There is a grand little adventure tucked away in the hills above the village of Abergynolwyn, full of historical intrigue and lush natural wonder. With the cascades of Nant Gwernol carving their way through the centre of the gorge and a myriad of paths and tracks snaking their way up and down the slopes there is a great deal of potential for varied and invigorating walks. Plus, if you choose to ascend the longest route in the forest to its furthest reaches you can sample a bit of history, the long-retired Bryn Eglwys quarry. Not just that, but it offers adventurers a great opportunity to experience a journey up from the coast in another piece of history, the narrow gauge railway that is still active to this day. So however you choose to arrive, via car or in style in a first-class train cart, let's get you there...
Nant Gwernol sits in a valley alongside the B4405, between Tywyn and Tal-y-Llyn. There are a few parking options around for where the walk can begin, each offer different approaches but you can tailor your walk easily to your start point. Our walk began in the town of Abergynolwyn, from a small car park out front of the community centre and café - this is a great starting point, but it is seriously limited in spaces and there aren't many alternative options in the town itself so this might not be reliable at peak times. While exploring along the red route there was a clearing with a car parked in it, I cannot personally comment as to whether this is accessible to the public so I won't suggest this unless someone else can comment as to its accessibility. The best option here is most likely the car park at Abergynolwyn train station, this has a fairly sizable car park and is also connected to the red walking route and is only a small drive outside of the town itself. Between these options, you are more than likely going to be able to find somewhere to park. Now as for public transport, there are links via bus in the area with routes passing through from Tywyn, Tal-y-Llyn and beyond in each direction, but perhaps the best option for adventurers is to grab the train! There is a wonderful steam route travelling up from Tywyn and terminating at Nant Gwernol station with a handful of halts in-between, all with plenty of exploration options (including Dolgoch, another favourite of ours with some great waterfalls). You can learn more about the Tal-y-Llyn railway here, but at the time of writing, they offer an explorer's ticket that allows you to hop on and off easily as you travel along the line.
Before we get into our walk, I want to touch on that railway - not only is it one of the best options for reaching Coed Nant Gwernol, but it has a fascinating story itself. The Tal-y-Llyn railway is a historic stretch of narrow-gauge railway that connects the small village of Abergynolwyn to the coastal town of Tywyn. It was established in 1866, when a group of cotton mill owners, seeking to diversify, acquired the nearby quarry and invested in the local area - the railway was needed to connect the quarry to connect to the national railway network and was established around the same time as the town itself. The line was unique as it was the first narrow-gauge line to be approved for passenger services, not just serving the quarry but ferrying folk to and from the coast. It operated through the late 1800s, but was never a real success and went to auction (along with the quarry) in 1879. The quarry grew and continued to operate alongside the train line until 1909 when the quarry shut its doors temporarily - it was picked up by a local MP who like his predecessors tried to operate it well into the 1900s, but this would only last until 1946. With the quarry gone the railway operated a limited summer-only service until a group of enthusiasts acquired the line in the 1950s, with the goal of preservation and restoration of the line. This is all just a taste of the line's history and I don't want to rob you of discovering the full story yourself when you visit, its history is also, as you may have gathered, directly linked to the quarry which I will touch on later, but you can read more here if you wish. Those excited to visit will still be delighted to enjoy all of the historic charms of the line, with current stock including both steam and diesel locomotives as well as a handful of self-propelled vehicles - the oldest of the current stock is #1, named Talyllyn dating back to 1864.
Once out of our car, we ascended the hill alongside the community centre, a respectable calf-killing climb that luckily didn't outstay its welcome; before long the road revealed a footpath sign off to the right that linked us to dirt, rock and rooty paths along with the sound of rushing water. There are a few little routes around which you are free to explore to your heart's content, the major routes here are split by a fork (pictured above in the grid, left column middle image), and the downhill path leads to a little area amongst some picturesque cascades well worth a quick stop, but it is the uphill route that will take you onto a footbridge over the gorge where you will link up with the train station and connect to the major walks of today's adventure. Unlike your typical city centre train station, this one is a little more attractive in its own regards - between the beautiful surroundings and their handy information boards (as well as a hand-wound summary of the life of the old miners that would have worked here some 150 years ago) this is a stop well worth checking out, especially if you wait long enough to see and hear that awesome steam train arrive (if you aren't already on it, of course!). Once you've had your fill of the historic rail line, it is time to pick a walking route...
