The Great Farchynys Cycle Ride

Cycling at Farchynys

Stephen Law

Former Pupil, Master and Warden Of Farchynys

Following a successful expedition to Iceland in 1982, two of my fellow tour members noticed me cycling to work. Not long afterwards, late in Autumn term, they with another student collared me in a school corridor and asked if I would lead a cycling weekend to Farchynys.  Caught unawares, I could only think of the problems that such a weekend would create, not least attempting to transport 15 bicycles up to Farchynys. I didn’t say no to the small delegation, but I didn’t say yes. However, a seed had been sown, and I went away and thought about the idea. I could cater for the boys, and a fellow member of staff would accompany me to help. I planned a route: one that was not too long and not too short, covering a variety of terrains, and which, most importantly, would be a challenge. 

It was the transport of the bicycles that was the problem. Then after two weeks, Geoff Hall, one of the instigators, stated that his dad had access to a van that could transport the bikes to Farchynys. I rang his dad and then talked it over with the Headmaster and Warden of Farchynys. No one gave a negative response. So I launched the weekend with the usual School Assembly announcement but limited it to 4th-year boys and above. That decision was crucial as the route proved to be all of the challenge we intended. Fourteen eager boys came to the meeting, so the first Great Farchynys Ride was launched.

A date was set for January 1983; we crossed our fingers for good weather. Under today’s rulings and risk assessments, we’d never have made it to the start line. I remember very few boys wore any semblance of a helmet. They were provided with a rudimentary sketch map of the route; there were no checkpoints or fuelling points; they were each given a Mars bar and told to take a bottle of water. I insisted that their bikes be roadworthy and have lights that worked. They all complied. That may seem negligent by today’s standards of safeguarding and H&S, but in 1982, none of this had yet become a restricting necessity. It made the event all the more exciting as the boys would be responsible for their own well-being, and at the end of the weekend, they were absolutely exhilarated. They talked of the enjoyment, the sense of adventure, and above all, the satisfaction of completing something most had never attempted or completed successfully before.

Bike check on the evening prior to the ride.  Yossi Brain testing his saddle height

The evening before the Ride, the boys checked their brakes, tyre pressures, talked gear ratios and possible times for the 43-mile distance. Some boys had never undertaken such a ride before, and I think that innocence may have helped them. The experienced cyclists were relishing the challenge to test themselves. I mentioned some of the parts of the route which might challenge them, but I couldn’t give them first-hand experience of all of the ascents and descents as I’d only driven the route in a car or the school minibus on previous non-cycling trips. My eyes were well and truly opened after completing the Ride myself that weekend. Future rides over the same course would be better explained and the strenuous parts described. On the first trip, I was grateful to Stuart Holtam, who drove the minibus around the course acting as Safety Vehicle and also to Mr Hall (in later years Mr Joe Miles) for following the last bicycle and rider. 

Startline at Farchynys January 1983

We set off on that Saturday morning in January in bright, winter sunshine, thankful that it was calm, but it was cold. We set off together, but it didn’t take long before we were strung out along the road that parallels the Mawddach on our way down to Barmouth. It was here that the sketch map didn’t prove adequate for some. The leaders flashed past the Las Vegas amusements instead of turning right to cross the railway line into Barmouth town centre.  this preventing them from picking up the coast road northwards to Harlech. They ploughed on ‘til they reached the end of the promenade. Years later, whilst staying at the Hendre Mynach campsite, I discovered the route they found to cross the railway and gain access back to the main road. It is a very steep, narrow path. No wonder I saw they were pushing their bikes. As I went past, I remarked rather cruelly, “The shortcut didn’t work, then?” But they soon overtook me, and I never saw them again until the finish.

The views north along the coast road were quite stunning, and with a following wind, it was enjoyable. Much of the route is gently undulating from sea level to the lower parts of the raised beach section. This all changes at Llanfair. The Llanbedr Slate Mine is located on the right, and you have an easy view of it as there is a pretty steep hill to pedal up. Most boys didn’t have too much trouble; the heavier riders…. This ascent, of course, is balanced by an exhilarating descent back to sea level and past Royal St David’s Golf Club and over the railway tracks of the Harlech level crossing. The route didn’t go up into Harlech. 

