Coast to Coast – Norfolk to Wales 5

Wales – Denbighshire.

Finding your own unique way across an entire country is completely different from following a Way. It’s mentally harder, in planning and in execution. Concentration on navigation diminishes awareness and remembrance of places passed through. It has to self-justify – there’s no trail lore, no heritage, no endorsement. There’s no badge to sew on your rucksack and when you share the day’s highlights on Facebook it isn’t the famous mountain, the notorious high traverse, the remote Highland bothy: just fields, nettles and obscure suburbs.

It’s lonely – no fellow-Wayfarers, no trail markers to comfortingly suggest other fools have done this before, no encouraging banter at the legendary oases in the official trail guide. All in all, I felt I’d achieved something strange and singular in wangling my weary way in thirteen long days of hiking from North Norfolk into distant and mysterious Wales. About four hours journey in a car.

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The feeling persists, even though while writing this blog I’ve discovered that, accidentally and unknowingly, I’d slept in a small protruding segment of Wales the night before! I’m actually glad I didn’t know what country I was in at the time, it would have taken the shine off my subsequently ambling over a spectacular aqueduct into the Principality proper, at what most people would consider lunchtime. Taking no chances with foreign food, I’d already had an excellent lunch in England.

The going along the canal was very easy and it wasn’t even raining, for a change. Another reason to be cheerful was that although I’d walked probably two thousand miles in my ‘waterproof’ jacket, only on this morning did I finally work out how to adjust the hood. This was a wonderful revelation as when it next rained I’d no longer have to blunder along with it drooping over my eyes.

Apart from my sore foot everything was set fair and an even more spectacular aqueduct was imminent. Before that, though, it was necessary to venture into the dank and crepuscular Chirk tunnel.

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How on Earth did Offa get planning permission for his dyke?

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He was an Offa you couldn’t refuse. Chortle.

Pontcysyllte aqueduct

Oh my goodness, what miracle of historical civil engineering is this now?

Having disparaged my route for lacking highlights, of course I’d tried to include as many as made geographic sense and this was one of them – the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

Pontcysyllte aqueduct

Famously, there’s no railing on the waterway side. Narrowboat drivers must grasp their tillers firmly while gazing into an abyss.

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Extensive views of a sewage works.

Built between 1795 and 1805 by Thomas Telford, this aqueduct has 18 arches and is 126 feet high. Every five years they pull the plug from its long iron bathtub for maintenance, the water cascading into the Dee below, which must be quite a sight.

It’s an amazing engineering achievement, although of course an aqueduct is simpler to design than a viaduct with its constantly changing load of vehicles, nor do you need to limit the number of boats crossing at once. By Archimedes’ Principle the vertical loading of an aqueduct is constant. Until a hiker comes along with a heavy rucksack…

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The River Dee, and more spectacular arches in the top right corner – that’s the viaduct built 1846-8 by Henry Robertson. 19 arches and 150 feet high, so there…

The Llangollen Canal is a 1980’s re-brand of what’s still shown on maps as the Shropshire Union Canal – Llangollen Branch. Back in the day when these things mattered business and politics impeded the extension of the network north of Trevor Basin, where it was now also my time to turn due west, straight into the green heart of Welsh Wales.

I’d planned to take a high route, for the views, but, feeling a bit jaded and looking forward to a bustling town and a dry, warm hostel I cravenly walked along the canal instead.

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The immense cost and labour of building what are now peaceful recreational waterways with eighteenth century equipment is mind-boggling, and of course quite a few of the navvies died in the process.

Intermittent drizzle enlivened my towpath meditations, but as I approached the town a warm, comforting sun broke from the clouds and more effectively enlivened both the scene and my mood. The river, swollen by some recent downpours you may recall reading about, was spectacular; Llangollen appeared cautiously prosperous, even, dare I say, coyly gay. I’d been walking alone through muddy fields for a long time…

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A river brings great energy to any settlement, especially if it flows bright and lively. Even London acquires a strange, pulsating life force from the turgid tides and flocculent eddies of the Thames.

