Most ‘outdoor’ types, if ‘outdoor’ types there are, will know someone who at least knows someone who has taken part in the Three Peaks Race. This is the 24 hour challenge to scale the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales using only leg-power, a car, carbs and caffeine. Participants begin by scaling Ben Nevis, after which they pile into a fugged car, drive to the Lakes, whip up and down Scafell Pike and then head, by now aching and steaming, to north Wales. Once tipped out of the vehicle at Pen Y Pass, the hardy souls place their bars of gold into the parking machine and stagger toward their final goal. Somewhere above Glaslyn the weaker souls begin hallucinating and emitting low whimpers. Group leaders are heard at this stage drawing on every coax and cajole in the dictionary of encouragement to drag their charges to the summit of Yr Wyddfa.
“Come on Vicky… what are your children going to think if you turn back now? eh? They’ll know you failed won’t they?”
“On your feet now George, no-one ever succeeded in a personal challenge by assuming the foetal position halfway up the zig-zags did they?”
Eventually they reach the top of Yr Wyddfa and marvel at the hideous cafe which, because it’s a bit slaty is considered terribly low-key (it’s not, it’s a large, ugly building preposterously sited at the summit of a fine mountain) and toast their achievements with half a glass of Cava and an energy bar.
There is no doubt whatsoever that this gruelling endeavour is worthwhile on many levels. For one thing the money raised for charity is substantial and those who see it through probably mark the achievement as one of their lifetime’s greatest. They deserve to. It’s a tough thing to do.
Peak the First – Garn Fadryn
It could be that the hardest part of today, depending on your relative fitness, is locating the village of Garnfadryn. In fact, navigating to the start point for each of our three peaks demands some careful attention. Wherever you’re driving from, Garnfadryn village sits snug on the side of the hill named, as one might expect, Garn Fadryn, Whilst the OS map couldn’t really be considered essential for the scaling of the three peaks, it could certainly be considered a more than handy aid for the navigator on the road. For those who forgot to pack the map let’s start in Pwllheli. Head out of town in the direction of Nefyn and at Efail Newydd take a left down to Rhydyclafdy. Stay on the road up the hill after the village and take the second turning on that right and then another to Garnfadryn village.
Once you reach the village itself, find the chapel on the right and park in the parking area just past it. Walk the few steps back past the chapel and take a left up the lane. This is the hardest part of this walk, an early crux if you will. Where gaiters and poles are being adjusted in the freezing Highlands, here hands may remain in pockets whilst pipe-opening breaths extend the lungs only mildly beyond ‘running for the bus’. At the top of the lane the path takes a right hand course, at first following the wall and then striking out onto the hillside on a zig and a zag of grassy ramp amongst the heather. It’s not hard going. Garn Fadryn isn’t high either so even if you’ve picked an exceptionally rubbishy day to take on this modest challenge, the chances are that you will still be able to see something of Pen Llyn’s geography across to Mynydd Rhiw. When the gradient eases at the summit plateau don’t be tempted to strike out for the highest point in a straight line. Instead meander along on the path by now enjoying views towards what is to come later in the day. The top of Garn Fadryn is a joy. It stands alone, a heathery knoll of a hillfort where bees drone, crows caw and other birds squeak and flit to their hearts content. It certainly isn’t Ben Nevis but the camera will click nevertheless, before the not-so-intrepid retracing of steps back to the car. At the car, if you are anxiously feeling your calf muscles and loading up on mint cake it’s probably a good idea to return to your lodgings for coffee and then perhaps a paddle on Llanbedrog Beach. Your three peak journey is over in one. Assuming the hour and a half or so you’ve spent on Garn Fadryn has done little more than whetted your appetite for another angle on this most captivating corner of Wales, it’s time to head off towards the next objective. Once again, in-car navigation requires concentration.
Peak The Second – Garn Boduan
The drive to the foot of Garn Boduan isn’t so much epic as just a tad ‘countrified’ and you should arrive there in fine physical fettle. The place to abandon your vehicle is to be found not very far along the road that leaves the Pwllheli/Nefyn road in the direction of Y Ffor. That this is just outside the village of Boduan should come as little or no surprise. There is space for a few cars in a lay-by under a dense little thicket on the left. If you emerge on the Ffor road beyond the canopy of trees you’ve missed it. In contrast to Garn Fadryn where the view simply improves with elevation, Garn Boduan keeps things a little closer to its hairy-forested chest early on. If it is hot, then the trees offer some welcome shade but the promise of things to come will entice a brisk pace up the wide forest track. On Scafell Pike, the weaker ones are being asked questions but here, even the grumpiest five-year old can be entertained with the promise of a castle in the air. The magic that awaits is strong. The wide track doubles back on itself a couple of times before you leave it at an obvious shoulder on a narrower but obvious path that skirts the summit to the south-west. At this point you have emerged from the trees into an interesting and completely different landscape of shattered outcrops, heather and seemingly fossilised stumps. What looks like the summit pile sits temptingly to your right as you follow the path but as with Garn Fadryn, don’t jump the gun. Stick with the path, there’s a reason it’s there, and follow it around until you see and then quickly attain the true summit.
