This was the long-delayed and much anticipated repeat of the glorious walk my son Nick and I did in 2015/16 through the length of Wales, following the Cambrian Way. It is a demanding route which seeks out the mountainous areas of the country, linking Cardiff in the south to Conwy in the north and was devised by one Tony Drake of the RA, now deceased. He made it his life's work to get the route planned and accepted and as a concept it is completely inspiring and has always been for me something of a special challenge. In the 1980s, I remember receiving a number of route sheets produced on an old Gestetner copier and printed out using the methylated spirits ink that those machines used to employ. The route was scarcely decipherable and it was a great improvement when the Cambrian Way Trust brought out the first of their many-times reprinted little guide. Even that guide was not easy to follow with its split maps in black and white and its changing scales. Now we have the resources of the Cicerone Publishing Company together with the work of the indefatigable George Tod, supported by the Trust, and they have given us the magnificent guide which will surely place the walk firmly on the list of any long distance walking enthusiast. This has to be one of the great walks of these islands.
For reasons of stamina and logistics we split our walk into two parts, though I still dream that one day I shall do it as one continuous walk. At my age (71), it's no little undertaking, but so far so good and this is my remembered account of the first part, walked with my son between 29th May and 11th June 2021. We had good walking weather and, although we had walked the route a few years earlier, the interesting thing was that in many ways, it felt like a new route. On our previous experience, we had been captivated and challenged, but sometimes put out by problems over route-finding and, occasionally, the very tough terrain. This time we had the inestimable advantage of a GPS device which delivered the route with certainty and allowed us to enjoy our beautiful surroundings without any anxieties.
Saturday May 29th Cardiff to Coryton 11.6 km, 129m
Nick at Cardiff Castle
This was a short day just to get us started, having arrived in Cardiff by train at around midday. We were staying at the Village Hotel, Coryton on the outskirts of Cardiff and we set out from the Castle following the river Taff through the lovely Bute Park, walking through a glorious summer's afternoon amidst families and children relaxing, students playing ping-pong and with all the feel of a world coming out of the covid nightmare and rediscovering the joy of being uninhibitedly together in the open air.
Forest Farm Country Park, Whitchurch, Cardiff
The Village Hotel was probably a suburban business hotel in normal times, but this bank holiday weekend, it was populated with a few escaping couples and the odd group of men who seemed interested in the sport on the big screen. We had a plan to catch the local train from Coryton back into Cardiff for a beer sampling and to get a curry. Our plan was thwarted by the vast bank holiday crowds in the city centre that night and the difficulty of getting a table without having pre-booked. However we did locate my previously remembered, decent curry place called Spice Quarter in the Old Brewery quarter of the City. The trip out and back by train was interesting too and an unusual thing to do at the start of one of our walks.
Sunday May 30th Coryton to Pontywaen 24.9 km, 706m
The suburb of Coryton was a pleasant enough place, though its peace was somewhat undermined by the ever-present rumble of the motorway traffic nearby. In fact, our first navigational task was to negotiate the complex junction of motorway, 'A' road and associated slip roads before we could start to ascend the lovely wooded area around Castell Coch, (a feature which we somehow succeeded in only seeing from a distance this time). The weather was pleasant without being too hot, but we were protected from the sun anyway because we were strolling for much of the time through glorious beech woods. It was very much a feature of this whole day that we were bathed in woodland green for so much of the time. It was a wonderful start to the walk and brought us into immediate contact with all the sounds and smells of late spring in Wales. We were now on the the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway walk and every so often the views started to open up with Caerphilly clearly the settlement over to our left, our first proper mountain, Mynydd Machen way up ahead and the Severn estuary and the coast of Somerset over to the right. We were truly heading up into the valleys now and the physical beauty of their surroundings struck me as being extraordinary, perhaps the more obvious now that mining and other industries have long departed. Mention must be made of the farm of Cefn Onn, a total eyesore in all this scenic beauty. It was a complete tip on a huge scale too, with all manner of discarded vehicles, farm machinery and other detritus surrounding an inhabited but otherwise run down and desolate farmhouse. Strategically positioned on the route was a caravan in which drinks and ice cream were being sold, but neither of us wanted to give money to such an enterprise, whatever the true circumstances were behind such obvious need.
It became a regular refrain that we would ask ourselves as we went along how much of the route we were remembering from our earlier walk and, although there was a general sense of familiarity, it was surprising how much of the detail seemed fresh. We were experiencing the walk anew and it was a joy to sense that we were reconnecting with something already known, but seen in a subtly changed way and with slightly different eyes.
At times we really did think we were not on the same route. We came to places that we had no memory of, even though on checking the old guide, we found that we had clearly gone that way on the earlier walk. Something like this happened now when we suddenly arrived at a charming-looking pub, the Maenllwyd Inn which was just opening for lunch. A pint would be welcome we thought, but, as we were to increasingly find out, walking into a pub casually and without forethought was, in the time of Covid at least, an impossibility. As he busied himself with unlocking, the landlord himself gave us the thumbs down on any sort of refreshment, unless we had booked way in advance! A lesson quickly learnt.
We were approaching the small town of Machen and it was necessary to find a spot for our lunch before we reached busy roads and civilisation. We came through an area of clear-cut forestry, not the most beautiful place for a stop, but logs for sitting on were handy and so our filling station-bought sandwiches and crisps and pre-prepared packs of fruit and yogurt were brought out and enjoyed - the first of our many and varied picnics to come.
Machen is a rather strung-out place, spoilt by its busy main road, but there were a few reasons to pause here. One was for me to get a razor - something I'd stupidly forgotten - and another was to get an ice cream before tackling Mynydd Machen, the hill that dominates the town and whose radio mast we had been picking out from the view to the north all day. Again there were considerable changes in the aspect of the hill. Much forestry had been cut but there had also clearly been a damaging forest fire within the last year or so and there were signs of scorched trunks and large areas of burnt undergrowth everywhere you looked.
We paused again at the top of the mountain to take in the considerable view and to work out our forward route. It was best in the end partially to retrace our steps before contouring and finally dropping down into the Cross Keys/Risca area, a strung-out settlement of linked villages. Our plan was to walk the tow path of the Monmouth and Brecon canal up to Pontywaun, but they were draining part of the canal for some reason and the tow path was fenced-off. It took ingenuity and some desperation to finally access the tow path, probably illegally, but we figured that if we could somehow get on to it, we would likely find a way to get off it again!