The independent hostel at Llangollen was an absolute treasure, so friendly, cosy and well-appointed, with a magnificent drying room as you’d hope in Wales. I fear for these lovely havens in the present emergency; I fail to see how hostels can possibly survive social distancing given that a certain informal intimacy is in their DNA.

youth hostel

The economics of running a hostel were marginal enough even before Covid-19. As so often, I had the cosy lounge with its books, games and woodburner all to myself, and promptly broke a string on the guitar.

The self-catering kitchen was lavishly equipped and there was a supermarket over the road for provisions to cook in it. In fact Llangollen Hostel is so great that my roomie, working away from home, was choosing to stay there four nights a week, every week, spending his evenings reading Stephen King and his nights snoring in grey underpants. By this stage of the trip I fear my companionship was equally edifying. I’d thought lots of thoughts and seen lots of places, but also stumbled alone and lonely through a heck of a lot of rain, when I’d thought this was going to be such fun in the sun and perhaps sociable to boot. Ah well, as the song says we carry our weather with us. Still, at Llangollen mine visibly brightened

 

The next day for the first time I was due to climb some actual wild and woolly hills. In view of this, I was going to need an actual map and so I was forced to return to the hostel’s WiFi from the far side of the Dee when I discovered that the OS map I’d carefully downloaded the previous evening was now refusing to display on my phone, yet again.

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Heading west out of Llangollen along the river.

After the Horseshoe Falls (which don’t look much in the picture above, but the noise and the power of the water were awesome) I left the river north and uphill, following the road to the minimal hamlet of Rhewl.

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Excuse me, I’m from Norfolk. What are those big green lumps?

Here my route turned north, up a sudden and astonishingly steep ascent. The first really steep ascent of the whole trip, and the first time since Norfolk that the sun was really warm.

I struggled up the one in four, sweating; at a completely isolated house halfway up the hill a very nice chap called Brian poking weeds from his drive was so dismayed at my appearance he called me into his garden and gave me a reviving mug of tea!

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Brian’s garden.

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Cheers Brian!

Further up, the hills became exhilarating, not least because the paths were obvious and such easy walking. Also by some bizarre miracle it still wasn’t raining.

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Compared to the ‘paths’ I’d become used to, this track up the hill from Rhewl was like a motorway.

moel y gamelin wales

Coming up to Moel Morfydd, Moel y Gamelin behind. Joyfully easy walking and the whole place to myself.

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Moel Morfydd summit. Just 550 m, but an actual summit!

It was an easy amble down through lovely flower meadows to Bryneglwys, where in an unexpected community shop a kind lady gave me a free piece of Bara Brith with my tea. It was turning into a day of freebies! Little did I know that things were about to go downhill, in more ways than one.

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A little rest in a flowery meadow.

The rest of the morning became a hard and on occasions slightly desperate slog up and down steep and overgrown valleys, on so-called public footpaths that made me long for Shropshire’s maintenance crew. Several had entirely disappeared.

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Ah yes, this looks like a Public Footpath..

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That white sticker explains the terrifying draconian penalties for interfering with Public Footpath signs.

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Erm, OK…

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This is a Public Footpath. Yes, down there, into the dark and obstructed unknown. Down there, where there’s a loud noise of rushing water.

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And this is the other end…

Some locals were helpful, one explaining from the window of a smoky Subaru that ‘yes, a new chap has blocked that path, it’s going to court, but try the next one down the road’. Others were less so. At one ramshackle farmstead a large young man carrying two halves of a divan bed through his yard was very clear that “he didn’t really want me walking down there”, even though as I politely showed him the GPS blob on my phone indicated I was bang on a right of way.

Luckily just then an older woman appeared carrying six Lidl bags full of mysterious junk. She recalled that, oh yes, there might once have been a footpath ‘down there’ and kindly directed me away from the bull. At the bottom of a field I encountered rusty barbed fences, impenetrable bushes I had literally to crawl under and the raging torrent of the Afon Hesbin in a small but scary chasm that I had to leap across, it was worse than anything I’d encountered in Scotland. I was nearly a Hesbin myself. And finally at the top of a near-vertical overgrown slope, a rotten stile evidenced our ancient heritage of rights of way.

As I approached Llanelidan the going got easier, through some strangely manicured parkland like the grounds of a stately home, although none was visible.

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A manicured landscape, for a change.

