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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Which is the finest wilderness south of the Scottish border?

New article by Wilderness Foundation member Alec Forss who previously wrote a popular piece on Finnish Wilderness:

With the exception of parts of Scotland, where is the finest wilderness landscape in Britain?
Though of course the answer is largely subjective, the end of another summer out in the hills has left me with a particular favourite. The North Pennines, where I spent a few days in the heat of late July walking over its parched moors, is a clear contender. So too are the Cheviots - often billed as England’s last wilderness - where a particularly chilly August saw me tramping amidst a blaze of purple heather. However, for me at least, there is a particular range of hills in Wales that really stands out as a superlative wilderness destination.

Obviously, in a small and overpopulated country it is difficult to rigorously apply the concept of wilderness. Therefore, a little definitional flexibility is required. My favourite area has experienced mining over the centuries; its slopes are used as grazing land for sheep and old stone walls criss-cross the landscape demarcating local boundaries. Yet, apart from the occasional walker, the hills exude a certain wildness that is difficult to find elsewhere.

Wishing to complete a traverse of the range on a two-night backpack, I set off with a friend. Ascending, we soon came across the remnants of some old stone cottages perched high above the town below. The throwback views across the estuary were spectacular framed by the rising bulk of one of the most beautiful mountains in Snowdonia. Ahead of us lay an area uncrossed by any road for nearly 25 kilometres. Given the nature of the terrain, moreover, our route would end up being a good deal longer. After a few hours the grassy ridge gave way to rock and heather as we descended to a tarn tucked below modestly towering peaks. There we pitched our tent in splendid isolation with it dawning on us that we could neither hear nor see any sign of human activity other than our own transient intrusion. Rising the next morning, after a star-studded night, we spied a herd of wild goats and followed in their wake up the steep gulley to the main - though not the highest - summit in the range. With a distinct haziness enveloping the surrounding landscape, one forgot about the grand vistas and concentrated on the geological complexity at hand. A maze of parallel ridges and rocky chasms interspersed with tarns lay on the menu for the route ahead. A large group of hikers passed us having come up from one of the few easy access points. We strode ahead and soon had the place to ourselves again as we trod our way through the largely pathless terrain that characterizes the northern part of the range. We stumbled across a most beautiful tarn with strange jellyfish-like creatures floating sporadically to the surface. Moving on, the next little lake proved an eye-catching foreground to the rugged backdrop behind where we took many photos. The totally incongruous towers of a decommissioned nuclear power station looming to the north aside, it was hard to believe that such a unique setting remains sparsely visited - mercifully so - in spite of its close proximity to the popular mountain mecca within sight to the north.

The next day we ran out of range to traverse. We descended to the coast and left the hills behind for the urban wilderness of Birmingham. Although my pick is by no means comparable in terms of size or sheer grandeur to other wildernesses further afield, it nonetheless exudes a highly distinctive and intense character almost unparalleled in England and Wales, and one that favours the connoisseur seeking a walk on the wild side away from the more usual haunts. Have you guessed where it is?

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