Sarah Stirling has been exploring Snowdonia’s trails for several years. She takes OE on a runner’s journey through the history and breadth of its landscapes.
Before I moved to Snowdonia, I’d been wondering where I could live for a while, that combined my two favourite landscapes, mountains and sea. When I’d lived in Pembrokeshire, I’d dreamt of mountains. When I moved to Chamonix, I missed the sea. Norway? New Zealand?
Then serendipity lent a hand: I met Rob, said to my friend with a strange certainty, “I’d go out with that guy” and came to visit him in Llanberis. On our first date, we ran a 35km loop over all the Snowdonian mountains that encircle the village, then Rob cooked a curry on the clifftops at the coast. As the sun set over the purple heather and yellow gorse, lighting up the sea, I knew I’d found the right path.
I began spending a lot of time in Snowdonia. Different landscapes and stages in life sway you as a trail runner: in Chamonix, Europe’s ego-capital, I’d become bronzed in brash colours with big thighs from running uphill all day. In Snowdonia, I discovered more subtlety, variety and depth, as I began to settle down.
Compared to all the huge, spiky peaks in Chamonix, everything in Snowdonia was beauty in miniature and felt within easy reach. Spiky little summits; rounded, runnable grassy ridge-tops; patches of Celtic rainforest; prehistoric monuments; lakes, rivers, waterfalls and beaches all allowed for fun, mini-adventures that fitted in around this new thing I sometimes did at weekends — DIY — and allowed for fun link-ups.
At the time, I was reading Nan Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain, and felt inspired by her descriptions of mountains, not as summits to be conquered, but as living things with insides and pasts. I felt that I wanted to get to know this new backyard with a new intimacy. My mother’s family come from Wales, South Wales, so in a way it felt like discovering my own heritage. The Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ cannot be easily translated but it essentially means a longing for eras past; an elusive sense of missing home. Whatever it is, I began to feel it.
Because much of Snowdonia’s landscape is untameable — mountain ranges cover 50% of it, there are huge swathes of cliffs and beaches, and more than 100 of its lakes are over an acre in size — people have trodden lightly here and subtle evidence of every era of history remains. I began to slow down and pay more attention to Snowdonia’s ghosts.
Long before the last Ice Age, the land that is now Snowdonia bubbled with volcanoes. These were then covered over with thick sheets of ice and carved by the retreat of ancient glaciers. Today, all the dips and clefts in this carved-out landscape overflow with water. Sparkling water lights up valley floors, rushes along in rivers, dives off ledges in waterfalls and sits on the shoulders of mountains in pretty little pools.
And then, while I was looking back at a pretty stretch of water, I lost track of my footing and badly sprained my ankle. Only able to go on short walks, I found myself increasingly drawn to lakes for the easy exhilaration of cold water, and began a personal challenge to swim in as many different lakes, rivers and waterfalls as I could.
As I slowly began to run again, I put away any trail shoes with deep lugs on them, fearing their height would encourage ankle twists. Running in lower-drop shoes, I found, also encouraged me to run more sensitively: it helped me tune in. I got myself some Vibram barefoot running shoes, complete with separate toes, so I could feel everything that I ran over, delighting in textures on shorter runs to lake swims as I began to recover.
Pick any lake on the Snowdonia map, run to it and you won’t be disappointed. But here’s just one favourite, which I recommend planning a run-swim around: the trio of Llyn Idwal, Llyn Bochlwyd, and Llyn y Cwn. The atmospheric Cwm Idwal is nicknamed the Devil’s Kitchen, so these must be the Devil’s Bowls! Gazing around here, I expect a dragon to soar over, or to see a sword sticking out of a stone.
When the last Ice Age retreated ten thousand years ago, the world was recolonised by rainforests, both tropical and temperate. Did you know that Britain is home to some of the best surviving patches of the ancient temperate rainforest that once covered much of Western Europe?
Snowdonia’s ‘wildwood’ — I love this ancient, British term — was revered and feared in ancient times. Several Celtic Rainforests, which still survive, are named in the Mabinogion. These Welsh legends, which were handed down orally un-til writing came along, are Britain’s earliest collection of prose stories. They are the globally-important masterpieces that gave us King Arthur and Merlin.
About a year ago, almost £9m was secured in EU and Welsh government funding to restore these rainforests, and make them the stuff of legends once again. They make wonderful places to run. One of the most magical patches of rainforest that I have found is Felinrhyd, hidden in the back-of-beyond behind a village called Maentwrog. In the Mabinogion, Felinrhyd is the resting place of Pryderi, King of Dyfed, killed in single combat there with Gwydion, the magician.
