In-between lands: an ode to the Welsh moors

(7-minute read)

‘But how do you know?’ my hiking companion Chris, in normal life a calm rational fellow who runs marathons, screams at me in near hysteria and defeat, up to his knees in Mid-Welsh peatbog. Unwavering rain has been pile-driving down on us for two consecutive days, during which we have also been doing most of our walking off paths and across sopping moorland. And now the drippy mist has intensified so that the few landmarks that might have aided orientation are indistinguishable, gloopy shades of the same overarching grey. There was only ever going to be so long our gear could keep out such wet. Soaked so by dank bog water from below and unseasonably chilly precipitation from every other direction – it does things to a person. Bad things. Especially if you are lost amidst Britain’s greatest uninterrupted wilderness south of the Scottish Highlands and there are few remaining hours of daylight.

‘I’ve been here before. Trust me. I recognise how the valley is fanning out ahead.’

Chris looks at me, pure open-mouthed disbelief. Not because of my claim to know where we are going, he is ready for a suggestion, any firm suggestion seeing as how our previous map-readings have had us wheeling at red kite-like tangents doubling or trebling our march across this moorland. But because we are in a nameless nothingness, unless you count the map’s italics inexactly marking cairns and hill forts. Because we are in the Cambrian Mountains, the pale ochre upland stretching from the north of the Brecon Beacons, where we began walking, to Snowdonia, where we are aiming for, two more famous mountain regions I get the distinct impression Chris would rather be in right now. Because we are in a pathless quagmire ramparted between moels, bald austere summits, in a continuum of the sogginess and can’t-see-the-sheep-in-front-of-you murk that have dogged us for 48 hours, in a grit-your-teeth bow-your-head emptiness of quite epic proportions – and I am saying I have been here before. Voluntarily.

‘Why?’ Chris asks incredulously.

The mind, contrarily, wants what it cannot have.

Cooped up for weeks it can crave emptiness – unfettered wind in the face, a middle-of-nowhere skyline and not another soul to mar the view – feed it the emptiness and it overdoses on mud and moraine; demands these things then despairs of them; starts hankering after a pub or traveller with whom to exchange words about ways just walked or yet-to-walk or a path of any sort whatsoever, a path yes even the faintest flattening of heather or hoofprint in the mire or mark upon the scree would be nice to show some other living thing had once stumbled squelched scrambled through, because then it would not feel quite so absolutely alone.

Close up of lichen on rock © Kerry Walker

I speak about my own mind, of course. You see, I am a serial binger on all things I love most – my work, my family, my favourite places to eat out – and on the great outdoors, too. If I have been busying myself with any of the first three and then get time for the latter, a daytime stroll does not do it for me. It must be complete immersion, full kit and multi-day over the hills and under the stars and away from the beaten trail. Embarking on a hike, I breathe free and easy only when the road, track, final farm, uttermost fenceline has been jettisoned, and I am somewhere sufficiently starkly other with the sure knowledge of much more of the same beckoning ahead.

In my mind-set I do recognise a smattering of some very atavistic urge: this need to forge into the wilds to become at one with the land and with the elements might strike more of a chord with our prehistoric forebears than with most people today. Then again, what we might now term ‘wilderness’ was almost certainly not perceived as such a century back let alone millennia ago. (We stride out to a place we deem far from civilisation when in fact it is saturated in past civilisations, abandoned crofts, anachronistic mine workings, standing stones with original purposes unknown. And so I like to imagine our ancient ancestors, observing our 21st-century searches for unspoilt landscapes in our increasingly spoilt world and smiling wryly as in so doing we make a beeline for their once-bustling highways and once-happening settlements).

So let us call it a desire for the stripped-back that I have, a desire for what is left when you take away paved roads and pylons and phone signals and houses and hedgerows and hassle. Up in the mynydd, what the Welsh call all their uncultivated uplands, the lines of the land are harsh but simple and in this stripped-backness I find I can think.

Thoughts tumble out in a manner they otherwise wouldn’t. As someone who writes, that is important. As a person, too.

The quiet drama of the open moor © Kerry Walker

No coincidence that I moved here permanently in 2016, to the edge of this 25-mile-by-25-mile nothingness, not where Chris and I are now floundering in bog, but not so far away either. To around the point where, were you to see it in context on an OS Landranger then run your eyes north, you would see a gap for four fifths of map length, squiggling contours and tendrils of myriad llyns and the occasional dashed line of pathway, but in all honesty a gap. On my local map’s back-cover area coverage box, the most major placename it can boast on the western half of the sheet is a crag.

