Over Moel Sych 2,713ft


Over Moel Sych001 September, 1932, like ‘the Lady April’ had her full share of moods.  One associates this lovely month with bountiful harvest, with sunshine and blue skies, a period of settled weather through which creeps approaching autumn.  But this month was tearful, sunny, shaken by gales, frost and calm and hot, mixing all the varieties of our English climate into an April pot-pourri.

On the third Saturday afternoon I crossed Chat Moss under the bluest of skies.  Little puffs of white cloud floated slowly along, and the sun was hot, like full summer.  I moved quickly, as one who has many miles to cover in few hours, for Jo and Fred would be awaiting me ninety miles away, and they had promised to have a grand supper awaiting my arrival.  Although adding a few miles I took the Tarporley road in preference to the main road by Chester and Chirk.  I was on roads that make hurry possible.  The little hills and long levels of this familiar highway, with a light breeze behind, kept my feet circling quickly; unconsciously, as my mind travelled with my eyes along the hedges and into cottage gardens.  Twelve years before I had first timidly crept along here in a mood of discovery, my wondering senses in a growing delight of new sights and scenes, and now I appreciated it just as much, looking forward to the next bend just as keenly, though I had turned that bend a hundred times.  There is something great about the way one can travel the same old roads so many times in the same spirit of enthusiasm.  It would break one’s heart to know that never again could one’s face be set towards them.  Death were better!

I appreciate suitable company, but when an alien voice breaks upon a mental ecstasy, I curse silently, and answer with an eloquent semi-silence.  This voice announced a desire to be listened to for the next ten miles to Bunbury – ten of the loveliest, most expectant, miles.  At least he had a turn of speed, so we whipped along until the lane which led him to his lady-love appeared, and I found myself alone again.  Eleven miles to Whitchurch, easy, glorious miles, with the red hills of Peckforton to the west, a roaming place on many a Sunday with Tom in the past nine years.

[Now alas with his real buddy, Tom Idle no longer.  One year earlier, Tom Idle had stepped up to the altar and married a Welsh girl and presumably settled down in North Wales, for we hear no more about him, and my computer searches have thrown up nothing.  Charlie must have been gutted for in his record of cycle runs kept for 25 years, just two words against the entry for 28 September 1931, “Tom’s Wedding”]. 

Two miles from Whitchurch, on the Shropshire border a tandem pair caught up to me, and boasted how they had come all the way from Burtonwood by St Helens.  I agreed they had done a good ride (almost as far as I had) but when they complained of the hard road I laughed.  “You’ll have harder yet!” I forecasted, as, entering Whitchurch, I sent them on to the Wellington road, myself turning westward in an oblique slant towards the Welsh border.

A few miles along the Ellesmere road I stopped for tea at a cottage all but hidden in a long riot of a garden.  Fifty six miles were good enough for an afternoon ride.  Now the level waters of the Mere, the narrow streets of Ellesmere, the crossing of the Holyhead road at Whittington, where the great towers and moat of a feudal castle add romance to the place.  I have heard it said that here was born the poor boy who dreamed of London streets paved with gold, and who became the Capital’s greatest Lord Mayor three times.  Behind the fairy story of Dick Whittington is the germ of truth.  Saturday night in Oswestry, narrow streets, great crowds, dusk – and the road again, beating south again as the moon came up.

There is a cross roads at Llynclys, and there I turned westwards, between low hills, growing higher, with a river growing swifter, clearer, the Tanat river.  Lamplit, in moonlight, a road almost level, are ideal conditions of travel, and my wheels sped for many miles, veered at last from the main valley, and came to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, the deep village under the shadow of Berwyn.  The last four miles above the Rhaeadr stream would shatter any dream of speed, the ninety miles in my legs began to tell their tale, and my mind was occupied with the promised supper, now so near.  I had earned it, I felt.  After an array of good things there was to be plum pudding overspread with custard.  Two helpings.  Then I would lie back in supreme comfort when it was over, and smoke a reminiscent cigarette.

