The Bwlch y Groes (Pass of the Cross) and its side road Bwlch Eunant probably have a history as a road that lies back in the dark days long before things were ever thought of being recorded as existing. The road summit at 545m, (1788ft) is often claimed to be the highest public road in Wales, however, as far as surfaced roads go, that honour is held by the Bwlch yr Efengyl (Gospel Pass) 549m, (1801ft) in the Black Mountains of South East Wales also used by the ISDT in Wales although its approach is not as steep as the Bwlch y Groes. The unsurfaced Bwlch Llandrillo in the Berwyns, also used in the ISDT, crosses the 580m 2000ft contour at the summit of the pass. The ISDT, when on the Bwlch y Groes, never crossed the high summit as detoured to travel to Bala via the gnarly old tracks through the Euanant and Hirnant valleys. History paints a picture of the route being in use by religious travellers passing between the early Celtic Christian sites and the many Monasteries, Abbeys, Friaries and Priories the church of Rome had established at Welshpool, Llangollen, Llanrwst, Holywell, Flint, Denbigh, Llaneltyd before the reformation. But it was mostly motorsport rather than tourism that rediscovered the opportunities the then many unsurfaced road provided in the early development of motoring on public roads.
The conventional ISDT route once passing Llanmawddwy headed north, to climb the Bwlch but before reaching the summit of the pass would turn off along another poor unsurfaced track to reach the firm road around Lake Vyrnwy and then travelling clockwise around the lake on reaching the next side road turned up it. This road is known as the Hirnant and heads towards Bala. These roads only became surfaced during the 1950’s.
The History of Motor Sport and the Bwlch y Groes is nearly as old as motorsport. Early motoring magazines often mention that editorial staff hand car manufacturers had been testing on the Bwlch y Groes owing to its status of a continual and sever gradient to one of the highest moorland crossings by a road in the UK. This leaves us with a wealth of material describing the setting and condition of the road nearly a 100 years ago. A Bwlch y Groes blog by Jorge Pullin on ‘My Royal Enfields‘ discusses an early report of the first motorcycle ascents of the Bwlch y Groes.
Over 100 years ago it was clear there was a popular fascination for crossing the Bwlch y Groes by motor vehicle. Despite the lack of modern media news sources and reliance on the distribution of printed word through the specialist press, the matter received press coverage, for example the above photo posted in ‘the Motor Cycle‘ of 4th July 1912. At the same time in the ‘letters to the Editors’ was this note from Mr Fredrick Wells “Sir – Having read with interest the accounts of the various attempts to scale the famous Bwlch-y-Groes (Dinas Mawddwy) with a sidecar machine, my friend, Mr J. Mills, decided to attack the hill with his 6HP Enfield sidecar. Accordingly, at 10am on Friday, June 21st, a start was made for Bala, the sidecar being occupied by George Yarnold, and I accompanied the party on a Triumph. Bala was reached without incident, we pushed on and arrived at the summit of the pass, both machines having climbed the “easy” side without difficulty. The Triumph was then abandoned, and descending as far as the gate on the carrier of the Enfield I sat down to wait. The machine disappeared from sight, round a bend, and after what seemed an age, could be distinguished returning up the steep gradient at a good speed. The first attempt was, however, doomed to failure, for on reaching the steep section, after the gate, Mills, in his excitement, fouled his levers, and the machine stopped dead. A fresh start was made, and this time all went well, the J.A.P. engine pulling wonderfully, and after the worst patch was covered, accelerating to the summit. The latter portion of the climb was witnessed by a Mr Hugh Morris. I should like to say, in conclusion, that although this pass is without doubt an extremely steep and lengthy climb, we are of the opinion that the hill on the road from Llanfair Talhaiarn to Llansannan (the former village is five miles from Abergele) is considerably steeper, and the surface is much worse. This hill is about three-quarters of a mile long.” The following note from R Lord appeared in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ feature of ‘the Motor Cycle’ in the July 11 1912 issue. “With reference to my climb up Dinas Mawddwy, I made my first ascent at 9.45 in the morning, another at (?) then drove on to Bala, and on the way met Mr Mills (?) Enfield going to the hill, so I think it was clear (?) was first. After lunch, on going again with Mr (?) we met Mr Mills returning” Any further examples of early attempts to take vehicles over the Bwlch would be welcomed for inclusion in this feature. The November 1925 issue ‘Motorsport Magazine‘ reported
THE 14/45 ROVER ON BWLCH-Y-GROES.
An interesting trial of the 14-45 h.p. Rover Saloon has been made under the observation of the Royal Automobile Club and consisted of 50 consecutive ascents of Bwlch-y-Groes. The test occupied 12 hours of practically continuous running, and during that time a total distance in excess of 150 miles was covered. Needless to say, top gear was hardly ever used, third, second and bottom being in action almost exclusively. It is interesting to note that at the conclusion of the trial less than half a pint of water was needed to restore the contents of the radiator to their original level. The car carried a driver and an R.A.C. observer throughout and the total weight exceeded 31 cwt. Bwlch-y-Groes is the famous test hill on the road between Dinas Mawddwy and Bala, North Wales, and the length of the hill is roughly 1.6 miles. Photos taken in 1924 for an event report in Autocar show it to be an unmade and rough road making the test event more a significant undertaking than had the road a tarmac surface.
Almost exactly the same view in 1929
The 1925 Rover test came back to the attention of the motoring press when it was decided to retry the feat in a more modest modern car the Citroen 2CV which tells us more about the 1925 endeavour when reported in the June 1956 issue of ‘Motorsport Magazine‘.
2 C.V. CITROEN’S 100 ASCENTS OF BWLCH-Y-GROES
Air-cooling vindicated in R.A.C.-observed trial IN 1925 the Rover Company was awarded the Dewar Trophy, that coveted award presented by Lord Dewar in 1906 to commemorate annually the most outstanding performance accomplished in Certified Trials observed by the R.A.C. They were awarded the Trophy in respect of an endurance feat undertaken by a 14/45 Rover saloon. This was the then new model designed by Poppet. with a four-cylinder 75 by 120 turn. 2,121-c.c. engine having the unique overhead-valve gear with two high-set camshafts and cross push-rods to actuate valves inclined in the hemispherical combustion chambers. The car weighed approximately 28 cwt., or approximately 32 cwt in running trim with driver and observer, etc., and it pulled a bottom gear of 20.3 to 1. Bwlch-y-Groes was described as a mountain pass about 1+ miles long with gradient* ranging from 1 in 12.3 to 1 in 4.93 and this the Rover set out to ascend and descend fifty consecutive times on September 22nd, 1925. At the top it was swung round, at the bottom reversed for turning. The test commenced at 7 a.m. and concluded at 7 p.m., the climbs and descents being as continuous as practical, the engine being kept running continuously, except for four stops on accidental occasions, when it was restarted immediately. Only three pauses were made on these climbs, once, on the third ascent, due to momentary popping in the S.U. carburetter, once through the presence of sheep and once to open a gate. Changes of driver and observer were made after 13 ascents; naturally, top gear was never engaged. Heavy rainfall fell most of the day. No work or adjustment was called for, descents were made in third gear (9.3 to 1) and at no time did the cooling water boil, the total amount of water consumed being slightly less than half-a-pint. The Rover was duly granted R.A.C. Certificate of Performance No. 610 and awarded the Dewar Trophy. Last year the Editor of MOTOR SPORT suggested to Ken Beat, Competition Manager of the National Benzole Company, Ltd., that it would be instructive to see if a small air-cooled car could emulate the Rover’s task. Consequently, on April 24th this year, a 2 c.v. Citroen was set at the gradient, again under R.A.C. observation, the object being to accomplish, double the number of ascents made in 1925 by a car of one-fifth the Rover’s engine capacity. A start was made at 5 a.m. and the drivers. W. Noddy and K. Best, changed at three-hour intervals. The little Citroen climbed faultlessly in first (25.9 to I) and very occasionally second gear (12.55 to 1) and descended the steep, unfenced road at speeds exceeding 50 m.p.h., virtually coasting, as overdrive-top (5.17 to 1) was used for the descents and the automatic centrifugal clutch was fitted to the the car in question. The little 425-cc. air-cooled flat-twin engine was kept running continuously except for a period of two minutes when it was stopped to enable the oil-level to be checked. The Citroen was reversed vigorously each time at the foot of the Pass in order to turn it for the next ascent. The runs occupied about 18+ hours and during this time only three vehicles were encountered, one of them an Austin from Longbridge, for B.M.C. use BwIch-y-Groes for test purposes. The weather varied from sunshine to torrential rain and thunder and the last ascents were made with the car lost in mist at the top turn, its brakes now absent due to the effect of the rapid descents—Boddy handed the car over to Best to enable him to have the honour of driving the 100th ascent, and also, because he was aware of the complete lack of anchorage! R.A.C. observers travelled in the car throughout and found that the overall average speed up and down the Pass, with it’s average gradient of 1 in 7.3, and including the turn-rounds, was 16.52 m.p.h. The Citroen consumed National Benzoic petrol at the rate of 25.41 m.p.g. and required only half-a-pint of National Benzole Light s.a.e. 20 oil. It’s chassis and front-drive universal joints received no grease and after adjustment the following morning the brakes were pronounced satisfactory This endurance test is a further tribute to the reliability and practicability of the little 2 C.V. Citroen, the smallest-engined saloon on the market, for it was running as soundly at the finish as at the start and its cylinders never missed a beat, or gave any evidence of overheating. The K.L.G. plugs, and Ducellier coil, stood up without a trace of protest, cooled, of course, by the benzoic fuel. Certainly air-cooling and front-wheel-drive were vindicated for strenuous and continuous Pass-storming. If you are not convinced, try ten consecutive ascents this summer in your own small saloon! Motor Cycling has an equal rich history on the Bwlch y Groes. Apart from the attention the motorcycle industry gave it, there were also a number of motorcycle events. The Sangster Cup Trial took place in the early part of the 20th Century and started in Birmingham finishing in Abermaw ( Barmouth). In 1933 the ISDT made its first visit and it featured in each event until after 1954 when the Tarmac monsters had finely managed to tame the route into a civilised public highway.
Two German riders with problems at the base of Bwlch y Groes, #85 J Forstner collides with 250 DKW rider #60 T Feischmann. Both went on to finish with a gold medal each.
Eagle-eyed reader David Davies quite rightly corrects me here, this photo is actually on the Hirnant which is the road that directly connects Lake Vyrnwy to Bala with the riders Keepence and Tanner heading from Bala towards Vyrnwy climbing the highest part.Whilst the application of a tarmac surface after 1954 meant that future trials would not be drawn to follow the road any linger the Bwlch found a new reputation as one of the toughest times in the Professional Cycle Race event circuit in the UK and has been used in the Tour of Britain and the Milk race
Other Bwlch tales
Dave Davies said:
The picture of 161 S. Keepence and 159 H. Tanner is taken from near the top of the climb out of Cwm Hirnant, looking north. A little further down than the viewpoint of the Hirnant Pass postcard. Congratulations on all the work that you have put in to the site and best wishes for the future.
Thanks for your kind words and also spotting this one David, its obvious looking at it, I don’t know how it slipped past me.