And I do not want to do a dull thing like drive round by road every time I fancy going north or east or west.

So you see, I sometimes walk.

This bit of mynydd just happens to be in the middle of another mass of mynydd in the middle of the Mid Wales that lies on the way I like to walk when I go mountain walking.

One time, I came this way, this 70-mile, three-day way, when headed north to Snowdonia to do some peak-bagging (it was a good initiation). Another time I came out here because, unlike in any of Wales’ three national parks, here there is nobody, horizons of nobody, and nobody was what I needed at the time. I camped out here too, beside a steely waterfall, and saw some of the most fiercely bright stars I have ever beheld. The sound of rushing water punctuated my dreams.

Not a lot gets written about the mynydd, this expanse that lacks the dizzying drama of high peaks or the gentle beguilement of pasture-patched lower cwms. But it is the mortar of Wales. In its immense flaxen-beige folds in its boulder-bestrewn hillsides in its broken-bone ridges in its scrub and morasses and mountains it is what joins the country together, it is all the missing pieces of the jigsaw that neither the road trip nor the mountain-biking trip and only the cross-the-middle-of-it-all tramp can slot into place. Yet it is largely unloved, and I love it for this reason, because it is too rugged for practical living but not lofty enough to attract adventurers like bigger massifs can – and so gets left alone.

In this sparseness, I am able at last to reset. For me, it is the turning over of the crisp blank page in the notebook. There are not many terrains I know of that sweep other concerns to one side like this. Tundra can, and perhaps the ocean if you are far enough into it, but with both of these there is the continually pressing business of survival. And so the mynydd is the perfect place to explore what wilderness does to the mind.

Chris and I, now. Two small men gesticulating in the bog.

We had gone through the initial exhilaration of the ffridd, that borderland between tended valley and moor where you break away from the fields and out of the woods, inhale those first gulps of heathery air, delight in the openness as the trees stunt and the gorse ignites and the stream seems to gurgle the louder, now that the voices of the lower valley, its lawnmower drones and 4×4 raspings and cattle lowings, are gone.

But the moor changes you much more too. Ascending the first of the properly wild cwms, we had found that despite the colour palette fading, yellowing, browning, we were picking out shades more; getting mynydd eyes. Brown, for example, separated into the khaki of cotton grass and the bruised hue of bilberry bush and the biscuity lichen encrusting the rocks and the mottledness of toads chorusing in the waterholes. Soon enough we were feeling awe as much as excitement; as the scale of the landscape asserted itself there was also our exigency to make progress across it. Then of course came the true tests of mettle; the bootfuls of water and strayings from compass bearings and lamentings that we had ever chosen to venture to such a godforsaken spot that accrued as the weather worsened.

And so we arrive at this moment, the demoralised-in-the-bog moment, mindsets mirroring topography, skittering between highs and lows, rapture and despair, as schizophrenically as the wind.

And a little later the cloud would clear to reveal something of the surroundings. A weak sun would shine through the grey as we crested the next summit. We would lay our clothes out to dry and brew up some coffee and sit looking out at the mynydd unfurling brown yellow brown to the skyline either side where there was a thin shimmering band of green. It would not be so much, really, but it would be everything to us. And the high would come again.

You want to embrace it and you want to hurl expletives at it but often too, in the mynydd, you do not necessarily feel especially elated or deflated. You are in an almost trance-like state, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, a place you have come from and a place you are bound for, with the odd sensation that in this utter de-clutteredness everything makes sense.

And on you go.

‘Life’s short enough without coming back to a bleak place like this again and again,’ Chris mutters. ‘Think where you could have been instead.’

I think.

Perhaps I feel I owe this landscape something. These words. More.

The mynydd breaks few records people care about, it is not the highest, lowest, harshest, largest, it lends itself more poorly to camera than most environments because its billowing moorland paleness hazed by lack of feature makes a mockery of perspective. If it is ever documented it is mainly in obscure papers on the bracken and mosses and liverworts which thrive here in the dearth of other life, or in legend because legends suit having the unknown as a backdrop.

It is, in most respects, vagueness. It is the great in-between. It is the great absence.

So if I do not pay the mynydd this attention, I am not sure who ever will.