A linear walk of 8 miles including 900 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: Roman Bridge railway station, Dolwyddelan LL25 OJG. Map References: SH 7127 5140 Lat/Long: 53.04439926 -3.92163991
An interesting, easy walk through the Lledr Valley from Roman Bridge to Betws – as the crow flies – and one which is full of ancient history. Begin with a train ride from the busy town of Betws-y-Coed to the request stop at Roman Bridge. If the train isn’t running along the Conwy Valley – which was the case at the time of walking and writing, due to the track being swept away in the floods of early 2019 – it’s easy to take the replacement bus.
The route of this walk incorporates much of Sarn Helen, the Roman road local to the area. Sarn Helen actually refers to several stretches of Roman road throughout Wales. The full 160 mile route follows a meandering course through central Wales, and connects Aberconwy in the north with Carmarthen in the west, although debate continues as to its precise course. Many sections are now used by the modern road network and there are sizeable stretches that have been lost and are unidentifiable.
It’s worth allowing time to take a look at Dolwyddelan Castle along the way, reputed to be the birthplace of Llywelyn the Great. Built in the early 13th century, the castle functioned as a guard post along the main route through North Wales. This straightforward, direct route – the Romans loved straight lines – gradually descends to the spectacular River Llugwy, and continues over the steep and striking Miners Bridge. This is likely the same spot the Romans used to cross the river many centuries ago on their way to invade Anglesey and conquer the Druid stronghold there. The name evolved during the nineteenth century when local quarrymen used the bridge to reach the lead and tin mines of Gwydir Forest.
- From Roman Bridge station turn right and follow the single-track road as it winds downhill, and then sweeps to the right. Good views of Moel Siabod. Cross the stone bridge and continue up to a farmyard.
- Walk through the yard and turn right at the finger-post to join the Sarn Helen road. Where the track forks, keep right and continue walking until the castle comes into view. The track skirts the castle and continues to a metal gate. Go through the gate and walk to the end of the track to the main road.
- Turn left here, and walk a short distance along the road towards Dolwyddelan village. Turn right in the centre, along Church Street. Take the first left towards the station, passing the school to your left. Take the single-track road ahead.
- Follow the road to the end and pass through a metal gate into grazing land. Follow the track as it winds to the right beneath the railway line and then turn left to go through a gate. Continue along the driveway and turn left at the end onto a single-track road. Pass Pont-y-Pant station, then continue to cross the bridge onto the main road. Take the footpath opposite and turn left.
- Take the stile at the end to exit the path, and turn right along the single-track lane. The lane climbs steadily towards a metal gate – go through here and continue forwards along the rough track. At the fork bear right, then the way divides into three options. Ignore the righthand path, and ignore the lefthand path as it heads up towards a fir plantation. Take the less obvious middle path through the copse.
- Follow this route for about a mile until it passes through a gate at the end. Cross over the road at the junction to pick up a stony path as it heads downhill. Again, at the next junction go straight ahead on the track and continue downhill to a wooden bridge.
- Pass some large properties to the left and at the main road, cross over to take the footpath opposite through woodland down to the River Llugwy and the Miner’s Bridge. Turn right after crossing the bridge, and continue along the river bank into Betws-y-Coed.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.
Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat.
Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.
After a sharp incline, we meandered down a long bridleway towards Kentmere and across open countryside before dropping down to a cluster of properties. An old gent stood by his garden gate, his hands held out, his expression rapturous. I’ve been watching you, coming down off the hill along the old bridleway. What a sight! What a wonderful, wonderful sight… We waved as we clattered past, heading through the hamlet and onto the Garburn Pass, an ancient byway which took us over the fells and into the pretty Troutbeck Valley. Much of the going was rough at the start with huge rocks and boulders forming some of the climb but the horses never hesitated and rarely put a hoof in the wrong place. Cookie needed no directional assistance whatsoever and the lightest contact through the reins. All I had to do was to stay in balance and make his job as easy as possible. Mike, Sheila, and Zara Myers had done an impressive job with their horses, especially since many of them have been acquired from less than satisfactory beginnings. Although the pace on the trail was very much dictated by the terrain – and lots of the time it was rough and slow going with the horses scrambling over rocks and on one occasion, steps – this isn’t pony trekking. Experience of riding a fit horse across open country is a priority, as is general fitness and stamina. Bracing against severe inclines and staying in balance with the movement of the horse over uneven ground is deceptively tiring for the uninitiated. And riding continues across five consecutive days, with care of your horse at the end of each day coming well before dinner. Heaving off the tack and the saddlebags and then heaving your own bag up to a hotel room had us all ready to eat and fall into bed before 9pm most evenings. The mantra was very much eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Since I’m happy doing all of these things the routine suited me quite well.
