We swing northwest towards the summit. As we come onto the top of the ridge, we get our first view of Carnedd Llewelyn, tantalisingly close and not much higher than we are. At the same time, we are hit by the full force of the wind. Bloody hell. The walk takes on an aspect of farce as the wind tries to tear the sunglasses off my face, while my trusty map-case becomes an evil monster, smashing me about the face and arms each time I try in vain to take a photo. Like two deep-sea divers in lead boots we crawl across the landscape of broken and shattered stone that forms the summit of Foel Grach. Certainly no shortage of cairn material, perhaps the biggest cairn on the planet stood here until the wind tore it down to teach the builders a lesson in humility. I’m certainly learning that lesson right now.
We spend some time taking pictures, with difficulty. When you look at our images, dear reader, try to forget the cloudless blue and apparently idyllic setting and imagine us being buffeted and bruised by a howling gale. The things we do to bring you these bloomin’ pictures.
I joke that at least no-one has turned this cairn into a shelter, not realising that they don’t need to as there’s a proper one just to the north of the summit. Proper as in roof and mortared walls. We take refuge from the winds for a lunch stop, enjoying the feeling and sound of being in the eye of a raging storm but safe and protected from it. Other pilgrims come to interrupt our reverie and so we head back out into it. Heading south we have the wind largely behind, to speed us on our way – don’t relax though, you’ll be over a cliff if you don’t keep planting the feet firmly.
We made our ascent of Foel Grach by way of the twin lakes Melynllyn and the Dulyn, both now utilised as reservoirs. It was not too steep, but it was a long slog, alleviated by long superb views back down to the Afon Conwy and good company.
We reached the long path across the whole Carneddau almost half way between Grach and Llewelyn, and turned right towards Foel Grach.
It was evidently the rain gods week off, but in his place came the god of high winds, and he really takes his job seriously, amongst the gods he's known as a bit of a jobsworth. I have never felt such strong winds, it was difficult standing in one place and impossible to walk in a straight line, eyes would tear, and at times you need hands as well as feet to get around with. Yet through it all the sun shines fiercely, suntan/sunburn fierce, visibility good but not perfect.
The cairn is quite substantial, a good portion of it is rock outcrop though, the cairn material has spread considerably. Still it's a wonder it's here at all, Iv'e seen a few of Snowdonia's mountain top cairns now and this is one that is more on the impressive side. Just below the cairn is a mountain refuge, cosy and comfy, half of me wants to spend the night there, and experience night time on the mountains and sunrise in the morning would be to die for.
The surroundings are nice, extreeemly nice. A dream time place, where signs and portents should always be heeded, where gods are real and all around us. The high plattau of Carnedd Llewelyn beckons us on but not till we've had a good long gawp at Yr Elen. It's my first time, be gentle with me.
Pumlumon... and the Cwmdeuddwr Hills rising above Elan... may well share the distinction of forming Wales' true wilderness, Y Rhinogydd that of possessing, arguably, her roughest, most uncompromising terrain... but I reckon Y Carneddau is the premier mountain group in the land, all things considered. Its summits also play host to Wales' - if not the UK's (?) - most extremely sited Bronze Age cemetery. It is a potent combination, providing all the more reason for the megalithically-minded traveller to pay a visit, in search of that psychological 'essence' which prompted our ancestors to intern their VIP dead in such places. If it is indeed retained somewhere in the modern psyche, where better to unlock the mind?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that, like Pumlumon, Wales' other - and to my mind finest - great upland Bronze Age cemetery, Y Carneddau does not advertise its attributes to the passer by.... the soaring crags, deep rocky cwms, isolated mountain tarns - even Yr Elen, the crown jewel - are all cradled within, hidden from the prying eyes of the casual tourist. Yeah, one has to actually walk the great whaleback ridges to discover what lies between. Consequently it is the brash Glyderau, the incomparable bravado of Tryfan to the fore, and Snowdon (Itself) which grab the attention and the plaudits, Y Carneddau remaining a mysterious, secret land, an unknown quantity to all but those who don the boots. The 'lost world' aura is all too often accentuated by the mist which rolls, unhindered, across the high, domed tops. At times like these it is advisable to keep well away... for route finding becomes a very serious business indeed.
