I was up before dawn, just in case the local farmer was in the habit of taking his hellhounds for an early morning run. The first task of the day was to flick dozens of slugs off my tent before packing it away.
The night before, I had joined the Hiraethog trail a few hundred metres up from the village of Pentrefoelas, where it starts. I knew very little about the trail, other than that it would take me north-east through Conwy and Denbighshire, albeit in a dog-legged, meandering fashion. The websites I had looked at describe it as an interesting and scenic trail through remote and beautiful countryside. Things looked promising as I set off with a clear dawn sky silhouetting some majestic, even slightly posey cows on the rise above me.
For the first half of the day, I was heading east by south-east through farmland. The going was easy enough at first, but I was tired. I have noticed on other walking trips that the second or third day is often the hardest. On the first you are fresh and full of optimism. Most people could spend a whole day walking, and their body wouldn’t object too much at the time. You just might need to take it easy the next day to recover. When you get up and do the same thing again, some time in the afternoon your body starts to grumble at you that this wasn’t part of any deal it signed up for, but if you insist on pushing it, then fine. On the third day, you are taking the piss. Your body writes you a strongly worded letter asserting that this is not a sustainable course of action and that it will not co-operate with this madness. Further down the line, you may be even more tired and face greater hardships, but by then habituation has caused the complaints to be less screamingly insistent. The early days where every part of you has to adjust to the new regime are painful. Incidentally, you can lessen this effect with training and preparation, but I had not.
The first hint that the footpath itself may not be my route to happiness came when I got lost in a farmyard for a few minutes, having missed a turning. When I found my way, kinking left up an overgrown slope, I thought it could have been better signposted. A little further on, I came to a locked gate. I looked around but the path definitely went straight on through it, and there was no pedestrian gate round it. Under normal circumstances, I enjoy a hop over a five-bar gate, but with 20 kilos strapped to my back, I resented it hugely. I jolted to the ground on the other side, and hoped I wouldn’t have to do that too much. I would.
I got the impression that morning that some of the farmers in that “remote and beautiful” countryside would have preferred not to have a national footpath running through their particular bit of it. Every gate I approached was a lottery, and every time they didn’t open, I lost. Some weren’t even locked; they were just so crooked, heavy, or stuck in the mud, that I couldn’t budge them. With each frustration piling on top of the sore feet, the fatigued legs, and the rubbed-raw shoulders and hips, my spirit sank. Nobody else was walking this trail, and I didn’t blame them.
At one point the trail takes a big loop back to the south-west, presumably to take in some scenery, so I cut across more farms until I reached the little village of Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr, in the valley of the Afon Alwen. A picnic bench by the river looked inviting, so I sat down to my hard-earned lunch. Presently an old couple wandered in my direction with their dogs. One of them ran up to me and began yipping. “He can always sense when there’s a picnic!” the old man chuckled. I chuckled politely back, but inwardly I had been thrown into turmoil. A picnic? This wasn’t a picnic, was it? I was squeezing jam onto pieces of dry, crumbled-up bagel. That doesn’t seem like much of a picnic. What makes a picnic? Eating outside, but it’s more than that, surely. I may have been outside, but that was just out of necessity. Surely you wouldn’t call it a picnic when soldiers stop on patrol to eat some rations? A picnic is an event, or has an element of planning. But does it even have to be outside? When you are a child at an airport with your parents and you ask what is for lunch, they may very well say they had brought a picnic. What does this evasive word mean?
I mention this because it is a neat illustration of how inactive my mind was; these picnic contemplations were easily the most interesting thought I had all day, and maybe all trip. Beforehand, I had thought that with all that time alone, I could do something creative, like compose some poetry or sketch out a novel. Disappointingly, it turns out that when I am weary and sore, even thinking becomes too much effort.
I passed through the village, crossed a charming old bridge, and climbed up towards Clocaenog Forest, glad to be leaving the farmland behind. I have never quite managed to work out how I feel about this kind of managed plantation forest. I grew up walking my dog around one near home, and I have certainly had some wonderful wildlife experiences in them, but at the same time, a forest of neat, perfect rows of trees, all the same height, always seems deeply uncanny. You question whether we have to be quite so brutally efficient about our growing and harvesting, but I suppose to sustain our modern lifestyle, we probably do, in some places at least. Nevertheless, if it’s there, animals will use what they can, and this forest harbours populations of red squirrels and black grouse. I was not aware of that at the time, but my spirits got a lift when I spotted what I was pretty sure was my first ever goshawk overhead.
I followed forestry tracks deeper inside, and the rain came again. I nestled myself among the mossy roots of a great big conifer for a rest. Apart from the light rain, it was quiet, and I was very alone. I took out my tin whistle and piped a few notes. In The Name of the Wind, one of the most beautifully-written fantasy books of recent years, the protagonist spends months wandering in the woods with only a lute, and learns to play the sounds of a cool breeze, a leaf turning in the wind, and sun warming the grass. I’m not very good on the tin whistle, but I thought this was a chance to get better. There is something eerie, though, about making the loudest noise in an empty forest. I felt like I was in a cautionary tale. If spirits or fae felt like kidnapping me, now was their chance. Presently, I moved on.
My breathers became more frequent. I really was finding this hard. At one point the trail had an option to go a few hundred metres out of the way to pop onto a hilltop and see the view. I shunned it; not worth the extra effort. The clouds were deepening and the light beginning to fade when I reached the monument on the summit of the hill Llys y Frenhines, which I had marked as my end point for the day. You hope, when you find a monument, that it might have a moving inscription, or a tale of heroic sacrifice. I peered at the stones. The monument commemorated the planting of the forest. Great. The users of TrigpointingUK rate this point as the joint 2184th best in the UK, which I would have said was generous.
I finally had some patchy signal, and checked the forecast. There was a chance of thunder in the night. That was all I needed. I pitched my tent some way down off the summit, and went to bed damp and feeling sorry for myself.