Lunch was at the Mortal Man in Troutbeck and we secured the horses in a small yard close to the pub. During our substantial repast, Cookie saw fit to untie himself and bump my hat off the post where I’d left it. Fortunately for him, it had stopped short of a deep stream, and who could be cross with a horse that enjoyed his head being cradled and stood like a rock to be cuddled, whenever required. On our way again, and the horses burst into action the second Kieron glanced behind to check all was well before upping the pace. Trotting on! We clattered briskly through the village towards Robin Lane Bridleway, instantly regretting the rather excellent two course lunch with sticky toffee pudding and pints of cider. And then we were cantering. Low branches! We grew to love and hate Kieron’s sense of humour. And we soon grew wise to his response whenever we asked how much longer to the pub/hotel/yard because it was always 40 minutes, regardless of where we were. But we laughed, a lot.
Robin Lane to Jenkin’s Crag is a beautiful bridleway which meanders for some five miles over Low and High Skelghyll. The scenery gradually opened up towards Lake Windermere and the Langdale Pikes, before dropping down through Skelghyll Woods into Ambleside. Then a long, long power trot around the outskirts of the town, over the Rothay Bridge and onto a single-track lane following the River Rothay virtually all the way towards Rydal Mount – Wordsworth’s famous residence. Kieron advised us to keep right on the steep, slippery lane (only slippery to shod horses) in order to avoid wheel spin. It seems you can take the man out of the garage but you can’t take the garage… The Coffin Route into Grassmere allowed us to peer over the walls into Wordsworth’s garden. I couldn’t see his writing hut but then the glittering expanse of Rydal Water came into view and hundreds of geese took flight. We cantered along a smooth stretch before the terrain of rock slabs and enormous tree roots had us back down to a considered walk. In places I had to hook my left leg over the top of the saddlebags to avoid getting my kneecaps bashed on the wall as the path was so narrow. A truly arduous task it must have been to carry coffins along this route to the main church in Rydal.
We were booked into a hotel at Grassmere. First priority was to buy two large gins and sit in the sun. Bliss. Back in the room, which had a gorgeous view of Helm Crag right outside the window, the second bliss moment was a deep bath. Too tired to wash my hair separately I soaped my tresses in the bath then reached for the shower head to rinse. Maybe it’s just me but I can never get hotel showers to run at an even temperature especially with soap in my eyes, so I suffered a short blast of stone cold instead. It dried looking no different to the original ‘riding hat helmet’ I’d finished the day on, and thanks to all the soapy residue and no conditioner, the sweetitch started during perusal of the dinner menu. I loved that there was Waldorf salad as a side though, and combined with a lovely East European waiter who had little grasp of the English language beyond I go check, it didn’t take much for Sue and I to lapse into sit-com territory. And another thing. Why do we look fat and rippled when we walk past the mirrors in this place? Er… Funhouse mirrors? Sticky Toffee Pudding?
Tolkien, Teddy’s Tunnels, and Tourists at Tarn Hows.
In the cold light of day I was pleased to find that I still had no need of serious medication. In fact, other than the discovery that the shampoo-induced sweetitch had spread to my withers, I felt pretty good and ready for the day. While we ploughed through scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Kieron had been busy bringing in the horses and tacking-up, for which we were incredibly grateful. Our day began with a long canter alongside Grassmere lake and a paddle, before heading up Red Bank bridleway bordering Loughrigg Fell. It had become apparent that when Kieron and Jigsaw dropped back, Cookie was no slouch when it came to heading-up the group and I often found myself out in front. Sooner or later though the mares, Princess Gaia and Wendy’s chestnut, Moody Milly, would see to it that Cookie was put back in his place – usually the minute Kieron and Jigsaw took up the lead again, and they’d skillfully manoeuvre themselves back up the pecking order. Until it came to passing through gates. Neither mare would entertain going through first and would mince and prance. Oh no, it might be dangerous! Get the cob! Only then would they allow Cookie to take the lead again. Cookie absolutely knew this was his dutiful job and walked manfully ahead, ears pricked forwards, his pride fully intact again until the girls decided his leadership was no longer required and barged past him with a snicker. At least he had moments of glory. The horses took no notice whatsoever of Lydia’s mount since Micky was the new bloke on the block, and firmly relegated to the rear at all times.
