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Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve (Gwynedd)

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National Nature Reserve situated in Gwynedd, Wales.

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      29.04.2010 20:33
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      One of the most wonderful places to visit in Wales.

      Do you remember those boring, dry, endless Geography lessons from school? Well, if you do, you may recognise the photograph at the top of this review. Cwm Idwal is a classic glacial 'corrie' and has been used as a 'textbook' example for many years.

      Cwm Idwal is also the most accessible corrie in Britain, lying only a few hundred yards from a car park at the side of the busy A5 trunk road near Bethesda. This is a popular tourist attraction, and rightly so. Getting here is easy, parking is reasonably priced, or even free on the main road lay by's.

      There are toilets here, as well as a food kiosk. This serves hot and cold food which is reasonably priced and of acceptable quality.

      The path to Cwm Idwal starts at the rear of the car park: an attractive, stone laid 'road' of some 900 yards, that takes the visitor straight to this wonderful 'hanging valley'.

      The path crests a small hill, when the view, hidden from the visitor until now, opens up in front. And what a magnificent view it is. The valley is surrounded on three sides by brooding, dark mountains (with evocative Welsh names such as Y Garn and Glyder Fawr), and at its feet is the glacial lake of Llyn Idwal.

      Photographs of this place do not do it justice, it is necessary to see the all round view of being hemmed in by cliffs on three sides, facing the tranquil waters of the lake. It's understandable why Cwm Idwal was voted the 7th Natural Wonder of Wales.

      This is a place steeped in legend. The lake is named after Idwal, the son of an ancient Prince of Wales. It is said that Idwal was murdered, drowned in the lake, and that now his uneasy spirit resides here. It is easy to see why this place would gain an air of mystery: it appears mystical and magical. On certain days, 'steam' emerges from a large crack in the mountains; the 'Devil's Kitchen'. The real reason is more mundane, warm air hitting the cold rock causes water vapour to condense, but our superstitious ancestors must have viewed this place with some trepidation!

      As well as being spectacularly beautiful, this is a very special environment. The site is designated as a National Nature Reserve due to its rare and precious plant life. Cwm Idwal is north facing so the cliff walls rarely receives direct sunlight. The nooks and crannies are home to alpine wildlife, present at the most southern location in Britain due to the cold micro-climate. Arctic plants such as alpine saxifrage and moss campion thrive here, as does the Snowdon Lily, found only in Snowdonia (this is one of the easiest places to see this rare, delicately beautiful flower).

      The bird life is special here, too. Wheatears abound, and peregrine falcons fly overhead. The impressive raven, the world's largest crow, seems ideally suited to this rugged environment. Rarest of all, the 'mountain blackbird', the ring ouzel, makes its home here. You may see one of these pretty, white fronted black birds, calling or singing from a rock as you make your way around the lake.

      The path that leads to the lake circumnavigates the shore. The steep grassy slopes of the valley are excellent places for a picnic: with possibly one of the best views in Wales to look at while you eat.

      At the southern end of the lake, the path splits into two. The first skirts around the lake shore to return to the start point and is gentle in gradient, although it can be boggy. The other goes to the back of the cwm, and climbs high towards the Devil's Kitchen, before dropping back to the lake. This is not an easy walk. The path involves some 'scrambling' and at one point requires the walker to 'ford' a waterfall. This is not a task for someone afraid of heights as one slip across the rushing water could result in a long fall.

      The views here are, however, worth the effort. Climbing 300 foot above Llyn Idwal gives a bird's eye view of the whole of this amazing place. This walk also takes you to the base of the 'Idwal Slabs'. This is a near vertical wall of stone that would cause a mountain goat to pause. Yet, human rock climbers tackle this with gusto. On a visit in April, with snow capping the mountains, we watched in awe as a party of climbers made their way up this 'impossible' incline (I think they must be mad!).

      If I had visited this place, whilst learning Geography, I think I would have had more enthusiasm for the subject. Standing on the shore of Llyn Idwal, looking up at the bowl shape carved out of the mountains, it is easy to see, in the minds eye, the ice age events that formed it. It's possible to almost SEE the monstrous glacier carving its way through the tortured stone, with the weight of millions of tonnes of ice and rock acting as geological sand paper, as if it was yesterday rather than 100 centuries ago.

      This is then an awesome place with something for everyone, geology, natural history, folklore, and rock climbing. Above all, however, it has beauty and grandeur. This is a place where you can stand and stare, slowly turning in a circle taking in the view all around. As a tonic for a busy life, this can hardly be bettered and I recommend this place to anyone who's in the area. You will never think of those boring Geography lessons in the same way again.

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