Day 3: No Picnic

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.

Who do they think they are?

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.

18th Century bridge in Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr

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.

This sums up how I felt about reaching this monument

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.

Day 2: The Stranger

I woke to a grey day, the first of many. Without much ado, I breakfasted, packed up my tent and set off. A couple of kilometres down the road was Plas-y-Brenin Outdoor Training Centre. A footpath took me through some of their grounds. Turning a corner, I encountered a curious sight. There appeared to be seven or eight corpses or unconscious people scattered about on the ground. I did nothing to help them. The fact that several of them had contrived to fall onto comfortable camping mats led me to believe they might be faking it. Sure enough, moments later, seven or eight more people jogged round the corner and instantly began attending to each one, followed by a first aid instructor.

Rain and I arrived in Capel Curig, and I stopped at the Moel Siabod café to shelter and post an update on my justgiving page. A man came to sit on the sofa opposite me and, seeing my gear, asked what I was up to. I told him, and then he told me about his love of long-distance cycling. He had come to it late in life. After retiring, he decided, without having done anything like it before, to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Having enjoyed that, the next year he upped the ante and cycled round the coast of Britain. I am not much of a cyclist myself, but it is good to know the option is available to take it up well into your sixties.

Anyone who has been on a multi-day backpacking trip will know that entering an establishment where food other than camping supplies can be purchased is a dangerous game. Your cravings take over and you apparently forget every other time you have entered a shop. Is is typical to walk out in a kind of daze clutching a tin of peaches in syrup, a loaf of brioche, an unidentified liquid that you thought looked tasty but turns out to be window cleaner, and a single egg. This being a café, I didn’t have quite that freedom, but I still slightly took leave of my senses. The counter was festooned with delicious-looking treats, and I decided an enormous scone was just what I needed. “Do you want jam, cream, or butter?” The lady asked me.

“Um, yes, er, can I have all of it?” I took out my card to pay.

“There’s a five-pound minimum. You could get a banana too.” Fine by me. “Help yourself,” she gestured to one side, then turned back to the kitchen. Oh, right, then. I picked a scone at least as big as a melon from the tray and sat back down. Something felt off. I couldn’t put my finger on what. I lifted my big scone to my mouth, took a bite, and tried vainly to catch the cascade of crumbs in my other hand. This definitely felt wrong. I saw someone come out of the kitchen with a pair of tongs, grab a scone in them, and disappear back again. I looked down at the scone I had just taken a bite out of. Ah. The banana. She meant help myself to the banana. She would assume I would know not to take a scone in my hands because it’s a café and I had ordered it with jam and things anyway. Two days I had been on the road and already I had gone feral.

Embarrassing as it was, coming clean was the only solution that wouldn’t a) make me feel like an irredeemable criminal or b) involve some kind of sitcom-like scenario where I stuffed the whole thing in my mouth like a hamster before my actual order arrived. When the rain stopped, I left the café as an idiot, but one with a clear conscience.

Forest on the way to Betws-y-coed

The sky brightened as I followed forest tracks to Betws-y-coed. Lots of folk were out for a potter alongside the river. As someone who comes to these places in order to spend all day marching up to the summits and back, it is easy to forget you can enjoy mountain views perfectly well from the valleys, and in much more comfort. I crossed a surprising little suspension footbridge over the Conwy and began following small roads southeast. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had planned to follow long-distance footpaths wherever possible, and had discovered one beginning in Pentrefoelas called the Hiraethog Trail, which went more or less in the right direction for me. I was therefore winding my way through countryside to reach it.

Not far on from Betws-y-coed, the walking took on a different feel. I was away from footpaths and walkers, and it was quiet. More than that though, I no longer felt expected to be there. I half anticipated passing cars to stop and ask if I was lost; “The mountains are back in that direction. What are you coming this way for?”