We were en-route towards Elterwater and the Great Langdale Valley, wading through a deep ford at Little Langdale. Cookie ploughed through, his huge feet setting off a tidal wave. And then Kieron surprised us all by issuing baler twine so we could tie up the horses to the trees. Since there wasn’t a pub in sight, we were puzzled but duly obliged and followed him up a steep incline to a cave. Cathedral Cavern was the location used in the Bear Grylls episode with Warren Davies. Not my favourite thing, crouching in the dark beneath tons of rock, but I was encouraged by a group of schoolkids carrying candles, and therefore persuaded to stumble down a long tunnel. I was even less happy when the light from the entrance disappeared, but then blinding daylight ahead and, after a scramble down some rock slabs, the Cathedral revealed itself; a cavernous space above a dense pool of black velvet. I fully expected Gollum to come crawling out and I was happy to take the exit at that point and continue our Lord of the Rings adventure above ground, and with the horses. Hopefully they were still tied to the trees where we’d left them. True to form, resident drama queen, Princess Gaia, had managed to wind herself round and round some saplings until the length of her lead rope was down to strangulation point at three inches. Where have you been? Look what happened to me! Cookie hadn’t moved an inch, one hind leg at rest, eyes half closed in the sun-dappled copse.
Another nod to Tolkien then after a short hack to the Three Shires pub, and another tie-up for the horses right outside. Patrons were amused to see five horses hooked up to the railings on the road, especially when Kieron carefully positioned the ice-cream boards at either end of the equine hazard we’d created. Fortunately, traffic was very slow at this point and refreshingly, the vast majority of people seemed happy to see the horses and interested in our adventure. After a substantial ploughman’s lunch – a glimpse of a truly hobbit-style piece of engineering in Slater Bridge, before picking up the old quarry road to Hodge Close. Myriad deep ravines and underwater tunnels were not something I wanted to linger alongside and I was much happier when we’d left the quarry sites behind and entered the maze of coppice at Holme Ground, to eventually arrive at beautiful Tarn Hows, the most visited spot in Lakeland. Thanks to some very obliging Chinese tourists we managed a good few group pics here until Princess Gaia declared she’d had enough posing, and put in a few playful bunny jumps. On to Conniston then through mature, ancient woodland beneath increasingly cloudy skies, and our thoughts turned to climbing Walna Scar the following day – the highest point of the trail climbing to 2,000 feet. Given the torrential rain elsewhere in the country we didn’t hold out much hope for staying dry.
Horses turned out, fed, and rugged up against the promised rain, we clambered into the pickup for a short drive to our guest house for the evening; Oakland, a traditional Lakeland property featuring plenty of local slate. Comfortably elegant and with enough en-suite rooms for us all to enjoy solo residence. Views from my dual-aspect room were overlooking the cricket pitch, with the dark bulk of Yewdale Fell beyond. I soaked away the grime of the day listening to the many garden birds on the feeders below, and the mellow sound of leather hitting willow. The rain began as we walked to The Crown in Conniston, but we had the best of meals here and in the true spirit of helping Wendy sample the local cuisine, we tested yet another sticky toffee pudding – and this one easily took the top pudding of the week slot.
High Winds, War Horse, and Walking Walna Scar.
My sweetitch problem fixed, plus scrambled eggs and a jar of homemade lemon curd on the breakfast table promised a good start to the day. A significantly better start than the resident garden birds, since our exasperated host reported the plunder of several very large bird feeders by a gang of young squirrels. She cast an eye towards the long barrelled shotgun above the door frame. We made a sharp exit. No rain; but a strong wind was in force, with ominous clouds moving slowly across the summit of Conniston Old Man. Fair to say, the track to Walna Scar is uphill all the way. A long pull against the wind towards the open fell, but we managed to enjoy some breathless canters on the undulating grassy track by the bridleway, before the terrain necessitated a pace closer to scrambling. Boulders, and steep slabs of rock at seemingly awkward angles for a horse posed no problem for our herd of professionals.