The first pub we came to in Pontywaun was called the Philanthropic and I thought that that really must be our lodging, only re-titled with a fancy name. I couldn't believe there were 2 pubs in this small, straggling village. But there were. I had no hope that our own pub, when we found it further up the street and called the Castle Inn and Lodge, would be anything very much, as we were well off the tourist trail in this former mining village of the valleys. But it was really quite a special place. We were shown into the 'lodge' part of the establishment which was essentially a bedroom and kitchenette all in one. We therefore had the means to make our own hot drinks and breakfast and, if we had wanted, to cook a meal. I took the opportunity to do some hand washing in the sink and, after studying the pile of take-away menus, we opted for a Chinese meal to be delivered to the pub adjoining. There was no real ale in either pub, but each place exuded the friendliness and sociability of the valleys for which they are famous. These tight-knit communities still have the feel of a place slightly apart, where everybody knows each other and where neighbourliness is born of struggle and the need to support one another, and where the culture is, or has been dominated by sport and the chapel.
The rather rowdy group of non-locals drinking outside at the table next to ours were annoying the landlord I think rather more than they were us as we tucked into our Chinese meal and pints of Guinness with some abandon. There was plenty of food and with the microwave in our room, Nick served up a beautiful hot Chinese breakfast the next morning made with the left-overs from the night before.
We found the landlord up and about the next morning bright and early, stripped to the waist and busy with his cleaning. He asked where we were heading and on hearing that we were going to Pontypool, he looked at us as though we were mad and, shaking his head, he made a near-verticle hand gesture whilst muttering something to the effect that such an uphill climb was not for the likes of normal , right-thinking people like himself. His generous girth, which he was displaying without inhibition, was a reminder that for some, our particular pleasure would be their purgatory!
Monday May 31st Pontywaun to Pontypool 16.8 km, 420 m
It was indeed a very sharp pull up out of Pontywaun following a faint zig-zag route through the trees and the undergrowth. I had the feeling that more of the folk of Pontywaun agreed with our landlord than with us about the pleasures of hill walking! It was a hot and sticky morning to boot so it was a bit of a relief to find the relatively level track which contoured the hill before we got stuck into the main ascent of the day, which was a hill called Twmbarlwm, which at 419 m was the highest point of our climbing that day. As we climbed amongst the lightly clad joggers and families just out from the car park about half way up, I was to become a little self-consciously aware of our formidable rucksacks, the size of which occasionally drew comments from our fellow exercisers. It might have been here, or somewhere else that I found myself explaining that we were on the road for 2 weeks and that we needed a bit more on our backs than a simple day sack.
Twmbarlwm's summit is in fact a hill fort stretching back to the iron age Celts and is a scheduled ancient monument. It has splendid views and from here a ridge walk over the common land of Mynydd Henllys begins. This is fine wide track, with views over to the new town of Cwmbran on the right. It is possible to bowl along on this track without thinking too much about the direction - but beware! The track was the cause of a major navigational error the first time we did the route in 2015. The track swings gently round to the north in the direction of Mynydd Maen, but this is not the right way. Back then, we were without the navigational tool (the GPS) and without the caution that is bred from experience, and we were lulled into a false sense of security. We carried on the wrong way for several miles, trying and failing to make sense of the map and of everything that we were seeing about us. We got into all sorts of trouble and lost half a day's walking out of an already very long day, Abergavenny being the objective. We were forced to make a detour to Pontypool where, ignominiously, we had to get a train to Abergavenny, just so that we could stay with the schedule. (A few months later in darkest January, we travelled all the way back to Pontpool from Liverpool to patch in the missing half day, but the weather was so atrocious that we were still unable to follow the route precisely, although we did make it to Abergavenny!). The Cambrian Way route silently, stealthily, deceptively, and without any announcement, (certainly not with any well placed sign, a few of which we were beginning to become aware of), changes its course and deviates ever so cautiously to the right of the main track, continuing at first on the level and then after some power lines, descending more steeply and tracklessly to a farm near a wood. Here we paused by a style. We had taken photos of the very place where we had gone wrong before and now we were able to reassure ourselves that it really was an easy mistake to make. Without an effective sign, it was all too possible to fall into such a trap. In the intervening years we had rather beaten ourselves up about that mistake, but now we told ourselves that we were not quite the idiots that we thought we were!
It was a lovely morning and it was approaching lunchtime as we were headed into an area near Blaen Bran Reservoir called Coed Gwaen-y-'feir lad, which means 'the fair ground heath wood'. I don't know about any fair ground but we could tell we were in a popular spot where Pontypool families would come with their children and their dogs for exercise and picnics. We could hear the sounds of happy children coming up from the reservoir. It was a good place to look for a lunch spot and we managed to duck down through some trees to a stream and a small waterfall and here we found one of our many idyllic places for a rest and a bite to eat.
We were going well, but the route ran alongside a yellow road on the map, using a parallel path that was obviously no longer in use. Nick insisted on trying to find this path and so we wandered hither and thither amongst the gorse and the thorn bushes, me silently thinking why on earth we were not giving in and going over to the tarmac road. Nick persisted for a while longer before giving up and admitting that this path was a lost cause and we returned to the road. We needed to get down off the higher ground above Pontypool to reach our motel which was on the other side of a number of traffic arteries: the Monmouth and Brecon canal, the A4042 Newport trunk road (easily the noisiest and smelliest) and the Cardiff to Hereford railway line. (It was clear that Pontypool was too well connected for its own good!) So at this point, we turned down a path by a cottage where some ladies were sun bathing in the garden. It was an embarrassment to find this footpath blocked so we were forced to retreat, passing the sunbathers again and looking for an alternative. As we passed by the front of the cottage, one of the ladies called out the oft-heard question by walkers seeking a path, 'can I help you?', which is often a euphemism for 'what are you doing on my land?'. In this case it was a genuine offer and I think was a recognition that the path did indeed exist, but needed to be avoided using a slight detour. She gave us good instructions as to how to get down to a place called Griffifthstown, which was the key to getting across all these transport routes and finding our motel. Once down amongst all the traffic, we at first missed the route alongside the railway but we eventually found our way to a motorists pull-in area which had no provision for pedestrians at all, but was more-or-less a continuous car park with a filling station, a Burger King and of course our Best Western Pontypool Metro motel at the far end of it. Not the most attractive place to land up for the night, it dampened the mood a bit for sure, but, though still early, we were allowed to check into our room. The trunk road was metres from our room so the room was noisy but otherwise clean and comfortable.
