The Battle for the Cambrian Way

The 298-mile/480km Cambrian Way from Cardiff to Conway through the spine of Wales, was devised by long-time Ramblers stalwart Tony Drake MBE who encountered considerable and enduring opposition for it to gain official recognition. It is a story that is almost as exciting as the trail itself, says Richard Tyler, Chairman of the Cambrian Way Trust.

Two people opening a gate that leads to a view of mountains and snow

The story of the Cambrian Way starts with Tony Drake, the former proprietor of a department store in Cheltenham and for over 40 years the footpath secretary for Gloucestershire Ramblers. Tony was born in 1923 and from an early age took an interest in outdoor pursuits, initially through becoming a Scout. At the age of 16 he entered the family business and started on the shop floor. During World War II he volunteered at the age of 18 for the Royal Air Force and saw service as a radar technician. Returning to the family business he was known as Mr Anthony.

In 1970 he inherited the family business but decided to sell up and devote the rest of his life to walking, climbing and youth hostelling. Tony took up his role with Gloucestershire Ramblers in 1951, retiring in 2011, but continued in an honorary role until his death in 2012. He was very much instrumental in the creation of the Cotswold Way and assisted in creating the Offa’s Dyke Path. It was at the launch of the latter on 10 July 1971 that he produced his first draft of the route of the Cambrian Way. He continued to work on this project for the rest of his life.

In his proposals document entitled The Cambrian Way. A Mountain Path for Wales, Tony Drake wrote:

‘My interest in long distance footpaths was largely kindled through involvement with the Offa’s Dyke Path. Between 1957 and 1960 the combined Gloucestershire rambling clubs walked the Dyke Path in serial fashion and following the popularity of this series the idea came of planning a similar series from Gloucester to Snowdon. Although I did some preliminary planning for this it was not until 1967 that it occurred to me to wonder why no one seemed to have proposed a long-distance footpath on a high level between south and north Wales.’

A view along a rocky escarpment, dropping off steeply to the left

In the process of establishing the route, Tony is said to have walked most of the ridges and climbed most of the mountains in Wales.

The story of the development of the Cambrian Way is almost as exciting as the walk itself, involving immense effort, controversy and at one stage the trail guide becoming a banned book! It is a tale of one man becoming an inspiration to others.

In 1967, Tony, having floated the idea of having a long-distance walking trail as a predominately high route from south to north Wales, received an enthusiastic response from the Ramblers and Youth Hostel Associations. A committee was formed with Tony in the chair and detailed route surveying work was started with local groups in places ranging from Cardiff to Liverpool. The first proposal was for the route to start at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains and end at Snowdon, but the South Wales members of the committee wanted it to start in Cardiff and the attraction of the long walk down the Carneddau mountains in North Wales clinched Conwy as being the end point.

The Countryside Commission, which was the body responsible for overseeing long-distance trails, was enthusiastic about the project, which it approved in 1976. Unfortunately, the British Mountaineering Council’s North Wales Committee was bitterly against the idea, particularly as the route went across the Rhinog mountains in its central section, which they deemed to be unsuitable and unsafe for walkers.

Countering the opposition

In his subsequent guides, Tony had a whole section on Countering the Opposition. A flavour of this can be gained from the following:

‘It might be thought that one was proposing a walk over the highest peaks in the Alps to judge from some of the remarks passed about the dangers of the Cambrian Way. None of the summits traversed are technically difficult by the routes suggested for any normally competent walker, but of course any mountain can be a hazard in bad weather conditions, and the higher and steeper it is, the more the danger. Surely there is still scope for a spice of adventure in life. The critics point to the people who have to be rescued from the mountains because of ignorance of the basic requirements of equipment or because of foolhardiness in not appreciating the hazards of venturing in the mountains. As with road safety, one can only go on plugging the need for care, rather than banning the pastime.

