53-55: The Berwyn, Montgomeryshire/Denbighshire/ Wrexham

Cadair Berwyn from the north
Cadair Berwyn, highest of the day’s three CTs, from the north.

Date: 1st July 2022.

Weather conditions: Could have been worse: i.e., it wasn’t raining. Could also have been better, i.e. it was rather grey and chilly. More sunshine would have been nice, if only for the photography.

County Tops bagged: I entitled the page ‘The Berwyn’ to stop the display becoming too unwieldy, as this is the name of a massif on which there are no fewer than three County Tops; this is the most realistic triple in the whole country. This section will therefore get a little extended, so bear with me.

The first one bagged today (number 53 on my list) is Moel Sych, the summit of which lies at grid reference SJ066319 and has a spot height of 2,713 feet/827m above sea level. This was the highest point in Montgomeryshire; in fact its summit marked the ‘tripoint’ where Montgomeryshire, Merionethshire and Denbighshire all met. This county was absorbed into the region of Powys in 1974 and did not re-emerge, so Moel Sych is a historic top only.

Moel Sych
Moel Sych.

Next is Cadair Berwyn. The highest point of this, and of the whole Berwyn massif, is a prominent summit at SJ071323, a few hundred yards north-east of Moel Sych, with a spot height of 2,726 feet/830m. This is said to be the highest point in Denbighshire, which does have both a historic and modern existence — albeit with different boundaries in each case.

However, whether this actually is the highest point in modern Denbighshire is not certain, thanks to the existence of the nearby OS trig point (SJ073327) with a height, like Moel Sych’s, of 827m. A close check of the map suggests that while this trig point is within the boundary of modern Denbighshire, the higher summit instead lies just over the border in Powys. But the boundaries have changed, and it looks, from old maps, as if the point at 830m was in historic Denbighshire even if it is not in the modern version. Let’s not trouble about these things too much: we’ll call Cadair Berwyn, at 830m, the CT of Denbighshire and have done with it.

Cadair Berwyn trig
The trig point at 827m, with the 830m summit and Moel Sych behind.

The third Top of the day is Craig Berwyn. This does not have a clearly-defined summit, but at the north-east end of the plateau a junction of fences at SJ077336 marks the Top of the modern local authority of Wrexham, at 2,591 feet/790m. (This is the highest CT I’ve reached so far that is not marked by some kind of edifice, whether cairn, trig point or shelter.) Although named after its largest town this ‘urban’ authority encompasses wide swathes of countryside that used to be in Denbighshire and Flintshire.

Rankings of these by altitude:

  • Historic Tops: Cadair Berwyn is 18th, Moel Sych 19th.
  • Modern Tops: Cadair Berwyn 14th, Craig Berwyn 17th.
  • Full list: Cadair Berwyn 21st, Moel Sych 22nd, Craig Berwyn 27th.

[ << (52) Carn Glas-choire, Nairnshire | (56) Bald Hill, Oxfordshire (historic) >> ]

Peat bog
Peat bog (though not an unattractive one) on top of Craig Berwyn.

Start and end point of walk: Started and finished at the car park at Tan-y-Pistyll, which is at SJ074295. This is about 4 miles up a narrow road from the little town of Llandrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.

The walk took me just over 3.5 hours.

Pub at end: Had the owners of Tan-y-Pistyll not charged me an extortionate £5 to park there (not to mention another 40p to use the loo), I might have had a cuppa in their tea room, but I felt they’d already had quite enough money from me for one day. The nearest pubs are either the Wynnstay Arms or the Hand Inn in Llandrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, both of which have apparently survived Wales’s particularly virulent version of The Great Fear. But I patronised neither due to having to drive home afterwards.

Distance walked: 7 miles/10.6km approximately.

Summit rocks
Summit rocks of Cadair Berwyn.

Total ascent: 2,150 feet/655m approx.

Difficulty: ★★★. This is a proper hike in mountain country, but considering three CTs are bagged it’s relatively short, and beyond some steep sections and the occasional boggy bit there is nothing too difficult about it.