So, what of the ancient cairns which crown a significant number of the Carneddau's high summits? Arguably the finest, albeit restored following excavation, is that upon Drosgl to the north. However the monument which stands upon the brutal, windswept, 3,196ft summit of Foel Grach is perhaps not only the hardest to reach, but also that which - for me - best embodies the primeval 'essence' alluded to earlier, that which maybe invokes the instinctive 'intuition' signifying that here is the perfect location to perhaps enter an altered state of consciousness, to use parts of the brain not normally utilised in order to attempt to perceive something out of the ordinary. Whether this is due to shortness of breath, reduced oxygen levels, sheer fatigue, autosuggestion.... wishful thinking, even... I cannot say? What I can say is that these places affect me. Deeply.
Although approaching something like 2m in height, the great Foel Grach cairn does not dominate its surroundings like other such monuments. The scale of the latter is perhaps too great, the eye drawn across the boulder-strewn summit plateau to the striking Yr Elen across Cwm Caseg to the west.... and towards the Menai Straits, sparkling beyond the be-cairned northern ridge of Y Carneddau to the approx north-east. To the east, the cliff line of Craig y Dulyn conceals a pair of reservoirs at its foot, two of the darkest, most secretive pools of water in all Wales, the valley of the Afon Conwy and the Great Orme crowning the skyline. To the north-west there is an uninterrupted view towards an ancient settlement sited below Gryn Wigau.... the former inhabitants perhaps the people who erected this monument.... although, admittedly, there is another such settlement below to the east at Pant-y-Griafolen? Finally, Carnedd Llewleyn, summit peak of Y Carneddau rises to the south bearing the highest surviving monument in Wales. Jeez, this is some spot. If insight can be forthcoming, 'tis the place alright. Whether the individual can make any sense of what he feels today... is another matter entirely.
Perhaps the most straightforward route to visit the Foel Grach cairn is to start from the small car park north of Llyn Eigiau and follow Cefn Tal-llyn-Eigiau to the col between the peak and Carnedd Llewelyn. A well graded, green track affords a good beginning, the traveller gaining the ridge by way of an obscure path just beyond a ladder stile. Alternatively stick with the green track all the way to Melynllyn, ascending direct to the summit to the right of the lake, although admittedly very steeply. I took the latter option this time, carrying on to Carnedd Llewleyn and returning via Cefn Tal-llyn-Eigiau. It is also possible to descend from Carnedd Llewelyn - incidentally via Tristan's Cairn - to Pen-yr-Helgi-Du and Pen Llithrig-y-Wrach (the latter also crowned by a Bronze Age cairn), so completing the high level circuit of Cwm Eigiau. However at some 11 miles, this is a serious walk indeed. Check the map... there are other options, too.
At 3,196ft, Foel Grach is one of the Carneddau's - and therefore Wales' - highest mountains.... a brutal, uncompromising spot, yet perfect for contemplating those thoughts where only a completely clear psyche will do. Although thoughts such as 'how do I get down again in one piece?' are arguably more practical.
As such it's no surprise to find the remains of a Bronze Age burial cairn crowning the rounded summit, a suitably grand spot to be near your Gods - or whatever else the chieftain laid to rest here believed in - I'd have thought.
It goes without saying that the views are awesome on a clear day, though perhaps the experience of being here is heightened when the cloud swirls ethereally around the tops and the wind threatens to blow your insignificant body over the edge? Nature at her most primeval, her most powerful, the human being fully at her whim.
Bearing this in mind it occurs to me that perhaps we may be barking up the wrong tree - not that there are any for miles around up here - when automatically assuming the siting of burial cairns upon mountain tops was for reasons of personal aggrandisement. Perhaps it was an act of symbolic subservience to the natural world by the heads of Bronze Age society? Then again perhaps this is simply a case of imposing modern world views upon those of our ancestors, the two being mutually incompatible? Well, it's a thought. I'll stop now......
As for Coflein:
'...The summit is a base of outcrop on which stones have been piled to form a rough structureless cairn 1.6m high, now with a slight hollow in the centre.'