Walk in depth: the Mawddach Way
Eifion Rees uncovers the rich industrial past that belies the stunning unspoilt scenery along the Mawddach Way, Wales’ newest long-distance trail…
Standing on a mountain slope above Barmouth, watching the sun glint off the River Mawddach and the estuary beyond, it’s difficult to believe that this part of southern Snowdonia was once a hub of industry. I am here to walk the newly minted Mawddach Way across countryside that, serene and unspoiled as it seems, disguises a history of mining, blasting, quarrying and prospecting.
Ghosts and walkers
The evidence of an industrial past is all about: from the grassed-over former mine tracks I’m walking on; to the hillside cored with abandoned shafts, ringed with white fencing to prevent accidents; to the spent vein of manganese crossing the mountainous landscape like a healed scar. The area has been returned to grazing sheep and the occasional walker, but they share it with the ghosts of an industrial past.
It’s obvious that it’s less explored than other, more famous parts of Snowdonia; I meet barely a soul on the three-day loop along the Mawddach from Barmouth via Dolgellau and Penmaenpool. While the 50km/31-mile route isn’t yet waymarked, its creators, local B&B owners Jacky and Graham O’Hanlon (also authors of The Mawddach Way booklet, which provides route descriptions and a wealth of local history) are hoping for grant money to improve signage in the future, so get here before the crowds.
“In terms of variety of terrain and quality of views alone, we are sat on what could be one of the best walking routes in the country,” says Graham, “which is why we wanted to do something to introduce people to the area. It’s beautiful out here – whether it’s the trees turning in autumn, snow in winter or the woodland flowers in spring, it’s always the best time to visit.”
As well as being a year-round walk, one of the major attractions of the Mawddach Way is that you don’t need a car to get here. Indeed, it’s worth leaving the motor at home just to cross into Barmouth along the iconic, kilometre-long single-track railway viaduct that bridges the mouth of the estuary. Opened in 1867 it is made largely of wood (as testified to by the infestation of woodworm in 1980, which closed the bridge to locomotive traffic until 2005). A steel swing bridge section used to allow ships access to the estuary. But the arrival of the iron horse signalled the beginning of the end for Barmouth as a busy harbour, while heavy silting has rendered the river inaccessible to any but the most shallow-hulled boats. Those making the crossing by foot are charged a toll of 70p – a small price to pay for a great few days’ walking.
It’s the river I’m here to follow, but Barmouth is a destination in its own right; a pretty Victorian seaside resort visited by Wordsworth, Shelley and Charles Darwin. I set off into the old town, consulting our booklet closely to avoid getting lost in this haphazard warren of steep, narrow streets and slate-roofed stone cottages. Victorian philanthropist Fanny Talbot donated several of them to social thinker John Ruskin, whose Guild of St George housed the poor. I come across a sign commemorating another of the generous Mrs Talbot’s bequests as I zigzag ever upwards past dry-stone walls and high gorse hedges: Dinas Oleu (Fortress of Light), the first land donated to the National Trust in 1895.
After a short scrabble uphill I pass under the Barmouth Slabs – a wall of smooth, striated igneous rock, popular with climbers – before crossing in front of a secluded farmhouse and out onto the headland. This track provided access to the manganese mines that operated here during the latter half of the 19th century and briefly during WWI. The vein of this hard, grey-white metal, used in the manufacture of glass, for strengthening steel and for making bleach for the cotton industry, exists now only as an innocuous grassed trench, absorbed back into the hillside.
Sublime estuary views
After all the climbing it’s a relief to reach the top of the headland, and I’m rewarded with views over the deep blue of Cardigan Bay, with the salt marshes and sand dunes of Morfa Harlech below us – designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1954 – and beyond them the long, curling arm of Penrhyn Llŷn. My route lies the other way, however, and with the rain holding off but the ground getting boggier, I cut to the right and cross over the spine of the mountains at the highest point of the route, Bwlch y Llan (Church Pass), back within sight of what Wordsworth called “the sublime estuary”, carved out by a huge glacier during the last Ice Age and stretching 10km/6 miles to Dolgellau. Parishioners from the nearby village of Bontddu regularly took this route back from worship at the 13th-century church at Llanaber, up the coast from Barmouth. Legend has it that the small collection of standing stones – Cerrig Arthur (Arthur’s Stones) – I pass further down the mountain marked its intended location. But the church’s foundations were knocked down each time the villagers erected them, and a ghostly voice crying “Llanaber, Llanaber” gave them to understand where to aim for, an inconsiderate 10km/6 miles away.
Perhaps it’s the wind, but it makes me shiver slightly to think of the generations of my countrymen and women who have trodden these ‘carriage roads’ criss-crossing the mountainside, their stones worn smooth by the footfalls and wheels crossing over the mountains from one town to the next. The winter route from Dolgellau crosses through Bwlch y Rhiwgyr (Drovers’ Pass) below the snowline; a medieval wishing well sits at its foot, which tells you something about the difficulties of navigating this terrain in blizzard conditions. I look up from the floor of the valley to watch white clouds scraping the top of a distant hill, and can just make out a thin line carved into one of its flanks – the summer route, which begins at a fork in the path marked by a worn milestone that reads: ‘5 miles to Harlech’.
