Over the Hill: 10

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1I wonder if Storm spent some of his summer on the set of Poldark. Employed by the BBC for Cornish authenticity, he’s been spotted either tied to a stake or trawling panniers up from the cove on several occasions. And then in the final episode he was ridden by Valentine Warleggan, a truly fitting finale for His Little Lordship. He had to get into mental and physical shape of course, and this morning I witness him continuing to practise his Pony Yoga. Roll to both sides, centralise and hold. Then sit up like a dog, forelegs straight out in front. Stand, shake, then flex each hind leg back as far as it will go. Arch neck and tail, hold for three seconds. Test ears. Shake thoroughly.
I hope Storm doesn’t retain any ideas above his station. Thankfully, other than a snooty harrumph at sight of his old halter on my arm, His Lordship follows me from field to yard obediently, if somewhat disconsolately. His mood improves dramatically when he realises Her Little ladyship is to join us, and whinnies his approval at sight of her saddle waiting next to his.
We take the sun-dappled bridleway onto Conwy Mountain. Always a strange vision when the moon is visible during daylight, and setting as the sun is rising. Today this occurs in a crystal blue sky, and the soft air temperature takes us back to summer. We’re soon reminded its autumn by profuse clusters of haw and rowan berries, and ruby rose hips entwined with blackcurrants, but there’s no humidity or biting insects so a real jewel of a day. As we approach the farm, the wind off the sea suddenly rushes full-on towards us and Her Little ladyship becomes anxious about Christine’s flapping cagoule. Careful removal of the offending object allows us to continue on our way, giving a wide berth to the sagging barbed wire where I previously snagged my jods. We dismount to negotiate the steep track down the mountain before continuing into the Pensychnant Estate, and then a thrilling neck-and-neck gallop on the roller-coaster grass has both ponies stretching for the final furlong. Lady is always gracious and allows His Lordship to take pole position at the last moment. But then on the next path I hear Christine shouting, snake! And so we slow to a walk and I learn that – unseen by myself or Storm – an adder slithered right behind us into the heather as we thundered past… close call!
At the top we pass through the gate and pause a while to catch our breath. The sea is like a mirror, and there’s still a mellow flush of colour across the Carneddau. Not another soul to be seen. As the main holiday period comes to an end it’s good to enjoy less cars and visitors, especially wild camping – an activity often leaving evidence of fires and litter. As we head alongside Sychnant Pass for the final canter, we come across a huge plastic bag suspended in the brambles disgorging fast-food trays, cans, and other debris – most likely thrown from a passing car. Storm swerves to a suspicious halt, all senses on red alert. It takes much firm persuasion to scuttle past, only to find two more of these rustling monsters further along the track. The ponies are spooked, but we arrive back at the yard with all potential hazards artfully negotiated. In fact we feel mildly victorious in surviving snakes, cagoules filled with wind, bags filled with rubbish, and sagging barbed wire. It seems pony yoga has some serious benefits…

Over the Hill: 9

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1A fly-tipped fridge at the side of the road has Her Little Ladyship slowing to an uncertain halt. His Little Lordship masterfully takes charge, although he still needs encouragement and backup from both of his field-mates. Fortunately, early Bank Holiday traffic is pretty much non-existent on Hendre Road and the sky promises sun, and light, summery winds. It feels too soon to be thinking of cooler times, but all things flowering are dying off to leave small green buds and berries. From a distance the heather across the mountains remains a sea of purple, but like the bracken it’s already starting to brown at the edges. The hedgerows, especially the blue-black berries of the blackthorn have me in mind of harvest festivals, sloe gin, and Christmas jam. The rest of the countryside looks either hopelessly overgrown, or shorn to within an inch of its yellow life as final hay making gets underway. We push on to reach Parc Mawr Woods, grateful for the shade, and by the time we’ve tackled the steep bridleway up to the old church we’re thinking longingly about the aforementioned fly-tipped fridge being full of cider, strategically placed in a hollow somewhere and magically hooked up to the National Grid. Perhaps next time we should think ahead and lower some bottles into the nearby holy well of St Celynnin.
On the mountain, there’s a welcome breeze to clear the air of biting insects and we canter over the undulating ground, Storm heading-up our small group and taking a strong hold for a while, but when the incline increases he drops back to a walk. And then a strange sight as long, horizontal skeins of sea mist obscures our view and cools the air temperature. Sheep and ponies appear ghost-like and it seems surreal to look down on the sun-filled valley below, and yet not be able to see much beyond a few feet ahead of us.
Back on the yard, His Lordship appreciates a wash-down with a big car sponge, at least I assume he does. Hey, I’m not an old Vauxhall Viva! Any perceived indignity is instantly forgotten as I fill his bucket with a scoop of pony nuts and a handful of chop – this described as soft grass and alfalfa with a molasses coating. It smells divine. Rather less so Storm’s sweaty saddle pad, which sports a thick furry layer of loose hair. The previous time I washed a saddle cloth in the washing-machine my husband had to suffer a week of hair shirts, so I set to with a stiff brush and hang it on the line to air. We turn out Ellie and the two ponies, and Lady chooses a slightly uphill spot to roll. This looks slightly incongruous, like a precursor to misadventure. I hope they don’t get up to too much mischief in this field which is bordered by a variety of trees, and sections of less conventional fencing. Storm likes to explore – probably in an effort to breakthrough to the orchard, recent evidence being telltale scratches at chest height, and a shifty look. On occasion, he has been allowed to graze beneath the apple trees – minus any early windfalls – being the only pony small enough to fit beneath the low, gnarled boughs. One time he wouldn’t settle and I crept back to spy on him, like secretly peering through the school window after leaving a fractious child at nursery. And he stared right back at me, head lowered through the hedge. Hey, I’m not wet behind the ears, you know. All the apples have gone!