From there, if you’re cycling with someone, you can “draught” each other and motor along the flats of Morfa Harlech towards Llandecwyn.

After leaving Harlech Castle behindGary Turley taking a drink past Harlech

you can enjoy the stunning beauty of the steep-sided, drowned valley of the Afon Dwyryd in the Vale of Ffestiniog. Just past Maentwrog, you arrive at the fast road of the A487. I say fast because in a car it can be. On a bike, after 22 miles, you are faced with what one boy said was the nearest you come to an alpine-like climb. Over the next five miles, you climb steadily and take several sharp bends up to Gellilydan and finally Trawsfynydd. During one Ride, a faux castle, stabling and other sets were erected on the flattish land on the lakeshore of Llyn Trawsfynydd for the filming of ‘First Knight’, which starred Sean Connery and Richard Gere. If you watch the film, you may catch sight of the surrounding countryside but never the Nuclear Power Station which was then being decommissioned.

That year this was a minor distraction for the next section of almost dead straight road, which leads to the highest point on the course – 232m or 760ft. On some Rides, when the wind was blowing, this section could be brutal for the solitary cyclist. There was a gentle breeze on this first Ride, but it was much colder than at sea level. On this section, the hill climb begins to take its toll. Very little water is left and not much Mars Bar. After a number of gentle undulations, the descent back to sea level begins at Gelli-Goch and continues through and past Coed y Brenin. The road widening had not yet occurred in those early days, and a rather torturous road descent faced us. Luckily, everyone negotiated the tight bends bounded by dry stone walls without mishap. All the way down to Ganllwyd it is a fast and a lovely freewheel.

The painful memories of the hill climb were long behind and the air was quite deafening as it rushed past your ears. A short hill just before the turn for home at Llanelltyd nearly did for the author and some of those early riders. Trying to stand up on the pedals, both of my legs cramped up – straight. I nearly fell off and needed to take the rest of my water and attempted some deep breathing to ease my legs around the cranks and up the hill. I think you ride the last section back to Farchynys on adrenalin and determination. Some boys have been photographed pushing their bikes, resting by the side of the road or in a desperate sprint in these last four miles. Whichever it is, everyone is spent as they pass the finish line. Some wait there for their friends to arrive, having left them way back on the course. Early finishers, showered and changed, return to the gates to greet and cheer-in the later finishers.

In 1983, Richard Baynham was the first rider home in 2hrs 42 mins; last home was Robert Ball in 4hrs 12mins. In 1984 four riders failed to finish due to mechanicals. Baynham’s time was equalled in 1986 by Andrew Hipkiss.  This, in turn, was beaten by a massive 15mins by Bryn Reynolds a year later. I have never hit a time less than 2hrs 35min in my 14 attempts. The Ride has taken place in windy conditions, heavy rain, bright warm sunshine and gorgeous autumnal colours. Boys have ridden road bikes, mountain bikes & tandems. Staff as well. 

The riders muster at the start in 1989

Indeed, Peter Green holds the fastest time for a staff member, achieved on a lady’s road bike. Tim Swain as a young teacher, rode with a former 6th former – Matt Aston, on a tandem.

There have been several reunions. Geoff Hall, Chris Taylor, and I rode together on the 25th anniversary. 

Three of the original riders

On the 25th anniversary, Daniel Gambles and his dad nursed me around; two other parents rode without paying attention to the map and instructions and turned right back into Harlech instead of left towards Llandecwyn.  

Four staff members have ridden the Farchynys Ride and also completed the Farchynys Run – at separate times. Daniel Gambles recorded the fastest of all time: 2hrs 4mins in 1991. He was a phenomenal cyclist, encouraged by his cycling father, Phil. In the late 1980s, Mr Jack Aspinall, sometime Governor and a keen cyclist in his time, provided a magnificent trophy to be awarded on Speech Day for the first rider home. I wrote in the Farchynys compendium 1963-88 – “…it’s not about timings, it’s about the challenge that the Ride provides to everyone that attempts it.”

There are many memories of those weekends. Not all good, but I’ll bet that very few boys who rode on those weekends would think it was the worst day of their lives. That many boys returned to ride the course more than twice in their time at the School is testimony to that. Sunday mornings saw all boys riding around the Mawddach through Dolgellau, down to Arthog and across the railway bridge then back to Farchynys to loosen up stiff muscles before finally falling fast asleep on the way home in the minibus.