Cookie powered up, down, over or through everything in his path; bogs, scree, streams, bridges. He thought nothing of slowly sinking both front legs down a bank at a 90 degree angle in order to drink from a sunken stream. The only show of hesitance came when he had to go first through a busy farmyard, where he’d wait then for Jigsaw to head up the group again. Some powerful crosswinds at the summit of Walna, with far-reaching views to the west of the Irish Sea. Too much low cloud to see The Isle of Man but great views of Scafell Pike and Bowfell. And then it was a long, slow amble down Walna Scar Side by a foaming stream towards Seathwaite, and our lunch stop. I love a genuinely quirky pub, and the Newfield Inn didn’t disappoint. Net curtains, coat hooks fixed into the wood-panelled bar, and since it was only early June – a roaring fire and bowls of hearty lentil soup. A friendly, unpretentious place which likely represented the heart of the village. The sort of tiny rural place where all community problems were still referred to the vicar.
Lifting Cookie’s saddle above my head in order to get it on his back again was beginning to feel arduous, but Kieron threw it in the general direction for me and then once everything was buckled-up and belted-in, hoisted me on as well – although his energetic leg-ups sometimes had me halfway over the other side. I did love his excuse, though. You don’t weigh anything! We picked up the trail again across the Dunnerdale fells before entering Broughton Moor Forest and in places I had to crouch low over Cookie’s neck as we inched along dark forestry paths through dense, dense trees. Then we were out onto wide roads affording us plenty of canters where the gradient levelled out and the surface softened. Once out of the forest, the road down to Torver was impossibly steep and my limbs began to feel tired with both knee joints aching a little, and our overnight stop was a welcome sight. Sue and I complained that getting off at the end of the day with buckled legs was the worst thing ever. We both perched side-saddle and held out our arms, damsel style; and Mike came to our rescue for the second time that week. We’ve looked forward to this all day! we chorused.
So have I, Mike quipped, and lifted us down in a (mostly) gentlemanly fashion.
It seemed much investment had been sunk into our stopover at Torver; the ladies loos being the most surprising. Incorporating the use of slate and wood to such a rustic degree must have been eye-wateringly expensive, to create what I can only describe as something Barney Rubble might design. Eye-catching, but not terribly practical, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed the intimate narration of War Horse echoing around the cubicle as I went about my business. Our en-suite room was light, clean and modern, if a tad bijou. Fortunate that Sue and I are so petite, so it didn’t pose a problem. But in the spirit of continuing observation, we did laugh at the blue ‘mood’ lighting and the over imaginative use of decorative panels, extra-large lamps, and mirrors hung for those over seven feet tall. In my tired clumsiness I found it awkward to avoid trapping my fingers between the shower screen and the wash-hand basin. And then filling the kettle from the sink tap wasn’t possible due to the angles of the sink and the size of the kettle. Both bottles of complimentary mineral water went to make the tea.
We’d arranged to meet Lydia and Wendy for pre-dinner botanicals at 6.30, but in our disorganised fuddle managed to land in the bar at 5.35, only to then wonder where the hell they were. This despite both of us glancing at several plus-size clocks, iPads, and phones. A couple of drinks later, we were ravenous and had already eaten the best part of a tasty hotpot by the time Wendy and Lydia arrived. Our faux pas forgiven, the evening passed with recollections of the week to date, the exchange of email addresses and the victorious realisation that our stash of drugs and support bandages had mostly gone unneeded. We hit the hay at a sensible hour, taking careful note of the mood lighting switch, should we accidentally need to illuminate our passage to the loo in the night. The sound of cars swishing through hard rain lulled me to instant sleep.