There was Pistyll Rhaeadr ahead, a tall black cliff shutting up the valley, with the white streak of water upon it, a farm, even a group of great fir trees dwarfed by this, the highest waterfall in Wales.  On the last hill above the farm I turned aside through a gate, along a good green track, and at the first bend I saw our two tents romantically placed across the track – the only level spot in that region.  The tents were unlit and deserted; inside I saw the rest of the kit hurriedly thrown down.  Leaned against the steep moor were the two bicycles.  Then I saw the table.  This was a huge, flat-topped rock about two feet high.  For lack of other space Fred had encircled it within the tent, one large section protruding from the doorway.  And even the table was bare!

My light had evidently been seen, for there were voices calling me from somewhere far below in the bottom of the valley.  Some time later two overheated cyclists burst through the bracken below the path, carrying a milk can and canvas bucket.  They had foraged the farm without luck, and taking a short cut along this branch valley had become tangled up in fences, heather, and bog.

Long afterwards the pudding appeared, if not hot and steaming, at least warm on the outside.  Of custard there was none, but we sat round our rocky table in the bright moonlight and ate, and drank coffee ad lib, and yarned.  The ‘table’ effectively stopped us from closing up the tent, so Fred and I slept curled round it.

Cool and sulky morning.  How often has serene eventide lulled our last thoughts into a golden morrow, to find, on awakening, a transformation, a promise falsified?  The rain barely held off while we packed our kit away, and as we moved on in single file along the narrowing path the rain came, “gentle as the dew from heaven” at first, then steadily settling in, in true Berwyn fashion.  At a stream the track ended, the trouble began, the usual becaped struggle over tufty grass, tangly heather, into the wild amphitheatre in which lie reed edged, gloomy Llyn Lluncaws, under the frowning brow of Moel Sych.  As this was our third crossing we feared no false moves, and skirted the lake, striking by the easiest route, towards a rugged summit ridge directly north.

There is no easy way, with heavily laden bicycles that first summit was reached by sheer hard graft.  The cumbrous capes, the slipping grass, brought us down in turns, and we fell heavily.  The heather tugged at us.  This ridge gave a view into the deep jaws of Maen Gwynedd valley, across which the rain slanted.  Now the climb was toward Moel Sych itself, aslant  the main spur, again a devilish struggle, this time with loose scree to cross, over which one looked down hundreds of feet of rock to Llyn Lluncaws.  I was well ahead when I saw Jo suddenly slip and come down, bicycle and all on the very edge of the cliff.  Fred dropped his bike and made a grab, hauling her clear, with not a foot of space nor a moment of time to spare.  Dangerous moments!  No injuries, just a word of thanks, and once more the slow, wary plod with shouldered bikes.  These things are not remarkable, just the rough chances of the hills which the three of us are willing to take.

Over Moel Sych004The summit cairn of Moel Sych, yours truly aged 15 in shorts, Fred Dunster left of picture and H H Willis seated and standing behind another RSF member known only as ‘Bart’.  This picture and story incidentally, complement the release on this website of the story ‘Behind the Ranges’, released on 21st of January this year.  This ‘summit’ took place at Easter 1956, on the occasion of the very first RSF Easter Meet.  Below you will see a picture – an old one – of Charlie in a tartan shirt taking tea with our RSF President Sir Hugh and Lady Rankin at the same Easter Meet.

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A tiny ‘gateway’ of a gap in the rock heralded the summit, and hot and winded we threw ourselves down.  Our altitude was 2,715 ft; the great backbone of Berwyn heaved away with its many ribs eastward.  Llyn Lluncaws lay a thousand feet below in dark reflection, a pear shaped mirror.  On the northern side, miles of bog-ridden moorland slopes wasting away into the rain.  Nothing more, except the sense of vastness and a great solitude.

