Dduallt: Looking out towards the Arans
It was late one night, as I was re-checking the galley proofs of the seventy-eight chapters making up Classic Walks, when the phone rang. Jim Perrin was on the line. "Get out the Dolgellau O.S. map and look at the huge tract of mountain country between the Arenigs and the Mawddach Estuary. A walk linking the Migneint in the north with Cader Idris in the south, including Arenig Fawr, Moel Llyfnant and Rhobell Fawr would have a quintessentially Welsh flavour with all the beauties, problems and archetypal character of that country." Any recommendation from Jim is good enough for me and I hastily agreed to the last minute addition. Ken Wilson used all his persuasive powers to get Jim to extend his walk to a marathon crossing of the hills from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau over Manod Mawr, the Migneint, the Arenigs, Moel Llyfnant, Dduallt and Rhobell Fawr. But Jim was spared — merit, not severity was our guideline, I reasoned, and anyway, the Migneint and Arenig Fach had already been admirably dealt with by Harold Drasdo.
Jim's manuscript duly arrived and I read it with more than usual interest for I was not well acquainted with the area. My interest quickened even more when I read that Jim rated Rhobell Fawr his favourite Welsh mountain. This made it an exceptional hill for, as readers know, Jim is a most discerning and sensitive commentator on the topography of North Wales and he knows every cwm, llyn and dol in the Principality. Rhobell Fawr leapfrogged to the very top of my list of hills to be climbed and the first opportunity arose one day in early June. North Wales was suffering a heat wave and I planned my day very carefully. No thirty mile marathon of sweat and aching limbs; a mere fifteen mile hill crossing from Llanuwchllyn to Dolgellau would give me Dduallt and Rhobell Fawr followed by a gentle descent to the Mawddach. The morning was deliciously cool as, at 5.45 a.m., I left Dolhendre on the Llanuwchllyn to Trawsfynydd road and made for the hills. Whilst crossing the Afon Lliw a heron flapped loosely overhead. A good farm track leads south of the rocky bluff, Castell Carndochan, and then an indistinct path winds up through the pastures, between twisted rowans and tumbled-down walls, now overgrown and thick with moss.
The fields were bright with harebells and heath bedstraw and my feet left a track through the dew. After half an hour the path petered out and the hillside was rough with tussocky grass, bilberry and deep heather. I paused for a moment under a line of rock outcrops falling away on the south side of Craig y Llestri and looked about. Rolling mists clung to the valleys below and completely covered Bala Lake but, rising well above the mist and already bathed in sunshine, ran the long line of the Arans. The view north was dominated by the shapely profiles of Craig y Bychan and Moel Llyfnant, while to the west Dduallt, my first objective, rose abruptly from the flat moorland belying its 2,153 feet. From the east Dduallt appears as a long whaleback, ribboned by buttresses of grey rock, and I altered course to make for the north ridge, the natural route of ascent. The high, open plateau under Dduallt has recently been fenced and drained and I suspect the conifers, at present just visible topping the ridge to the south, will soon be marching on towards Dduallt itself. From a distance the drained area appeared white with what I suspected to be lime but turned out to be cotton grass.
Rhobell y Big Summit
My eye caught a glint in the heather and I picked up a tiny metal ring bearing a code number. It was the identity ring of a homing pigeon and a local fancier traced the owner to Ballymena, Co. Antrim. The pigeon had been released from Haverfordwest in 1980 and had almost certainly fallen prey to a peregrine falcon. From the increasing number of birds lost, pigeon fanciers reckon that the peregrine population in Wales is multiplying. The north ridge of Dduallt is quite broad, but always interesting with rock outcrops to be negotiated and ever widening views west to the Rhinogs and south to Rhobell Fawr. Ragged grey clouds hung over the Rhinogs but it was only 8.00 a.m and the sun's warmth had hardly taken effect. The way ahead to Rhobell Fawr was blocked by a huge forestry plantation filling the valley on the west side. The 1974 Landranger map showed a gap in the trees on the south side but this too had now been planted. However, from my bird's-eye view I could see an obvious broad fire-break leading in the general direction of Rhobell Fawr and I made for this. The forest was not as impenetrable as it looked from above because rocky ground prevents close packing of trees, unlike some of the dense Northumbrian forests, I was intrigued to see the smaller fire-breaks had recently been planted with cupressus.