Author at the end in 1989.  Vowing gently this was the last time.

Sadly in 1994, the final Farchynys Ride took place. Fewer boys were riding road bikes, and mountain bikes were all the rage. Health and safety changes were taking place within the School and in outdoor activities; a “closely supervised” ride on public roads became a significant problem to organize. It was, to my mind, a great shame that the students would be prevented from spending time with friends indulging in a sporting pursuit that provided such a physical and mental challenge; and in an area of the country that provided such geomorphological interest on a spectacular course with stupendous views. So after eleven years, the finish flag came down for the last time on a weekend that had been originally inspired by the request of a small delegation of cycling friends; these had instigated a unique and challenging weekend experience and in a place away from the industrial Midlands. I’m sure Sam Darby and Kurt Hahn would have approved. 

I always hoped that the boys who attempted the circuit would go on to ride their bikes well after they left School and maybe even come back to re-experience the Great Farchynys Cycle Ride.

Author’s Note:

Over the years I have ridden the Farchynys Ride course solo and with friends but never beaten 2hrs 30min. I have also ridden other routes in the area, including circuits of the Mawddach and the Cader Idris massif via the Tal-y-Llyn & Dysinni Valley, all starting from Farchynys. However, a start point anywhere on these routes is appropriate. It just depends on where you want the main hills to be in the circuit.

And one last thing: In 1999, an obituary in The Independent caught my eye. It was for an Old Marian – Yossi Brain. He’d been killed by an avalanche climbing on the El Présidente range in the Bolivian Andes at the age of 31. After the initial feelings of regret at the death of one so young, my second thoughts were to remember that Yossi had also been a rider on the first Farchynys Cycle Ride in 1983.

Steve Law

Gordon Brudenell

All the many Marians who knew him were saddened to hear of the recent death of Gordon Brudenell, the kind, witty and naturally laid back QM Year Master and teacher of Physics. I have particular cause to remember him with joy and thanks.

Not only did Gordon successfully coach me through the only Physics examination I ever passed (it was my O Level) but was in command when he took a Third Year class to Farchynys in November 1968 for what was my first visit.

When I was preparing Marians on the Mawddach I asked a number of members of staff to share their memories of the place. What follows below is Gordon’s unique contribution. It is so true to his voice and many of things he notes come to mind when I remember that cold, rainy first trip to the Mawddach on my thirteenth birthday.

Thanks for taking me there, Gordon.

Gordon Brudenell with Christiane Swain

Dear Paul

Some ramblings about a wonderful place!

·       Blackness – see Night sky

·       Breath-taking first view of estuary on approach

·       Call to meals ‘ARUP!’ (by Ken Yates) or something like it, sometimes accompanied by beating a large saucepan lid. It certainly got results and there always followed a mad scramble from dorm and day-room, to join the queue at the serving hatch.

·       Chores – on the duty rota. The favourite ‘End of Visit’ chore was, of course, cleaning the toilets!

·       Dingbats. A legend about vampire bats at Farchynys and told to ‘Fusties’ by prefects as the set off on a torch-lit nighttime walk on the headland. The legend was reinforced by the bat cave and by finding bats in dorm sinks etc.

·       Duty Rota. Drawn up at the start of the visit showing a list of the various chores to be done and the group/s (chosen at random) assigned to the job. It was posted on the dayroom noticeboard.

·       Fire Practice. Always held on each visit. Sometimes, if noise had carried on in the dorm for too long, it was held after they were settling down to sleep. They then had to assemble outside in pyjamas. 

·       Flooding. The drive sometimes got cut-off by flooding from the Mawddach. This did not usually last for long, but if it did supplies could be obtained on foot by walking down past the farm. 

·       Girls at Farchynys. In later years girls joined in the 6th Form and came on field courses. They slept in the larger staff bedroom and used the staff bathroom. As numbers increased, a better solution was needed.

·       Glow-worms – an amazing sight seen lining the driveway sometimes. The creatures were however very disappointing when examined in the lab.

·       Halfway House pub – nothing needs to be added!

·       Ken’s Deerstalker hat, stick, ever-ready-camera & wellies. Easy to spot.

·       Late nights working in Lab.