There are three clear routes marked at Nant Gwernol train station that will take you around the gorge and far into the trees, the yellow, blue and red routes - the blue route is by far the longest and most challenging, with the yellow and red routes roughly tied for length but the red route is really just a path that links Gwernol train station to Abergynolwyn train station, so I would recommend picking from either the yellow or blue routes if you are after a straight forward walk. As you explore keep your eyes peeled, as the Woodland Trust lists Dormice, Bats, Butterflies and Otters as residents of the woods here. We had plenty of time and were looking for something a little different so we followed our own route - we started by tracking the red path, mostly because we wanted to tackle the colossal stairs right by the train station. From here you are mostly just following a woodland track as it makes its way between stations, but it is a nice leisurely walk amongst the trees and allowed us to reach the station fairly quickly, from here we actually doubled back and began following the blue walking route but in reverse. If you have opted to park at Abergynolwyn station then you will need to link up with this red route to join the walks, but keeping your eyes peeled for the blue markers and following the blue route in reverse as we did isn't a bad option at all.
The blue route definitely lives up to its Strenuous label, while you are unlikely to need to scramble anywhere the rough tracks made of loose stones twisting up hillsides create some really challenging sections, but with stretches of woodland tracks in between to help relieve some of the stress on your ankles. Still, this route has some great views around as well as some spectacular sections of woodlands to enjoy and if you wish to you can follow this all the way up the gorge to check out a long-since retired quarry. The beauty of Coed Nant Gwernol is there are many little routes you can follow that allow you to pick a route to suit your needs, either by following an OS map as we did in parts or by following the way markers - we followed the blue route all the way around the upper section of hills then descended back into the gorge where we picked up the short loop back (which also forms part of the yellow route) alongside the cascades of Nant Gwernol. This little adventure eventually brought us back to the stairs we ascended originally when we followed the red route, and from the train station at the bottom, it was as simple as retracing our original footsteps to find our way back to the start.
Now on our walk, I will confess we didn't take the furthest loops which would take you out towards the Bryn Eglwys quarry, but if you follow the blue path in its entirety you will get to explore the quarry and all of its wonderful history. The history of Bryn Eglwys quarry is closely tied to the Tal-y-Llyn railway but its story goes back just a little further - established in 1844 by John Pugh, a miner from Aberdyfi, who had leased land to establish quarries on both sides of the valley. It would eventually be leased by the aforementioned cotton mill owners, who would form the Aberdovey Slate Company Limited, they wished to expand and increase production but couldn't due to the limited workforce in the area - one of the driving factors for the establishment of the railway. £160,000 (inflation calculators vary but put this figure between 10-20 million pounds in today's money) was spent by the company, establishing the town of Abergynolwyn to house workers, the railway as well as expanding the quarry. The company would be renamed Abergynolwyn Slate Company Limited shortly afterwards but unfortunately, the venture was never much of a success and the quarry was eventually auctioned off, being acquired by William McConnel, one of the original cotton mill owners. He would maintain and develop the quarry until his death in 1902, when his son took control and, with leases close to running out, shut the mine in 1909 - giving the workers only a single day's notice of their impending redundancy. By 1911, the local Liberal MP Henry Haydn Jones purchased the quarry as well as the railway line and town, to once again establish its operation, this time as the Abergynolwyn Slate & Slab Company Limited - this continued all the way until 1946 when the rapidly declining safety of the mine forced its closure once and for all. Now it lies as a relic of the industrial history of this area, and while the train line steams ever onwards, the quarry is unlikely to ever see work again.
Hopefully, this little taste of all the wonders in Coed Nant Gwernol, from the wonderful Tal-y-Llyn railway to the historic Bryn Eglwys quarry, has inspired you to take an adventure to the old mining town of Abergynolwyn. Whether that be by car, public transport or that historic rail I know you are likely to find some spectacular scenery and a grand old day out. I know I am certainly excited to revisit, pick a seat on an amazing old steam train and take the longer blue route to check out the quarry. The best part about this stop is that even though we didn't visit the quarry on this trip, I still found plenty to love about these woodlands. As far as extending your adventure, the first obvious stop is Dolgoch Falls because, as mentioned previously, if you are on the train you can pass through here easily. A short drive (or moderate walk) from the town of Abergynolwyn is another one of my personal favourites: Craig Yr Aderyn (Bird's Rock), a stunning viewpoint with great vistas in all directions well worth the tough little climb to get up there. If you choose to make Coed Nant Gwernol a quick stop or spend a whole day touring the woodlands here I am sure you will be happy when all is said and done.