Bridleways, Bullocks, and Homewood Bound to Backbarrow
Phone calls home the previous evening had revealed the most awful weather conditions in North Wales and a similar horror story from my son in London; so I wasn’t too surprised to see rain continuing to stream down the windows. Since it was the last day it didn’t seem quite so depressing to run into bad weather since we’d enjoyed three gloriously sunny days and only one cloudy, windy day, which is pretty good for somewhere as wet and green as the Lake District. We dressed ready for action in waterproofs and yet, by the time we’d saddled-up the rain had dissolved to an intermittent drizzle and it was a difficult decision then whether or not to remove the waterproof over-trousers. They certainly compromised grip in the saddle but then the thought of maybe trying to put them back again on top of the fells in pouring rain made it a tough choice. Everyone opted to keep them on but Sue, ever the optimist and resident weather expert stuffed hers in the saddlebags and declared it wasn’t going to rain properly until 3.55pm. Thus cheered, we took the old coffin road across the Woodland Valley and Lowick Common to arrive at Spark Bridge for lunch. While Kieron was busy checking the horses and tacking-up again (before the rain started at 3.55pm) we organised a whip-round. Our guide had looked after us royally and we felt bound by the laws of decency and appreciation to present him with a roll of notes and, for no other reason than it was us – wrapped around a Voltarol suppository. I like to think it expressed our combined experiences and wrapped up the morning rather well.
Although tired, our spirits remained high through the final leg home with Sue stuck in a strong northern dialect for most of the afternoon, and Moody Millie suddenly realising she was on the outskirts of home and taking up an active walk in the lead. We passed through some pastureland inhabited by bullocks who decided to follow us all the way to the gate at the far end, and we worried then about the logistics of getting five horses through an awkward gate without 50 head of cattle barging through with us. But Jigsaw was fearless in facing the snorting beasts head-on and Kieron herded them back up the field with a whoop, cowboy style.
And then it was quiet country lanes and hamlets as the countryside softened towards Backbarrow. The rain never did take hold and the experience of damp hedgerows heavy with cow parsley, wild honeysuckle, and rose, wasn’t unpleasant. At Low Wood, a long uphill track allowed us a final opportunity to canter. Only Sue and I elected to go ahead, the other horses happy with a steadier pace. Gaia and Cookie obliged, albeit none too energetically, although we waited ages for the others to catch up. Sue thought she might jump off and lie flat in the undergrowth while I explained to Kieron that the horses had bolted and Sue had been dragged for half a mile at least, and I was too scared to check if she was still breathing. And, although we laughed at the joke we could have played, the bottom line was we were just too damn tired to get off and back on again. And, we reasoned that Kieron really didn’t really deserve any more of our tasteless humour.
We turned up the familiar lane to the yard and for a moment it felt out of kilter that the horses were taken from us, untacked, and showered by a band of willing helpers, while we drank tea. Unable to put off the moment much longer, we loaded our bags into the car and tried to come to terms with driving home. Human farewells done, we had one last goodbye to do and wandered to the stable block where our faithful comrades were already in their pyjamas. A good finish to the trip to see our horses nestled in deep straw beds, and it felt especially gratifying that they nudged us for a final selfie, even Princess Gaia.
But it was a bitter-sweet end to five amazing days. Five days where at times we’d ached to get off our horses, but then ached to get back on. Five days of living in an almost fictional bubble, where real life stayed on hold somewhere far away. A cosy world where Hobbits and Potter’s Peter Rabbit felt more real and immediate than our lives back home. A world where Wordsworth and Wainwright had far more interesting and important visions to share. To be able to ride miles of ancient bridleways across such achingly beautiful countryside instilled in all of us, I feel sure, a deep sense of privilege. We’d explored a piece of old England the way it should be explored. And something magical happens when out-of-comfort zones are pushed together through circumstance, and instant bonds are forged with complete strangers – both human and equine.
Ok, let’s plan the next one. Ten day equine coast-to-coast, anyone? We’ll need more supplies… ibuprofen, chocolate, gin. And a torch. We’ll need a torch, for going down caves and checking wardrobes.
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
The gate by the cattle-grid on Sychnant Pass is so heavy I fear if I misjudge it the whole thing will swing into us before we can get through, but Storm seems to understand its brutal mechanism. Not so much the two men who tried to carry an especially long roll of heavily patterned Axminster into the church on Hendre Road. He still remembers the day we saw a real life pushmi-pullyu and casts a wary eye towards the building as we trot past; an incident which is known only to Storm and I as The Day of the Debacle at the Tabernacle. We continue the length of Hendre Road to the very top, where the lane narrows significantly with no passing places and it’s a bit like running the gauntlet, and so dark beneath the trees the camera flash goes off and momentarily lights up the back of Storm’s ears.