·       Leftovers. In the early days the wonderful ladies in the QM kitchens would provide us with any leftover food in large aluminium containers – main course, sweet (especially that perennial favourite – chocolate concrete). These made a welcome contribution to the food budget. Health and Safety regulations eventually put a stop to this.

·       Let Hair Down  – a real ‘getting to know you’ place pupils /staff (two way traffic) in totally different light.

·       Listening to Mahler after late night/early morning end to laboratory session on Biology field trips.

·       M is for Mai – Mai the Milk. We could not have managed without her for those many years! Not only did she supply us with crate(s) of milk ready for our arrival, but also if we ran short during a Field Course etc. She also cleaned the Coach House after each visit. She was a fount of knowledge about the area and knew most of the QM staff very well. They were always welcome for a cosy chat in front of a warm fire.

·       Maybugs. It was often very hot in the lab on summer Field Trips and all the windows were open. As it got dark, the tremendous clattering and painful impact of these large heavy beetles (cockchafers) was most unwelcome.

·       Minibus. The first minibus had slatted wooden seats at the side. Aptly named the ‘Puke Wagon’. For some years they were COMMER vehicles bought from Goodfellows. These were always rebadged by QM wags as ‘ROMMEC’

·       Mudflats (see ‘Suckering’)

·       Night sky. Total blackness with no ‘City Light pollution’ – just made for stargazing

·       Orienteering.  Poor map readers, usual error was to turn the map upside down or to follow route with the river or other landmark on the wrong side of the path!

·       Porridge – theYates test – for porridge to be ready the stirring spoon must stand upright unaided! One slice or two?  

·       Quadwats. Ken could not pronounce ‘r’ and he told students to mark out half-metre ‘quadwats’ for plant identification. He was affectionately teased about this difficulty and given ‘exercises’ to say e.g., River Ribble. He greatly enjoyed the fun.

·       Rhododendron culling – excellent fuel for staffroom fire

·       Round-the-Table Tennis, usual table tennis rules or Hit and Run around the table to join opposite queue, strictly no table tennis  bats allowed but anything else is OK (books, saucepan lids etc.)

·       Staff Room log fires – marvellous.

·       Suckering pupils on salt marsh mudflats. During the session on the estuary mudflats, ken would leave me with the rest of the Biology group and stride off ostensibly to find the best place to dig for ‘inhabitants’. Eventually he would signal to us to follow only for us to find ourselves in up to 40 cm of soft mud making it impossible to walk and pulling wellies off. The subsequent wallowing was photographed by Ken who always had his camera at the ready. The dig was eventually completed and specimens collected. Showers and a bit of laundry work quickly sorted out any mess.

·       Tranquillity, silence, superb relaxation after the day’s activities.

·       Washing-up and spud bashing for 20. This was on the duty rota and was a real culture-shock for many. Perhaps a change was noted later by parents?

·       Water supply. Initially there was no mains water, and the viability of any visit depended a report on the level of water in the hillside tank at the end of the previous visit (with any update from Mai).

·       Welshpool – ‘Obligatory’ stop for tuck & supplies

·       Y is for Yates – Ken Yates. The Laird of Farchynys – that’s for sure! He spent as much time as he could there. He was in his element – truly relaxed and extremely happy. Field Trips (Biology and Geology), First-Year weeks, Year weekends – whatever he could go on, he was there! I accompanied him on very many of these visits. He was always superb company and pupils of all ages had a great time. He liked to spend Christmas there, walking, reading listening to his extensive classical music collection.

·     Thanks for taking us  -always nice to hear at the end of a visit.

Best wishes with the project

Gordon Brudenell

29 April 2016

A Cyclist’s Love Affair with Wales and the Mawddach

The Editor is delighted to feature this wonderful memoir by the celebrated champion international cyclist and rally and racing car driver, Peter Procter.

Peter was born in Yorkshire in 1930, and as the nephew of Anne Loris Hill visited Blaen-cwm-mynach several times during and after the Second World War. Here he describes how it was on the trips to the Mawddach that he developed his climb crunching prowess in the saddle which helped him win the British championship in 1951.

Peter’s autobiography Pedals and Pistons is eagerly anticipated.