 

The Castle on the River

I’ve sped past Gwydir Castle many times and, because it’s local, tend to fall into the trap of thinking I can go anytime I wish. But then one never finds the right time. When a friend lent me Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air – an account of the restoration of Gwydir – I quickly became hooked. And I had to see for myself the result of many years of struggle to bring Gwydir back to medieval life. Passing beyond the boundary wall is stepping back into history, and there’s an instant cloistered atmosphere. The property is described as ‘… an irregularly planned house in late Perpendicular Gothic style with some late 16th century Renaissance detailing. It is of roughly J-shaped plan, constructed of slate-stone blocks with sandstone dressings and slate roofs. Many of the building materials came from Maenan Abbey.’

In 1994 Peter and Judy left London to search for a house to restore. Drawn to North Wales, partly because Judy grew up there and partly down to Hiraeth – the Welsh word for homesickness – there was already a powerful magnet along with an affinity to rain, the mountains, and ancient Welsh history. They discovered a crumbling 16th century stone mansion hovering on the periphery of the flood plains in Llanrwst. Gwydir wasn’t your average ‘doer upper’. Regarded as one of the finest Tudor houses in Wales, the derelict castle was formerly the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family. Having fallen foul of previous attempts to ‘modernise’ it, the building had lost its majestic identity to a hideous nightclub along with a makeshift recording studio. Despite this, Peter and Judy’s dream of owning such a place had them pursue a sale, and soon they were sharing the marginally less squalid floor space with rats, bats, and a ghost.

The story related by Judy is one of unwavering obsession, and how the sheer size and magnitude of the task they had undertaken almost emotionally and financially defeated them, in part down to a period of ghostly possession in the name of Lady Margaret Cave – the most compelling and convincing account of a haunting I’ve ever read. And this sets a theme for living in Gwydir, where the constantly blurred edge of real and imaginary, past and present, becomes the norm.

In 1921 some of Gwydir’s historic contents – including two panelled rooms – were sold. The Dining Room was purchased by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane fame). Hearst was after purchasing historic interiors to furnish his mock castle in California. The fireplaces, panelling and door cases from Gwydir were crated up and shipped to America. In 1995 Judy and Peter discovered Gwydir’s lost Dining Room in a warehouse belonging to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Following lengthy negotiations, they were able to purchase the 17th century panelling, fireplace and door case, and all were finally returned to Gwydir – six tons of it, in fourteen giant packing crates – after a seventy-five-year American exile. I love how Judy describes this homecoming in her book, the way the very essence of Gwydir seemed to fill the air the moment the lids were eased off the crates…

The restored Dining Room wing, with its reinstated panelling and folded leather frieze was opened by HRH Prince Charles in the summer of 1998. The search continues for the Oak Parlour… Inconceivable then that these treasures should be at risk of flooding, and yet the Conwy River is prone to bursting its banks and Gwydir has fallen foul on more than one occasion. But plenty of locals are willing to pitch in and a band of volunteers are helping to build a sandbank wall.

If you’d like to get involved: https://www.facebook.com/GwydirCastle/

Over the Hill: 7

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.

