Post: This October 1929 story of Charlie’s has an unexpected 1956 update! (I couldn’t have put all this in Charlie’s books because they are about him, but on this website I can include other relevant items, so here goes). The four people standing before you at Easter 1956 just below the summit of Moel Sych (2,713ft), are left to right, Fred Dunster, H.H. Willis, myself David Warner, aged 16, and ‘Bart’ a gentleman with the surname Bartholomew. We were all attending the very first – inaugural – RSF Easter Meet, and the photograph was taken by Fred Dunster’s time delay camera on his tripod. I should explain that this mountain is a peculiar shape, in that the space to the right of this summit is a pretty sheer fall of well over a 1000ft down to a small lake Llyn Lluncaws. Charlie has had other adventures on this mountain at other times, including one where his wife-to-be nearly slid over the edge, complete with bike, a very frightening moment. This incident is described in full in an article dated 1932, repeated in Charlie’s book Volume Two, ‘Further Adventures’, page 101. In this day and age Charlie would be described as foolhardy for tackling this crossing in the weather prevailing, especially as there was no mountain rescue teams in their times. Maybe he was lucky to only just contract pneumonia and get over it six weeks later!
Behind the Ranges took place on the weekend of 5/6th of October, 1929. The weather across those two days is described by Charlie in his diary in one word, ‘Deluge’. It also involved a total mileage of 170 miles over the two days, and his companion would have been one of the We.R 7. One other historical point, Fred Dunster later became the Rough Stuff Fellowship Secretary, serving the Club for some years.
Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant ! To you, my reader, just another of those atrocious Welsh names perhaps, a name heard or read sometime, somewhere, and forgotten; a name unknown to the heedless world; a place unseen except to an occasional wanderer or a traveller straying beyond his latitude. But to a comrade and I a place of substance, a reality deep in the heart of the mountains; a place not easy of access; to our dreams – and now to our memories – a place of “laughter and inn-fires”. Reader, look behind the ranges and behold – Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant !
It so happened one fitful Saturday morning early in October, that I turned my wheel against the wind towards those distant inn-fires and the joys of comradeship that I should find at Llanrhaiadr. There was a hard tussle, a battle royal across the plains to Chester; a battle broken only by a stop for lunch at a quaint Cheshire home-stead. Though skies gloomed Nature was in a gay mood, for in the park of Eaton Hall Autumn had traced a gorgeous pattern. Man too, had done a share; the Golden Gates glittered with a new gilding and all the lesser gates were newly silvered. Life was there – a grey squirrel lurking for prey, red squirrels, gorgeously plumed pheasants, and, of course, prolific bunnies scuttling away on every side at my approach. I cheated the wind by seeking the shelter of the border hills to Cefn-y-Bedd, and gave way to the temptation of footpaths – in Nant-y-Ffrith.
Nant-y-Ffrith is always beautiful. In a land of exquisite valleys none ever seem to be quite like Nant-y-Ffrith. Summer lingers late there, and all the green livery of summer was there that gloomy Saturday afternoon; only along the topmost ridges Autumn had started to tinge the green. A month yet ere this even-hued seclusion would be turned into a riot of living colour. While I still lingered there the drowsy sky filled up and rain began to fall. Head to a wind-driven torrent, I crossed the open moor from Bwlch Gwyn, and descending into the Llandegla ‘basin’, I sought shelter and tea at homely Ypento. There I fretted an hour and a half away, waiting till I cared to wait no longer. The rain had settled in.