It’s easy to believe magical things happened here. Huge waterfalls tumble over cliffs into natural swimming pools, creating waterfall spray that is locked in by the canopy. It creates a humid atmosphere, where time slows and rainforest plants like ferns, mosses, lichens and liverworts thrive in vibrant jungle colours. Everything feels very alive.
IRON AGE HISTORY
On a map, the Isle of Anglesey juts out like a head above Snowdonia and, below that, there’s the long arm of the Llyn Peninsula pointing back in time. Rural charm is preserved along its length: shopkeepers sit in the sun outside little shops, visitors order tea in wonderful old-fashioned cafes, besides that there are wildflower-fringed country lanes with post boxes, and not much else.
My favourite trail run on the Llyn Peninsula begins in the middle of nowhere at the foot of Tre’r Ceiri. This Iron Age hillfort is one of Wales’ most spectacular ancient monuments but few seem to know it. ‘The Tower of the Giants’ dates back to around 200 BC. One of Britain’s most intact hillforts, it has huge drystone walls, almost as fat as they are tall, which you can imagine a Celt striding about on, keep-ing watch. These walls surround a cluster of 150 huts, which would have had turf roofs on, in various stages of disrepair.
To make the best of the wonderful history and sea panoramas, I run up the neighbouring peak, Yr Eifl, to get a view down on these ancient village ruins, then descend to a saddle and rise up through the huge entrance gates.
Moving a little further forward in time, an 83-mile long-distance trail was way-marked about a year ago, linking up a lot of the fascinating slate heritage that is scattered about North Wales, like prescient lost worlds, and it makes for a fantastic long-distance run.
No other stone industry dominated the world like Welsh slate. The 19th Century world was literally roofed with it. Then, in the ‘60s, mass-produced tiles took off and the industry collapsed. Huge slate spoils were left everywhere: for every one ton of slate tile produced, nine tons were tips. The slate buildings and machinery are now disintegrating with rust and being pushed apart by plants, as if nature was trying to reclaim them.
One of my favourite memories of the route is emerging in the Teigl Valley, a place I’d never heard of before. One road winds up it, and either side of it are huge outcrops of forgotten cliffs, mountains and ridges. There wasn’t a person or car in sight.
At the top of this road stands one of the few slate quarries in North Wales that is still in operation: Cwt-y-Bugail. From the air, it would appear that there was noth-ing here. That’s why it was decided to hide the contents of the National Gallery here — Rembrandts, Monets, Constables — in a mine fitted with air-conditioning, during the Second World War.
Just beyond Cwt-y-Bugail, I looked down on what looked like the remains of a lost civilsation: rows of crumbling buildings and a huge tower. From here it’s a lovely run down to the pretty quarryman’s village of Cwm Penmachno, where a drop-in heritage centre reveals more history.
Our nearest really beautiful beach is Newborough, 30 minutes away on the Isle of Anglesey, and it’s a wonderful place for running. As you stride along this wild expanse of pale sand, you can gaze back at the mountains of Snowdonia across the water. At low tide, it’s possible to cross to a little island with a picturesque light-house on it. Then you can trot back through the woods that fringe the seashore.
And beyond Anglesey lies the tiny Holy Island, which is also linked by road bridge. It’s possible to drive from Llanberis, across Anglesey, and then to the far side of Holy Island in 45 minutes, via the A55, and find yourself on an absolutely stunning stretch of little beaches, or sitting atop the huge clifftops of South Stack, with another photogenic lighthouse jutting out to sea, and Holy Mountain rising from the land behind you.
It was here, on Holy Island, after several years of exploring, that we got mar-ried, on a beach called Porth Dafarch. As the sun shone, and our feet slowly sank in-to the damp sand, I felt a happy connection both to Rob and the land I was standing on. Another great Welsh word, ‘igam-ogam’ — zig-zagging — had brought me back to Wales, a place I feel happy to call home.
TOP TRAIL TIPS
- Get out in those weather windows. The weather can change very quickly and it’s always depressing when rain moves in because you decided to go after lunch.
- Catch at least one sunset over the sea while you are here. It’s absolutely stunning. The cliffs at South Stack on Holy Island are a good place.
- Why not enter the Snowdonia Trail Marathon for a good tour? www.alwaysaimhighevents.com
- Check out local trail running guide and coach Sarah Ridgeway: www.runsnowdonia.com
TRAIL SHOE TIPS
Sarah’s favourite trail shoes:
I feel that these lightweight, low-drop shoes encourage me to run sensitively, and make me less likely to twist an ankle. I also love Salomon’s clever lace-lock system – they never come undone and don’t flap about.
Vibram Barefoot running shoes
I love wearing these on shorter runs. Being able to feel the shapes of the terrain un-helps me to keep my awareness in my feet, so that I don’t trip over. It’s also surprisingly pleasant to feel the ground squish between your toes!