A Summer In Mid-Wales by J. P.O'F. Lynam

A Summer In Mid-Wales by J. P.O'F. Lynam

In my newly acquired role as IMC Publicity Officer, I was recently in conversation with Peter Cooper, past Colmcille Climbers Club  President and now resident in Mid-Wales, remarking on the fact that he lived within a couple of miles of where I grew up.  In reply he asked if I knew that Joss Lynam had been in the area in the 1950s, working on the Elan Valley dams, 20 miles to the east, and that he’d written about in the IMC Journal.  
I searched the archives and found the following article.  I initially thought it would merely be an interesting historical item to feature on the blog but since original re-publishing I have been contacted by Dave Williams, a local climber who is currently researching Lynam’s climbs in the area.  They are producing a new climbing guide “Central Wales: A Climbing Guide to Elenydd“, due 2016.  I have included some of Dave’s comments below Joss’s original article.
[Photo credits go to my father, a keen photographer and frequent visitor to the Elan Valley where, together with my mother they walk & cycle.]

The Original Article

When I mentioned one evening last Autumn in the Club Room that I was going to work in Radnorshire, my friends considered that I had managed poorly; they expected me, it seemed, to land a job with a three-day working week on the edge of Lough Coruisk, or at the foot of Great Gable. Soon I began to think they were right; although I was working at 1200 ft. above sea level, and there was plenty of snow, there seemed to be nothing to climb, and though Rhayader is only 100 miles from Snowdon, it takes all day to get there – via Crewe and Chester!
However, at the beginning of May, when in spite of a jaunt to Ogwen in a friend’s car, we were feeling badly in need of some rock for climbing, we heard rumours of another mountaineer in Radnorshire. A mysterious ‘phone call to the Resident Engineer…A gossiping Sanitary Inspector….Then one Sunday afternoon as we set off on bicycles to explore a cliff I had noticed some time before, we met a cyclist, with a pair of tricouni-nailed boots slung from his handlebars: Lane – Lynam; introductions were made, talk commenced, first in the middle of the road and later, when a thunderstorm blew up, round a teapot in Dolgerddon Hall.  Lane – “E.H.” – was a Crown Forester on Radnor forest, about sixteen miles away, who for several years had been scouring the country for rock-climbs and, mostly climbing solo, had found quite a few short routes.

