Sunday, 21 October 2012

What were those blue remembered hills?

The Top of Pistyll Rhaedr

Into my heart on air that kills

From yon far country blows
What are those blue remembered hills
What spire, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

From A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman 

Shropshire is one of the loveliest and most unspoilt counties in England.  Some will dispute that but it is my home county, if a nomad who has lived all over the country can claim to have a home county.  I was brought up for much of my childhood and teenage years in Shrewsbury, only leaving when I went away to university in Wales, and so it would be hard to convince me otherwise.  It was the beautiful Shropshire hills where I broke in my first walking boots.  The Shropshire Hills rise to about 1800 feet.  This is no great height but it does not detract from their beauty, and there is still relative solitude to be found.
A short distance beyond the county lies much higher ground.  When as a schoolboy I was able to travel further afield I would occasionally walk in Wales.  A favourite range of hills just outside Shropshire was the Berwyns.  I last walked there as a youngster on 19 October 1975 with my old school friend Rob, just a couple of weeks after we had started at university.
Last week saw me back in the Berwyns, almost 37 years to the day since I had last walked there.  In the intervening years most of my walking has been done in Snowdonia and in the Lakes.   Now, a relocation to the Shropshire – Welsh border area has moved the hills of mid-Wales back into my line of sight, both literally and metaphorically.
Memories flooded back as I drove up the valley to Tan y Pistyll, and one of the “Seven Wonders of Wales”, the waterfall of Pistyll Rhaedr.  And in case you speak Welsh I hasten to add that I know that what I have just written is tautologous, ‘pistyll’ being Welsh for waterfall.  What I had half forgotten, though, was just how lovely the scenery is in this part of Wales and how wild and remote some of it can feel.  Parts still have something of the wilderness about them.  The Lake District it is not.
My original plan was just to have a wander up to Llyn Lluncaws at about 600m above sea level, a corrie lake just below Moel Sych (827m).  I was interested in checking out whether the lake would make a good site for a wild camp at some stage in the future.  However, for the first time in ages the weather was not only dry but there was also more than a hint of sun, and the air was sharp and clear, if quite breezy.  So instead of going straight to the lake, I headed up the path to have a look at the top of the waterfall, and after which I could head up the south “ridge” of Moel Sych and on to the tops.  The waterfall is pretty spectacular and is well worth a visit.  It is best seen from below.  Indeed, from the top you cannot see the fall itself, as the stream plunges over a vertical cliff.  But just standing near the top and seeing the stream disappear so thunderously over the edge is breath taking.
Looking back to those Blue Remembered Hills
So I headed up the broad grassy ridge of the hill.  The long forgotten scenery triggered my memories.  This strange mixture of distant familiarity and seeming newness was heightened by the gear I was wearing and carrying.  Most of my current hill walking stuff was up in Cumbria, so I was kitted out mainly with things I had not worn or carried for quite some time.  The Berghaus Freeflow rucksack I had not used for 6 or 7 years; a pair of old walking poles, replaced by my Pacer Poles two years ago; a pair of Inov8 Roclite 400 lightweight boots, almost forgotten in the back of a cupboard, discounted in favour of some rather sturdier Scarpa boots and some rather thinner Inov8 trail shoes; and my “Smelly Helly” base layer, not worn since I realised you could buy base layers that fit properly, were comfortable and didn’t offend the rest of the family on arrival home.  And the oldest bit of kit was a Karrimor windshirt, bought in the mid-1990s and probably not worn this century.   It was interesting using this stuff again.   What had I abandoned for unnecessary new gear that still stood the test of time?  Well certainly not the rucksack which felt awkward and poorly balanced.  Not the old Brasher poles – nothing can beat the handle design of Pacer Poles for walking efficiency.  And certainly not the ill-fitting, too tight, too scratchy Helly base layer.  But the windshirt was just great.  Very light weight, minimalist and functional.  And the boots, which I had stopped using because they seemed to be ruining my heels and ankles were also good – they were advertised as the lightest leather boots in the world when they came out and are, I think, lighter than my trail shoes by a fair margin.

But that’s enough about gear.  We don’t go out in the hills because of the gear.  Do we? No we do not.  It is a means to an end.  And today the end was fabulous.  As was the beginning. And the middle. And all parts in between.

