When I first visited Wales, many years ago, I found the Welsh language to be confusing to say the least, with most of the words looking like a bad game of scrabble. It started to make more sense when I started walking with Chris, who grew up in North Wales, and she soon started to correct my typically bad ‘English’ pronunciation of Welsh words.
I’m still a long way from holding a meaningful conversation, but I can be polite and enquire after your health in Welsh – even more useful to me, I have a growing vocabulary of words used in mountain and place names, and the language is remarkably straightforward to understand and pronounce once you get stuck in. So, when I went out last week, I knew what Pen Llithrig y Wrach and Pen yr Helgi Du translated as.
Most Welsh place names are descriptive and to the point. For example, Mynydd Mawr means ‘Big Mountain’ – simple enough! Foel Fras is ‘The Broad Rounded Hill’, Crib Goch is ‘The Red Ridge’, Tryfan is ‘Three Peaks’ or ‘Three Tops’, and so it goes. So, I wondered what was going on the day that someone named a mountain ‘The Slippery Peak of the Witch’! Perhaps I would find out.
Whilst researching, I came across a suggestion that the Llithrig (Slippery) part of the name could be due to the boggy slopes of the mountain – I probably should have paid more attention to that bit, though to be fair I have come across mountains that have been far boggier. The ‘Witch’ (Wrach) part of the name might be influenced by the pointy nature of the hill, like a witch’s hat. Or perhaps someone just had a bad day!
I set out from Capel Curig (‘Curig’s Chapel’, but you’ve probably worked that out by now) and soon left the A5 road behind me as I set out up ‘The Slippery Peak’. However, Pen Llithrig wasn’t slippery as such, just soggy – Pen Gwlyb (‘The Wet Peak’) was more like it, but you have to admit that Llithrig has more of a ring to it!
There were some great views towards Ogwen, with Tryfan and Y Garn standing out well. If the views were good, the quality of the light was disappointing – I’ve learned a lot about photo editing over the past year, but light is a basic requirement for good images, and the light for this trip was flat and grey.
The plod over the soggy moor was followed by a steep pull up to the summit of Pen Llithrig y Wrach, with views to Llyn Cowlyd reservoir on one side, the Ogwen peaks on the other side and the unfolding panorama of the hills of the Carneddau straight ahead, with Carnedd Llewelyn centre stage. Carnedd Llewelyn is the highest of the mountains of the Carneddau and the third highest in Wales at 1064 metres (3490 ft), but it wasn’t on today’s menu. (See #24)
The top of Pen Llithrig was marked by a modest cairn, but was a witch-free zone! The next summit of Pen yr Helgi Du was still waiting, though. As Pen Llithrig had failed to produce a witch I was pretty sure that ‘The Peak of the Black Hunting Dog’ was likely to be dog-less, but fortunately I had brought my own along, if a black and white Border Collie called ‘Mist’ qualifies.
The Black Hunting Dog didn’t show, but several cairns did, including one half-hearted pile of stones overlooking the gap to the rock-climbers crag of Craig yr Ysfa. An old story in British mountaineering lore tells that the crag was first recognized as having climbing potential at the end of the nineteenth century, by one of the famous Abraham brothers, who saw the crag from the Lake District using a telescope. True or not, it’s a good tale!
As neither the Witch nor Black Dog were in residence, it seemed a good time to be heading homewards. A speedy descent down the ridge of Y Braich (‘The Arm’) took ‘Mist’ and I down to the valley, and a yomp back to Capel Curig via the old road, now superseded by Thomas Telford’s A5. We just beat the rain to the finish line.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock
Great looking walk and very interesting about the language. Can’t speak any Welsh, but I do like learning languages – so maybe one day! Can’t believe how like our old Border Collie Mist seems to look…
Thanks for that Chrissie (or should I say “diolch yn fawr!”) 🙂
The witch is one of my fav’s but from Eigiau side from the back of Hafod. great post sir, I can see a welsh theme developing 🙂
Haha … Yes, there could be a ‘cymraeg’ tendency on the way, though having said that I’ve got some recent Yorkshire stuff waiting in the wings for the times I’m unable to get out on the hills.
