FULL FEATURE: Backpacking through the Cambrian Mountains in Wales

What better way to explore Wales’s wildest country than a five-day backpacking trip through the lonely Cambrian mountains. Words & pictures: Alec Forss

Illustration photo of FULL FEATURE: Backpacking through the Cambrian Mountains in Wales

My tent stands pitched on the flat 645m summit of Drygarn Fawr, one of Wales’s remotest and least visited peaks. A huge beehive cairn, topped by a piece of white quartz, dwarfs my fabric shelter, offering me protection from the rising wind blowing in off Cardigan Bay out of sight to the west.

Through the night, I hear gusts whistle through the stone slabs of the Bronze Age cairn, before they rush on unimpeded across miles of lonely snow-flecked moorland, reminiscent of the Canadian tundra. It’s mid April, but winter is not yet ready to relinquish its hold here above the valleys.

I find myself shivering from the chill of the wind penetrating my fleece jacket; or perhaps it is the thought of Bronze Age ghosts stalking the moors.

Fortifying myself with hot chocolate, I trace my route on the three OS maps that I struggle to unfold in my cramped one-man tent. Between the small town of Llanwrtyd to the south and Machynlleth to the north, the 55-mile walk I’m planning crosses the sparsely populated centre of Wales. Interrupted by only one main A-road – stretching across to Aberystwyth in the west – and with no café, pub or shop in-between, this is one of Britain’s last wild areas south of the Scottish border.



While some of my route, by necessity, will take in forestry plantations and farmland, much of it will be cross-country, navigating through some rough and tough terrain. The Elenydd or Cambrian Mountains – also known as the ‘Green Desert of Wales’ – was once described in a book on the area as “miles and miles of bugger all.” And after months of being cooped up indoors, bugger all was just what I needed.

The route had started innocuously enough, following the tea-coloured River Irfon upstream as far as the village of Abergwesyn where a heavy rain shower forced me to temporarily take refuge in a phone box. But then I left all inhabitation behind and headed for Drygarn Fawr, due north up the gloriously wild valley of Cwm Gwesyn. A dead sheep lay in its swollen stream, while the corpses of lambs were scattered all around, victims of the prolonged cold snap. Older shepherds remembered severe winters of the past where, cut off for weeks, tunnels had to be dug through the snow between their farms and outbuildings to rescue livestock.

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I wake up the next morning on the summit to a chilly stillness, and find myself boxed in by thick mist. Not being able to see more than 50 feet in front of me, I feel like I am suspended in cloud and that the ground could give way at any moment. I tuck deeper into my sleeping bag.

Several hours later the mist lifts and I observe sheep trails fanning out across the land in all directions. I try to follow one in roughly the direction I need to go, attempting to cut through the thick, hummocky molinia grass that puts the brakes on even the most hardened of legs. After much effort, I reach a small rise dominated by black peat hags. With the exception of a dark rail of conifer plantations to my left, the horizon stretches uncluttered in all directions.

When not veiled by cloud, this is big-sky country, where the wind sweeps over the moors like a wave crossing the ocean; where boundary stones or small rock outcrops become navigational markers – their height, sometimes just a couple of feet, accentuated by the gentle contours of the grassy plateau which mostly lies at between 1,500 and 2,000 feet.

While tracks do cross the uplands around the Elan Valley, these mostly run west to east – a legacy of the drovers’ trails that shepherds once used to herd their flocks (sometimes even geese, which would shelter in the small tarns dotting the area) hundreds of miles to market in England. The last drover died in 1998; his portrait hangs in the Neuadd Arms in Lllanwrtyd. Without beast or bird, I imagine myself a drover of the modern age, chasing nothing but my own shadow while heading north for the Claerwen Reservoir, at the heart of 30,000 hectares of wilderness.

As I near the reservoir, the sun breaks through the canopy of cloud, casting out a diffuse light across the vast expanse of moorland. My spirit immediately lifts and, like the Sami of northern Scandinavia who sometimes burst out into song – a ‘joik’ – for sheer joy of seeing a favourite mountain or lake, I too start to joik – a call of freedom, perhaps, after long winter months spent in the claustrophobic confines of the city.

My vocal efforts soon turn into groaning as I skirt the waterlogged and clumpy terrain around the southern shore of the reservoir, before I collapse exhausted on a spot dry and flat enough to camp. Stars wheel above my head as I replenish my water bottle and contemplate the one-and-a-half-day journey the water from Claerwen takes to get to the people of Birmingham.

The next morning sees me pass an isolated farmhouse flying the Welsh flag, though no-one seems to be at home. It is a reminder that the area served as a bulwark to the Anglo-Saxons from the east, helping to preserve the Welsh language and, further north, acting as a refuge to the Welsh hero Owain Glyndŵr who routed the English in a bloody battle in the Plynlimon hills in 1401.

Meanwhile, a front of ominously dark clouds gathers on the far edge of the moor, ready to chase yet another unwelcome Englishman out of this land. I stride ahead, determined to get off these exposed hills before the weather hits, my boots by this time squelching after plunging through a snow bridge concealing a running stream below.

Descending toward the village of Cwmystwyth, it is almost a shock to see a party of three hikers headed uphill toward a bothy at the Teifi pools. They are the first people I have seen since leaving Abergwesyn more than two days and two nights before, and we bid each other good luck as the wind threatens to dislodge the corrugated iron sheeting from the roof of a ruined farmstead.

