Drygarn Fawr: a trip to the gaping gap on the map (and three ways to reach the summit)

Distance: Routes vary in length between 3 and 10 miles.

On a hike in a totally different part of Wales at a totally different time last year, Undiscovered Wales met, on the trail, what you could only describe as a true veteran of the hills. A hardened, rain-lashed, wind-grizzled walker who imparted a knowing look whichever part of Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons or Mid Wales cropped up in conversation – and could inevitably come up with a means of approach which was not mentioned in any guidebook nor recorded on any website. In fact, he made a point of trying to do so. But nothing got him waxing lyrical about alternative routes to summits or circuitous meanderings over moors like the Cambrian Mountains. And there was one place in particular, he told us, which he held in special regard. He couldn’t say why, exactly. He just assured us that it was special, indescribably special. We would know that too when we got there. As a result of this encounter, we were inspired to set up this site. And as a result of this encounter, we have wanted to visit and to write about Drygarn Fawr ever since.

Drygarn Fawr from afar ©Luke Waterson

We deliberately didn’t research anything about Drygarn Fawr until about a day before setting out for it, preferring to cherish in our minds what this veteran of the hills had told us about this lonely summit (a place which still has no signpost pointing the way to it and somewhere which didn’t even have a cairn marking the turn-off trail until, according to him, he built one). It was the high point of the southern Cambrians, we did know that much. 645 metres above sea level. Not so high but certainly otherworldly in feel. Bang in the middle of the largest continuous expanse of moorland anywhere in Britain south of the Scottish highlands, and stretching from Rhayader in the east to Strata Florida Abbey in the west. A huge, huge expanse. So big that if you look at OS Landranger Map 147, which covers the sparsely inhabited area, so stumped are the publishers for places to mention on the back-of-map synopsis that they label the space in the west ‘Drygarn Fawr’ – there is simply nothing else around to mention. It is a craggy tapering-out of moor, a wind-buffeted embodiment of emptiness. When we did research Drygarn Fawr, it didn’t take us very long. There was not much to look up. So little, in fact, that this article on Drygarn Fawr is already, two paragraphs in, easily the longest piece of writing you can find online.

There is one further reason why Undiscovered Wales was dead set on visiting Drygarn Fawr. It is (just and only just, and only by leaving very early and returning very late) within a long day hike of where we live. And so for us it represents a sort of point-of-no-return, akin the field in the Shire beyond which Samwise Gangee has never ventured. But on the day when Wales reopens to tourism albeit with an emphasis on social distancing, it seems a fitting place to talk about a little.

Getting there, most importantly. To get to Drygarn Fawr you have to hike, and you have to be able to use a map. There are no marked trails, and the paths that there are are hard to find.

Getting there: route one (from Aberwesyn Common)

Abergwesyn Common ©Luke Waterson

The first means of approach that Undiscovered Wales tried was from the west, from Abergwesyn Common. You bear northwest from the hamlet of Abergwesyn along one of the prettiest driving roads in Wales, passing the loveliest part of the common and the upper River Irfon on your left. After almost three miles walking below the crags on the right, you see a house. The first you will have seen. Here a forestry track ascends to the right. Follow this up (or if you can find it, the actual trail that runs up behind the house along the other side of the stream). The forestry track slings over a gate, up a long rise to the right, swings back up left to join with the hard-to-find path just before another bend (here there is a way-marker). Turn right at this way-marker on a snaking little path off the main forestry track and climb out of the new-plant forest onto the moor at a gate. After here you have to use intuition/navigation (but if in doubt keep heading up!) to bear straight ahead up over the moor to reach the prominent cairn atop Drygarn Fawr after another mile or so.

Total distance: about 3 miles from the nearest road.

