What Is a Bothy?
The Mountain Bothy Association maintains a series of small, mountain shelters throughout the UK. Little more than brick-built tents, they offer the hill walker a place to get warm and dry and rest for a night.
In her excellent book, The Book of the Bothy (Cicerone 2015), Phoebe Smith describes bothies as “stone tents”. That is the perfect description of the tiny bothy at Grwyne Fawr reservoir in the Brecon Beacons.
Bothies are located throughout the more mountainous regions of the country, with most located in Scotland and Wales, but a few in Northern England too. They are managed by the MBA, a volunteer-run organisation which maintains the bothies.
Don’t expect too much, however—most are simple huts with a stove and a sleeping area. Some are better equipped than others, but you’ll need to take everything you need for an overnight stay. You may find others have left some things for you; spare wood or kindling, matches and candles and tinned food seem to be common.
Grwyne Fawr Reservoir in the Brecon Beacons
One of the smallest bothies run by the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) sits beside the weir at the northern end of Grwyne Fawr reservoir. Access is tricky, requiring a steep and slippery descent to your new home. The bothy is little more than an 8ft by 10ft room, with small sleeping quarters hidden upstairs.
The small burner provides plenty of heat to ward off the cold, there are a few chairs, a small table and bench. Notices remind users of etiquette, and flipping through the bothy book you are advised to hang food (more on that later).
My First Night Sleeping in a Bothy
Living in the capital, it can be hard to find the time to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. After a three-and-a-half-hour drive to the carpark at Blaen-y-cwm, I arrive to see plenty of cars and vans. My secret desire is to spend a night alone and my thoughts wander to who else I might be sharing with. Two ladies and a dog head up the path, but they are not carrying enough kit for an overnight. Following a bridleway up the side of the hill, I follow the river upstream to the dam. The noise of the flowing river never escapes me throughout my walk, and there are plenty of smaller waterfalls crashing down to meet the river, now around 50 metres below.
This was my first visit to a bothy, although lots of information can be found online and in Phoebe Smith’s brilliant guidebook.
The water tumbles down the dam, roaring. There is something magical about watching the falling water and I pause a while to watch it. The hectic tumbling is in stark contrast to the stillness of the reservoir. The two dog walkers are happily taking pictures of their dog playing. I pass them, keeping to the steep bank when I remember the advice to collect firewood. Irritatingly, I’d passed through a forest earlier on the path but was too engrossed in my own thoughts to think that far ahead. I pick up a few dropped branches, but know it won’t be enough. I’ll have to set out later to collect more. Across the reservoir, the last of the autumn sun colours the heather a golden brown. My pace quickens as I catch my first glimpse of the small bothy that I will call home for the night.
Discovering I’m alone, I head in to my new home. Delightfully simple inside, the cold makes sure I’m aware that the first thing I need to think about is the fire. My tea, made back at home, keeps me sustained while I head across the small river that feeds the reservoir. I find a few dead twigs and branches, but it soon builds up. As I cross again, I notice the frost starting to form in the shady parts. I get the fire going, thanks to the firelighters and kindling that have been left by previous occupants. As the fire crackles, I take one of the chairs outside to sit in the fading light and read the bothy books. Notes left by the previous occupiers, they tell the story of the bothy. I discover that it had been used pretty much every night for the last month. I’m just one in a long line of temporary owners of this house. I read tales of babies being carried down, of people making first and return visits and walkers just taking a rest before heading further along a trail.
The light dwindles and the fire needs stoking. I head inside to put more of my twigs on, then begin the process of cooking dinner and collecting water for more hot drinks. The light has all gone now and I sit by the fire to open my new book. It’s not long before I need to ‘take the shovel for a walk’. I pop outside and am glad I did. Despite the cold, the majesty of the stars leave me awestruck as always. I spend so long looking up that I almost forget what I came out for. As I’m taking my last look to the heavens, I notice two lights up on the ridge. I duck inside, secretly hoping for my solitude to last. I tuck into my book once more. A gentle knocking heralds the arrival of Rob and Dave. We exchange pleasantries and they tell me that they are wild camping further up the ridge, they saw my light and came to investigate. They look around before heading back to their camp.
I dive back into my book, but it isn’t long before another knock on the door. This time a young lad, Dan, arrives. It’s his second visit to the bothy and had brought lots of firewood! My heart lifts, despite wanting the solitude, the thought of more warmth is exciting. He is reluctant to stay however, opting to wild camp instead of sharing. We chat a while, sharing similar passions and interests, but he leaves to pitch his tent across the river. I watch from the window as his head torch bobs around.
Heading up the ladder, banging my head as I do repeatedly during my stay (do I ever learn?), I turn in for the night. Crackling, the fire fades away but I stay warm in the sleeping bag. I finish the chapter and turn my torch off. A smile spreads across my face as I think about those who have never had the pleasure of experiencing this. I’m in my cosy little mountain house, all alone, hiding away from the cold. I think about the bothy book and those who came here before me. One entry sticks in my mind: one about a mouse, the children had named him, being incredibly loud. I hear some scratching. He’s here, I think, and he is noisy! Another entry, earlier in the book races through my mind – ‘hang your food so the mouse doesn’t get to it’.
I fumble down the ladder (banging my head on the way down) to discover Mr Mouse has nibbled his way into a hot chocolate sachet. Sadly, he didn’t put the kettle on so I take my hot chocolate and my breakfast upstairs and keep them safely out of harm’s way. I can safely fall asleep.
Waking early, I discover a photographer trying to get the perfect sunrise shot. Unfortunately, the autumnal clouds spoiled his perfect shot. After sweeping and tidying, I wave him goodbye as I climb back to the path. I meet the duo that were wild camping and see Dan’s little red tent on the opposite bank. The walk back to the car gives me a chance to reflect on the trip. What did I learn? Take more fire wood and more fuel than you think you’ll need, heed the advice of those who have gone before you and watch your head. The bothy experience connects you to walkers that have stayed before you and to those yet to come. It is a community existence, one where you never meet your neighbours. The bothy is a sacred space on the hills, providing warmth and a dry space for an hour or a night. The sheep of the hill keep me company as I slowly descend, watching the clouds blow over the hill tops. I’ve played my small part in the history of this tiny little hut.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Nicholas Taylor