I had given myself a hard task considering the heat, having undoubtedly chosen the hilliest possible way, and as far as Pen-y-bont-fawr (which lay over a nasty hill) I paid for it, but from there I became suddenly energetic, romping up the stuffy valley that leads over from Cwm Hirnant to Lake Vyrnwy. I shall not forget the ride along the shore of the lake, for Vyrnwy, though a reservoir, is a gem that could vie with Ullswater for sheer beauty of setting. But the gnats………!
Then that wonderful tramp up Cwm Eunant, along the atrocious track that joins the Bwlch-y-Groes road. The time was getting late, and already the sun was sinking, hanging lie a pendant ruby above the teeth of the mountains, ready, it seemed, to drop into the rocky abyss behind. The moors about me, two thousand feet high, brooded with the stillness of death. Not a soul, not a house, not a bird, nor even a trickling stream, just a great expanse of mute brown moors, bare shoulders leaning to the infinity of space – and the teeth of rugged monsters ahead to which the brown trackway seemed to run in crazy coils and twists and loops. Nature, maybe, cried ‘shame’ to see me hurry then, but there was a sunset over Aran Mawddwy that would not tarry, and I would see its splendour.
Seelah! The magic moorlands crumpled on the left, and in their bosom lay a deep vale, indescribably green and serene, winding down till vale and hills were one again in misty distance. I saw another trackway pass across my vision, and fall, in a single slant, down the face of a precipice to the Vale below……Bwlch-y-Groes. I left my bike and ran up to the summit of the Bwlch, and up again over moss and heather to a crowning knoll. I saw the flaming orb of the sun sink behind black rock; I saw a hundred colours shoot up above the fangs; I saw the colours change and fade, and change again, until the light retreated and left the mountains to themselves. Perhaps I was mad, for I skipped down the Pass of the Groes like a child, leading my bike and singing aloud. I skipped down 1200 feet to the valley below till the mountains hung over me. In a tiny village shop where the chief articles of sale seemed to be candles, I asked for eggs and butter, and underwent a critical survey from every villager, for this was apparently the village gathering ground o’nights. A ten-shilling note which I proffered was accepted dubiously and subjected to a severe scrutiny by three of the menfolk, and to give me change the place was ransacked. Yet I have been thinking I am poor!
Two miles further along, when it was almost dark, I cast around for a likely site for a night’s undisturbed vagabonding. I found a cosy place beside a hedge at the edge of a wood far up the mountainside. There was a stream trickling through the wood, and too nearly dry to be really clean, but in cases such as this it is not the policy of a wise camper to question too closely. The gnats and mosquitoes, in search of food, found me a morsel much to their taste, and though I slaughtered thousands over supper, thousands more came, and I retreated up the hillside. I made my bed well up the slope whence I could look down on the lights of the valley and up at the lights of heaven.
Consciousness always comes to me very slowly, reluctantly. I awoke to a feeling of strangeness, and quite a minute passed before I discovered that I was in the hedge. I had rolled down the slope for ten yards or so, but (as a hardened vagabond) I had slept untroubled. My groundsheet was still on the hillside! A tang was in the air, and when I got up I felt a little cold, but I ran along the hedge waving my canvas water-bucket and towel in mid-air, and ere I reached the tiny stream I was warm enough.
What a life it was! There I was, cooking breakfast in the open with the broad vale of Dyfi below, and the sunlight tipping the mountain tops; with clothing light and scanty as decency permits, laughing and singing to myself – alive to the glorious world I owned. A world of the mind, but a wide, wide world, boundless and infinite as Space-time.
A brown road below me, road of the valley, winding under the crouching hillsides of Mawddwy, crossing sparkling streams that tinkled lightly in the draught of summer, hedged by winsome wild roses and scented with honeysuckle; fields that rippled gold lakes of buttercups, and lay under the snow of daisies; gardens that blushed shyly – marguerites that grew boldly in grassy borders. And high above the brown ranges of Mawddwy. Was it on such a morn with such a sight that made old George Borrow cry out the native “heddychol ddyfryn tlws” – peaceful, pretty vale – as he swung down from the Pass of the Cross? I’d wager it was!
With Dinas Mawddwy slumbering yet, I crept away along Cwm Cerist. The sun scorched again with all yesterday’s fury, making the mountain recess of the Cwm hot and uncomfortable. The road tilted upwards, wedging its way into Bwlch Oerddrws, the long, steep gradient bringing back all the old yearning for ‘waters cool and deep’. Bwlch Oerddrws means ‘Cold Door Pass’, but the hot breath of wind that greeted me on the summit merited the appellation ‘Blackberry Joe’ once gave it, ‘Oven Door Pass’. But there were views yet unsmothered by heat, views of the great humps of Mawddwy with deep, narrow vales intersecting, and ahead views of the lovely Mawddach and the proud Giants Nose of Cader Idris.
To put it mildly, I crashed down to Cross Foxes and revelled on the magnificent, reconstructed road from Tall-y-Llyn to Dolgelly. For the hundredth time I passed along the Mawddach Estuary in wonder and muttered that “this were paradise enow”, till the Trawsfynydd-Ffestiniog Road breaks away into a paradise of its own – the Vale of Eden. It is Eden, with temptations on every hand. One was a path, and it took me up to Rhaiadr Du, the Black Cataract, where the water splits in two and falls down a rocky chasm into a deep pool. Around is verdant growth that belies the name of it.