We had been recommended a good canalside pub a mile or so south of the town for the evening meal and I was all for getting there since it was 'walk-ins' only and it was a Bank Holiday Monday. Nick was for exploring the town, so I tagged along rather grudgingly as he forged ahead across the impenetrable traffic roundabouts and pavement-less roadside scrub, to try to find the rest of the town proper. My arthritic toe, which had been cocooned in my ultra-cushioned Hoka hiking boots all day, was now being woken up by my altogether more basic Merrell sandals and it was complaining somewhat.
For the second time that day, Nick had to demur, agreeing that the battle to cross the fast-moving traffic gyratory that is Pontypool's grim 70s legacy, was not worth the candle. At first, rather disconsolately we retraced our steps to find the canal towpath for what turned out to be a very pleasant walk in the early evening sunshine to the pub. There were crowds both inside and outside the attractive pub called the 'Open Hearth' but we blagged our way inside to get a table for 2 tucked away in a corner somewhere, only to be quickly whisked outside again and given a prime waterside position, much to the consternation of the several waiting groups standing nearby.
Tuesday June 1st Pontypool to Abergavenny 25.05 km 566m
I think I slept well because I was up early and ready to go, but not before experiencing one of the most bizarre breakfasts I can recall. There was no restaurant or designated area for eating in the motel, so we joined a queue at a coffee station opposite the reception where a chatty and very Welsh lady was taking orders for a 'breakfast box' which you could then take somewhere to eat, although there were only a very few chairs and tables scattered about in the reception area for this purpose. I was veggie on this trip and so a couple of veggie breakfast boxes was a big ask at this pit stop for lorry drivers and travelling salesmen. The order was passed down the line to get the veggie sausages on (at least they had some) and meanwhile we were presented with brown paper bags containing the rest of the box - a sweet yogurt a stale croissant and lukewarm coffee. Breakfast is an important meal for me and I look forward to it every day. This was, by some measure, a long way from the quality of my regular morning meal and certainly not what I have come to look forward to on these walking trips, where sometimes the breakfast has been nothing short of magnificent and indeed on occasion, even the very best meal of the day!
The sausages, when they came were edible but tasteless and full of water, which made the bap soggy. The sachets of coloured red and brown sauces were a help, but there was no mustard of course which would have aded a bit of welcome piquancy to the flimsy snack. The croissant was by now flaccid and again of course, there was no marmalade, nor even any jam to perk it up a bit.
We stocked up with lunch supplies at the filling station and got underway. I felt sorry for Pontypool, which was riven by busy roads, but I think we saw at least some of the best of it along by the canal and then by the splendid Pontymoile gates which form the entrance to Pontypool Park. They are now corroded to a pale green colour and do indeed look as if they need some TLC.
The morning was beautiful and as we gained height the views were wide-ranging and inspiring in every direction. We stopped for a drink and a snack where the route crosses a lane and were joined by a group of friendly and interested wild ponies. We encountered these creatures quite often and marvelled at the way the foals especially would suddenly take off at a fast gallop through the undergrowth, oblivious of the wild terrain and this for no other apparent reason than they just felt like it.
Soon we came to a rather run down farm which did not look like it welcomed walkers. The gate was hard to open and for a moment we thought we were wrong and tried to skirt the farm. We were not and our faithful GPS was telling us that the footpath lay directly ahead through the farmyard. There was a rather bowed, elderly gentleman doing something in the yard and so we greeted him and he spoke to us in a way that made me feel he did not often speak to anybody at all. In his quiet, what I thought was a West Country accent, he directed us through the tangle of difficult gates and pointed us in the right direction. It was good of him, but we were left with the feeling that the isolated position of the farm and the lonely lifestyle were all getting a bit on top of him. The farm was called Coed Ithel.
The land was becoming more and more marginal and moorland-like and we were trying to recall where it was exactly that we had bailed out when we re-did this day's walk in dreadful weather just a few years back. On that day, we had come to a road where we could descend to the canal and take the towpath route to Abergavenny - a sensible course for a couple of soaked-to-the-skin walkers. I think our lunch stop on this day was at the very same place that we made that decision back then. But now the sun blazed and we needed to find shade and a place to sit where we could eat our grub and replenish our energy for the next bit. This was to be a moorland trek of a couple of hours where views were limited and the going was relatively uneventful but still quite tiring. Nick was pounding ahead as usual and the path was really quite well marked but rather tricky under foot I found, with heather masking boulders and other awkward places that needed avoiding. At last we came to a pair of aerial masts where apparently a high-achieving racehorse called Foxhunter is buried. He has a plaque to note his successes, but sadly we were unaware of this interesting detail! (Note to self - read the guidebook more. It's interesting!). We were for moving on with the elusive summit of Blorenge now in our sights. Elusive because it was a case of 3rd time lucky getting to the top of this hill. Twice before we had missed it and its splendid view of the town of Abergavenny as well as all the developing mountainous country round about. We took our fill of the view before heading off in the opposite direction to the town, to look for the noted declivity called the Punchbowl by which we preferred to make our descent from Blorenge. The guide strongly advised against the direct descent which is evidently ferociously steep.
The Punchbowl turned out to be a kind of natural basin in which lay a beautiful lake and alongside which a couple of families were relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine with the young children scampering and splashing about in the water in their birthday suits. The whole scene was utterly idyllic and enchanting and if it hadn't been late in the day with still a couple of miles to go, we would have stopped for a paddle I'm sure. As sometimes happens when it's been a long day and you're tired, we somehow missed our way at Little Pen-y-Graig and our entry into Glebe Wood and the final part of the descent to Llanffwyst and Abergavenny was problematic. Rather than retrace steps uphill, we chose to follow a fence bordering the wood. We reached the inevitable corner, having found no scalable options, so we were forced to climb the fence and in so doing I grazed my leg on the barbed wire. Tired and out-of-sorts, this was not what we needed. I got out the first aid, thinking of the rusty wire and its potential to cause Tetanus. Anti-sceptic wipes and plasters were found, and in all the fuss, the wipes were left behind. Not a good finish to our day's walk, but the cut was not serious and there were no repercussions thankfully.
