The Secret South of Snowdonia

This time last year, our trip to Assynt had just been postponed for five months due to the pandemic, and I was having a bit of a ‘holiday sulk’. To cheer myself up I rather spontaneously booked a trip to Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri, a.k.a. Snowdonia, without really looking too much into where I’d booked – just somewhere in the south of the National Park. At first I’d been looking at cottages near Blaenau Ffestiniog, as I’d heard it was a great base for walking, but the prices were pretty astronomical for even basic accommodation. Instead I took a punt on a cottage in Abergynolwyn, near Tywyn, and decided to just hope for the best in terms of scenery. Turns out it was a pretty good decision…

Cwm Ratgoed

On our first full day, Sam picked a walk around Cwm Ratgoed which wasn’t too far from the cottage, as we were both pretty knackered from the journey down. For those who, like me, don’t know what a cwm is, the Google definition is “a steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley or on a mountainside”.

This was a lovely gentle walk of just over eight miles, which was in our Cicerone low level walks book for the south of Snowdonia. I have to say this book was fab and was crammed full of stunning walks (not an ad and they aren’t paying me to write this unfortunately, I just really rate Cicerone guidebooks). There is a similar route online on the Outdoor Active website.

The walk starts from the small village of Corris where there is free parking at the railway museum (public toilets across the road from the car park). The paths are generally good, although uneven in places, with only a few short stretches where the path fades and becomes indistinct. There are a few steep-ish ascents but generally you’re at the top before you realise how out of breath you are!

There are a few interesting features along the way: you pass through a mix of fields and woodlands, with ruins and spoil heaps from a time when quarrying was a major local industry, scattered along the valley.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. There are sheep through most of this walk so please keep your dog on a lead – even in the woodland sections the odd sheep kept popping it’s head out from behind a tree! We also had to cross one field of cows with calves (which did cause me to have a bit of a meltdown when I realised we had to walk between a building and a cow and calf lying down on the edge of the footpath), but luckily the farmer saw us and came down to keep an eye on the cows while we walked past – which we were extremely grateful for! There was one gate that was difficult to cross, as it has partially collapsed and can’t be opened. We just pushed down on the top a bit which created a gap big enough to fit the dogs under (it was harder to get ourselves across to the other side!). The big pluses for this walk are that there are sections along the river where dogs can have a drink, and that there are no stiles. This walk is also perfect for reactive dogs as apart from the farmer we didn’t see a single other person on this walk.

Cadair Idris

Before arriving in Wales, the one walk I’d set my heart on doing was Cadair Idris. Cadair Idris literally means ‘Idris’s Chair’ – Idris could be either a mythological giant or a 7th century prince of Meirionnydd who defeated the Irish in a battle on the mountain. Either way, it is one of the most popular mountains in Wales, although we didn’t actually see that many people! Perhaps this is because we set off early (the car park was 10 minutes from our cottage) and we were back at the car by 2pm.

We chose to follow the 6 mile circular route in the Cicerone mountain walking in Snowdonia guide which ascends via the Minffordd path and descends via the path from Mynydd Moel – information on the different paths up the mountain is available on Mud and Routes.

The Cicerone guide describes the steps at the start of the Minffordd path as ‘brutally steep’ – I didn’t actually think they were that bad, but there are a lot of them! I stopped counting at about 550. Once you get to the top of the steps, the path becomes gentler for a while, before steepening again until you reach the top of Penygadair. From here it’s not too bad but just watch out for the edges – I wouldn’t like to do this walk if it’s windy!

I’ve heard that the Minffordd path has the best views and I can easily believe it – the view down onto Llyn Cau definitely makes you stop and look twice. Once you reach the summit the view becomes panoramic, with views over the surrounding mountains and across to the coast.

Cadair Idris trig point, with the sea in the distance

The descent was pretty horrible if I’m being honest – there were definitely times (all of the time) that I wished we’d gone down the way we came up! It is very steep and pretty much all scree – we saw two other groups of walkers during the hour it took us (me) to scramble down the path. I would also definitely avoid this path if it’s wet when you do this walk. However, if you do this walk without a dog trying to drag you down faster than you can find somewhere to put your feet, you might enjoy this section more!

We parked at the Dôl Idris National Park car park which is currently card payment only – it cost us £6 to park all day (which really isn’t that bad when you consider walking is a free activity). There are plenty of spaces, the car park was only just nearing full when we left at 2pm on a sunny Saturday. There is a tea room near the car park if you’re wanting to refuel before or after your walk.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. This is another walk where I would say dogs should be on a lead the whole time: a) there are sheep knocking about and b) there are lots of steep drops. The start of the Minffordd path offers a few opportunities for your dog to have a drink, but for the majority of this walk there is no water, so you will need to carry extra for your dog. We did this on a mild sunny day (11 degrees at sea level, 0 on the summit) and ours drank 2 litres of water between them – I was definitely glad I’d packed extra! There are 3 ladder stiles to navigate if you follow the same route we did, fortunately there were decent sized gaps under the fence near them all so we didn’t have to do any manoeuvring to get the dogs over. Coal did only just fit through these though and he is on the small side for a Labrador, so if you have a larger dog they might not fit through.

The Cwm Cywarch Horseshoe & Aran Fawddwy

We were lucky enough to get a second day of glorious sunshine and made the most of this by heading north to do the Cwm Cywarch horseshoe, including an ascent of Aran Fawddwy, which is the highest peak in Britain south of Yr Wyddfa/Snowdon. This route was an 8 mile circular from our Cicerone mountain walks book (similar route online on Walking Britain), or for those who don’t fancy as strenuous a walk there is a low level alternative in the Cicerone easy walks book. If Cicerone would like to sponsor me please get in touch!

This walk starts from the National Park car park by the farm at Blaencywarch. There is no ticket machine but there is an honesty box – please contribute as you are getting an otherwise free day out! The car park was extremely quiet but can fill up in summer from the looks of online reviews.

We took the author’s advice and did the horseshoe anti-clockwise to put the wettest section of the walk at the end – we therefore spent the first hour or so steadily climbing up a well surfaced path to gain height pretty quickly. This did deceive me into thinking that my days of steep ascent had been left behind at Cadair Idris, alas, it was not to be, with the path disappearing and the ground steepening once you pass the summit of Drysgol. The slog up to the head of Hengwm was the only point where I felt a bit miserable, but it’s worth it for the views waiting for you at the top.

