Nature Conservancy Council, PenrhosRoad, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2LQ
The Miners’ Track
On A4086 in Llanberis Pass 1 mile from
junction with A498 (Pen y Gwryd
Map reference: SH648
3-mile section of public footpath leading to Snowdon summit through glacial valley with lakes, mineral workings and rock and bog vegetation
Car park (often crowded, early start advisable); illustrated trail leaflet from the Council and National Park Visitor Centres (nearest in Llanberis); cafeteria and Youth Hostel at start of path
Cwm Idwal Trail
Off A5 at Ogwen Cottage Mountain
School – west end of Llyn Ogwen
Map reference: SH648
2-mile trail around small lake in the floor of a glacial valley under spectacular rock crags and slabs – sheep grazing experiments on view
Small car park at Ogwen Cottage; illustrated trail leaflet from Council or National Park Visitor Centres
The horseshoe tiara of the principal Snowdon peaks surmounted by Yr Wyddfa, the summit itself, is at the heart of some of the most spectacular mountains in Britain. It is a land deeply gouged by glacial action some 10000-12000 years ago and an environment that continues to change under the influences of water and frost, combined with both the industrial and leisure activities of man. Copper and slate have been mined and quarried in the shadow of the principal peaks by hardened men whose homes lay several miles away on the valley floors. Early in the days of electricity generation, the tremendous rainfall of the area was recognised as a useful energy source and a lake high on Snowdon was tapped to drive hydro-electric turbines.
The principal industry was and is agricul-ture, the grim struggle of the hill sheep-farmer to foster his flock in the teeth of the elements. Just as sheep gnawing at the thin vegetation have changed the face of Snowdon so have men’s feet. Thousands of tourists every year contribute to erosion of the main paths to the summit, one of the most pronounced symp-toms of the pressures leisure activities generate on the countryside.
All this activity, stretching back over the centuries has wrought its change on the area’s animal and plant life. Both flora and fauna have a precarious existence at best on the thin soils of powdered rhyolite rocks and the poor nutrient properties of this material. The exposure, too, affects plant life and so the net result is that much of the vegetation of the higher slopes has an alpine character. The two main selected trails show a wide selection of the effects all these factors have on wildlife and plants in Snowdonia, while the Gwydr Forest Trail is, in contrast, a look at modern afforestation which makes considerable commercial advantage of otherwise unviable land.
The Miners’ Track forms a part of one of the main walkers’ routes up Snowdon. It is a wide stone path starting from the car park at Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel (at the head of the Llanberis
Pass) and, rising some 750ft over a distance of about five miles, it reaches Llyn Glaslyn, a small blue lake set in the bowl of the high peaks. Like Cwm Idwal, the second of the trails, this is one of the sixteen National Nature Reserves designated by the Nature Conservancy Council within the Snowdonia National Park. The first three miles of the track have been marked with carved slate numbers corresponding to points of interest in the trail booklet (available from the Council or the Llanberis Visitor Centre). The nature trail ends at the causeway across Llyn Llydaw built, like the track itself, to aid the removal of copper ore from the mines around the lakes during the mid-19th century. Trail followers must wear robust walking shoes, preferably giving ankle protection and carry an extra warm garment – a lightweight waterproof is an advisable item.
The rocks that confront you as you set out from the car park are typical of the Snowdon outcrop, the rhyolite of what is geologically known as a syncline. This is a rock bed, folded as it has emerged from the sea, the downward layers of the giant ripple. As the glaciers bore down on these rocks with their load of frozen-in stone teeth, they were ground to the powder which forms today’s soil. Mat grass well-adapted to the poor soil and constant sheep-nibbling is the dominant species
Welsh) of the shepherds grazing their sheep on the mountains in summer and retreating to the home farm or for the winter.
Much of the ground round here is peat bog formed as layers of grass and moss are deposited under conditions of high rainfall and poor drainage. Plants typical of this altitude and the wet acid conditions are mosses and two peculiarities of the plant world, the butterwort and sundew These both digest insects trapped in a thick enzyme glue on their leaves – a neat piece of adaptation to supplement the thin diet. Another inhabitant of the peat bog is the fern-like club moss with its long tendrils like the branches of a fir tree.
After Llyn Teyrn you begin the climb up to Llyn Lydaw, parallel with the twin steel pipe of the Cwm Dyli hydro-electric scheme still in operation today some seventy-five years after its opening. This middle lake, with a depth of about 180ft, is dammed naturally by a rock step ground to a lip by the glacier. Owing to the high rainfall (up to 200 inches of water a year) and the sporadic power station demands, the lake level varies considerably and the causeway may be water-covered.
Much of the lake shore is infertile due to the
here. There are other rocks along the trail, particularly the volcanic pumice tuff which breaks down to provide a more nutritious soil supporting the preferred (by sheep!) fescue, bent grass, wild thyme and the yellow flowered tormentil
The path is a steady climb and as you get higher, you can look down into the Nant Gwynant valley which is quite densely wooded in parts. Almost certainly in the past, oak, birch, beech and ash woods cloaked the mountain’s lower slopes reaching as high as 1500-1600ft where stumps have been found preserved in peat. Now the tree line is considerably lower than this because in recent times, tree regeneration has been prevented by sheep grazing. Even so, you may be able to pick out the odd stunted tree on ledges which are inaccessible to animals – rowan in particular survives in this way, since its seeds are carried to high points by birds.
