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                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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!

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….

St. Jude, Dr.Williams and the Galloping Gourmet

Memories of a Fusty Week

David Etherington, the eminent QC and Captain of the School had a profound effect on many of us at QM in the 1970s and was a huge fan of the Mawddach and Farchynys. He wrote this marvellous memoir of a fusty week in the summer of 1971 when he helped the staff which included the much-loved Ken Yates. It was originally published in The Marian. Google has not been able to throw any light on Dr. Williams’ Medicinal Compound which today would not probably pass the risk assessment.

First Year Field Course – Summer, 1971

Setting out on a day which would not have disgraced a Hammer Films production, the Vice-Captain of School and his Successor-to-be set off to join Messrs. Yates and Cumbers and a party of 16 first formers for a week at Farchynys. The opportunities for fieldwork provided by this area of unspoiled natural beauty were exploited to the full, and proof was afforded of the old Welsh adage: – “Too many inexperienced cooks will never make broth.” 

Each day, the boys led by KIY and a walking stick, set off armed with all kinds of fiendish equipment, which appeared to consist largely of washing lines and bits of painted wood. One day was spent studying the distribution of organisms between high and low tide near to the Boathouse, and later in the week, a visit was paid to Shell Island to examine the different plant and animal populations in rock pools. Our lunch was consumed on the beach, and in one clumsy case, consisted very largely of the beach! Barmouth Harbour was invaded for an afternoon, and the mud although most uninviting to humans, was discovered to contain several interesting types of worms and molluscs. One of the innumerable Joneses was almost left up to his knees as an offering to these amazing creatures.

Evenings were spent in writing up material and examining specimens. One boy in particular became remarkably proficient in the use of microscopes. Ample time was given to leisure, and Round-the-Table tennis became increasingly popular as the weeks sped by. The ‘Black Dwarf of Mongolia’ scored a notable triumph over the Kitchen sink. Thursday’s programme read: – “An attempt will be made on the summit of Snowdon.” – Thanks to Mr Cumber’s foresight, that attempt succeeded. The day was blazingly hot, and Mr Cumbers brought with him a large bottle labelled Doctor Williams’s Medicinal Compound – a white, thick and potent mixture which saved the whole group from suffering the death which fate usually reserves for heretics, and yet fate was not to be cheated… 

Whilst engaged in cutting up wood for goal posts, that self-same Chemist, who had not learned what biology really involved, mistook his finger for a branch of rhododendron and had to be rushed to Dolgellau hospital. The fate of the evening meal rested with the History side of the School and, despite minor difficulties, the food if late, was eminently edible. 

The final day was spent in clearing up a week’s mess and preparing the final meal. Yet more cooking tips were to be served up. For instance, if making ten-second potato in bulk, NEVER add the powder to the water. Having done so Etherington did a Galloping Gourmet* out of the kitchen and offered up a prayer to Saint Jude, the patron Saint of lost causes. Fortunately, our prayers were answered, and we left with the customary distended intestines. 

All of this has been written with the prejudice of an historian, but the week proved that such ventures could play a vital part in the future life of Farchynys. Many thanks are due to Messrs. Yates and Cumbers for the immense amount of hard work put in, which helped to make the week so successful and enjoyable. Mr Yates wishes to express his thanks for the support of Lavender and Etherington and we would all like to thank Clifford for his contribution to the venture. 

David Etherington (VI RFF)

…. and newly appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of London

*The Galloping Gourmet was the name of one of the first TV chef programmes hosted by the dashing Graham Kerr with help from his wife Treena

Thin Edge

At the boundary….

I have known Stephen Tarbuck for over 50 years since we started together at QM in Form 1Z in 1967, and then grew up as young men, hot-housed in the Alpha stream. It gives me such pleasure to introduce these memories of his trips to Farchynys some of which I was lucky enough to share.


My first experience of Wales must have been as a three year old boy. I had been in hospital with a burst appendix and my parents took me to Twywn to convalesce. I think I can just about recall this and some other very early memories.