You will pass a cairn commemorating an airforce man who died after being struck by lighting on the ridge while on duty before continuing on to climb up to the summit of Aran Fawddwy (905m),

The ground around the summit is littered with boulders so watch where you put your feet – you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself up here! Navigation from this point is largely following fence lines as the path becomes almost impossible to pick out in places – bear this in mind if the weather forecast says it’s going to be foggy when you plan to do this walk. Look out for aircraft on this walk – we saw a few planes practicing low level flying as we descended from the mountain.

After descending for a little while you will reach a vast expanse of bog. We were very, very glad we did this walk after a prolonged dry spell which had largely dried the ground out, although Coal did fall into one section of bog which immediately swallowed him up to his neck! There are boards down to help you cross the worst sections, but these are not all encompassing, and a few have rotted through completely.

An aircraft flying over the ridge.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. This was another walk without lots of sheep, but with enough to mean we decided to keep the dogs on their leads for the whole walk. It was also another walk with no water stops for the dogs where they drank another two litres of water – it’s a good job I’ve got a big backpack! There are ladder stiles throughout this walk, we either managed to squeeze the dogs under the fence, or lifted them over the fence instead of the stile if the fence was considerably lower! This is another great walk for reactive dogs as we didn’t see a single other person or dog for the entirety of this walk. Your dog should be fit and healthy to take on this walk – it was pretty tough going for them in places.

Dolgoch Falls

I hadn’t realised quite how many waterfalls there were in Snowdonia until I read the visitor’s book in the cottage on our first night – everyone was raving about the waterfalls, and about Dolgoch Falls in particular. There was a circular walk of just over one mile in our Cicerone guidebook that we loosely followed, but really the trail is pretty easy for you to follow without a guide book – just keep going up and right until you reach the upper falls, and then keep going down and right until you get back to the lower falls.

We parked in the pay and display car park in Dolgoch (£2 for four hours, which is more than enough time to do the walk as well as stop for lunch). We stopped and had some hot drinks at the Dolgoch Cafe at the end of the walk, which also does a selection of freshly made sandwiches, cakes and hot meals like jacket potatoes – I would definitely recommend!

It isn’t just a case of following a path between two waterfalls – there’s so much more to see on this walk! It took us an hour and a half to walk a mile because there was so much we wanted to stop and have a look at.

The spray from the falls and the sheltered position of the gorge has created a mini rainforest – there are lots of different kinds of plants, including Sam’s favourite ferns, which are flourishing here. Higher up we had a lovely surprise when we rounded a corner into a clearing full of bluebells – my favourite! If you aren’t distracted by the plantlife, there are dozens of mini waterfalls alongside the path, which are just as pretty as the bigger falls, even if they aren’t quite as impressive.

The path on this walk is well surfaced and easy to follow. It is wide and completely flat until you reach the lower falls, where it then becomes narrower and begins to climb to reach the second falls. There are a few short sections where the climb steepens, but these are easily manageable. Just look out for tree roots growing across the path in some of the higher up sections!

If you don’t want to eat at the cafe there is a lovely picnic area which is just past the upper falls – although there were a few midges flying around so we didn’t stop for too long! We were really surprised at how quiet this walk was with only a few other people around – but then again we did go mid-week, and I imagine it gets busier at weekends and during school holidays.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. There are no sheep, stiles or sections of road walking on this walk, and there is plenty of water for your dog to splash around in. Ours both absolutely loved it here – I’ve just knocked a point off as I think it will get busy enough here at times for it to be quite stressful managing a dog if they don’t like lots of people being around. It’s also a fairly short walk – we did a second walk in the afternoon before heading back to the cottage for the evening.

Abergywnant Woods

I won’t lie, this isn’t a walk that you would pick for amazing views and crashing waterfalls. It is however a walk that you pick when it’s raining on all the nice views and crashing waterfalls.

We decided to head over to Abergywnant woods when it was threatening rain nearly everywhere else and we wanted to be able to let the dogs have a quick run around off the lead before retreating indoors for the rest of the day. I found this walk in my Countryside Dog Walks guide for Snowdonia – it’s a very easy 4 mile circular walk. The route is also available online on the Snowdonia National Park website.

The walk starts from the National Park car park in Penmaenpool, which is just off the main road by the George III inn. Parking here is free and there is a public toilet at the edge of the car park.

The route starts and ends with a stretch along the Mawddach Trail, which runs for 15 kilometres along the Mawddach estuary. I really wanted to walk the full length of the Mawddach Trail but sadly we just didn’t have time – there’s too much to see and do! It’s definitely one that I’ll be keeping in mind if we ever return to the area.

The path along the estuary is completely flat and level so the trail is popular with cyclists. The path remains generally well surfaced as you enter the woods, but the deeper you go the more uneven the path becomes. There are a few climbs up and down to reach a viewpoint with a picnic bench, before you drop back down onto the Mawddach trail. The big bonus was that as the path is surfaced throughout there were no muddy or boggy sections as you sometimes come across in woodlands!

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. Although you need to keep an eye out for cyclists I wouldn’t say this walk is busy by any means, and once we got into the woods, we didn’t see any people at all. Dogs can be off lead for the majority of this walk (although please don’t let them run onto the estuary where there are birds). There are no stiles at all, which is our favourite kind of stile! All of the other dog walkers we saw were very courteous and put their dogs on a lead when they saw that we’d put ours on which is always a relief.

Pistyll Cain

The walk to Pistyll Cain was another short walk we did when the weather forecast was looking a bit threatening. We followed the 3km circular walk from our low level Cicerone book, which took less than an hour, but if you want a longer walk there are plenty of alternative routes you could incorporate a visit to the waterfall into.

The route was extremely easy to navigate. Starting at the Coed-y-Brenin Tyddyn Gwladys car park (free), you simply walk down the path until you reach the waterfall, cross the bridge, walk back down the other side of the river, and cross the stepping stones opposite the car park. When we visited the stepping stones were completely submerged (as they are apparently prone to being) so we used the bridge a hundred metres or so further down.

