The Rhinogydd – really quite rugged

I can’t add much to the accounts of hiking in the Rhinog mountains of mid-Wales in various other blogs and forums – it really is Wales’s last wilderness, it really is very rugged, beautiful and almost unvisited, and there really are feral goats living up there. It’s a long way from the crowded and clearly marked paths around Snowdon itself (this is part of the Snowdonia National Park, but we didn’t see a single park sign or any indication of its existence – and that’s absolutely fine as long as it’s not needed).

Most day hikers enter from Cwm Bychan, to the west, where it’s possible to park – there’s beautiful oak wood here with some interesting biodiversity, and you can then reach the high peaks by hiking up the so-called Roman Steps, which are in fact probably the remains of a medieval packhorse trail to Harlech. There are a few footpaths that cross the range from west to east, emerging south of Trawsfynydd on the A470, Wales’s main north-south road.

However we chose the toughest option, the full length of the range from north to south, starting at Talsarnau and emerging at Barmouth. I’m not going to go into details, but we parked by a small lake above the village and hiked up to camp not too far from the very unusual stone circle of Bryn Cader Faner, known as ‘the Welsh Crown of Thorns’ (the name actually means ‘the hill of the throne of the flag’). Originally up to 30 slate pillars, about two metres long, were arranged in a circle jutting out at an angle from a mound of stones; less than twenty remain, but it’s still a very striking and unusual sight. From there we climbed up and along, passing over or near the main summits, which have huge dips in between them – not quite Nepalese in scale, but you still spend a lot of time descending in order to climb again. It’s also a test of your route-finding skills, as there is absolutely no made path here – some of the sheep tracks are helpful, but some are not.

The one point where I need to clarify the other trip reports and posts on hiking here is the descent from Rhinog Fawr (‘Great Rhinog’ – although it’s not actually the highest peak here) – the consensus seems to be that the direct route down into Bwlch Drws Ardudwy is the best, but this cannot be, it’s an absolute monster of a rocky chute that goes on and on (well, it’s in two parts, but you get the idea). Looking back, it seems that heading a little way west and then following the obvious slope down would work better.

The masochist on some other peak

Having survived that, we managed the short climb up to Llyn Cwmhosan, a small lake below Rhinog Fach (‘Little Rhinog’) which made an ideal sheltered campsite. Next day we continued up to the larger lake of Llyn Howel (and a certain masochist went to the top of Rhinog Fach) and slogged up Y Llethr, which is actually the highest peak in the Rhinogs at 750m – but first there was a surreal moment when we got to the top of the steep section and emerged into what looked like a field, with grass and a drystone wall. An upland field, definitely, and owned by the National Trust, but still a field. And from here you pretty much follow the wall all the way to edge of the moors above Barmouth, going over Y Llethr and various other tops. In our case this was head-down into wind and rain, but your experience may (with luck) be different.

Llyn Howell and Rhinog Fach from Y Llethr

We were tired, but happy – it really is a wild area with very little human impact at all in the areas we saw. In his book Feral, proposing the re-wilding of Britain, George Monbiot sounds off against the spread of heather across the hills of mid-Wales, calling it a green desert, but our local ecologist friend insists he’s wrong (after all, Monbiot is a writer, not a working ecologist). Mature heather, allowed to grow reasonably high off the ground, does provide shelter for many smaller birds and invertebrates – I saw perhaps the first grouse I’ve seen that weren’t bred to be shot. We did also see the so-called feral goats – they’ve actually been here since the end of the Ice Ages but were domesticated and then abandoned a few hundred years ago to cope for themselves – which they do perfectly well.

A short stay in Svaneti

I’m now in Svaneti, the best known of Georgia’s mountain regions, both because of the stunning views of Europe’s highest peaks (Elbruz – although that’s wholly in Russia – Ushba, Shkhara and Tetnuldi, all over 4,700m in altitude) and because of its rugged and authentic mountain culture. When I first came here in 1998 it literally was bandit country and you couldn’t go out of town without a guide and not at all at night – now it’s quite the opposite and tourists are flocking here, although there are a few complaints about over-charging… New guesthouses are sprouting up everywhere and from the sound of it it’s pretty hard to find a bed in August without a reservation. There’s a new ski resort too (the second one here) so it’s getting pretty busy in winter too.

