A virtual walk in Welsh mountains – with just an OS map and my imagination

Kevin Rushby
Photograph: Julian Cartwright/Alamy

The method is simple: I examine my pile of Ordnance Survey maps, some battered and torn, others barely used, and find an area of Britain that I would like to visit. But I have no map, so I order the sheet I need online. I am going for a virtual walk there. No one can stop me, not even the Derbyshire constabulary.

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My virtual travel on maps started when I was eight and confined to my bed for six long weeks after an operation. I’d get the atlas out and trace my finger along African mountain ranges and up South American rivers, trying to imagine what those places were like (this was before David Attenborough’s Planet Earth). Years later, shivering with malaria in a Sudanese hut, I stuck the three Michelin maps that covered all of Africa on the wall and did much the same.

Now, suffering another enforced confinement, I find myself going back to the static map-reading habit. I could do it all online with Open Streets or Dorset Explorer, but my internet connection is horrible and I love the big perspective that unfolded paper can give, filling the kitchen table with tantalising patches of green and yellow, lines of wriggling blue and, best of all, the darkening shadows of contour lines huddling close together.

The Berwyns are a Welsh mountain range that I ought to know well, but do not. The reason must be the proximity of Snowdonia. The gravitational pull of that massif is too strong and the poor old Berwyns, about 30 miles east, are neglected. I open up OS Explorer MAP (255) Llangollen and Berwyn. The first question in my mind is the meaning of Berwyn, but a call to a Welsh-speaking friend sorts that out: “White summit.” So, the white hills? Are they bare, then? I’m not going to Google Images, I want to work out as much as possible from the map.

My first surprise is that the hills are a national nature reserve. The actual range does look pretty bare: an expanse of naked contour lines that vaguely resembles a dragon, snarling at Snowdonia away to the west, but prevented from leaping at its rival by the River Dee, which borders to the north and west.

The main Berwyns ridge. Photograph: Julian Cartwright/Alamy

On the actual hills the lack of human habitation is stark, but they are high: Cadair Berwyn, the White Mountain, is marked at 827 metres (over 2,700 feet). That is where my virtual walk must go. I trace a path back from the summit to a village on the Dee, Llandrillo, where there is a campsite marked. That is where I will sleep the night before. I allow myself a Google search and discover that there is a pub, the Dudley Arms.

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But now I am distracted by the map. Over the river from the campsite there is a cairn circle, then heading upriver I find an ancient bridge, Pont Cilan (square bridge?), a little further there is a “motte” (maybe a ruined castle?) and several islands. In my mind’s eye I see myself slipping a canoe into the river on a summer night and paddling across. Annoyingly, a salmon leaps into the boat and begs to be pan-fried over a camp fire while I sample some Welsh whisky.

I give up this fantasy and return to the mountain walk. From the camp I head east up a small wooded valley containing the Afon Lynor (river). After two miles I emerge from the trees and walk up to a memorial stone (to who?) and take a permissive path south. I’m now climbing on to the ridge that leads first to Cadair Bronwen and then Berwyn itself. The presence of grouse butts suggests I’ll hear the grumpy croak of those birds.

The outskirts of the village of Llangynog. Photograph: Alamy

The ridge looks impressive with a 200-metre drop on both sides, steeper on the east side. Once again I am distracted. What does Bwrdd Arthur mean? My Welsh-speaker helps out, again: Arthur’s Table. This is plainly an ancient landscape: just beyond the next peak, Moel Sych (Bare Dry peak?) I find a stone circle, a cairn and a stone row, all in close proximity. I follow the path down into a valley and see there’s a marked waterfall, Pistyll Rhaeadr, which rings a bell. I’ve been there, 20 years ago, and remember a cafe. Lunch. The falls are 80 metres high and well worth a visit.

I’ve done about 10 miles, I reckon, but I’m determined to keep going as the next shoulder of hill has a tumulus and a fort, before dipping down past more waterfalls through the village of Llangynog, where I cross the River Tanat and take the Melangell Path. At the head of this valley is a place I have heard about but never seen, a chapel dedicated to the hare, the long-eared fleet-footed variety. This being a virtual walk I still feel full of energy, despite the 16 miles, and press on up the hill, yomping the nine miles back to the campsite in record time. The Dudley Arms in Llandrillo, a mile short of the campsite, beckons for a well-deserved pint.

I fold up my OS255 and put it on top of the pile, ready, I hope, for later this year.