Today's primary goal was a simple one. I wanted to photograph Arenig Fawr, a mountain near Bala, as it was bathed in the crimson rays of early dawn.
Although they are neither the most extensive nor highest range in Snowdonia (Arenig Fawr, the tallest peak, tops out at a modest 854 metres), I like the Arenigs for the solitude they offer, the fact that their central location affords great views of the whole national park and the seemingly endless moors that surround them.
This walk is just over 13 miles long. It involves an unusual approach to Arenig Fawr and mostly follows paths that aren't marked on the OS map but are reasonably clear on the ground. There is a long section of road-walking, though most of this is quiet and pleasant and the worst bit is easily avoided by varying the route. The total ascent is 3,250 feet. A GPX file of the route can be downloaded here.
I parked in the hamlet (a stretch of the word) of Maestron, 4 miles due west of Bala, where there is a small pull-in at grid reference 86135 35891. I wanted a route that would get me to a view of the dawn-facing (i.e. eastern) slopes of Arenig Fawr in the shortest possible time and this seemed about as close as you can get in a car.
While driving the hour or so from home in darkness, I'd flitted between clear night skies and swirling mists and fogs. As I parked and got kitted up, the fog was firmly down and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I knew that I was only a few hundred yards from a coupe of farmhouses; however, you wouldn't have guessed it.
Heading off into the mountains in the dark fills me with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. When there's fog about or you can't make out the weather in the darkness, there is also the possibility that the whole exercise, including the ridiculously early alarm call, will be a complete waste of time because I won't get any of the images I need to inspire my painting.
Anyway, I was here now, so off I set.
I left the road and followed the signposted footpath (not visible on the ground, at least not in the dark) that bears north west towards Foel Blaen-y-Cwm. Skirting left of a stand of conifers, crossing a boggy field and then tracing a wall, I eventually reached the first of several collapsed ladder stiles that I would encounter today; a significant leap of faith was needed from the topmost intact rung.
Continuing dead ahead I would have reached Pistyll Gwyn ('White Waterfall') in just a moment or two but as it was still dark I didn't bother; in any case, the fog had lifted and I was in a hurry to get to my photo shoot in time for sunrise.
This meant venturing off the path to take the most direct route to the top of the Foel. As I got there, twilight had arrived and was illuminating some stunning views. To the south I could see the Aran ridge, rising through the fog bank that was visibly rolling back into the valleys like a silver tide.
Continuing east, I'd expected more off-piste navigation but unexpectedly found a distinct path that more or less followed the wall to my right. When it eventually dropped downhill into a bit of a cwm, I had a decision to make.
My target location for photographing the sunrise had been the top of Carreg y Diocyn (which, interestingly, translates to "Rock of the Scoundrel"), the hill that now rose ahead of me. However, I wasn't convinced I would summit in time for the fleeting moments of dawn breaking; I could easily end up stuck on the 'blind side' of the hill and miss it all. In any case, I had a feeling that where I stood right now might actually provide an even better view, with Carreg y Diocyn to my left and high ground to my right providing a frame for my main object of Arenig Fawr. So, I stayed put and waited.
When dawn came, Arenig Fawr was obscured by a veil of cloud, almost as if it had been placed there deliberately to foil my plans. However, I've done these dawn shoots many times before and I knew not to panic. The mountain mists can move and dissipate very rapidly, especially as the first warming rays of sun reach them.
I was right. Moments later (the whole disappearing act took three minutes according to the time stamp on my photographs) Arenig Fawr was crystal clear and I got the shots I'd been after.
Now I could venture on happy in the knowledge that, whatever the rest of the day brought, my trip had not been a waste of time.
I left the path and made my way to the top of Carreg y Diocyn, dropped over its far side and made my way west until I met the remnants of an old wall and a fence line that headed due north and uphill towards the summit of Arenig Fawr.
