Exploring Mountains in North Wales

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Journey to North Wales

Upon moving back to Britain for several years, having previously worked and studied in some of the world’s most exotic locations, I have certainly been guilty of grumpily overlooking the breath-taking beauty that can be found right here in the UK. I am sure I’m not the only one to dream of the exotic beaches of the Caribbean, the mountainous Rainforests of Peru or the beautiful volcanic expanses of Iceland and wish that I could be anywhere other than dreary old Britain. With its rain, lack of volcanoes and tropical lifestyles it can often feel like a bit of a bore.

Sometimes we become so immune to how lucky we are that we stop seeing the beauty in our own lives. With that sentimental thought in mind, let me take you to my summer 2016, where my love and appreciation of British nature was reignited by a short trip to North Wales.

The Journey
The Journey

In June 2016 I signed up to take an ecology course in and around Cwm Idwal, a mountainous region in the North of Snowdonia. I had some reservations about going, partly because it was so close to the leaving date for my research in Madagascar, and partly because I was convinced that it would be pouring with rain the whole time. What if I missed the two weeks of sun that makes up the entirety of English summer? I would be devastated.

Much to my surprise and immense happiness, we arrived in Wales via a travel sickness-inducing minibus right at the beginning of a two week heatwave, one which would begin on our third day and end the day that we left. I would like to thank the God of weather for that, praise be to sunshine.

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Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve

Our first stop was Cwm Idwal itself, the hanging valley where Llyn Idwal can be found pooled in its centre. This particular day was intermittently torrential, the last hacking cough and sneeze from the clouds that would be wiped away by the next day. We trod through the valley, learning about its geological history and marvelling at the quartz that strikes its grooves into bare rock.

Despite wading through the rain, breathing in more water than air, I couldn’t help enjoying myself. The place is phenomenal. It’s strong and massive without being domineering, the grassy patches run up the sides of mountains making way for thin waterfalls. Scrambling along rocky river banks, my soggy sandwiches long-forgotten, I discovered worlds which could’ve been the setting of ancient Welsh folklore. Surrounded in mist, the river hurried along and I slid around the rocks, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like millions of years ago.

In the Ordovician period (485-443 million years ago) the region of Cwm Idwal was covered in a shallow ocean. Sedimentary rock formed through layers of compression on the ocean bed, along with igneous rock formed from the larva of volcanoes. Tectonic plate movement eventually caused these layers to fold together and rise up forming the Idwal Syncline. Glaciation during the ice age eroded and shaped the land to the landscape that can be seen today.

We sampled plenty of freshwater sites around Cwm Idwal, searching for invertebrates as indicators of the water quality in relation to its surroundings. I spent a lot of time in outrageously long wellies. Rivers and lakes are teaming with life far beyond just fish and ducks. Take a closer look next time you find yourself at a water body, really look, and you’ll see hundreds of tiny invertebrates whizzing around the water, skating over the surface or rummaging through the beds. These tiny organisms are vital indicators for pollution levels and are irreplaceable food sources for many other amphibians, fish and wildlife.

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Research in my Wellies.

Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve Tips

The tracks and paths are well-maintained and clear, though it is easy to wander off them and explore a little more. If you want to take things further, there are plenty of opportunities for rock climbing. Plenty of the climbs are easy but there are certainly more difficult ones to be found. So if you are a climber, Cwm Idwal is definitely somewhere you will want to check out in the North of Wales.

Parys Mountain

From the stunning natural landforms of Cwm Idwal to something completely different: The man-made lakes and hills of the deceptively named Parys Mountain. When I heard we would be hiking around Parys Mountain (in my head, Paris Mountain) surveying lakes in the boiling sun, I had beautiful visions of Mount Snowdon Mark 2. I expected a suave, mountainous area covered in flowers and all the natural beauty that Wales had to offer. This was not the case.

Parys Mountain is an abandoned copper mine. It’s not a mountain, it’s a pit. But a gorgeous one at least, located in north east Anglesey. You can imagine my surprise when we pulled up to completely flat land, and had it announced that this was Parys Mountain. Despite my disappointment I was quickly enthralled by this Mars-like dusty red area, full of warning signs and holes in the land just begging to be explored. 

Parys Mountain
Parys Mountain

The history of Parys Mountain makes it particularly special. The mine dates back to thousands of years ago during the Bronze Age, where the mining of the copper ore first began. This was discovered when mining resumed here in the 18th century, and it was quickly realised that they were following in the footsteps of others.

Various castoffs of the mining process still remain in Parys mountain, polluting the water causing various surreal colouration’s of reservoirs. Once again, we were surveying invertebrates to determine the impact of these different contaminations on local wildlife. Not much other wildlife survives here due to the high levels of pollution and soil contamination. 

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Reservoirs at Parys Mountain

Parys Mountain Tip

I didn’t realise this at the time, but there are actually some sections of the mine you are allowed to enter with the correct guidance and equipment. For more information and to arrange a tour, contact the Parys Underground Group. Definitely my plan for next time!

Mount Snowdon

Of course our trip would never be complete without an arduous climb up Mount Snowdon. Dogs and children bounded ahead of us as we struggled our way up an increasingly cold mountainside. I developed a fear of heights four to five years ago after falling off a cliff in Australia, and had only recently recovered in part due to working at a theatre with a very, very high Upper Circle level. I was concerned that I would panic the whole way up the mountain, but I think that when you are somewhere inspiring, things like fears begin to matter less and ebb away. I walked close to the edge to challenge myself not to feel scared, and by the time I got to the top of the mountain I was happily dangling my feet over the edge, thrilled that Wales had thrown my fear of heights out of my brain and off the mountaintop. I got the most pleasant feeling being up high and seeing birds flying lower than me. I spend so much time feeling jealous of birds, that it feels pretty good to be higher up than them for once.

I'm on the edge.
On the edge.

Mount Snowdon Tip

I was looking forward to getting the old train back down the mountain, but when I got to the top we discovered that the train is about four times more expensive to get back down than it is to go up. Presumably this is to take advantage of exhausted climbers. I wasn’t exhausted I just really like trains, and was pretty sad to have to use my boring feet again. If you want to get the train I’d strongly recommend getting the train up and walking back down, you’ll be able to enjoy the scenery just as much.

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My Impressions of North Wales

After leaving Wales I swore I would be back, and soon. I’d spent a large portion of my trip imagining how I would go about moving to Wales (as I do with everywhere I go), and what kind of house I would live in (A teeny cottage in a valley by a tree, FYI). I felt I’d connected more with the nature on my (almost) home-turf, and couldn’t wait to get back home and start exploring my beautiful forests and hills again.

General Advice for Visiting North Wales

Despite our luck with fairly consistent hot and clear weather, it can change in a matter of minutes. Bring waterproofs, sunscreen and plenty of layers. Make sure that you visit the towns and villages nearby as they themselves provide a quirky insight into how life has flourished in the beautiful North. Go places and do things you’d normally shy away from, there are plenty of incredible places to go and things to see, all you need is time. 

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