Only very rarely are we able to experience something totally new in an environment that has become so familiar. The Carneddau are one of my favourite walking are as and I realised that I know the area well, except for a small section. I’ve walked nearby, but never to Llyn Eigiau or the neighbouring valleys so decided that this was to be the next mission.
As usual, I was checking the long range forecasts at work on Monday (lunchtime, honest) and it was looking like a very welcome area of high pressure was going to be dominating the weather on the weekend. It was too good to miss out on, so a wild camp was ekend with a full moon to boot. Only one drawback. My back was still in spasm after falling on Elidir Fawr in snow a fortnight ago. Ok, that makes it sound heroic; I slipped on my backside on mud in sight of the Marchlyn reservoir road, satisfied? It wasn’t too bad on the day, but the next day was agonising. I needed a new plan.
Browsing online, as you do, I came across a few photos of some characters sleeping in a bothy in the Carneddau. Surely that’s not right I thought. Bothies are a Scottish phenomenon. A few hours research later, and I’d not only found more information on the specific bothy but all about the Mountain Bothy Association that maintains it. I was that determined to go that I’d joined them too, as they had a few more free dosses in Wales that I fancied visiting.
Saturday arrived, and the trip took us longer than anticipated as we wound ourselves up back lanes and opened gates at increasingly regular intervals. As for packing, I was as usual determined to squeeze the lot into a daysack. Bad idea. Especially when that means that the coal you need to carry in has to be lugged around in a Tesco Bag for Life. So I’d managed, in my wisdom, to swap a half share of a two kilo tent for 4 kilos of coal in a carrier bag… Still, it was a beautiful day and the bothy was only an hour or so away. It was actually too beautiful, and we soon found we were both sweating too much for a frozen February although my walking buddy Mark decided to take the plunge into the cooling mud at one point. The map showed that we were following those most enigmatic of symbols, the green dotted right of way. Well, it would have been green on an OS map, but my newly found love affair with the Harvey’s Mountain Maps meant I was following the red dots instead. What this boils down to is that the map shows a right of way, but not a path.
While the map failed to show it, there was something we could roughly follow on the ground and in theory to the bothy. Instead, after crossing the rough ground and finding the main track, we veered up and along a side valley and ended up above the bothy, which we were quite glad to see. At the back there was a young guy chipping away on some rendering, and Chris as he liked to be called, said that the maintenance officer (The MO in Bothy parlance) was ‘round the front. It was here we found Sean, busy painting and his partner, Tracy, was inside who offered us a cuppa, which was just what was needed. Impressed by the standard inside, and the hard work put in, we felt we had to contribute something back, so we stayed and chipped some more rendering off the back with Chris. Apparently, Sean the MO has been busy maintaining the bothy for the last 7 months and has carried all sorts in on his back. What he’s achieved (along with others who helped) is a sight to see, you’ll just have to discover where it is yourselves. There’s a full sideboard he’s carried the 4 kilometres from the car park on his back (and it was probably full of coal at the time).
We decided it wasn’t to be all work, so we stole Chris from his work and went for a walk around some spectacular hidden lakes. I’ve walked on the hills above them before, but this was the first time I’d seen them. More remarkably, they were frozen too. So a trip up the Carneddau tops that had all been visited a hundred times before, was exchanged for a trip to a lake that had claimed the lives of numerous airmen. There’s apparently a Wellington bomber in there that had met its end when it flew into the cwm’s steep cliffs in thick cloud. Made a note to self to investigate the history of air crashes in Snowdonia when I got home. I will have to ask my father what he knows as he was first onto the scene of one air crash on Mynydd Mawr during the war. He’d ran up there in his short trousers and remembers seeing the dead bodies of the airmen, a sobering sight for anyone, let alone someone so young.
Our walk was over all too soon, and we retreated to the bothy before it got too dark. To our joy, we even got a bed to sleep on. I’d expected a muddy floor, if I was lucky – this was four star luxury. Someone got the fire going, which removed some of the chill of the encroaching evening. It wasn’t giving off too much warmth, so a wee dram inside my own central heating was in order. Well, it’s well known that a decent scotch is part and parcel of the bothy experience. It was at this point i asked Chris if we were likely to have more company tonight. He almost laughed, but not quite. The first three to arrive were there just after dark. A quiet lot, as I think you have two types to use the bothies. There are the walkers. The serious ones who want to ensure that they get a good night’s sleep to ready them to solo some v.diff. the following morning (no doubt wearing roller skates and boxing gloves). To the other extreme, you’ve got the bothy bangers, the ones who’ve made the trip out to the bothy for a social experience. Their packs are replete with kegs of ale and the finest steaks. This three were the former and were not long to bed.
Of course, it wasn’t to be too quiet. Before we knew what was happening, the door had opened and closed many times and the room with the stove was packed. Another group of 5 had arrived, complete with a pair of amicable terrier pups. This lot were, with absolutely no doubt, bothy bangers. They had the beer and they’d also brought steaks. I asked Chris and Mark if they fancied a bit of night navigation up to the lake, so we left the bothy and our seats on the sofas (how foolish!) and went for a half hour walk to the frozen lake. It was different to what I’d expected; I’d expected to see nothing. You could see the outline of all the largest crags and the frozen lake as the moon was full.