As I made my way up, I wasn't long before the environment took on a whole new complexion. I encountered lying snow for the first time this year and the cloud had closed in once again. The vivid reds, browns and blues of just moments ago were replaced by dusty whites, silvers and greys.
When I reached the summit, I found myself on the very edge of the cloud bank. As it swirled about me, to the north there were sufficient breaks to enjoy intermittent views towards the northern ranges, while to the south the fog remained stubbornly thick and robust.
However, this combination of a bright, low, sun and swathes of white fog can sometimes lead to one interesting phenomenon; a Brocken spectre kept me company for most of my time at the top.
The summit of Arenig Fawr is also the site of a somewhat faded memorial to eight American aircrew who lost their lives in August 1943 when their B17 Flying Fortress crashed nearby.
Now, I retraced my steps back down the south ridge. When I reached the point where I had met the fence line, I deviated south and picked up an increasingly distinct path that broadly followed a wall towards Craig y Bychau.
Eventually, I dropped out of the cloud and views of my next destination, Moel Llyfnant, began to reveal themselves. I continued to follow the path and wall until I arrived at the flat plateau that is home to the wild moors above Ceunant Coch.
One has to traverse these pathless bogs (if there is a path, I've never found it) to reach the slopes of Moel Llyfnant. Thankfully, the terrain isn't quite as body-devouring as it looks on the approach. I crossed in a north westerly direction, aiming for the faint mountain path that can be seen to start just above a short stretch of stone wall.
As I climbed gently upwards, I re-entered the cloud zone and despite waiting a while at the summit in hope of a break, this time there were to be none.
So, I dropped off the top, heading due north. Again, there was a path to follow, although I did manage to lose it briefly as I reached the final decent onto the track above Amnodd-bwll.
At Amnodd-bwll there lies an abandoned farmhouse, where I took a break for lunch, sitting on the remains of the old pigsty. This is the third time I've been here and everything about this place feels like it should be the subject of a painting. However, I've never quite got the inspiration, or photographs I need. I think the problem is that I always get here halfway through my walks, which means the middle of the day and less than ideal light. I need to come back here during the morning or evening.
Refreshed, I picked up the track that runs north across the back of the house, through a rushes-filled field and into a forest. On entering, a sign warns you to stick to the public footpath as you are no longer on access land. So, at the point a few moments later where you leave the forest and the track (the natural route) turns right, I diligently left it and followed the path as it was marked on my map. This meant continuing in a straight line across a somewhat boggy field and rejoining the track a short while later at Nant Du. Judging by the complete lack of evidence of a path or even footprints on the ground, I sense that most people are less conscientious (or pedantic, or fearful of being shot?) than I am and simply follow the track all the way.
At Nant Du, I broke out onto the A4212 for a stretch of main road walking. There is a wide verge, so it doesn't feel unsafe; though having vehicles rush close-by at 70 mph is never much fun. (This entire section can be avoided by taking either the track or the nearby public footpath that both head north east from Amnodd-Bwll, instead of the northerly one that I took).
On reaching a junction, I joined the minor road at Pont Rhyd-y-fen and followed it east, passing through the hamlet of Arenig.
Below Moel y Garth, views of the once controversial Llyn Celyn reservoir opened up on my left. The waters were still low after the long, hot, summer.
After 3 miles on the minor road, I reached a cattle grid, just above Bryn-Ifan. Here, I left the tarmac and followed the signed public footpath that heads due south. Surprisingly distinct on the ground, it was reasonably easy to follow it all the way to Cefn Llwyn-y-Bugail and then on to meet the farm track that took me all the way back to my car.
So. it felt felt like mission completed. Despite some initial worries about the fog, I'd got the early morning photographs I'd wanted. This had been followed by a thoroughly enjoyable walk and several bonus scenes that will almost certainly become the subject of paintings in due course. In fact, I reckon I got a good 3 or 4 potential paintings out of the day, so it was all very worthwhile.