This was another very quiet walk, although we did see a few groups of mountain bikers, which made sense as there are plenty of mountain biking trails around the forest. The path was almost completely flat, and well surfaced and level throughout (apart from if we’d ended up crossing via the stepping stones!).

Although the views weren’t quite on the same level as some of the other walks we’d done, this was still a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and after two days hauling ourselves up mountains we were quite happy to take it easy!

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. This is another walk with no stiles, livestock or road walking. Coed-y-Brenin is also included in my Countryside Dog Walks book, which is always a good indication of a walk being great for the dogs! I did choose to keep Merry on his lead as he is so obsessed with water I could imagine him launching himself into the river, which I think can be quite fast flowing in places. You can call me a paranoid dog mum but I am quite happy to conform to that description!

Abergynolwyn

As I mentioned at the start of the blog, the cottage was unbelievably well situated in the south of the National Park. What I didn’t mention was that there were loads of footpaths and walks we could access from our front door without even needing to get in the car – and they were ‘proper’ walks too! There were three walks from Abergynolwyn in our guide books: we chose to do the 5 mile circular walk from our low level Cicerone guide, which took us up to the old slate quarry above the village, but if we’d had more time we could also have walked to Castell-y-Bere from the cottage. I’ve had a look online but can’t find an alternative so if you want to do this walk you may have to invest in the guidebook or puzzle the route out yourself using a map!

If you choose not to stay in the village, or are coming from your home, there is a car park in the village where parking is free (according to both Google and the guide book).

I really, really enjoyed this walk, and would recommend it even if you’re not staying in the village. It is interesting and varied, passing through woodland, visiting the old quarry and traversing a section of the hillside before dropping back down into the village through a Woodland Trust managed woodland.

The path is generally level and well surfaced (getting narrower and twister from the quarry onwards), view great views for minimal effort. There are a few climbs and descents but nothing that would fall into the ‘strenuous’ category. I couldn’t believe (again) that we didn’t see more people on this walk – just two local dog walkers.

The quarry was fascinating, and I was surprised by how close you could get to the remains of the site (steep drops were fenced off from the path). There were a few information panels dotted about too, which I wasn’t expecting at all with the walk being so quiet, as well as some wind up audio speakers, which you can listen to to hear more about the day to day lives of those who worked in the quarry. It’s not usually my thing but I found it really intriguing!

My favourite part of the walk was coming back through the woods at the end. Apparently the river here is home to otters (sadly we didn’t see any, even though I kept my eyes on the river the whole time, consequently tripping over my feet/tree roots/the dog a lot). There are dozens of pools with crystal clear water in between waterfalls – even I thought they looked tempting and I am not one to jump in a swimming pool if it’s less than thirty degrees!

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. There are a few sections where dogs can be off the lead on this walk, although they should be back on the lead when you cross the open hillside as there are sheep about, and I’d be worried about having them off a lead near the quarry incase they went off the path and over a drop. The trees provide shade for when it’s warmer, and the river is perfect for water loving dogs who like to paddle. There is only one stile on this walk, which has a gate next to it that you can use, and there is only a short section along the road as you leave the village/return to your starting point.

Harlech Castle

Harlech castle is one of the many famous Welsh castles built by Edward I (or rather for him, I can’t imagine he did much brick laying himself) in the 13th century. The whole castle was completed in just seven years – I’m pretty sure that’s faster than most new builds these days!

The castle has a spectacular setting perched on the coast, with views of the ocean, surrounding countryside and the peaks of Snowdonia. Despite this the castle remains easily accessible in the middle of Harlech – it is quite a weird feeling driving around a corner and coming face to face with an enormous castle!

Getting to the castle is easy enough if you don’t miss the turn for the car park (like we did). Instead of following the sat nav, just programme it to Harlech, and then aim for the castle as soon as you enter the town. Parking is in a pay and display car park by the castle entrance and is £1 an hour for up to 3 hours – which is more than enough time to have a look around (we spent 40 minutes exploring the castle).

If you want to spend longer in Harlech there is also a beautiful sandy beach and ample opportunities for a longer walk (there is a 5.5 mile circular walk in the Cicerone low level guide that I wish we’d had time to do).

These days the castle is managed by Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, and entry is free for Cadw members or other equivalent organisations such as English Heritage (the full list is on the Cadw website). For non members entry is paid but this is really quite cheap – adult full price tickets are £2.10 per person.

There is a cafe and well stocked gift shop on site, as well as toilets. Due to Covid-19 there is a one way system in place where if you pass one area, you need to do a loop around to re-enter the one way system at the start.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. Dogs are welcome on the ground floor levels of the castle and there are bins around the site where you can dispose of any poos (always a big tick for us, as who likes carrying a poo bag around for half a day!). Our dogs were made really welcome by the staff and volunteers (even though Coal barked at them) which was lovely.

I’m not sure how busy the site is at weekends and during school holidays (we visited mid-week) but the castle was really quiet when we visited – there was just one other couple walking around. Admission is limited due to the pandemic so pre-booking is essential – if you don’t have an advance ticket, you won’t be able to enter the site.

Barmouth Panorama Walk

The plan after visiting Harlech castle in the morning was to head over to Barmouth and do the famous Panorama walk. There are a few different variations of this walk, all of different lengths, and we ended up doing the shortest one as I’d picked up the wrong coat and was absolutely freezing. The different routes are available on Google, originally we had planned to follow this route from the Snowdonia National Park website, but ended up just following points 1-3 as a linear walk.

Barmouth is everything a seaside town should be. Turquoise waters, grand buildings, a bustling atmosphere, not to mention plenty of fish and chip shops! It was a bit busy for us to stop with Coal but I imagine it would be a great place for a day out.

The walk starts from the small national park car park (free) 1 mile outside of Barmouth. The path is pretty narrow and uneven in places, but the climb up to the view point isn’t too bad, and the view is stunning for how little effort is required. There is a bench overlooking the panorama which is a great place to stop for a snack.

Despite the fact that this was the shortest walk we did (it took half an hour total to walk up to the viewpoint, sit on the bench for a bit and then back to the car), we probably saw more people than the rest of the week combined. This is understandable, as the view over the Mawddach estuary is pretty epic, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you like your walks remote and people-free.

