Through no conscious design or intent, we have found ourselves back in North Wales on this weekend for the last three years. In my experience, certain places call to you at certain times and February has always been for here. Just as the Cairngorms are where we spend New Year, and the Lake District is often where we find ourselves in mid-July, February belongs to the Snowdonia mountains.
Words & Photography by: Ruth Allen | White Peak Well-Being | @whitepeak_ruth
I’ve done all of the Welsh 3000s over the years, many of them time and again – and so these days my return trips tend to focus on subsidiary hills, or are given over simply to wandering wherever looks appealing in the moment that we arrive.
The Rhinogydd mountains have a particular appeal to me because there are so few people around. On a quiet weekend like this, you can be assured that up the road Snowdon will be full – it’s not uncommon to see folk queuing for a photo on the cairn at the top even in late Winter – but here the hills are rugged, rough and empty. Their slopes silent save for the occasional croak of an idling crow or the clatter of feral goats. Navigation can be tricky here and the paths that are around are often obscured or overgrown.
This tiny pocket of North Wales has what I can only describe as a confidently-desolate, almost-Scottish prairie-vibe, owing to the deep peaty heathland and wide yellowing grasses grazed by nonchalant welsh ponies. There’s simply something different about here. It’s a place to notice the passing of time, and to linger over the wildlife that would otherwise be easy to overlook. It occurs to me that perhaps the self-assurance of this region is owed to the fact that the area has for some time been designated a European biogenetic reserve – the only one in Wales – a place for the preservation of the genetic variety of European wildlife.
Indeed, it was appropriate to bring the Travelling Bag here; an area known in the right circles for its rare mosses (and orchids). How appropriate too that something as generally overlooked as moss should find its best home here in the equally-overlooked shadows of Rhinog Fach and Rhinog Fawr. On this trip we decided not to camp out, but our route passed a previously visited night-spot overlooking one of the jewel-like cwm’s hidden away in this rocky massif. I noted that here, everything seems to be held back from view. Almost all of the details require you to look behind.
And as it was, once I started to look I couldn’t help but notice the details. The different shapes of moss, lichen spread on damp wood, snaking dry-stone walls rising between the mountains and up to the summits, cross-leaved heath buried between grasses, heather growing its way back through the thaw and lone pines dotted on the bottom slopes as if they had broken away from the forest where we had left the camper.
Walking up mountains is where I do my best thinking. Free from the clutter of my usual prosaic thoughts, the hills represent a place where I can free-float my way through consideration of life’s big questions. As soon as I start walking up hill, surrounded by the quiet every-day business of nature doing it’s slow and determined thing, I effortlessly slip into a mindful headspace and the time passes in a gentle oscillation between just listening to the weather and pondering what I might do next with my one, precious life. As I pick my way through the undergrowth, through boggy puddles and over slick half-buried rocks, I let the same question hover that’s always there, and offer back the same answer I always give with a wry smile to myself ‘this is the life. This is the one for me’.
When I’m walking, reaching the top of the mountain is almost never the point for me, and yet it’s always on the agenda. From the top, my perspective shifts and something emotionally is released to the sky. Regardless of height, the world below is always smaller, and in spirit I am always bigger than my frame. When you reach the top of any mountain you are experiencing the lived metaphor of what it means to overcome. Perhaps mountains are places of becoming. Each time I find myself on a top I am becoming a new thing. Changed for having seen again the surrounding world from a different point of view. The sea to the West, higher hills to the North, an imagining of home to the East and tomorrow’s mountain to the South. Look wide enough and even here on Y Llethr you can see the curve of the horizon.