Not that there was anything unattractive about the area. Idyllic was the word to describe it. This is a word we use a lot in Britain to trick ourselves into feeling better about our countryside. Idyllic means: beautiful to someone who has had it hammered into them from childhood that domestic grazing animals, mossy fence posts, and hills under 200 ft high are as close to Eden as fallen Man can aspire. The fjords of Norway have nothing on our furrows. Fortunately, I have had this idea hammered into me as much as anyone else, and could admire the view, particularly where I could see the mountains beginning to shrink beyond the pastures and get a sense of my progress. Showers of rain came and went, leaving everything sparklingly fresh when the sun came out. For several hours my only interactions were nods with passing drivers. My progress was frequently interrupted by blackberries.

A pasturised idyll

That may all sound lovely, but I was starting to feel my lack of fitness. The beginnings of weariness were creeping into my legs, to an extent that would be no bother at all if I was confident in having a comfortable night’s sleep, but really I had no idea where I would end up that night. I also needed to find somewhere to fill up on water. The one time all afternoon that I had passed a farmer outside his house, I had not been bold enough to ask for water straight away, and then the moment had passed. I hoped there would be another. These wants gnawed at my peace of mind.

It was getting late when I found myself passing through the yard of a cattle farm. I had thought I was on a public footpath, but I must have taken a wrong turn. These places can be less idyllic close up to the big industrial barns, electric fences, and tracks churned up by thousands of driven hooves. Being an unwitting trespasser did not help settle me. I came down to where a cow-trodden bridge crossed a stream, and decided that getting some slightly muddy water just in case would be better than nothing.

A little further on, I passed a small farm house with a car outside. This may be a generational thing, but I was reluctant to knock on the door, partly because doing so would involve going through a gate and crossing the no-man’s land of their garden, during which time I would definitely feel criminal. It would be easier and less of a confrontation, I decided, to try to hail them from the track. I tried several times before I realised I was just shouting at an empty house, and moved on.

Darkness was rapidly falling. Back on a public footpath, I passed through another farmyard, where there were lights on in the open barn. A couple were working inside, and two young boys were running about. I called to them. They looked up, startled to see someone standing in their yard in the dark. The woman approached me, sending her boys inside. I said that I was starting the Hiraethog trail and asked if she knew anywhere ahead where I might be able to camp. I added that I was walking to Scotland, as if that explained things. “Quite a journey,” she lilted drily. She went back and consulted her husband. Snippets of Welsh reached me. In that moment, I saw myself as I truly was: a strange man with a strange tale outside a family’s home at a strange time of night. Almost a creature from folklore. “If a hairy traveller approaches your house at night saying he’s walking to Scotland and asking where he can sleep, what must you do to avoid misfortune?” Caution, not trust, was the natural response people should have towards me, regardless of what kind of person I think I am. She came back and described a spot that might be suitable, and gave me directions. I asked if she might be able to fill my water bag too. By this stage the sons had come back out and were cycling round and round while staring at me. She came back with the water, and I thanked her and ghosted off into the night, glad not to be disturbing this family’s peace any more.

Cooking while expecting at any moment to be torn asunder by hungry dogs

Peace was not going to be a feature of that night. I passed another farm, where there was a large cage with a pack of dogs inside, who quickly sensed my passing and began to raise the dead. I couldn’t remember the woman’s directions. A small hilltop that looked promising on the map turned out to be too overgrown and was too close to the ravenous pack for my liking. As I moved away I also could hear an occasional loud bang. A little further on, there was an unfenced field. I scouted round it to be sure there was no livestock. Although I could still hear the dogs barking, I decided I just wanted to stop walking, so I stuck up my tent in the most discreet (and dampest and sluggiest) corner of the field, cooked my supper, and got my head down. As far as I could tell, the dogs barked all night.

