Walking the Cambrian Way

A coast-to-coast epic along the mountain spine of Wales, the Cambrian Way has to be one of the biggest and best long distance walks in Britain. Here Richard Tyler, co-author of a new guide, offers an introduction to the route.


Wales has a wealth of long distance walking trails. These run around the whole of its coast, down the border with England and across from coast to border. One of the older trails which is less well known is the Cambrian Way, an inspiring route from Cardiff on the south coast to Conwy on the north. Between the mighty Norman castles at each end of the walk lies a land to discover ranging from the former coal mining valleys, through most of the areas designated as wilderness in Wales and over the challenging rugged and high mountains of Snowdonia. Added to this, Wales has an ancient language and heritage of its own, great food and accommodation and incomparable scenery.

Conwy Castle from Conwy Mountain  © Oliver Wicks
Conwy Castle from Conwy Mountain
© Oliver Wicks

The Cambrian Way should not be a first long distance walk to attempt. It is nearly three hundred miles (470km) long and has a total ascent of over 22,600 metres (74,200 feet). It can be walked in 21 days, and the walker needs to be experienced in mountain walking, carrying a heavy backpack over sometimes challenging terrain. Good navigations skills are also necessary.

After leaving the south Wales Valleys the route goes via Pontypool with the first of the big descents to Abergavenny. From there the paths ascend the Black Mountains with fine ridge walking to Capel-y-Ffin in the heart of that range. A further climb takes you north to Twmpa with spectacular views towards the Cambrian Mountains before switching back south to Crickhowell. Another sharp ascent is followed by Llangynidr Mountain, a grassed moonscape of sink holes where the Chartist Cave is found, with links to the early 19th Century social unrest.

The Brecon Beacons, one of the early highlights when walking south-to-north  © Richard Tyler
The Brecon Beacons, one of the early highlights when walking south-to-north
© Richard Tyler

From Torpantau Pass the route ascends across the Brecon Beacons, crosses Pen y Fan and Corn Du and drops to the saddle of Storey Arms, continuing to Carmarthen Fan, a wild and, at times, lonely landscape. Llyn y Fan Fach, the legendary lake, is found and for a while the route runs through richer lowland pasture to Llandovery. In one of the most beautiful sections of the walk it then follows the Rivers Tywi and Doethie to find Ty'n-y-cornel, the most remote hostel in Wales - much loved by the creator of the Cambrian Way, Tony Drake, who is commemorated by a carved bench upon which weary trekkers can rest.

Llyn y Fan Fach, a famous landmark of the Black Mountain  © George Tod
Llyn y Fan Fach, a famous landmark of the Black Mountain
© George Tod

One of the wildest sections of the route follows as it passes through Strata Florida with its ancient monastic remains and enters the Elendydd, one of the greatest deserted areas on the Cambrian Way. Set above the beautiful Teifi Pools is the well equipped Claerddu bothy, a great place to stay which needs no prior booking. Further wilderness is encountered before a descent to Cwmystwyth and climb up and down to Devil's Bridge and even more down and up in Cwm Rheidol valley to Ponterwyd. Now the Pumlumon range of mountains is climbed, not high but difficult to navigate in poor visibility. It is here that both the Rivers Severn and Wye have their sources in a wild land of mist and peat.

Wild, little-trodden hills predominate in mid Wales  © Rebecca Brough
Wild, little-trodden hills predominate in mid Wales
© Rebecca Brough

Dylife is the next stopping off point at the Star Inn which sits above a former lead mining village. This section of Montgomeryshire is reminiscent of deep grassed Alpine valleys which lead to Commins Coch. A walk through a wind farm leads to Mallwyd and Dinas Mawddwy, one of the gateways to Snowdownia. After spectacular ridge and scarp walking to Bwlch Llyn Bach there is a magnificent traverse of Cader Idris which leads down to the coast at Barmouth. There then follows one of the toughest parts of the route as it climbs steeply north to the Rhinogau, with challenging ascents and descents on Rhinog Fach and Rhinog Fawr before descending to the Roman Steps and the basic campsite beside Llyn Cwm Bychan. The second half of the Rhinogau has its own toughness being mainly bare shelved rock which is only to be attempted in good weather. There are alternative routes provided.

