Beloved and grand, the Tryfan we know is no secret; but what about the Tryfan we don't? You may be surprised...

Snowdonia's Tryfan (left) and nearby Moel Tryfan (right.) But what’s in a name? Photos: Tom Bailey © Trail Magazine

That one of north Wales’ most noteworthy hills was appointed with such a lazy name is a bit of a shock. Especially since, if you’ve seen its shrill 917m outline sliding towards you along the Ogwen Valley, its singular presence suggests the mountain christeners of old might have felt the urge to call some sort of committee meeting over it. Were we there, our humble suggestions might have been: Mynydd y Duwiau Siarc (mountain of the shark gods), Copa Mellt o Antur (lightning summit of adventure) or simply Mynydd Gorau Erioed (best mountain ever).

But no; what they called it was Tryfan. It basically means ‘distinctive peak’. Good job, guys. Say what you see.

Given the functionality of the title, you might expect several mountains dotted around the Welsh-speaking world to bear the same moniker, and there are at least a few buried deep in the detail of several Ordnance Survey maps. But to have a fairly chunky hill of the same name – and one similarly blessed with a striking-looking rock outcrop on the summit – practically within eyeshot of its illustrious namesake: that’s got to be worth a look.   

Moel Tryfan stands within scratching distance of the National Park boundary – but the wrong side of it to be classed as Snowdonia. This perhaps goes a little way to explaining why it sees so few feet in comparison to the meatier mountains nearby, summits such as the hulking Mynydd Mawr eclipsing this small, jaunty peak quite completely when viewed from the guts of the park. It also doesn’t help that the ordinarily infallible Ordnance Survey knackered its chances of recognition by assigning the label ‘Moel Tryfan’ not to the peak but to the nearby slate mine of the same name on its 1:50,000 sheet. To the untrained eye, therefore, Moel Tryfan is a cluster of buildings, not a hill. And the hill next door has no name at all; it probably sees a few dog walkers, but few hillwalkers.

More problems: search in Google, and Moel Tryfan turns out to not be a mountain or even a mine, but a damn train. That’s right; a 0-6-4 T Fairlie locomotive that used to trundle along the local narrow gauge railway.

Like peaks, lots of people get excited about trains. And in the pecking order, Moel Tryfan is a more important train in the world of trains, than a hill in the world of hills. When bidden, the pictures that do pop up of Moel Tryfan – that is to say the 427m eminence above the village of Betws Garmon, not the puffer train – don’t feature the mountain at all, but the dramatic labyrinth of quarry faces you have to navigate to approach it from what you might call its ‘interesting’ side. These quarries are still being picked at in a kind of half-arsed manner, but most of what you’ll see is what’s been left behind by two centuries of working: husks of buildings, piles of spoil and an extraordinary crater drowned by water the colour of sulphur and ringed with thrusts of tall rock.

These scientifically important rocks fascinated Charles Darwin. Photo: Tom Bailey © Trail Magazine

So basically, Moel Tryfan is an invisible mountain. Confused with another peak (and a train), outside of the National Park and ringed by industrial distractions, you’d be forgiven for not knowing it was there at all.  

This is a shame, because Moel Tryfan is really interesting. But to give it the chance to catch your eye, you really need to look at it from somewhere else. The view of it from Mynydd Mawr to the south-east is that of a wide-shouldered hill topped with a large rock outcrop.  It’s uncannily like one of the finer Dartmoor tors – all long slopes and frenetic, rocky climax. Looking at it in context with the messy slate ruins between it and you is rather like looking at a distant turret beyond a fairytale maze that must be negotiated. It’s nothing if not different.

The line towards it is broad and open, a wild nowhere place. Here you might be lucky enough to see birds of prey hunting, birds like the merlin and hen harrier that stay away from people.

The ruined buildings and sheared-off cliffs of the old mines have been taken back to nature, though for the more dramatically knackered features of this landscape there’s no going back. Huge piles of spoil stand guard to the massive, nameless, man-made crater – a brutal but mesmerising addition.

But you climb up past it and, as the workings fall away to scattered little tunnels, ruinous cables and metal anchor points aged with rough orange skin, one last grassy slope and the top appears ahead.

One thing that might spring to mind when you see the summit outcrop of Moel Tryfan – and I swear this is true – is the other Tryfan. If looks as if a model of the bigger mountain has been built on top of this less grand summit, almost as a conciliatory tribute.

Quarry works on the slope of Moel Tryfan, on the Snowdonia border. Photo Tom Bailey, © Trail Magazine

But this is far from a hasty addition. The rocks of Moel Tryfan actually hold something of a secret, and have been looked at with closely appraising eyes for centuries. The big surprise is that some of those eyes had illustrious scientific brains attached to them, who used these rocks to come up with theories that today’s understanding of the natural world would be bereft without.  One of them was Charles Darwin, in 1842. He, like many in the early 19th century, was drawn to the summit of this hill because it contained something unexpected in a mountain setting: marine sediment. Half of those who looked saw the high-washed debris of a biblical flood; half saw the deposits of then little-understood glacial activity. Moel Tryfan became the lightning rod of the debate. Today the mountain is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and history remembers it as the place where the understanding of glaciology took a great leap forward.

The summit rocks of Moel Tryfan. Photo: Tom Bailey © Trail Magazine

So climb to the 427m trig. Clamber around its entertaining summit outcrops and gullies. Scramble and swing off the scientifically significant rocks, and look at that deep view out towards the sea and back towards Snowdonia’s greatest mountains. Feel the mysterious white grit on your hands at the trig point, then flinch when you realise this little hill is considered important enough to be the final resting place of someone’s mortal remains. Then consider that for an anonymous little pimple overshadowed by a more famous neighbour, Moel Tryfan really does rather well on its own.

So Tryfan: ‘distinctive peak’. Meh. But put a slightly different way, Tryfan: ‘peak of distinction’? This name most definitely fits. 

Science, religion, Darwin...  and Moel Tryfan

Arrive at the summit today and a succinctly worded plaque explains the place of this little hill in scientific history. It was the sand and shell fragments found in outcrops on the rim of Alexandra Quarry – first noted in 1831 – that caused the most controversy: quite simply, nobody could decide on how they got there. On one side of the debate were the ‘diluvialists’, who believed the deposits were washed there by the waters of Noah’s flood, as detailed in the Bible. On the other side were the ‘glacialists,’ who challenged that the deposits were the results of glacial action during one of the latter ice ages. In striving to prove the latter theory much was learned about the action of ancient glaciers on the region, and today it is accepted that the deposits were dredged from the seafloor by thick ice and ‘bulldozed’ onto high ground, where it remained long after the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago. Moel Tryfan was critical in establishing such theories, which today are considered scientific fact. Charles Darwin – who, many forget, was a geologist – during his visit in 1842 suggested that the summit boulders themselves had been carried there by the ice.


This article originally appeared in Trail Magazine

This article originally appeared in Trail Magazine