OL18: Blaenau Ffestiniog

OS Explorer map OL18, Harlech, Porthmadog & Y Bala – I own this map, and had visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 29th March 2019. This is the second of three posts about the “Gerald of Wales” trip to North Wales I did in late March 2019 with my friends Millicent, Erithacus and Vesper.

My previous post told of my journey with Vesper, Erithacus and Millicent to Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, where we’d be staying for the weekend, travelling on the very exciting Gerald of Wales train service for part of our journey, and arriving at our holiday cottage at about 10pm by taxi, due the Conwy Valley railway line unfortunately being closed for repairs at the time due to weather damage. At that point, it being very late, we naturally collapsed quite directly into our beds!

The cottage we were staying in, with one of the waste slate heaps that dominate views in some directions from Blaenau Ffestiniog behind it

The terraced cottage we were in was very cute; there was a poky but cosy little living area downstairs next to a long, narrow lean-to kitchen. Upstairs was a little bathroom and two bedrooms, one of which, interestingly, wasn’t over any of the downstairs rooms, being instead above some part of an adjoining house! It was also very well-priced, at only £60 per night – I do love how cheaply one can get holiday accommodation in the UK at the last minute, especially if you’re not very picky about where exactly you end up; it makes off-the-cuff trips to fun corners of the country wonderfully achievable!

Setting off for our walk the next morning

Since we were heading back home on the Sunday, Saturday was our only full day in the area, so we had to make the most of it with a nice walk. After a leisurely morning and making ourselves some packed lunches we walked into Blaenau Ffestiniog and caught the bus some 3 miles down the valley to Llan Ffestiniog, where we’d be starting and finishing our walk.

Going through some fields near the beginning of our walk

Now, if you’ve read any other bits of this blog, you’re quite likely to know that Erithacus, Millicent, Vesper and I met when we were all studying the same degree together, namely Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, which focusses on the history, languages and literature of early medieval Britain and Scandinavia. One of the nice things about this (and probably the main way that it affects my life, it now being two years since I finished studying), is that it adds a layer of fun to travelling around the British Isles – wherever one goes, one’s rarely far from something of historical interest, be that an old church or ruin or something, some fun place-names, or some literary connection.

We were therefore excited to be where we were, not just because of the opportunity to be exposed to some Welsh, but because the area where we were is the setting of Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi – the Four Branches being medieval Welsh prose stories, the earliest such that survive and just like a core thing of medieval Welsh literature. Math is a very localised tale, with a lot of detail on exactly where events of the story took place, making it possible to trace the story across the local area quite precisely in many cases. [1] (It’s also, in my clearly unbiased opinion, the most interesting Branch – would recommend!)

Some cute woolly friends – two of whom we helped to find this gate and reunite with their mothers

I won’t summarise the whole of Math for you, since that’d take a long while and Wikipedia can do that for you quite well enough, but the last section of the story concerns Blodeuwedd, the lady created out of flowers by Gwydion, the sorceror-type individual who is responsible for most of the fantastical goings-on throughout Math, to be a wife for Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Blodeuwedd commits adultery – not that one would want to judge her for it, her not having had much choice in the matter of her marriage – with one Gronw Pebr and conspires with him to kill her husband. This doesn’t quite go to plan despite the meticulous planning to arrange the precise circumstances in which Lleu can be killed – involving a goat and bathtub – and Lleu merely, uh, turns into an eagle rather than dying. Once Gwydion has arrived and put Lleu back in his proper shape, Lleu goes after Gronw for revenge, and after some begging on the latter’s part agrees to let Gronw hold a stone in front of himself as a shield while Lleu throws a spear at him. However, unfortunately for Gronw:

Gronw took the stone and put it between him and the blow. Then Lleu threw the spear at him, and it pierced through the stone and through him too, so that his back was broken and Gronw was killed. And the stone is still there on the bank of the river Cynfael in Ardudwy, with the hole through it. And because of that, it is still called Llech Ronw.

From Math fab Mathonwy, in Sioned Davies’s translation

Our route for the day, which you can see on the map below, was planned to visit various places from this section of Math. The first bit of the walk would be along the river Cynfal – on whose banks not only does Lleu kill Gronw, but also where Gronw initially attacked Lleu. After a stint along the river, we’d aiming for Llech Ronw (“Gronw’s Stone”) itself – more on that later – before returning to Llan Ffestiniog by a higher route and catching the bus back to our accommodation. We also considered extending the walk to visit Llyn y Morwynion (“Lake of the Maidens”), where Blodeuwedd, alas, commits suicide after Gronw’s death, by drowning herself along with her attendants – I’m not quite sure what they did to deserve it – but in the end we decided to give that a miss since it was getting late.

