In the heart of Snowdonia, nestled in the hills North East of Llyn Trawsfynydd are some unnatural looking grassy mounds. And it isn’t until you read the information boards that you realise the history and intrigue that the weird looking landscape holds.
Around two-thousand years ago in these parts of Wales there was fierce Celtic resistance to Roman rule. Shortly before Gneaus Julius Agricola’s governorship of Britannia began an entire regiment of Roman cavalry were massacred by the Ordovices – an actively resisting clan fighting a bitter guerilla war against the foreign invader.
This act of native savagery was answered with fury by Agricola. Seizing the opportunity to show off the might of the Roman forces, the Ordovices were effectively wiped out as an example to any other would be resisting clans. Agricola ordered the construction of a mighty fort complex, isolated and deeply exposed in this lawless land.
The fort would serve the purpose of maintaining order among the remaining native population and was initially built from wood to house 1000 cavalry. The complex consisted of a garrison, parade ground, bath house, inn and an amphitheatre. It is believed that the arena was built for ‘entertaining the troops’, compensating them for such a grim and bleak posting.
After the construction of the fort Agricola went on to build similar outposts throughout Northern England and the lowlands of Scotland resulting in the ultimate conquest of Britannia. Sadly, no Roman records of Tomen y Mur have survived and still to this day the original name of the site remains unknown. Tomen y Mor is the Welsh name, meaning ‘mound in the walls’.
Tomen Y Mur can be accessed by foot from a nearby car park. Travelling North on the A470, after passing Llyn Trawsfynydd on your left, take the next right turn heading East along a lane towards a lake called Llyn yr Oerfel. The site is located before you reach the lake opposite the forest. There are amazing views over Trawsfynydd and beyond as well as some great circular walks taking in some of the old slate quarries that are nearby.
‘Imagine a runnable 3-4km route, not too technical, with enough elevation to sort out the runners. Imagine a race that starts in the dusk of an Autumn Saturday evening, and ends in full darkness. Imagine an event with a real party atmosphere, with a DJ, bar, hot food and a race arena lit up with flood lights.’
That’s how runcoedybrenin.com plugs its annual night race and it all sounds a bit too good to be true.
When completing the application online, we chose the ‘relay’ option as opposed to the ‘solo’ one and scanned the website for any other important information as we’d never really done anything like this before!
We arrived at Coed y Brenin a good four hours before the start time to get our bearings and explore the route. It descends from the centre, down through the woods to the Afon Eden (River Eden); following its winding course through the dense pine forest. We hadn’t come to any inclines yet and it all seemed a bit easy, albeit at walking pace.
When suddenly, whack! The bit on the website that said about elevation sorting out the runners stood right in front of us like a big brown, slippery wall of hell. It was a steep up through chunky tree roots and thick mud. We decided to give this leg a miss on our reconnaissance as it would require all of what we had to get up it as many times as we could in the race. We skirted round it and joined up the route further along the trail.
The last leg of the route descended gradually through the forest and back to the centre, where we would hand over the electronic wristband to the next runner in our team. Our aim being to collectively complete as many laps as we could, in three hours.
Arriving back at the centre, the mountain bikes were being put back on roof racks of all shapes and sizes as colourful runners began to filter in to register their arrival. After registering we made our way to the start/finish line where over the PA system we would be briefed on the race requirements and some safety info.
The event, held annually and sponsored by Petzl, requires that runners have a head-torch to find their way through the forest in the dark. And with the sun setting and some stars coming into view, hundreds of LED lights began to fill the race arena.
We sorted out between us what order we were running and I opted to run second. My mate Ziggy took his position amongst the first of the relay runners and the pumped up solo nutters at the start line. The announcer signalled the start of the race with a klaxon and a big “Ffwrdd a chi!!” – ‘Off you go!!’ in Welsh as the huge digital timer in the arena began counting down from 3:00:00 and the DJ kicked it all off with an apt choice of track in the form of ‘At Night’ by Shakedown.
After about twelve minutes some of the solo runners appeared, flying down the narrow passage in between the barriers separating them from the spectators, past the feed station and towards the finish line to a huge roar and shouts of encouragement from the crowd who were in party mode. The solo runners were proper athletes who, like the relay entrants, try to complete as many laps as they can in the three hours but don’t have the luxury of a break whilst their team complete their laps!
I positioned myself in the ‘transfer’ paddock where I would receive the wristband from Ziggy when he returned. The first of the relay runners returned to the arena looking destroyed and most of them being from running clubs! I started feeling nervous as our third team member, Chris, who was keeping lookout for Ziggy, gave me the signal he was here! We swapped the wristband awkwardly and I flew off down the trail with my head-light fanning white light across the forest floor as I went.
