The Big Walk: Cambrian Way

Explore the wildest depths of Wales on the Cambrian Way, a demanding trail that’s currently on the cusp of a renaissance.

Words and photography by Will Renwick

Cambrian Way

‘The Desert of Wales’ – that’s what some nineteenth century travel writers called the great swathe of mid-Wales that is known as the Elenydd in Welsh, or more colloquially, the Cambrian Mountains. The term ‘desert’ referred not to its aridity, for it rains frequently here, but for its inaccessibility and lack of roads or towns. It was here that I found myself walking, nine days into my trek along the Cambrian Way.

Since passing Devil’s Bridge Falls and the peaceful haven of the Cwmystwyth Valley two days before, I’d been crossing some of the most fantastically wild country I’d encountered in the UK: 30 square miles of pathless, undulating moorland. I had only seen one other soul; a man seemingly hiding away from society in the smoky darkness of Claerddu bothy, with nothing to occupy himself but his own thoughts. I had heard little but the sound of skylarks above me and ewes calling their lambs back to them. When I finally reached a track, I was glad to have something firm under my feet. It took me through a small valley until eventually I could see the chimney of a house. This was Ty’n-y-Cornel, one of the two independently run hostels in the Elenydd wilderness. Here I paused for a moment at a bench dedicated to Tony Drake, the man who I had to thank for my grand adventure so far.

Early beginnings

Just as Tom Stephenson’s vision of a ‘long green trail’ through England  inspired the creation of the Pennine Way, in the 1950s fellow Rambler Tony Drake came up with the idea of a trek that would bring a new appreciation of the wilderness that lies across Wales’ mountainous spine. He dubbed it a ‘mountain connoisseur’s walk’. He launched his Cambrian Way in 1968, after years spent planning and surveying a route, either nipping across the Welsh border alone or heading out with South Cotswold Ramblers. It would take hikers on a 291-mile coast-to-coast trail between Cardiff Castle in the south and Conwy Castle in the north, climbing a total of 46 mountains en route and accumulating a lung-bursting 78,000 feet of ascent.

But while Stephenson’s trail has come to symbolise a triumph in access history, the Cambrian Way’s story has been one of struggle. Drake faced a constant battle with landowners, county councils and even with mountain rescue teams in his efforts to gain official recognition for the route. Sadly, this wasn’t achieved before his passing at the age of 89 in 2012, only a year after retiring from his duties as footpath secretary for Gloucestershire Ramblers. The trail has still never been fully waymarked or recorded on OS mapping.

Yet the Cambrian Way is far from untrodden. In fact, it is now regarded as one of the UK’s classic routes. As such it sits at the top of many an avid hillwalker’s bucket list, and it had been on my own list for a while. I’d walked the Offa’s Dyke Path, the Glyndŵr's Way and the entire coastline of Wales, but a path that involved navigating through Wales’ wildest parts was what I considered to be the ultimate in Welsh walking; the jewel in the crown.

Cambrian Way

Setting off

I couldn’t have had a better first week on the Cambrian Way, which I had decided to walk somewhat unconventionally from north to south, since that would mean walking back to my family home. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at Conwy station, and I only made it as far as Conwy Mountain where I pitched up and sat amongst the sweet-scented gorse, savouring the views of Anglesey and the Isle of Man. In the days that followed I eased into Snowdonia by the grassy slope up to the tops of the Carneddau, skirted around the boulders at the foot of the pointed peak of Tryfan and climbed the scree onto the Glyderau, where I spent time in the sunshine exploring the piles of sharp slabs across the plateau, most notably that spiky crown of Castell y Gwynt (‘Castle of the Wind’).

Snowdon was next. In his official guide to the Cambrian Way, Tony Drake suggests taking the simplest way up Wales’s highest mountain (via the Pyg Track), but he doesn’t rule out the knife edge of Crib Goch, and on the fine evening that I found myself in the Llanberis Pass I couldn’t resist taking on that thrilling, scrambly route that makes the knees wobble and the hands clutch hard to the red rock. I was relieved and exhausted when I finally made it across the ridge, so I made camp just below Snowdon’s summit. On that south-western slope, I sat propped on one elbow with my legs stretched beyond my tent porch as I watched the sun set beyond the long arm of the Llŷn Peninsula. All of Snowdonia’s craggy mountains glowed red that evening.

The wild lands

The next chapter of the walk began at the foot of Cadair Idris, after I had negotiated the unjustifiably lesser-visited peaks of southern Snowdonia – Cnicht and Moelwyn Mawr, to name but two. A storm arrived. It woke me at 3am as I slept just off the Pony Track that leads to the mountain’s summit. The tent wall blew into my face, the poles bent and rain hammered upon the flysheet. Then, ping! – a crucial guyline snapped and the tent wrapped around me, forcing me to bail out and dash down the mountain with everything bundled under my arm. I’d noticed a public toilet at the start of the path the evening before, and that was where I spent the rest of the night.