Ease of access: ★★. To reach the starting point there is no option but to use a car: no bus could fit up the narrow road to Tan-y-Pistyll even if there was a demand for a service. Buses get no further than Llanrhaeadr, or alternatively Llangynog, which is more to the south but slightly nearer. From each of these locations, a walk would be possible but it would be much longer and more difficult, definitely a full day’s work.

On the other hand, and unlike some other walks done recently, this is not all stuck out in some peripheral corner of the country. One could drive to Tan-y-Pistyll from Manchester or Birmingham in under two hours (although see my commentary at the end).

View up the valley
View back up the valley of descent, to Moel Sych (left) and Cadair Berwyn.

Scenic qualities: ★★★★. While not as dramatic as my previous walk in Scotland I still think this is worth four stars. This is proper, glacial remnant mountain country, with rocky outcrops and extensive views. The waterfall of Pistyll Rhaeadr is also very impressive, and seals the deal.

The area: However the boundaries of the various composite counties have altered in recent years, the general scenery and feel of the place can’t have changed much. “Unspoiled” is a cliche but here it does seem to fit; there are no pylons, dual carriageways, Centre Parcs etc. I stayed overnight in Denbigh, which (while not really being very near the walk itself) was a pleasant and attractive town. I’ve seen very little of Montgomeryshire in my life but Denbighshire and Wrexham are certainly all worth a visit. Except perhaps Rhyl.

Map of walk 53-55

Map: Probably one could get away without bringing along OS Explorer 255: Llangollen and Berwyn, but I almost always bring a map anyway.

On this summary map, insofar as my route could be considered a circuit, I went round it in a clockwise direction. Note that both Cadair Berwyn’s tops get a summit marker on the map, whereas Craig Berwyn does not.

Route: This is mostly a very good walk, although the ascent of Moel Sych is a dull trudge by the route I took. A way to change this would be to do it the other way around, which would hopefully turn that slope into a fast and easy route of descent. It’d probably be alright if the clouds came down, or in snow.

Pistyll Rhaeadr
Part of the very impressive Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall, and its natural arch.

Do have a look at Pistyll Rhaeadr before beginning the climb (particularly after you have paid £5 for the privilege). This waterfall is 240 feet (73m) high, and while sometimes referred to as the highest waterfall in Wales, it doesn’t fall in a single drop. Nevertheless it is a thing of beauty, set off excellently by the natural arch in the middle, through which the water seems to thread as if it were a curtain going through a ring. It’s well worth seeing: take the path to the left of the toilets and you will be there in just a couple of minutes.

After that, the walk starts up through the gate on the left, just outside the entrance to the car park. Take the path uphill until it reaches what is effectively a crossroads junction. If you want to take my advice about doing the walk the other way around, turn right here to cross the river; heading straight on also may be an option. I turned left, however, and followed the clear track up the hillside.

Moel Sych summit
The summit cairn of Moel Sych, with the rest of the ridge behind.

Where this tops out you could, via a gate leading into the woods, also inspect the top of Pistyll Rhaeadr, but I didn’t bother. Instead, head up a track to the right, initially sketchy but it becomes clearer as it ascends the slopes of, first, Trum Felen and then Moel Sych. This is rather a trudge to be honest, though it is, at least, the only dull bit of the walk and gets most of the climbing out of the way in one go.

From Moel Sych’s summit cairn the ridge north can be seen in full, sweeping along in three undulations as far as Cadair Bronwen (not visited by me today although you could add it if you wanted). The route is obvious, then, and one can stick close to the edge of the escarpment to enjoy the dramatic views into the cwm of Llyn Lluncaws and down the valley of the Afon Iwrch (pronounciation guidance unavailable for that one).

Llyn Lluncaws
The view down to Llyn Lluncaws.

To ensure you bag the actual CT of Craig Berwyn, carry on along its flat top as far as the stile at the end, just before it is impossible to continue further without descending. It took me about 35 minutes to reach that point from Moel Sych, whereupon I just turned around and came back over the top(s) of Cadair Berwyn, having lunch in the copious wind shelter on the summit, which contains what is possibly Wales’s most uncomfortable chair — see it to believe it.