Field of Buttercups near Llanfoist, Abergavenny
We proceeded to cross the Monmouth and Brecon canal in Llanffwyst via a quite long and very dark tunnel which intriguingly goes under the adjoining house too. It felt like the day had quite a long tail as we moved over to google maps to navigate the final stretch across the river meadows and into the town proper for the locating of the Kings Head. I'm not good with spoken directions on a mobile, so my phone was handed over to Nick (who keeps his own buried deep in his rucksack for some reason).
The Kings Head was a rambling old inn with all the necessary comforts, though slightly in need of some renewals and repairs. The wardrobe door came off in my hand and the bathroom was poky and dark, but the covid arrangements had made for a fine line up drinking cubicles on the street outside in front of the pub which quite soon, after essential tea and showers, we tested out. These drinking booths however became handy haunts later on for Abergavenny's homeless and they made a fair bit of noise on the street below us well into the early hours, or so Nick told me!
We renewed our acquaintance with the fine Nepalese restaurant in the town and it was here that I had a by now famous phone conversation with a lady who greeted me with a 'hi Tony', as if I should have known her, but who, at the time was truly unknown to me. It turned out that she had been trying to phone me off and on for a while, but because of the intermittent phone signal, I had not picked up the messages that she thought she had left. She plunged straight into a conversation with me without announcing who she was, assuming that I had somehow instinctively made the connection with the (missing) messages. I got too far into the conversation suddenly to announce that I had no idea who I was talking to and she managed somehow to skirt around the reason for her call, simply asking me repeatedly to confirm my e mail address so she could send me some information. Since I'm unfortunately not in the habit of receiving calls from pleasant-sounding women who don't identify themselves, I carried on the conversation as if I was a life-long buddy, hoping that my cover would not at any moment be blown. I certainly had no objection to giving this attractive-sounding lady my e mail address and she was clearly on first name terms with me! At the end of the call which Nick had been listening to with evident and increasing curiosity, he turned to me and asked who the hell that was. I had to admit that I had, for the moment at least, absolutely no idea whatsoever and it was a genuinely hilarious situation. Later on, I figured out who it must have been and when we finally landed up at the Travellers Rest in Tal-y-bont on Usk, 2 nights later, we were greeted warmly by this lady whose name was Joy and who by this stage had got all the information she was so assiduously seeking concerning our menu choices for when we should finally arrive at her excellent establishment.
Wednesday June 2 nd Abergavenny to Llanthony 18.8 km, 955m
I don't know whether it was the Nepalese food or the shot of Pen Dragon Welsh whisky (on top of the wine and beer) that I had before retiring, but I felt tired and somewhat lacking in energy for this quite demanding day which starts off with a long slow climb to the top of the Sugar Loaf mountain. At 596 m it is technically a hill, but to us, it will always be a mountain and a shapely and strategically placed one at that. I might have felt a bit listless on this morning, but at least my progress up the hill was continuous if a little slow. A group of young men and women, who at the start seemed a long way ahead of us, were taking an absolute age to cover any ground or height at all, and who we eventually by-passed with only a few metres to go to the top. It seemed that they needed to rest after every few paces and I allowed myself the thought that whatever my age and condition, I was still able proceed up a mountain with some sense of continuity and rhythm, even if a little slowly!
We descended to an incredibly rural backwater called Forest Coal Pit whose name apparently has nothing to do with coal, but comes from the charcoal which was used hereabouts for the smelting of iron. We knew we were were in for a long slow climb and the 'white' road on the map was very narrow and potholey. We had paused for a drink on a bend in the road and were having a discussion over our precise whereabouts when we heard a vehicle ascending the hill in our direction at a fast pace. We had quickly to take some avoiding action by squeezing back into the hedgerow behind us and the vehicle turned out to be a post van being driven by a young and incredibly beautiful blond haired woman. So unexpected was this vision that I was completely taken aback. I think the young woman was as surprised by us as we were by her, but we exchanged a rapid smile and then she was gone. Post office vans are driven by…..well, not usually by such people. I can only imagine that the folk of Forest Coal Pit look forward with more than usual eagerness to their postal deliveries from such a beautiful vision of a post lady!
Ruins of Llanthony Priory
The day was overcast and muggy as we settled down to a lunch break on a grassy bank overlooking the valley of the Grwyne Fawr, an important valley lying parallel to the one which shelters the Llanthony Priory and our overnight pub stop. That one is called the Vale of Ewyas and is well known to Offa's Dyke path walkers. The Gwryne Fawr valley is the one which we would have to cross the next day in order to reach one of the principal ridges of the Black Mountains. These mountains present a north-facing bulwark to a vast patchwork quilt of fields, hedges and copses which are such a feature of the landscape of rural mid Wales. Behind and between this wall of north-facing mountains lie peaceful valleys, some glaciated and fanning out in a south easterly direction towards the border. Each of these valleys has an adjoining ridge with the next valley and so a number of horseshoe walks can be made connecting the tops with each other and making for a spectacular ridge walk. This was our plan for the following day, but in the meantime, our gaze was towards our current ridge and its first top, Garn Wen. We had superb views looking south eastwards down into the Vale of Ewyas, views which are apparently denied walkers on the Offa's Dyke path, one ridge over, because of its vast width.
Approaching the Half Moon Hotel, Llanthony
It came on to rain intermittently as we reached our cross roads at Bâl Bach where we descended eastwards to Llanthony and the Half Moon Inn. At the planning stage, when I had suggested a detour to Llanthony to stay at the Half Moon, Nick had spoken enthusiastically about the place which he remembered he had once visited. As we passed by the Priory he went quiet and then admitted that it was the hotel which is built into a part of the abbey ruins which he remembered and not the rather closed-looking and slightly neglected place that we now arrived at, a quarter of a mile up the road from the abbey. A notice in the window advised that the pub was closed on Wednesdays which fazed us a little, it being a Wednesday, but our consternation was redoubled when, after ringing the bell and trying all the doors we could find, there was absolutely no response. We were by this time, tired and bedraggled and in need of a cup of tea and this was most definitely not what we wanted. Eventually I decided to go right round to the rear and more private part of the premises to see if I could find anyone. I opened gates and banged on doors that were most definitely not usually open to the public, but I did eventually track down our host. She was not very apologetic and seemed almost to imply that it was our fault that the front bell was not working. The room which we were put in was not en suite and so the various bathrooms along the corridor were designated as specific to certain bedrooms. There were 2 or 3 in number. Our host had declined our request to do some laundry for us, so I set to in the basin of our bedroom, washing out a few things and finding all kinds of places for the hanging and drying of clothes.