Penygarreg reservoir and Craig Dolfaenog
E. H. was to be our companion on most of our climbs in Radnor, so he deserves a few words. To an English climber I would describe him simply as a Rucksack Club man, but for the Irishman, who may not know this peculiar Mancunian breed, I must be more explicit. The Rucksack Club man has generally learnt his mountaineering in the Pennines, which are responsible for two of his characteristics. Firstly, to his unbelievable capacity for enormously long, dull walks over bog land, which, over the years, have become almost sacred, so that the mention of “Marsden-Edale” will bring an exiled Rucksacker to tears. Secondly, for the filth of his attire, for Pennine gritstone (as I know well, for I learnt to climb on it myself) is the dirtiest rock in these Islands. His third characteristic (and I do not know its cause) is rudeness. Not an abrupt, rather a loquacious rudeness, so that he is never happier than in slagging his friends, and raking up all their misdeeds of twenty years – or more, if his memory lasts.  To these group characteristics must be added E.H.’s personal quirks: a bubbling enthusiasm (liable to turn to black despair at a moment’s notice), an incurable urge to “talk climbing” (which, pent up for weeks, would burst in spate upon us when he came for the weekend) and a fortunate ability to laugh at himself – and everybody else.
View from the west side of Garreg Ddu reservoir. Creigiau Dolfolau separated by the Lyn Clap tributary.
Enough of the climbers; now for the climbs. Rhayader lies on the east side of an area of flat-topped hills, whose highest domes just pass the 2,000 ft. contour. The valleys are deeply cut and sometimes scarped, the whole forming, in geological language, a dissected peneplain. Two of the largest valleys, the Elan and the Claerwen, are filled by the reservoirs providing the water supply for Birmingham (I was working on the Claerwen Dam – the Elan Valley Dams date from about 1900).  The rock is mainly Silurian slate, often of schisty quality, interspersed with conglomerate and with some volcanic intrusions of similar rock to that found in the Snowdon district.
The volcanic rock outcrops at Cerrig Gwynion, two miles south of Rhayader, a few hundred feet above the road, perfectly situated for summer evening visits. Here are ten or so short routes, which were mostly worked out by Lane climbing solo. They are steep and quite strenuous, providing routes very similar, though shorter, to those at Dalkey. The cordée Lynam, constitutionally averse to strenuous climbing, only succeeded in putting up one new route, and had difficulty in dealing with some of the other routes without a top rope. The volcanic rock also forms a low north-south ridge of hills east of Rhayader and at the north end of this ridge near Llandegley, there are two outcrops. The angle is generally easier than at Cerrig Gwynion, and so, though there are a few hard routes, Llandegley rocks are primarily a place for a day off, particularly as they are finely situated and command (in spite of their low altitude) excellent views all round, especially of the neighbouring Radnor Forest. The conglomerate rocks have not yielded much climbing, but there are some short routes and scrambles on the rocks at the north end of Caban Coch, the lowest dam (Craig y Foel). Unexpectedly enough, the slate provides the best climbing probably because there is so much more of it. There are many detached buttresses which will repay attention, but one cliff is pre-eminent. It is on the east side of Garreg Ddu reservoir in the Elan Valley (Craig Dolfaenog/Craig Dolfolau), and presents a face of slate of a schistose character, which gives remarkably sound holds. 
The South Buttress of Creigiau Dolfolau, where many of the Lynam’s multi pitch climbs are located.
Two weeks after we met him, E.H. cycled over and stayed the weekend, the first ol many visits which formed the pattern of our summer climbing.  We went to Garreg Ddu and on the north buttress of the cliff, a buttress rather distinct from the rest, we climbed a route which he had reconnoitred the day he met us. It was the first climb of more than 200 ft. in the county and we named it Triumvirate as our first joint effort. It is a good climb, though no more than Difficult, and typical of the Garreg Ddu routes. It is predominantly a slab route, reminiscent a little of Bray Head, and though it is a natural line, it is generally possible to traverse off between the pitches.
Caban Coch dam, looking at the Gigfran Quarry at the `NE` end of Craig y Foel.
 The crag is more than 300 yards long and has a maximum height of about 450 it. It is a “rubber” cliff, for nails would quickly destroy the smaller holds, and clinkers in particular skid badly on the rather soapy surface. The climbing is generally delicate, and require good technique and intelligent use of holds. One of the great joys of the crag is its position, for it overlooks the winding, wooded reservoir and faces into the afternoon sun. It is also no more than a few minutes scramble from a motor road and the slowest of cyclists will reach it in less than an hour from Rhayader.
Craig Gigfran’s Canopy and Zig-zag Buttresses, north of Caban Coch dam.
 As the summer passed, we visited it more and more frequently, until we were climbing there at least once, and sometimes twice, each weekend. We explored the cliff steadily and found not a few charming climbs. We were most successful on North Buttress, where our route-finding culminated in Climax, a 150 ft. Severe route up a tower on the right side of the buttress. It starts in a recess overhung by trees, and goes up a steep and holdless slab, emerging at the foot of the tower. The lower wall of the tower is climbed by a crack, which is the only break in a smooth face, and the climb finishes with a magnificently exposed (though easier) pitch at the corner of the tower.
Craig Gigfran and Wide Gully above the Visitor Centre.
 Triptych Buttress, further to the south and lower, is another favourite spot. It is named from the three sharp ribs Adam, Eve and The Serpent, which stand out clearly on it and which each provides a route. Eve and The Serpent are pleasant Difficults, which yielded at the first attempt.  But Adam, which we had admired from our first visit, defied us until October. The rib was formed by the sharp edge of a characteristic slab, but it is a slab steeper, and at its top more holdless, than any we had met. In the end the top pitch was climbed, not on the slab, but round the corner, up a rounded and nearly vertical crack which we were on the point of labelling “V.S.” when Nora came up with great ease, so that we had quickly to demote it to “Severe”.
 There are other good climbs; Hawk’s Nest Chimney, the only route for which an outsider was partly responsible; Concerto, with a grand little tower and a finely exposed slab; Larceny, a “solid DifficuIt”; Diminuendo, which tacked on to any of the Triptych Buttress routes gives over 400 ft. of climbing; Trigonometry, with a delightful final pitch; Osiris, on the right Triptych Buttress; the two traverses, Orion’s Belt and Eve’s Girdle; and the short problems Pizzicato, Pilaster and Fandango.
 There are now sixteen routes on the cliff, ranging from 400 to 50 ft. long, and I think that most of the obvious lines (except the very hard ones) have been climbed. Slate always supports a considerable amount of vegetation and we have hardly touched the parts of the cliff that need gardening. Wholesale removal of heather ledges and of a few trees will certainly uncover some new routes, and on the clean parts of the cliff there should be a few lines to the taste of the leader of Very Severes.
Zig-zag Buttress, location of the very first climb in the Valley in 1950.
 I have written so far of the climbing immediately around Rhayader but often we took a tent and made more distant expeditions. On our first, at the beginning of May, we got a lift to Devil’s Bridge, on the coast side of our hills, and walked on the Saturday evening to Strata Florida where there are ruins of a Cistercian Monastery whose monks once owned all the Claerwen and Elan Valleys, to Rhayader and beyond. The ruins (mainly of the 13th century) are quite impressive; the arch of the west door is still standing and one can see the massive engraved pillars of the nave and the decorated tiled floors of the side altars. The name, unexpected in Wales, is the latinised form of Ystrad Fflur. We camped for the night a few miles higher up the valley and early next morning, in driving rain, crossed the hills by the old “Monks’ Road” to the Claerwen. We reached the dam at 8.30am, just in time to meet an astonished Sunday shift as they started work. I have no space to describe our other expeditions to Cadair Idris, to Plynlimon and to the Brecon Beacons, save to say that they all demanded intense study of Bradshaw and the Catholic Directory, for Sunday trains and Sunday Mass are the one as rare as the other in this Principality.
 It was an unexpected summer; I had imagined going for weekends to Cadair Idris or to North Wales, but it has never occurred to me that we should find good rock within a few miles. The beauty of the countryside was another surprise; the hilltops are dull, but the valleys, with their trees and heather, gorse and bracken, reflected in the bright waters of the reservoirs, have always some new loveliness of light or colour. The drying shores, left as the water level ebbs through the summer, are a pleasing contrast to the wooded slopes, and oven the grey, stone-faced dams do not obtrude, though, when the lakes are full and the water is cascading whites over the spillweirs, they are a grand sight in themselves. The year taught me something important also; that even when one is working six days a week in the hills, rain, snow or shine (mostly rain), one is still glad to climb on the seventh.
 Original article appears in IMC Journal Vol.3 No.2 Winter 1952.

