Words by Tom Eagar | Photos by Liz Seabrook
Winter in the capital had instilled a creeping sense of wanderlust and desire for the outdoors. So, one morning my friend Liz and I made a plan; we’d adventure from sea to sky, starting at the coast and ending at the top of a mountain.
We could leave on Friday afternoon and be home for work on Monday.
As an Anglesey native, North Wales was an obvious choice – we could use my local knowledge and the varied landscapes to meet our criteria. And, at just over three hours by train from London, we could leave on Friday afternoon and be home for work on Monday.
As with all great adventures, things didn’t go entirely to plan; two weeks before our departure, Liz dislocated her shoulder whilst snowboarding.
We’d originally considered incorporating canoes, bikes and unwilling donkeys (not) to get around, but with Liz’s arm in a sling, we changed tack and opted to cover as much distance as possible on foot.
With backpacks and shoulders strapped tight, we boarded the 12.10 from Euston to Bangor. As London’s concrete turned to fields, uninspiring midlands scenery gave little promise to the landscapes that lay ahead.
A few miles past Chester, the land dropped away revealing the white horses of Irish Sea, which, as the Isle of Anglesey inched into view, became the Menai Strait – the narrow stretch of water separating the island from mainland Wales.
We set down our bags at our base for the night in Menai Bridge and decided where to visit on the island’s coastline.
After rearranging our backpacks and stocking up on tea, we set off by car for Ynys Llanddwyn, a small tidal island that sits between Newborough and Malltraeth beaches on the south west coast.
We arrived at the beach just before 6pm with the sun still high. Asides from a down-on-his-luck but chatty fisherman casting for Sea Bass, we barely saw anyone.
As we wandered along the white sand beach with steep dunes and a pine forest to our right and the Llyn peninsular to our left, all memory of negotiating London’s underground shoulder to (broken) shoulder with fellow commuters melted away.
Facing south from Ynys Llanddwyn the entire curve of Newborough beach stretched out before us with Snowdonia’s peaks standing high beyond.
After scoping out the abandoned lighthouse at the tip of the island, we headed inland to the dunes. In the trees hung a hammock and rope swing made from flotsam and jetsam. Tea in hand, we watched the sun set over the deserted sands of Malltraeth.
‘This is much better than Primrose Hill,’ Liz smiled.
The next morning, a haze hung over the north edge of Snowdonia as we made sandwiches and planned our day’s hike using an old family OS map I’d unearthed. We settled on a peak called Y Garn – not too challenging and offering views a plenty.
On the way to the start of our walk we passed through the old mining village of Llanberis, where we’d be staying that night. Our route began a few miles further down the valley in the small village of Nant Peris. In the shadow of Snowdon, we set off up the north side of the valley.
The path wound upwards, ducking between rocks and hugging the edge of a narrow gorge. Now and then the gorge would level out, revealing the stream that had carved it, its incredibly clear water flowing back down the mountain to where we’d began.
Half way, we stopped for water and Welsh cakes on a flat rock overlooking the valley. On the opposite side, clouds poured over the long north ridge of Snowdon. Further down the ridge the tourist steam train cut a silhouette against the sharp blue sky. “This is much better than Primrose Hill,” Liz smiled.
After the rocky climb, the gradient gave way to a wide grassy plateau. No longer sheltered by the mountain we were exposed to the – very windy – elements and, after a chilly mile or so, sought refuge behind a large outcrop of rocks for lunch. Just ahead of us was a small, very blue lake and below us the Nant Ffrancon valley stretched towards Anglesey.
Food eaten, we pressed on towards the top. Certain that the summit of Y Garn was the windiest place in Wales at that moment, we were glad of our windproof howies jackets.
After a few blustery minutes admiring the view, we carried on and followed the shale path down the other side and along the ridge towards the next peak.
After reaching the shallow col, it became apparent that our path was leading us further from Nant Peris, not back towards it. Somehow, my rusty navigational skills and a ten-year-old map had led us astray.
We cut across country, aiming for a stile we could make out on a lower ridge. A couple of hours and several unnecessary river crossings later we were back where we’d started.
Somehow, my rusty navigational skills and a ten-year-old map had led us astray.
Back in Llanberis, we checked into Pete’s Eats – a brightly painted climbing café and bunkhouse set up in the late seventies by a couple of avid climbers.
I’d visited Pete’s many times before to recuperate after long hikes or late nights, but this was my first stay in the bunkhouse. It was simple, but had free tea, wifi for all important Instagramming and warm duvets, so we were happy.
On our final day our luck with the weather ran out; the clouds had come in bringing a fine mist of rain. Luckily, we were going wild swimming.
Our guide was Vivienne Rickman-Poole, a local artist on an adventure to swim all 250 lakes and pools in Snowdonia. When we met her she’d ticked off 68. Viv met us downstairs in the café, for a cooked breakfasts and a pint of tea – a Pete’s speciality.
We parked up at Pen-Y-Pass, between Snowdon and the Glyder mountain range. As we gathered our things, Viv blithely informed me that the lake in which we’d be swimming – Llyn Llydaw – is arguably Britain’s coldest and deepest. I’d failed to pack a wetsuit, so I was stuck with board shorts.
Like map navigating, packing for cold-water swimming clearly wasn’t my strong point. We walked along the miner’s path, a trail built to serve a now crumbling copper mine on the east side of Snowdon.
We picked our way around the lake – which is allegedly the same body of water into which Excaliber was cast – to a secluded inlet.
Liz’s injury kept her on land, but Viv and I changed into respectively appropriate and non-appropriate swimwear and waded in. The stony lakebed dropped away sharply and the cold took my breath away.
Once the initial shock passed, I swam out and became absorbed in the experience; I can understand why Viv does it.
The combination of the bracing physical sensation and the vast mountain surroundings makes wild swimming an immersive, mindful experience. Idle daily thoughts and worries floated away.
My skin a sunburnt red from the cold, I climbed out of the water and I clumsily threw on my Poler Napsack to warm up. Then came the afterglow; my skin tingled from the cold and I felt a buzz as the endorphins kicked in.
Viv explains that this is what every wild swimmer craves, but which fades the more frequently you go. We sat quietly as Liz made tea to calm our shivering limbs.
A few hours later we stepped off the train at Euston, a world away from that lake. The memory of our little adventure burnt bright – invisible remnants of a weekend well spent.
The best experiences linger the longest, and weaving through the London crowds, I couldn’t help feeling that this one would take a while to fade.
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