Dog friendly rating – 2/5. This short walk certainly didn’t tire our dogs out! As the walk is in sheep country you will need to keep your dogs on a lead for the duration of this walk. This, coupled with how busy it was, is what has led to a score of 2/5 – purely because I think it’s less dog friendly than other walks which I have scored as a 3. On the plus side there aren’t any stiles on this walk so there is no need for awkward lifting!

Rhaeadr Ddu

The final walk we managed to squeeze in to our trip was a 2 mile circular walk to see the waterfall Rhaeadr Ddu, or Black Falls. This pretty little water fall isn’t quite as impressive as Dolgoch Falls or Pistyll Cain but it is still an eye catching feature for a walk.

The waterfall is situated in Coed Ganllwyd, a leafy oak woodland, and the walk is a very gentle round which takes you past the waterfall at the start of the walk before looping through the woods back to the car. While there are some ups and downs on this walk, it isn’t particularly steep, and should be easily manageable to anyone with a basic level of fitness.

Parking is free in the small National Trust car park in Ganllwyd, where there are also toilets. We used the sat nav and postcode on the website to get to the start of this walk, which took us down about 5 miles of very twisty one way roads, before depositing us in a lay-by in the middle of Coed-y-Brenin. The actual car park is just off the main road (A470) so you are better off just following this road from Dolgellau until you reach the village of Ganllwyd.

The route was really easy to follow using the directions on the National Trust website, with helpful way markers frequently added to trees and stumps to help keep you on the right track. We managed to not have an argument over which way was the right way on this walk which is a rarity!

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. This was another wonderful walk where we saw absolutely no other people (I realise I’m sounding increasingly like a hermit, but when you’ve got a reactive dog, it’s just one less thing to worry about). There were opportunities for the dogs to have a drink from little streams running alongside or under the path, and no stiles which needed to be clambered over with the dogs.

Once you cross the road away from the car park this walk is entirely off road through the woods. Please respect signs asking for dogs to be on a lead – there can be cattle in the woods for conservation grazing purposes (luckily we didn’t see any so no need for me to have a meltdown!).

Where we stayed

We stayed in Arthur’s Cottage, a dog friendly property in the small village of Abergynolwyn. The village is fantastically situated in a beautiful mountain valley – it always felt a bit surreal when the sat nav was telling us we were five minutes from our destination as we drove past Tal y Llyn!

The cottage itself is beautifully done up and the owners have done a lot of work to finish it to such a high standard. There is everything you need for basic cooking in the kitchen, as well as lots of information about the local area. The cottage sleeps four with one double bedroom (ensuite) and a twin bedroom downstairs. A log burner is always the cherry on top for us and it was lovely having it on for our final evening in the cottage when the temperature suddenly dropped! If you’re lucky enough to have some sunshine, there is also a BBQ in the back garden.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. While we loved the cottage, it probably isn’t as dog friendly as other cottages we have stayed in. The rooms downstairs, particularly the kitchen, aren’t the largest and it was a bit cramped with two dogs (probably would have been less noticeable with one dog). The main problem we had was that the kitchen door was a push/pull open – which Merry worked out on the second night and proceeded to escape every half an hour until we wedged the ironing board under the door! The back garden was great for the dogs though and had outdoor seating where we could relax and enjoy the lovely weather we had. While the garden was ‘enclosed’, there is a gap where the fence joins the wall dividing the garden from next door’s, which Merry clocked pretty quickly. We just needed to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn’t escape when we let them out!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog today – and if you’ve reached this point, well done, I think it’s the longest one I’ve ever written! If you don’t want to miss out on future blogs make sure you subscribe below:

Harewood House

Harewood House is somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years but always held off because I thought it would be too busy. Some people don’t mind crowded places, but I always feel like I’m standing in someone’s way, or get stressed out by the person in front of me walking too slowly! Last summer though we took advantage of the limited opening to visit Harewood when we knew it wouldn’t be too busy. Due to Covid (and having the dogs with us) we didn’t go into the house itself, but spent a nice afternoon wandering around the park and gardens, as well as peeking through the fence of the farmyard to try and get a glimpse of the goats…

Entry to Harewood is pretty pricey – you can buy tickets on the estate website ahead of your visit to guarantee entry on the day. Pre-booking also saves you 10% compared to the price of paying on the day (at the moment it is pre-booking only due to Covid restrictions). I have to say, if you are only going to visit one pay for entry country house this summer, I would probably recommend Castle Howard over Harewood – the vibe is just slightly more welcoming and the estate is, I think, a lot easier to navigate and explore. The gardens at Harewood are nice but don’t quite have the overwhelming abundance of those at Castle Howard – I remember being actually quite disappointed in how empty the walled garden was. The Himalayan Garden was, however, much more interesting than the rest of the gardens and definitely worth exploring. When we visited there was a one way system in place in this part of the garden and this actually made it much easier to make sure we saw everything.

Like many country houses, Harewood has an ornamental lake you can walk around, which is home to a very large number of swans (luckily these ones weren’t particularly interested in us, I’m a bit nervous of swans as the ones at Fountains Abbey always come at me with intent!). The lake is part of a Capability Brown landscape, with sweeping lawns and clumps of trees artistically scattered across the park. If you are interested in Brownian landscapes, Harewood is a fantastic example, and if you explore the grounds further you will come across fascinating features including Harewood Castle. For those who are less inclined to walk there are boat trips available on the lake! For families there is an adventure playground as well as the aforementioned zoo. There is also a Bird Garden where you can see, amongst other species, penguins and flamingoes.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. Dogs on leads are allowed in the gardens and parkland but not, understandably, in the petting zoo or bird garden. Walking around the gardens doesn’t take too long, so those looking to take their dogs on a longer walk might want to look at one of the longer walks around the estate. As Coal was too young for long walks when we visited we sadly didn’t venture far out into the parkland, but this walk on the Walking Englishman looks to be a good one (which also takes you past the set of Emmerdale for any soap opera fans out there).

