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To repair or to build; a path or a motorway?

Finished path east of Pont Gwil Rhos

There has been some consternation amongst hill goers in Snowdonia about the work being done on a bridleway above Capel Curig. Many of you will be familiar with the track through Nant y Geaullt from Capel Curig, north, towards Crafnant. The track is being worked on right now as far as the bwlch to the east of Crimpiau. Social media has been buzzing with outrage, whilst there is an article on the BMC website and the work is to be discussed at the next north Wales BMC meeting.

The work is quite dramatic and even bearing in mind that things look a lot worse during the construction phase the goings on are quite unsettling. I wanted to know more and find out why, instead of a stone pitched path the Snowdonia National Park had chosen to use a mini digger and dumper trucks to dig out the track and construct a gravel surface.

Mini digger at work

The path has suffered greatly in recent years, partly due to use, but more due to storms. I can remember being able to cycle most of it, but now it’s more of a push. I walk this track regularly and the drainage systems have failed, leaving large puddles, standing water on the track and numerous boggy detours. There are several places where subsidiary tracks have formed, there are stepping stones that are not doing the job they are meant to and there is gullying. That said parts of the track are lovely walking, or cycling, in single file through regenerating trees. The down hill section heading south is delight on a mountain bike, not too hard, not too easy, care with route choice being needed. The flat section, however, is a push on a bike, for most people anyway. There can be little doubt that work was required if the track is to remain a useable bridleway

One of the pretty sections, complete with crab apple tree

The path is classed, by SNP, as “flat, multi-user path” this means a stone pitched path is inappropriate beside being extremely expensive and slow to build. So, the track here will be the same as the one to the east of Pont Gwil Rhos (the nice bridge at the Capel Curig end of the track). It will be, nearly is, a gravel track which is suitable for a wide range of users.

The angst amongst elite mountain bikers and some hillwalkers is warranted and completely understandable. I share some of their concerns.

As ever though context is everything. Historically this track would have been the route to places of worship in the Conwy Valley for residents in the Capel Curig area, it would have served as a coffin road and would have been the main route between Capel Curig and the settlements of Llanrwst (to market) and Conwy (to port). In times gone by it would have been a well maintained trail. I think we can be slightly relived that it has escaped tarmac, it would have been a busier route than the Hardknot Pass in the Lakes and, but for an accident of history, could have now been similar to the road to Llyn Cowlyd. A scenario that rock climbers based in Llanberis or Ogwen and wanting to climb in the Crafnant Valley may well have quite liked.

So in context this has long been the easy way north from Capel Curig and, as such this track should be in better condition. Personally I’d love to see it repaired along the lines of an old packhorse route, like the one over Blackstone Edge, or even one of the old quarry tracks, like the one from Trefriw to Geirionydd. That the Park has to choose the cheapest option is a failing of our political leaders and decision makers to see the importance of better funding for our national parks and proper investment in bridleways and footpaths. We don’t bat an eyelid at road resurfacing, we expect it, but the money is not coming through for quality work on our footpaths and bridle ways, at least not enough.

It's not prettty during the work phase

So, SNP have some choices to make with a budget which today is equivalent to that which they received in 2001. They’re under pressure to improve this track. By opening it up they will be providing to the growing number of leisure walkers such as people who follow paths rather than read maps, for people who are less physically able and for ordinary mountain bikers, who knows, we may even see horses on the track in future.

I think we’d all agree that we need a population that is more active, that spends time moving in the outdoors. This path may help that. Personally I’d like to see well-constructed, obvious walkways such as this one starting from where people live. But who could argue with a network of traffic free walking and cycling routes being joined up across Wales? Tracks like this tend expose gaps as much as filling them in. How about a well surfaced path from Capel Curig to Pen y Gwyrd? A more obvious path down the Llanberis Pass, a signposted walk from Capel Curig to Betws y Coed? These are all things I’ve heard touted by serious hill goers. We typically want people to be more active and recognise we have to provide for that. And how long before calls are heard to link this path to the Llyn Crafnant west shore path, or indeed to Capel Curig itself?

Drainage works

There is still concern around the work going on this track though. It was not discussed by local councils or by the local access forum and I will always say that if you want to make your point these are the channels to follow. Better communication is required on issues like this from Snowdonia National Park.

However, I am minded to be supportive of the national park. They are not building this track for hardened mountaineers and elite mountain bikers; they are making it passable for ordinary walkers cyclists and horse riders. They are working within a budget and I have been assured that lessons surrounding communication have been learnt. Those who view the path through rose coloured spectacles, need to look again, it needs work. It is not finished yet and even when done so will take few years to bed in. I’ve included a picture showing what it might look like from east of Pont Gwil Rhos.

I have also, however, sought reassurances that no trees will be harmed, especially the bonny little crab apple at one of the narrow sections, I will be checking…

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