Whilst attending to this, a mixed party of young cyclists was arriving and being shown the other rooms along the lengthy first floor corridor. It was clear from the sound of the voices that the young women were sharing the room next door to us and the young men were in a room further down. There was much to-ing and fro-ing along the corridor which involved a lot of polite door knocking and the working out of a schedule of showers for the group, all to be taken before the evening meal.
Our meal was to be between 6 and 7 pm and we arrived punctually with a strong thirst for a pint of real ale. Our host was happy to serve us, although the pub itself was closed. We got in our food order from a very short menu before our fellow occupants from along the corridor above, commandeered a larger table in another corner of the dining room. Suddenly it all went very quiet and one of the young men began to speak in a low voice, addressing the rest of group on, of all things, the subject of that day's bible reading. There was then quite a long prayer which formed not only a grace for what they were about receive but also an improvised musing on their day and the purpose of their visit.
After supper we wandered down to the abbey ruins and drank in the wonderful atmosphere of the place as well as drinking in some more of the local brews on offer in the cellar bar of the hotel which is built into the priory walls. We were not surprised to see our fellow guests from the Half Moon, emerging from the little church which lies alongside the great priory. No doubt they still had devotions to make before settling down to a chaste night in their separate beds.
Thursday June 3rd Llanthony to Crickhowell 29.5 km, 1087m
I am quite often the subject of amusement bordering on ridicule on the part of my son for my poor memory and consequent bouts of anxiety over what I may or may not have lost, mislaid or just left behind. However there is one area in which my son's memory is far from perfect and that is a rather important one, being the necessity of remembering to fill his water bottles each day. We had walked some distance from the pub back along the road and through a farm campsite tucked in alongside the Afon Henddu. It was as we crossed this stream that he remembered the unfilled water bottles. Since we were retracing our steps from the last part of the day before, I recalled that further on, at the start of the climb back up to Bâl Bach, we had crossed a fast flowing tributary of the Afon Henddu and that it would therefore make a good place to fill the bottles. We have frequently drunk from mountain streams and no harm has come to us. We are pretty careful about this though and make sure the streams are high up and fast flowing. The water from these cascading becks is always cold, utterly refreshing and completely delicious.
Being fresh, we got up, via Cwm Bwchel to the cross roads at Bâl Bach pretty smartish and this was where our way ahead had looked so easy on the map. We had discussed the day's route at some length the night before and had decided that rather than make a direct assault on the eastern flank of Pen y Gadair Fawr, (an important tooth in the black Mountain chain), we would cross the Grwyne Fawr stream and make our way more gently up through the forestry on clearly marked paths (on the map) onto the ridge which culminates in Pen y Gadair and its less distinguished but slightly higher neighbour, Waun Fach, the highest top in the Black Mountains. Our intention now at this point was was to descend, in a westerly direction via these mapped paths, the open hillside in front of us. But it was marginal scrub land with no sign of useable paths that we met, with only the infrequent faint traces of trods, leading nowhere. We got down to an area of cut forestry which was tussocky and had felled trees barring our way. It was hard going for a time with no certainty of improvement, but we eventually came to a more established track running south which we crossed, and then to a path which crossed the Grwynne Fawr and brought us out on a metalled road above Ty Hir. This place was a considerable establishment with electric fences and many caballed horses. We stuck as firmly as we could to our westerly ascent and amazingly we eventually came across a footpath sign saying 'to the Gadair Ridge', which took us darkly and steeply up through dense trees to the high ridge path that had been our goal.
We now embarked on what I remember as being one of the finest ridge walks of the whole trip. We came out of the forestry and hit the path at around 560 m of height and we could immediately see the whole circle of mountains that we were to traverse that day. In order, first going north, we would climb Pen Twyn Mawr (658 m), Pen y Gadair Fawr (800 m) and then the highest Black Mountain, Waun Fach (810 m). We then turned westwards and southwards dropping a little to Pen Trumau (700 m). Then it was fairly level over Mynydd Llysiau (663 m), then on to Pen Twyn Glas (646 m) and the wonderful upturned boat shape of Pen Allt Mawr (719 m) which was a sharp pull up. Finally we topped the wild and stony summit of Pen Cerrig-calch where a school party were enjoying a great adventure. We were blessed with good weather and clear views all day. From both the latter summits, but actually from the whole way round the horsehoe, there were breathtaking views. As the guide book says of the summit of Pen Allt Mawr, 'there are magnificent views from here, particularly of Mynydd Troed to the northwest, which is almost completely encircled by beautiful valleys with patchworks of fields and hedgerows. To the south east is Cwm Bannw and equally magnificent views towards Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, and to the north is the ridge that has already been traversed and other ridges that have not. One mountain that stands out is the table-topped Pen y Gadair Fawr ('head of the big chair'), which is only slightly lower than Waun Fach but much more distinctive in shape.'
Mynydd Troed from Pen Allt-mawr
It might have been on the gentle rise to Mynydd Llysiau (ironically 'the mountain of vegetables') that I finally got a text from Joy (of the Travellers in Tal y Bont), with a photo of the menu on offer for the following night's meal. I felt that Joy was making a really special effort to look after us, not least because of the earlier phone call, but also by sending us their menu and asking us to indicate our meal preferences. I called after Nick, asking him to glance over the menu and could he please make a quick choice. I think I might have caught him at a bad moment but at any rate this, for him, with several more tops ahead, was not the moment to be thinking of menu choices. At first he just blankly refused to consider such a thing, but I persisted, with the thought that whilst I had a signal it would only take a minute or 2 to glance over the choices and send a quick text to the good lady. He finally relented and when we did get to eat that wonderful food a couple of nights later, I think he agreed that Joy and her husband, the chef had spared no effort in giving us a top quality culinary experience!