I knew my first lap was my chance to get my fastest lap and a good start on the board for my team. I sprinted down towards the river, passing people in a flurry of adrenaline, skipping over roots and ducking under low branches, making sure I kept something in the tank for the big climb that wasn’t far away.
The music from the arena had faded away and the only sound was the soft thud of my new Salomon’s on the pine needle floor. With the course looking completely different in the pitch black I relied on the reflective yellow arrows and on course stewards to direct me on my first lap.
Arriving at the muddy wall of death, it was carnage. A bottle neck of strugglers trudged up the hill pulling themselves up on trees with the traffic from the first wave of runners turning the incline into more of mud fest than before. I tried running at first but my legs kept slipping backwards and I felt the energy draining from me as fought against gravity and sludge. I decided that big strides would be best to get to the top and I would resume running when I got up there.
The top was the highest point of elevation on the course and after a brief plateau the trail descended back towards the centre with the music coming into earshot in the distance. I went for it. Going at a good pace downhill for what seemed like ages making sure my legs didn’t run away, a fall here would be highly embarrassing as I entered the arena to some cheers and high fives as I sprinted down the narrow passage across the line passing Chris the wristband and feeling happy with my time of 18:52. I’d said before the race that I would be happy with a sub twenty minute lap, so having achieved that I made my way to the feed station for some banana chunks and energy gels and to catch up with Ziggy to talk about the route, thinking to myself ‘This is awesome’.
Our remaining laps got muddier and slower and we managed in total three laps each before the three hours was up. We made our way up to big screen where the leader board was showing the final results. On the way back into the centre we were given a goodie bag with some bottles of Miws Pws ale, stickers and a Petzl glass tankard for every finisher. We charged the tankards with the dark Welsh ale and watched the awards ceremony before ordering some well earned hot food.
We finished a respectable 53rd out of 86 team entries and we left the centre for the smelly drive home with little grins on our faces having not finished bottom of the pile and having a great night all round.
Coed y Brenin is a world class outdoor activity centre. It is the UK’s first dedicated mountain bike trail network with an array of trails with a variety of difficulties winding through its ancient forest. Visit beicsbrenin.co.uk for more information on their MTB facilities.
Information about the various trail running events including the Petzl night run can be found at runcoedybrenin.com
The bothy. A small hut or cottage, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.
The Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) pledge ‘to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use & benefit of all who love wild & lonely places.’
And in all fairness that’s exactly what they do and more at Llyn Dulyn bothy in the Carneddau mountains, Snowdonia.
The bothy itself sits close to Llyn Dulyn, a deep natural lake from where it is named. It was built in the mid-1880’s with its construction linked to the lake being used as a reservoir. Over the next century it was used as a shepherd hut until finally being recognized as an official mountain bothy.
I wanted to visit this place a few times before I wrote about it, get a proper feel for the place and hopefully get to speak to some other bothy-goers.
Most people taking in the delights of the refuge do so as part of a 5.5 mile circular hike from a car park close to Llyn Eigiau. The path takes you gradually uphill along a 4×4 track into the next valley following the South-West trail towards Llyn Melynllyn. It was at this lake where slate was mined and became known as ’Dragons Tongue’. It became world famous for its ability to hone a blade sharper than any other abrasive rock. If you’re lucky, you might even find a piece.
The trail narrows, hugging the cliff faces and descends towards a second, more sinister looking lake, Llyn Dulyn (Black Lake). It only appears small but it is almost 190ft deep giving it a dark and brooding appearance hence its name. Legend has it that ‘its fish are deformed and unsightly and you will never see any bird alight upon its waters.’
Legends aside, it’s a perfect spec to stop and explore with the steep cliffs rising up from the water to the peaks of Garnedd Ugain and Foel Grach and a small fishing hut to add to the landscape. Don’t be tempted to fire the stove up though as the bothy isn’t far from here. To add to the intrigue of the place, it has been the site of several small aircraft crashes. Low cloud turning its cliff faces into a deadly wall for pilots travelling from the East. During the Summer months after low rainfall, the damaged propeller from a USAF plane can be seen poking from the water.
Turning back on yourself and heading down the opposite side of the valley, a couple of hours after leaving the car park, the chimney of the bothy finally comes into view.
My first visit was with a friend and standing at the front door to the porch entrance we scratched our heads as there was no handle on the door and no obvious way in! A gap in the stonework around the door frame let me get my arm into the darkness to locate the latch from the inside. Fully expecting some demon to devour my hand I opened the door as quick as I could. The second door had a straight-forward handle and the mechanism echoed as it opened.
