Summit Fever

Ahead was a wall of broken rock, covered in ice. To my left, a drop steep enough to give my acrophobia a phobia of its own. To my right, the scrambling route was covered in ice like a glass waterfall. The wind was gusting unpredictably and had just tried to push me off the path. I took a moment to recall why I liked walking in the hills and mountains. I looked back along the way I’d come and found the answer. In a 180 degree panorama were a range of snow topped hills and mountains stretching away into the distance. Immediately below me was a beautiful valley with the remains of slate quarries and the associated ruins covered in snow and ice. The sky was blue and despite the wind, the sun was warm.

The wind, taking offence at my ‘despiting’ it, nudged me closer to the drop.

Rewind a few days. The long term forecast looked good, so I booked a few days at a cheap hotel near Bangor and settle down with some maps and my planning head on. More mountains, more training – I knew I had to get some longer walks in with more serious climbs to prepare for trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

They day before I set off the forecast suddenly started talking about snow and more importantly, heavy drifting snow along the route I’d use to drive to North Wales. Although the days I was due to spend there were going to be cloud free, I knew that conditions might be more difficult that first thought. But on the other hand, it would give me some experience of winter walking in challenging conditions, which was what I could expect in Morocco. So with some trepidation about the driving conditions, I set off early in the morning to head north. The road conditions weren’t as bad as I was expecting but there was a lot of snow, and I could see it beginning to form drifts in the wind. Nevertheless, I managed to get to Snowdonia earlier than anticipated and with time to spare before I could check in, I parked in the Ogwen Valley and strolled up to Cwm Idwal to get some photos of the snowy conditions. A cold wind blew along the valley and in the cwm, but I was wrapped up warm and enjoyed the short walk to the lake. By now the snow had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. The waters of Llyn Idwal were a cold grey and very choppy. Ice formed on the grass and reeds at the water’s edge. Ahead, the Devil’s Kitchen looked decidedly frozen.

The hotel was warm and comfortable and, coffee in hand, I settled back to plan the next few days. Tomorrow, I would climb Snowdon on the Watkin Path. This I had first done 11 years ago when I met up with two fellow trekkers to train for my first Everest Base Camp trip. We’d set off along this route, one of the longest paths and one with the greatest height gain, full of confidence. We were all well into our training routines and very fit. At first it was clear but as we neared the top the mist descended and the last 100m or so was a steep, slippery and pathless scramble in near zero visibility. Similarly, on the way down we struggled with the steepness and the lack of firm footholds. Only later did we find out that we’d missed the path and scrambled up a near vertical face with ridiculous drops beneath us.

This time, I knew the route I was going to take and it definitely didn’t involved scrambling. The correct path went off to the left and I was determined to follow it, not being good with heights. I set off in cold sunshine and followed the lower part of the path through an ancient woodland to a valley and waterfall, before reaching a gateway which featured in the film ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’. Much of the film was shot in and around the area. Beyond this, the path rose steadily into slate mining country and I passed a number of ruined buildings, inclines down which the slate bearing trucks dropped, and water mill workings. A large rock bears a memorial to commemorate the opening of the path in 1892 by William Gladstone, who was 82 when he addressed the crowd here. He didn’t go on. I, being younger, did.

Now the snow began to make a difference. Until this point, it had merely been a coating on the mountains, making them even more photogenic than usual. Soon, I found the going underfoot was slippery and as the depth of snow increased, it became tiring too. I found myself wading through knee deep snow for large parts of the ever steepening pathway. I was the first person up this way since the snow and while it was great to be walking in no one’s footsteps, it made route finding difficult as the snow was deep enough to obscure the twisting route. In places, ice had formed beneath the snow and while the deep snow prevented me from slipping too far, it was like walking in sand with every step forward resulting an a slip backwards. This became tiring very quickly and I found I was out of breath far quicker than I would normally expect.

On one of my rest stops, I was passed by another walker who, without pack or poles, was making light work of the conditions. His foot falls were confident and I guessed he was very familiar with the route. Although I couldn’t keep up with him, his foot prints were a useful guide to the route. I was careful not to follow blindly (after all, he could have walked off the edge of a drop) but it gave me some clues as to which way to go.

It was getting warmer now and eventually, the gradient dropped off as I reached the saddle between Snowdon and Y Lliwedd. I remembered this from the first time I came this way, and also from the time I walked the Snowdon Horseshoe, when at this point I found I’d run out of water. Now I stopped for a rest and a snack, and to enjoy the views East down towards Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw. Ahead, the bulk of Snowdon disappeared into low cloud and I spent a few minutes identifying the route up the steep scree slope to the top. It was difficult to make out the path as it disappeared amongst the loose rock and snow. I could see a diagonal line of snow leading up before fading out. Then there seemed to be an outcrop of rock before another, fainter diagonal heading into the cloud. There was no sign of the walker that had passed me.

As I set off from my rest stop, the wind hit me from the east. Cold and blustery, it nearly knocked me off my feet. The next gust overbalanced me and I only stayed upright by grabbing onto a nearby outcrop of rock. The wind, mist and the lack of obvious path made me feel a bit nervous. I’ve walked in these conditions before but only once with such a drop to one side, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Carefully, I set foot on the scree slope and made my way up. It was steeper than it looked and the wind was now gusting in the opposite direction – towards me. Now I was battling against the wind steeply uphill and at any moment, the wind direction could change again and I’d be left leaning in the wrong direction. And then the scree slope stopped abruptly against a wall of broken rock covered in ice.

As I stood and looked at the vista before me, I was thinking about what move to make next. Although I had crampons and an ice axe with me, I was not experienced in using them. The ice axe wouldn’t help as it would probably be torn from my hands if I fell down the scree slope. With my inexperience, the crampons were more likely to cause a fall than prevent one as I would probably catch the spikes clumsily and take the express elevator down. The mist made finding the route after the first few hand holds nearly impossible and without visibility it would be difficult to plan a safe line. Finally, I was very tired after ploughing through the deep snow. So reluctantly, but knowing it was the right choice, I decided to turn around and make my way down. As if to confirm my decision, the wind gusted once again and pushed me down the first few feet of the scree path. Then it tried to push me over the edge.

At the saddle, I turned to look back to see if I could spot the path again but I still couldn’t see a clear route and, disappointed, I made my way back down the path. By now the snow as melting and beyond the deepest drifts of snow, the path was becoming more and more defined. I passed another walker who had turned back before me and another who was heading up. I stopped and chatted to him and he said he was having doubts about the final part of the climb. I left him heading up and made my way down the the quarry ruins. By now the wind had dropped and it was beginning to feel like a summer’s afternoon. The countryside was beautiful and the views down the valley magnificent. But I was feeling deflated after the turn around and some of the magic was gone as I finally made it back to the car, tired and hungry.

Back at the hotel, I went through everything again in my head, and came to the same conclusion. It had been the right choice to turn around. But I also decided to try again the next day, using a different path.

This time, following the Llanberis path, I made it to the top of Snowdon with the aid of crampons. The conditions just past the Clogwyn station were extremely wintry and ice on a difficult slope threatened to let me slip down and over the Clogwyn Dur Arddu cliffs. I used my crampons and while they did give me the ability and confidence to manage the ice, I was clumsy in them as I got used to the front spikes catching in the ground, and I was glad I hadn’t tried using them the previous day. I made my way down in a much better mood, only briefly stopping to wonder at the people making their way up, having ridden half way on the train, and totally unprepared for the conditions ahead.