At Llanelidan there was a pub, oh joy! It didn’t look very open, but in desperation I tried the door anyway. It opened. The bar was dark and quiet, there were kids’ toys, a laptop. I was eerily alone in the Marie Celeste Inn; the temptation to pull myself a pint was almost overwhelming.

Suddenly the landlord appeared and did a comical double-take, “how did you get in?”  “Erm, the door was open, I’m very sorry”. “Well, obviously we are closed…”, he said, somewhat superfluously, but then after a further short conversation very kindly gave me a free pint “as an early birthday present”. It was incredibly delicious. The footpath Gods hadn’t been smiling on me, but the freebie Gods definitely were.

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These two clearly recognised a fellow beast of burden as they followed me for some way. I think they could smell the pies I’d bought at Llangollen.

Down dale but mostly uphill, I crossed the River Clwyd and left behind the last civilisation, the tiny hamlet of Derwen. I had a cunning plan, even by my cunning standards.

The plan was to hike all alone into a massive, dark forest at dusk. And then sleep in it. Somewhere random. Well at least it wasn’t raining.

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I’ll hike into the massive, dark, troll-infested Clocaenog Forest at dusk. What can go wrong?

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Well, the path can completely disappear, for example…

It started to rain, gently at first but increasingly hard. Soon it was pelting down, hammering down, absolute stair rods. I was a drowned rat in no time. It started to get very dark among the tall trees. How would I survive a bivy in this? After not very long I began to cry out loud to the forest Gods for shelter, oh please, any kind of shelter.

I came onto a wide track of crushed hoggin; clearly some kind of building work was underway in this remote and unlikely spot. Aha, a wind farm. Suddenly, rounding a bend, rivulets of water teeming off me, I saw a white steel cabin – it was a builders’ ‘welfare unit’, in a dark forest absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Surely not…

I tried the toilet door. Locked, darn it. Pessimistically I tried the other door. It opened! Oh my goodness, the forest Gods had joined forces with the freebie Gods, there was a bench to lie on and even electric light! There was even a kettle and microwave, but I thought just dossing damply inside there was cheeky enough. The rain hammered on the roof like a tribe of clog-dancing squirrels. The generator started, vibrating the entire cabin, oh no. Luckily on the wall there were clear builder-friendly instructions for switching it off. I passed a short, furtive, but miraculously dry night.

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Lurking guiltily inside the miraculous ‘welfare unit’, miles from anywhere in the middle of a vast forest. Absolute pitch darkness and teeming rain outside.

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Nighty-night…

 

At dawn I waved goodbye to the visually intrusive but miraculous welfare unit, and I can’t pretend I then didn’t also appreciate the ease of walking along the visually intrusive trackways. Everywhere else was a quagmire.

c2c-clocaenog-cabin-exterior

The completely miraculous ‘welfare unit’, by which my overnight welfare was very much enhanced. Thank you so much, kind windfarm builders, for leaving it unlocked and I’m sorry to have intruded. I left your cabin wiped dry and in fact slightly tidier than I found it.

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Great works in progress…

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Huge turbine blades, and further along another unlocked cabin with a laptop in it!

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The turbine pillars are enormous.

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Back into the dark, mysterious forest…

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Over ancient elfin bridges in secret dells…

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Along a surprisingly manicured avenue…

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And finally out of the forest onto Alwen Reservoir, which as you can see is very picturesque.

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A bit of warm dawn light.

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And at the far end this bridge, which carries you over the neck of the reservoir and out onto the Denbigh Moors.

It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue. I was, by an unexpected metal miracle, blessedly unsoggy. The view were extensive.

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The Denbigh Moors appeared somewhat unfrequented. In fact I had the whole wide and wild expanse of them entirely to myself. It seemed strange that no one walks across here, that there didn’t seem to be any paths…

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Nobody with any sense walks across the Denbigh Moors because they are quite absurdly tussocky and very difficult going!

Goodness me this was hard walking, but determinedly I stumbled on. I had a cunning plan, as usual, which was to bag a full set of the moors’ unassuming summits, first Pen yr Orsedd (442 m), then Moel Rhiwlug (420 m). Penbryn-ci (448 m) and finally Moel Seisiog (468 m) made the set. They all looked pretty much the same, if I’m honest.