The route we walked! Llech Ronw is at the turn-around point near Bryn-saeth nearthe southernmost point of our walk, and Llyn y Morwynion, which we didn’t end up getting to, is visible to the northeast. (Screenshot from OS Maps online.)

It was a lovely day for a walk, sunny but cool, and the first couple of fields were a delight, full of cute lambs, two of whom had manage to get themselves stuck on the far side of a wire fence from their mother and were bleating mournfully – fortunately we managed to help them find the gate. Walking the path along steep wooded banks of the Cynfal was great – there was a very dramatic (and noisy) waterfall, and later an equally dramatic disused railway viaduct which used to carry the standard-gauge Bala and Ffestiniog Railway, unrelated to the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway to Porthmadog whose resurrected heritage railway incarnation we’d ride the next day.

The old viaduct, and the river Cynfal below it

This was followed by a footbridge across what had by then become a reasonably deep gorge. We paused at one end of the footbridge to read aloud from Math – having read the tale several times before, I really enjoyed hearing it while sitting in the places it was describing.

Erithacus reads to us from the Fourth Branch as we sit on the banks of the river Cynfal

After the viaduct and footbridge, we were briefly on roads again as we walked towards Bryn-saeth, the farmstead where we hoped to find Llech Ronw. There is indeed a stone at Bryn-saeth that has a hole in it; it was found at some point in the 20th century and stuck upright in the ground; it’s named Llech Ronw, and people go to look at it occasionally. Now, Math is fiction (uh, citation needed), so obviously we weren’t seeking a rock with a hole truly made by Lleu’s spear. It seems reasonable (though unknowable) to think that Llech Ronw, i.e. a real holed stone referred and given a mythological origin in the tale, did exist at some point. If it ever did exist, it’s very unlikely that the present-day Llech Ronw is that same stone. But that’s not the point; the point is that there’s a stone there now, a stone in roughly the right place with the right name, which is all folklore’s ever needed and rightly so. It’s a nice story, and it’s the nice story that we were going to appreciate.

Resting on the bridge over Afon Bryn Saeth

Bryn-saeth (“Hill of the Arrow”, with saeth being a nice Classical-era Latin borrowing from sagitta [2]) is a private farm, though with a public right of way running through it. The right of way goes past the farmhouse and then continues up into the hills, crossing the stream Afon Bryn Saeth – a tributary of the Cynfal – on a small bridge. Llech Ronw is around 200 yards way back down Afon Bryn Saeth from the bridge, so technically not on publicly accessible land. I hope the landowner didn’t mind – we probably should have asked, but I never feel very comfortable doing such things. Something to work on. After a brief rest on the bridge, we walked down the river, eyes peeled, and then, there it was! Llech Ronw itself; very cool. We treated ourselves to a reading of Gronw’s death, and to some snacks, then moved on!

Llech Ronw! Afon Bryn Saeth is between the camera and Llech Ronw – we were on the southwestern side of the stream, looking across to the stone on the other bank.

From there, our walk back to Llan Ffestiniog by a slightly higher-level passed pleasantly, us having decided to skip Llyn y Morwynion and return directly. We had a rest atop a smallish hill, admiring the views and generally lazing around, before walking back down into the village to catch a bus back in time for a little more lazing around before dinner. A most pleasant walk!

The rest of the evening was spent in the cottage, eating a dinner of pasta made by Vesper and Erithacus, and then watching the great and very silly 80s film Airplane!. If you haven’t seen it, do – it’s just a continuous succession of single-line silly jokes, which somehow have mostly (though not all) aged pretty well. It’s just good and silly. That was followed by a short interlude of standing outside looking at the very clear night sky before bed.

The next day, we packed up in time to be out of the cottage by the 10am check-out time, having thorougly enjoyed our very short stay, and moved to a café in town for some warm drinks while we awaited our 11:30 train. The café very conveniently overlooked the station! Indeed, this was the day when we’d be getting on the very exciting Ffestiniog Railway.

