Capel to Castle - A Welsh Packrafting Journey
It's hard to concentrate, an hour to go and I'll be finished, work done and drive home; I'm excited, an adventure looms. The planning has been fitful; a chat in the pub followed by messages and e-mails. Chris manages a large outdoor store and I run 2 businesses, so for both of us stealing a day off always feels like, well... stealing. I hurriedly throw stuff into my bag - a poor start, for sure, when the plan is to be ultralight - but I'm pleased when I strap the raft to the top of my bag and it feels lighter than it should. I bound to of forgotten something!
I'm late, as always; the drive to Chris' is only 15 mins and the sun is already low in the sky. I literally abandon the car in his drive and throw his paddles and raft to him as he opens the door; he's obviously been waiting. He doesn't mess around, Chris has them on his bag and is striding down the drive almost immediately. He's obviously keen to be off! I can't resist noticing his bag seems much bigger than mine; I must of forgotten something.
After a few minutes we’re off the road and over the stile. The sun is stretching out its fingers, clawing at the land as if to slow its descent. It's a warm, balmy summer evening, we plan to make our way up onto the hills and paddle a few k's before we bivvy above the Conwy valley. Just perfect conditions. As always with us, early conversations are about work and life's hassles; sloughing them like old skin, we soon set into our pace and that contented silence ensues. It's nice to have some turf under my boots.
Leaving the farms and ffridd land behind the slope eases and we pause to take in the panorama. The Glyderau are in shadow now, save the sun burning the edges of north ridges; suggestions of Tryfan and Y Garn in highlighted stone. Cwm Lloer is dark and broody, I can remember shivering as I waited for Tom - my oldest - to lead a pitch on his first winter route in there just a few months earlier. But, for now the cold is the last thing on our minds, the views are just stunning.
The staccato of walking poles marks out the brisk pace as we climb, to reach a odd watercourse. At 1370 ft, contouring across the landscape these channels were built in the early 20th Century. Approximately 10ft deep and lined with cut stone blocks they form a man made guttering, flowing from Fynnon Lligwy to to maintain water levels in Cowlyd which in turn supplies drinking water and hydro electricity.
A couple of bridges later and we're looking into Colwyd itself. The deepest lake in Wales at 70m, Creigiau Gleision and Pen y Lithrig y Wrach drop steeply into it, hemming it firmly along its 2 mile length. Treeless and, some would say, desolate, although not always so, if the Welsh epic the Mabinogion is to be believed; the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd (Cowlyd) tells Culhwch the history of the lush wooded valley as he searches for Olwen, his love.
A short ascent followed by a steep scramble down a boulder strewn and heather clad slope deposits us on a small beach by the water's edge.
The mirror calm water has a mercurial taint, as the clouds, now gathering in the dusk sky, reflect off its surface. An eerie quiet has enveloped us as we inflate the packrafts, broken spasmodically by cursing and frantic waving of hands; as a million midges descend upon us. I forgot my midge hood...
Once on the water, we make rapid progress, travelling along the centre line of the lake, fish are feeding all around us, big lazy swirls as they envelop the flies that dance on the surface.
The brooding cliffs of Pen y Lithrig y Wrach cast dark reflections over us, lending the already blackened water a sense of warmth and depth. Taking occasional breaks staring up at the corona of stone ramparts above us were soon approaching the dam. It's after ten now and on the back edge of twilight.
Landing on the beach to the east of the dam wall, we fumble in torch light to deflate the rafts and secure our kit whilst being plagued by the midges. Chris seems to take a lifetime to pack his boat away, and why not? He has his midge hood on and has no need to hurry. I, however, can feel my eyelids and lips puffing as the multitude of bites start to swell. Stuffing my blades into the side pockets of my bag, I dash over the stile, and up, onto the dam wall, balance precariously along it until I find a breeze. Then, frozen, in the midge free air, I wait until Chris saunters over, smiling enigmatically.
Sleep is our next goal, but to bivvy here would be to invite these microscopic tormentors to feast. So we need to cover some ground. The air is still in the cwm as we stride sleepily along the track, the hydro electric pipeline shows that we've about 30 mins before we need to turn up to the ridge line overlooking the Conwy Valley floor. Its after midnight when we can see the street lights of Llanrwst, but fortunately the breeze has built enough to move the midges along. A flat spot behind the fence line reveals itself and we set to erecting the tarp.
