The mountains of the Berwyns are best summarised as “The mountains the planners forgot”. Standing between Llangollen, Corwen, Bala and Oswestry they are a significant bit of upland, but someone in an office decided that the Rhinogs, Arenigs, and Aran Ridge should be included in the Snowdonia National Park, but the Berwyns should not, despite the fact that one of the Seven Wonders of Wales, the waterfall at Pistyll Rhaeadr (see post #85) is one of the attractions.
Mind you, it has to be said that they are rough, wild hills. In 1165, Henry II of England decided that an invasion of Gwynedd was a good idea, and decided to take a route over the Berwyns as a surprise for the Welsh princes – it was Henry who got the surprise though, and after several days of heavy rain over hills covered in thigh-deep heather, the English army turned round and squelched their way back to Oswestry.
I had already had my Berwyn initiation – when I joined my local mountain rescue team NEWSAR (North East Wales Search And Rescue) I had to pass a navigation assessment to go on the callout list. Fellow trainee Richie Boardwell and I had an evening ‘bushwhacking’ through the high heather that characterises these hills, but I found myself wanting to go back and see more. The late fine spell in September gave the opportunity to explore, so Chris and I decided on the classic approach to the Berwyn Ridge from the waterfall at Pistyll Rhaeadr.
The route follows a good track from the waterfall, heading for the Berwyn ridge stretching from Moel Sych to Cadair Berwyn. The track leads to the lake at Lynn Lluncaws before turning left towards the main ridge. I was enjoying the view down the steep drop to the lake when I realised that Chris was most definitely not enjoying the view down the steep drop! A slight adjustment of our course kept everyone happy.
We passed Moel Sych and headed for the ‘un-named top of Cadair Berwyn – for many years walkers must have thought it strange that an un-named intermediate summit seemed higher than the adjacent peaks of Moel Sych and Cadair Berwyn. The answer was that the usually accurate national survey had got it wrong! On the way to the summit we passed the memorial to Fiona McWilliam, who died in a flying accident here in 1999 – the Cessna light aircraft in which she was a passenger was apparently caught in a downdraft, crashing just below the ridge. No signs of the sad accident remain, apart from the memorial itself.
The true summit lies between Moel Sych and the trig point on Cadair Berwyn, and is not named on the Ordnance Survey map. For years it was assumed that Moel Sych and the trig point were joint high points at 827 metres (2713 feet) each, before it was discovered that a tiny ring contour at 830 metres (2723 feet) had been overlooked. The ‘new’ summit certainly looks and feels more like a mountain top than the other two.
We didn’t linger, and after checking out the stone shelter near the top we carried on to the trig point on Cadair Berwyn. From there it was a simple case of retracing the route along the Berwyn Ridge to Moel Sych and then following the fence line down to our start point in the valley. What could possibly go wrong …. ?
It’s been a long time since I made a navigational error. When teaching navigation skills I always point out the dangers of making a mistake by being distracted, which is exactly what happened in this case. The turn to the valley was obvious enough, but Chris and I were chattering away about something and we walked past the turn. Fortunately the route must have been running in the back of my mind, and after about 500 metres I had the feeling that things didn’t look right!
A quick map check confirmed the error, and we avoided a return to the summit of Moel Sych by contouring round the slopes. Back on course it was a steady descent back to the waterfall, but as usual I was already plotting the next trip out. On the map, the two broad ridges to the east of the Berwyn Ridge appeared to give a good ‘horseshoe’ walk, and the views from the top had confirmed that. The only question was, would the fine weather hold out?
p.s. The fine weather did hold out – read about it in two weeks’ time.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock