|New Precipice Walk|
Fantastic views of the Mawddach Estuary and the major mountain peaks of Southern Snowdonia
Time: 3 hours
Wales has a fascinating range and array of footpaths and walking trails. But, all too often, what's not so obvious, is where they lead to or even where they start in the first place.
On an bright, early morning, I decided to tackle parts of the New Precipice Walk nearest the Mawddach Estuary and hamlet of Taicynhaeaf, and that's where things started to go slightly wrong.
There were no immediate signs to let me know where the bounds of Taichynhaeaf actually began. But at a narrow turn-off from the A496, a large upright wooden banner sign proclaiming New Precipice Walk looked like I would be starting the walk very soon.
I followed the steep road through the village, and looked for signs of a similar nature, but got quickly confused by lots of walking signposts veering off into the wooded hillside.
There were no indications that these were anything to do with this particular walk. And having fallen foul of various waymarked footpaths in the past, that either turned into a dead end or became rows of very closely planted conifers, I decided not to tempt fate yet again.
Instead, I checked my walk's map to see if I could glean any more vital clues. No such luck. As I arrived at a farm gate, all signposts to the New Precipice Walk seemed to have simply vanished. Soon, I feared, I would be cruising along someone's very own personal driveway.
After minutes of getting nowhere, I threw caution to the wind, found a layby on the A496 a mile outside the village, and started following a waymarked path upwards. This would, I reasoned, connect me to the New Precipice Walk in what looked like 20 minutes - well if my print-out map was to be trusted.
So an hour later, after a strenuous climb, fate decided to smile on me for a few seconds, because I came out exactly at the start of the New Precipice Walk. That's what I call 'first class map reading'.
The climb upwards could definitely be said to be confusing for those unfamiliar with the terrain. It would seem any of the previous signposts at Taicynhaeaf, followed in an upward direction, would have eventually led me to the starting point of the Llybwr Foel Ispri or the New Precicipe Walk. And the supposed farm driveway, was actually part of the road upwards, that eventually led to the official start. Well, you live and learn.
Just to add, my trek upwards was actually quite challenging, but I was soon able to break out into some broadleaf woodland, and the Cader Idris and Mawddach Estuary unfolded impressively behind me. Soon however, some unbeatable views could be enjoyed from the Foel Ispri summit whichever way I turned.
On the last section upwards, I had to pass through a few wooden gates, before the start of the New Precipice Walk and its associated car park appeared. The starting section was thankfully well signposted and a white-washed cottage (Foel-Ispri-Uchaf) sat above the opening tracks of this new addition to the area's burgeoning collection of walks.
Just as an aside, this routeway was upgraded in 2009 at a cost of £40,000 to make it more wheelchair friendly. The pathway was actually a former tramway track that led into the mountainside to service the now out-of-action Voel goldmines.
What is perhaps surprising is that there was so much mining in this stretch of Snowdonia, in what became widely known as the Dolgellau Gold Belt.
A Klondike-style gold rush hit the area in the middle of the 19th century, and for over 70 years a massive 4 tonnes of gold were extracted from this particular area alone.
Today, however, Welsh gold is said to be among the most precious metals on Earth, and is reknowned for its exceptional quality and purity. One ounce of it is said to be worth three times as much as ordinary gold, and it has been used in rings for Hollywood stars such as Catherine Zeta Jones and members of the royal family. However, each and every one of the mines in the Dolgellau area has now been closed down.
Interestingly, the Gwynfynydd goldmine, a few miles downstream from our holiday cottage, Glyn-yr-aur, was one of the largest producers in the area. And gold was said to be visible in local quartz veins, found in bands of shale, that dated from the Cambrian period (550 million years ago). Glyn-yr-aur also actually means Valley of Gold in Welsh.
The gold deposits were said to be largely due to the volcanic activity in the area, and the now extinct volcano, Rhowbell Fawr (a few miles from our holiday cottage) was said to be key in their overall formation.
The proverbial gold belt was said to stretch from the sunny seaside town of Fairbourne to the more northerly lake region of Trawsfynnedd, and a considerable number of mines sprung up quickly in the area as gold rush fever took hold.
One such mine was developed at Foel Ispri, near the start of this walk, although it was not considered to be among the most prolific. And various run-down miners' cottages can still be seen scattered about its summit.
Life was supposedly hard for the mine workers who slaved over the tough rock from dawn till dusk, and engineers were often baffled by the capricious geology. The gold was said to turn up in the most unlikely of places, and miners seemed to know best where the next lucky strike would be.
It's hard to believe that there would once have been a hillside filled with workers. Echoing sounds of pickaxes hitting the rock face would have gone on from dawn till dusk. While wagons noisily trundling along the tramways would have been an ever-present sight.
The miners may have thought they had hit the hit the jackpot when they struck gold. But for me the real gems and treasures to be found here are the unparalleled 360 degree panoramic views.
After about 300 yards, the wheelchair friendly track merges with a rough grassy trail, and there is a more or less sheer drop to the meandering flood plain of the River Mawddach. It seemed to be slowly silting up, and it soon breaks out in to Cardigan Bay - and that's perhaps one of the region's most photographed and iconic scenes.
Sheep typically ran up and down beside me and managed to precariously cling to the steep and craggy hillside.
I soon reached a fork in the trail. One stretch followed a drystone wall and passed the ruins of two former mine workers cottage. It followed the lower contours of Foel or Moel Ispri and provided a slightly longer tour of this mountain's summit. The other route provided a shorter tour of the mountain and a more direct route to its top.
To take the longer route, however, people should just follow the rough trackway past the ruins of a first grey-stone cottage. Then people should cross a small wooden bridge to a second larger cottage. If you peer inside you can get a good idea of what life might have been like here over a century ago.
Now back to the walk: the pathway contintues to follow the edges of a dry-stone wall. It becomes fairly challenging and steep after a while, but if you trace the trail upwards you soon come to the central section of this mountain peak, which can also be a little boggy in places.
The day this walk was taken a temporary pond had been established due to some recent rainfall. People should therefore take care, and make sure they scramble across the higher ground, and follow some rough sheep tracks, until they soon see one of the major grassy trails that cuts through this region. This should be joined and followed carefully all the way back to the starting point. There are few diversions from it, so people should not become easily lost.
However, this writer decided to opt for the shorter and quicker routeway up Foel Ispri. The pathway was quite easy to follow, and people, when out walking themselves, should just choose the widest and most obvious route and follow it in a circular kind of direction.
The sun also managed to penetrate the clouds and allowed me some brighter shots of the mesmerising scenery and landscape.
Every which way I looked there were either majestic mountain peaks, rolling pastures or isolated farmsteads that were criss-crossed by a labyrinth of dry-stone walls. I was very fortunate to have it all to myself.
Heather, shrubs, bracken and grass carpeted the upper slopes which were surrounded by a never-ending wave of mountain peaks that faded into the far horizon. The views cost nothing, but were perhaps in themselves worth far more than any precious metal or gold.
The main grassy thoro'fare eventually passed through a section of drystone wall, and people when walking here should veer rightwards until they come to a metal gateway.
Then people need to follow the outer reaches of a dry stone wall and trackway back down to the Foel Ispri starting point. This particular mid-section of the walk should take people about an hour to complete. The longer detour takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes in all.
Then for an easier descent, people should follow the roadway back down towards Taicynhaeaf, and you will be amazed at the cluster of signs you see nearer the actual hill-top starting point for the New Precipice Walk. Well better late than never.
After reaching the A496, people should ramble on past a few cottages towards Dolgellau and after a mile's walking, the short layby and initial starting point will be reached, and that makes for a total walking time of about three hours in total.
Those who don't wish to trek up the hill from Taicynhaeaf, could just drive up the roadway, and through all the metal gates to the car park at Foel Ispri and just tackle the walk around the top of Foel Ispri itself.
There's a generous scattering of tea rooms, pubs, cafes and restaurants in both Barmouth and Dolgellau. So head there for some light refreshment. Or there's always the welcoming Dolfrwynog Tea Garden nearer home.