From here the view will demand recording. Particularly eye-catching is the peninsula of Porth Dinllaen which curves out from Morfa Nefyn into the sea. Given different circumstances and easier gradients in mid-Wales, this could have been what Holyhead became. Way back when, there were plans to bring the main rail link with London here, so by now you could have been looking at ferries and Seacats just below you. As it is, bridges were built to Anglesey, the north Wales coastal strip was conquered by the engineers and Porth Dinllaen stuck with fishing, golf and picture postcard serenity. Your party will swear oaths to each other that it must be worth a stroll there one day and for the record, it most certainly is. More bees will drone, more crows will caw, more unidentified birds will squeak and flit but Garn Boduan has something different about it. Each of today’s summits has the palpable aura of the ancient (each is, after all a significant site in our understanding of the Iron Age) but Garn Boduan has something I’ve never quite managed to put my finger on, like a taste or smell that can’t quite be placed. Before leaving the top, salute Garn Fadryn across the void in its modestly appealing isolation and tramp your way back through the petrified upper reaches, back into the forest and down to the car where, by now, a carton of unsweetened blackcurrant juice and a four-fingered chocolate wafer should suffice in promoting the necessary recovery. Might you end the day here? Might you give into temptation and head down to Morfa Nefyn for a stroll on the beach to the Ty Coch (where the ale is not cheap but the location swooningly desirable)? After all, two out of three isn’t bad and no-one is sponsoring you (are they?) Do I have to try hard to persuade you to undertake one last mildly strenuous pitting of legs against fort?
During the ‘real’ three peaks challenge, this is the point at which, jammed against your damp rucksack in the back of a condensation drenched vehicle, you will try and sleep and ignore the fact that you really don’t want to think about hauling yourself up Yr Wyddfa. By rather distinct contrast, here, in the layby on the Ffor road, with a stash of digital photos and some ideas about the Welsh Coastal Path, you may permit yourself to imagine recounting today’s events in a metropolitan pub over a beer. Your memories will not be of ‘hitting the wall’ and being cajoled by threat of familial humiliation, nor of the twenty hour unbroken sleep you enjoyed afterwards but of a journey that began on a high place above a lattice of green fields, that progressed through wood, bracken and rock to another and ended in the town of the giants. So to Tre’r Ceiri you must go.
Peak the Third – Tre’r Ceiri
From the foot of Garn Boduan carry on along the Ffor road to the crossroads in that village and turn left onto the main Pwllheli/Caernarfon road as far as the village of Llanaelhaiarn. A sharp left in the village conveys you through a narrow street past the church to the Llithfaen road but if you miss it carry on out of the village down to the roundabout and take a left there. As you climb out of the village Tre’r Ceiri is on your right and depending on the sort of day it will either be ‘frowning’ or ‘serene’ above you. Look for a public footpath sign next to a wall that strikes directly up the hillside toward a crag. Park in one of the rough, narrow lay-bys nearby.
During the whole of today’s challenge it is only the first few hundred feet of Tre’r Ceiri that will come close to prompting a touch of heavy breathing. You have already racked up a few hundred metres of ascent on the previous two hills, so since the first bit of the final jaunt is a steep grassy bank, it’s best to look at your feet, plod and be grateful that no-one is exhorting you to crawl alongside a rack and pinion railway, gasping and cursing in zero-visibility. Soon the gradient relaxes and a pleasant path stages a flanking movement to the left and then sweeps back around the lower reaches of the hill. At an obvious junction the Tre’r Ceiri branch turns right and steepens through the ramparts of the fort to the summit. Explore at will the Iron-Age houses. This is unmistakably a place where once our ancestors made themselves busy, hand-building massive defensive ramparts that are, quite frankly, incredible. Here the word is ‘rugged’. If Garn Fadryn is a lonely top, a beacon guarding a pastoral oasis and if Garn Boduan is a mixture of the gentle and the harsh overlooking a beautiful bay then the town of the giants is stern and tough. Across the wild heather lies Yr Eifl and whilst Cardigan Bay shimmers and Caernarfon Bay is flecked by a stronger breeze, you can sense that here you are on the edge of something bigger. To the east, as the Llyn Peninsula fattens out and fades, it does so into a land of mountains.
That is why we came this way. Sometimes it is tempting to make things as easy as possible, to get the hardest part out of the way first. In all honesty whichever way this journey is undertaken it is hardly a killer and so our direction, from the pastoral to the rugged, was deliberate. We came this way because we walked towards more dreams. We are not pilgrims heading towards the graves of ten thousand saints at Enlli, dreaming of higher things at the end. Standing here in the town of giants a day has ended but for those whose hearts skip a beat at the panorama before them, where higher things take physical form, perhaps it is a beginning.
Steaming and smiling in Llanberis, they have won and deserved their heights, they have endured and proven something to themselves. Sitting outside the Ty Coch in Porth Dinllaen we buy another beer and watch the boats. Where shall we go tomorrow?