Getting there: route two (up Afon Gwesyn)

The top of Afon Gwesyn ©Luke Waterson

Although it is all the more dazzling and more surprising by heading down this way from Drygarn Fawr, you can also climb UP on this ravishing means of approach from the south. Follow the lane northeast from Abergwesyn and you can park at the community hall/public toilets on the right, then continue another few hundred metres to a small gathering of houses. After one on the left, there is a metalled track. Take this, towards a farm called Ty-mawr, then when you see large vehicles parked in a field, turn right on a footpath which leads you up into woods in the upper valley of the Afon Gwesyn (from which of course Abergwesyn derives its name). Follow the track (and then the left-hand field edge) up to cross a fence and rejoin a path above another farm, Trysgol (at the point where you rejoin, you will glimpse a barn roof on your right, and have a steep drop to the river, now far below you, on the left). Follow this path up left and then straight on to pass through a gate onto open moorland, with the Afon Gwesyn river on the left. What ensues is one of the loveliest and most secret stretches of river walk in all Wales, but it is not for the inexperienced. You essentially now keep the river on your left and climb up the valley. Initially this is on a sheep path; once you pass the beautiful waterfall and plunge pool, this is a faint and rough path. You stay on this all the way up to rise onto open moorland, at which point you can see Drygarn Fawr above and to the right. You join up with the approach mentioned above and turn right on this path to reach the summit.

Total distance: about 3 miles from the nearest road, but rougher-going then route one! Combine the two by approaching the summit on route one and returning on route two, parking at the lay-by’s on Abergwesyn Common or the community hall car park mentioned above, for a round trip of about 10 miles.

A dazzling waterfall on the Afon Gwesyn valley – wild swim stop?! ©Luke Waterson

Getting there: route three (from Afon Claerwen)

This way to the top is blessed with beautiful wild camping possibilities lower down at the base near the Afon Claerwen, to the northeast of Drygarn Fawr. Getting to the start by car is hard enough: head to Rhayader, then to the Elan Valley Lakes. At the south-western end of the Caban-coch Reservoir, there will be a lane to the left that crosses the Afon Claerwen (the river that lends its name to Claerwen Reservoir, further up). Take this left-hand turn. This takes you back over the river with views of Caban-coch reservoir on the left. Then turn right, and the point (quite soon) where there is another right-hand turn, to  a farm called Rhiwnant, is the start point and the well-defined track that you will take south up the Rhiwnant valley. After a patch of woodland below on the right (great wild camp spot), the track ascends above waterfalls and, at a point where the more defined track kinks steeply up to the left, you trek straight on, on a far narrower sheep path (but nevertheless a public right of way) alongside the tumbling stream of Nant Paradwys. The moor eventually levels out and here is a distinctive cairn, built by afore-mentioned veteran hiker, demarcating the path which you take to the right (west, you’ll need a compass anyway) over boggy moor and up, all the way , a couple of miles to the Drygarn Fawr summit.

Total distance: 4 miles from nearest road.

There is technically a fourth, and longer approach, too, from the south (which you access by continuing from Abergwesyn past the community hall mentioned in route two to the next parking place in forest after a couple of miles). A connector track ushers you up through forest onto moor, via the crags and cairns of Carnau and on north to that veteran hiker’s cairn. Undiscovered Wales have not tried this fourth approach, but it looks sublime, and allegedly the Carnau area is fantastic.

And when you are there?

©Luke Waterson

The craggy ridge of Drygarn Fawr has two cairns (distinguishing it from almost any other Mid Wales summit, especially since the upper one is built up into a distinctive beehive shape almost three times head height). In fact, three structures grace the summit if you include the trig point besides the beehive cairn. Is it the best view in Mid Wales? No, although you can see all the way to Pen Pumlumon Fawr and the Elan Valley Lakes (north) and the Sennybridge MOD area and the Brecon Beacons (south). Is it beautiful? Not exactly, although it is unequivocally poignant. What can you do there? Not much, besides looking at the stark vistas, staring at the flitting clouds and huddling in the lee of the cairn to eat and drink whatever you have with you. Is it worth the trek? Absolutely – every step of the way. Although, like that wind-grizzled man of the moors who told us about the place, we cannot put our finger on why.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Not too far from the starting point for route three (well, 19 miles by road but a doable day hike from Drygarn Fawr itself) is the Red Kite Estate and its state-of-the-art wilderness accommodation.

At a glance

How to get there: From Abergwesyn Common, 7 miles northwest of Llanwrtyd Wells (route one), Abergwesyn community hall, 6 miles north of Llanwrtyd Wells (route two) or Rhiwnant near Caban-coch reservoir (7.5 miles southwest of Rhayader)

Parking: Of these routes, the best official parking is on route two at the Abergwesyn community hall.

Refreshments: Your own, if you bring them.

Best time to visit: Well, summer might make the wind less biting. Then again it might not. And spring and autumn can be best for bringing out this moorland’s glorious hues.

Map:

(showing each of the three routes)