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The Stang

How often these days are ‘hidden gems’ actually not that hidden? Places you expect to find deserted due to having this label are actually, on arrival, only quiet before the sun comes up or after it’s gone down! Such are the perils of living in an age where part of the criteria for visiting somewhere is how ‘Instagrammable’ it is. The Stang was recommended to me by someone at work after we’d been talking about good places to walk the dogs on a bank holiday weekend. Intrigued, I had a google to try and find out more, and my search results yielded pretty much nothing! I took this as a promising sign that we’d be guaranteed a nice peaceful walk on Easter Saturday – and I wasn’t wrong…

As my trawl of the internet didn’t give me much in the way of walks, it was a case of wander aimlessly, or have a look at OS maps for routes other people had done. We decided to follow an OS route to help us get the most out of the walk and to explore as much of the forest as possible – we followed this 8km circular route. I have recently invested in the paid version of the OS app and I couldn’t recommend it more – I have spent hours creating my own routes which I can’t wait to go out and try!

There are a few free car parks along the road which the route passes. We were the only car in the one we parked in, despite pitching up at midday on bank holiday weekend!

The paths up at the Stang were sooo much better than we’re used to at forestry places in North Yorkshire. Every path we followed was level and well surfaced – it was a beautiful sunny day when we visited, but even if it had been wet and wintery, I think the paths would have been fine – not the type to dissolve into a bog! I think for this reason the Stang is popular with mountain bikers. The route we followed was generally pretty gentle, with no steep ascents or descents, although there were a few gradual climbs. For a forest walk, there are plenty of great views over County Durham, before dropping back down into the trees for the second half of the walk.

If you do decide to visit the Stang please be respectful – the forest is privately owned but the owners allow the public to access the site for walking and cycling. Therefore, please do not litter, do not light disposable BBQs, and respect any temporary restrictions to access for commercial logging.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. Like many woodland walks the Stang is a doggy paradise! There are signs up asking for dogs to be kept under close control or on a lead to protect the birds that live in the forest, so this is something worth bearing in mind if you have a pheasant loving dog like we do, as there are plenty of them about! The walk is almost entirely off road although there are forestry operations ongoing in some parts of the forest. There was one stile which we needed to lift the dogs over, but the rest were next to forestry gates, which the dogs could walk under easily enough. The trees provide plenty of shade on warmer days (remember to be sensible when walking your dog in hot weather) but there is no water, so take some along for your dog.

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Keld & Kisdon Hill

Anyone who has read my blog Super Swaledale will know that Swaledale is by far my favourite of the Dales. There’s a sense of remoteness that you just don’t get anywhere else: not just on the hills and fells of the dale, but also in the tiny communities which are scattered in the far reaches of Swaledale past Reeth. Two such communities are Muker and Keld, which are both visited on this walk. Walking through the centre of these villages you really get the sense that, apart from the introduction of cars, barely anything has changed in the last two hundred years. Many of the villages in Swaledale, including Keld, Muker and Thwaite, have names that are even older and which originate in Old Norse: I imagine that the Vikings who came and settled them felt very at home in these wild uplands.

I was shuffling through my trusty Pocket Mountains guide for the Yorkshire Dales, looking for a walk to do at the weekend, and came across a walk entitled ‘Keld and Kisdon Hill’ (similar route online at Walking in the Yorkshire Dales). I immediately decided that this was the walk we had to do – I have previously walked along the side and bottom of Kisdon Hill but never over the top. In my excitement, I didn’t read the instructions properly and drove us to Keld to start the walk, when actually it starts from Muker (whoops!). In my defence it probably worked out slightly better to start in Keld – the car park is a bit bigger than the one in Muker and it meant that we got most of the climbing out of the way at the start of the walk! There is a reasonably sized car park in Keld which operates on an honesty box system (£2 short day, £3 all day) which also has a block of clean toilets.

The walk is a circular route of around 9km and easily navigable if you have a map and compass. The paths are largely pretty obvious, although traversing the summit of Kisdon Hill it does disappear in places, which I imagine would be worse in poor weather. Note that obvious does not mean level! On the descent from Kisdon Hill into Muker the path is very rocky and care is required so as not to end up flat on your face (try not to get distracted by the lovely view of the village). The climb up Kisdon Hill itself is short but reasonably steep, but should be manageable for anyone with a decent level of fitness, my gauge for this being how many times I needed to stop and ‘admire the view’ (once). Once you leave Muker to follow the river back to Keld the path is well surfaced and generally flat, with a few sections of gradual ascent.

Looking down onto Muker from Kisdon Hill

Muker is one of the best places in the Dales to see wildflowers in the hay meadows. We were a little early this time, but come June the fields will be ablaze and people will be flocking to see the flowers. To protect the meadows many of the fields have narrow paths: please respect the signs, stick to the paved areas and walk in single file.

Muker also has the highest density of stone barns in the Dales. These now mostly tumble-down structures were once used to store the hay from the meadow they stand in over winter, to save the farmer having to carry heavy bales of hay long distances to store it. The stock would then over winter in the barn with the hay – to save having to carry it all back to feed the animals!

One of the unmissable features of this walk is the waterfall at Kisdon Force. You pass it on your way into Keld and it’s almost so close to the path that you don’t realise what an impressive falls it is! There is a bench at the top of the falls which is a lovely place to sit and have lunch (although the sound of the water might make you need a wee – never fear, there are toilets in Keld). We were planning to extend the walk and continue on to Currack Force, however, by the end of the walk the glorious sunshine we started in had turned into on and off snow flurries! I’m not sure ‘flurry’ is really the right word – it was on and off, true, but it was sideways and heavy enough to make vision deteriorate significantly. It just goes to show you should always be prepared for all eventualities – we put our sunglasses away and whipped our waterproofs out of our bags, which we hadn’t really thought we’d need but had taken just in case!

