The former director-general of the National Trust reveals which of the walks previously under her care was her favourite. Unsurprisingly, it involves the glorious routes on Snowdon.
What’s my favourite National Trust walk? You have to be joking – there are far too many. When I was director-general of the Trust, I was often asked ‘Which is your favourite property?’, to which I would reply ‘Where I am now!’ It was a truthful answer, as well as one that avoided favouritism, but I often added ‘and those with which I have a special relationship’.
That leads me to what is, in fact, right up there among my favourite walks. If there’s one place I associate most with National Trust walking, it’s Snowdonia, where I’ve spent so much time.
What first leaps into my mind are the glorious routes on Snowdon and its surrounding mountains, which I adore, but a close second is the Trust-owned meadow at Llandanwg, a tiny village on the coast, south of Harlech, where we’ve holidayed as a family since the 1960s.
The meadow, glowing goldly with buttercups throughout summer, and home to the sand-buried church of St Tanwg, sparks childhood memories of running through it to the beach and home for tea. So does the first mountain I ever climbed, Cnicht, to which we’ve set out from Llandanwg countless times, including this summer with my youngest sister Ali and her boys. This is why it’s my chosen walk.
Cnicht is a small (3,000ft), Matterhorn-shaped mountain, standing proud above the Glaslyn Valley. The approach, from Croesor, is owned by the Trust, as is the land abutting the summit ridge. To climb Cnicht, leave your car at Croesor, near Plas Brondanw, the family home of Clough Williams-Ellis. He was the charismatic architect of Portmeirion and his irreverent, provocative anti-sprawl book, England and the Octopus, took the country by storm in the 1920s. To visit his house and garden is to feel his presence enlivening this picturesque corner of Wales.
‘The voices of quarrymen speak to us, recalling a bitter life that contrasts starkly with our carefree walk’
To climb Cnicht, you follow a route straight up the ridge, so there are no surprises and no room for mistakes, except for its three blind summits – each time you think you’re there, you’re faced with another steep climb, each more precipitous than the last. Eventually, you’re up, and the view from the top is heart-stoppingly beautiful. The 360-degree panorama looks north to Snowdon, south to Cader Idris, west to the Cardigan-shire coastline and east across the mine-worked heart of the Moelwyn hills.
If you’re game, this is where you’ll keep going. It’s possible to go straight back down again, but the perfect circular route is to continue on from the summit, descending to the point where three paths meet at a disused quarry under Foel Ddu. Then it’s back to Croesor down a gently sloping miner’s track. Through the ruins of the old winching buildings and miner’s homes, the voices of generations of quarrymen speak to us, recalling a bitter, hard life that contrasts starkly with our carefree walk.
It’s right we should think of them, because these mountains were always places of hard graft, as well as beauty; the miners’ labours leave a more indelible imprint in the landscape than do our walkers’ boots.
Today, this valley is part of the 83-mile Snowdonia Slate Trail (I long to do all of it), which celebrates the rich, sometimes painful, history of the slate-quarrying industry. When the Snowdonia National Park was designated, the mined area around Blaenau Ffestiniog was left out, thought to be too damaged for designation as beautiful.
I’m sure we wouldn’t do this today, as we have learned to understand better the interdependence between humans and Nature and the need to honour the lived experience. Cnicht, my favourite mountain, is, for me, a place of memory and stories, and surely somewhere that anyone can celebrate the landscape.
Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’.
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