Meeting farm machinery here is the worst possible scenario. Inevitably, we come face to face with a tractor devouring the overgrown hedges and so double-back to a farm entrance to wait for the dragon to roar past. As we climb towards the open hillside, there’s a stillness which is somehow symbolic to the vast, historic wilderness of the Carneddau. And yet, it’s not silent. Birdsong, bleating, streams surging over rocks, the high-pitched whinnies of wild ponies. The route across the mountainside is slow going but Storm is familiar with the hard, rock-strewn tracks and I let him pick his own way until we get to a grassy stretch where we can canter.
For me, this is the best kind of riding in that it epitomises freedom and simplicity. And although my solo roaming is not without challenge, ostensibly it feels more natural to the spirit of the horse. I don’t venture off the tracks through any dense vegetation as there are reports of an increase in adders, and an encounter with one of these has the ability to turn the entire day on its head. We’re rarely, completely alone on this well-worn route into Conwy and soon come across a group of schoolchildren on a field trip. Oh, isn’t he sweet, isn’t he cute! The girls take turns to pat Storm. The boys hang back and only want to know how fast he can go. And it’s a day for mountain bikers. Some of them flying at great speed over the ground, the bikes not fully visible down to the undulating lay of the land. Storm imagines they must be riding horses and breaks into a canter. Another group are lost and want to know how to get to the stone circles above Penmaenmawr. And then, when we come across three men, braced in a line having a wee behind a drystone wall, they laugh and wave. We skirt the lake, drop down onto the Sychnant Pass again and the pony shoots across the inviting, flat area we call the ‘naughty-grass’, for good reason. The last canter facing home is always a strong one, but I find it wise to remember that it involves a telegraph pole and a perilous downward slope onto the road.
It takes us three hours to complete this circuit, including stops to chat, and time to stare. Back on home ground, Storm demands his Pot Noodle. This is a mug which looks like a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle, and something we use as a measuring device for pony nuts. I think it originally contained a Pot Noodle Christmas Dinner. Obviously, this vile concoction was bought as a joke. Clearly, there’s a use for everything. Even heavily patterned Axminster.
31st May 2019
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
Saturday morning is usually a good time to set off for the beach. Since the route involves passing by the local council offices and the secondary school these establishments need to be closed, otherwise they generate too much traffic and hullabaloo. Then there’s the tide times to consider and the crossing of two bridges; one a pretty, ancient thing over a railway line with perilously low stone walls. The other, less attractive obstacle spans the busy A55 dual carriageway. I always ride towards the middle of this one in the event of any sudden lateral moves. Thankfully Storm remains his calm, stoic self, despite Bank Holiday traffic passing beneath us at 70 miles an hour heading for the estuary tunnel.
Then it’s the housing estate – lawnmowers, garden parasols, a whining strimmer – and then the golf course. The golf course is potentially full of hazards since the pony is already deeply suspicious of squeaking golf trolleys, men in yellow pants, and the whipping noise of several clubs whacking balls; sometimes in quick succession. He dances on the spot a little to signal his disquiet, then stares through the hedge at the practice area. We survive all of this and arrive at the beach only to stop dead at a line of big boulders. Boulders, he declares, are the work of the Devil. They cast shadows… they hide predatory things… It’s not as if he hasn’t seen boulders before, but we waste long minutes before he deigns to pass between two of these stone beasts as they slumber on the edge of the car park. Ok, human, so nothing bad happened. This time.
Once on the beach, we sink into the silt that borders the estuary before heading for the firmer, rippled sand towards the mussel banks. Thankfully, there are no marauding dogs on the horizon. On a previous visit my friend and I were plagued by such a pest. His owner watched with mild disinterest as his dog leapt around our horses’ legs, barking and snarling. We suggested he might want to call his dog away in case it got kicked in the teeth. Amazingly, the guy seemed offended that we’d suggested such a thing. Today the area is quiet, only the chatter of oystercatchers and gulls, and the rush and slide of the tide. But Storm is fixated on the opposite bank, where much is going on with boats and kites. He only canters with any conviction when I turn for home and even manages to throw in a violent dodge round a pool of muddy seawater.