Evening light on Tetnuldi, seen from Mestia

One thing that made a huge difference was the rebuilding of the road in from Zugdidi to Mestia in 2011 – the journey time was halved, from six hours to three, and it became much more comfortable and less stressful. Now the concrete surface is decaying, and only being repaired where absolutely necessary, possibly due to its being yet another of former President Saakashvili’s signature projects that the the present government prefers to forget about.

The phrase ‘daylight robbery’ may still be applied to the marshrutkas from Zugdidi to Mestia, which still charge 20 lari. This was fair enough when it took six hours, but it really should have been cut when the new road was completed – the fact that it costs only 5 lari more to go to Kutaisi and 35 lari to go all the way to Tbilisi makes this pretty obvious.

I’ve also just been in Racha, another lovely wild mountain district to the east of Svaneti – there’s no risk of a tourism boom here until the road along the Rioni river from Kutaisi is rebuilt (although there is a decent road from the Tbilisi direction). Marshrutkas charge 7 lari from Kutaisi to Oni, which currently takes 3 hours, the same as Zugdidi to Mestia (and 9 lari to Oni, half an hour further).

All in all, there’s a serious risk of overcrowding in Svaneti, with tourist numbers destroying the thing they’re seeking. Once you’ve seen the back alleys of Mestia and Ushguli, with their medieval defensive towers looming above, the best thing is to go hiking, and that is still a great way to get away from the crowds and enjoy the scenery. The Trans Caucasian Trail is an inspiring volunteer project to create a through-hiking route along the lines of the Appalachian Trail, for backpackers willing to carry a tent and supplies for several days (although in some places it’s possible to hike from village guesthouse to village guesthouse). This summer (2017) their trail crews were working to the west of Mestia, where there are far fewer hikers than to the east – there’s already a popular four-day route from Mestia to Ushguli, which can be done village-to-village without camping. There’ll be more on this in the new edition of my Bradt guide to Georgia, of course.

One clear benefit of this kind of project is that some villages which had been virtually abandoned, with just a few people coming up to graze cattle in summer, have been revived, with inhabitants returning because of the opportunities brought by tourism.

Svaneti has free electricity, a Soviet bribe to allow construction of the huge Enguri hydro-electric dam (the power is also shared with the secessionist region of Abkhazia, but that’s another story) – and the inevitable result is that the switching and transmission gear is more or less unmaintained and power-cuts are frequent (if not too long). More dams are coming to Svaneti, despite protests at the lack of environmental scrutiny, so the electricity will probably continue to be free, but I’d be happier to see them investing in solar power, as in Tusheti. Internet access is also very unreliable, and the water supply tends to be fairly low pressure. All of this, of course, must be linked to the huge increase in the number of visitors. All in all, it’s great to see people flocking to these stunning mountains, but the tourism boom needs to be managed a bit better.

How to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. [It’s rather gratifying – this picture was picked up by another blog and got talked about a lot, so that the mayor of Mestia had to say he’d at least get the blue roof painted over. It turns out the house was built by a Svan living in the USA who soon died, alas.]
More sympathetic guesthouse construction in Mestia

A few notes on the Coast to Coast walk

I recently led a group on the Coast to Coast hike across northern England – it’s well covered by guidebooks and online resources, so I’ll just offer a few tangential thoughts here. Speaking to some Australians, I found that the C2C is the only British hike they had heard of before coming here (and the Camino de Santiago and the Tour du Mont Blanc are more or less the only ones on mainland Europe), and they were surprised how poorly signed it was. I explained that when Alfred Wainwright first wrote about it in 1973, he called his book ‘A Coast-to-Coast Walk’ and invited people to create their own version, knitting together public footpaths in the same way that he had done. But we like sheep (Herdwicks, of course) have gone astray, all treating his book as the bible, and as more and more B&Bs and cafés (not to mention baggage transfer services and the like) have opened along his route it’s become more and more entrenched as THE Coast-to-Coast. So maybe it needs to become a National Trail, like the Pennine Way, which was very busy when I was a lad but is not much heard of now. Fair enough, because it is pretty dull and samey.