Looking down on the platforms at Blaenau Ffestiniog station. The narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway tracks on either side of the island platform can be easily differentiated from the wider standard-gauge National Rail tracks to the right

The Ffestiniog Railway is a narrow-gauge heritage railway (which alone would be enough to make it fun), of particular interest for linking together two bits of the Natonal Rail network, namely Blaenau Ffestiniog at the end of the Conwy Valley Line, and Porthmadog on the Cambrian Coast Railway, which otherwise one could only travel between by rail on a very long and circuitous route – via England, in fact! The railway was one of the very first closed lines to reopen as a heritage railway, and runs curious-looking little double-ended steam locomotives, which Wikipedia tells me are called Double Fairlies and are very cute. Our service was pulled by Merddin Emrys, an 1879 original – the railway also runs new locomotives of the same model, built in recent decades in its own workshops.

Merddin Emrys, our locomotive for the journey

The journey to Porthmadog takes about an hour and ten minutes, and it’s a very pleasant trip! We enjoyed admiring the mountains and woods roll by, and generally had a nice time. This, in fact, was my second time on the Ffestiniog Railway – for details, see the Previous Visits section below!

Us on the Ffestiniog Railway

We arrived in Porthmadog at about quarter to one, and got to quickly tour the town in, admittedly, a rather linear fashion, as we walked through it to its large branch of Tesco, where we acquired lunch. We then ate said lunch sitting on the grass outside the supermarket, admiring passing dogs until it was time to catch our ongoing train to Shrewsbury from the nearby National Rail station. (For details of the overall railway loop route we travelled on the holiday, of which this was the return leg, see my previous post.)

Porthmadog harbour

The journey on from Porthmadog, taking us out of this map area, took a little over three hours to get us to Shrewsbury, where Erithacus, Vesper and Millicent got off to look for somewhere where we could find dinner, while I continued on to Chester to reclaim my car from where we’d left her, to then drive back to Shrewsbury for dinner with the others, which I’ll describe in my next post!

Previous visits

I’ve been to Snowdonia four times before the visit described above. The first of these was a holiday in summer 2007 with my parents, a young second cousin, and his mum (my, uh, first-cousin-once-removed-in-law?). Those two had come to visit us for my dad’s 50th birthday party, and after said party, we took them on a holiday to Wales. Now, unfortunately, a while of digging unfortunately hasn’t revealed exactly where we went; I have plenty of photos from the trip but they’re not of anywhere I can identify. However, Mother Dearest thinks we stayed somewhere near Dolgellau, which is in map area OL23; I’m therefore going to leave writing about that trip until I post about that map.

Duke of Edinburgh’s Award assessed expedition, summer 2011

The second and third times I visited Snowdonia were in summer 2011, and were the practice and assessed expeditions that I did for the Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. The “D of E”, as it’s known, is an awards programme for young people. Pushy schools – and parents – are often keen on it on the grounds that it apparently makes one look good to universities and employers, by showing one’s a “well-rounded person” (though all I ever heard from universities when I was applying was that they care about academic performance and nothing else). To get a D of E award, one has to complete several objectives in a few areas: physical, volunteering, “skills”, a residential section (for Gold only), and an expedition.

I think I’ve matched this photo up with the map of the route of our assessed Gold D of E expedition correctly, and so can tell you that this was taken nearly at the end of the first day. The photo is looking south across Llyn Du-bâch in the foreground, with Llyn-y-Manod at the top-left – our camp for the night was closer than that, a little off to the right next to a small reservour. The mountains in the top-right are then Moelwyn Bach, Craigysgafn, and Moelwyn Mawr, with Blaenau Ffestiniog being down in the valley in front of them.

Now, not being particularly active child who made a point of avoiding any physical exertion possible, D of E never really appealed to me, so I never did any Bronze or Silver. (My school didn’t actually do Silver.) However, I did sort of secretly like the idea – not that I would have admitted it at the time – of the expedition bits for the wilderness and orienteering-y aspects of it. My school’s D of E programme was run by my physics teacher, [3] and the expedition-planning sessions were held after school, immediately after one of my physics classes. I therefore contrived to “accidentally” leave my calculator behind one day so that I could go back to get it, get interested in their route planning, and never leave.