With over 22,000m of ascent, it's a big route...  © George Tod
With over 22,000m of ascent, it's a big route...
© George Tod

After Maentwrog there are again big climbs to Moelwyn Mawr and Cnicht with a scrambling descent to follow the wild river through the Aberglaslyn Pass to Beddgelert. The Cambrian Way then follows a pleasant lakeside walk to pick up one of the great Snowdon ascent routes, the Watkin Path. The route leaves this path near Gladstone Rock and climbs to the lesser used but spectacular South Ridge which brings the walker to the summit of Snowdon and the high point of the whole route at 1085 metres. After refreshments at the summit cafe there is a fairly long and steep descent of the Pyg Track to Pen y Pass and the youth hostel where there is an exhibition commemorating the life of Tony Drake, creator of the Cambrian Way. The alternative descent down Crib Goch, the northern half of the Snowdon Horseshoe, is not recommended if carrying a heavy pack and it is suggested that a couple of days at Pen y Pass could provide either a rest or an opportunity to attempt that iconic ridge route with a lighter pack.

Heading for Pen y Pass at the foot of Snowdon  © George Tod
Heading for Pen y Pass at the foot of Snowdon
© George Tod

The following section involves a very steep climb from the hostel to Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach with their weird fractured landscape of "bristly" rock formations. On the descent Tryfan, a challenging scramble up a mountain, if desired, is passed and the atmospheric Idwal Cottage youth hostel is reached.

The last day is a long one but assisted by the ascents of the Carneddau mountains being followed by a trail which is more or less downhill all the way to Conwy. The arrival gives time to reflect on the satisfaction of having completed such a fine long distance walk... and perhaps, if you're ambitious, completing the circle by using either the coastal or border trails.

Planning to walk the Cambrian Way

The decision needs to be made whether to attempt the walk in one go or to spread it over a longer period by walking one or more sections at a time. Rather like the GR5 in the Alps the route is intersected by railway lines giving access at Cardiff and Conwy but also Pontypool, Abergavenny, Llandovery, Barmouth and Harlech. There are also bus services available but these lessen in the remoter areas. Details can be found on www.traveline.cymru which also has a useful app.

When to go

The weather is changeable in Wales, to state the obvious, and it can be unpredictable any time of year. Typically however, the best times for walking are the later spring, summer and early autumn periods. It is possible to walk the entire route in the winter but the journey could be delayed by bad weather particularly in the central wilderness and northern mountain areas. Daylight hours are also a limiting factor. Even in the summer, conditions can be difficult. Daily weather forecasts should be obtained either online or from local people and should be checked during the day.

The higher hills are best saved for spring/summer  © Richard Tyler
The higher hills are best saved for spring/summer
© Richard Tyler

What to take

A balance needs to be struck between having enough warm clothing for all seasons and not having to carry too large a pack. It is suggested that pack weights should be between 7 and 10 kg and it is well worth investing in lightweight equipment and clothing. Even the summer nights can be cold. Trekking poles are desirable and a good first aid kit, bothy bag, torch, whistle and maps and compass are essential. A light sleeping silk inner lining and pillow cover may be useful. There are quite a few sections where food and water are not easily available so it is worth making sure that supplies are acquired when possible. Liquid soap and a washing line could also be helpful. Sun screen may be essential and insect repellent useful.

Accommodation

There is plenty of accommodation along the route with the exception of the Rhinogau section, but it is best to book ahead to avoid disappointment. There are full details of places to stay on the Cambrian Way website and in the new Cicerone guidebook referred to at the end of this article.

Waymarking and Navigation

Much of the Cambrian Way is marked with the green welsh hat symbol. There are sections, particularly in the mountain areas, which are not waymarked due to local restrictions. It will be essential to be an experienced navigator, particularly if bad weather is encountered such as mist or snow.

A good guidebook is essential and it is useful to have Ordnance Survey Maps. Up until now the only useable guidebook has been that published by Tony Drake and the Cambrian Way Trust. There is now a new Cicerone guidebook.


Cambrian way cover pic  © Cicerone

Walking The Cambrian Way

by George Tod with Richard Tyler

Guidebook to the Cambrian Way, a challenging three-week mountain trek through Wales from Cardiff to Conwy. The 470km unwaymarked route is presented from south to north. Often sticking to long, beautiful ridgelines, it crosses wild and rugged terrain and visits many of Wales's highest mountains, including Snowdon.

George and Richard, Trustees of the Cambrian Way Trust, have used their expertise as long distance walkers particularly of the Cambrian Way to capture the excitement of this iconic trail. The guide is packed with information about the route with a detailed description, maps and accommodation suggestions.

The guidebook is available now at an exclusive 25% discount for UKH readers (voucher code USHROP) - see here


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