The fence to the summit

The south ridge is very broad, and marshy in places.  Half way you pick up a fence that runs arrow straight to the top.  Gradients are mainly kind.  The bogs were a minor inconvenience.  I did that self-questioning bit, wondering which side of the fence it would be driest.  It was the other side, of course.  It always is, isn’t it?   I am tall and have long legs.  I could, with a clear conscience, step across the fence with no risk of damage.  Or so I thought.  The fence, indeed, remained undamaged. But as I stepped across I caught my foot in wire at the bottom and slipped as I was half over.  So damage was done.  Not to the fence, but to what I can only politely describe as “my person”.  Male readers will know what I mean.  Of course, on the new side of the fence it was just as boggy; it’s just that the bog was better at hiding itself under a lurid green camouflage.  But it was not a proper bog.  Not the sort of thing you get in the peat of the Pennines or the Scottish Highlands. It was a Welsh excuse of a bog.
Summit of Moel Sych
I was soon at the top of Moel Sych, and including my gawp at the top of the falls, several gawps at the views, and a chat with a couple from Lancashire and a solo walker from Shropshire, it had only taken 1 hour and 5 minutes.  The views were absolutely magnificent from the top.  It was a perfect day to be there.  My frustration was the failings of my own memory about the views.  That was certainly Llyn Tegid.  But was that Cadair Idris?  Were those the Rhinogs?  I could not sort out Welsh mountain from Welsh mountain. Even more surprising to me was that my old acquaintances over the Shropshire border appeared unfamiliar today.  “Those blue remembered hills…That land of lost content…The happy highways where I went”.  The Stiperstones?  The Long Mynd?  That guy from Shropshire had pointed out Caradoc and the Lawley but surely they would be behind the Mynd?  Corndon Hill?  Pontesford Hill?  They all had to be there but which was which?   No matter really.  It was magnificent.  Even the flat Shropshire and Cheshire Plain.  And the bright white water tower near my parents’ house in Shrewsbury, a pin prick landmark also visible from so many of the hills of Shropshire and the borders.

The Aran Mountains in Mid Wales

The wind was biting cold.  That was ok with me for it gave me the chance try out the one new bit of kit I was carrying without looking a complete poseur.  My new PhD Dryshell Minimus down jacket.  Brilliant piece of kit in the weather of today.
From Moel Sych to Cadair Berwyn

And then it was onwards along the edge of the magnificent corrie headwall to Cadair Berwyn, also 827 metres high.  I passed the mother of all cairn wind shelters above the headwall and the views down the very steep cliffs to the lake were stunning.  The short 15 minutes between the two hills was a delight.
Llyn Lluncaws from the cliffs
Then I retraced my steps back towards Moel Sych, cutting off down the sidewall of the corrie on a steep, but easy grassy path towards Llyn Lluncaws.  The lake seemed to have a covering of some form of algae and the ground here-abouts did not look promising for wild camps – either marshy or very hummocky and uneven.  And then on along the valley side above the Afon Iwrch and back to the car park at Tan y Pistyll.
Above the Afon Iwrch

Retrospective view of the walk
The whole walk took me 3 hours 10 minutes.  Short, but highly enjoyable and recommended.

Pistyll Rhaedr


  1. Great blog and photos. The pistyll looks fantastic.

  2. Thanks Simon. Yes the waterfall is spectacular, although no doubt the wet weather has made a difference. It is quite a drop and it is vertical for most of the fall. Even better, it goes through a small natural arch about two thirds of the way down. Worth a visit.


  3. I agree on the waterfall, it looks brilliant. If I visit my brother in Bristol I'll try and pass by here. I'll check out the Houseman poem also as he seems to say it all. Being Cumbrian I've always been a Wordsworth fan, though it's time I expanded my repetoire after reading this.

    1. Hi Ray

      Thanks for the comment. I lived for several years in Cumbria and still have my house there so understand your loylaties. The poem is part of Housman's "Shropshire Lad". Horribly sentimental (as was Wordsworth,but what the heck? Of course the most famous bit of a Shropshire Lad are the lines:

      Clunton and Clunbury,Clungunford and Clun,
      Are the quietest places under the sun.


      In valleys of springs and rivers,
      By Ony and Teme and Clun,
      The country for easy livers,
      The quietest under the sun.

      That's enough poetry (Editor)

  4. Nice post on the Berwyn’s and sentiments. Shropshire, from the little i have seen is lovely so to Shrewsbury and the walk along the river.

    1. Thanks for the complement Alan. Shropshire and Shrewsbury are indeed lovely. If you get the chance to visit do so -it would make a great choice for a gentle weekend of walking. I was out in the Shropshire Hills, on the Long Mynd, this Tuesday and may do a short post on it soon.


    2. I do not get blogger! This is myy blog and sometimes when I reply to comments itreads as fellbound and other times it doesn't. Life is too short for me to try to work out why though!


  5. I'm catching up with the blog reading. Lovely, quite lovely.

    Old Agony Howelling likes this part of the world as well. I shall have to investigate; It looks frabjous.

    1. Agony "Aunt" Howelling has good judgement. If you plan to visit remember it is not Scotland. But it may provide either some gentle fitness building (Shropshire) or a good fitness tester (mid Wales) after your forthcoming op...

    2. PS Thanks for the kind comments, Alan. Always heartening to know someone has not only read what I have written but have actually enjoyed it!


    3. ...and finally, that should have been "has" not "have" in the above reply. I do not even know how to edit my own comments on this blogger thingy.