Now the long descent, three miles and more of wary treading.  Again we were fortified by past experience.  The exultation of winning to a difficult summit is apt to vanish when the subsequent descent becomes so involved that one wearies of even hoping to get down to sane, hard roads again, and we shall never forget such an experience in rain and bog when every step had become a labour, every movement an effort, every vista a morale-shattering vista of endless acres of shaggy tussocks emphasised by boggy runnels that were more to be feared than the bitter tops.  That is when one begins to long for the easy pleasure of just lying down and perhaps sleeping, sleeping on and on…  for ever.  We had learned the way, striking down the slope of Nant Esgeiriau, remaining sufficiently above the watercourses to avoid shouldering the heavy bikes again.  The rain ceased – perhaps we got below the clouds – and at a farmhouse called Rhuol we reached the old road which runs up Cwm Pennant to join the Milltir Cerig.  There we tried to make ourselves look less disreputable, changed into dry stockings (but kept on soaked shoes), started the primus stoves, and did ourselves well on the rest of our food.

Jo was the lucky one for once; she had a day or two to spare, and gathering together our kit, bade us au revoir, to penetrate deeper into Merioneth.  Fred and I, with over eighty miles yet to cover, turned our wheels eastward from Llandrillo, through the vale of Edeyrnion to Corwen, laboured over the Llandegla Moors to a belated tea at Chester.

In the quiet glow of evening, with September once again in her golden mood, we planned our next hill-crossing, little dismayed by the hostile reception Moel Sych seems to hold against our persistent wooing.

By the way, Moel Sych means ‘Dry Hill’.

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Camping Cameo Four

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         We had covered hard country that day, and we were tired.  Dusk had come as we crossed Stang Pass from Barnard Castle to Reeth, but the lovely evening, changing into night, had kept us on…Easter Sunday 1931……  through a section of Swaledale, over the ridge to Leyburn and across Wensleydale to Middleham.  We entered Coverdale, but searched long and fruitlessly in the dark for a farm campsite.  The open moors would have suited us, but the nearest moorland site was far up the dale………and we were tired.  At last at the end of the cosy street we sighted a farm building – the last farm in Carlton Coverdale – a long black building, with a little curtained window dimly lit.  Searching around, we found a gate giving access to a large side door, and through its many cracks a light was burning.

One of us knocked, and the result was silence.  A second knock resulted in heavy breathing from behind the door.  We waited and the breathing stopped after a time.  Doubtless here was an old man.  Again we knocked, and the breathing started again.  A very old man, we agreed.  A chain started to rattle; the door was being loosened, we surmised.  The rattling ceased and silence reigned again.  This must be a very old man who is very much fatigued, we reiterated, and felt sorry to disturb him.  We knocked yet again and the chain started to rattle again, this time continuing without ever seeming to be loosed.  The thing began to get weird, and we got no ‘forrarder’.  One of us at last gave a loud rat-tat on the door.  A horse whinneyed…….!

Further searching about the long, blank mysterious building with it’s one little curtained window and it’s lighted stable, brought us to a path which led round the back.  The secret was out!  The ‘back’ was the ‘front’, and the side in the village street was actually the back.  There was a door on this side and a cottage window beside it, so we knocked on the door.  Someone moved about but did not answer, so in a little while we knocked again.  We heard another movement, the light went out of the room, and in a moment re-appeared in another room on the other side of the door, probably a scullery to judge by the tiny window.  Then silence again.  The place got on our nerves, and one of us, determined to know something, knocked again, hard.  Came a slouching sound as of old, tired feet on stone flags, a series of bolts were drawn (we counted about six), then a period of fumbling, a creak, and the door was flung open.  Tightly rolled strips of paper fell in all directions, obviously packing from all around the door, and an old man evilly dressed with a face that was screwed up in bitter, miserly rage, stood, first surveying his scattered papers, then looking bloodthirsty-like at us.  “Can you find us a place to pitch a couple of tents?”, one of us ventured.  “No” he snarled.  We turned away immediately, and left him to rebolt his door and replace all the bits of newspaper.

We found a beautiful little place a mile further on, and obtained whatever we desired, but we could get no information whatever about the long, blank, ‘back to front’ building in Carlton Coverdale.

A Vagabond Way Part Two

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………!

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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.

                                                             Cwm Prysor

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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.