I crossed the Horseshoe Pass. There was a mist up there and drenching rain and with it a wildness that overawed me – a lonely desolation on the erstwhile busy Horseshoe Pass ! During the descent a not uncommon, but no less undesirable incident occurred. My brakes failed to grip the wet rims as I was approaching the double loop of the ‘horseshoe’: I grimly watched the front wheel splice the water on the road with increasing impetus, and the steeply cambered bend rush upon me. My fingers strained at both cables, until, on the very bend itself the brake blocks creaked complainingly and froze to the rim – the wheels locked, and in a skid I swung round the bend and found myself gliding easily round the second twist. The nick of time ! Thence all was well. The mist was above now, and the mountain slopes were revealed aglow with effusive dyes. Down in the Vale it was dusk and Llangollen was lamplit and snugly wet with people hurrying along the streets or stood in groups in sheltered places….. I left Llangollen, facing precipitous ‘Aullt-y-Body’ with, ever before me, the picture of ‘laughter and inn-fires’ at Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant, still far behind the ranges…….
As I tramped the long steep lane I wondered if all this was worth the while, and cursed myself for the doubt in me. The pall of darkness descended; I lit my little oil lamp and laughed at its impotent flicker – laughed at it and wondered why I hadn’t got a better lamp – laughed as I struggled on through filth and ooze, or as I stumbled over a stony outcrop, and wondered again – why I laughed ! Near the ragged drawn-out summit a belt of leafless trees screamed in the wind, and there, in hazy silhouette, I saw a horseman stopped still, weird and unreal. What an experience that was – the steep road and driving rain, the screaming trees, the cloudy darkness, the silhouetted rider. As I stood there taking it all in, the horseman moved and then with a clatter of hoofs he passed me and I was alone again, tramping, tramping……… tramping.
For just a short time I was able to essay a ride – more of a skid and a jolt – until the road tilted downwards so steeply that I dismounted again. I knew Allt-y-Body of old ! Down I ran, down till the hazy lights of the Vale of Ceiriog shone below through the rain, down again till the houses – the lights – the warm glow of the wet main street of Glyn Ceiriog, and people again and……. the road, the dark, wet, silent road once more.
It was a good road along the upper Glyn Valley, hedged by the shadows of mountains, edged by trees, by rocks, and crossed by streams that babbled in the night. Up and down and sinuously round bends it ran, past occasional farmsteads and through one or two dimly shining hamlets, each sheltering its little knot of chatting men who shouted a musical “Cymric” Good Night! to me as I passed. There was comfort to me in each of the courteous calls ! In the narrow depths of that valley the wind was but a low murmur sounding from the pines above, and travel was easy and loaded with glamour. Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog was dimly lit from the diamond windows of its two inns that face each other across the village square, marked the end of the road, and in one of those inns I rested and refreshed myself – not in the ‘flowing bowl’. I talked with the company, a grizzled group of mountain men who were playing dominoes for pints of beer and laconically passing the days-old news around. There was one lank individual with a weathered face and muscle in every movement of his six-foot body who told me he had tramped the Berwyns for thirty years, who knew their highland whims and every treacherous yard of them. The Berwyns were his; in the telling of tales he displayed a love, a passionate love for those upland wastes with all their many-headed moods, and I admired that love, envied him of it ! It must be a great thing to know and to love with understanding, such things as that broad ribbon of mountain peaks, the Berwyns.
Once again the shrouding uselessness of the cape, and this time the last of the ranges; the last, the hardest, crossed by a lane that really was no more than a track at times, a heap of stones here – a morass there – a puzzle-in-the-dark with the snare of the great invisible Berwyns as a trap to the unwary. It was a trap of steep falls and branching lanes that led to the cold heart of them. The Berwyns heart is cold, even with the lives of men who love them. Wild….. a grim land of mists and steeps and echoing nothingness…..
There came a long, steep climb with but the absurd glimmer of a little oil lamp to light a yellow pin-patch of the grey blankness that swirled around. I felt myself breaking up like an old ship near the summit, for, as later events proved, I was in none too fit a condition, but I pulled myself together as I thought of the last five miles and the end of the road…..”laughter…… and inn-fires”. At the summit I mounted, and in a reckless mood probably born of weariness, I plunged out of the grey into the black mouth of a sunken lane diverging on the left. Trusting to intuition (an untrustworthy sense at best), and to some knowledge of this country, I crashed along over loose stones which more than once threw me into an alarming skid in the slime that followed. Once the evil glimmer of water ahead made my heart leap, but in a twinkling I was beyond it with nothing more than a cold douche over my already saturated feet. Many other lanes converging into this one, once made me fear that I had gone wrong, a dread thought in the exhausted condition I was in and with a mountainous nowhere on all sides, but I received an exiting assurance when the road dropped away like a chasm below me, and jamming both brakes I jumped away from the saddle. Well enough I know that descent !