We (Wilderness Travel) follow Wainwright’s advice and have created our own version of the C2C, starting from Ravenglass (to cut out the very dull first day from St Bees Head) and staying two nights in each hotel (with one exception) to fit the best hikes in around excellent feeding opportunities – we also cut out three more dull days, through Shap and across the Vale of York, both largely flat and agricultural and mostly on asphalt, and the slog across the Pennine watershed, which is largely peat bog. After the driest winter in twenty years, the worst bits of peat bog are not actually too bad, and there were lots of heli-bags of rocks by the path, indicating that more boggy sections are to be made dry and hiker-friendly.

But there’s actually been far more wet weather than dry in recent years – much of the Lake District was badly hit by Storm Desmond in December 2015. In Keswick the Pencil Museum, the town’s main rainy-weather attraction (ironically enough), was flooded and closed until May 2017 (taking the opportunity for a major revamp too). Across the road, the excellent Luca’s Ristorante just closed down, while the Keswick branch of fabulous Booth’s supermarket chain was also flooded, reopening in March 2016 – known as ‘the Waitrose of the north’, its bags carry tags like ‘Cumbria not Umbria’ and ‘fettle not feta’ (Yorkshire fettle being a suspiciously feta-like cheese). I saw Fitz Park, by the river in the centre of Keswick, being returfed in summer 2016, while the very popular Keswick to Threlkeld Railway Path was badly hit – a couple of hundred metres of path were washed away a mile or two east of town, two bridges collapsed into the River Greta and a third was soon closed. About half the path (from Low Briery to Brundholme Rd) reopened by Easter 2016 and the two collapsed bridges were cleared over the summer of 2016 (once the water was low enough), but rebuilding, or perhaps rerouting of the path, now seems to be stuck in a morass of national park planning and funding decisions. The A591, between Keswick and Grasmere, was also washed out, but was naturally a much higher priority than a walking and cycling route and was reopened in May 2016 – the lane on the far side of Thirlmere was used for a bus shuttle until a temporary roadway opened.

And spare a thought for Glenridding, which was hit hard twice in December 2015, by Storms Desmond and Eva – there was a lot of construction work underway in the streambed in the summer of 2016, and it was still going on the next summer. The previously nice Ramblers Bar at the Inn on the Lake in Glenridding reopened at the end of May 2016, in an enlarged and characterless form. Appleby was also hit by Storm Desmond and was just getting back to normal in May, in time for its annual invasion by Travellers attending the Horse Fair (which many residents would probably be happy to have seen cancelled).

East of the Pennines, York was also hit by flooding on Boxing Day of 2015, the most high-profile casualty being the Jorvik Viking Centre – this has undergone a £4.3m ‘re-imagining’, with more cutting-edge technology, and reopened in April 2017. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that the Yorkshire Museum has an exhibition entitled ‘Viking – Rediscover the Legend’ in the summer of 2017 – a reduced version of the successful British Museum exhibition. And it’s definitely a coincidence that York’s Mansion House (home to the Lord Mayor) is reopening in late 2017 after a couple of years of painstaking restoration and delays. It will display civic treasures with an exhibition of the city’s gold and silver collection, a Georgian kitchen and new virtual tours. This will presumably compete with Fairfax House, which claims to be ‘the finest Georgian town house in England’.

Some practicalities

In Keswick we love to eat at Morrel’s (shame about the group of noisy Americans – oh, no, that was us) and to drink at the Dog & Gun (recently refurbished but still offering goulash and Old Peculier – most of the time, anyway). It’s also worth checking out Magnolia, almost opposite Morrel’s – a bistro-bar with a great range of Belgian beers (also to be found in the Open All Hours Premier shop).

In Richmond (North Yorkshire) we have to stay at the King’s Head due to the lack of suitable alternatives. It’s just been refurbished and the ground floor is now a coffee-bar with no drinkable real ale when we were there (gin and tonics for all!), and reception is now upstairs. The bedrooms have weird spotlights and back-lighting behind the bedhead and the kind of ‘cool’ showers with controls that don’t show what they do or where the hot water is. We weren’t impressed.