A Vagabond Way Part One

A Vagabond Way002A Vagabond Way001

 It was mid-July, and a heat-wave had come along.  It had been coming slowly for days, coming out of the sea beyond Hilbre Island.  I had watched it nightly from the beacon at Thurstaston [Wirral], for it was in the sunsets that had made sea and sky one long track of glory: it had come in with the lazy ships harbour-bound; it had bade adieu to the hesitating stems of outgoing vessels: it was in the milky warmth of the sea at Leasowe, where it had been my wont to bathe those same nights.  It was in the sweating toil of the foundry, where each boiling day I had worked with sand and molten steel.

On one unbearable Wednesday the foreman had come along, and (with tongue in cheek) had spun the ancient yarn of slack trade.  We would have to stop till Monday.  I was sorry, I said (with tongue in cheek).  My face may have appeared downcast, but my heart was glad!  There were those mountains across the Dee, there were rivers, valleys, and there was the sea.  Oh, I was glad!  And so I returned home to Bolton to pick up my camping gear – minus tent, for I would sleep out………. the Vagabond Way.

Next morning I cast around for cooling waters.  On the dusty roads to Ringway I visualised a dream-river of sparkling liquid, cool and deep, and at Castle Mill I found it.  True it was not what I had pictured, for it was narrow, shallow and swift and over it hung an odour faintly reminiscent of sewerage works.  But the weather was so hot!  Like a giant refreshed I wended my way to Knutsford for a mid-afternoon meal.

After that my progress was haphazard.  Lanes, lanes all the while, hot, dry lanes wandering hither and thither, but always drawing me a little nearer to those mountains ‘cross the Dee.  At Little Budworth is a mere near the village store.  The storekeeper, a chatty individual, enlightened me as to the bathing amenities of the mere.  Sometimes the village youths went in, he said, and told me the story of one young fellow who was drowned there two years before.  I gathered that I was almost the counterpart of that unfortunate enthusiast.  Nevertheless, I went in.  It looks pretty enough, but it is a snare and a delusion; I stirred up a deep accumulation of mud the moment I tried to touch the bottom; it tugged at me from beneath, and I fled in terror.

I passed below the Peckforton Hills in that wonderful hour after sunset.  Deep-sunk lanes, when the birds have lapsed into silence, when one hears just the droning wings of flies or homing bees; where cottages nestle behind gardens of riotous assemblage, and when local ancients doze at the garden gate.  Near tiny Bickerton is a well that has served me in dryer times than this, and there my canvas bucket was filled.  I wheeled the bike and carried the precious liquid for miles, along pine-shaded lanes and sandy tracks until I reached a tiny depression right on top of the hills.  With trees all around, and grass like velvet, no-one could desire a better place for vagabonding.  While my Primus boiled my supper porridge, I watched the twilight robe the mountains across the wide plain of the Dee, and thought I’d reached Utopia.

My cape made a ground-sheet on the spring-mattress of turf; my sleeping-bag was ample bedding; above my head the ceiling of the stars, and even as I lay in soliloquy of these things, oblivion drew the curtain o’er them.

The sky was wide and blue, and the fresh, scented air of early morning was on my face; a lark soared high into the ring of blue above me, singing, wheeling, diving.  I followed its flight, and my fancy took flight and soared up with the lark until a touch of sunlight trembled on the tree-tops.  I arose, and (half dressed) ran along the hill top till I was breathless.  Twas good to be so fully alive!  Twas good, this vagabond life, with breakfast of eggs and bacon, thick chunks of bread, marmalade, steaming coffee – a fine, kingly, open-air breakfast.

Then there was a pine-shaded path, and open heath-land constantly in view of the mountains I hoped soon to roam.  There was the breath of new-mown hay in the lanes all the way through Malpas and the border village of Worthenbury, and at Bangor Is-y-Coed there was the river Dee, deep and clean…….I yielded.

Changing my direction, I followed the river closely to Overton, and a fine bit of valley scenery near Erbistock followed by a parched bit of semi-industrialism led me across the black, broad, shiny Holyhead road south of Chirk, into a prosaic, Sunday-school type of village.  But from that point I was back in the mountains, on a dusty lane that crawled along the southern side of the vale of Ceiriog.  There is a hamlet called Bron-y-Garth, and just below is a pool on the River Ceiriog, where the local schoolboys bathe.  I could manage no more than a lie down in the depleted pool, and even during a super heatwave, lying down in a mountain stream is a chilly business!

