‘If you make it to Conwy,’ promised a kindly publican with a tattoo of an Uzi submachine gun on her upper arm, ‘come back here and there’ll be a pint for you on the bar.’
The Cambrian Way is known as ‘the mountain connoisseur’s walk’. It’s around 300 miles long and takes about three weeks, stretching the length of Wales from Cardiff to Conwy. Generally it claws its way along the high ground, with some pleasingly gratuitous dog-legs to snag extra peaks. It takes in the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains, working up to a suitably epic Snowdonian finale. If you hit all the invisible checkpoints along the Cambrian Way then by the end of it you will have climbed 46 mountains, so as upland walks go, it’s a very big bite.
The Cambrian Way has a complicated and contentious history that I won’t go into here, but it’s essentially the brainchild of a dedicated hardcore of Ramblers members – notably the late Tony Drake, who wrote the original guide to the route. Despite decades of concerted effort by enthusiasts (including a good deal of volunteer waymarking), it’s not an official national trail, and I suspect it might remain that way for a variety of reasons.
I walked it with Matt and Ellie of theoutdoorsdream.com, plus my brother, P, and my toy poodle, Charlie. So when anyone asks if the Cambrian Way is difficult, I can flap my hand dismissively and say ‘a lapdog can do it’, without necessarily revealing that the lapdog in question is a seasoned long-distance walker who has covered more than 800 miles of trails over the past three summers.
Actually the Cambrian Way is a tough old walk. The days are long, there’s a huge amount of ascent, and the terrain is often hard going – with frequent stretches of pathless scrub. But we knew what we were getting into. Last summer the same little gang of us walked the West Highland Way, which for all its fine landscapes felt a bit easy, like a hundred-mile-long pub crawl. This year it was time to redress the balance.
Rough with the smooth
A long route like this was never going to pass without incident, and there were a few occasions where I thought the game might be up. The scariest moment was in the Brecon Beacons, when a proper skycracker of a lightning storm exploded over our tents sometime round midnight. I’ve had thunder and lightning in the mountains before, but never celestial artillery like this, and it was genuinely quite frightening. Even that atheist brother of mine admitted offering up a quick prayer in the heat of the moment.
We weathered the UK’s hottest July day on record and racked up some long schleps over big hills, but it wasn’t until quite a way further north that trouble found us again. Coming over Pumlumon, my intrepid little dog, Charlie, developed a limp, and we found a barbed grass seed stuck painfully between his toes. We got it out and I carried him curled around my shoulders for the rest of the day, his scratty little head bobbing around owlishly in the corner of my eye.
The paw wasn’t infected and the next morning he seemed fine, but he was hobbling again by mid-afternoon, and I decided he was never going to heal up without complete rest. So with a heavy heart I left the others to carry on, descending to a pub in the valley where I took a room and Charlie spent the day snoozing on the rug and grifting snacks off the bar staff. I thought we were probably homeward-bound, but to my delight, he was skipping around just fine the next day, and by cutting cross-country we managed to catch up with the rest of the gang in Barmouth.
[Barmouth, by the way, is a brilliantly anachronistic episode on the route. One minute you’re in the majestic Welsh mountains, then suddenly you’ve fallen through a wormhole into a kiss-me-quick seaside resort where everyone is from Birmingham.]
Our last stroke of ill fortune came as we set out to tackle the last two days of the way. We’d treated ourselves to a night in the legendary Pen y Gwryd mountaineering hotel at the foot of Snowdon, but during our three-course evening meal, P had slunk off with a feeling of nausea which he thought was just tiredness and cold. In fact it was the beginning of a rotten stomach bug that forced us to take a day off. Worse luck, it turned out Matt was struggling stoically through a dose of the same thing. (‘Very cagey about his back end,’ remarked my brother disapprovingly from his sick bed, he himself being a man who likes to keep all around him regularly appraised of his internal functions.) Remarkably, though, the two of them managed to get back out into the mountains the following morning. P wasn’t quite well enough to tackle the loop over the Glyders, but he still battled through the final couple of days to get to Conwy and journey’s end.
If all this sounds like a bit of a roller-coaster, it was, but that’s because it’s much easier to catalogue trials and triumphs than it is to evoke the simple, profound pleasure of progressing day after day through monumentally grand mountain landscapes. An endless slideshow of sublime views and small but special experiences. Floating weightless in a crisp mountain lake on a scorching day, camping on a soft bed of heather or sprawling exhausted in a pub beer garden while the bar staff called a mate at the chippy to bring us a good feed.