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Not afforded National Park status in spite of efforts by campaigners in the 1960s and 70s, the whole Cambrian Mountains region is vulnerable to development.
The area between Cwmystwyth and Ponterwyd, the next section of my route, has been despoiled by vast forestry plantations and an enormous wind farm. Mist rises from the ranks of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir like vapour from a rainforest, except with none of its biodiversity. Wind turbines some 50 metres high cartwheel in the strong winds, whirring eerily.

By way of compensation, it also has a little-known peak, Pen y Garn, which rises to a fraction over 2,000 feet, as well as a secluded bothy at Nant Rhys, one of only a handful in the whole of Wales. “There’s more rain and gales forecast,” a local stops to tell me as I make my way to the bothy via tedious forestry commission roads, dreaming of a log fire.

The bothy is a former foresters’ cottage in a questionable state of repair. I expect to have it to myself and get a jolt when I open the door to find a group of four teenage girls on their penultimate day of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition. Subdued by the weather, I guess, they soon go to sleep, leaving me to listen to the rising gales howling down the remains of a downpipe previously connected to a now non-existent stove. With no chance of a fire, my kit hardly has a chance to dry from the unique brand of persistent rain and mist that only Wales can seem to conjure up.

The way ahead now leads me across the highest part of the five-day route – up the southern flank of Plynlimon. Its slopes radially streaked white with patches of snow, the highest peak in Mid Wales feels much higher than its 752m spot height indicates. “It does not look much like a hill,” a nonplussed George Borrow had told his guide when he tramped up here some 150 years previously. “It is the mightiest mountain in the world,” his bemused guide retorted.

After ploughing uphill for what seems like an age, I reach the source of the River Wye – close by, the Severn also begins its momentous journey from a mere trickle – and, just like Borrow, drink copiously from its cold, invigorating waters.

All around me, meanwhile, rise gently rounded hills, some of their tops adorned with Bronze Age burial cairns. In 1937, an archaeologist uncovered cremated human remains and even fragments from dug-out canoes in one of them. It is strange to think of the summits as millennia-old crematoriums, from an age in which mountain tops were revered more than they are today.

Gazing upwards, I spot red kites and merlins hanging in the air, peering down below upon the round barrows, standing stones, Iron Age hill forts and old sheep enclosures that dot what is an ancient cultural landscape, inhabited thousands of years before Owain had rallied the Welsh; before even the Welsh had come to these hills.

I pass over the watershed and toward the head of the remote, pathless Cwm Gwerin, recalling how Borrow had summed up this same landscape all those years ago: “a mountainous wilderness extended on every side… The scene would have been cheerless in the extreme had not a bright sun lighted up the landscape.”

While deriving no cheer from any sunshine, I console myself with the thought that the area’s wildness is accentuated by days of oppressive cloud, mist and steady drizzle. You feel the acute solitude even more in such conditions – where the weather is simply an extension or even expression of the land itself. To walk here under blue skies is an aberration almost, one that transforms their bleak and occasionally almost hostile character into something uncharacteristically benign and hospitable.

With more water threatening to pour from the skies, I reach the valley of the Afon Hengwm, which must rank as one of the most alluring in Wales. A handful of ruined farmsteads add to the atmosphere of abandonment – they are a legacy of Hafod a Hendre, a now-extinct system of transhumance where shepherds would take their flocks to the high pastures to spend their summers. I imagine knocking on one of the doors of a Mr Jones, asking for some buttermilk and salted butter that would have been staples here well over a century ago. Now his house lies in crumbling ruins.

Despite the wet conditions, I have so far not faced any difficult water crossings but am now forced to cross the Afon Hengwm, and find the current in full spate. One stride later and I am balancing precariously on a grassy tuft in the middle of the stream, my heavy rucksack hampering me from leaping across in one go. With the tuft about to give way beneath my feet and pitch me into the peat-stained water, I try to summon some spring in my legs and jump, only to half-land with my legs dangling in the water and my upper body pinned to the bank by my pack. Finally managing to unbuckle and haul myself out, I test the depth of the water with my hiking poles which reach to chest-height.

Following the Afon Hengwm in a north-easterly direction, I make my last night’s camp near the shore of Bugeilyn with the wind buffeting my tent in strong gale-force gusts. The next morning my wild world of the past few days is left behind as I approach its northern edge at Tarren Bwlch-gwyn – a dramatic escarpment of nearly 1500 feet plunging down scree-laden slopes to green and welcoming lowlands below, which are cradling the onset of spring. In the 20 minutes or so it takes me to clamber down, this descent seems an apt way to finish my wild pilgrimage – an abrupt transition further conveying the impression of the Elenydd being a land apart.

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After a few miles passing through farmland and attractive copses of sessile oak, it is almost a shock to arrive in the bustle of Machynlleth after five days of almost complete solitude. To the north lies the looming bulk of Cadair Idris while, in the town’s tourist office, postcards serve up images of the picturesque beauty of Snowdonia. However, it is the wild, unsung hills of the Elenydd to the south that have captured my imagination.

Backpacking the Elenydd
Start: Llanwrtyd Wells (SN877466)
Finish: Machynlleth (SH745005)
Distance: 55 miles
Time: five days
Maps: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger sheets 147 (Elan Valley & Builth Wells), 135 (Aberystwyth & Machynlleth) and 136 (Newtown & Llanidloes)