It will seem like a false omen to those who have sworn allegiance to him, but he will remind them of their guilt and take them captive.
– Ezekial, 21:23
This is a walking story that may have a political message – or it just be a load of twaddle in which four guys well past the age of consent lose their way in the wild before common sense puts them on the right path.
We had arrived in the Flintshire village of Llanarmon-yn-Ial (the ‘yn-Ial bit distinguishes this one from another – Llanarmon DC, Dyffryn Ceiriog, where there is a pub that has one of the best views I know, down the valley of the Ceiriog with not a house in sight.)
Whereas ‘Dyffryn Ceiriog’ is Welsh for ‘valley of the Ceiriog’, our village gained its name as the centre of the old Welsh division of Iâl – the ‘fertile hill country’. For this is certainly hill country: the village nestles at the foot of the fairly hefty-looking Moel y Plas, one of the summits on the Clwydian range of hills that runs from Prestatyn south to Llandegla, the highest point being Moel Famau which, on any clear day, you can see from Liverpool.
We began the day in our inimitable style (we are the four who, walking Sankey Brook earlier this year, circled a school at least twice and set off down the wrong brook). This time, though, things would be different. We had a guide – Walking in the Clwydian Hills by Carl Rogers – so we knew where we were going.
We set off in a decisive manner but could not find the path out of the village and up to the Offa’s Dyke path that runs along the top of the Clwydian hills. We sought directions from a woman putting on walking boots (seemed like a reliable source). We soon realised that the stile she had directed us to represented the end of Rogers’ walk. We decided to press on: we’d simply do the walk the opposite way round.
Now, you can read a route on a map the wrong way round – but have you ever tried to make sense of written directions in the opposite direction? For a mile or so, things went swimmingly. But things began to go pear-shaped as we approached Gweryd Lakes, a fishery that consists of two lakes and two trout pools set in an estate enclosed by high boundary fencing.
As is customary when these four walkers get together, the conversation had immediately turned to the collective failure of the working class to rectify the failings of international capitalism. Naturally, two of the first words that entered the conversation – and which continued to be uttered every few seconds – can be indicated by the initials ‘JC’. Given that we were not four Christians embarked on a pilgrimage, you know what I mean.
Suddenly, our earnest debate was cut short by the realisation that we were getting nowhere – and had no idea whether we should turn to the right or the left. By this time we were skirting the largest of the Gweryd Lakes. A collective decision was taken to veer to the right, and to keep turning right. The curious result of this operation was that we ended up on the left side of the lake (ie, back where we had started).
There seemed no way out of our dilemma, and to make matters worse dark clouds had rolled in, drenching us with heavy rain. It seemed we were in the wilderness – and leaderless. Our aspiration to reach higher ground seemed doomed.
We decided to do the sensible thing and seek directions from outside the party. A quick consultation in a nearby shop selling fish yielded the surprising advice: keep further to the left. We did – and soon found ourselves in sunlit uplands.
Leaving the lakes behind us, we emerged from woodland and joined the Offa’s Dyke path. Ahead lay Moel y Plas which proved to be quite a strenuous pull. By now the clouds had cleared and we were basking in warm sunshine. That, and a fierce breeze, meant that we soon dried out.
Offa’s Dyke Path runs for 176 miles from Prestatyn in the north to the Severn Estuary in the south, and is named after the structure built on the orders of Offa, the 8th century king of Mercia. Although its precise purpose is debated by archaeologists and historians, it marked the border between Anglian Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys.
For a good part of the path’s length, Offa’s Dyke is a massive linear earthwork, up to 65 feet wide and 8 feet high in places. When it came to the Clwydian Hills, however, there was little need for additional earthworks along the summits. The fortifications that do exist along the range – for example, at Penycloddiau a little further north from where we were – are considerably older. Penycloddiau was built around 2,500 years ago in the Bronze Age, and is the largest hillfort on the Clwydian Range.
The English Victorian gentleman writer George Borrow, asserted in Wild Wales that ‘it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman who was found to the east of the dyke, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it’. We encountered nothing of that sort during our peregrination, and were able to enjoy a peaceable lunch among the heather on Moel Llanfair with a spectacular view.
From where we sat we could see Snowdon on the distant skyline, while the market town of Ruthin lay spread out in the valley below.
Striding along through the heather, with colossal views to our left, it was easy to see why the Clwydian range has been designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Below the peak of Moel Gyw we turned off the Offa’s Dyke path to drop down through fields and back to Llanarmon. Naturally, once off the well-signposted long distance path, we lost our way again. At least this time our objective – the spire of the church of Saint Garmon in the centre of the village – could be seen across the fields.
This Saint Garmon to whom the church is dedicated was actually a 5th century warrior bishop, Germanus of Auxerre in Burgundy. Sent to Britain to combat heresy soon after the end of Roman rule, he found himself commanding nervous local forces against an invading army of pagan Picts and Saxons. Setting an ambush in a narrow pass, he told his men to cry out ‘Alleluia’ as he raised the standard: their sudden shout echoed round the pass, whereupon (reported Bede) the enemy fled in panic, ‘thinking the very rocks and sky were falling on them’.
We didn’t go inside the church, but should have done since it contains a monument that might be a memorial to weary walkers. It’s actually dedicated to Captain Efan Llwyd, who died in 1639, and shows his bearded and armoured figure reclining in a triple-arched niche looking weary but deeply relaxed.
Though the village store was open, the pub was shut and Llanarmon dozed. Yet once this was a busy and prosperous place: located on several drovers’ roads and drawing its prosperity from the cattle which passed through on their way from Anglesey to the markets of England. It was busier still in the 18th and 19th centuries, when numerous lead mines and stone quarries were active in the area.
Thirsty after a walk that was officially 6 miles, but which we had probably increased by another couple of miles with our meanderings to the right and left, we headed to the cafe Loggerheads Country Park for a welcome pot of tea.