A bevy of boys just released from school came dashing down, making friends with me, and gabbling away in alternating Welsh and English.  They were full of news, and bursting to confide it.  One of them, a sturdy ‘old man’ of twelve or so who was evidently chief of the gang, was held in great respect.  He was a man of the world, an experienced chap, for he had knocked about a bit, seen the world, so to speak.  He had been to Oswestry!  Moreover, there was a radio at home; he had seen an aeroplane, and his brother had been to London.  He, then, was one who commanded due respect from his fellows.  This was their bathing pool, but none of them would go near it this week, because next Monday they were all migrating with the Sunday school picnic to New Brighton, and if they caught a cold they would not be able to go.  I am yet puzzling how any of that set of hardy mountain lads can catch a cold.  They were highly excited about the coming trip, and discovering that I was resident so near, they plied me with questions concerning Merseyside until the school bell tore them away.

The heat was taking my appetite.  It was 3pm when I reached Glyn Ceiriog for the first ‘eats’ since early morning.  Subsequently, in the narrow valley, and on the fierce climb beyond Llanarmon DC, the heat became so intense that my progress deteriorated to a mere crawl.  The light breeze on the summit was like a breath from the molten steel in the Seacombe foundry, and the views were limited by a heat-haze.  At Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, I turned towards Pistyll Rhaiadr, but the hilly road was too heavy for my mood, and I found solace in the river instead.  There was a waterfall into a deep pool surrounded by smooth, high rocks, and there I got a fine swim in the bubbling water, and spent a luxurious period sat beneath the fall itself.


In These Deep Solitudes

In These Deep Solitudes001

This is the story of how I descended Alum Pot Hole through the goodwill of a well-equipped speleological party.

Alum Pot is a huge hole in the limestone on the lower slopes of Ingleborough, distant about three miles from Ribblehead, and located in a tiny plantation just above the hamlet of Selside.  From one side of the chasm, the depth is 210 feet sheer, whilst on the other side there is a sheer face to a ledge 90 feet from the bottom.  To gaze down is to acquire a feeling of awe; the blue mists that rise, the smooth, overhanging rock-face, and the low boom of waters far below gives a weird attracting effect to the hole.

On the hillside, 150 yards above the Pot, a stream enters a passage known as Long Churn.  I have explained before of our traverses down this subterranean river, of the thrills associated with the climbs down waterfalls, rock-ledges, and through narrow, jagged fissures, with the constant risk of a nasty fall or a plunge into an icy pool ten or twelve feet deep, of candles spluttering out, and of trying to light damp matches in pitch darkness.  I have spoken of how Long Churn breaks into Alum Pot fifty feet below the surface, of the half-light that filters through, of how, by standing on the lip, one is able to glimpse a little of the awful chasm below, and catch a thin gleam of sky above.

How many times have I gazed over the lip and sighed for a rope?  Then all would seem accessible, and maybe I should be one of the few who ever reached the mysterious depths of Alum Pot! Ignorance was very blissful until one night in the summer of 1928, when, to my delight, one of us found a rope in the stream.  A thin rope, soaked and slippery, not more that 20 feet long, but we tested it, secured it round a slab of rock, and with a tingle of excitement, I lowered myself into the chasm.  Fool I was, with fifteen feet of rope below me and sheer rock, as smooth as glass for a hundred and twenty feet!

I couldn’t grip the rope properly owing to it being thin and wet, and as soon as I got my whole weight on it, down I slid, frantically trying to grip, and burning my hands along it.  By the greatest luck in the world my foot stuck in a niche as I reached the very end of the rope.  Just a cornice of rock hardly two inches wide, and big enough for only one foot, but I managed to light a candle and thereby gain some idea of the awkward position I was in.

