Travel Story Wild weather & extraordinary scenery: a hiking holiday in Wales

"Nothing prepared us for what was at the top."

She can be tempestuous, radiant and at times broody, can Wales. Never call her dull. Even in a foul mood she’s fascinating. And when she smiles broadly, it’s a day to behold, especially during the autumn, when trees such as the sessile oak, ash, beech, elm, conifer, sycamore, birch and all manner of others, along with scrubs and heather, are daubed in a visual tour de force of soft and vibrant colours.

A masterpiece of yellows, mauves, browns, reds and many more. Smudged like colours on a painter’s palette.

My wife Leonie and I completed two three-day walking trips to Wales from our base in Cheddar, Somerset, during a recent two-month trip to Britain.

It was as challenging as it was exhilarating, as we first attempted a walk up Pen y Fan, then Hay Bluff in the Brecon Beacons and, later, a more testing assault on Cadair Idris in Snowdonia, Wales’ biggest national park which also features its highest peak, Mt Snowdon.

As we drove across the Severn Bridge, and headed towards Abergavenny and then Brecon, a line from Marty Wilde’s hit song of nearly 50 years ago repeated in my head: “Taking a trip up to Abergavenny, hoping the weather is fine.” And another line goes“Sunshine forever, lovely weather.”

I’d suggest Mr Wilde was taking sizeable poetic licence.

As in Britain generally, the weather remains a constant source of conversation, and in Wales in particular it’s as changeable as the king and castle in chess.

The lament of “what to wear” is magnified here, so Leonie covered all bases, with triple layers backed up by a snappy cheap poncho.

Pulling off the A470 into the carpark at Storey Arms, the base of the cruisiest path up to Pen y Fan, the sun was shining and our optimism was soaring. Off we went on a broad trail for an expected two to three-hour round trip.

Nothing prepared us for what was at the top. There was no shortage of trekkers as we kept up a decent clip, stopping to take some happy snaps of the scruffy heather and green fields, which became iridescent when the sun selected them.

Then, almost in a jiffy, the wind picked up to a low roar, visibility was cut to 100m and the cloud and mist streamed through at a rate of knots as low as our ankles. This wasn’t in the script.

As we scrambled up some rocks to the top of the ridge, visibility was cut to about 20m as the ice-tipped drizzle set in and the fun departed.

They say when Wales is in her best mood, you can see the Somerset hills and the Devon coast from the summit. But I couldn’t see past my nose, the size of which is nothing to be sneezed at.

The wind became paralysingly cold, and when Leonie’s poncho had surrendered to the onslaught of blizzard and rain we scampered back to the car.

Thankfully, climbing Hay Bluff — a hill more than a mountain — on our way back from Brecon to Abergavenny gave us an appetiser for the landscape on a return trip.

Three weeks later, Leonie and I were in the Minffordd carpark in Snowdonia, me in old runners that attracted some sideway glances from trekkers in glossy-magazine gear. Leonie, in her Merrells, received nods of approval.

Our choice this time was Penygadair, the summit of Cadair Idris, which is described as a glacial landscape sculptured during the last ice age.

It’s in the southern part of Snowdonia and was about a 45-minute drive through lush fields, forests and bushland displaying a riot of autumn colours from our seaside hotel at Aberystwyth in Cardigan Bay.

As we set out through woodlands and across a stream, Leonie and I attempted to avoid predictions on the weather. Nobody could have foreseen how it turned out. 

Whereas Pen y Fan was not particularly strenuous and suitable for most ages, Cadair Idris was tougher — straight up from the outset, on a stone path with deep steps, across fields of heather, then through the magnificent Nant Cadair valley before yet more challenging terrain.

It was stop-and-catch-your breath sort of going, and the going wasn’t all that swift.

The expedition was billed as a five-hour loop back to the start point but we spent a lot of time on the ascent taking pictures because the landscape demanded we do just that. Huge rolling hills, intimidating cliff faces and then one of the major attractions, Llyn Cau, a postcard-perfect lake resting in a pocket on the western side of the mountain. Eye candy at its most alluring — and, more importantly, a new cover picture for Leonie’s Facebook page.

As we headed up further to the Craig Cwm Amarch ridge, the all-too familiar cloud and mist gatecrashed our journey. They squatted around the top like a brooding thought, dark and menacing. And then they hung around like a drunk uncle at a wedding.

By the time we reached the monument at the top, the mist had thickened and we thanked our lucky stars for the views on the way up. An old stone hut provided some relief for trekkers but we wanted to head back.

As it turned out, our journey down was more adventurous. A major miscalculation in the mist took us down the back of the mountain along a goat track, slip-sliding down a disturbingly sheer path strewn with rocks waiting in ambush for a slip-up. Later we learnt this is Fox’s Path, the least-used trail to the top and usually attempted only by experienced trekkers.

When we hit the meadows at the bottom, we were in marshy ground in no-man’s land with absolutely no idea where we were, where we should head or where we’d eventually end up.

Legend has it that if you spend the night in these remote parts, you wake up as a poet or a madman. We weren’t hanging around for the answer. And no suggestions, thanks.

Eventually we stumbled on the Gwernan Lake Hotel on the banks of Llyn Gwernan, which was framed in autumnal colours. If every wrong turn provided such a finale, I’d take them more often.

The owner of a pub called a taxi for the 25-minute, $50 ride around the mountain to our car. 

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