As you can probably guess, I came to Snowdonia for the expedition section. The expeditions involve nagivating one’s way along a planned route in a small group, ostensibly for some set purpose; for the Gold award, the expedition is 4 days long and is meant to be in a wilderness area. They can be done walking, cycling, by kayak or on horses, though most people walk like we did. There’s first a practice walk, and then an assessed one; we did both of ours in Snowdonia, about a month apart. The assessment is done by assessors who sort of interview you a bit before you set off, inspect your kit, and then meet up with you at various points to check that you didn’t get lost, cheat, or lose any team members etc.

The full route for our assessed Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition, showing which sections fit in map areas OL18 (i.e. this map) and OL17. As you can see, it’s mostly day 1, together with the start of day 2 and the end of day 4, that are in this map area. (Made with gpsvisualiser.com, using the OpenTopoMap map layer.)

Our route for the assessed walk, shown in the map above, was a circular one, and our stated purpose was something woolly about “investigating industrial stains on the landscape”. As you can see, most of the assessed walk – along with the whole of the practice walk – were actually in map OL17. I’ll therefore give a narrative just of day 1 of the assessed walk in this post. You’ll therefore have to wait until when I make a visit to and post about map OL17 for the overall story of these trips!

Five of the seven-person group from my assessed Gold Duke Edinburgh expedition. Of people you’ve seen mentioned before on this blog, Joystick is centre, and Geochunderer one to the right. I’m missing from the photo, as is Climbing Programmer.

We were a group of seven – the largest permissible size in fact; we were going to be two fours but one person dropped out. Joystick, Geochunderer and Climbing Programmer, three of my school friends who’ve featured on this blog plenty of times before (see e.g. the posts about our summer 2014 Scotland road trip), were in the group.

As for describing the first day, well, I’m not sure I’ll do a very good job there I don’t have many specific memories of the route (though to be fair to myself, it was nine years ago). However, the photos (like the one of the lake above) show that it was pretty, and I can see from the track logs – which I have since I downloaded the whole of my school computer system’s shared drive before leaving, so thank you, past me and his already-existent archiving tendencies – that it started in Dolwyddelan, and was about nine miles long, climbing gradually into the hills before leaving us at our first camp spot.

Cooking in style with an improvised pan lid

I do recall that camp spot though, beside an anonymous reservoir above Blaenau Ffestiniog. The first and third of our three camp spots for the assessed walks were wild-camping, complete with self-dug toilet holes and such amenities. I recall that particular spot partly because of the succession of people who decided to walk into the reservoir for a paddle but rush out upon discovering how cold it was, and partly because of the, ah, weird shrine to our expedition that we constructed, probably somewhat irresponsibly, out of slate and left for future adventurers to find.

In the end I never did any bits of D of E other than the Gold expedition. I don’t particularly regret that – getting into universities and jobs seems to have worked fine without it, and while being forced to do some sport or interact with strangers more would probably have been good for my young self, I think I’ve become fine at the latter already, and am still stubbornly resisting the former, so don’t really want to admit that I should do more of it. The expeditions were great though, and ignited my appreciation for wilderness and walking, which is one of the main things I love doing now. So I’m really glad I did them, much as my even-more-unfit-than-now past self’s body may have protested at the time!

Summer 2013 camping trip

The fourth and final time that I’d visited Snowdonia before the main trip described in this post was in summer 2013, the summer after my first year of university. This was a three-day-long camping trip with Little S, No Longer Hairy, and Big Coat, three of the friends I’d made that year. We stayed at a campsite, for three nights. We did various things, some in this map area and some outside it, but the campsite we were staying at, Rynys Farm, is just about in this map area, near the northern edge – it’s just a little to the south of Betws-y-Coed along the A5, and Betws-y-Coed itself is in OL17.

Us and our tent! It was… not the best tent, having been acquired for this trip for something like £35 from Argos

Our transportation for the trip was Beatrice, my first car, a very rickety (and ugly) Fiat Multipla – though practical for camping trips, having oodles of boot space. She wasn’t particularly reliable, and indeed had broken down in a lay-by on the way to Oxford just a week or so before, which wasn’t encouraging – especially since the mechanic had been unable to work out why she suddenly lost power.