P1000024-1According to the farrier – who likes to keep us on the road and fully legal at all times – Storm has succumbed yet again to summer feet. We’ve tackled this rapid growth with some special equine moisturiser, and an extra trim. His nails look more resplendent than mine. Down by Pensychnant lake we canter up the slope, then take an almost hidden right into a vast swathe of bracken; a clear track in the winter but throughout August the ferns are so prolific they almost completely conceal us. Storm ploughs through the foliage in anticipation of a fast canter beside the lake, but we are thwarted at the last second.
P1000385It seems especially bizarre on this damp, deserted morning to come across two women loitering in the middle of our canter path comparing their summer feet ie: bunions from wearing ill-fitting sandals. Nothing for it but to wait until they decide to call up their dogs and shuffle back the way they’ve come. Slowly. Storm is agitated and paws the ground, until I finally let him fly. A couple of sheep dart out of the undergrowth and Storm leaps sideways. It crosses my mind that should we part company in this spot my body will probably lie hidden until the bracken has died back, sometime around October… but we recover, canter on. I hear the bunion women discussing the bobble on my hat, and Storm’s ears. They seem bemused by our closet activity.
P1000478Storm inches into the lake and takes a long drink. I’m not surprised he’s thirsty since someone with big teeth managed to remove the bath plug and let all the water out of the trough in the field. None of the residents claim responsibility, but I’ve a good idea who it might be. In fact, after several days of storms, there’s standing pools everywhere and my legs are wet from pushing through glistening foliage. Elsewhere, the ground is slippery so I decide to get back onto the lanes. The footpath to the rear of Oakwood View is blocked by a stone mason repairing the collapsed wall. I slide off the pony to ascertain if we can squeeze past, but his van is full of apoplectic dogs and the equipment on the grass doesn’t look horse-friendly. Mr Stone is super reasonable though, and obliges by reversing his vehicle all the way back down the track and we’re able to continue our planned route.
A right turn here leads us to a cattle grid and just beyond this, another right turn takes us by Berthlwyd Hall Holiday Park. P1000542I love this teeny narrow lane. It winds slightly downhill between gnarled oak trees and tall hedges, and in rough weather affords plenty of protection. At the junction, Storm takes it upon himself to turn left – the shortest way back to the yard, naturally. But I let him trot along Hendre Road until we come to the gap in the wall next to a row of terraced cottages, where a concealed footpath snakes uphill towards Oakwood. I dismount and let him scramble over the rock slabs at the entrance, which he does with ease. On such a dull day, this sunken path is a dark, spooky tunnel beneath a dense canopy of dripping trees. Whenever I pass this way I always recall getting halfway down with our dog – to come face to face with an enormous bull. Thankfully, no need for a hasty retreat today. Storm scrambles valiantly to the top, raindrops in his mane, his precious pedicure intact, and trailing a long bramble from his tail.

 

Dinorwic Quarry and Llyn Padarn

A circular walk of 6.5 miles including 950 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: car parks on the A4086 by Llyn Padarn, near Llanberis, Caernarfon, LL55. Map References: SH 5723 6130  Lat/Long: 53.12969971 -4.13530846 

adult-blur-boots-1452784Llanberis lies at the foot of Snowdon alongside one of the largest natural lakes in Snowdonia. The area is steeped in historical interest, from 13th century Dolbadarn Castle to Dinowic Quarry, the Lakeside railway, and the miner’s hospital. The earliest activity at the quarry is dated 1787 and Dinorwic developed into one of the biggest quarries in the world, finally closing in 1969. The workings are extensive – spread over some 700 acres. Brave explorers scaling the heights of these galleries and tramways have found miners boots and clothing in some of the abandoned buildings at the top. The miner’s hospital, largely maintained by the quarry workers contributions, housed one of the first x-ray machines in North Wales. Surrounded by some of the biggest summits in Snowdonia Dinorwic remains a deeply evocative place.

