Snowdonia: Essential path upgrades or motorways through the hills?

Posted by Elfyn Jones on 17/01/2022
Dumper trucks delivering aggregate on the upgraded Crafnant path. Photo credit: Ray Wood

In the last three years Snowdonia National Park Authority have been very active in working on a number of lower level bridleways around Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and more recently started work on the bridleway connecting Capel Curig to Crafnant. While some of these trails have given opportunities to link communities and provide access to lesser abled users, the scale and nature of the works on some of the routes that pass through some wild and remote areas has also surprised many users.

As well as carrying out much needed repairs to the high level and seriously eroded paths on popular peaks such as Yr Wyddfa and Cadair Idris, some of which were part funded by funds raised by BMC members through the “Mend our Mountains” campaign,  Snowdonia National Park also has an objective of upgrading many low level routes, enabling access for a greater range of people including the less abled, the disabled and inexperienced walkers.

Some of these upgraded trails such as the Lon Gwyrfai, in the valley west of Snowdon, connecting Beddgelert and Rhyd Ddu mainly follows existing forest trails and runs parallel to a major A Road, offering the walker, cyclist and horse-rider, a welcome, safe and mainly traffic-free alternative to using busy and dangerous A roads.

However, over the last two years, many hill users, both walkers and mountain bikers have been surprised and even shocked at the scale of works being carried out on the bridleway running up Bwlch Maesgwm, the valley that connects Llanberis to the Snowdon Ranger Path on Yr Wyddfa. This is a bit of an iconic mountain bike route, crossing a high mountain col at nearly 500m, and provided users with a flowing natural trail, with natural obstacles such as rock barriers and small drops, as well as being partially stone pitched to quite a high standard, by the National Park Authority itself, only a few years ago. While it’s fair to say there were some maintenance issues and several drainage pipes and ditches had fallen into disrepair, the natural obstacles and features provided a natural “brake” for fast mountain bikers and the bridleway provided a fine natural flowing route for those wanting to ascend Snowdon on a different route or walkers doing the wonderful Moel Eilio circuit.

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Many local users were shocked to see heavy machinery, excavators and dumper trucks and teams of National Park workers, working on this route for nearly two years, with work still ongoing today, including recently using a type of concrete surfacing, after the freshly laid surfacing of gravel was washed out within weeks of being laid. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of gravel aggregate have been carried in 30-ton lorries up the narrow lanes to the base of the path, before being carried further up the hill in dumper trucks. The end result is a uniform trail, that looks and feels more akin to a new hill-track and has an over-engineered and very urban feel.

Excavators at work on the Crafnant Path. Photo Credit: Ray Wood

The Park Authority say that in time, the visual impact will soften and that by constructing a one-off, large capital investment project. (probably costing well in excess of £200,000 for this trail alone), it will avoid the need for expensive maintenance in years to come.  An unintended but forseeable consequence of smoothing out the natural features and using excavators to remove the rock barriers and steps has been an increase in conflict between descending cyclists and walkers, due to the increased speed of descending cyclists as the smooth surface promotes fast descents by even the most considerate of mountain bikers, a point that was raised by many users before the path was upgraded. In order to warn of this danger, there are now prominent signs at the 500m high col, warning cyclists not to “speed on the road” and stating that they could be “prosecuted under the Road Traffic Act” for speeding, further urbanising this hitherto remote col, as well as being a legally questionable threat! 

'No Speeding Cyclists' signs at 500m at Bwlch Maesgwm. Photo Credit:Ray Wood
 
Despite concerns about the lack of consultation and the lack of opportunity for user groups and local communities to be involved in shaping these improvements being expressed to the Park Authority,  local walkers and mountain bikers were even more shocked in the new year to see similar works being undertaken on the bridleway that connects Capel Curig to Crafnant, again with no apparent effort to consult with user groups or even local users and residents.

Due to urgent concerns expressed by local members, BMC Cymru’s North Wales Area requested further information, and representatives were invited to a site meeting with National Park officials in the second week of January. This trail, which connects the village of Capel Curig to the remote and quite difficult to access Crafnant valley on the southern edge of the Carneddau is also being given the “Bwlch Maesgwm” treatment, with excavators and dumper trucks creating an uniform smooth trail up through Nant y Geuallt, hundreds of tons of aggregate being transported up the valley and excavators being used to peck away the natural rock steps.  

At the meeting, the Park Officers, again justified the works on the grounds that a large civil engineering project (this time estimated to be costing about £100,000) was required to avoid ongoing future maintenance work. It's understood by all that some drainage and targeted maintenance work is required and its good to see the National Park investing in path work but most see it difficult how there could be justification in creating, what is effectively a new road, dumper-width wide, for over two kilometers in length, across a perfectly good path that did not require any upgrading, simply to provide access to transport materials  and machinery for the couple of hundred metres of path that was a bit boggy.

The Capel to Crafnant path prior to being upgraded. Photo Credit: Ray Wood

They conceded and apologised that the level of consultation had been inadequate, and that this was due to the funds being offered at a very late stage of the financial year to the National Park by the Welsh Government and that they were under a strict timetable to spend the funds.  They also promised that they would have a full and open consultation before planning any further or similar work in the National Park and were working on creating a process to ensure that all relevant communities and groups would be consulted before further new works are considered.