Beatrice at the campsite

In the end, there were only a couple of minor troubles – check-engine light that was resolved with a phonecall to a mechanic (Little S found it very amusing that I started that call with “Hello, it’s Amrit, you fix my car sometimes”), and a little trouble getting up steep Snowdonian inclines when fully loaded – but I think she held up quite well, by her own low standards. Even if her terrible suspension did admittedly lead No Longer Hairy to think I was bombing along single-track lanes in Wales at 60mph, when in reality it was more like thirty…

Right, after that lengthy digression, I won’t attempt a chronological telling of the trip. Here follow a set of photographs and reminiscences in no particular order:

  • Cooking was done on my beloved camp stove, which was bought for – and used on nearly every day of – my two-month-long summer 2012 road trip around Europe with Cabbage (also mentioned in my Leicester and Whittlesey posts). This is one of only two times I’ve used that stove since, the other being on the summer 2014 Scotland road trip mentioned earlier on this post. I’d like to use it again, it’s really good!
  • Rainy evenings on campsites are not very fun, and on one such evening we decided to watch the (I think?) good and silly film Hot Fuzz on my laptop. Watching it in the tent – a six-person affair divided into a central grass-floored area and two three-person wings – turned out to be not very ergonomically achievable, though, so we ended up watching it sitting in the car, with the laptop propped up on the dashboard!
  • Alas, one memorable incident was when, lying down in our tent one evening, No Longer Hairy asked me to pass him his phone. I threw it across to him but, in a bit of bad luck, it hit him in the face, and chipped his tooth very noticeably. A late-night call to Mother Dearest (who used to be a dentist) was made, to ascertain that no immediate action was required, and the next morning was spent trying to find a local dentist to take him to. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any local NHS dentists who’d take him as a new patient or emergency case, so No Longer Hairy had to travel home to Nottingham a little early, to get seen by his own dentist.
  • We met at my parents’ house in Northamptonshire, and then drove over to Wales, making a stop at a garden centre near Shrewsbury where Big Coat bought a multi-pocketed photographer’s vest that went on to become a primary part of his wardrobe.
  • One day, we rode the Ffestiniog Railway, the same one featured on the main trip described in this post! It was a shorter there-and-back trip, rather than the one-way trip all the way to Porthmadog that we did on the more recent trip.
  • There were many midges…
I’m… not quite sure why No Longer Hairy brought his Oxford gown and mortarboard with him – maybe he was travelling somewhere else afterwards? But then, the two of us were very good at wearing our gowns at funny times.

And that’s it! Both for all the writing I’m going to do about that trip (since the other things I’d like to write about were done in map OL17), and for this very long post! (Though it’s not as long as my longest one, about Kilmartin.)

[1] If I am remembering correctly (which I may very well not be), Math is unusually locally specific even by the standards of the other three Branches, this being one of the facts brought up in the endless debates about how cohesive the Branches are. (And the rather pointless-seeming further debate of whether they had the same author – leaving aside the question of to what extent it makes sense to think of them as having an author at all. Not that that’s a totally irrelevant question; it’s just a little infuriating that so much scholarship seems to go into that – and the even more shudder-inducing question of how much they reflect purported ancient Celtic myth – when there’re so many more interesting questions to be asked of them just as pieces of literature.) It’s also the only one of the Branches to be set in Gwynedd, in North Wales rather than further south.

[2] Showing lenition of /g/ to nil (as in the modern-day alternation Gronw/Ronw), apocope of final /a/ and non-lenition of the geminate /tt/, followed by spirantisation to /θ/. I haven’t forgotten everything!

[3] For a random digression, I have a clear memory of an occasion when, in response to some irresponsible antics we were gossiping about that someone at some other school had got up to, this physics teacher said that one of the things he appreciated about our school was how it seemed like we managed to hold on to our childhoods well into our teenage years. I think the class had mixed feelings about this, but I fully agree. I really enjoyed my time at senior school, and I think a lot of that was playing silly games, exploring in the woodsy bits at the end of the school field, having long conversations about Star Wars, building things out of sticks and so on. I’m glad that I went to a school that was a safe enough environment that I didn’t have to grow up too much too quickly; that let me keep some aspects of childishness long enough to realise that once you’re an adult, no-one cares how you act nearly as much and you can be interested in whatever you’d like. I like to think I’ve retained more of a childish sense of wonder than many adults, or at least than many adults let on publicly; and I like that quality in myself. Having random interests and finding the world cool is just a really nice part of life. To quote the Fourth Doctor, “there’s no point in growing up if you can’t be childish sometimes”.

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