We rounded rather than ascended the flat topped Table Mountain which dominates Crickhowell and soon found ourselves entering the attractive but traffic dominated town and passing the fine B&B that we had stayed at 5 years before, but which was now unavailable. The Dragon Inn was a very comfortable substitute, and was more than willing to do our washing as well as set up a table for us for evening dining. We sauntered up to the old coaching inn, the Bear which dates back to 1432 and got the feeling that people were just beginning to enjoy a social life again. Certainly the group of half a dozen male Rotary Clubbers sitting opposite us were were having some great repartee, and occasionally including us too in their light-hearted banter.
We drank some Cwrw Gorslas here which was malty and full bodied, but I had the Reverend James' bitter from Brains in Cardiff. It's a commonly-found brew along the CW and in fact, to walk the route would be quite unimaginable without it, - it's so refreshing and well balanced but otherwise actually quite difficult to describe!
Friday June 4th Crickhowell to Tal y Bont on Usk 26.7 km, 604m
The outdoor shop in Crickhowell, (where I had once replaced a lost map), was still there and Nick spent a little while purchasing an additional water bottle which he felt he needed. We got our lunch provisions from one of the small independent stores that Welsh towns are still fortunate in having, and then we set off over the river Usk to the nearby village of Llangattock. From here there's a pleasant walk along the canal tow path before a couple of very steep inclines - (180 m of very quick ascent), which bring you out into a kind of rock amphitheatre called Eglwys Faen. The level path follows an old tramway showing that quarrying was carried out here at one time. Now, it is a national nature reserve and feels like a very special place. It is possible to go wrong on this path and in fact we did just that 5 years ago when, having got ourselves onto very steep, stony and trackless ground, Nick fell forward quite awkwardly, the weight of his rucksack causing him to tumble some way into a thicket of nettles and brambles. We recalled it now with amusement, but it wasn't funny at the time and our effort to find a way to correct our error without turning back was unproductive. We landed up retracing our steps to the fairly obvious bifurcation where we had made the error in the first place.
Setting off from Crickhowell
Back to today, we hit the road knowing we had to face 3 km of hard surface pounding, (with occasional grass verges) and all the time contending with fast-moving traffic. Nick announced that he was going to storm ahead at this point to get the road walking done as fast as possible. He would see me at Blaen Onneu, a landmark group of trees, where we would re-group before the moorland trek to the Chartists' Caves. I decided to give the speed-walking a bash and found that with grit and determination and matching my pace as closely as possible to his, I could, to my surprise, keep up. The more I stayed in his slip-stream, the more determined I was not to fall behind. We kept up a red-hot pace without slackening at all for the full distance and when we reached the famous clump of trees for a leak, we saw that we had covered that length of road in just 40 minutes!
The moorland walk had been done on a compass bearing 5 years earlier, there being no obvious track. Now there was a clear path and although, with satellite technology, we did not need the compass bearing, I took one just the same so as to practise the skill. I was pleased I could have walked on it if I'd have had to have done.
We lunched at the Chartists' Cave which we found easily and it was a fitting place to consider the struggles that working people in the 1830s and 1840s had mounted to achieve some basic political rights. They had marched on Newport in 1839 and the well-hidden cave was used to store an illicit printing press as well as pikestaffs and other weapons. A plaque there tells you all about it, and we were not the only ones to visit the cave that day because on descending the moor to the road, we were asked by a couple who were getting togged up, if we knew where the Chartists' Cave was. We pointed them in the right direction, but they didn't look particularly well-equipped for moorland walking. We kept looking back to see if they were making progress and at least they seemed to be going in the right general direction.
As we left the road on a bend, we suddenly saw up ahead a huge convey of vehicles all parked up above us and strung out in a long line overlooking our route. There were many vans and lorries and what looked like a catering vehicle amongst them and at first I thought it might be a circus, parked up for the night. I think we realised after a while that it might be a film crew and this was confirmed when we met an off-road cyclist some way ahead. He told us that this valley, Dyffryn Crawnon, around the head of which we were now skirting, was a popular place for filming TV series and he mentioned a couple of names of TV series which unsurprisingly did not register with me!
We had met a large number of these off-road cyclists since the very start of the walk, showing what a popular form of exercise it is amongst the people up from the valleys. However this particular stretch of path was very narrow and uneven, with earth-falls in places and very steep drops on one side. I was very surprised when the cyclist told us that he comes this way with his 6 year old lad on his bike!
We got into a fine rhythm now on this old tramway route which descended slowly and rather unevenly all the way to Tal y Bont on Usk. There were some striking views of the reservoir through trees, but I was tiring of the stony surface by the time we got near enough to spot Danyrwenallt Youth Hostel through the trees, where we had stayed on the earlier mission.
We reached the tow path of our now familiar Monmouth and Brecon canal and not long after we were eying up with some anticipation the White Horse pub which lies alongside the canal with its garden drinkers. We were were soon to be in that same garden, drinking one of the the best beers of the trip: Felinfoel Dragon Heart. This, at 4.8% was a rich mahogany coloured red ale with some vinous notes and a beautifully smooth texture. One to relish! Our night's lodging was at the Travellers Rest and we were puzzled by this name as there was no trace of another pub in the village. However, it turned out that our host Joy and her husband had taken over what was once a pub by that name, but had long since been converted into a restaurant, with rooms attached, by a previous owner. It was a splendid place, roomy and very comfortable and the food was extraordinarily good. Apart from a couple of elderly diners, we were the only guests and we enjoyed our gourmet quality dining in what seemed like the couple's tastefully furnished and decorated living room.
Saturday June 5th Tal y Bont on Usk to Llwyn y Celin YH 23 km, 1163m
Pen y Fan from Craig Cwareli
This day, we knew, would be a spectacular mountain day taking in the giants of the Brecon Beacons and again we were blessed with splendid weather, sunny but not too hot and with great views. The only down side was that, being a Saturday in a year of covid-restricted access, there were many people out and about on the tops and and a few of them were not, to my mind, treating the environment with the the respect it deserved. Perhaps that reflects a selfish attitude on my part but in any case, that moment when the mountain path turns south on Bwlch y Ddwyallt, and when the full majesty of the Bannau Brycheiniog summit ridge comes into view, that was truly a heart-stopping one, however many people there were around to share it. You have to work hard for that particular drama by the way we came, up over Twyn Du and Carn Pica, but there were always lovely backward views over the Talybont reservoir. I found it tough going to get the height under my belt and a group of youngsters were easily out-pacing me on this particular morning, but there is a huge sense of achievement in walking this whole ridge and this time, we took in all the main summits including both Fan y Big and Cribyn on the way to Pen y Fan, the highest point in South Wales at 886 metres. They were queueing to get photographs of themselves at the OS column on Pen y Fan's summit, so we didn't hang around, but headed the short distance south west, across the col to the sister summit of Corn Du. It was only slightly less busy here so we were anxious to keep moving on through. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because I had plotted it incorrectly, we took the popular route southwards off the mountain, instead of the more interesting one westwards, which soon descends to an obelisk. I wanted to remind myself of the touching and tragic story of poor little 5 year old Tommy Jones who, in 1900, whilst staying at a nearby farm, wandered off up onto the mountain and was lost for 29 days. They found his body at the spot where now this memorial stands.