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. Apart from a very short section at the start of the ascent of Kisdon Hill, which is along an enclosed lane, we kept ours on the lead the whole way around this walk. While there were no sheep on Kisdon Hill there were plenty of ground nesting birds which for Merry would definitely be a hundred times more tempting than a sheep. Along the river we did see a few dogs off the lead but we thought that the likelihood of coming across livestock or birds was too high so kept ours on lead. Through Muker you will almost certainly pass through fields with sheep in – please keep your dog on a lead. The second half of this walk had a few opportunities for the dogs to have a drink, which were missing on the first half of the walk. The two big bonuses on this walk are that it is nearly 100% off-road (just one short stretch along the road coming out of Keld) and that dogs should be able to manage all of the stiles without needing to be lifted, as they are all the kind of stile built into dry stone walls. For dogs who don’t like busy places this is also a good walk: we didn’t see another soul on Kisdon Hill, and while it was busier along the river, the path was more than wide enough for us to walk to the side and give other people a wide berth.

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Wild Boar Fell: Where the Wild Boars Aren’t

After twelve weeks of lockdown we are finally able to go a little further afield for walks and does it feel good or what! We spent a long time pondering where the best place to go would be for our first post-lockdown adventure: we wanted somewhere with great views and not many people. It’s not hard to get great views where we live but the crowd factor posed a slightly bigger issue! It was both the Easter bank holiday weekend and the first weekend since lockdown was slightly relaxed – I was pretty certain anywhere remotely well known would be heaving. After a lot of prevaricating on my part we settled on Wild Boar fell on the Cumbria/North Yorkshire border. Sadly, as you’ll see from the photos, there were no wild boar to be found, but this walk knocked the great views and crowd-free criteria out of the park!

Wild Boar Fell is the fifth highest fell in the Yorkshire Dales national park. Despite being in the Dales, the fell is actually in Cumbria, albeit on the eastern border with North Yorkshire. Irrespective of this claim to fame as one of the larger fells in the national park, not many people seems to head this way. Despite us arriving at lunchtime on Good Friday, in good weather, we barely saw anyone – just a few other groups of no more than three walkers and a farmer repairing his drystone walling.

We followed an eight mile circular walk from our Cicerone guide to the Northern and Eastern Dales, which took us up both Wild Boar Fell and neighbouring Swarth Fell. If you don’t have this book there is a similar route online on Walking Britain. The first half of the walk was amazing, but the descent from Swarth Fell was slightly hairy, so if you’re not comfortable with steep pathless descents you might want to look for an alternative route!

The walk starts from the roadside parking area by Cotegill Bridge, which is opposite two small waterfalls. There are two large lay-bys, one on either side of the bridge, which could both probably accommodate up to six cars (considerate parking dependent!).

You get great views right from the start of this walk. You head down a quiet road for a short way before picking up the footpath which eventually winds its way to the summit plateau of Wild Boar Fell. The paths for the vast majority of this walk are indistinct and at times totally non-existent, particularly on the descent of Swarth Fell which had me picking my way down the slope holding my breath incase I ended up breaking an ankle! Waterproof boots are a must, as boggy sections of the path occur frequently, and often require a fair bit of squelching to traverse.

There are basically no bad views on this walk, at all, and so many interesting features to look out for. After passing a series of potholes (fenced off for safety) you soon encounter a decent sized stretch of limestone pavement, before ascending to the summit where a group of ‘stone men’ stand sentinel over the dramatic panoramas. We did this walk on a clear day and the views (which I may have mentioned previously) were just fantastic – they stretch across the Howgills to the Lake District before a change in direction resulted in us having a cracking view of Ingleborough silhouetted by the late afternoon sun.

Dog friendly rating – 2.5/5. While there a definitely not any wild boar roaming the slopes of Wild Boar Fell, there are plenty of sheep and several types of ground nesting birds. Dogs should therefore be on a lead or under close control, especially at this time of year which is lambing season. There is very little water on this walk apart from a few bogs – which Coal jumped straight into and went in over his head – he scrambled out very quickly! There was only one stile which I would say is ‘awkward’ with a dog, and while Merry managed to slip under a gap in the fence, we did have to lift Coal over as he was a bit too large. This is a lovely long walk though and very quiet – perfect if your dog doesn’t like crowded places.

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Aysgarth Falls and Woods

Last summer we discovered a handful of short walks which we had previously discounted for being a bit too short. However, the lifting of lockdown restrictions saw what we termed ‘hiking mania’, and we started sneaking out for quick evening strolls when the crowds had died down. This didn’t always work in some of the more popular locations, Aysgarth included, but we did find some fantastic easy walks on our doorstep which are perfect for days when you just want to pop out for some fresh air, rather than committing to a full day clambering over mountains!

Aysgarth Falls are without a shadow of a doubt one of the most popular ‘attractions’ in the Yorkshire Dales. Like Hardraw Force, they feature in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood movie, which at least had better taste in film locations than actors. Fortunately the National Park centre has a very large car park, although this does fill up quickly at weekends and in summer, with the more ‘Instagrammable’ spots along the falls getting bagged pretty early on by picnicking families. When we did this walk at five thirty pm last summer we saw plenty of people camped out in deckchairs!

We found the short 1.5 mile circular trail on the Yorkshire Dales National Park website. It’s a very easy to navigate walk with practically no steep ascents or descents, although there are a few pathless sections in fields, that I imagine would be pretty boggy if you did this walk in winter.

For those wanting a slightly longer walk you can connect Aysgarth Falls to Castle Bolton – just visible in the distance in this photo. This isn’t a walk we’ve ever done but there looks to be a good route on Dales Walks.

For such a short walk this trail has amazing views. After less than a mile of walking you are rewarded with panoramic views across Wensleydale and you’re likely to have them all to yourself – most people don’t seem to venture away from the falls.

My favourite part of the walk was the end section through the woods. This surprised me as normally I prefer the parts of the walk with all the views – it might have had something to do with the fact that it was extremely warm, I had overdressed and was happy to get into the shade!

The woods on this walk are lovely and chronically under-appreciated – we didn’t see anyone else at all. You pass through two separate woods: first the woodland trust managed Freeholder’s Wood and then into the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust’s St Jospeh’s Wood. St Joseph’s wood was planted just before the turn of the century and as such the trees are all relatively young, so while they provide the welcome relief of shade on a hot day, they still let in plenty of sunlight. The overall effect is one that is pretty magical.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. As far as dog walking in the Yorkshire Dales goes this is one of my favourite walks! The sections by the falls offer the opportunity for your dog to have a paddle and a swim, and while there are some parts where you’ll need to put your dog on a lead around livestock, the woods are perfect for letting them blow off some steam (as well as providing shade in summer). While there were a few narrow gateways on this walk, there weren’t any stiles, which is perfect if you have a gangly Labrador or similar larger breed! There is one very short section on a quiet road, but this is so short that I had completely forgotten about it until I looked back over the route to write this blog. It’s definitely a big paws up from our dogs!

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Castle Howard

It’s definitely started to feel like Spring has sprung over the last week or so. The snowdrops which herald the last throes of winter have faded away to be replaced by bright and beautiful daffodils, new shoots are budding in the garden and hedgerows are a-chatter with the sound of birds busily searching for food and calling for mates. While we are still stuck at home and staying local, the regeneration of all things green has got me reminiscing about my favourite places to visit in summer, both local and further afield. Last summer we capitalised on pre-booking and restricted visitor numbers to visit Castle Howard on a gloriously sunny day. Usually we don’t head over there in high season, as it can be a bit crowded, but the upside of social distancing meant that it was possible to get the best of the weather and enjoy the site without hordes of people flocking for a picnic and a day out.

I have always been rather taken with Castle Howard. My interest was first piqued as a student when I was writing an essay about the architecture of the English Country house, where Castle Howard stood out as a Baroque masterpiece in a sea of Palladianism (I don’t have anything against Palladianism, by the way, it’s just sometimes nice to have a bit of a change). Since then I have returned dozens of times and it never disappoints – it’s one of the few places I am prepared to actually pay an entry fee for! This blog mainly talks about the outside, but inside the house is definitely worth a visit if that’s your kind of thing normally (I tend towards being a philistine: inside one stately home is very similar to another. Cue my History degree being taken away…)

The estate is huge – 8,800 acres to be exact – and is made up of hundreds of buildings, formal gardens, rolling parkland, woodland and farmland. There are many walks to be discovered online (including a selection on the Castle Howard website) but we always prefer to just wander, slightly aimlessly, around the park and gardens (generally in the opposite direction of where we can see other people gathering). We always, without fail, discover a new corner of the estate that we haven’t found before. Last time it was the absolutely beautiful pocket of tranquility sandwiched between the cascade and the bridge to the mausoleum (pictured); the time before, the shady network of paths criss-crossing Ray Wood. People tend to get distracted by the dizzying array of colours in the walled gardens and forget that there is a whole park just waiting to be explored – and sometimes a pretty bridge is better than a well manicured border anyway.

That being said, the walled gardens are a delight, even for the world’s worst hay fever sufferer (take a hay fever tablet before you go – it’s a mistake I won’t make twice!). The spectacular display of colour leaves you slightly directionless: on entering the garden it usually takes me a few seconds to work out where I actually want to go. The gardens are neatly segmented using walls and hedges, giving each compartment a distinct identity, and also creating the illusion that there aren’t anywhere near as many people in the gardens as there might actually be. Benches are dotted around in a number of locations, making this a popular place for people to stop for lunch. Many of the plants in the garden can also be found in the garden centre which has a huge variety of plants on offer, including the best selection of roses I’ve ever come across.

The Atlas Fountain is one of the most impressive features of the garden

Down by the cascade is my favourite place to sit quietly, but Ray Wood is my favourite place to have a wander. I don’t think I ever truly appreciated the phrase ‘dappled sunlight’ until we walked through Ray Wood on a sunny day. The woods are like something out of a fairytale: a selection box of tree species, dense enough to create the feeling of utter privacy, spacious enough to let beams of sunlight sneak through to light the way. I’m always amazed that we don’t see more people in here: normally we see a few other dog walkers, but never more than five or six other couples. I would say it’s a shame but I love having it all to ourselves!

Dog friendly rating: 4/5. It’s worth noting that this is a country house rating, and Castle Howard has scored highly, as it is very welcoming to dogs compared to other similar places I’ve visited. The courtyard cafe has dog water bowls outside, and dogs are allowed inside the formal gardens, which isn’t always the case. Ray Wood and the parkland footpaths offer plenty of opportunities for offlead walks, although I do recommend putting leads on by the lakes, due to the high number of wetland birds. Ours love it here and always arrive home knackered, ready to sleep for a week, giving us several peaceful evenings while they re-charge ready for next time!

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A Tale of Two Waterfalls: Whitfield Force and Mill Gill

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that Wensleydale is a veritable treasure trove of waterfalls. Some, like Aysgarth Falls and Hardraw Force, can be relied on to draw a steady stream of visitors. Others are tucked away in secluded corners of the national park and are only to be discovered by more intrepid wanderers. This walk is a bit of both: Whitfield Force is pretty inaccessible as far as the waterfalls of Wensleydale go, while Mill Gill is high reward for little effort, and so is understandably popular with both visitors and residents of the national park. This easy walk takes in both, and makes for a very enjoyable ramble, with fantastic views over the hills for hardly any effort.

This walk starts from the tourist honeypot of Askrigg, home of James Herriot, which is well connected by footpaths and the start of many possible walks. It was actually pretty quiet when we did this walk but that was probably due to the temperature (-4)! Lots of the paths which would have been really easy to walk along due to being flat and well surfaced had turned into ice rinks – in the photos where the paths look wet, this is actually just a thick layer of ice reflecting the light!

There is very limited parking in Askrigg, and to avoid being a nuisance to locals, it’s best to park in the small honesty box operated car park a short stroll from the centre of the village.

It was just a tad icy…

The route we followed was a 3.5 mile circular (although it felt longer due to a few unplanned detours!) from the Cicerone Yorkshire Dales: North and East guidebook. If you don’t own this book, a similar route is available on the Walking Englishman website.

The path is generally level and well surfaced for the majority of the walk, with some sections along unmarked paths in fields, and with no seriously steep ascents/descents. The way down to Whitfield Force was borderline impassable when we did this walk: after spending 20 minutes slogging up a steep bank, which was so waterlogged we sank back half a step for every step taken, we realised we were going the wrong way and dropped back down to follow the river to the falls. This stretch was a bit like a part of the Tombraider video game, and saw us shimmy-ing over huge boulders, clambering across fallen trees and inadvertently splashing into hidden puddles. The falls were worth the effort though and the difficulty getting down there meant we didn’t see another soul while we were there.