And so came a last steep fall to a little lighted street – Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant. I was not disappointed; welcome blazed in the lights of the inn, and soon I was enjoying a scrub, shaking the dirt and the damp of four ranges from me. Even while I was so employed, in came my comrade as wet as I had been, with a story as adventurous as mine – an afternoon’s hard ride, and – the ranges. He spoke with a voice that burned enthusiasm as fuel and glowed with love for a game he had chosen as his. Like the mountain man of the inn at Llanarmon a great love was his…… and he was not alone in it. That night , as never before, I had felt the love of it, and even in weariness, the joys of it.
Then down to company…….. comradeship…….. laughter…..and inn-fires !
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It was still raining when we awoke next morning; it was still raining at breakfast, and when we left the friendly shelter of the inn it was raining still. Over the bulky mountains the rain-clouds hung and the sky was cold and grey. Our chosen route climbed constantly, with the swollen Rhaiadr stream chattering below and the slow fires of Autumn burning overall. We agreed that everything was lovely. In four miles the road ended at a farm, in a complete cul-de-sac, and there we viewed Pistyll Rhaiadr, “The Spout of the Cataract”, thundering in spate. I will leave it to John ‘Ceiriog’ Hughes, the Glyn Valley poet of a hundred years ago to describe it in his own Cymric tongue. The translation is George Borrow’s:
“Foaming and frothing from mountainous height
Roaring like thunder the Rhyadr falls;
Though its silvery splendour the eye may delight,
Its fury the heart of the bravest appals”.
Our chosen way was a hard way, and seemed a grim way too – over the highest Berwyn. The outlook was repelling, a constant downpour, dense mist above, and steaming hillsides – but Autumn was there in all its beauty, and the tangled bracken seemed to leap in tongues of still flame to meet the curling clouds.
A ‘short cut’ soon led us into difficulties; a promising path that ended in dripping bracken, and the subsequent performances ere we reached the true track involved climbing walls, crossing a swollen stream and clambering up a steep slope. Our feet were drenched by then, but that, we soliloquised, was inevitable sooner or later. The track was good and we enjoyed a long walk uphill with the russet and gold of the bracken on each hand, and the valley behind, with Pistyll Rhaiadr a fleck of white shining through the rain. But the track ended with dramatic suddenness, and threw us away from Autumn into a land of bog and brown grass and outcropping rock, a desolate scene as grand in its barrenness as the valley behind in its loveliness. Not the least sign remained to show us the track, and wide bog-areas, sluggish, slimy streams, and tough tangly heather gave us a foretaste of that to come. We struggled up to a ridge, and found ourselves gazing on a dark little lake bounded by reeds on three sides, and on the far side by scree – below the mist-capped crags of Moel Sych, Berwyns highest peak. Picture it if you can, reader: picture we two, the only things in that wild region, gazing in awed stupification at all around us, solitudes seeming infinite in grey mists on looming heights, and silence weirdly profound below the dull roar of the wind on the crags above.