By Peter Procter

As a young boy, I spent several wonderful hot summers during the Second World War at my Aunt Anne’s rented farmhouse, Blaen-y-Cwm, high in the hills above the Mawddach in a hidden valley, the memories of which have stayed with me for the rest of my life. Overlooked by the mountains of Y Garn and Diffwys and facing Cadair Idris, the house was at the centre of a wonderful adventure playground for me: Bathing in the stream that passed close to the house, which had no running water other than a sink in the kitchen, fishing in the lake above, collecting bilberries and climbing mountains close by are the fond memories that have stayed with me throughout a long life. 

Living in Yorkshire and close to the Yorkshire Dales towards the end of the war, my best friend Edie Wright and I would ride our heavy cycles, generally used for going to school, to venture into the Dales, often staying overnight and camping rough, sometimes sleeping in a barn on top of the hay. Still, we often thought about cycling to Wales. One day I persuaded my friend to join me on what turned out to be a great adventure and the renewal of my love for Wales.

We were both fifteen years old when we planned our first “tour”. It looked so straightforward: Draw a line on the map and follow the nearest route to it. All those wonderful sounding names would appear, such as Betws-Y-Coed, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and many others, although I was familiar with some such as Dolgellau and Penmaenpool and I even learnt to say the longest name in Wales, Llanfairpwllgwyngyll etc, which I can still repeat today. We would learn very quickly that the old saying the longest way round is the shortest way home is very true when living in the hills and mountains, as our routes would always appear to take us over the steepest hills. 

Starting near Bradford in West Yorkshire, our route would take us to Chester -80 miles, where we would stay in a Youth Hostel (YH), then on to Llanberis via  Caernarfon -90 miles (B&B) -then Dolgellau (B&B) for two nights – a barn somewhere between Dolgellau and a Warwick B&B, total 130 miles – thence Lincoln (YH) 89 miles- York (YH) 80 miles and finally home 42 miles, a total of some 550 miles plus many more on our days off.

We were determined to visit castles on our tour, so our route included Conway, Caernarfon, Harlech, Warwick and Lincoln, so we had undoubtedly educated ourselves in so many ways.   

We started in bad weather that never left us for the whole trip, and our heavy bikes, with hefty saddlebags attached, were not ideal for long days in the saddle, and we were very late arriving in the youth hostel in Chester. A strong westerly wind and rain slowed our following day’s ride to Llanberis, but a three-night stop with climbs up Mount Snowden was a great joy. We were surprised to find our pub B&B allowed us to drink beer, and we would both remember feeling very queasy on fish and chips and a pint of beer at 15 years old: a lesson well learnt.

We had arranged to stay with my aunt at Blaen-Y-Cwm for two nights, and it was so good to see the farm again and show my friend all the places I had explored in the past. My Aunt fed us so well with food that replenished our spirits, as food in 1939 was rationed and not very good in pubs and Cafes. For one meal, all we could afford on our tight budget was egg on toast which turned out to be dried egg powder, possibly the worst food I have ever eaten. We were often wet through with the constant rain, and I remember our “dinner” in our stay in the barn was a loaf of bread and a small tin of potted fish paste- part of the tapestry of life, I suppose!

Early in our adventure, we came to realise that we had plotted a route that was frequently the shortest but often over the worst terrain, so our progress was slower than it could have been, but we had to make the best of it. However, towards the end of our adventure and leaving Lincoln, we faced a howling gale and an 80 miles ride to York. Although on a tight budget but knowing that Lincoln was on a good train line to York, we spent our last money on rail tickets and arrived in York in style. I always remember the youth hostel as it had Georgian windows with their many glass pains, and the task we were given was to clean all the downstairs glass before we could leave the following day. However, realising that this was unfair and would have taken hours, we sneaked off when we felt we had done our penance to ride home.  

Tired but much fitter than when we had set out, we were determined to visit Wales again, and so for the following few Easter holidays, we would return, but on a new bike. 

Little did I realise it at the time, but these adventures would be the foundation for a short but quite successful career as an international cyclist years later, but that is another story. 

On our return, I started to think about a change of transport, for I realised that my old school cycle was not ideal for serious cycling, and having started working, I raised funds to buy a beautiful Claud Butler tandem. Edie and I soon found that we could ride much longer distances, and so, on our next visit to Wales, we missed out the stop in Chester and rode straight to Llanberis. The Easter break was only four days long, so we just revisited some of our favourite places in the time we had, and we would repeat this for some years. We never forgot those happy and carefree days of our youth and about which we would often reminisce years later.