Twice I tried to climb the rope, and twice I slid back as it stretched and bounced me almost like elastic.  It was grand though, in that unique position, with three glimmering candles fifteen feet above, weird beyond the limit of imagination, with a smooth rock-face behind me, and above, below, and ahead the startling nothingness of inky space, but miserably lit by the flickering candle.  Such was it to make one wonder at the vast antiquity of it – and make one wonder how much longer I could keep one foot holding the weight of my body!  I strove hard with the third attempt, as for dear life, as indeed it was, though the ghastly realisation of my escape did not come until I fingered the lip and pulled myself to safety into a pool of icy water.  That evening as we strolled back to camp in the dusk, I was aware of a greater respect for Alum Pot – and for these limestone caves and potholes in general.  Cave exploring is no child’s play.

Almost exactly a year later, my chance came.  A fully-equipped party arrived just as my friends and I were coming away from Long Churn.  They were short-handed, and asked for two volunteers to help carry the heavy rope ladders, life-lines, and belaying pins, promising the two who came forward the sight of a lifetime.  A Wigan chap and I jumped to it, and soon we were making our way down Long Churn once more – in joyful anticipation.

The first rope ladder was fixed.  It looked beautiful by the light of acetylene lamps, a slender, peaceful work of art gracefully zig-zagging down about 30 feet of smooth rock to a sloping ledge.  But that rope ladder was not peaceful; it possessed life.  The moment I stepped on it the devil in it began its pranks.  It twisted; it jerked; it swung, and it never was in the place I put my foot.  Thirty feet of elusive devilry, that rope ladder was.  But the next!  Only 16 feet long, but that 16 feet destroyed my simple faith in rope ladders for ever.  It was a muddy, tricky business getting on to it, sliding feet first over a dripping ledge of clay and rotten rock and then feeling with our feet for the first rung.

That first rung was never in the place a first rung ought to be.  This ladder had a nasty habit of swinging until your knees or fingers got jabbed with sharp rock.  I thoroughly hated that sixteen feet ladder, and consigned it to various places that rope ladders never go to.  Here was the ledge 90 feet from the surface, and we emerged into broad daylight with a wide strip of blue sky showing overhead.

To reach the next point of descent, it was necessary to cross a deep gulf, 70 feet deep by means of a tremendous slab of rock that ages ago had wedged itself firmly across the chasm so as to form a natural bridge.  It was all those things a bridge shouldn’t be, however, being smooth, slimy, and tilted at an almost sheer angle.  Then a third rope ladder of 60 feet, hanging sheer in mid-air, except the last six feet or so.  At this point we had each a lifeline round his chest as a safety measure.

That ladder was a terror; it developed elasticity, a violent swing, and on the latter half a spin.  At each rung the ladder deftly avoided the foot, and the result was a thorough mix-up of ladder, life-line suffocating us, and ourselves.  Then came some scrambling down pointed rocks and shin barking on jagged knobs, and we dropped the last ladder, 20 feet.  This one was a pleasure to walk down, but it was 8 feet short, and we had to climb down the best we could.  Then, wriggling through a small hole in the wall, we reached the ultimate bottom, about twenty feet below the bottom of Alum Pot hole; a small rock-prison, two hundred feet below the surface.  We were a hushed crowd of eight, but there was not silence.  From somewhere above, a waterfall descended with a hissing , hollow sound, and the water raced down into a black pool at our feet to sucked under…..where?

A hundred thousand years and more were represented in a giant stalactite pendant from the roof, and in stumps of stalagmite on the floor of one great cavern.  In nooks and crannies they formed prison bars, down walls where petrified waterfalls, as though everything was in the grip of an ice-age.

In the cavern of the waterfall and the sucking pool was the possibility of terrible things.  A storm on Ingleborough; and in five minutes the cave is full to the top, trapping anyone who does not reach the narrow outlet in time.  Fairyland, and awful portend hand-in-hand!

At the bottom of Alum Pot itself the walls were sheer and dripping; up above the sky gleamed like a single diamond on a velvet pad, and the atmosphere was icy cold.

The ascent of the romantic, but faithless rope ladders was easier than the descent, and eventually we retraced our way along the underground river to the strange brightness of the warm outside world.  What mattered a few cuts and bruises, mud and a soaking when we had seen – what we had seen – what so few ever see ?