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Oh the Denbigh Moors, the Denbigh Moors, the trackless Denbigh Moors…

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The almost invisible rotted remains of a stile vindicated the GPS claiming I was on a ‘path’;

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The tussocky Denbigh Moors…

 

Joking apart, Moel Seisiog is actually a quite exciting hill to climb (and easily accessible from a road to the north, as opposed to miles of trackless tussockation from the south) because it affords a famous panorama of Snowdonia.

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The famous panorama of Snowdonia. Don’t tell me it’s going to rain again…

Which I must admit was a bit of a moment, even after only five hours’ sleep in a steel box battered by exceptionally percussive raindrops. Nonetheless, to be honest I was looking forward to Llanrwst and for a most unusual reason – I’d booked myself into a hotel, or ‘an hotel’ as one was taught to write, don’t you know. AN HOTEL! Needless to say at a bargain advance special offer price, and only because the only AirBnB’s nearby were no cheaper, but it was still considerably dearer than anywhere else I’d stayed and I was gladly anticipating a bit of pampering.

Before that, though, I had to wangle my way through some incredibly obscure hill farmland, featuring fences, swamps and the biggest and most terrifying bull of the entire trip.

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Heading down into deceptively welcoming farmland.

The footpath into Llanrwst passes obscurely along the edge of a vertiginous gorge, then descends through what are seriously some of the steepest fields in Wales, or so I was told by a friendly lady at the bottom who’d observed my slightly traumatised manner, although hopefully not the grass stains on my backside.

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Along the slippery grass atop the vertiginous gorge…

But then it was a case of ambling into a friendly town with shops and hot food, and for me even into the beautiful, olde worlde Eagles Hotel where, when I told my lame tale of hiking across Britain to the lovely receptionist, she gave me a cheeky upgrade to a charming en-suite with pretty antique furniture and a view; thank you so much.

Llanrwst is a bustling and attractive town; I stocked up with foot dressings in Boots and enjoyed a vast portion of perfect fish and chips on a sunny bench. Returning to the hotel, where I’d assumed it would be expensive to eat, I slightly regretted this when I saw the imaginative and good value bar menu being enjoyed by numerous friendly locals. The only fly in the ointment was that there was nowhere to dry your socks. I nearly set the place on fire airing them with the hairdryer, a gadget for which I nowadays have no other use.

c2c-llanrwst-hotel-socks

The only way to dry your socks in a hotel when it’s summer and the heating’s turned off.

The beer was delicious and the staff super-friendly. On hearing some of my woeful camping tales a chap in the bar enquired laughingly “and where are you sleeping tomorrow night?”  “On the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn”. This seemed to give him pause. “That’s the second highest mountain in Wales. You’re going that way on purpose?” He seemed to think I might clamber up an enormous mountain by accident…

→ Episode 6. Snowdonia

8 comments

  1. This is one incredible adventure! I have been enjoying your account so much. What stoicism and perseverance. You seem to have had appalling bad luck with the weather and state of the footpaths. I admire your bravery and hope that there were enough good moments to counteract the bad ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes this one did turn into a bit of a slog at times, but there were definitely some good moments, in fact if I ever get round to writing the last episode most of them were in that! A 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brenda O'Dowd · · Reply

    This narrative is turning into an exciting thriller. I love your writing style and the way you end each episode with a cliff-hanger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, also for your great support on FB. Working up to the fabulous climactic extensive views… 😉

      Like

  3. litehiker · · Reply

    I’ve encountered blocked and non-existent paths many times when following self-devised routes, using paths that look fine on the map. I’ve never walked the aqueduct to Trevor before but have been across it a few times years ago on family canal boat holidays. Truly impressive. As we couldn’t pronounce its name, we just called it Pontskylight. Love your account and the photos. The occasions of trail magic are very special when unexpected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind interest, yes the aqueduct is amazing, we have so much heritage and walking is a really vivid way to experience it. This walk was a struggle at times but yes there was still magic, and humour, I hope my account brings some of that out. A 😉

      Like

  4. My favorite line to date: “The rain hammered on the roof like a tribe of clog-dancing squirrels.” That and the crazy tussocks had me giggling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, yes the tussocks were pretty darn funny. Afterwards. Long afterwards.
      Thanks again for your interest 😉

      Like

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