And there are some proper flagship stretches in there. If I was pushed to pick one stand-out leg, it would have to be the magnificent day coming over Cnicht, the handsome Welsh Matterhorn. I’m told the mountain’s name comes from the word ‘knight’ (though it always makes me think of the Vermicious Knids from Roald Dahl), and it’s a smashing high-level stage, packed with interest and excitement. The terrain was challenging enough to be fun without spanking us half to death, and Ellie piloted us through thick mist and strong winds on the tops, only for it all to clear as we reached the peak of Cnicht. Snowdonia lay stretched out beneath us with the pin-sharp fakery of those relief maps you see in visitor centres. Apart from the summits themselves, the route also took in the spectacular, sprawling remains of the Rhosydd slate quarry. Great spoil heaps and tramways, crumbling arches and rows of ruined cottages, like an abandoned dwarven stronghold straight out of Middle Earth.
Such days will always be big-hitters. Equally, though, among the great joys of long walks are the in-between places. Most walkers will have been drawn to Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons at some point, but not necessarily to the lush, lazy Rhandirmwyn valley, the rugged humps of Pumlumon or the eerie, half-buried ruins of a forgotten upland community on the slopes of Garn Gron. There’s also a lot to be said for being a walker in a place where visitors are scarcer. In a popular area of Snowdonia one demented farmer set his dogs on us, but further south in a quieter valley another old boy had hopped off his tractor and ambled down the field for a chat over the fence, leaning his paunch carelessly against the barbed wire and occasionally breaking off the conversation to mutter to his collie in Welsh.
No route is perfect
As with any long-distance trail, I’d be a bit circumspect about following the route too slavishly. I love the idiosyncratic, whimsical nature of the Cambrian Way, but there are some stretches that feel wilfully difficult. On one occasion we spent 15 minutes zig-zagging through steep fields and nettle-choked woodland corridors when a 5-minute stroll down a quiet country lane would have got us to the same place. Another comedy moment saw the route directing us into an impenetrable wall of bramble in order to cut out a short loop of amenable forest track. There’s no real harm in all this, but sometimes towards the end of a long day you just want to get where you’re going.
One of the most contentious stretches is through the Rhinogs, north of Barmouth. There’s something wonderfully reptilian about these hulking, treacherous mountains, like the backs of half-buried dragons. Even the texture is sort of scaly, with great scallops of exposed rock that feel like the rough skin of a sleeping titan. It’s a tough, scrambly walk where you work hard to cover minimal distance, and when we used to go on scout camps near Dolgellau it was one of my favourite days of the programme.
The naysayers – including at one stage the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) – have argued that this stretch isn’t suitable for less experienced walkers or those with big rucksacks, and I’m inclined to agree with them. I know this makes me sound like a killjoy, but in fact the reverse is true. There is nothing particularly joyful about clambering over greasy rock with an expedition pack on your back, and the steep, slippery descent off Rhinog Fach was miserable – one of my personal low points of the trip. That’s just my opinion. Matt found it all most exhilarating, but he is a Kentish hooligan and is not to be trusted.
Crossing the Rhinogau is a fantastic mountain day out, but I think it’s best enjoyed light and nimble. There’s a good alternative route suggested in George Tod’s recent Cicerone guidebook, though if I did the Cambrian Way again I’d probably just cut round Rhinog Fach. Rhinog Fawr is less treacherous and there’s an absolute bombshell of a view from the summit. When we arrived there on a clear evening, we could see Bardsey Island more than 30 miles off, and I’d have been loath to miss such a sight.
The Rhinogs debate hints at one of the essential flaws in the Cambrian Way, in that it doesn’t quite know who it’s for. To walk the route without camping gear means taking some lengthy diversions or flogging yourself through some brutally long days, but on the other hand some portions of the route are tricky or treacherous if you’ve got a big bag.
Some final thoughts
I mentioned back somewhere near the beginning of this rambling blog that I reckon the Cambrian Way might never become a fully-fledged national trail in the vein of the Pennine Way or the South West Coast Path.
Many of its problems could eventually be overcome. For example, there are some access challenges along the route (walkers feel particularly unwelcome in Powys Council’s hostile fiefdom, where locked gates and barbed wire block rights of way, and helpful Ramblers volunteers are banned from marking up the trail), but those can probably be overcome in time. Also there’s a distinct lack of infrastructure in places, but I suspect that would evolve to meet demand if the Cambrian Way became more popular.
More fundamentally, though, the route is just too difficult for many walkers. The rewards along the Cambrian Way are huge, but they’re much harder-won than those of, say, the Pennine Way. Comparing the two routes is unfair but inevitable, and I can’t help thinking that the Cambrian Way doesn’t have the broad appeal of its northern English cousin.
But is that ultimately such a bad thing? And does a route need to be ‘official’ to be worthwhile? There are lots of stand-out stages to the trail, but walking the entirety of the Cambrian Way is a very niche form of type 2 fun that will only ever appeal to a small number of crackpot flagellants. All the same, such people are out there. Or should I say, we are out there.
In a world where ‘adventure’ travel is increasingly about experiences that are safe, reliable and easily replicated, the Cambrian Way is not that. It’s a big reach, a risk, one of those undertakings where you can pretty much guarantee things won’t go to plan. I’d argue that’s what real adventure is.