Day 1: Summertime on Snowdon

I missed the bus to Pen-y-pas (damn those Saturday timetables) and tried thumbing for a lift instead. I was picked up by a man who was tremendously excited to be in the mountains with his son (“There they are, Willoughby! Hee hee! There they are!”). It was, in fairness, a gorgeous day – Summer’s last, peaceful sigh before Autumn overcame it. I stowed the bulk of my bag in the café and joined the merry hoard on its way up the Pyg track.

Porridge for breakfast in my hilltop clearing

I had my Spinal Research collection pot with me. I had not planned how I was going to use it. Seeing the masses of people, I decided it certainly wouldn’t be practical to approach them all and explain what I was doing – better to just get on with it. Besides, I didn’t want to feel like I was irritating my way across three countries. I did leave the pot swinging in view along the side of my bag, however, and this made for some lovely encounters where people stopped me to ask what I was doing and whether they could donate.

The ascent was mostly uneventful. I walked in a line of hundreds going up, passing hundreds coming down. At the top, I queued for the summit cairn for ten or fifteen minutes to grab a quick, crowded selfie. I may have had to shoulder the odd miscreant aside in order to place my collection pot onto the bronze plaque for a picture, but then what is the point of charity if you don’t show off about it?

Queue for the summit cairn
Out of my way, I’m a philanthropist

The view excelled. In my experience, even on a sunny day, Snowdon has a habit of stubbornly keeping its little cloud bobble hat on, but today, mountains, hills, forests, fields, and sea all stretched away, endless, eventually to disappear seamlessly into the blue sky. Terry Pratchett’s personification of Death claims that the infinite is blue (at least, when seen from the outside), and on a day like this, one could believe it.

In general, the idea of coming down a mountain the same way I went up is too dull to contemplate. The route round the other side of the Snowdon horseshoe therefore beckoned. The moment I dropped off the summit, I found quiet, stillness, and total solitude. The steep, loose track down was treacherous and demanded attention. I took my time. Ever since my accident, my knees have been liable to flare up in pain, normally triggered by long stretches of downhill. That was one of my biggest fears for the entire challenge; something that genuinely could cause me to really struggle. If I could just get through the first few days, though, I would probably have enough time on relatively flat ground to build up the strength I would need. So slowly, slowly I went down the mountain.

The steep track away from the crowds

Southeast of the summit, the way round the horseshoe drops down about 350m to a steep-sided saddle, before rising 150m again to the minor summit of Y Lliwedd. I eyed it skeptically. I had already come to the conclusion that striving for maximum efficiency was going to be a common theme of the entire walk. Before the lowest point of the saddle, there is also a spur going northeast. Most of the ground to my left as I went along was too steep to negotiate, but the spur looked like it might provide an escape route. I was sitting and consulting my map when I was passed by three lads heading in the direction I was contemplating. “Is there a way down there?” I hailed them.

“No idea!” came the cheerful reply. I decided to follow them.

Mountaineers can easily become like the frog in the pan in the old wives’ tale. You can move slowly and carefully into an increasingly sketchy situation, without noticing what you have done until there are no brilliant options to get you out. The lads started to pick their way down with me in tow, here on grass, there on rocks, down a slope that quietly got steeper. We were not on the end of the spur but off one side of it. A scree-filled gully hushed up the conversation as we all gave our full concentration to our foot placement. Down and nervily down we picked our way. I came to the front to negotiate some, slippery steps across small streams and rills. Eventually we made it to flatter ground, and sat down by Llyn Llydaw.

Off the path

The lads were a friendly bunch from Warwick, called Sam, Ashley, and Tom, who had come to explore the mountains for the weekend. Like me, they had been looking for a way down that avoided the crowds. I sat there with them for about half an hour, throwing stones into the lake and listening to them talk. As someone who grew up desperately shy, I still get moments where I marvel at how pleasant a time I can have chatting with people I just met. The sun was sinking into late afternoon when we set off back down the miners’ track.

I chatted to Tom for a while, who was infectiously positive about his life. He said he had been in bad places, but things were looking up since he had met good people. I gave him an account of my accident. I reached the part where I hit the ground. “I thought I was dying,” I said, sombrely.

