The Hibbert family (mum, dad and daughters aged 14 and 12) from Preston in Lancashire, were the lucky winners of a competition coordinated by PR Company, ‘Ceidiog’ (www.ceidiog.com) and advertised in the Lancashire Evening Post (www.lep.co.uk) for a family adventure biking break in Southern Snowdonia.
Dad – Gary H – recounts their experiences as they claimed their prize.
We knew little of this particular area of Wales using it only as a staging post on our previous jaunts to Pembrokeshire. We had stayed north of Snowdon on a couple of occasions but the Dolgellau area would be new to us as a place for more than a fuel stop!
Our accommodation at Helmau Cottages (www.cottagedolgellau.co.uk) near Dolgellau, was quickly arranged to coincide with school half term. Janet, the owner of Helmau Cottages was brilliantly accommodating, helping to fit in availability for our two night stay amidst our busy schedule of sports clubs, music lessons, art projects and report writing (and that is just what the kids have to fit in). We then got confirmation of our inclusive mountain bike hire arranged through Beics Brenin (www.beicsbrenin.co.uk) and got on with the packing!
OK, so we checked the weather reports and ‘changeable’ was a term that seemed to stand out, so we packed waterproof socks, down jackets and our hill walking gear along with our cycling helmets.
On the appointed day we loaded the car and headed off into Wales, stopping for brunch at Bala with its quaint shops, cafes and tea shops. We had a quick look at Bala Lake (or Llyn Tegid as it is known in Welsh) but we had no sight of ‘Teggie’ the Welsh equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster who is alleged to reside within its depths. What struck us though, was that the lake had overflowed to flood the car park on its shore. Little did we know that the extreme weather that had led to this flooding had not finished with us yet.
We made good time to Dolgellau and headed on to the Corris Craft Centre on the main A487 road mid way between Dolgellau and Machynlleth to pass a bit of time. This place has something to suit all of the family, albeit that King Arthur’s Labyrinth was still closed for the winter on our visit, we still had the option to explore mine workings and plenty of scope for retail therapy! The greatest draw for daughter no.2 was ‘Chocablock’ (www.chocablockcorris.co.uk) – handmade chocolate and fudge with the chance to custom make your own chocolate bar.
The car now loaded with fudge and chocolate we head for Helmau Cottages with their stunning views of the surrounding mountains of Snowdonia, Cader Idris being nearest. Both daughters quickly went off to explore the extensive grounds including a children’s play area and to meet the horses in the paddock whilst our host, Janet, showed us around our well equipped home from home for the next few days.
Helmau Cottages give an ideal mix of tradition and country chic yet are furnished with the technology that we seem alarmingly so reliant on these days. Logs were supplied to fuel the log burning fire in the lounge, OK you don’t need to light it what with the central heating and all, but there is something about a real fire after a day out in the fresh air which is irresistible. We utilised the wi-fi and Sky TV to keep up with news and weather reports.
The main attraction for us on this trip was to visit Coed y Brenin (www.forestry.gov.uk/coedybrenin) which is famed as the first of the modern mountain bike trail centres in the UK and still the largest with 140km of dedicated cycle trails. After a night’s ‘sleep of the just’ we dressed for cycling and headed out into the soft drizzle and on to the Visitors’ Centre at Coed y Brenin. If only it had been soft drizzle that had been visited on that part of Snowdonia for the last week. What met us at Coed y Brenin was best described as devastation, trees having been ripped from the ground by hurricane winds in the previous few days. Where trees did not block paths and roads, their uprooting had torn away the usually meticulously maintained route ways and severed power lines and telephone cables. Coed y Brenin was closed for safety reasons.
We managed to contact the bike hire suppliers who could not be more apologetic but they themselves had only just been given access to their facilities within the forest park to assess the weather damage. The unprecedented storm force winds that had brought havoc to Wales had left us in Lancashire comparatively untouched.
We were assured that everything was being done to remove fallen trees and make the place safe and that they would keep us posted on developments.
Never a family to sit still for long Mrs H plotted a route that would take us on a driving tour through the local lanes circumnavigating the extensive but battered forests in the shadows of Snowdonia’s extinct volcanoes. We picked our way past fallen trees to a point where the both daughters and I had to jump out of the car to hold back the branches on a fallen elm tree while Mrs. H piloted the car through, only to come to an abrupt halt just 100m or so round the next bend where a decades old giant of a tree completely barred our path. Fortunately, Mrs. H is great at reversing uphill on single track roads whilst the girls and I got back to wrestling with the various arboreal obstructions that the winds had scattered on to the highways.
Cycling and back road driving now barred to us we headed back to Helmau Cottages for a hot drink and to change from cycling to walking gear. Helmau Cottages are but a ‘short stride away’ from the well known Snowdonia Torrents Walk (www.eryri-npa.gov.uk/visiting/walking/Moderate-Leisure-Walks/torrent-walk).
This spectacular riverside walk, lying just east of Dolgellau, follows the course of the River Clywedog through beautiful woodlands. The highlights of the walk are the series of waterfalls made all the more dramatic on our visit as a result of the recent rains. This rowdy stretch of waterway barges its way through gorges that it has cut over time to where it collides with the River Wnion in the valley below. The fallen trees along our route here did little to impede our progress and indeed added a sense of adventure and drama to this fabulous little walk.
We did not get back to Coed y Brenin for another two days having monitored progress of the tree clearing on the Beics y Brenin Facebook page in anticipation of news that the trails were open again. It transpired that the skills park was open and only a short section of the most popular trail ‘the Minor Taur’, but our chance to ride on this trip had passed, so we turned our attention to checking out what the visitor centre had to offer. I have to add that Beics y Brenin maintain an amazingly stocked shop at Coed y Brenin and it took some resolve on the part of this writer to avoid spending money on that must-have cycling gadget. The glistening array of two wheeled transport to buy and to hire was also impressive.
The Visitor Centre Café was however less easy to resist. The Café makes a point of sourcing its ingredients locally where it can, the lamb and venison having been reared actually within the forest. I can certainly recommend the ‘Dragon’s Back’ lamb burger served with fresh yogurt and beetroot chutney.
Suitably fortified we set out for a final look around. What we saw of the cycle trails was impressive, the skills park is certainly the largest of its type that I have ever seen. As veterans of the tree top aerial adventures run by ‘Go Ape’ (www.goape.co.uk) at Grizedale, Winlatter and Rivington we were keen to take a look at the range of obstacles at the Coed y Brenin site. Imagine if you will, what happens when you line up a row of dominoes and then knock the end one down… now take that concept and substitute dominoes for trees and picture those trees connected together with steel cables. The resulting collapse of the Go Ape course was really alarming to see. Whilst there, a gentleman arrived sporting his Go Ape logo’d outdoor gear. He introduced himself as James and kindly pointed out the route that thrill seekers would normally follow in and around the leaf canopy. The frequency with which James pointed out where things ‘used to be’ just reinforced the realisation that unfortunately this Go Ape site would not be opening again very soon. We wished James well and headed back to the car, next stop Lancashire.
In summary, as a mountain biking trip we failed to realise our goal but as a family bonding exercise it was brilliant. I haven’t mentioned the walks along the beach at Harlech, scaling the heights of Harlech Castle, watching the surfers brave the monstrous waves at Barmouth or conducting a none- too-scientific comparison of all the Welsh cakes we could find at the local craft bakeries.
Southern Snowdonia is no longer just somewhere we will be passing through en route to somewhere else. We aim to get back to the Dolgellau area as soon as we can, with one of the cottages at Helmau as our preferred overnight accommodation (subject to availability!) to see it in its restored state.