Previous hazards prove curiously inconsequential on the return journey – boulders? I ain’t scared of no boulders – but we’re riding along the lower section of the bridleway on Conwy Mountain when a man walking two elderly dogs suddenly ducks down in the shrubs. I’m sure he thinks he’s being helpful, but the pony can’t fathom why he’s suddenly disappeared and slowly draws to a halt, head and neck up, ears pricked, everything tense – the equine equivalent of a dropped jaw. I guess his behaviour echoes my own, suspicious thoughts. In the end I shout and request that the man reveal himself. No, I quickly rephrase that and suggest he gets to his feet. He does, slowly, explaining he hadn’t wanted to spook the pony, and felt it might be a better idea to hide. I say the best thing to do around horses is to act normally rather than appear predatory and crouch in the bushes. We pass without incident but both Storm and I tut at the incongruity of men, and boulders.
25th May 2019
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
There’s a dead banana on the Sychnant Pass Road, splayed flat like a dirty yellow star and embedded into the tarmac. The pony always drops his head to investigate, nostrils quivering. This is despite much nicer pickings amongst the stitchworts and bluebells along the verges and the tall hedgerows, heavy now with cow parsley and other delicacies dangling at nose level. But the downside in stopping amid all this abundant foliage is that we’re dangerously concealed along some sections of this narrow road, and I’m always happier when we get onto the open ground at Crow’s Nest. Sheep and feral ponies roam here, many of the Carneddau mares with foals at foot. The pony tends not to be overly interested unless there’s a young stallion in the vicinity, although I’m not convinced that making a noise like Scooby Doo is sufficient warning.
We turn off Hendre Road into an unmade lane by Llechwedd, a route back onto the open hillside which is dogged by gates. Storm’s small stature is appreciated when it comes to jumping on and off, especially since there’s nothing remotely helpful to stand on. Even I can get my foot in a stirrup which is just a few feet from the ground and mostly stationary. (I’ve learnt to ignore his rolling eye.) We approach the second gate when the head of a lamb suddenly pops up… from beneath the cattle grid. My immediate thought is to applaud Storm’s lack of reaction and assume that if the lamb has fallen down there, then it must be able to get out. But as we draw closer, the lamb appears to be well and truly imprisoned. I slide off the pony and trust him to stay put, which he does. I try every which way to manipulate the lamb, but there’s no way he’s coming up through the bars of that grid. The ewe paces up and down, bleating pitifully. A neighbour says she’ll call the farmer, so not much more I can do.
More Carneddau ponies by the lake at Pensychnant, including a foal born during Storm Hannah; one I’d been concerned about in the rough weather, but all looks good in the sun. The pony picks up his pace facing home, and pounds up the road at full speed, shying at a pair of knickers in the hedge. The two mares he shares field space with, whinny at the sound of his approach well before he’s in sight. The smaller mare, Lady, is currently in season and in fat-camp (on sparse pasture) and this situation can be comical or exasperating depending on everyone’s mood. There’s often much calling and posturing between both gelding and love-sick, segregated mare. The older, taller thoroughbred, Ellie, misses her female companion and is mortally disappointed when I release Storm back into her space. She gives him a cursory head toss, ears flattened. Uh, it’s Pipsqueak. I guess he’s better than nothing. Go on, get out of my way! He generally heeds her warnings. It’s an entirely different scenario when Lady is around, since she actively seeks him out the moment he’s through the gate. Where’ve you been? Shall we groom each other? How about I nibble your withers?
He strolls single-mindedly towards the water trough as if it’s a big American fridge, like he’s some hotshot stallion home from the office and he’s going to get a beer. Lady follows, and he slows up, turns to contemplate. Give me five minutes, can’t you? I’ve just got in from work. Been up and over hills all afternoon with the Old Biped…
13th May 2019.
A circular walk of 9 miles including 1,000 feet of elevation overall (excluding Dinas Bran) Start Point: Panorama Walk, Llangollen LL20 8ED. Map References: SJ 2340243187 or Lat: 52.980530 Lon: -3.142302
Llangollen is a small town in Denbighshire on the River Dee, and this walk takes in some of its major points of interest ie: the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, the Llangollen canal with its horse-drawn barges, and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (pronounced ‘pont-kur-suck-tay’). The town is known for its network of canals and no less than 21 locks. Built by Thomas Telford in 1805 the Pontcysyllte remains the longest and tallest aqueduct in Britain.