I was lucky enough to be granted a place at QMGS in 1967, and with my parents, I went to the Farchynys Open Day in my ‘fustie’ year. Not a great year for me, as I had to revert to short trousers, a source of great embarrassment. I was also armed with a brightly coloured school cap that I had to ‘doff’, if I saw Masters out of school. Other strange new habits included eating mountains of warm jam doughnuts and currant buns at morning break time, and having extra portions of school dinners, at the end of the lunchtime service. Happy days.

As noted by another Marian on these pages, availability of chances to visit Farchynys were actually few and far between. I was not probably that keen to go during those early formative years anyway.

I was not in the Combined Cadet Force and wasn’t a cross country runner either. But I did finally make three visits, between 1970 and 1972. The first visit was very memorable for the intriguing novelty and unique feel of the Coach House. It must have been the first time I encountered Spaghetti Bolognese and Beaujolais Nouveau. New aspects of my greater education were slowly opening up before me. 

Each trip had its own special drama. Being pelted with snowballs by the Bala ‘Boot Boys’ and other such memorable episodes. Being away from home for the first time without my parents, was also an important rite of passage, however minor that may seem now. I also enjoyed going off exploring the headland on my own, or was it in a small group?

One trip involved an expedition to conquer Mount Snowdon. We had years to prepare, studying every contour of Snowdonia on the O.S. maps in Geography lessons, before being let loose on the real wilderness. On a cold damp day, we did make it up to a very spectacular point, with a drop dead gorgeous panoramic view, complete with a drop dead sheer drop of what seemed like thousands of feet. The last stretch to the summit involved clambering over some very slippery scree. Half of our party wanted to go on, half was more cautious for reasons of self preservation. I think there was a democratic vote, and the ‘yellow bellies’ rightly carried the day. 

I am so happy to have enjoyed and survived my schooldays Welsh ‘outdoor experience’. It was one the starting points of my deep love of landscape, leading me on to a lifelong love of Wales, Ireland and Scotland in particular, where we got married and so very nearly settled in 2005. Visits to Orkney, the Highlands and a belated exploration of the Lake District have given me a true sense of the majesty of Creation. I believe the Celts say that these are the places where the boundary, between here and beyond, is at its ‘thinnest’ 

Steve Tarbuck OM 1967-1974

Dinner at Bontddu Hall Hotel, 1985

The Waltons splurge in the Hall’s 40th great year

One of the few benefits of the Lockdown confinement has been the opportunity to rediscover the mountains of material lurking in cupboards and storage boxes and to begin a modest little meander through the sedimentary material found therein. Like this 1985 flyer in mint condition from The Bontddu Hall Hotel which promises terrific Dinner Specials such as Baked Leg of Lamb with honey and Halibut en Papilotte, available to be washed down with wines supplied by George Duboeuf and Dienhard of Koblenz. Sadly, I can’t now remember what we ate, but I know I left with a couple of bonus bottles of Clos de Vougeot, bin ends on sale from the Cellar that night and which severely dented what was left of my annual bonus from The Creative Business.

The Engineers of the Mawddach

Far away, in a world without lockdowns and the cat and mouse games of track and trace, enlightened companies organised team building events for their staff and close associates and much fun was enjoyed by all, with past performance celebrated and future plans brainstormed.

My own company The Value Engineers was no exception, and we enjoyed many adventures both at home and abroad including several trips to the Mawddach Estuary, probably, it has to be said, due to the conscious bias of its Queen Mary’s educated CEO.

We camped in the foothills of Cadair, cycled the Mawddach trail, drank Moonshine spirits dancing to a Celtic Bluegrass band, abseiled from the granite rocks of Barmouth’s Panorama, paddled in the sand-art shallows of the estuary at Bontddu and danced the night away in Black Tie to Duran Duran – well at least a cover version performed our own house band, The Bluffers.

Whilst a long car journey from The Thames Valley followed by camping in the morning rain beneath Tyrau Mawr was not to everyone’s liking, I can attest that our adventures on the Mawddach really helped nurture the culture of The Value Engineers, and by way of fair exchange, the place won more than its fair number of brand strategists’ hearts: such is timeless magic of the Mawddach.

Back in the now contemplating the shortcomings of even the most inspiring of Zoom events, let us hope that all businesses can soon enjoy once more the tremendous benefits of socially proximate summer conferences and training events in the Big Outdoors. And if you need it, I know the number of a very good Celtic Cajun band….