LLyn Cau: lake of magic, lake of mystery

A walk to Llyn Cau, half way up the Cader Idris' southern side

Time: 2 1/2 hours
Level: Moderately challenging
Equipment: proper walking boots, walking boots and walking stick. refreshments, whistle and torch
Starting point: Minffordd Car Park, off B4405

Walking doesn't come much more exciting, high octane or adrenaline-fuelled than when trekking up the southern flanks of the highest peak near Ty Nant - the Cader Idris or Giants Chair.

Second in popularity only to Snowdon, the Cader, also known as King Arthur's Seat or Idris' Chair, has seen increasing numbers of ramblers, tourists and serious fell-walkers flock to its slopes year on year.

The mist-filled day this walk was taken (in mid-November) seemed to be no deterrent to those keen on conquering this giant of a mountain, which is among the highest and most impressive of all Snowdonia's towering peaks.

At 2927ft at its summit (Pen y Gadair), the Cader is just short of a full 3000ft and a mountaineers' Munro classification. But people should in no way feel short-changed by this fact.

Technically, many of its footpaths on the southern side up either the Minffordd path or Mynydd Moel, are steeper and more ruggedly beautiful than the gentler Pony Path trackway from Dolgellau.

And the southern side certainly does not disappoint - whether people want a high-powered romp to the summit, or whether a more langorous amble to its mid-section, Llyn Cau, is preferred.

Walkers who perhaps categorise themselves as enthusiastic beginners, or at intermediate level, could manage the ascent to Llyn Cau, a glacial lake, with relative ease. It's the climb to the summit from here that is more precarious and is best left to the more experienced and hard-bitten rambler.

And hardy, resilient and sensationally-fit so many of them just happened to be. This writer was quite amazed at how people, kitted out in all the latest gear, would literally march up the slopes hardly ever pausing for breath, or even lingering a moment to take in the views. Perhaps in the darker winter months, they were eager to beat the clock and get up and down before darkness crept across the steeply rising rock faces. An average circuit is said to take upto 5 hours.

But so many people seemed to practically glide up the slopes as their walking poles struck the stone-strewn routeways with a determination that was as deft as it was intense. Nothing was going to stop them from reaching Pen y Gadair - no swirling mists, annoying outbreaks of rain or any menacing flashes of wind. It was full steam ahead right to the very top. Well for most people, except that is for me.

For a large majority of walkers, their main motivation, it would seem, is the lure and appeal of navigating difficult, rocky terrain - and reaching a trig point to better previous personal bests or perhaps other long-standing records.

But in sharp contrast, the joy of rambling for me lies more in the spiritual quest or journey - where you're able to intuitively reconnect with nature, and drink in some exceptional vistas and scenery.

And the Minffordd Path is perfect for just such a sojourn, and offers up a treasure chest of magical and enchanting landscapes, even when the setting is more sombre. On this walk, however, you could imagine literally walking back into the mists of time into some Arthurian fairytale or legend.

And the heavy cloud and mists that clung to the higher mountain ridges only added to this air of intrigue and mystery. No film maker could have made the backdrop more enticing or other-worldly.

And as it happens, Llyn Cau and the Cader Idris do in fact have strong links to Arthurian fables of old. The lake reflected the grey thick cloud that hung eerily above it and seemed to be the the perfect hideaway for mythical creatures and trolls - and indeed was so chronicles state, at one time such a watery lair.

In one of his many adventures, King Arthur was said to have dragged a water dragon, the afanc with his horse from Llyn Barfog near Aberdyfi several miles away, to the more isolated Llyn Cau (taken from the Red Book of Hergest of the Mabinogion). It was said to have attacked and devoured its fair share of locals. But today, the supposedly bottomless lake was afanc-less. Like Nessie, he seems not to be one for crowds.

The Cader Idris, also known as the Seat of Arthur, has also been put forward as one of the many sites that could possibly be the ancient site of the city of Camelot.

It's hard to know whether this mountain could ever have been a serious contender, but Arthur was at one time High King of this whole region, even though many historians favour Tintagel in Cornwall as his own personal realm.

However, Arthuriana aside, Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic Lord of the Underworld was also said to have once made the Cader Idris his home, and the Hounds of Hell (Cwn Annwn) are still said to rampage across the Cader, malovolently eager to spirit people away to their eternal doom.

And perhaps there's some truth to this: Gwyn would in fact seem to be Dark Lord of the Clouds and Elements in these hereparts. And the mists and stronger winds on the higher reaches have oftentimes seen people fall to their death. So care is needed, especially when the weather closes, which it frequently does with little or no warning.

Scientists and geologists have also speculated that the Cader is in fact a caldera or extinct volcano, especially areas such as Llyn and Cwm Cau. But this theory was debunked by several leading experts (in 1872), who countered that the lake was simply a tarn or glacial lake left here after the last Ice Age (15000 years ago).

There are certainly plenty of massive boulders, morraine and scree that would all bear irrevocable testimony to this claim.

In the absence of science, in ancient times, it was felt that a giant, called Idris Gawr, actually helped to fashion much of what the Cader looks like today. Llyn Cau, was allegedly his 'armchair' (hence the name Cader Idris' which translates into English as the Chair of Idris).