Whitfield Force

Once we’d hauled ourselves back over the obstacle course which doubled as a path, we continued on to Mill Gill. Whitfield Force was a shimmering veil of water which made me think of fairy glades and spring: Mill Gill was a tumbling rush of water which called to mind the wilder reaches of our county. Getting from one to the other was relatively easy, and made easier when finger posts started to include ‘Mill Gill’ – knowing that you’re definitely going in the right direction is something I always find very reassuring!

Mill Gill can be reached from Askrigg in less than a mile, via a well defined and sign posted path, so it was obviously much, much busier than Whitfield Force. Don’t let this put you off though as the waterfall is still impressive and worth a visit – just don’t expect to have it to yourself.

Mill Gill Force

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. Like most of the walks in the Yorkshire Dales, expect to see livestock in any of the fields you cross, and keep dogs under close control or on a lead. This walk did however have long stretches on enclosed lanes or in woodland where we could let the dogs off, as well as being able to let the dogs have a drink and a swim at Whitfield Force, which automatically bumps any walk up the dog friendly scale! There were quite a few stiles on this walk but they were all the kind which are built into dry stone walls and easily managed by the dogs on their own, so this didn’t pose a problem for us. There is a very short stretch of road as you leave/return to Askrigg, but traffic is not fast moving here and there are pavements you can walk along.

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Easedale Tarn

The walk up to Easedale Tarn is a lovely short stroll from the chocolate box village of Grasmere, famous for its association with the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. We found this walk on a trip to the Lakes about four years ago on a rainy Saturday in November – despite a fairly continuous stream of drizzle it was a beautiful walk with quintessential Lakeland scenery. And of course, finished off by hot chocolate and cake to warm up at the end…

We followed this very easy five mile linear walk on Walk Lakes, which starts from Grasmere, following Sour Milk Gill gradually uphill from the village to reach Easedale Tarn. This walk has a difficulty rating of 1/5 on Walk Lakes and this is fair, although the path is uneven in places and slippy in wet weather (I twisted my ankle after hanging onto the lead when Merry lunged after an interesting smell – I made sure I’d laced my boots up properly before our next walk!)

If you aren’t staying in Grasmere, there are a few car parks available (details on the Lake District National Park website), although given how popular Grasmere is these fill up very quickly. This is one for an early start! There is plenty to do in Grasmere so once you’ve finished your walk why not make a day of it and visit Wordsworth’s grave or the famous Grasmere Gingerbread.

My favourite stop in Grasmere is Heidi’s Grasmere Lodge, which as well as being a self-catering accommodation unit, also has a bustling cafe on the ground floor. I’ve been here quite a few times now and the cake is amazing, the customer service is great and the hot chocolate is proper hot chocolate rather than the watery rubbish you get elsewhere! The cafe is also dog friendly and if you have a photogenic pooch they have a ‘dog of the day’ feature wall – if you call in see if you can spot Merry among the previous dogs of the day!

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. Like nearly all walks in the Lake District there are sheep throughout, so dogs need to be under close control, preferably on a lead. Merry loved this walk as there were so many opportunities for swimming (you follow the gill for a while before arriving at the tarn itself). This walk was pretty busy – we saw quite a lot of people walking along the path, probably as it’s such an easy walk with incredible views. Therefore, if your dog isn’t a big fan of strangers, this might be an area to avoid (Grasmere in particular is never anything short of heaving).

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The Breamish Hillfort Trail

Nestled in the heart of the Northumberland National Park, the Breamish Valley is nothing less than delightful. The eponymous river flows gently through the valley, making this a prime choice for picnicking families, and the more adventurous can wander further to discover the ethereal waterfall Linhope Spout. For me though, the main temptation was the cluster of hillforts dotted along the valley. I was desperate to get up there and see what was left of these impressive structures, and to take in the view that must be relatively unchanged from the time when the hillforts were inhabited, over two thousand years ago.

The Breamish Hillfort Trail can be found online on the Northumberland National Park website, but we discovered it in my trusty Pocket Mountains guide to Northumberland. Of the two routes available online, we did the shorter route, as we were stopping off on our way home from a week in the area – you can read all about it on my blog Northumberland: North of the Wall.

This walk is an absolutely wonderful way to spend a morning or an afternoon. The initial climb up Brough Law gets your heart pumping, but from here on it is a gentle stroll along grassy paths, with very little steep ascent or descent. Parking was free in Bulby’s Wood Car Park (prepare to be confused and lost trying to find it if you don’t know where it is already), where there is space for a small number of cars, as well as a mini National Park centre with public toilers.

This is a fantastic walk for any history geeks. On several of the hillforts you can see the outlines on the ground where timber roundhouses used to be. The structures were originally built around 2,300 years ago – pretty mind blowing. You can also see some surviving cultivation terraces, which I was delighted by, having never seen one apart from in photos. I spent quite a long time perched on the boundary wall of Brough Law trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in a hillfort in the Iron Age – it was pretty impossible to even try wrapping my head around it, but I think I got closer than I ever have reading about it in a text book.

Northumberland is a secret treasure trove of interesting historical landscape – the concentration of hillforts in the Breamish Valley is just the tip of the iceberg. During the week we spent in Northumberland we also visited the hillforts at Yeavering Bell and Doddington, the ancient Anglo-Saxon settlements of Ad Gefrin and Bamburgh and the fascinating prehistoric cup and ring marks on Doddington Moor. Doddington in particular is a fantastic day out if you love historic landscapes, with the hillforts and cup and ring marks already mentioned, as well as the remains of a prehistoric stone circle.

The light isn’t brilliant, but you can clearly see the remains of cultivation terraces on the hillside.

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. There are sheep throughout so we kept our dogs on the lead for the whole walk – better to be safe than sorry! The is also no water once you leave the car park, so carry some extra for your dog, especially if it’s hot and sunny. We got blue skies but we did do this walk at the start of November so it wasn’t quite as warm as it might look in these photos!

A big plus on this walk is the total absence of any kind of stile or object that would require you to lift your dog over – something we appreciate a lot more since we got Coal! Make sure you head down to the river when you get back to the car park to give water loving dogs the opportunity for a paddle.

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