First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
When the supreme egotist and ferocious walker George Borrow ascended Plynlimon in 1854, he called at the Castell Dyffryn Inn to engage a guide, ‘a tall athletic fellow, dressed in a brown coat, round bluff hat, corduroy trowsers, linen leggings and highlows.’ This splendid chap proved reluctant to take the East Anglian writer to the source of the River Rheidol – ‘the path, sir, as you see, is rather steep and dangerous’. But Borrow, collecting material for his classic travelogue Wild Wales, was in no mood to be gainsaid. ‘It is not only necessary for me to see the sources of the rivers,’ he informed his guide, ‘but to drink from them, that in after times I may be able to harangue about them with a tone of confidence and authority.’
Three rivers have their source close together on Plynlimon’s rough summit – Rheidol, Wye and Severn. Jane and I, having no need to harangue about them, were aiming simply to get to the top of the mountain. Our walking companion, Liz Fleming-Williams, surveys the region’s peat bogs for the Countryside Commission for Wales, a calling that has led her to the kind of revelation on the hilltops that Burrow would have empathised with, a sense of how closely Welsh poetry, music, art and language are bound up with this beautiful and sombre landscape.
We strode up the old miners’ track towards a long-abandoned lead mine in the southern flank of the mountain; then on up a faint track through heather and bilberry, reindeer moss, black peat hags and bent grass. ‘Listen!’ said Liz, holding up a finger. Not a sound, bar the complaints of sheep and the hiss of wind.
Up in the summit shelter, two Cornish surfies had arrived from their camp on the shores of Nant-y-Moch reservoir below. Hospitably they poured us tea, and we took in the hundred-mile view: Preseli Hills in far off Pembrokeshire, a huge arc of Cardigan Bay, the Llŷn Peninsula misty on the horizon; Cader Idris, the Brecon Beacons, the mountains of Snowdonia. Only the semaphore arms of a windfarm, sited smack in the middle of an ecologically sensitive peat bog nearer at hand, told of the greedy crassness of man. George Borrow would have had a crisp harangue suitable for the subject at his fingertips. But for now we had to make do with the cheep of pipits and the sigh of the cold mountain wind.
Start & finish: Eisteddfa-Gurig car park (OS ref SN 799841) – £3 charge
Getting there: 4½ miles east of Ponterwyd on A44, Aberystwyth-Llangurig
Walk (5 miles, moderate, OS Explorer 213): From car park, up farm drive past ‘Caution, children playing’ notice. Right through yard past dog kennels. In 30 yards, bridleway sign points left; bear right through gate (797841) along stony track. Ignore first right turn; follow track as it curves right over stream and climbs for 1 mile to old mine. Just before it swings right to cross Afon Tarennig (795897), white arrow/green background on post points left up faint track. Follow this for ¾ mile to summit of Plynlimon (789869).
Descending: turn back with fence on your right, and keep near it. Cross stile at 787857. Left at forestry (784851): follow fence with trees on your right. Cross stile at 786849; continue along fence, to meet rough road back to car park.
NB: Family-friendly. Hill-walking gear. Track from mine to summit hard to find in mist.
Accommodation: Ffynnon Cadno B&B, Ponterwyd (01970-890224; www.ffynnoncadno.co.uk)
Dinner: George Borrow Hotel, Ponterwyd (01970-890230; www.thegeorgeborrowhotel.co.uk)
Information: Aberystwyth TIC (01970-612125); www.visitwales.co.uk
Wild Wales by George Borrow (Bridge Books)