Opposite the way to Rhaiadr Du another path took me down to the Mawddach which flowed between high cliffs in a channel at least fifteen feet deep, with a rustic footbridge leading across towards a farm. The water was so clear that I could see the minutest object at the bottom, and, prior to taking a dive, thought it was no more than five or six feet deep. In a dive from the bridge and a downward swim, I barely touched the bottom, and came up on the last gasp like a cork. I frolicked about for an hour or more in the beautifully cold water, and on the hot rock-slabs, cooked my lunch and ate it in bathing costume, and afterwards went in for a long series of final dips. My frame of mind suited that bohemian style, and surely no-one ever had more beautiful surroundings. There was the river, all waterfalls, rapids and deep channels flowing between tall rock as full of living colour as the flowers and trees, and all around where mountains shining in the sun, with the ridge of Cader Idris o’er them all. And the deep blue of the sky was faultless.
This Garden of Eden, however, is no sinecure on a hot day; it climbs relentlessly uphill, and when I had dragged myself up for two miles I remembered that I had left my shaving outfit in Paradise, and ruefully unclimbed it all too quickly, recovered those instruments of torture to a sun-burned skin and once more faced the steady drag up to the open moorlands.
On the last steep pull out of the last belt of upland trees I saw a dead snake. It lay curled up in the middle of the road, its head crushed by the wheel of a motor-car. For a British snake it was a very big one, being roughly twenty-seven inches long, measured by my shoes. The colour was brown mottled, with a skin wrinkled as is the shell of a tortoise, and white underneath. I do not know what kind of snake it was – certainly not a grass snake, and possibly a kind of adder or even a species of viper, both of which are dangerous. I surmised that its marshy home had dried in the prolonged heat and it had been crossing the road towards the river Eden when a passing motorist had caught it. (Probably a species of viper, rather uncommon in Britain – March 1931).
There were open moorlands to Trawsfynydd, with the road hilly and the tar soft underwheel, with a long range of many-headed peaks on the seaward side. There lies the unfrequented wilds of the Ardudwy Hundred with their neglected passes – Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, and Bwlch Tiddiad. I saw the deep gap of the Gate, and remembered the Roman Steps in the mists of rain-clouds one September evening. They have recently built a huge reservoir at Trawsfynydd, and the good God, Electricity, starts from here to supply the border lands with power. Power to drive ten thousand wheels, to light ten thousand homes.
The map shows a track twelve miles long from Trawsfynydd to Arenig on the Bala-Ffestiniog road. It was a track I have never explored, and I joined it that day. As all mountain tracks, it started quite innocent, of fair surface, with many gates, and very hilly, but quite promising, withal. In a mile or so the surface worsened, and then went steadily worse until a stream, which had kept close company for some distance, became one with the road. Deep holes, boulders, sand, loose stones and the fiery heat made riding impossible and walking slow and painful. I walked for miles into Nant Due [not identified on a 1951 Ordnance Survey map, but near lots of Roman remains! Ed], a tortuous valley, where a concrete bridge had been washed away by the last storm, and left just as the floods had abandoned it. Tremendous chunks of concrete lay all over the track; higher up it was a mere footpath – or a mere rut on the mountain-side. The beginning of Cwm Prysor was heralded by interminable hills, and Cwm Prysor was as dry as Pussyfoot Johnson, with not a ghost of a stream to slake a thirst.
I had walked about eight or nine miles when I reached Llyn Tryweryn, where I had hoped for a swim, but the whole lake was surrounded by reeds and tall rushes which left it only useful for an obscure suicide, and bad as I felt, I did not want to die just then. Llyn Tryweryn is used by fishermen, and so I found the path quite good again from there to the highway at Rhyd-y-Fen. This once was the terror of travellers from Bala to Ffestiniog, or vice-versa, and I have reason to remember more than one wild adventure over Arenig. But now tarmac replaces the hideous surface that used to be, and in luxury I drifted down for ten miles into Bala.
Llandderfel stands five miles above Bala on the river Dee at the beginning of the Vale of Penllyn. From Llandderfel to Corwen, the ‘sweet vale of Edeyrnion’ stretches for eight entrancing miles, and there are three roads to confuse the wondering mind for choice. The main road to Corwen must be used only when time demands speed, but between the secondary road and a rough lane that hugs the river there is little to choose. What of the road through Llandrillo and Cynwyd, that offers the best of what the Dee can give, and endears one permanently to lovely Merioneth? And what of a narrow lane that never feels the pulse of petrol engines, that wanders waywardly with the river, that touches but the sleeping walls of hidden farms – that glows with wild rose and over which the heavy scents of honeysuckle hang fragrantly?
I chose the lane; I swam in a little pool on the river; I had tea alfresco by a tumbling stream – I pottered! For five brief miles I changed my mode and joined the great highway from Corwen to Glyndyfrdwy. There I crossed the river and along a lane identical with the lane of the Vale of Edernion, I came to a small farm, Groes Llwyd by name, to join my comrades of the “We R 7”; to give up my vagabonding and join them camping in a field on the banks of the Dee. Some had been touring, some were new to the great camping game, so chins wagged late with travellers’ tales.
Sunday morning was torrid. From the moment we awoke till we packed up seven hours later our only clothing were bathing costumes, our sport the placid river Dee. River bathing and sun bathing is wonderful sport on a hot day – until the sun bites into the unprotected skin. I suffered for it for many days afterwards. The popularity of water suddenly came to an end when one of the boys who could not swim got out of his depth and lost his nerve. He was fished out almost on the last gasp and brought round by artificial respiration.
We separated, my comrades and I, late in the afternoon, for they were bound for Lancashire, and I had my temporary home on the very doorstep of Wales (15 miles to the border at Queensferry). For me lay a pleasant mountain route; a lane down the Vale of Clywd; the highway pass of Bwlch-y-Parc to Mold, and winding lanes to my temporary Wirral home.
For me, the sweltering steel foundry o’days and the warm sea o’nights, the beacon at Thurstaston, to gaze at the languid sunsets – to look across the sands o’ Dee to blue mountains, and to visualise afresh a Vagabond Way.