The walk down to the bottom of the valley gives me the opportunity to admire the other side of the estuary, our destination on the third day, with Cadair Idris (893m/2,927ft) rearing up in the distance. Following the river’s edge is the 15km/9.5-mile Mawddach Trail, the disused railway line linking Dolgellau with Barmouth, while nestled in the woodland above is our accommodation for the night, Graig Wen B&B, a converted Victorian slate cutting mill that served the quarry still visible above the tree-line to the west. The cut slate would have been rolled down the hillside to the wharf and waiting boats below.
Manganese and slate gives way to more precious metals, as joining a minor road I sweep downhill into gold-mining country. Wales boasts some of the highest-quality gold in Europe, and there were several rushes to the Dolgellau gold belt in the late- 19th century. At one point there were more than 500 people mining 150 workings in the area, including the famous Clogau and Gwynfynydd mines. As well as the process of driving horizontal shafts into the sides of the mountains, the gold had to be crushed from the quartz that bore it in monstrous ‘stamp mills’ – I find it difficult to imagine the noise and pollution involved; more so dropping down into quiet woodland above Taicynhaeaf, surrounded by birdsong and the plashing of a brook leading down to the Mawddach. And yet here are the workings of the Vigra gold mine, a huge stone bridge like something out of The Lord of the Rings and quartz-laced holes cut into the rock face. Latter-day prospectors still come here to pan for gold, but at the end of the first full day’s walk I’m too exhausted to be distracted by anything but dinner and bed at the cosy Coed Cae B&B near Taicynhaeaf.
Abbey ruins and forests
Drizzly and grey, the next morning begins with a steep climb along the old mining tracks up the slopes of Foel Ispri, which is carpeted with boggy gorse, small lakes and more mine openings. From the top of the mountain we get some misty, atmospheric views over Dolgellau, before plunging on into dense forestry, and out again onto open land. Apart from the odd isolated farmhouse I have the rolling, fern-carpeted countryside all to myself.
We join the Monk’s Road, following in the sandals of the Cistercian friars who used this narrow track high above the valley floor to get from their pastures back to the 12th-century Cymer Abbey, which sits outside the pretty village of Llanelltyd. Crossing the great stone bridge over the River Wnion, beyond the similarly ancient St Illtyd’s Church, with its unusual circular graveyard, I take some time out to wander amid the ruins. A brief foray through the stone heart of Dolgellau and I link up with the Mawddach Trail, the route of the old Dolgellau to Barmouth railway, which fell to Beeching’s Axe back in 1965. Lined with reed beds, it makes for a flat final leg – thankfully, as I am on my last legs too. The joy of coming to the end of a hard day’s walk within spitting distance of a pub cannot be underestimated, and I reward myself with a couple of pints of Welsh ale at the George III Hotel, set right on the estuary, at one end of the privately owned toll bridge to Taicynhaeaf. The incoming tide transforms a scene of marsh and silted-up sandbanks into a mirror for the reds and yellows of the evening sky.
The third day’s walk is the longest – 18km/11 miles all told – but the scenery is so stunning I barely notice. Up into the dense mountain forest behind Penmaenpool, I follow the Mawddach back west towards Barmouth. Through woodlands, past a ruined chapel and out into hill-farming country, I pass a single isolated cottage with no sign of electricity or running water. The air is crisp, clouds scudding swiftly through blue sky, reflected in the picturesque Cregennan Lakes, and the grey shoulders of Cadair Idris seem hunched against the wind. And suddenly there is the sea again, the familiar estuary below and the grandest of finishing lines, the span of Barmouth Bridge. I crossed so many different landscapes it feels like a week has passed, my tiredness tempered with a real sense of accomplishment. It seems the Mawddach is inspiring industry still, but of a purer, more enjoyable kind.
Click on any of the images below to view a slideshow of Eifion’s journey, or scroll down further for more information about doing this walk yourself…
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow three days to walk the whole 50km/31 miles
(Day 1: Barmouth to Taicynhaeaf: 15km/9 miles – 5-6 hours. Day 2: Taicynhaeaf to Penmaenpool: 14km/9 miles – 4-5 hours. Day 3: Penmaenpool to Barmouth: 18km/11 miles – 6-7 hours).
MAPS: OS Explorer 18 & 23; Landranger 124.
TRAVEL TO: As a circular route it can be joined anywhere, but the route nominally starts from Barmouth Station, where there’s a reduced train service on
Sundays (✆ 0845 6061 660, www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk).
TRAVEL AROUND: Buses X94 and 28 serve the north and south sides of the estuary respectively (✆ 0871 2002233, www.traveline.org.uk), or use local taxis
(✆ 01341 422409/07876 084523).
GUIDES: The Mawddach Way is available as a printed booklet or e-book from www.mawddachway.co.uk/mawddach-way-guide.html (£9.99/£4.99). Walk Barmouth & the Mawddach Estuary by David Berry (£4.95, Kittiwake Press, ISBN 13: 9781902302218).
FURTHER INFO: www.mawddachway.co.uk