The route

  1. From the car park turn left to walk south-east. Keep left along the service road then walk a short distance along the main road before a finger post directs you to Padarn Country Park. Take up the path by the lakeside and continue to the bridge at the end. Access to the miner’s hospital is just ahead; for the lakeside railway and the slate museum turn left.
  2. To continue the walk, turn right. At the small roundabout turn left, and look for the footpath to Dinorwic Quarry, set between slate walls. Take this steep path and follow the obvious route, taking care over the iron bridge by the old winding gear. Look for the quarrymen’s cottages on the right, opposite a yellow and blue marker post.
  3. Walk between the rows of cottages and turn left up the long slope which used to carry the slate trucks, up towards a shed housing more winding gear. Bear left to pass around the shed then continue up the track towards the top, where it passes between tall slate heaps.
  4. At the top, turn left. There are extensive views here, especially from the viewpoint, which is another optional detour to the left. Otherwise, pass the old Telegraph building and the slate sheds to pick up a wide track, which drops down to the road by Ger y Coed.
  5. Pass through the gate and go straight across the road and through the gate to walk along the driveway to Ger y Coed – a colourful smallholding – then pick up the footpath to the right of the property as it continues to wind through the trees. At the fork, turn right.
  6. At the next fork in the path keep right, and bear right again at a yellow and blue marker post to continue the route through an oak wood. Pass through the old iron gate – the boundary to Padarn Country Park – then turn left and drop downhill towards the lake, following the yellow marker posts. Go over the bridge at a small waterfall.
  7. Pass through the kissing-gate, then turn right up the stony track which turns into a single-track lane. Follow this lane for some distance, until it begins to bear sharp right. Take the footpath to the left, up to a set of stone steps by a white marker post. Turn left on the road
  8. Follow the road down towards Brynrefail and continue over the stone bridge as the road swings left around the lake. Keep left, and go through the kissing gate to walk along the short service road. Great views of Llyn Padarn, Snowdon, and the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle from here. Pass through two further gates onto the main road and keep left for a short distance until a break in the wall reveals a footpath.
  9. Go down the steps to a walkway alongside the shore of Llyn Padarn and continue for around a mile to arrive back at the car park. IMG_3023The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.

Roman Bridge to Betws-Y-Coed Linear

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 

adult-blur-boots-1452784An 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.

The route

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Over the Hill: 4

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1Signs of spring have all but disappeared. Lambs are sturdy and bleat less. Bracken springs up overnight and hides the smaller tracks in a maze of green fern. By way of compensation, the perfume of wild honeysuckle entwined through the hedgerows is divine, especially after a spell of rain. It’s been a cool, wet spring with flashes of brilliance. Through April and May I brushed out enough pony hair to furnish several bird nests to luxury standard, but now Storm is resplendent in his full summer coat of golden dapples – other than random patches of dark hair on both sides of his neck, like designer stubble.
The bridleway across Conwy Mountain is a steady climb until it reaches a plateau where a couple of long grassy tracks pose opportunities for a canter. Ahead, there are far-reaching views across the Pensychnant Estate and the Carneddau mountain range. We gather momentum alongside the perimeter of Pen Pyra, the only farm on the mountain, once the home of first world war hero John Edwards and although it’s still a working sheep farm, the house is currently a holiday let. 
Towards the end of this track as the the land falls away towards Dwygyfylchi – where Edwards is mentioned on the war memorial – the Irish Sea looms ahead. It’s not unusual to get blasted by the wind at this point, but today it’s relatively calm. A sharp left has the pony leaping to the top. There’s a pond here, frequented by Carneddau mares and foals and we stop awhile to watch them graze the plants at the water’s edge and paddle in the shallows. Ears pricked, Storm champs his bit in contemplative mood, like he’s chewing the end of a pipe.
Conwy Oakwood Park Hotel in 1911Skirting across the front of the farm we cross a small stream and since we’re facing home, Storm races up the short incline. As we slowly retrace our steps towards Conwy, the castle and the estuary hove into view. And as we amble lower down the stony track, more wild ponies, and a commanding black and white turreted building is glimpsed through the trees. Oakwood Park Hotel and Golf Course opened in 1898. In its heyday, Oakwood guests included George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George, Amy Johnson, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The hotel closed in 1940 and both the golf course and the hotel buildings fell into disrepair. After serving as a private school and a care home, the hotel was refurbished and divided into three private residences. As well as the main building the lovely old pavilion remains including the original railings along the lane, although the golf course is now returned to pasture and inhabited by two equine friends. Storm often draws to a halt here and stares at something I can’t see, oblivious to the leg and any other command. My friend says it’s like they’re seeing dead people when horses do this. I imagine there’s plenty of ghosts in this area, both human, and equine. In fact, reading about some of the history of Oakwood I came across the diaries of Isobel Lee, including her long visits to Oakwood Park Hotel; describing the parties, the golf, and the tennis she filled her days with – through to a more sombre existence doing voluntary work in a hospital. Her final diary entry was June 6th 1917. And her home address? Wilmslow, Cheshire. A little uncanny that I had also moved from Wilmslow to Conwy, and the date of my ride on this day was June 6th  hopefully not my last diary entry!