Chris recalled a tale of a previous visit, when one of his party had disappeared into the night. They found him by this lake, offering silence to the airmen who’d perished. He’d succeeded in getting them all to stand there and hold a two minute silence. Poignant in a rather drunk way. On return to the bothy, our seats were taken by another three people who’d arrived late. I think it made 14 in total, it was so crowded on a February night so that’s why I’m not naming the bothy. It was no longer chilly in there either. I’d squeezed into a space near the fire and I was rather hot to say the least. Never mind, there was a slight party atmosphere in there and everyone was friendly. There was one moment when someone said something wrong, but it blew over, and a good night was had by all. Well, with the exception of the three who were still sleeping in the other room.
It didn’t quite get to the singing stage, but we all got talking and I found that the group of 5 were all ex school friends. They were in their thirties and I felt it was great that people can keep hold of those sort of ties for so long. So many people drift away, many move away to look for work and old friendships become acquaintances with whom we may enjoy an awkward pint at Christmas with generic conversations of work and mortgages. As we get older we grow up and apart from people anyway, as we find people we have more in common with than in the relatively narrow social group of our school friends. But then there’s always Friends Reunited… After we’d all exchanged stories, jumbled up a few jokes so they made no sense and had a few drinks it was getting late. Very late in fact. We were the last to go into the sleeping room, with the old school friends staying in the sitting room. So tip toeing between people wasn’t how I’d choose to finish the night, and they probably didn’t want to get awoken in the middle of the night with a boot on the head either.
Morning came and my head was rather groggy. It was definitely down to the smoke from the fire and the cigarettes that were being smoked as it got later and people were too tired to complain / ask permission. Looking from my top bunk, the room looked like a student party on the morning after. Every spare bit of floor space had a sleeping body, and after tip toeing over these, i found the other room was worse, but I just about managed to manoeuvre myself out to photograph the spectacular sunrise. If you’re going to carry a camera up to a wild camp or viewpoint overnight then make sure you know which way east is. I knew the sun was going to rise above the bothy, and down the valley, and it was worth getting up so early. It was just too cold to stay up, so I went back to bed and when I finally awoke, it was just me, Mark and Chris left in the bothy. With myself being both the first and the last to get up. I was sad to leave, but lunch at some pub or café was beckoning. We said our goodbyes to Chris, who was off to bag the high Carneddau a walk we now declined as i was suffering due to the lack of sleep. As we were leaving, Sean came back and we had a chat with him about the problems of looking after such a building. Many of last nights visitors had mentioned that they expected a building that was so well looked after, so well equipped would naturally be vandalised, or worse, burnt down.
Sean naturally didn’t like the thought of this; it was the one thing he dreaded every time he opened the bothy door. It was always a relief to find it in one piece. “But”, he said between puffs of his tailor made, “People have seen the condition of the bothy that it’s so well looked after, they tend to respect it. Since it’s been tidied, there’s less of a litter problem. People might not abuse it as others might say – hold on, leave that alone, they’ll feel guilty about damaging it”. Gives you some hope in human nature that maybe we can respect something like this. As far as finding the bothy burnt down, his reply was that he’d rebuild it. Anyone could say that, and most would reach that point and realise they were wrong. After the hard work that had been put in here, I had no doubt that he meant what he said. As far as my first bothy night went, it was unexpected. I’d not expected to wield a lump hammer and chisel. I’d not expected such a large group of friendly people. I’d not expected the bothy to be so well looked after. I was glad I’d looked away from the usual. I’m always on the hill, yet never often enough it seems! But this was something I’m glad I’ve done as it has given me an insight into a different side of Snowdonia.
There are many other bothies in Wales. There are three in Snowdonia, with a potential fourth under development, and I’m looking forward to visiting each and every one in between my wild camping trips. Yet it needs to be remembered that these are maintained by a group of dedicated volunteers with the permission of the landowners and support from a charity in Scotland (MBA). Certainly their future cannot be said to be secure. There are often conflicts, sometimes when the land owners are not the tenants of that land, and the tenants object to the presence of a free shelter on their land. Fence posts may disappear, and sometimes it is inconsiderate bothy users who have done so, leading to a naturally irate farmer. The construction of further bothies is also made difficult in this way. However, the overuse of some bothies, especially as the one I visited, must be seen as a major problem. It is close to the water supply of a major town and has no toilet. It is the same old paradox, of an asset that needs recognition in order to survive, but where too much recognition can also lead to its destruction. In this manner, the MBA seem to have struck a delicate balance that is constantly changing to meet new challenges and threats. It is perhaps surprising that one of these recent threats has been the use of the Internet to promote the MBA. Some were concerned that this would make it too easy for people to find bothies online and then go on to vandalise them. Others realised that it would attract new members and reinvigorate the organisation. Whoever is correct, they continue to maintain a valuable and colourful part of the outdoor tapestry that will hopefully continue to add value to our outdoor experiences. For more information about bothies, contact the Mountain Bothies Association at www.mountainbothies.org.uk. [adsense:]