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Moel Siabod

Day two in Snowdonia and I was seeking out a new mountain to climb. I’d seen a route suggested in a magazine which appealed to me – Moel Siabod (roughly translated as ‘Shapely Mountain’) and this morning I set out even earlier than yesterday to get to the top. Once again it was bitterly cold in Nant Ffrancon but the sun was coming up fast and it promised to be another perfect walking day.

At the car park I compared routes with another walker who was just setting out. We both decided that scrambling (one option) wasn’t wise given the ice and frost but i knew there was a more traditional path running slightly to the left of the scramble route. With this as my first goal, I set off to cross the Afon Llugwy on an old single arch stone bridge. After a short detour down the wrong path, I finally found the lane leading onto the mountains. It was a steep, twisting tarmac farm track nestled between high hedges that restricted the view to some branches and many potholes. But just as I was getting bored, the lane pooped out and turned into a footpath that skirted the farm and led to a rougher track. But more importantly, ahead I could see the classic mountain shape of Moel Siabod. I could see how it had got its name.

For the next half mile or so, it dominated the view ahead and I had plenty of time to study the layout of the ridges and make an educated guess where the path I was looking for climbed to the top. The path led over several stiles until I was walking alongside the steepest part of the mountain. I came across the first of three lakes I was looking for. This one sat at the foot of a large spoil tip of broken slate. Above the lake were a number of ruined buildings made from stone; the remains of a slate quarry that had dug into the side of the mountain and excavated a deep hole which became the second lake. This was Moel Siabod Slate and Slab works, which operated from the early 19th Century until 1884.

Beyond this, the path climbed steeply for a few yards and water had seeped onto the ground and frozen in a solid sheet of ice. It was impossible to walk upon and I had to dance a few deft steps to avoid sliding back down the quarry again. Soon I was walking on more even ground, climbing steadily rather than quickly. Underfoot, the ground had been boggy and muddy but the cold temperatures had solidified most of it to make the going much easier and considerably drier.

I skirted the third lake and spotted a path leading up the side of the mountain. It was clearly the scramble route, so I avoided it and carried on looking for the adjacent path. About 15 minutes later, I started to wonder if I’d missed the start of the route up. I stopped to snack and drink and checked the map. The path on the map seemed to follow the scramble route and there was no other marked. I couldn’t see a path on the ground but the eye of faith spotted a faint route up following two slanting lines of rocks. With yesterday’s gully route in the back of my mind, I set off for a short but very steep climb up to the rocks. High above, the grey mass of the summit seemed miles away and I started a slow plod to gain height.

After about ten minutes, I looked up to see how far I’d gone and found the summit no closer. My legs were heavy after yesterday’s climb and I stopped for a breather and to take in the view behind me. A hazy vista lay before me, making the landscape difficult to identify. Occasionally, a shining rooftop or road surface cut through. I set off again, slower this time as the going was much steeper. There was no clear path to follow and I had to choose where I put my feet carefully as in places the way forward was more the 45 degrees. I checked my progress and the summit still seemed impossibly far away. The next ten minutes felt like an hour. I went slower and slower as my energy levels started to ebb and every time I looked up, it felt as if I’d gone backwards.

Eventually, I stopped to make the call whether to turn back. I didn’t know where I was in relation to the summit and I was clearly not on any well used path. I didn’t seem to be making any progress and my spirits were low. I had stopped enjoying the morning. I stared at the summit rocks and as I did I started to pick out details and began to realise that I was much closer to them than I had previously realised. There was nothing to suggest scale and so I hadn’t been able to judge distances but now I spent some time I could see little cracks, patches of snow and other subtle signs that said ‘I’m soooo close…’

This revelation gave me a little extra energy and I set off on the final push to the top. Within ten minutes, the slope had backed off and I could see a low wooden fence leading up ahead and off to the right. I looked up and the rocks I’d thought were miles away were within touching distance. But I still had to be careful; the way up the last few metres was across broken rock, all of which was white with frost and snow. I wobbled and slid my way over the uneven ground, wary of twisting an ankle at this late stage, and suddenly I was on the flat summit plateau with the trig point just above me on the right.