There came a time in my life when the love affair with Wales came a little under pressure when I had to do two years of National Service in the Army—stationed at first at Oswestry where I had to carry out eight weeks of “square bashing”, as the drill was called. Then it was on to Rhyl for continuation training for the Korean War. Many nights were spent sleeping rough on manoeuvres on the hills above Tonfanau, and although it was hard work at times, I have to say I loved it. After all the training, I was posted to Formby in Lancashire, and I found that all that cycling in Wales had paid off, and I spent the next two years in the saddle racing for the Army.

Since those days, I have visited Wales many times, and I have taken my wife to show her Blaen-Y-Cwm, although not for some years now.  I am so grateful to my Aunt Anne for introducing me to Wales and that beautiful secret valley over the Mawddach.     

11 November 2021                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Cross Country at Farchynys

Philip Davies who joined the QMGS staff in 1974, was a tremendous enthusiast for Farchynys who developed a real love for The Coach House and the Mawddach estuary, and chose to spend some of his retirement in a holiday home at Fairbourne. An immensely private man but with the driest sense of humour, Phil was a thoughtful linguist and a great runner. Known affectionately as The Veg, Phil ran the Farchynys marathon on many occasions and after successfully completing the London Marathon in a good time, became known to the boys as Runner Bean. He also completed the Great Farchynys Cycle Ride three times and briefly held the Staff record for the fastest time. He also invented the fiendishly difficult Farchynys Quiz and remains one of the all- time great Marians on the Mawddach. This is a small piece he wrote for the Marian in 1989.

Cross Country Weekends

On arrival at Farchynys a few minutes is given for unloading the minibus and unpacking, and then the call ‘Get ready!’ goes out and everyone dons athletic kit for the short Friday run to Bontddu and back. It’s about a mile and a half each way and you have to go past the pub once called the Halfway House to touch the milk bottles just outside Mrs Clarke’s house. The fastest will be back in well under 20 minutes but some of the non-runners may even be tempted to cut the run short. It can be a little frightening in the winter when it’s very dark and the car lights dazzle. After showers, we sit down to the meal on hearing Mr Jackson’s stentorian ‘Come and get it’. The rest of the evening is free, perhaps occupied in the summer by a walk and as always lots of table tennis.

Saturday morning is the time for the main event of the weekend, The Farchynys Run. Time is of course allowed after breakfast before starting on the half-marathon distance run which is about 13 miles. All pile into the minibus and travel to the bridge that Bontddu is named after (it means black bridge) where the water runs down from the mountain. If there are many participating, they may be up to three starts, the slow ones leaving first so that the group does not get too far apart. 

From Bontddu the road climbs steeply if you’re not too fit and goes gently downhill to cross the bridge at Penmaenpool, the first wooden bridge in the course. Then a long climb through deeply treed country following the estuary but much higher. The hill seems to be unending until at last there’s a steep downhill section into Arthog, after which a flat section leading to Morfa Mawddach station and the huge Barmouth bridge which carries the railway line and pedestrians. There is another steep rise from the bridge back into the road at Barmouth and ready for the home section in which the undulations seem like steep hills if you’re tired. The finish is back at the Coach House at Farchynys.

Everyone is timed and there are records for all years. The fastest was in one hour and the slowest 4 hours. It’s a beautiful run, and the writer has managed it 17 consecutive times. 

After tea, Saturday evening is much like Friday evening.

Sunday morning has varied: at one time a relay was held – quite exciting if you don’t want to let your team down, or a run along Barmouth beach or along the Trawsfynydd road. 

As always much of the Sunday morning is taken up with packing.

Beautiful scenery, fresh air and a good degree of fitness and training for the cross country are all to be enjoyed. A few of the runners have made top-class athletes, but all doing the run must have achieved a good degree of fitness. 

PGKD 

The Marian 

January, 1989

A Dream Finally Realised!

The Traverse of the Rhinog Ridge 

Today’s post has been contributed by the one and only Steve Law, a star contributor to the grand narrative of the Marians who flourish on the Mawddach.

