiFi from the far side of the Dee when I discovered that the OS map I’d carefully downloaded the previous evening was now refusing to display on my phone, yet again.
After the Horseshoe Falls (which don’t look much in the picture above, but the noise and the power of the water were awesome) I left the river north and uphill, following the road to the minimal hamlet of Rhewl.
Here my route turned north, up a sudden and astonishingly steep ascent. The first really steep ascent of the whole trip, and the first time since Norfolk that the sun was really warm.
I struggled up the one in four, sweating; at a completely isolated house halfway up the hill a very nice chap called Brian poking weeds from his drive was so dismayed at my appearance he called me into his garden and gave me a reviving mug of tea!
Further up, the hills became exhilarating, not least because the paths were obvious and such easy walking. Also by some bizarre miracle it still wasn’t raining.
It was an easy amble down through lovely flower meadows to Bryneglwys, where in an unexpected community shop a kind lady gave me a free piece of Bara Brith with my tea. It was turning into a day of freebies! Little did I know that things were about to go downhill, in more ways than one.
The rest of the morning became a hard and on occasions slightly desperate slog up and down steep and overgrown valleys, on so-called public footpaths that made me long for Shropshire’s maintenance crew. Several had entirely disappeared.
Some locals were helpful, one explaining from the window of a smoky Subaru that ‘yes, a new chap has blocked that path, it’s going to court, but try the next one down the road’. Others were less so. At one ramshackle farmstead a large young man carrying two halves of a divan bed through his yard was very clear that “he didn’t really want me walking down there”, even though as I politely showed him the GPS blob on my phone indicated I was bang on a right of way.
Luckily just then an older woman appeared carrying six Lidl bags full of mysterious junk. She recalled that, oh yes, there might once have been a footpath ‘down there’ and kindly directed me away from the bull. At the bottom of a field I encountered rusty barbed fences, impenetrable bushes I had literally to crawl under and the raging torrent of the Afon Hesbin in a small but scary chasm that I had to leap across, it was worse than anything I’d encountered in Scotland. I was nearly a Hesbin myself. And finally at the top of a near-vertical overgrown slope, a rotten stile evidenced our ancient heritage of rights of way.
As I approached Llanelidan the going got easier, through some strangely manicured parkland like the grounds of a stately home, although none was visible.
At Llanelidan there was a pub, oh joy! It didn’t look very open, but in desperation I tried the door anyway. It opened. The bar was dark and quiet, there were kids’ toys, a laptop. I was eerily alone in the Marie Celeste Inn; the temptation to pull myself a pint was almost overwhelming.
Suddenly the landlord appeared and did a comical double-take, “how did you get in?” “Erm, the door was open, I’m very sorry”. “Well, obviously we are closed…”, he said, somewhat superfluously, but then after a further short conversation very kindly gave me a free pint “as an early birthday present”. It was incredibly delicious. The footpath Gods hadn’t been smiling on me, but the freebie Gods definitely were.
Down dale but mostly uphill, I crossed the River Clwyd and left behind the last civilisation, the tiny hamlet of Derwen. I had a cunning plan, even by my cunning standards.
The plan was to hike all alone into a massive, dark forest at dusk. And then sleep in it. Somewhere random. Well at least it wasn’t raining.
It started to rain, gently at first but increasingly hard. Soon it was pelting down, hammering down, absolute stair rods. I was a drowned rat in no time. It started to get very dark among the tall trees. How would I survive a bivy in this? After not very long I began to cry out loud to the forest Gods for shelter, oh please, any kind of shelter.
I came onto a wide track of crushed hoggin; clearly some kind of building work was underway in this remote and unlikely spot. Aha, a wind farm. Suddenly, rounding a bend, rivulets of water teeming off me, I saw a white steel cabin – it was a builders’ ‘welfare unit’, in a dark forest absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Surely not…
I tried the toilet door. Locked, darn it. Pessimistically I tried the other door. It opened! Oh my goodness, the forest Gods had joined forces with the freebie Gods, there was a bench to lie on and even electric light! There was even a kettle and microwave, but I thought just dossing damply inside there was cheeky enough. The rain hammered on the roof like a tribe of clog-dancing squirrels. The generator started, vibrating the entire cabin, oh no. Luckily on the wall there were clear builder-friendly instructions for switching it off. I passed a short, furtive, but miraculously dry night.
At dawn I waved goodbye to the visually intrusive but miraculous welfare unit, and I can’t pretend I then didn’t also appreciate the ease of walking along the visually intrusive trackways. Everywhere else was a quagmire.
It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue. I was, by an unexpected metal miracle, blessedly unsoggy. The view were extensive.
The Denbigh Moors appeared somewhat unfrequented. In fact I had the whole wide and wild expanse of them entirely to myself. It seemed strange that no one walks across here, that there didn’t seem to be any paths…
Goodness me this was hard walking, but determinedly I stumbled on. I had a cunning plan, as usual, which was to bag a full set of the moors’ unassuming summits, first Pen yr Orsedd (442 m), then Moel Rhiwlug (420 m). Penbryn-ci (448 m) and finally Moel Seisiog (468 m) made the set. They all looked pretty much the same, if I’m honest.
Joking apart, Moel Seisiog is actually a quite exciting hill to climb (and easily accessible from a road to the north, as opposed to miles of trackless tussockation from the south) because it affords a famous panorama of Snowdonia.
Which I must admit was a bit of a moment, even after only five hours’ sleep in a steel box battered by exceptionally percussive raindrops. Nonetheless, to be honest I was looking forward to Llanrwst and for a most unusual reason – I’d booked myself into a hotel, or ‘an hotel’ as one was taught to write, don’t you know. AN HOTEL! Needless to say at a bargain advance special offer price, and only because the only AirBnB’s nearby were no cheaper, but it was still considerably dearer than anywhere else I’d stayed and I was gladly anticipating a bit of pampering.
Before that, though, I had to wangle my way through some incredibly obscure hill farmland, featuring fences, swamps and the biggest and most terrifying bull of the entire trip.
The footpath into Llanrwst passes obscurely along the edge of a vertiginous gorge, then descends through what are seriously some of the steepest fields in Wales, or so I was told by a friendly lady at the bottom who’d observed my slightly traumatised manner, although hopefully not the grass stains on my backside.
But then it was a case of ambling into a friendly town with shops and hot food, and for me even into the beautiful, olde worlde Eagles Hotel where, when I told my lame tale of hiking across Britain to the lovely receptionist, she gave me a cheeky upgrade to a charming en-suite with pretty antique furniture and a view; thank you so much.
Llanrwst is a bustling and attractive town; I stocked up with foot dressings in Boots and enjoyed a vast portion of perfect fish and chips on a sunny bench. Returning to the hotel, where I’d assumed it would be expensive to eat, I slightly regretted this when I saw the imaginative and good value bar menu being enjoyed by numerous friendly locals. The only fly in the ointment was that there was nowhere to dry your socks. I nearly set the place on fire airing them with the hairdryer, a gadget for which I nowadays have no other use.
The beer was delicious and the staff super-friendly. On hearing some of my woeful camping tales a chap in the bar enquired laughingly “and where are you sleeping tomorrow night?” “On the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn”. This seemed to give him pause. “That’s the second highest mountain in Wales. You’re going that way on purpose?” He seemed to think I might clamber up an enormous mountain by accident…