Feedback from Dave Williams

Dave Williams is co-author of the forthcoming guidebook, Central Wales: A Climbing Guide to Elenydd. He is responsible for writing the Elan Valley section of the guide and has undertaken extensive research into Joss and Nora’s huge contribution to Mid Wales climbing, corresponding with one of Joss’s daughters and soon to visit the Joss Lynam Collection in Trinity College Archives.
Encouragingly, there are no access issues here.  The landowners, Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water), are refreshingly pro-climbing.
He was alerted to the above article some years ago and, from the information contained within it, Dave says:

“I’ve subsequently been able to track down the actual route descriptions for every single route climbed by the Lynams and EH Lane in the Elan Valley area between 1950-55. All the climbs have been found and a number of have been repeated – probably second ascents in most (all?) cases, 60+ years after the FAs! The ones that haven’t been climbed are ones we’ve failed on (see below), or ones which are now simply too overgrown to climb. (The passage of time and climate change have not been kind and Elan Estate also prohibits any removal of cliff vegetation on habitat conservation grounds.)

The climbs were before their time and are a testament to the great skill and nerve of the first ascentionists. Repeating them has been an, er,  ‘experience’. The original grading’s interesting too, and as a rule of thumb:

  • Difficult in rubbers‘ = VS 4b/c
  • Very Difficult in rubbers‘ = HVS 5a/b (Some of these were soloed on the FA!)
  • Severe in rubbers‘ = E1/E2 5b or harder? (We don’t know as we’ve backed off from all the ones we’ve tried – and we are normally okay  climbing up to E4. The difficulties are 3-fold – technical difficulty, unreliable yet often steep rock and an absence of trustworthy gear/ secure belays. A pretty heady mix!)

The first route that the Lynams climbed with Lane – Triumvirate – is now graded VS 4b. The rather serious top pitch made an E4 leader squawk and I was quite glad it wasn’t my lead!”