However local resident and landscape photographer Nick Livesey has been particularly incensed by this recent work, stating on his social media account: 

The beautiful little path which threads its way through Nant y Geuallt is no more. Times without number I have trodden it, a path of antiquity and great charm. A bridleway where those on two wheels and two feet coexisted in mutual respect for each other and the gorgeous landscapes we travel through.

The path is in the process of being widened (from the lovely footbridge above Bryn Tyrch Farm) and has had aggregate of some description (I'm no expert on such things) raked onto it in much the same way as the path from Bwlch Maesgwm to the Snowdon Ranger.

It is completely trashed and has totally changed the character of the valley.

Why? Who thought this was a good idea and a good use of SNPA's money?

A digger operator told me that the plan was to continue all the way to the bwlch above Crafnant. Even if it doesn't get that far the damage done is unforgivable.

I’m (expletive deleted) fuming and I am also greatly saddened. A philistine solution to a problem that didn't exist”.

Another long-term and local Welsh speaking resident stated We want upkeep on paths but not this sort of inappropriate development! As discussed…some thoughtful stonework in the wettest places would have been sufficient”.

The BMC North Wales Area members will discuss this further at their meeting on Tuesday January 18th, and while welcoming the Park’s commitment for better and improved consultation, many are very disappointed to see such engineered works being carried out in wild and remote places within a National Park by the very same authority whose primary responsibility and purpose, as stated in law is  “to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Parks”.

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Anonymous User
18/01/2022
These kinds of disproportionate over-engineering works that bear little consideration to character or place, or history of the route, seem increasingly commonplace across our national parks. There are many bridleways in the Lake District and Peak District that have received similar treatments. It appears, from my perspective, that authorities, either national park, council or charitable, can install new surfaces with little, if any, orversight, regulation or set of standards. How are materials chosen? Why are natural features such as bedrock jackhammered to oblivion? What consideration is given to the historical character of routes trodden for centuries? Whom does this serve? One suspects the only overidding consideration is cost.
Anonymous User
19/01/2022
So any miniscule change to the elevation of a CC hut is a complete no no because they'll have to update all the postcards in the gift shop, but this is fine??!!!? How the hell did they get this past the planners? Oh wait, of course.
Anonymous User
19/01/2022
I though new hill tracks required regulatory consent? New forestry tracks are subject to EIA regulations, and some tracks require planning permission. Has the NP carried out due process here?
Anonymous User
21/01/2022
"I though new hill tracks required regulatory consent? New forestry tracks are subject to EIA regulations, and some tracks require planning permission. Has the NP carried out due process here?"
This is a really good point and could be a legal weakness that could leave the NPA open to challenge. This is definitely 'development' as defined by the Town and Country Planning Act so is subject to the EIA regulations. I suspect the NPA have done this under permitted development but if the environmental impacts are deemed significant (and it would be easy to argue that the landscape impacts are significant) then this would remove those powers and the NPA would need to submit a planning application supported by an Environmental Statement which would then be subject to full consultation before determination.
Anonymous User
22/01/2022
This is the trail we introduced our children to hillwalking and the upland environment on from carrying them through to their teenage years. Such a shame to see such a beautiful natural trail destroyed by the organisation charged with protecting it.
Anonymous User
14/02/2022
interesting that there's no mention of horse riders in this article - perhaps the improvements are for them? After all these are bridleways.
Ao1
14/02/2022
I'd agree it has totally changed the character of the valley and not for the good :(

Disproportionate over-engineering works that bear little consideration to character or place, or history of the route sum sit up well.

Shocking
14/02/2022
Worrying. There's been a rash of similar "improvements" in the Peaks lately leading to good, challenging walking & mountain bike trails being effectively extinguished. The changes are said to improve access but they don't really, no-one's going to push a wheel chair over several miles of up-down-up-again trail, with 30% slopes in places. My worry is that the wider, smoother trails will attract motorised traffic, quad bikes & the like (often followed by fly tippers, ugh!). That may not be the intention, but without a lot of active policing - which the NPA can't provide - that will be exactly the effect. We've already seen this happen to many bridleways in the south, in areas like the Ridgeway & the Chilterns.
Anonymous User
14/02/2022
Part of the charm of the Capel Curig to Crafnant path was the varied surfaces as it wound its way in and out of the bluffs. I walked this for the first time - and last time it would seem - last year and was enchanted by its ancient feel. Vandalism really, and a waste of money - the couple of really wet bits just needed some stepping stones.
19/03/2022
I discovered the resurfacing works between Llyn Crafnant and Capel Curig today. I am sadded, angered and baffled as to how these decisions have been made. I'm glad to see that others share my feelings. I struggle to see that the changes ares in any users' best interest (I am a walker, trail runner and mountain biker and have enjoyed all three on this bridleway - sadly no more). There are already 100's of kms of accessable fireroads/double tracks in the surrounding hills - what is the value in destroying the character of a whole valley for more of the same? Completely insensitive, destructive and pointless.

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