I’m fairly new to the Carneddau, but slowly getting to grips with it 🙂
I,ve spent many a day lost up there 🙂 Eigiau it is the way forward :-). I need to get out again soon 😦
Looks like a great hiking landscape.
Hi Bente, and thanks for the comment. The Carneddau hills are small in area. but very wild and unspoiled.
I have had the pleasure of visiting your beautiful country several times. I was in 45 Commando Royal Marines, and we would train in Nordland, Troms and Finnmark in the winter, with 45 Cdo under command of Brigade Nord of the Norweigan Army.
Although I’ve seen your lovely country I’ve only seen it covered with snow 😀
Looks like some great views you got to see there. I particularly like one over the reservoir of Llyn Eigiau. Very nice. And fair play for getting your head around the language. I have to admit that during my trips to Wales I always found it to be a bit daunting!
Hi Lance, and thanks for reading and for the comment.
The two ‘lightbulb’ moments for me with the Welsh language were –
1. Each letter (or sometimes pair of letters) in Welsh has its own sound, and that sound doesn’t change – how simple is that?!!
2. Most of those incomprehensible long words are, in fact, compound words. Learn a few words and all of a sudden you recognise them hidden away in an otherwise jumbled mess of letters.
I’m working through some of your posts – a good read! Your story of falling in the far north of Scotland, and just missing a wooden post brought back memories. My wife Chris tripped (over a blade of grass apparently!) on a moor in Yorkshire and managed to crack her head on the only solid object within a mile or so – four hours waiting in A&E and painful sutures at the end of the wait were not the perfect end to a day out!
Ah! So you just need to crack the Welsh code! Cheers for the tips. Next time I’m in Wales I’ll definitely start looking out for the compound words you mention.
Glad to hear you’re enjoying the posts, feel free to come back any time! I love the heartfelt and sympathetic manner in which you tell the story of your wife’s fall. Particularly the ‘only solid object within a mile or so’ comment. But these things do happen all too easily.
Two of my favourite hills! Never done them the way around you did though, I’ve always come off Carnedd Llewellyn. There’s something special about the Carnedds, I’m not sure what it is but I always really enjoy being up there. It feels a lot more remote than it is, perhaps that’s it. I think I read once that it’s the biggest upland area outside of Scotland actually. Did you see any wild ponies?
You’re dead right about that remote feeling – it’s always going to be a long walk in and a long walk out in these hills, a bit like being in Scotland.
No ponies on this trip, though I’ve seen them before up there. I’ve often wondered why the Tryfan goats don’t migrate avross the A5 – possibly enough food in the Glyderau.
Great hills those Paul, and nice to be reminded of them.
Thanks for reading and for the comment 🙂
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I find Welsh very easy as a language (although I don’t know that much of it) as they really do have a set of rules and stick rigidly to them. If only Gaelic wasn’t so hard and unpronounceable!
Have you been up the end of Pen Yr Helgi Du from the bwlch opposite Craig Yr Ysfa? I found that quite some scramble and was glad I was going up, not down, it!
Hahaha – I know what you mean about Gaelic – how does ‘Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh’ become ‘Skoor a Vatee’ or ‘Sgùrr a’ Ghreadaidh’ become ‘Skoor a Greeta’? It wouldn’t be so bad if the rules didn’t keep changing, but it’s like a game of scrabble where you can add any spare letters that you have left over 😀
The only time I’ve been to that bwlch I came down from the Craig yr Ysfa side, and was running out of time, so I missed out Pen yr Helgi Du and went down the steep path towards the reservoir. Must go back and have a look. 🙂
It’s quite some scramble!
I think I told you my theory for Gaelic spelling & pronunciation a while back… they use as much of the alphabet as possible, ensuring they use loads of consonents… and then they only pronounce the vowel sounds (apart from the start of the word) – that’s how it seems to me anyway!
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