Heather and a hen harrier on the Western Berwyns

July 2, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Posted in Walking, Wildlife | Leave a comment
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So what I did not like about this walk:

  • The slog through the heather
  • The swarms of flies
  • The boring monotony of bog and heather in the second part of the walk
  • The afternoon grey skies
  • The wet tramp alongside a mountain stream
  • The flies
  • Did I mention the heather (and the flies).

What I liked about this walk:

  • A lovely drive through quiet mid-Wales road, round Lake Vyrnwy and over the Hirnant Pass
  • Peace and quiet (not another soul seen on the whole 12 mile walk)
  • Seeing a hen harrier
  • Ticking off eight more peaks

After the majesty of the Carneddau it was time for a peak-baggers walk. This is a route that I can’t imagine anyone doing unless they were attempting to walk all the Welsh peaks. There are good views at times and few if any people to see, despite the walk being split by the Hirnant Pass that runs from Lake Vyrnwy to Bala, but much of the walk is a dreary slog across pathless heather and over nondescript peaks.

The walk begins well enough with a steepish climb from the bottom of the Hirnant Pass up the side of Foel Goch. After a hard section climbing beside the woods, I emerged onto the ridge for an easy walk over the first three summits. Foel Goch, with good views of the Arenigs and other mid-Wales peaks, is followed by the unmarked summit of Trum y Gwragedd and then Foel y Geifr, the highest point of the ridge.

As I approached Foel y Geifr, I seemed to be adopted by the local fly population, which accompanied me on and off for much of the walk. Human flesh must be in short supply on these rarely visited hills. The summit is marked by  a moss-encrusted trig point and there is a good view over to the Arans and  the less dramatic views of the hills on the other side of the pass give an idea of the walk to come.

From the peak it was a steep descent over grass and heather to Hirnant Pass. From there I took the forest road that formed the backbone for the rest of the walk. After a mile and half,  a detour  took me up to Pen Y Boncyn Trefeilw  before returning to the forest road. The next stage however was the toughest. First I came off the road over to Stac Rhos , a plateau with an unclear summit. After walking around a bit to make sure I had reached the summit, I descended down to  a boggy section  before climbing again across the slopes of Cefn Gwyntog through thick heather, with only a rare sighting of any path (climbing higher to the ridge may offer a slightly better route). After a hard slog for half a  mile or so, I reached the desolate summit. From there it was a return slog through descending through the heather to join a stream, Nant Cyrniau, that I followed up towards the summit of Cyrniau Nod. The Nuttalls suggest staying close to the stream to avoid the worst of the heather but this in turn means wading through boggy grass and marsh.

The one respite came when I heard an unusual cry and saw I whitish bird  circling over the moor a couple of hundred yards ahead. Larger than a kestrel and too pale for a buzzard and with a very different cry, it seemed to be circling as a warning of my presence rather than as part of a hunt. I fumbled for my monocular, and managed eventually to track the bird as it circled and then flew further away. I was pretty sure it was a hen harrier but needed a longer view. Going slightly away from the stream, distracted by the bird I took the wrong direction for a few hundred yards of  unnecessary heather hopping, the reward was a much closer sighting as the bird rose into the air again – circling towards me and then away for around five minutes. I’d never seen a hen harrier before – certainly not with any certainty – and the pain and frustration of the tramp through heather and bog now seemed worthwhile.

It was another half mile or so of the same stuff before I reached the summit of Cyrniau Nod. There were good views of Moel Sych and Cadair Berwyn, but this felt like small reward for reaching this remote, isolated summit. From the peak it was a much easier walk alongside a ridge fence before turning off to rejoin the forest road. A short detour after a few hundred yards took me to the last peak of the day, Y Groes Fagl, and then it was  steady walk through the forest for a couple of miles back to the car.

This is not a walk I would recommend to anyone but on the other hand it is characteristic of the stark isolation of much of mid-Wales and with that isolation comes occasionally the chance to see something as wonderful as a hen harrier in flight.

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