Pen y Fan and Corn Du from Cribyn
Our route off the mountain followed what Wainwright would have called the 'baby's and grandmother's path', a piece of unpleasant condescension which persists, I believe, to this day in Mountain Walking and Rambling groups and which also suggests on his part a sexist and even misogynistic attitude. Why does the man continue to be revered so much, even by me? Perhaps because love conquers all and in his case, the mountains were the entire object of his love. Let me say that it was good to see, on this pleasant weekend afternoon so many people and families walking (or in some cases staggering) up the mountain even though some were clearly travelling more in hope than with any certainty of success!
Once down, we paused at the busy roadside kiosk at Storey Arms for a cuppa, before heading off towards the Youth Hostel, thankfully on a parallel path to the busy road. The route was not without its knotty navigational details but the hostel was already busy and the pleasant garden area was populated with guests most of whom clearly had not done a day's climbing in the mountains!
The amiable Warden (or manager as we must now call them), thought for a minute before deciding that he liked the look of us and would give us a kind of en suite mini dorm, saying that the previously allocated space was a bit cramped. This palatial space contained a double bed with single bunk atop, a set of normal bunks and a single bed as well, which I promptly claimed, it being Nick's turn for the double. The wet room and shower was over the way but the whole arrangement was self contained, meaning that we could lock ourselves in and remain undisturbed - a luxury unheard of in all my previous experience of hosteling. It has to be said that it was, however, on account of all this extra space that an emergency arose the next day which will be recounted later. On check-in we discovered that the supper and breakfast were very basic - vegetarian sausage baps and chips, and that there was no packed lunch available. This was a decided drawback, but we just doubled up on our breakfast order and the warden, who obviously hated to disappoint us, seemed as pleased as we were with our creative solution!
Hostels these days are licensed, so after supper, we decamped to one of the garden tables with a couple of bottles of beer from Brecon Brewing - a tasty red ale and a somewhat less successful attempt at a lager, described on the bottle as a bohemian style Welsh Pilsener. It reminded me of some of my early attempts at home brewing in both colour and flavour.
Sunday June 6th Llwyn y Celin (Brecon Beacons) YH to The Ancient Briton Pub, Pen y Cae 22.18 km, 880m
We had probably gone only a couple of kilometres from the hostel on this dull and increasingly misty morning before the thought suddenly struck me with an overwhelming force, that I had no memory of packing my rain jacket. This piece of bad news immediately halted our progress and after checking the upper area of my pack where it is always placed and finding that it was not there, we had a conference about what to do. It seemed to me that further progress on an essentially high level mountain route, even in the middle of summer would be hazardous without this essential piece of clothing. Nick gamely offered that, should it rain, we would take turns with his jacket - 30 minutes each! It was strange, and I think reflects my essentially anxious nature, that I had had a dream a couple of nights before this in which I was questioning myself on what item of clothing would be the most disastrous to lose. The answer was of course, my rain jacket!
My first thought was that I had left it behind at the hostel just visited, and because of the spacious layout of the room and the many places in which there were to hang the various bits and pieces of clothing from the rucksack, I had simply overlooked it in my packing. It's a near impossibility I have found, to avoid emptying out the pack almost completely at each stop-over, necessitating a full repack before each departure, which of course increases the chances of something being left behind. Luckily I had sufficient phone reception and set about contacting not only our friendly hostel warden, but also Joy from Tal y Bont, the Dragon Inn at Crickhowell and the King's Head, with the collapsing wardrobe door, in Abergavenny. I left messages in all these places and so we decided simply to push on, but I had managed fairly comprehensively to put a damper on things that morning and the steep ascent up onto Craig Cerrig-gleisiad was all the more tiresome and strenuous as a result. We had some sporadic discussion over the problem and even considered getting a bus into Brecon to find a replacement. In the end, we felt that there was a good possibility that we would find an outdoor clothing shop in Llandovery which was 2 days distant. By appealing to the gods of the weather to be easy on us, we would somehow cope till then. It was misty around the crags of Craig Cerrig so we saw nothing of the imagined drama of the place, but it wasn't raining and as the morning drew on we passed the wonderful monolith of Main Llia. This is a standing stone of haunting shape and great beauty and for some reason I began to feel a bit more confident that I would find a solution to the problem.
We reached the summit cairn of Fan Nedd (663 m) at the same time as a trio of middle aged and chatty women arrived, and after we had taken mutual photos of each other, Nick decided that he would visit the OS column which marks the real top of the mountain and was a couple of hundred metres further on. I decided to stay put and use the time to ensure that we had a table for our evening meal down at the Ancient Briton. I also decided to disgorge the complete contents of my rucksack…..
'Do you want the good news first or the bad?' I asked him on his return to the cairn.
'The bad news I suppose,' he said, and I could see the kind of thing that was crossing his mind.
'They close the kitchen at the pub at 4 pm so it's cold sandwiches tonight, - if we're lucky', I said.
'But the good news is - I've found my rain jacket!' A mixture of relief and exasperation crossed his face.
'Oh Christ! Where was it then?'
'Right at the very bottom - I mustn't have unpacked it at all last night, and I suppose it just stayed there and got pushed to the bottom by all the other stuff. I'm so sorry to have put us both through this Nick. I really am.'
