Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The VoFf Way - Maentwrog to Llan Ffestiniog

Outline: this leg of the VoFf Way takes you across the valley floor then up the steep sided Cynfal gorge with rock pools and waterfalls surrounded by oak woodland. Then through fields and into the historic village of Llan Ffestiniog with its community pub.

Maentwrog church is a good place to start, with the village name clearly explained by the stone (maen) thrown into the churchyard by the giant, St Twrog. He was cross that the locals were reverting to paganism and, in the 6th century, lobbed a boulder from Moelwyn Bach, the 710m peak across the valley.

Our pagan ancestors revered yew trees and these in turn were embraced by early christianity to help ease the process of conversion. The massive yews in the churchyard have an official certificate, issued by the botanist David Bellamy, confirming them to be more than 1300 years old.

St Twrog’s church is in good condition, rebuilt and extended at a cost of £3,000 in 1896 by the Oakeley family, whose mansion, Plas Tan y Bwlch, overlooks the village built for their workforce. It’s said the villagers were asked to refrain from hanging out their washing on a Monday lest the sight of their bloomers spoilt the view for posh guests at the Plas.

During the rebuilding a stone carved ‘Marcus’ disappeared from the walls of the church and some years later reappeared in the doorway of the public bar of The Grapes. This stone originally commemorated the troops of Marcus completing their section of the walls at the Roman fort, Tomen y Mur, just a few miles away at Trawsfynydd.

From the church go down the road, past The Grapes, over the old stone bridge, cross the main road and go through the kissing gate onto the embankment across the fields. This embankment was part of the land improvement undertaken by the Oakeleys in the early 1800s turning marsh into productive farm land. Just a bit downstream, in the tidal reaches of the river Dwyryd, they engineered a beautiful S bend to enhance the view from their dining room window. What power, what style.

At the end of the field turn right onto a narrow lane just opposite Bronturnor, a grand looking house and former rectory built in 1826 for the sum of £957. The stream that flows past the house and into the Dwyryd is the route taken by the Wooden Boulder, a large sphere carved from the trunk of an oak tree by David Nash and washed downstream by successive floods until it got wedged against the bridge. After a helpful lift across the lane by the council it spent many happy years in the Dwyryd, going out and returning on the tide, before vanishing into the Irish Sea in 2003. I have heard reports that it has been seen in the estuary again.

As you walk alongside the river watch out for otters and mink and the brown headed goosanders diving for small fish. When the river is in spate, in mid to late summer, this can be a great place to catch salmon and sea trout.

Follow the lane past two farmyards (NB loose dogs at the furthest farmyard) and over the beautiful stone bridge at map reference 685416 with pedestrian passing places. Behind you at the base of the vale is Plas Dol Moch, a 16th century house acquired by Coventry City Council in the 1960s and run as an outdoor education centre.

After the bridge the river on your right is one of the tributaries, the Cynfal, that brings water steeply down from the wild moors. At the house named Tal y Bont (B&B) turn right onto the main road and walk past the junction to the end of the road bridge over the Cynfal and take the marked footpath up the southern side of the Cynfal gorge. Walk upwards through woodland keeping the river on your left until you are at eye level with the church of Llan Ffestiniog. Follow the path onwards until it drops down into the gorge crossing the river on a gated footbridge at map reference 705411. There are great waterfalls, rock pools and vivid greens that come with the high humidity. Follow the path downwards to Huw Llwyd’s Pulpit - this is a pillar of rock rising out of the waters of the gorge and said to be where the 17th century sorcerer used to stand on the rock to recite poetry, preach sermons and converse with spirits. He claimed he was safe from evil while on the rock because the devil was afraid of water. A little further downstream is Rhaeadr (waterfall) Cynfal with a safe viewing platform from which to peer into the deep gorge. 

Walk up from the viewing platform to the gate that takes you out of the woodland and follow a path through fields to the village of Llan Ffestiniog where the Llan (church) stands proud and visible from most parts of the vale. St Michael’s was built in 1844 and the earliest church is thought to have been established in the 8th century. Its most famous rector was Edmund Prys (1543-1623), also archdeacon of Meirionnydd, and who is remembered for publishing the psalms in Welsh and the first Welsh book of hymns. After so many years of worship the church is on the brink of closing.

Inside is a stained glass window ‘Dedicated to the women and children who have perished by enemy action by one who has suffered. GRC 1944’. GRC was Geoffrey Clarke who lost his daughter and 2 granddaughters when Flight 777 from Lisbon to London was shot down.  Was the plane targeted because of the cigar smoking Alfred Chenhalls and his resemblance to Winston Churchill? Or was it because Leslie Howard, he of ‘Gone With the Wind’ fame, was on board? As to why Llan Ffestiniog was chosen - it was a friend’s recommendation being a place well away from the blitz.

Just across the square is the welcome oasis of Y Pengwern. This 300 year old pub closed in 2009 and was recently bought by the locals. It re-opened as a community pub in 2011 and is being redeveloped in stages. As well as the bar the restaurant is now open and in the future accommodation will be provided.

Click here to go onwards up the Roman road behind the mountain that housed the National Gallery in WWII and down to Blaenau Ffestiniog. 

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