‘The attitude of some of the climbing fraternity was condescending to walkers to say the least. The statement made that particularly stuck in the gullet was that “paths should be laid out in areas of no interest to the mountaineers”. The attitude over use of the Rhinogs was near hysterical and akin to the sort of oppositions Tom Stephenson had to his proposals to take the Pennine Way over Kinder Scout. The northern Rhinogs provide a fantastic walk over the rough and rocky ground. Some would have them put in a glass case, labelled “Wilderness”.

The local authorities were fairly equally divided for and against the proposed route. In 1976 the Countryside Commission, now part of Natural Resources Wales, approved the Cambrian Way project in principle, opening the door to the route becoming a National Trail, which would have received 100% government funding. The route suggested by them would have avoided all the principal summits in Snowdonia and would have crossed the Arans and Arenigs. Following opposition, much of it probably from Tony Drake, another line was suggested that was closer to Tony’s suggested route, but this still avoided Cadair Idris, the Rhinogau and the Carneddau. Now the national parks showed opposition. In Snowdonia it was stated: ‘The National Park Authority is not convinced of the desirability of the Cambrian Way long distance footpath. In particular they are opposed to the suggested route linking more of the principal summits of Snowdonia.’

Finally, the National Farmers Union and the Farmers’ Union of Wales were strongly against the project and lobbied both the local authorities and national park authorities against the scheme. Faced with all this opposition, the Countryside Commission abandoned the scheme in January 1982. According to Tony Drake, this act was an appeasement to the farmers in the hope of wider co-operation with them in the future.

View of a wide river running through a valley, shining in the light

In 1986 Brecon Beacons National Park Committee passed a motion to ban sales of Tony Drake’s guidebook in its shop at its Mountain Centre.

There was continuing support from Ramblers and the Youth Hostel Association but the Cambrian Way Committee had been unable to agree on a defined route for the trail. With all the opposition most people would have given up at this stage but Tony Drake decided to carry on with the project with the help of a small group of friends. Tony published six editions of his guide and he worked with George Tod, co-author of the new Cicerone guide, worked on a website. The situation was assisted greatly by the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, which gave access to walkers in the large number of open areas through which the Way passed.

stone bridge with two arches, over a river

Magnum opus

Route map of the Cambrian Way

In 2001 Tony was given an MBE for his services to public rights of way. In addition to his work as area footpath secretary and the creation of the Cotswold Way, he was on the board of the Ramblers trustees for 20 years and he had persuaded Ordnance Survey to mark minor roads as ORPAs (other routes for public access) with green dots on their maps.

Sadly, Tony died on 7 March 2012 at the age of 89. His obituary in the Guardian newspaper stated: ‘Tony Drake spent several hundred days in quiet but persuasive negotiation with councils and landowners to realise his magnum opus, the Cambrian Way.’

Tony left virtually the whole of his not inconsiderable estate to Ramblers, the National Trust and the Youth Hostel Association to continue his work on the Cambrian Way. He also left a small amount to three of his friends – George Tod, Bob Rear and John Coombe – to set up a trust to promote and monitor the condition of the Cambrian Way. In addition, he left them the copyright of his guidebook and other writings on the basis that they would continue to publish the guide.

At Ty’n-y-Cornel, the most remote hostel in Wales, there is a bench commemorating him upon which weary Cambrian Way walkers can rest and contemplate his ‘magnum opus’. The YHA used its legacy in the refurbishment of Pen-y-Pass hostel, where there is a room and exhibition named in his honour. Truly a man of the mountains, a mountain connoisseur.

Cover of the guide book The Cambrian WayGuidebook

Walking the Cambrian Way: Classic Wales mountain trek – south to north from Cardiff to Conwy

A new accompanying Cicerone guide has been written by members of the Cambrian Way Trust has just been launched. RRP £14.95

Walk it!

Dubbed a ‘mountain connoisseur’s walk’, the Cambrian Way showcases some of Wales’ most rugged and demanding upland scenery, clocking up 70,000 feet/21,300m in ascent as it weaves its way over some of the country’s best-known and highest summits - in the Cambrian Mountains, Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains, the Carneddau and Snowdonia.

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