The first thing you realise after walking in, as the stillness hits is how noisy the weather was outside. The walls are blackened from the smoke from the fire and the air smells like your clothes on the 5th November. The wooden floor creaks as you find your own slice of cosiness.
There are two rooms. The first main room accessible from the small front porch has a large bench/worktop, some plastic school chairs, a multi-fuel open stove and some shelves built into the walls. The second room is more adapted to sleeping quarters with a colourful stack of foam ground mats in the corner and a makeshift washing line strung from one end of the roof to the other. The place is littered with candles and tea lights and the shelves are stacked with all sorts of goodies from tinned food and dry wood to packs of cards, toilet roll and even a game of Scrabble!
On my second visit, as I hung my outer layers out to dry, the door opened and in walked Gwyn and Melvyn; two old boys in their late-seventies, looking for somewhere to eat their corn beef sandwiches. I’d walked past them on the way down the valley and joked that I’d stick the kettle on for them for when they arrived. We shared some coffee and jokes and even knew some mutual friends.
Another visit was with two work friends on a wintery adventure in the snow. It was early on a Monday morning and we assumed we were the only crazy ones to venture out into the mountains that early on such a cold day. We were frozen by the time we reached the bothy and I couldn’t feel my toes as kicked the snow off my boots before demonstrating my skills, popping the latch open through the gap in the wall to the delight of my audience who couldn’t wait to get in and thaw out.
Inside, to our surprise was a lady feeding bits of old timber into the stove. A man appeared from the second room and introduced themselves as Daisy and Phil. They were volunteers of the MBA and were responsible for the repairs and maintenance jobs on the bothy. I couldn’t help but notice Phil’s Southern accent and after asking him, he informed us he was from Brighton, right down on the South coast and travelled all the way up regularly to keep the place in working order. Admiring his commitment I took some dry wood from the shelf and feeling under the watchful eye of the MBA, replaced the wood I’d taken with some waterproof matches from my fire starting kit – swap-shop style! They had brought a huge rucksack with tools and provisions and were there for the day doing some repair work around the windows. We strung out the chat taking advantage of the roaring fire and cooked some food up. I fired up my BioLite stove as Daisy was busy stoking the main one.
The BioLite burns small pieces of dry wood and heats an internal probe which powers a fan increasing the intensity of the fire in the chamber and reducing the amount of smoke providing you keep it alight. Trying to dry some clothes I hadn’t noticed that the fire had died down to a smoulder and began smoking the room out, springing Phil into action as he slammed open a window and flung the door wide open to create a through flow of fresh mountain air. Feeling like a complete amateur and a bit stupid, I apologised to Phil and Daisy once I could see them in front of me again! As hard as he tried to smile, we sensed Phil’s need to get back to how things were before we arrived and we said our goodbyes laughing about the situation as we looked back seeing some smoke still floating from the windows!
Bothys originate in Scotland and they’re pretty much common place in the highlands but there aren’t many in Wales, particularly in the North. I hope over the coming years some more of the abandoned farm houses are revived and learn from the success of Dulyn bothy.
I will always take the time to stop when in the area. It really is a special little place. I definitely intend to spend the night here one day too; I bet the sky looks amazing on a clear night in such a remote location.
Anyone who likes a medium sized, circular hike on moderate terrain taking in numerous points of interest should definitely put this on their list. The drive up to the car park from Dolgarrog tackles most of the altitude so there aren’t many steep hills although there are a few farmers’ gates that you have to drive through and close again behind you. There is also livestock on the road most of the time so please drive carefully.
On the 9th December 1957 an RAF radar reconnaissance flight was returning to base at RAF Pershore in Worcestershire, after completing a testing mission in conjunction with a radar unit installed on the summit of Drum, on the Carneddau mountain range in Snowdonia. A radio call was made by the Flight Lieutenant to confirm the mission was complete and that the aircraft was returning to base. However, this was the last contact that was made with the crew of Canberra WK129 and after disappearing from radar ten miles North of Drum and fearing the worst, search parties were deployed to their last known location. The rescue teams eventually found the wreck, with pieces of it found up to half a mile apart. Sadly, the pilot and navigator (the only two crew) were killed on impact.