But whatever your age, fitness level or ability, the Cader does offer a variety of walking routes from ground level up to its summit.

If you just want to see the mountain and not actually climb it, there is a short 20 minute circular route at its foot near the Minffordd Path car park, which would be suitable for families with youngsters or elderly members.

It follows the local river, Nant Cadair, and resplendant views can be found every which way you turn. People could also just amble along the shores of the Tallyllyn Lake which can be found a short way on from the car park, and just admire the mountain from ground level. (The lake is a glacial ribbon lake formed after the last Ice Age).

However, those wanting to attempt to scale some or all of the Cader, the actual ascent could be broken up into three parts. The first section climbs stone-laden terraces that lie parallel to the Nant Cadair river and series of waterfalls. And the river is definitely a welcome companion for the first 30 minutes or so.

It froths, foams and gurgles down the steep rock face which is fortunately made more negotiable with the stone steps, and resting points that have been laid out at regular intervals.

Supposedly the steps were put in place to keep erosion of the mountainside to a minimum. Moreover, the bracken and tree-lined slopes are attractively charming, and when you turn about, the neighbouring Tarren Hendre rises up the far side of the valley.

The second section is marked by a wooden gate which soon leads to a fork in the pathway. One branch leads up the gentler Mynydd Moel routeway to Pen y Gadair, and the other takes you up a flatter series of slopes to Llyn Cau and then rises sharply up a craggy pathway to the summit.

People can relax a little in the middle section which is covered in pastureland and dotted with Welsh Mountain sheep. The steeply rising inner sanctum of the Cader is also quite something to behold.

Some sections can be quite marshy and boggy, but there is still a noticeable stone trail that leads to the majestic and entrancing Llyn Cau.

On this particular day, the mists made it more difficult to luxuriate in the scenery. But as said before, the area has a dark and melanchony appeal even in the later autumnal months.

Llyn Cau was eerily mesmerising at first site. The cloudy haze overhanging it gave it an ethereal quality that would the perfect backdrop for the afanc to launch an unexpected attack.

But he kept his fangs to himself, although was reputed to have gone for people foolish enough to take a dip in the lake. Pictures across the web, do show more wonderful pictures of this tarn which has a beautifully bright, azure blue tone when the sky is clear of clouds above. And a complete view of the towering cliffs makes it even more entrancing and beguiling.

But that was not to be today, and once the lake had been taken in, it was time to take an about turn and head back down the mountainside.

There is a undoubtedly a kind of poetry to the landscape, and there is also a long-standing legend that says that if anyone spends the night on the mountain, they will either end up mad or a poet. Perhaps this stems from a bardic tradition, which saw many Welsh poets or storytellers stay on the mountainside in a bid to be moved by the literary muse or spirit, known in Welsh as Awen.

During my descent, more walkers arrived and were gainfully striding up the more rock-laden and difficult terrain. They couldn't be seen for long as the clouds enveloped them almost immediately. But no such move for me. I ventured gingerly down the pathway, mistook a watercourse for one and took a short route to the forked section to Mynydd Moel. So a descent was achieved in record time.

The wet weather, however, made it necessary to watch my footwork down the last section to the entrance gate. But some of the mists had cleared by this time and better views of the surrounding area were had.

Fortunately, I had only encountered relatively mild outbreaks of rain, but as I got to my car it began to chuck it down in earnest, just as group of walkers were lacing up their boots. Yet they still carried on.

The weather is undoubtedly your opponent when venturing out in Snowdonia, particularly up mountains. But there are very many days where the weather is fine, and obviously these are the days that should be chosen for a hillwalk. However, sometimes enduring the odd bit of rain is neccessary, otherwise a long life indoors beckons.

But people need to be aware of the dangers of walking in bad weather, and should only go as far as they are truly physically able.

Mountain rescue teams have reported in 2009 a significant rise in the number of casualties and accidents on some of the major Snowdonian peaks. And they have been very vocal in their criticism of people who have ventured out less than prepared. They advise people to wear appropriate clothing and strong, sturdy walking footwear. People are also recommended to take refreshments, waterproofs, a map, whistle and torch, and check the weather reports before they go anywhere - and also tell people where they're going.

Among the incidents that they have had to deal with recently involved people who got stranded on Snowdon after dark, and thought it was actually lit up at night time. People should always leave enough time to return to the starting point in daylight hours.

Another group carried a friend in a wheelchair half way up Snowdon, but left him there on the descent and called out the Mountain Rescue. Sometimes a mountainside is not suitable for people with disabilities and other routes should be taken that do not involve any difficult ascents.

Neverthless people should feel a strong sense of achievement at having climbed some or part of the Cader, (or any other Snowdonian peak) and could perhaps stop off at either Dolgellau or Machynlleth afterwards for lunch, tea or a welcome beer.

Directions: Proceed to the roundabout at Llanelltyd then take the A470 southwards and join the A487 towards the market town of Machynlleth. Turn off at the B4405 for the Tallyllyn Lake or Abergynolwyn. Just a few minutes after this turning the car park for the Cader Idris and Minffordd routeway will be seen on your righthand side.