Moel Siabod is a great mountain. It has 360 degree views and I spent minutes just looking around, trying to identify the various snow capped peaks I could see sticking out above the haze. Ahead of me was a panorama of Welsh 3000ft mountains, ranging from Snowdon and Crib Goch, across to the Carneddau and the Gkyders, where I’d been yesterday. It was beautiful and tranquil and awe inspiring and it was everything I want a mountain top to be. Eventually, I recovered and started to take photos. It was warm up there, as it had been yesterday. Despite a slight breeze, the sun was warm and suddenly all the effort and doubts I’d had on the way up was forgotten. It was mostly white beneath my feet and there was a thick frost on the rocks around the trig point. Off to my right was the ridge I would have scrambled up and I guessed that the path I should have followed was much closer to the scramble route than I had expected.

All too soon it was time to head down. I had thought of going back the way I came but I chose instead to use the rest of the route as described in the magazine and head off on a circular path back to the car. I gingerly made my way over the frosty rocks and down onto a frozen grassy slope. This dropped me down very quickly but easily until I reached a deeply rutted path. This was filled with ice and snow and was harder to negotiate. Most accidents happen on the way down after the walker has become more confident and wants to get off the mountain quickly. I was very conscious of this as I stepped carefully to avoid ice and loose rocks. I stopped to chat with a couple from the Wirral who were spending the afternoon on the mountain. They often came up to North Wales and we agreed about how much better it was to have the mountain to ourselves rather than sharing it with hundreds of tourists as on Snowdon.

The walk back to the car was hot and towards the end, when the views had gone, long and lacking in interest. I made my way through the forest and across the river once again before walking the last half mile or so along the A5 to the car. On the way I looked back to see Moel Siabod, hazy in the distance, looking like a proper mountain between the trees.

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Second snow

On the odd occasion that I looked out of the office window last week, all I could see was the white capped hills finally visible after weeks of rain, low cloud and darkness. Last week Rufus and I headed up to one of those hills and although we got snowed on, we had a great walk. I found some waterfalls I wanted to photograph and so we planned a return visit. With the weather forecast showing fine weather today, we set off before dawn to get to Foel Fawr before the crowds – it’s very popular with people sledging when there’s snow about.

I watched the temperature drop as we climbed along the hill road until it read -2 centigrade. Fortunately the road was clear of ice, although sheep and ponies had decided to stand on it rather than the snow either side. Eventually, we got to the quarry and a few yards later, the car park. The car park was frozen but as it had been churned up the previous day, there was plenty of grip for the tyres. We set off, carefully at first, but then more confident as the going underfoot became less slippery. Off the car park surface, the snow was thick and we left deep foot prints as we went. With no paths visible, we struck off towards the rocks of the quarry and hoped for the best. Rufus four paw drive meant he sailed over the snow but I found myself boot deep in unfrozen mud and at one point I nearly lost my balance as the marshy ground tried to stop me.

I was finding the going quite tough with the snow and I kept an eye on Rufus to see how he was coping. Better than me! He was bounding and sprinting all over the place, then stopping to sniff at some unmissable aroma. We were following a fox’s track at one point and he stopped so often that I left him behind. It was great to watch him run, bounce, and hop to catch up, with no sign of problems with his knee.

At the waterfall, there was a short but steep climb down and I kept a hand on Rufus’ collar to make sure he didn’t go too fast to stop at the edge. I stopped for 10 minutes at the waterfall but it was a little disappointing, and the treacherous conditions meant I didn’t fancy scrambling down any further to change the view point. Instead, after a few snapshots, we set off back up the hill, much steeper now and harder with the deep and slippery snow. The path we took last week was covered in snow and hidden but I set off in the general direction to climb up to one of the levels of the quarry. The route I took led along the slope and I had to dig the sides of my boots into the snow to stop me slipping down again. Rufus, making the most of his 4 paw drive, saw no problem as he kept level with me but several yards lower on the slope. Then he tried to get up to me.