I descended via a path that is not marked on the OS map, but which slants down the face of Cadair Berwyn just below the summit. The point where this path joins the ridge is fairly clear although you would need to be very sure about this junction if doing the walk in mist (however, if you did reverse my route this wouldn’t be a problem). Take this path down a short way then turn right to drop down to Llyn Lluncaws, which would be a more attractive sheet of water if it weren’t becoming choked by some kind of brown weed. The path becomes a little indistinct through a patch of heather, but just head for the outlet and then climb up onto a clear path, turn left and begin the descent proper.

View west to Lake Bala
View west from the tops, with Lake Bala (Llyn Tegid) in the distance.

At one point, just before the stream drops into a little gorge, cross over the water, and then the rest of the descent is on a clear and pleasant path that occupies a terrace high above the valley floor below. Once opposite the crossroads junction mentioned above, zig-zag back a short way to reattain the path used at the start of the walk, and return to the car park.

Commentary: I personally know a couple of people (both women as it happens) who really are the type of super-fit person capable of running 30 or 40 miles before breakfast. (I have seen one of them, Jilly, literally do this.) For people like this, then, there may well be other County Top Triples that can be achieved: after today’s walk, the next most achievable one, judged from the map, is Black Hill (Kirklees), Black Chew Head (Oldham) and Hoarstone Edge (Tameside): feasible, though that would be a tough day. For mere mortals like me, and 99.9% of the rest of the population, this expedition into the Berwyn range is the most realistic place to bag three CTs in one walk. Which is as good a reason as any to do it.

Climbing Cadair Berwyn
Others possibly heading for three CTs in one day: climbing Cadair Berwyn as I was descending.

There are 23 Welsh Tops whether historic or modern, and prior to today I had only done three of them (Holyhead Mountain, Craig y Llyn and Moel Famau), so bagging three more today certainly beefed up the ratio. I definitely wanted to do a Welsh top (or three) so arranged this around the first football match of my season on the evening before, in Llandyrnog, near Denbigh. That was hit by a rain storm so I’m glad I experienced nothing similar today.

I enjoyed this trip into the secluded, north-eastern bits of Wales. Covidnoia hit here hard, and the damage is still evident in closed pubs and businesses in Denbigh, where I spent the night — my hotel (the Guildhall Tavern) was very pleasant, good room, good food, all the boxes ticked, but I was the only guest there. A damn shame. But the point of this project all along has been to see new places, and my 27 hours out of the house certainly achieved that. I liked all that I saw, too. Although the owners of Tan-y-Pistyll can sod off if they think that a £5 charge simply to leave one’s car there is justified.

Jumpy sheep
Today’s Formal Sheep Portrait, though it was trying to run away.

The only other downer on the day was the drive home. I had expected about 2½ hours from Tan-y-Pistyll to Hebden Bridge, based both on my experience of the drive out the day before, and also what Google Maps (which of course we all believe) was telling me. In actuality it took nearly an hour longer, most of which was spent looking at the bumpers of other vehicles in front, whether on the A483 north to Chester or the motorways after that. I’d really had enough of the journey by the time I arrived back and collapsed into the arms of the pub.

That’s nine CTs in a row done in the car — enough! Back to public transport for me, at least for a while. And these nine in a row were all outside England; it’s February (in Kent) where I last bagged one in my country of birth. The next one is planned already however, as I have to go to Oxford for work in a couple of weeks’ time, so am looking at Bald Hill in the Chilterns — via the bus. Plans don’t always work out of course, but that’s the target for number 56. See you then.

Trudging up Moel Sych, with the promise of better scenery to come.

4 thoughts on “53-55: The Berwyn, Montgomeryshire/Denbighshire/ Wrexham

  1. That looked a nice walk. Never been to that bit of Wales.

    I think Wales has generally been hit harder by Covid (or the restrictions) than England. We were in Cardiff recently and it was evident there in terms of closed pubs etc.

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