“I’ve died twice!” he chipped, in the most beautiful piece of conversational one-upping I ever have or will encounter. It turned out he had twice been revived after his heart stopped. Everyone has a story to tell.

The three of them had to leap straight onto a bus at Pen-y-pas, but they wished me luck for my challenge. I bought a cheese pastry and recovered my bag. God, it felt heavy. I was going to carry this all the way to Scotland? After a rest, I shouldered it with a sigh and began the long march. A couple of hours of evening walking along the roadside brought me to a campsite outside Capel Curig, where I settled for the night. I was tired but my knees had survived. That wasn’t too hard. But then, that was the only day of the whole walk that I would start fresh. It would get harder.

Day 0: How do you get two whales in a train?

The kindness of strangers began to manifest itself straight away.

Seeing my ungainly quickstep as I rushed for the bus, a woman pulled over and offered me a lift to the stop in the next town, which I gratefully took. On the bus an old lady struck up a conversation reminiscing about the days of her youth spent hiking in the Lake District and wished me the best of luck.

My route to North Wales took me through London. I dropped in on the Spinal Research team as I passed through, who were delightful. I was nervous about taking up more than my fair share of space on the tube with my huge backpack. Instead of being heckled and tutted at, though, I was asked about my challenge by the man next to me, who popped my first cash donation into my pot and said that good things would happen to me (his actual words were “good things happen to good people”, but I think the implication was that I was one of them). Good things were already happening, and continued to do so.

The collection pot stayed strapped to the side of my bag to show everyone what a good person I am

The sun was hanging low in the sky as I cruised along the coast of North Wales to Llandudno Junction. I hopped off at the station for my last change of train. A young couple slung me a few coins and we got talking. They were also heading to Betws-y-coed, so we sat together on the train and upon arriving, they offered to take me out to dinner. They were excellent company, with lots of stories of their own adventures across the world, which I was starting to feel must be full of wonderful people.

Sunset sky over North Wales

After saying goodbye to them, I looked at a map for a likely camping spot, and settled on a hilltop just outside the town. I climbed up through the forest until the trees opened up in a heathery clearing under a deep, dark sky glittering with uncountable stars. I eschewed my tent and bivvied in the pine-scented open air. Few adventures could get off to a more auspicious start.

Natalie and Jonny, the lovely couple I met on the train

Planning and Doing

I had had the idea for a big charity walk floating around in my head for some time. Floating around in heads is what ideas do best, but it is not the best thing for them to do. Most of the ideas I have ever had have never left their mental holding pen, or at best have hitched a brief joy ride on phrases like “wouldn’t it be cool to…” before deciding that actually the head is where they belong.

The idea of walking the Three Peaks presented itself with a few advantages, for a putative big idea. Firstly, most British people would understand the challenge and have a rough idea of the distance involved with little or no explanation. As British people would, for the most part, be the ones I was raising money from, this seemed like a good thing. Secondly, I would get to learn a bit more about my home country and see parts of it I wouldn’t otherwise see. Thirdly, a bit of googling indicated that not a huge number of people had done it this way. I found a couple of records of people running it (the tragedy of being a walker is that no matter how impressive a feat you think you might have pulled off, some cheeky jogger will have done it in a third of the time), but there was no set route and I would get to plan it myself. Fourthly, I wouldn’t have to fly to reach the start. We’re in a climate crisis guys.

However, I was held back by doubts. I was uncertain about how my seemingly-healed injuries would handle prolonged strain, and about how I would find a place to camp every night, and about how I would go about fundraising, and even about whether the very concept of sponsored challenges was flawed. I let these doubts stop me from making any progress, or even from telling people that it was something I was thinking about. If it didn’t happen, for whatever reason, then the fewer people who knew about it, the fewer times I would have to admit that I had failed to go through with it.