The snow was so deep between us that every time he took a step, Rufus sank to his tummy in it. He was struggling to make any headway, so I dropped down and gave him a hand. Together we managed to get out of the deepest snow and Rufus was able to follow my footsteps until we got on firm ground again. Then he was off as if nothing had happened. It didn’t take us long to get back the car.

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First snow

Up at the crack of dawn this morning – which wasn’t hard as at the moment the sun rises around 8.20. But we were up before that and after a swift breakfast and a glance out of the window to see that all was well with the weather, we were off. With bad weather, I prefer to stay local so we don’t waste time travelling when we should be taking advantage of the dry conditions. Today, though, we headed north as the [prevailing weather was coming from the south. With the suggestion of heavy showers and possibility of thunder, we made our way towards Foel Fawr and Garreg Lwyd. No mountain today, but the hills surrounding the quarry would be ideal for some black and white photography I had in mind.

By the time we’d passed puffing cyclists on the long and winding hill climb of a road, I could see a light dusting of snow at our destination and the temperature gauge in the car was dropping towards the zero centigrade mark. Slush covered the road and for a few minutes I missed my Freelander. By the time we got to the car park, the sleet had started and we spent 10 minutes sitting out the snow shower, watching the black clouds roll over and blot out the last of the blue sky. But there were no rumbles of thunder and as the shower passed, we set off towards the quarry workings.

The ground was white underfoot and the snow thick enough to start to collect in Rufus’ paws. It balls on his pads if I’m not careful but I kept an eye on him and he was having no trouble as he sped off. I was taking my time and taking some photos and he was already bored. I wished I’d brought my walking gear rather than just the camera bag as the morning was turning into a lovely one despite the clouds around. But instead, I decided to use this as a reconnaissance trip for more photography, as there were several waterfalls and outcrops of rock that would make for good subjects in early morning light.

At one point, Rufus got so fed up with waiting for me that he sat between me and the waterfall I was taking pictures of and refused to move until he’d had a treat. So I packed the camera away and we walked on for a bit until the snow started again. It was light at first but got heavier and when I looked up, the tops of the hills had disappeared beneath a low cloud go snow. Not prepared for really bad weather, it was time to turn back. We squelched and squished our way back over bog and little streams until we reached the little car park and the shelter of the car.

I’ve always liked this location but I find it hard to make anything of it photographically. It really does benefit from unusual weather conditions; we’ve been here a number of times when there has been thick snow on the ground, and the lighting conditions make a huge difference. I’m looking forward to getting back there again.

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Seeking the snow

After yesterday’s cultural extravaganza, today was back to normal for a weekend. A short lie in, swift breakfast and a quick drive up to the mountains, which were still snow covered. We went back to Garreg Lwyd.

Last week, the deep snow and bitterly cold wind cut short our wanderings. This morning, despite much of the snow still lying on the ground, the weather was much better. For a start, the bitter wind was a mild breeze, and the sun was warmer. On closer inspection, there was less snow, too.

We set off on a much clearer path. The frozen snow crunched beneath my feet but once again Rufus was able to trip lightly on the frozen crust. He edged ahead of me and as I huffed and puffed up the slope, he darted here and there as if to highlight his superior energy levels.

As we got higher up, so the covering of snow thickened until we were walking over the broken rocks and boulders that normally create problems when trying to pick a way through them. And then we were on the flat summit with the cairns ahead.

By now, the sun was quite warm and I regretted my choice of insulated jacket. I noticed that Rufus, even with his shorter hair, was starting to feel the effects of the sun and for the first time in ages, he drank when I offered him water. At the cairns, we paused for a break and to enjoy being on a mountain. So often, I tend to head to a summit only to head back down again and there sometimes isn’t an opportunity to just enjoy. Today, it was lovely on Garreg Lwyd and I took the time to appreciate the views.