The resulting investigation found that whilst flying in low cloud the plane struck Carnedd Llewellyn, about three hundred feet below the summit, into a ridge connecting the mountain with Foel Grach. The slopes to the West of the ridge, were littered with pieces of wreckage whilst the remainder of the plane crashed down the East side and landed near Ffynnon Llyffant; a small lake at the foot of the cliffs. With pieces of wreckage found either side of the ridge it was suggested that if the plane was flying only a few feet higher it would have avoided the collision. There was no reason found, however, to suggest why the plane was flying below its safe altitude. The crew’s commander put forward the possibility that there was engine failure due to icing. Weather reports from that day indicate that icing was expected at above three thousand feet.
My hiking buddy Chris and I had been exploring the Carneddau mountain range in recent weeks and after returning home one day stumbled across this story when reading about the old mining and quarry operations that took place there long ago. After a good read up on the topic, we were consumed by the story and had to get out to take a look for ourselves and at almost fifty-eight years exactly since the day of the crash, in similar weather conditions what better time to set out to follow in the footsteps of the search party to find flight WK129.
It was a cold, wet and grey December morning. The type of day that if you were getting up for work you’d need ten snoozes, but this was mountain day! No snoozes required. I’d packed my rucksack the night before, slung it in the boot and made my way to Chris’ house a couple of towns away down the coast. Chris the coffee connoisseur whipped me up a strong Bolivian coffee and retrieved a well used, dog-eared paper map from his rucksack to go over our route. If the weather reports were right there would be strong gales and map reading, whilst out in the thick of it would be challenging to say the least. Perhaps amusing to some! With a photographic image of the route in our heads we were heading down the A55 before the sun had even come up and ready for a testing and enduring day on the hills.
We arrived at an empty car park for first light and were greeted by some wild Carneddau ponies who’d come to see what was going on. The first thing that hits you on the Carnedd’s is the sheer vastness of the place. Due to this, it is often neglected by the masses who opt for the more popular routes such as Snowdon or Tryfan. This suited us as it looked like we had the place to ourselves for the morning (and the ponies of course). The first few miles of the route were flat and straight on a slightly flooded rocky path which led to the old quarry we had been exploring only weeks earlier. The flat path allowed me to try and get used to the biting, icy wind which was driving straight at us. The snow hadn’t hit yet but the coldness of the air hinted it wasn’t far away. After sampling some of Chris’ homemade flap jacks for a quick fix of energy I pulled my buff over my nose, adjusted my hat, tucked my gloved hands inside my jacket pockets and waded into the wind.
Shelter in an old quarry building
We arrived at the quarry about an hour after leaving the car and by this time the rain was coming down hard and combined with the wind, was becoming impenetrable. We took shelter in a disused quarry building which had a solid, thick piece of Welsh slate for a roof and had obviously stood the test of time. Inside were some candles and two tins of Heinz spaghetti hoops kindly left by previous occupants on slate shelves built into the walls. Opting for some boil in the bag food brought with us we left the rusted tins for someone else and fired up the stove. Whilst the water was heating I wondered what the building I was in originally served a purpose for, how many others had been in here and how many of them had used it as a toilet. Without too much thought I proceeded to boil my expedition breakfast and sip on a hot steaming brew, watching the weather batter the landscape from the small door which had a curtain of water droplets streaming down from the grassy roof above. I thought about the search parties that would have had no time to stop for tea and porridge and had no choice but to continue their search in the dreadful weather.
With warm food inside us and the driving rain settling to more of a drizzle we were now faced with a long grassy climb following a stream to its source, Ffynnon Llyffant, the apparent resting place of the fated flight. It was a good slog up through long, wet grass and boggy marshland. The wind had picked up as we gained elevation and at some points we were on all fours, clinging to the ground. Had we been on rocky ground this would have been dangerous but with the soft long grass we decided to plod on, winding each other up about who was going to get blown over next. Upon reaching a plateau we checked the co-ordinates against the GPS and followed the digital arrow the short distance to the small lake.
As we crossed a small stream we located our first piece of wreckage. It was clear it was from an aircraft as we could see the rivets along the panelling but it was unclear what part of the aircraft it was. Reaching the lake we could clearly see the remainder of the wreckage that had been collected and placed together next to a rocky outcrop. It was quite strange standing in front of it imagining what had happened. The shelter from the large cliffs in front of us had diverted the wind and a deathly silence fell around us. The lake was still and the presence of the wreckage stood out on a landscape not famous for its manmade objects. Its silver edges and corners catching the sun that had now decided to make an appearance.
A piece of the fuselage that we found had an inscription that read:
In memory of the crew
of Canberra WK129
who died when they crashed
here in Dec 1957
Flt Lt Shelley
Flt Lt Bell
Whilst we set out to purposely find the wreckage it was a sad end to the day when we did. It gives me some comfort to know that they completed their mission and their aircraft now lays to rest in such a stunning corner of the world.