The first, small lake you come across is Llyn Teyrn, below the path on the glacial valley floor. It has escaped the poisoning by copper which makes the two upper lakes so barren and small brown trout breed here. The valley is called Cwm Dyli and it contains several ruined buildings. The one on the lake shore was probably a miner’s barracks but other ruins are traces of the old farming system still used in the Alps. These were the bothies (or in high copper content of the water which receives the washings from the mine tailings. However, since the activities of the ore-crushing plant stopped in 1916, the copper level is dropping and it is hoped-to see a lot more plant and insect life establish itself in and around the water. There are many signs of glacial action here, with pavement stones scored by ice-trapped boulders and moraine humps caused by the dumping of debris as the ice melted. Here is the place to have a rest and watch out for the unusual chough, a crow with sleek black colouring and characteristic red legs. Other birds of the Snowdon valleys are the raven, the tiny meadow pipit and the carrion crow.
The energetic will carry on for Snowdon’s summit past Llyn Glaslyn and up a scree scramble to the zig-zag section of the Pen-y-Gwryd (Pyg) Track, quite a severe last section which should not be attempted in anything other than climbing or walking boots.
Why not save your strength for the splendour of the Cwm Idwal Nature Reserve trail which displays another facet of the Snowdonia mountain’s many attractions? The trail through the Reserve is reached by footpath
from the Ogwen Cottage Mountain School (which has a small car park) off the main A5 some five-and-a-half miles from Capel Curig (about ten miles from The Miners’ Track). The gate to the partially fenced area is about half a mile from the road.
Cwm Idwal (’cwm’ is Welsh for valley) is a glacial valley about 1000ft above sea level lying under the black peak of Tryfan and the spec-tacular rock cleft of the Devil’s Kitchen. The ground is part of the National Trust’s extensive holdings in Snowdonia and the Reserve area is leased to the trail designers, the Nature Con-servancy Council. Making a circuit around the lake in the valley floor of about two miles, the path takes in several viewpoints and some fascinating experiments on the effects grazing animals have had on the vegetation.
Sheep have not only reduced the woodland over much of the Welsh mountains. Their grazing has also changed the whole nature of the moorland across which they feed. As the Cwm Idwal experiments with enclosures to keep sheep out of certain areas show, heather, ling and purple moor grass quickly spring back again to form the natural ground cover. As it is, the vegetation is very similar to that of the Miners’ Track – mat grass in the poorer soil areas and bent grass and sheep fescue in those areas where the soil conditions are a little more alkaline.
Like most glacial lakes, Llyn Idwal is quite shallow – maximum 36ft depth – and it has become silted and bedded with mud and peat. Unlike the lakes of the Miners’ Track, there have been no mineral workings in this area and the water is a breeding ground for minnow and trout which are preyed upon by gulls, occasional cormorants and herons. Observers say that whooper swans overwinter here. Around the 50 lake shore are extensive boggy areas supporting species typical of the habitat, such as the marsh cinquefoil and bogbean.
Cwm Idwal is a valley of rocks, too. The boulders tumbling down from the Devil’s Kitchen (Twll Du) make a scree which harbours plants that have established themselves out of the way of grazing sheep. You will see that on newly-disturbed or fallen rock it is the lichens that have taken over. As these plants decay and other seed and rock dust is blown here, a thin soil develops. In the long-established areas, you may find bilberry and
heather. The great Idwal Slabs which you pass on the homeward leg of the trail are a Mecca for rock climbers who form queues to climb them at peak times. Other climbers that you may spot are wild (feral) goats which have bred from escaped domestic animals.
The last leg of the trail follows the lake shore and passes a small rocky island a few yards off shore. Its proud crown of shrubs and plants is a final reminder that where sheep do not stray, the vegetation is that much more varied.
Variety is what the Forestry Commission have tried to provide in the replanting of the woods around Ty Hyll (the Ugly House) on the A5 between Betws-y-Coed and Capel Curig. A three-mile trail, the Gwdyr Forest Trail, starting 200 yards behind the quaint landmark cottage takes you high into new mixed deciduous and coniferous woodlands, much of it planted since 1956. The predominant deciduous tree is beech but most commercial conifers, including the Christmas tree, Norwegian spruce, are shown in this wood, which was at one time one of the Commission’s foremost tree nurseries. The trail leads downhill into the valley of the River Llugwy above Swallow Falls and back to the start car park via an old lead mine, the haunts of ravens and buzzards and examples of modern forestry techniques.
Deep in the heart of another forest, at Beddgelert, is one of the major campsites in the area. Run by the Forestry Commission, this site in the valley between Moel Hebog and Snowdon is a beautiful setting for the outdoor life — and the woods around the site are laced with nature trails, too.