Tuesday, June 4, 2013

In the forgotten footsteps of Patrick Monkhouse

Patrick 'Paddy' Monkhouse is not exactly a household name in UK outdoor writing. However, the former northern editor of The Guardian was both a contemporary of and kindred spirit of Alfred Wainwright and Harry Griffin. Being a passionate hillwalker and chronicler of our wild places. His best known works in print are 'On Foot in the Peak', published in 1932 followed two years later by 'One foot in North Wales'. Although the popular mountains in the 1930's had yet to be trampled to death by millions of pairs of feet, Monkhouse still found the greatest pleasure and satisfaction in exploring the less frequented upland areas.

Quite often he was the very first outdoor writer to describe these back of beyond areas and offer routes to link up outlying peaks. Both books are considered classics of the genre and although out of print, are still available second hand through sites like Amazon and Abebooks. In 1988 Diadem brought both 'On Foot' books together in one edition with an introduction from Jim Perrin who also did a Guardian obituary after Monkhouse died aged 76 in 1981. Unfortunately, the obituary can't be accessed online as it appears to be behind a pay-wall. Apart from Perrin's two pieces,there is nothing to be found online about Patrick Monkhouse. Not even a photograph.

One of Monkhouse's remote routes just happened to be on my doorstep and last weekend I took the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. 'Gylchedd' is not a name familiar to most but it's the OS name used to describe a remote Arenig eastern outlier. It's highest point is Carnedd Filiast (not to be confused with the Nant Francon Peak of the same name). It's a fine top which I've been up several times. Usually from the shores of Llyn Celyn, the flooded valley beneath which lies the remains of the village of Capel Celyn. However, Monkhouse's approach was from the west, striking up the beautiful quiet valley of Blaen y Cwm. 

I only discovered the valley last year and what a perfect spot it is. A finely carved glacial hollow with just a few scattered farms and old ruins here and there. A road leads up to a saddle but beyond the high point it becomes a rough drovers road which even a 4x4 would struggle to negotiate. Monkhouse describes the valley as 'a sombre one' although he admits his impression was based on doing the walk on a dreary day when 'the clouds were low and dark'.

With plenty of sheep  on the road I kept Fergus on his lead until we reached the saddle (Foel Frech). At this point a farmhouse gate opens up onto moorland with a faint track breaking off. It soon disappears and you are left to find your own way. The magnificent yawning void that is Nant y Gylchedd is now in view. This empty cwm-save an isolated abandoned sheep station at its head- will have undoubtedly turned more than a few heads on the A5 in winter, for it really collects the snow. The ridge line of Gylchedd is around the  2000' mark and the steep band at the head carries the snow long after it has melted elsewhere.

Don't be tempted to make a beeline for the unseen high point just beyond Foel Frech because it leads to deep heather riven with unseen streams and bog. Far better to follow the encircling left arm of the cwm on a rising contour. The slately rock thinly covered with sheep cropped grass is far easier to walk on. Towards the head of the cwm, it becomes rippled with strange fingers of outcroping rock which look like spoil heaps. As far as I can tell,they're just a natural feature. Cresting the top you reach an old fence line. From here it's just a stone's throw from the summit of Carnedd Filiast which has an stone shelter wrapped around its trig point. Fantastic views abound.

Monkhouse notes that the locals call the entire massif Carnedd Filiast but he prefers Gychedd. My own guess is that Gylchedd is the name of the entire massif which actually boasts three summits including  Foel Goch and Bryn Cebyd. From here, Monkhouse slogged across the boggy Migneint to summit Arenig Fach. Gylchedd however,boasts a unique plateau which is speckled with little tarns and impressive peat hags. It's an atmospheric place when the cloud is down.

From the summit of Filiast,we said our goodbyes to Monkhouse and his wild perigrinations and returned via the north ridge of the great cwm. Once again, it's fairly easy walking with a bit of a scramble at the bottom to access the deep cleft which carries a fast flowing river to join the Afon Conwy. By late afternoon,we latched the penultimate gate and ambled back into Blaen y Cwm. A young girl rounding up sheep on her quad bike offered a friendly wave while in the next field,her father was waging war on the encrouching nettles on his old Massy Ferguson. The sky larks sang, the bluebells bloomed, the buzzards soared and stray lambs rattled the fences.To quote the Welsh bard..'All the sun long it was running..it was lovely'....Far from the 'sombre ' day when Paddy Monkhouse passed this way.

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