As if to make up for that rough experience, the next day Cadair Idris gave me the best view I have ever seen in Wales, with all of the sharp, craggy and gnarled mountains of Snowdonia behind me and the softer hills of mid-Wales ahead. I was now stepping into unfamiliar territory, a place where I’d make new discoveries about the country that I thought I knew so well.

Plynlimon was one such discovery, but what a wicked mountain it is. I lost the path soon after setting off across the moor and it was a good half a day’s walk through complete wilderness before I found my way through the enveloping clag to the 752-metre summit. Somewhere up on the mountain, it’s possible to locate the spot where the River Severn begins, and the River Wye as well. Given the conditions, I opted not to seek them out.  

Another of the many discoveries I made was the River Doethie gorge, which Tony Drake proclaimed his favourite gorge walk in Wales. Its start is deep and narrow before it eventually yawns, opening up to meet the River Towy and forming a spectacularly steep-sided, crag-topped valley with woolds and meadows at the bottom, as well as two fantastic pubs in The Towy Bridge Inn and The Royal Oak Inn. It was outside the latter that a local man, in the first South Wales accent I had heard on the trail, told me the legend of Twm Siôn Cati, Wales’ own Robin Hood. He supposedly resided here in the sixteenth century and would regularly fall into skirmishes with the local gentry, only to retreat to the hills to escape the law.

Cambrian Way

Surprising encounters

I was joined for the final 100 miles of my Cambrian Way trek by my dog, Teilo. He’d also joined me a few years before on the Cotswold Way, coincidentally another trail behind which Tony Drake was the driving force. As Teilo and I made our way onto the Black Mountain – that wave shaped peak in the Carmarthen Fans that wouldn’t look out of place in the Faroe Islands – I saw a figure coming down the hill towards us. He had the big pack, steady walk and meditative gaze of the long-distance hiker. ‘Where are you heading?’ I asked him. ‘I am not sure, somewhere over there,’ he replied in a thick French accent as he pointed to the hills on the horizon. ‘I am walking the Cambrian Way.’ He went on to explain that it was his first time in Wales and he was walking the trail so he could see the country properly. So far, he had been enjoying himself. ‘There’s plenty more to look forward to,’ I assured him. He was the first and only other Cambrian Way walker I’d encounter.

The next stage crossed the whole of the Brecon Beacons, taking in Pen y Fan and Cribyn, then heading up and back down the length of the wide ridges of the Black Mountains, before tracing a fascinating route through the post-industrial landscape of the South Wales Valleys. That stretch became one of the most surprising highlights of the route for me. In an area some might consider scarred by past industry, I enjoyed moorland, woodland and lush green fields.

Finally, from below Castell Coch the Taff Trail took me along a six-mile green corridor right through Cardiff until I left the gates of Bute Park and was suddenly met by the sights and sounds of a city on a Saturday night. A moment later I stood at the foot of Cardiff Castle. It was the conclusion to the finest and wildest walk I have taken in my life, and the best way of seeing and understanding the landscape of my native country that I could imagine.

The path ahead

It may seem strange that I only saw one other walker in 17 days on this fantastic trail, but this is understandable when considering the problems the route has faced. The main challenge has been its lack of official recognition and consequently, sparse waymarking. As a result, people who are drawn to easy-to-follow trails like the Offa’s Dyke Path, the South West Coast Path or even the Appalachian Trail – whether for day walks or to complete the whole thing – aren’t necessarily drawn to the Cambrian Way. ‘Many of the problems Drake faced regarding gaining official recognition of the path still remain’, explained Richard Tyler, Chair of the Cambrian Way Trust. ‘For example, Powys County Council will offer no recognition whatsoever to it’, he said, noting that they seem ‘aggressively against waymarking’.

Cambrian Way

The good news is that major steps forward have lately been made. The Cambrian Way Trust is working with the Ramblers to ensure that a legacy for the path left by Drake in his will is managed efficiently. An action group formed between the Trust and the Ramblers has, Richard told me, carried out ‘substantial work in organising the surveying of the route’ and will now be working on additions and alternative routes along the sections that have proved most controversial with landowners. Moreover, a new staff post has recently been created at Ramblers Cymru, and the role will be tasked with devoting half their time to work on the path’s future development. The overall aim is to advance recognition of the route and ultimately secure National Trail status – something Tony Drake would have dearly loved to have seen in his lifetime.

WALK IT!

  • TIME/DISTANCE The full route from Cardiff Castle to Conwy Castle is a strenuous 291 miles/469km, involving 78,000ft/23,800m of ascent. It is usually split into southern, central and northern sections: Cardiff Castle to Llandovery (112 miles/180km); Llandovery to Dinas Mawddwy (83 miles/133km) and Dinas Mawddwy to Conwy Castle (88 miles/142km).
  • MAPS OS Landranger 115,114,135,146,160,161,171; OS Explorer 215, 213, 187, OL12, OL13, 166, 151
  • ACCOMMODATION See cambrianway.org.uk for an extensive list
  • FURTHER INFO Cambrian Way: The Mountain Connoisseur’s Walk (7th Edition) by A.J Drake; cambrianway.org.uk

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