Pont Scethin and the Ysgethin valley.
I was introduced to this place as a young Lad some thirty-five years ago, during a cycling tour of North Wales. The tour was led by long time friend Graham, and we traveled a number of the old drove roads during the trip. Graham first came to Pont Scethin with his parents as a child. His parents were cyclists of the old school. They, like their mounts, were made of stern stuff. They thought nothing of taking a small child, bicycles [apparently a tandem and sidecar on some occasions!] and camping gear to some fairly improbable places. We all owe a debt to the cyclists and ramblers of old who passed on their knowledge of the wild places, and who fought to maintain access to them.
The route from Harlech to Bontddu is often described as part of the London to Harlech coach road, and prior to the building of the coastal road it was the only route to the South East from Harlech. Today, it is difficult to imagine a coach and horses passing along here, the track is narrow and the gradients are wicked. However, the Welsh drovers certainly travelled along some of this route. The drovers are most likely to have begun their passage from Tal-y-bont, crossing Afon Ysgethin at Pont Fadog and cresting the ridge at Bwlch y Rhiwgyr (Pass of the Drovers), before finally joining the coach road high above Bontddu.
In any case, there must have been enough traffic to warrant the bridge at Pont Scethin. On the flank of that strange mountain Moelfre, around half a mile from Pont Scethin, stands the remains of an inn, Tynewydd. There are tales of dark deeds and banditry associated with the inn and its surroundings, and there is also much older evidence of man’s presence in this valley. There are standing stones, remains of hut circles and burial chambers here. This is an ancient place, and it sometimes has an eerie atmosphere. It is not recorded when Pont Scethin was built, however, further downstream, Pont Fadog carries the date 1762.
The drovers that passed this way were tough and resourceful men. Their task was to take livestock from the farms of North Wales, and drive it, on foot, through Shropshire and across the English Midlands as far as the stock markets of London. Once the sales were complete, the drovers would walk back to Wales and return the proceeds of the sales to the farmer who had hired them. They were highly respected men, well paid for the time, and being well travelled, they bought back news of momentous world events to the isolated valleys of Wales.
A whole infrastructure sprang up to support the drovers on their journey to the markets, and the drovers, who were entrusted with almost the entire export income of the population of North Wales, started their own banking system to protect themselves and their customers. The Black Ox Bank was set up in 1799 and was taken over by Lloyds Bank [the black horse] in 1909.
An out of print book, “The Drovers’ Roads of Wales“ (Godwin and Toulson) has some fascinating detail (and excellent photographs) of the route and the lives of the drovers. Second hand copies can be found on Amazon.
A ride over Pont Scethin
The first time I rode this way, back in the seventies, I didn't know I needed a mountain bike. Good thing really, they wouldn't exist for quite a while yet. At that time, a classic English lightweight tourer had to suffice. In Shropshire Lad's case, a Major Nichols was the mount of choice. Nowadays, the use of a mountain bike is, of course, all but mandatory.
I shan’t describe the route here in any detail, as that has been done elsewhere, and there are numerous ways of approaching it. I’ll simply outline our route with some descriptions added to the photographs below.
In the Lad's opinion, the route is best ridden from North to South; this will allow you to take in the cracking 1800ft decent from the pass over Llawlech and along Braich down to Bontddu at sea level. The going along most of the route is fairly easy, the exception being the stiff climb from Pont Scethin up to Llawlech. As with many of the old mountain routes, in more recent years the surface has become very poor, the damage being caused by motorised vehicles. I have photographs of this and other routes, taken back in the seventies, and the trail surfaces are noticeably better.
Shropshire Lass and I started from the camp site at Dinas Farm. This is a beautiful and quiet site, one of our absolute favourites. Once underway, we travelled South through Coed Aberartro toward Bron-y-foel, crossing the flank of Moelfre, and then dropping down to Pont Scethin. After a tea stop by the bridge, the hard work began. A near 800ft climb to the pass over Llawlech.
On the way up there is a memorial stone. The stone commemorates one Janet Haigh, who, ‘as late as her eighty-forth year, despite dim sight and stiffened joints still loved to walk this way’. The stone records her route as being from Tal-y-bont to Penmaenpool. This is a tough, ten mile trip over the mountains. A good hike at any age! The stone was placed by her son, Mervyn Haigh, sometime Bishop of Winchester. Mervyn Haigh was an early champion of the Snowdonia National Park and was well known in the area during the fifties.
Once over the top, the long decent along Braich to Bontddu begins. High above Bontddu is an ancient milestone at the point where the drove route from to Tal-y-bont joins.
In Bontddu, we chose to cross the estuary by the toll bridge and follow the Mawddach Trail to Barmouth Bridge. Barmouth Bridge is a shared pedestrian and cycle route and and another small toll has to be paid to cross into Barmouth.
From Barmouth, the circuit can be completed by several routes, one option being back across the mountains via Bwlch y Rhiwgyr and Pont Fadog. For the fit, this route is preferable to the unpleasant slog up the busy and narrow coast road toward Harlech.
Pictures taken on a recent visit to Pont Scethin. The final four were taken during Shropshire Lads first passage. Hint: Click images to zoom.