The Forestry Commission now realises that most fire-breaks are useless and they are filling them in with fast growing crops like cupressus. It was a relief to emerge from the trees high up on the north shoulder of Rhobell Fawr, where Welsh sheep were grazing the close cropped grass between the rock outcrops. The ewes and their lambs ignored me and I thought what clean and peaceful creatures these Welsh sheep are, an altogether superior breed to the nervous and scraggy Swaledales and Scottish Blackfaces of the north. Jim Perrin talks of a tame fox on Dduallt. I did not see it but I was rewarded by the sight of a young fox, with a white tip to his tail, watching me until, when I was within ten metres, he turned and slipped away into the rocks. Rhobell Fawr is virtually unknown and not a vestige of a path scars its upper slopes. The O.S. pillar at 2,408 feet is tastefully constructed of natural stone and in no way intrudes on the landscape. I sat down for a second breakfast by the pillar at 9.45 a.m. and although the sun had not quite dried the dew on the grass it was quickly evaporating the clouds on the Rhinogs and Cader Idris.
The three sheets of water visible to me, namely Lake Bala, Lake Trawsfynydd and the MawdachEstuary were beginning to sparkle. Set in an unfashionable tract of mountain country and hardly worth climbing for their modest heights alone, Dduallt and Rhobell Fawr are ringed by the popular ranges, Snowdonia and the Moelwyns to the north, Cader Idris to the south, the Rhinogs to the west and the Arans to the east. But the vast Coed y Brenin forest dominating the view west put a damper on my enjoyment and, sadly, blocks of forest were the predominating feature all round. Our mountain tops are becoming oases in a desert of forestry which goes to feed the chip board factories and pulp mills. My heart sinks when I realise that the development of new and hardier species of conifer will enable trees to be planted to a greater height. Perhaps soon even our mountain tops will be enveloped, and North Wales will become a boring switchback of green carpet like much of Scandinavia. However, the south west ridge of Rhobell Fawr is still clear of trees and provides a gentle descent. I followed a magnificently constructed dry-stone wall until, at Bwlch Goriwared, I met a good track coming over from the west. The end of a walk is important when assessing its overall quality. A long bash over miles of metalled road leaves you with bruised feet and a short temper.
Not so today, for the descent from Rhobell Fawr continued in an idyllic manner as the path led through lush pastures, the air heady with the scent of gorse, may and foxgloves. Hazel and alder grew in the hedges and a pair of buzzards soared overhead. With the sun now high in the sky the sheep were panting, even in the shade of the walls, and the hills were shimmering. My usual haunts are the fells of the north of England and the Scottish Highlands and I delighted in the typically Welsh scenery. With small fields, woods, rock buttresses, lichen encrusted boulders, tiny whitewashed cottages with slate roofs, a proliferation of bracken and ferns and butterflies, where else could I be but Wales? We become so used to expressing outrage at erosion and litter and man's despoliation of the countryside that it is rare to have to cope with other emotions stimulated by perfection. This was such an occasion and it left me feeling quite dizzy. A short cut along a marked Public Footpath (Llwybr Cyhoeddus) took me past the farm of Cae and then I emerged above the tiny village of Llanfachreth with its steepled church and line of terraced cottages. I stopped at the tiny shop to buy a can of coke. The local inhabitants were conversing in Welsh but broke off at my arrival and greeted me in English.
This circular walk hugs the steep slopes of Foel Cynwch and returns along the shore of Lyn Cynwch. I took the lakeside section of the walk enjoying the shade provided by overhanging sycamores and oaks. The blue rippling waters of Lyn Cynwch set against the backcloth of Cader Idris maintained my mood of elevation until, at 1.00 p.m., I crossed the bridge over the Afon Wnion and entered the fine old town of Dolgellau. Dolgellau, county town of Merioneth and centre of the great Gold Rush in 1862, but today choked with coaches and day trippers and the streets littered with ice-cream wrappers. I was back to reality. ■
Richard Gilbert 1983: First published in Climber -June 1983