Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Defending ancient springs

It was a space upon my crinkled and stained mountain map that demanded attention. The vast rough bounds of the south Snowdonia mountain Dduallt harboured within it's eastern maw the source of the Afon Dyfdwy- The River Dee. THE great Welsh river which coils from it's source within these saturnine cliffs and meanders through the Welsh English borderlands before spilling  into the Irish Sea. It was the outdoor and travel writer Jim Perrin whose book with renowned photographer, John Beatty, 'River Map',had first alerted me to this wild place as the source of the Dee. The writer reminding me of my task through a recent Guardian Country Life column which once again spun back to this sacred spring on the moors.

As something of a Dduallt enthusiast myself I had experienced most of what this rugged little armadillo of a mountain had to offer. I had laced up my rock boots and climbed on its rough little outcrops, delved into it's dank caves. Hunkered down into winter gear as vicious gusts blasted sleet into my face. Floundered around in it's glutinous encircling bogs and, on one occasion,was almost benighted within one of the dense coniferous forests which guard the mountain's western and eastern flanks. An ill planned excursion when a late start and stubborn refusal to cut short my plans left me watching an azure November sky bleeding into night, leaving me with no option but to enter the dark woods to the east in the hope that I could find a stream to follow.  I Reasoned  that eventually it had to reach the valley floor. A plan which fortunately worked as I tumbled scratched and bloodied out of the forest just as the last of the autumn light leeched away. Leaving just the blanket of  snow on the Arans to counterpoint the gloom.

It was late January weekend day which in a generally mild and wet winter in north Wales promised a rare day of clear skies and a still coldness. The Aran and Arenig massifs sported an impressive snow cover above 1500'. Even little 2000' Dduallt wore a cap of snow. As I arrived at my usual remote base for sorties hereabouts I was surprised to see an old 4x4 parked up. You can usually guarantee that even on a balmy summer bank holiday you can find yourself totally alone in this,one of the wildest and unfrequented parts of north/mid Wales. My companion-as had been the case in nearly all of my mountain walks in the past three years- was a four year old English Springer Spaniel.  Fergus was a rescue dog who had spent the first 6 months of his life locked in a shed with his siblings. Without exercise and stained with his own mess,the poor dog was a quivering wreck when the RSPCA team rescued him. Happily, he soon became a wonderful well balanced hound who would lead me up hill and down dale with all the enthusiasm and boundless energy which typifies the breed.

The previous year I was surprised to see the park authority had erected a finger post marking the trial through the forest towards the mountain. The first time I had attempted to reach Dduallt I had stumbled around in the truly horrible cloying tussocky fire breaks through the forest.Each time reaching an impasse and being forced to retrace my steps and attempt what became yet another dead end until I eventually gave up. The new marked path is equally mired and rough but at least you know that eventually you will arrive upon the flanking rough bounds of the mountain. The initial path which leaves the forest all too soon disappears and it becomes every wo/man for themselves as the walker is forced to pick a way through,bog, verdant heater and lethal hidden boulders before attaining a firmer course up the mountain's south ridge.

As mountain walking goes this is just about as rough and tough as it gets in Wales. Distance and elevation wise, it looks nothing on the map but the brutish terrain hereabouts more than makes up for its modest height. As always on these walks, I lose myself in thoughts. As I get older I certainly have become truly Wainwright-esque in my desire to be alone in the mountains. Well...not truly alone as a dog who barks me into movement every time I stop somewhat disturbs ones reverie, but even on terrain such as this which demands your full concentration,you can switch off and follow your thoughts in whichever direction they lead. I was pondering that strange age I was at when you are a lot closer to wearing a wooden overcoat than a swaddling shawl. Although physically I felt as fit and strong as I did thirty years ago,you become aware that after swimming wild and free in life's rich waters, there is a  noticeable tensioning in your lifeline and at this point, the reaper begins reeling you in. that great northern philosopher Noel Gallager once said.... ' Be here now '!

To reach what Jim Perrin describes as 'an ancient chapel' above the spring which marks the source of the Dee I had to drop down it's steep heathery eastern face dotted with hidden outcrops and water runnels. At least there was the stubborn heather to cling onto should you take a slide. A rough sheep track meanders under the face and soon reaches a wet bog where for some obscure reason, farmers had erected a fence. Not sure why cooperation has never been the name of the game in Welsh farming?  Surely it's easier on these rough shared bounds to gather in the flock in a combined effort and effect the necessary husbandry in a communal way than erect fences and walls everywhere? Although stone walls have some aesthetic merit and occasionally offer a sweeping grandeur dependent on their location; modern stock fencing can never compliment an empty landscape.