For those wanting something a little more challenging, it’s easy to increase the elevation of this route by including the optional walk up and over Castell Dinas Bran, which adds around an extra 1,000 feet of climbing. Castell Dinas Bran translates to English as: The Castle of the City of Crows. Perched on a conical hill above Llangollen it enjoys fantastic aerial views and despite its dilapidated state, commands not only a strong historical presence, but also one of love, legend and fairytale. But don’t be fooled by the romance of it all, epic battles and crimes against king and country have plundered across these soils for centuries. If this was a walk through fiction, we could expect every genre under the sun.
More on the castle: https://janruth.com/2015/07/21/castle-of-the-crows/
Castell Dinas Bran
- Park on Panorama Walk; a narrow elevated road with plenty of parking space and fantastic far-reaching views across the vale of Llangollen including the River Dee, the castle ruins, and the canal. Keeping this panorama to your left, walk towards Castell Dinas Bran, following the markers denoting the Offa’s Dyke Path. Turn Left over a cattle grid and walk a short distance along the narrow lane to locate a kissing-gate to the right, just beneath Castell Dinas Bran.
- The optional path to the summit is clear. Alternatively, bear right and head downhill on the pasture between the gorse. Ignore the vehicle track to the right and keep following the basin/dip in the land as it heads towards trees. The path becomes clearer as it skirts around the base of Castell Dinas Bran and heads into a wooded area, with farm buildings up on the right.
- Pass through a wooden kissing-gate and continue along the obvious path keeping the fence-line to the right. (If you’ve chosen to climb Dinas Bran, rejoin the route here by taking the path to the right of a small mound and this will join the alternative lower path.) Pass through the metal Kissing-gate and continue along the cobbled lane.
- Turn left at the crossroads and continue past a couple of dwellings into a wooded area. Go through the gate at the end and into pasture land, where the track follows the ridge and arrives at another gate onto a narrow road. Turn left here and go over the stile ahead into farmland. Keep right.
- Bear left across the second field to a stile, then turn left through the gate where a footpath marker confirms you’re on the ‘Community Miles Route.’ At the next marker post, turn right and go through a metal gate to cross a field to a stile by a farm track, at Llandyn Hall. Bear left here, and cross in front of a row of cottages.
- Take the gate on the right up by the finger-post and walk through pasture along the ridge towards the line of trees, and on to a wooden stile. Turn right along the lane, passing some cottages, then go through the metal gate and descend on a wooded footpath.
- Go straight on to the end of this track and once at the road, turn right, then cross the road and take the stile onto the canal towpath by the lay-by. Follow the towpath then for almost 3 miles, heading towards the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
- Leave the canal just after the fingerpost sign for the aqueduct at Trevor Basin via a long metal ramp. Cross the canal using the wooden bridge and continue onto the road at the top. Cross into Trevor Boat Yard for access to the aqueduct, pub, shop, cafe. It’s possible to walk across the aqueduct if you feel so inclined, but you do need a head for heights. Alternatively, head for the pub.
- Return along the same path back to the canal, but don’t cross over the wooden bridge and instead, continue towards a kissing-gate into a field. Walk to the next gate at the far side and turn left along an obvious footpath passing beneath the railway line. Turn right and begin following the Offa’s Dyke path markers as the path zig zags up to a set of stone steps and onto the road.
- Cross the road and turn left. After a short distance, take the first turning on the right along Trevor Hall Road. Where the road bends to the right, continue straight ahead on the private, unmade road signed for Offa’s Dyke. After a short distance, turn right into the trees at the footpath sign.
- Follow the ascending track as it eventually passes alongside grazing land and then into Trevor Hall Woods. At the fork in the path, take the higher path signed for Offa’s Dyke and continue to follow this route at the next fork where it indicates keep right.
- At the end of the trees pass through the wooden gate and turn sharp right to ascend the open hillside, keeping the drystone wall to your right. At the top, turn left and follow the driveway as it winds back up to Panorama Walk.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.