It was clear at the top, and to the south I could see the wind farm we often visit. In the little valleys beyond, there was the remains of a morning mist lingering. To the north, the Carmarthen Fans were white and very mountain-like, while to the west I could just make out the white tops of the Preseli mountains. To complete the panorama, in the east Pen y Fan and Corn Du stood out against the horizon. We’ve climbed them all.

Off we went down into the valley between Garreg Lwyd and Foel Fraith. The path was indistinct at first and it was a case of trying to pick a route between the bigger boulders, and hoping the snow wasn’t too deep. Of course, in places it was and several times I sank up to my knee as the top crust gave way. Once again, Rufus sprang daintily from snow drift to snow drift and hardly noticed the tough going I was experiencing.

The walk to Foel Fraith isn’t my favourite part of this route. It’s long and usually boring, although today the snow gave it more of an interesting feel. The frozen marsh and streams were most welcome, as wet boots are another pet hate of mine. Soon we were climbing up to the top of Foel Fraith and the Carmarthen Fans came into view again. I’ve noticed that in previous blogs I’ve spoken about continuing the walk on the Picws Du – something I was thinking this morning. I have yet to do it, though, and it would more than double the route length.

We stopped on Foel Fraith and after I’d taken some photographs and Rufus had eaten some snacks, I threw snowballs for him. He seemed to have learned that they are cold, because he didn’t make an effort to catch them as he normally does. Instead he sprinted over to where they fell, took a few sniffs to make sure they were the right blobs of snow, and then watched me eagerly for the next one. All the while, he was keen to show me how much more fit he was than me.

Then it was time to turn around and we retraced our steps back to the top of Garreg Lwyd before detouring across the summit towards the quarry. We made our way down the steep slope and into the little dips and cuttings where, in the past, limestone was taken to be used on farms and in industry. Given the conditions, even today, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work here every day.

We finally reached the car about two and a half hours after we set off, feeling energised and exercised.

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Looking Forward.

Thank you for putting up with my retrospective over the last couple of weeks or so. It’s time to move on. So while my mind gently returns from the African Plains and dreams of climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro again, the rest of me has been getting on with life, and my local hills.

Last week we took a longer than planned stroll around the hills north of the Upper Lliw reservoir. It’s an open area of low, rolling hills that surrounds the reservoir on three sides. To the east is Brynllefrith plantation, and you have travelled there with us before. To the north is Mynydd y Gwair and the wind turbines recently installed there (you’ve been there with us too).

It was the western hills that we hadn’t visited before, and after walking along the edge of the plantation, we ducked under a fence, crossed a little stream feeding the reservoir and squelched our way up along a muddy quad bike track until we were on the western side looking down on the forest. With the weather threatening to get wet very quickly, we headed back to the car and managed to reach it’s shelter as the rain came in.

Today was an opportunity to seek the snow once again. The weather forecast was favourable and we set off for The Black Mountain north of Brynamman. As soon as we got onto the mountain road, it was clear it had been snowing here recently. The dark road surface turned white in minutes as we climbed higher. It’s a twisting road and although the drop isn’t far or steep, leaving the road would guaranteed being stuck. So I took it easy on the slush and ice and only briefly thought how much more appropriate the Freelander would have been here.

That said, we had no trouble reaching the car park near the Foel Fawr quarry. I did have a slight problem getting out of the car, as the string wind tried to shut the door on me. But I managed to extract myself and Rufus and while he went to check on the snow, I kitted up for the bitter cold. Since he had his haircut, I’ve been careful to keep an eye on Rufus to check he doesn’t get too cold. Today was no exception.