Chris is on autopilot as we peg out and tie up the midge net, I'm feeling it too. Climbing into my doss bag, I remember I packed a couple of tins of ale in my rucksack lid. Perfect. I pass one to Chris and the tiredness slips to the side immediately as soon as the ring pulls 'snap hiss'. 5 minutes later though, the tins are empty and I'm drifting off to sleep.
Dawn is hot through the tarp. Bright and humid, the view burns my eyes. Rubbing them vigorously it slowly focuses. Fields, forests and farms, the Conwy valley lushness abounds below us. We breakfast, coffee and porridge. Sitting, staring, smiling, the warmth oozes through our clothes. It time to move but we don't, the dawn warmth on mornings like this is paralysing.
The descent down through long abandoned coppiced hazel and oak woods, leads to paddocks and small holdings. Old country; we cross the ancient roman road, Sarn Helen, and down to Trefriw. The village is quiet, it not yet 8, the occasional local looks oddly at the paddles on the sides of our rucksacks then shrug along after their dog.
There are large tides today, the river is flowing upstream as we inflate our rafts and wade out into the flow. The next 30 mins is spent hoping between eddies and battling the current; so strange in descent. Soon though, we’re in slack water and making good progress. The reed beds are alive with birds, flitting up and chattering in alarm as we approach. It hard to think that only 100 years ago this river was a busy trade route, ferrying slate and lead down to the sea from the mines above Trefriw and it has done since the Roman times. But for now the evidence is hard to find unless you know where to look.
The flow is picking up now as the tide starts to turn, lending a pleasant nudge along. As we slip down the river the reeds proliferate, twisting east then west as the river matures. Lines of Lombardy poplars define the meanders ahead. Passing Dolgarrog we slip under the old railway bridge, built to service the now disappeared aluminium works, although the passengers stopped in the 30's the freight service ran well into the 60's. Now it serves as a handy crossing point from the rail halt on the east of the river and Dolgarrog on the west.
From here the river becomes wider, the flow eases and islands offer some shelter which has often provided the opportunity to see the otters and the marsh harriers that frequent this stretch. Not today though, we drift along, passing under the watchful eye of Pen-y-Gaer; the Bronze through Iron Age hill fort, with its commanding views over this strategically important crossing point. Occupied up to the arrival of the Roman Legions the siting of the nearby Roman fort of Caer Hun suggests that this was probably the site of significant resistance by local tribes. It's extensive defensive structure still apparent today, with the chevaux de frise providing a formidable defence against horses which is rarely evident in similar sites in The British Isles.
As we pass Caer Hun it becomes obvious that the Romans weren't planning on leaving in any hurry, following the standard Roman plan, it contained barracks, bath and grain houses as well as all the other accruements associated with the maintaining the cohort of soldiers (approx 500).
After passing the ancient dock, which connected the fort with the main garrison at Chester, we bounce gingerly down the rapid at Tal y Cafn and under the road bridge. It's mid morning now and we've been on the go from dawn, so we elect to let the tide do the work. Feet up, we recline onto then back of the rafts and doze. Waking sporadically to offer some guidance to the rafts as it slips effortlessly along the current. As we enter the estuary proper, refreshed for our brief sojourn, we chat and paddle into the Glan Conwy basin. Egrets and herons stare solemnly on as we pass, while the lapwings and oyster catchers voice their alarm. Suddenly, without warning, the birds lift and scatter, a uncannily familiar rhythmic hum grows behind us and then, with a slow grace which seems to defy gravity, a Hercules C130 roars over head, dipping its wing it banks and continues out to sea.
With Conwy only minutes away, the current accelerates us on and we have to paddle hard to reach the channel on the north west shore, once in there we are propelled unceremoniously round the headland at Benarth and into sight of Conwy Castle.
It's rectangular form and grey stone stand stark outright against the skyline. Built between 1283 and 1289, the castle served Edward 1's forces as he undertook his conquest of Wales. It's impressive battlements held sway in a protracted campaign against the Welsh princes, succumbing briefly to the forces of Owain Glyndwr in 1401. Now, a popular tourist attraction we can see people waving from high on the castle and from the town walls as we drop into the eddy by Gyffin.
Sliding up the seaweed covered rocks with our packs and rafts we stop briefly to deflate and pack up our rafts. It's early afternoon and we're hungry... our lift awaits and the chippy on the Marina calls.