Communal husbandry is the way it's done with the Welsh mountain ponies in places like the Carneddau range; why can't the practice be extended to the ragged ruminants who inhabit the wild uplands? Perhaps hefting ( the evolved territorial instincts which Lakeland sheep such as Herdwicks apparently possess, keeping them within a defined grazing ground) hasn't evolved within Welsh upland breeds? Perhaps Herdwicks are a more laid back contented breed than their neurotic celtic cousins!

 I digress; Just beyond where the fence meets the bog, there it is. The ancient chapel although my impression is that it is actually a shrine not a chapel. Certainly something this remote and of this size would never have been used for communal worship but in a Christian context,might have been used for quiet solitary contemplation. A hermitage if you like but more likely just a simple shrine. Of course, as is the case with many Christian sites, it is quite likely that it would have originally been a pagan place.

As we know, the organised Christian church with the military precision of the Waffen SS attempted to obliterate the old belief systems of these islands and replace it with it's far more absurd brand of superstition. At least the original pagan beliefs were based on the natural world and our place in it. A place where a spring erupting from the earth can be seen and tasted in all it's natural glory and placed within a natural context which makes sense of the world we live in. In such a quiet and wild environment as the mountain of the black heights,it seems almost sacrilegious to attach an alien concept like Christianity to something that is  so much more ancient, visceral and so powerfully and intrinsically of this earth.

The Arthurian writer Scott Lloyd has interestingly located the birthplace of the figure whom King Arthur of legend was based on, just a few miles to the east in the village of Llanuwchllyn at the head of Llyn Tegid . According to Scott and his writing partner Steve Blake, whose extensive research resulted in the groundbreaking work 'The Keys to Avalon';  'Arthur' was a Welsh tribal leader who became one of the most powerful of all warlords in the Celtic badlands of the sixth century. Even more interestingly is the link between Arthur and the Montgomery born shaman Myrddyn who it is said is the Merlin of legend. Within The Keys to Avalon, it is striking just how powerful and significant the Afon Dyfrdwy  is within the Arthurian legend and indeed within Welsh culture. A holy river...a sacred river born in the black heights of the east before its journey to Avalon...situated  upon North Wales' western seaboard.

I spent no more than ten minutes wandering around the site. Before I departed I gazed up above the shrine to the impressive cantilever stone which jutted out high above from the mountain's flank like a stone diving board. I had first stood on that place thirty years previously and looked out upon a rolling brown moor.My vista stretching 15 miles or more with not a solitary human habitation or construction-save the coniferous forest- in sight. It is fair to say the mountain left it's imprint and I would keep returning to the mountain. In each of my each of the seasons.

After leaving the shrine I wandered under the face passing a remarkably large stone pen? and picked my way up the mountains' northern flank to eventually meet the snowline. It remained still and clear with the late January sun vanillarising the wispy clouds. Just beyond the western treeline Rhobell Fawr was caught momentarily under a stray cloud and looked grey and uninviting under a mantle of snow. In every direction, snow capped mountains broke through the sombre plain. Cader to the south; Arenig to the north, Aran to the east and the Rhinogs to the west. Fergus and I picked away down through the white fringes towards the forest band. Fingers of glazed rock pointed every which way to the brooding sky as unseen water courses bubbled and frothed beneath us.

A raven clapperclawed above before tumbling down to disappear from sight beyond a distant crag. Entering the dark forest we stumbled in the gloom over uprooted trees and skirted coal black peat bogs to eventually break onto the track.

Opposite where my car was parked the little gritstone-esque outcrop of Ffridd Craig Fach was drawn from a John Piper palette. All drizzled black and muted viridian green stains with ochre slashes and burnt umber shadows. Hard to believe that Harold Drasdo and I had come up here 15 years ago on a hot July day and recorded the first ever climb. A modest VS which I called Sentina.Later I would tell Mid Wales maestro Terry Taylor about the crag and he would add at least a dozen hard routes up to E5 and declare the rock 'the best in Wales'. I've added another three or four myself but I'm not sure if I've even recorded them ? Not that it matters. Modern climbers don't climb on these remote crags any more anyway.

We switchbacked down the steep road from the forest and out into the wide valley below the tree line. Ben Howard was on the car cd player singing something about

"walkin' back down this mountain
With the strength of a turnin' tide
Oh the wind's so soft on my skin,
The sun so hard upon my side.'

Except that the sun on my side was by now flaring behind Cader and the wind was locked out of my little cocoon as I pulled up to the Bala/ Dolgellau road and pointed the red bonnet east.

Words and images: John Appleby 2012