Steve describes how a few weeks ago, he finally achieved a personal ambition with the help of Kodi Beveridge-Smith, Oxford Historian and a recent Captain of the School.

Steve’s account shows how there’s arduous training and there’s the Traverse of the Rhinog Ridge.

Everyone has a dream of some kind, which usually consists of a challenge.  Mine has been 40 years in its realisation: The complete traverse of the Rhinog range.  This is an area of mountains in southern Snowdonia, which offers a rare opportunity to be away from the crowds and trek through some really wild country. 

The route always starts from or finishes at Barmouth; the finishing/start point can be Talsarnau or Llandecwyn in the north.  Why would I want to walk the 25 or so miles and ascend the 7500ft to complete the traverse across some of the most remotedesolate and pathless moorlands that is only 3 miles from the nearest road?  The answer is in the three key italicised words because they aren’t common outside of Scotland.  With my walking partner – Kodi Beveridge-Smith, we would be self-sufficient and move essentially “Alpine-style” – minimum food, a bivouac tarpaulin and a wild camp.  Since first walking part of the route on my MLC training in 1979, other segments for the preparation of the 1982 Iceland expedition and several times in the years that followed, I had maintained a hankering to walk the entire route in one go.  That hankering was intensified after completing the Taith Ardudwy Trail in 2019 with Kodi.  I’d attempted the whole ridge in 2008 at the tender age of 54 and just failed 2 miles short of Barmouth.  Physically better prepared this time, but 13 years older, I set off with Kodi on the 10th of August in bright sunshine, mindful that our second day could be challenging just in terms of weather.  We were, however, well equipped for whatever was thrown at us . 

Alpine Style

Day 1 involved a slow ascent from Barmouth up to Dyffwys at 2106’ over 8 miles.  The views off the ridge were superb, and we were going well.  The main problem was carrying enough water for the whole day as there’s nothing on the ridge.  Hydration is the key to walking well, and because of the heat of the day, it proved a problem in the latter stages of the descent off Diffwys; I was beginning to cramp up.  We arrived at our wild campsite at Cwm Hywel quite late but in great spirits as neither of us felt completely drained. We ate our rations and made numerous hot brews. The night was made a little more difficult because the wind strengthened, and fine drizzle began to fall.  We survived it but were a little damp. 

Day 2(15 miles) was longer than Day 1(10 miles) and required the ascent of Rhinog Fach & Fawr: a trek over a very isolated pathless section to Clip, where we would ascend to re-attain the final and most desolate part of the ridge, which would take in Ysgynfarnogod and Foel Penolau.  The problems associated with the final section are mainly boggy areas, bare rock surfaces, and above all, short boulder-strewn or rock step ascent/descents across narrow ravines. It was raining steadily, and the wind was blowing strongly from our arrival at the summit of Rhinog Fach to nearly blowing us off the last part of the ridge. 

Ysgynfarnogod Trig Point – strong winds

 Each descent was steep and made more difficult by the foot placings on rock being wet and concealed by heather or bracken.  Each footstep had to be carefully placed, making the task physically tiring and mentally taxing.  Such were the weather conditions that we had to modify our intended route for a safer, acceptable alternative from the Roman Steps to Clip.  Time was slipping by; I had train times up until the last one at 21.09 from Llandecwyn.  We were getting behind.  Our final descent off a high flat area – Dyffwys, was incredibly steep, and the lower parts were a jumble of boulders hidden by waist-high bracken.  Finding the final path to take us off was difficult; the light was fading, but the rain had stopped.  A two-mile walk down a metalled track lay between us and the train back.  A glance at the watch showed that we wouldn’t manage the distance in the 35 minutes we had left to cover it. 

We arrived at LLandecwyn very tired but utterly elated that we had finished. A phone call to a taxi firm in Barmouth allowed us to be back at the campsite by 22.25hrs for a shower, change, and a meal of fillet steak and chips washed down with a celebratory bottle of bubbles.  It had taken us 25 hours of walking to complete the traverse and 25 minutes by taxi to return. 

