It was Tony Loxton who took me there, “overhanging traverse” he said, “far from crazy pavements” said John Cooper-Clarke.
If you were so inclined to vacate the A470 via a left turn at Bronaber, just short of Coed-Y-Brenin, and follow signs for Llanuwchllyn near Bala you would soon wind into open hill country. Sighting first a manicured grouping of holiday chalets below the Rhiw Goch Inn, then a mile further at the edge of strangeness, a solitary chapel, silent with graves, walled against pagan winds. Single track goes the travel, snaking a river, a bridge, a raven.
Then, where the road rages through requiem-mass hinterland, the signs come unexpected. They read, “Access prohibited due to unexploded ammunitions” and there are several of them, staggered at intervals edging each side of the road for roughly a mile and a half. In a moment, horror scenes from “landmine goes click” are recalled, destined never to receive favourable reviews from Mark Kermode.
Next, I imagine three legged dogs and one legged farmers, Long John Silver types looming out of the mist, only instead of seafaring gear they wear heavy duty check shirts. Their weathered faces staring as if some illustrations in a book of R.S. Thomas poems, Grim.
“M.O.D, used this as a firing range many years ago, nothing to worry about,” Mel tells me at a later date. Right now Tone drives out of the kill zone via a cattle grid and fence which we hope boundaries any military oversight. Happily, our parking destination is three miles distant.
Three Dandy Scuttlers, David Nash, Solomon Guggenheim Museum New York, did he make it in that studio, old chapel at Tan-y-Grisiau I wonder? No matter, Tony and I are now scuttling less than dandy through tussock grass.
It is a fine May morning and we are expecting dry rock. There is still a hundred meters over undulating ground to go. We follow vague sheep paths, which for these parts act as virtual motorways. We are ten minutes from tarmac, moorland stretches in patchwork band lands, and gradually rising through outcrop-studded hills until the skyline comes in. Behind us, Arennig Fawr’s distant profile gives stark impression. On this day, it is a landscape with no figures, yet in any case extends the same unfathomable loneliness as the scene in front.
Coming over the bluff, a sudden wind gust flies us and the mats down the slope of a hidden bowl, and it is there, two minutes ahead, unseen from the trail, The Hurt Locker. A big undercut block with overhanging front face, far from the madding crowd.
I name the problem on sight, which, despite trying, is not how I climb it. Following typical boulderer’s strategy time is spent making sure all moves can be done, and there are no unfeasible reaches. Action then centres around isolating three sections, climbing each one individually without recourse to link. Hours disappear while learning sequences then resting. Landscape vistas on fine days hereabouts are quite stunning, but subtle shapes, ripples and profiles set in stone, transfix me. There is minimal brushing. The rock, Wuthering Heights windblown dry and solid is master, setting a puzzle that rewards each failed attempt with shoulder blows as if from an invisible staff.
Behind the mini cirque dominated by the Locker, Tony works out a steep pillar so I perform careful spotting, while he climbs since his landing zone is planned at an angle giving potential glissable trouble, even when matted out. There are no such issues back at basecamp, which like most sheltered overhanging facets in Wales is a favourite sheep hangout in the absence of human invaders.
Sitting, cleared for lift off, the link beings. Very fingery first crux gains a slight rise in the fracture line, because of which I go left to right. In nearly twenty feet of leaning brutality there are intricacies, cross throughs requiring body tension, awkward undercut footholds, and where a flat jug is long reached momentary cut loose before reinstating smear adherence aside a holdless groove. Rock out onto final slab has heartbreak potential, but the second crux is halfway back caught in rosy cheeked crucifixion memory, changing finger locks in a tips thin crack pumping. Pick the right pocket and you are in balance, standing on a twinkle toe podium admiring that view.
Tony climbs the slopey arête formed by the slab edge at 6B and on a return visit with Terry Taylor and Mel Griffiths we shoot some videos and generally hang about the Locker pondering blocks about a 1/4 mile away, which we speculate about.
They are poised on the hillside beyond the Locker where at far left below skyline ridge there is a prominent pepperpot-shaped rock tower, broad at base and leaning. Sometimes we use sheep to estimate scale (usually inaccurately) when gazing at distant blocks, but today there are none to be seen. To check it out will thus require getting close up. From our position, this will not reside in the house of easy walks. Think river crossing, bodies embalmed in peat bog (of which you could become one), and the shape of water, only this time there is no love story involved.
Considering a more direct approach to our stone target we go autobound, loosing height where we know a bridge will take us at least over the first swirling obstacle dry footed. We don’t know it yet, but soon after setting out we are confronted by the Replicant. Delighted that it’s ten minutes from tarmac going downhill, than two minutes across diagonal gradient.
Usual dog bark passing farm, what? No dead sheep in bin-liners, must be diversifying. Anyway, there’s the bridge and big waterfalls, higher feed the cauldron belly pot pools, but by the time the flow reaches here it is a radio four fly-fishing story, marvellous like some cat choosing moon river on desert island discs.
A stone barn until now hidden from sight, is tucked into the lee of the hill to our left, then, abracadabra, stop dead. It is like we are in a tale from the third branch of the Mabinogion, the one where hunting a great white boar the characters are lead to a ruined castle. Pryderi goes in, Rhiannon waits a while then also enters, only to find Pryderi’s feet are stuck to the floor and he cannot speak. Shortly she suffers the same fate. Spellbound they are whisked away to the other world which they inhabit until the enchantment is broken later in the drama.
Simply rooted to the spot, the pepper pot disappears as the minds eye is transfixed by a severely undercut block which, like the hobbit house, hides in the angle of the left slope. The bridge is our Arnheim and we do not take it because, animated again, we soon become stone temple pilots accelerating beyond the boarded up barn preparing for lift off. Dark in appearance the whole thing is a room with a view.
A view close up that reveals crankable edges. For those whose interest lemurs towards the inverted there is a compelling line where seconds in, you cross a groove after pulling on from sit start by the right arête. There you are, wings panned out, kicking with high right foot under the roof, then turn on gas cooker and fire to jugs in the front of the headwall’s furrowed forehead. Lock it and mantle out nexus 6. The Replicant 6C.
Terry prefers slopers, but he is on crimps underneath Replicant’s left arête, determined. Below us a dismounted jockey blonde ponytail bobbing, riding crop in hand, leads a white horse along the bridle path. Ignoring us. After all, we’re not exactly the epitome of cash. Still we have our moments on the Replicant. It’s spring 2017 and we are all awash with the birdsong vibe, trying, flailing, and falling getting only two sends on fine problems is a good result for a day on two blocks. I never said it was Font, but beauty as always is in the eye of the note holder. Who made my eyes?