We set off up the white hillside. There were no clues as to where the path was but I’ve been up here a few times so it didn’t worry me too much. The snow had a frozen crust and at first it made the going much easier. But as we climbed, the snow got deeper and the crust gave way with a disconcerting suddeness so that my boots sank up to the laces. For the most part, Rufus managed to walk across the top of the snow without sinking, but every now and then he’d drop a couple of inches as the crust gave way.

I noticed that although I was wading through the snow, my boots weren’t wet and the snow wasn’t sticking to Rufus’ fur. It was frozen and later I found I couldn’t make proper snowballs either. Rufus seemed to be having fun, charging off in all directions but I found the going hard. I had loaded my back pack up with some extra weight for the exercise, and I was beginning to feel it’s effect.

We climbed slowly over rough, rocky ground made more treacherous as the gaps between the rocks were hidden by snow. But we made it and eventually we dealt with the steepest bit and the slope rapidly slackened until we were walking on the rocky, barren top leading to the summit cairns and trig point of Garreg Lwyd. Being flat, it was also windswept but unusually, it was also clear and sunny. Most times I’ve been here, there has been a thick mist and I can’t remember the last time I saw the cairns from further than a few metres away.

Walking to the cairns felt like walking in the barren north. Snow had built up in the lee of the rocks and boulders, and had drifted into little gullies. Being a limestone environment, there were many sink holes and dips and while some were visible, others I only discovered when my feet sank into them. Rufus seemed to have a sense of where they were and I should have followed him to avoid them.

At the cairns, we stopped for a few minutes for a snack and a brief respite from the cutting wind. I love being on the top of hills and mountains and today was almost perfect, with blue sky, sun and plenty of snow and ice. The only negative was the wind. I noticed that when we stopped, Rufus back leg was shivering a bit. It happens sometimes when he stands awkwardly and also when he’s excited. But I decided not to take any chances and so we set off back towards the car.

Now we were walking into the wind and it made the going quite a bit harder. Rufus spent sometime walking behind me, sheltered from the worst of the gale. We stopped at a small cairn for a selfie before heading down over more broken rock until we left the worst of the wind behind. Then we slackened the pace and enjoyed the last few hundred metres through the remains of the limestone quarry.

The shelter of the car was most welcome and Rufus settled in the back as I got the heater going and we slipped and slid our way back down the mountain road.

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Castle Graig

In the late 18th Century, the lower Swansea Valley was one of the centres of copper working in the UK. Great quantities of cheap coal from further up the valley provided the power and the ore was brought in from other parts of the country. Swansea copper lined the hulls of Royal Navy ships, making them faster and more manoeuvrable.

Sir John Morris, who owned much of the industry along the Lower Tawe in the Swansea Valley, had a planned town built for his workers, originally Morris’ Town, which became Morriston. Between 1768 and 1774 he built Europe’s first purpose built, multi-occupancy dwelling place on the hill overlooking the metal works. It was a three storey block of flats with four 4 storey towers at the corners.

Today, the remains of two of the towers survive, the rest having fallen as a result of open cast mining, subsidence and in 1990, high winds. The local youth take the challenge to climb the ruins and leave their marks in the form of graffiti. More than one has ended up in the local hospital.

The ruins have seen great change in the Swansea Valley. The industry is long gone and replaced with a mixture of retail, leisure and housing. Where once smoke obscured the view and pollutants killed vegetation, now the view to the bay is clear and some of the flora is returning. (Time Team excavated a few years ago and found the level of toxins in the ground where the metals works were was still high enough to warrant taking precautions for the diggers.) Mother nature will always win despite or arrogant view that we are the shapers of the world.

Rufus and I were the guests of friends who showed us to the top of Castle Graig, where the ruins stand guard over the valley. The route is not easy to find, which is good because we had the hill to ourselves. Although they are under the care of CADW, the towers are in danger of further decay and even total collapse as they sit precariously close to the edge of a steep drop into the old mine workings.

Next time you’re shopping in Morfa, or taking coffee there, look up to the northern skyline and you’ll see the castle, watching you.

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