Any report will always describe the problems and hardship. It takes time to realise just what has been achieved.  For Kodi, it was the hardest walking he’d completed outside the Himalayas.  In my case, finally achieving my dream, especially in walking the route in the reverse direction to usual and managing it, at the age of 67, with what I would consider to be some ease.  Kodi and I tried to discuss our initial feelings as we walked down the track; one mutually agreed point was that neither of us had moaned once nor stated that we wouldn’t make it to the end.  One comment from a young man we met on Rhinog Fawr gave me great heart.  He asked what we were doing and then how old I was; I told him, and he exclaimed that he just hoped he would still be able to do the Rhinog Ridge at the same age.  I took the compliment in the way it was intended. 

My sincere thanks go to Kodi for being a great companion and a source of determination when things were becoming really tough.  We formed a great team for two people of such disparate ages. 

My walking dream had been achieved at last. 

Steve Law                                            

Thanks for filling the gap, George and Nicholas

(And getting the story started)

It’s difficult to overestimate the impact on society of the Protestant Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries which followed it. Monasteries and friaries had played such an important part in everyday life especially in the areas of education and social care.

As hundreds of years of prayer and learning came to a surprisingly swift and brutal end, a generation’s education was under threat. Fortunately, there were a number of people who were determined to do something about it, and amongst these were Nicholas and George Hawe, two prominent Walsall townsmen who sought out Queen Mary Tudor, then on her way to Winchester Cathedral to marry Prince Philip of Spain, and asked permission to found a new grammar school in her name.

The Free School of Queen Mary, Walsall was founded by Letters Patent on July 2nd, 1554.

Four hundred and ten years later, another group of Walsall townsfolk continued the philanthropic tradition and gave generously to found the school’s Welsh centre at Farchynys, creating a wonderful tapestry of experience and learning for Marians on the Mawddach.

We hope this will resume soon as we are freed from the miseries of COVID.

For those whom like a good narrative arc, it is interesting to see Mary Tudor’s Welsh ancestry in her version of the Royal Arms. Floreat!

Capel Reheboth

A beautiful place to rest for eternity

One of my most favourite places on the Mawddach is the ruined Methodist chapel and its cemetery in the foothills of Cader Idris. A place of silence and calm, it is also a place I associate with Geoffrey Paxton, quondam Head of Drama at Queen Mary’s who did so much to inspire a generation of actors and writers.

It’s 1890, and the ladies are walking from Cadair to Barmouth along the Mawddach railway line.

How many wildflowers do you recognise?

The hillwalking adventures of four late Victorian schoolmistresses whose names were Margery, Christina, Constance and Leonora are captured in their marvellous 1890 monograph, Through North Wales with a knapsack. In this extract, the intrepid ladies have climbed Cadair and on descending, having taken tea with a charming couple in Arthog before resuming their hike, heading for Barmouth before sunset.

Leaving Clan-y-wern, after a chat with the kindly hostess, we were directed to follow the railway line to Barmouth. It seems very common practice hereabouts for people to do this. One train passed us; it was curious to be so near. The line traverses some waste ground, partly bog, partly sand, partly ditch and wholly beautiful with wildflowers, among which were: the yellow iris, bullrushes, meadow sweet, loose-strife, red, white, and sea- campions, hemp agrimony, vetches, ling, hawkweeds, ragwort, and many others which made a beautiful foreground to the solemn mountains beyond. From the long bridge which spans the estuary, we had a splendid view both ways – westwards, the setting sun, red and glowing; eastwards, the estuary narrowing between ranges of hills and peaks of all tints of purple.

Saluting The Earl of Merioneth (also known as the Duke of Edinburgh)

Since 1956, youngsters have discovered the benefits of life adventures courtesy of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme and following the opening of the Farchynys Coach House in 1963, many Marians have gone on to earn their Gold Award on challenging expeditions in Snowdonia with the help of inspirational leaders like David Hart. I am glad to be able to share the plan for this hike dating from October 1986, and captured in the famous Farchynys logbooks. A great legacy for the Duke.

Golden Memories of the Lion Royal Hotel

It was in October in 1978 that Babs and I first enjoyed the luxury of one of the great County class inns of the Principality, when we passed our honeymoon in the shadow of mist crowned Cadair. We enjoyed cocktails in the Blades Bar, four course dinners in the Dining room and Irish coffees in the Resident’s Lounge complete with roaring fire and knitting dowagers before repairing to our room complete with four poster bed. Only the Bri-Nylon bedding disappointed, and then only for a second….