Mutely we moved on, skirting the tarn (Llyn Llyncaws) and peering anxiously at the crags – looking for the green ledge that would mark our path. We knew it was there, somewhere, and we had to go that way – the only way a bicycle could be taken across Cader Berwyn. We detected it, a faint zig-zag of green on the sombre grey, from the top of the scree to the ridge. Only a year ago we had traversed it, after a wearying search and an endless trail over long bog-slopes. This time we meant to make no mistake; we struck out boldly up the scree in a direct climb. We soon discovered that there was no easy way…… a thousand feet of sheer desperation on that scree ! From yielding sod and slimy bog-holes, rock and shale cropped out, became the crowning difficulty, and the scramble became a struggle, the struggle a crawl, till oft-times we mounted on hands and knees inches at a time, with the bikes somehow across our backs. I grit my teeth now – as I did then – when I think of it, the times we slipped and cut our knees or barked our shins till we ignored the pain in the general exhaustion, or in the greater pain of a collapse beneath the bikes. Our fingers often tore up fugitive sods wedged in the crevices as we grasped them in the effort to save ourselves, and the cumber-some bikes often added to our confusion by bringing us down heavily, whilst all the time the untiring rain streamed over us. We reached the ledge, and that was little better – infinitely more dangerous, we thought, as we warily skirted the crags and listened to loosened shale bounding down from rock to rock into the welter of mist below.
At last the ridge – the summit ! At two thousand six hundred feet we stood and watched the grey vapours now below steaming up as from a great cauldron, occasionally parting for a moment to give us a glimpse of the cliffs and dark lake below the scree. That was all we saw, but we were impressed more there than with all the impressing scenes on that memorable weekend.
Obviously it was foolish to delay: we were wet through and the cold wind chilled us to the bone. Ahead now were brown wastes bounded by mists, swept by the wind, and trackless except for treacherous sheep-trails that wandered everywhere and led nowhere. We had profited by a bitter experience of such on those bleak moors, and so, unconcerned by the blankness around, we pushed our way into a wind that sent warning spasms of cold running through us like the striking of fever in the body. We came to a tiny stream and followed it closely, watching it gain in volume, until, to our delight, we struck a track – rough, but how infinitely easier than the miles of pitted bog behind !
Suddenly the curtain lifted, and the vast stage lay set before us – a splendid prospect of moors above moors, mountains behind mountains, red and purple and gold shining, smiling in the rain. That was not all. The rain ceased, the track improved, and soon our stream took us into a fertile valley with farms, fields and woods – and then sunshine, warm, beautiful sunshine. From the desolate to the sublime ! We rattled down that track, through gates, a farmyard, across a ploughed field, over a water-splash to a road, a sunken, muddy lane, but a road – down to Llandrillo in the sweet Vale of Edeyrnion, and to the Corwen road. We had barely reached a favourite house at Cynwyd for a late lunch when the grey ousted the blue, and the rain came down again.
There followed a bathroom scene in which towels, cold water, and massage did much to still the involuntary shivering which still racked our limbs – legacy of exhaustion and Berwyn ! The healing influence of a cosy room, a fire and tea-dinner worked wonders. Time sped by until……….
The road again and the constant douche of rain again; the wind dead behind, making the thirty-three hilly miles to Chester comparative child’s play. With the shining wet streets behind we pursued a lamp-lit course back to the quaint Cheshire homestead for tea.
Now a gale was blowing – and still the rain. On the homeward side of Warrington the wind blew one of us clean of his bike, providing us with many a thrill ere a turn of the road gave us its assistance. At Winwick we separated, my comrade for his Wigan coalfields and I for my home in the Town of Cotton.
Thus ended our search behind the Ranges. We won through in spite of weather conditions that were fiendish, conditions that laid me low for many weeks following, for I had started with a shadow overhanging. They called us the “dammedest fools” at home, and maybe you, my reader, will endorse the verdict. We don’t deny they may be right, but you cannot know – they cannot know – who do not love the hills. They may kill us, these wilds, but we shall love them. They lash us with their fury, yet how our hearts do yearn for their very fury ! They have bound my friend and I in a tie of comradeship that took each of us through so much to meet at the hospitable inn – and to face together hell itself across Cader Berwyn. Others had started – but just we two had faced the worst and found the best.
Reader, go across the ranges and forget not the almost forgotten name….. Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant !
[Charlie was certainly right about a ‘shadow overhanging’, he contracted pneumonia after this weekend effort, and was off his bike for seven weeks.]