I had a window of time to aim for. I was working as an ecologist on a six-month contract, ending in mid-September. If I could start immediately after that, then I might be able to do it before the worst of the Autumn weather set in, or before any other commitments got in the way. Months passed, and it was still just an idea. I had got as far as looking up the distance on google maps. Time was pressing, if I was going to be able to plan it properly, so I had to commit or fail. I sent an email to Spinal Research, proposing the idea. That was it. It was real, and happening, and pulling out would involve letting them down via some shameful admin. A completely unearned sense of achievement washed over me. I had to start planning.

Plotting my first leg

Feeling like everything I did was just a wild guess at how to go about this, I subscribed to OS premium, and began route plotting. I started at the top of Snowdon and clicked my way east and north, with the general rule that I would try to follow long-distance footpaths wherever possible, and avoid roads. I began creating legs of 20-25 km, assuming that would be roughly what I would be able to manage at the beginning. I still had no idea where I might camp. Spinal Research were incredibly enthusiastic and sent me a fundraising pack and some t-shirts, which I took to imply some level of faith in me, utterly unfounded.

I also began telling people about it. I made a justgiving page and a facebook page, and said that I would love for people to join me for sections if they could. A few friends who lived along the way, or who had a relative who lived along the way, offered me places to stay. Donations started coming in straight away. “Bloody hell,” I thought, “I really hope my knees don’t pack in on the way down Snowdon.” I bought some knee supports.

After plotting legs as far as Scafell Pike, I let it rest for a while. I found the email address of Tina Paige, who was one of the people who had run it, and asked her for advice. She sent me a lovely, long, detailed reply explaining the route she took. When I started plotting again, I think I forgot how far I had been planning for each day, and created legs of more than 30 km, day after day. When I had finished, the whole thing came out as 29 legs, which, despite being completely arbitrary, I decided to try to stick to. It would mean I could start and end on a weekend, at least.

The classic “put everything on the floor before packing it” picture, framed by my thighs for some reason

Suddenly there was not much more to be done. I printed out some maps. I bought some camping food. I booked a train ticket. The days ran down and the donations mounted up. At last, the time came to check I had everything packed and to set off on foot for the local bus stop. I looked at my watch and realised that after all that planning, I was going to be late for my bus. I started to run.


Who am I and why am I doing this

My name is Alasdair, and I sometimes go hiking.

I have been on a few exciting backpacking trips over the past few years. On these trips I usually try to keep a journal, with the emphasis on “try”. I start off full of enthusiasm and romantic ideas about the scruffy but transcendently descriptive notebooks I am going to bring home and lock up in a chest for my grandchildren one day to peruse. The first entries wildly overestimate my commitment to the endeavour and set a standard for length and detail that I have no hope of sustaining. And so, I get further and further behind, before eventually giving up and promising myself that I’ll finish them when I get home and have a) nothing better to do and b) a desk.

This blog is therefore an attempt at giving myself a reason to write properly about my travels. In particular, for the moment at least, I mean for it to be a record of my most recent big hike in September and October 2019, when I walked up the highest peaks in Wales, England, and Scotland, and every step of the 500 miles between them.

This was the longest distance I had ever walked, and was a fundraising challenge for Spinal Research. It came three years after I broke my back in a climbing accident and was intended as me proving to myself that my injuries wouldn’t hold me back, and as me helping in a small way to change the future of spinal injury.

I am also hoping that maybe if anyone is planning a similar idea, they might be able to find this and get some inspiration. I had very little idea what I was doing beforehand and found it quite hard to find information online about whether many people had done a challenge like this before. Google “three peaks challenge on foot” and you get results for the normal three peaks challenge, involving a car. Google “walk from Snowdon to Ben Nevis” and you get walks on Snowdon and walks on Ben Nevis. The pages I wanted could have been out there, but they were drowned out by the more common results (I realise that is what will happen with this blog, but I’ll either cross or ignore that bridge when I get to it).

For now, thanks for reading this 🙂