My previous dealings with tonight's pub, The Ancient Briton at Pen y Cae had, at least up to this point, been disappointing and at times downright unfriendly, to say the least. As with many of our overnight bookings, this one was a carry-over not only from the previous month (when we thought things were going to be up and running), but from the previous year, when all was in lockdown and bookings had had to be cancelled. I was in phone contact with the pub on several occasions, trying to rebook and at the same time secure my 20 quid deposit and the twin room that we needed. Each time I rang, I spoke to the same lady who was never very friendly, but with each transferred booking, became increasingly short with me. I probably showed my disappointment too much when finally she told me that there was no twin bedded room available for the new date and that I would just have to take a double and put up with sharing a bed with my son, or leave it. I accepted this with what I thought was good grace, knowing that reservations at this time of Covid could be very fluid and that a twin might become available at short notice. I decided to ring a couple more times, just to see if there was any change, but was finally told in an ultimately irritated voice, 'I can't help you' - and she might just as well have added, 'and bugger off'.
It was with some trepidation therefore that I made the call to the pub from the summit of Fan Nedd. Even though the news was not good about the prospects for an evening meal, my voice must have sounded partially relieved, because at the other end of the phone was not my sour-puss of a bar manager, but clearly the publican himself, who spoke to me in a warm South Walean accent and who was clearly wanting to be helpful. I asked him if something cold might be found for us and put in the fridge for later, possibly even sandwiches or a salad. He was still sounding dubious but said he would speak to chef, and I knew from the tone of his voice that the real master and arbiter of our fate that evening was not he himself, but the man in the kitchen. It was with a timorous voice that I felt I had to top my requests with the further information that we were vegetarians. He took it on the chin like the warm-hearted Welshman that he was!
To say that I was mightily relieved that I had not, after all mislaid my rain jacket would be an understatement. We were soon lunching on cold breakfast baps for the second time that day, but no breakfast bap has ever tasted sweeter, and, as if to reflect my lifting mood, the clouds lifted too and by the time we were on the top of the magnificent Fan Gyhirych (725 m), the top with the sharp nose, we were enjoying wonderful backward views to the Brecon Beacons and other summits which we had traversed. We descended into the village of Glyntawe via the tramway and associated quarry workings of the now near-ghost village of Penwyllt. The going was easy and the afternoon was sunny so we had thoughts of a beer in Glyntawe, but the bus timetable was not to be brooked, and soon we were in a modern bus sailing down the A4067 towards the famous Ancient Briton pub and whatever comforts it might provide.
Our luck was holding because it was the friendly landlord who handed us the room key and we pretty much did a double-take on entering the room to find that there was not just one, but 2 beds in the room. Furthermore one of them was a double, so, by some quirk or other it was a family room that we had been allocated, with 2 beds after all! I think it really was my turn for the double bed, or was it just that Nick felt I'd had a hard day and needed the extra comfort. Whatever, I was very appreciative of our lovely room and the extra space and whilst drinking our tea lying on the beds, there was a knock at the door and it was the landlady of the pub going on her rounds and checking that all was as it should be in our room. She had expected it still to be vacant but we had beaten her to it and she was most apologetic about even disturbing us. The evening was gorgeous and we sat outside in the huge pub garden getting stuck into our pints of Pitchfork Somerset Golden, ('fruity but not citrussy, light and clean tasting', say my notes), when the Landlady appeared again with a tray on which were 2 massive plates of hot (!) food. She introduced herself again and once more apologised for disturbing us earlier on. She laid out the food which consisted of one of the best nut roasts I have ever enjoyed, the roasts overlaid with a variety of whole nuts and accompanied by mashed and roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and a superb vegan gravy. We thought we'd be having a dry cheese sandwich and sleeping in a double bed, but suddenly we were being teated like royalty! From being the most problematic of overnights, the Ancient Briton had suddenly shot to the top of the league. Well done to them, and I must remember to put something on Tripadvisor, which was the only request made of us as the Landlord and his good lady said good night to us later that evening. They would not be there at breakfast because they were due a lie-in, - and never was one more deserved, that's what I say!
Monday June 7th Pen y Cae to Llandovery 29.08 km 889 m
They’d moved the bus stop from outside the pub to just beyond the Spar a couple of hundred metres south, where we hoped to get something for lunch. The shop was due to open at 9 and the bus was at 16 minutes past so it was going to be a bit tight. The manager of the Spar was obviously not at his best this Monday morning, because when we got there on the dot of 9, along with a couple of locals, the shop was still closed. So it remained and it was not until just minutes before the bus was due that one of the locals shouted to us, since we were already at the bus stop, to say the shop was just opening up. Too late! Not to worry (we told ourselves), we figured we could make do with a bit of fruit and some cheese saved from the previous day.
So we returned to yesterday’s bus stop and set out on probably the most arduous day of the walk so far. This was the day of the Carmarthen Vans (Van is the anglicisation of Fan, meaning peak) and we knew that we could be in for a treat. Last time, we traversed them almost entirely in mist, and they were busy with many fell-runners taking part in a charity event. This time we really did have the hills to ourselves and what a contrast to the Brecon Beacons a couple of days earlier.
In spite of the murky conditions, we knew that we should be heading north again, slowly ascending the higher ground which forms the western side of the valley of the Afon Tawe. This higher ground begins to drop away in steep cliffs and the path follows this edge, called Fan Hir, quite closely for a mile or so. We continued to climb gently, always aware of the dramatic drop to our right and taking a moment now and again to gaze down over the edge into what seemed like the abyss of the valley below. The first of 2 mountain lakes, Llyn y Fan Fawr, came into view and now we were able to look across the Tawe Valley at yesterday’s main peak, Fan Gyhirych with the satisfaction of being able to appraise the full height of this sharp-featured mountain and the ground we had covered since.
We soon topped Fan Brycheiniog (802 m) and at the next top, Fan Foel, whose nose jutted out to the north like the bow of a ship, we rather disconcertingly had to turn back south and west for a while, following the splendid ridge known as Bannau Sir Gaer. Now we were firmly part of this new ridge and ahead were wonderful views of what looked like an exhilarating walk over the summit of Picws Du and then circling round high above the second of the 2 mountain lakes, Llyn y Fan Fach. We debated whether we had the time and energy for this high level excursion, or whether we should find the steep descent to the lake which would begin quite soon at Bwlch Blaen Twrch. We decided on the latter course, having covered not even a quarter of our day’s total distance and so we landed up at the shore of the breathtaking Llyn y Fan Fach, probably the most idyllic of our many beautiful lunch stops.
Picws Du from Fan Foel
This was a place of unsurpassed beauty, because not only were we surrounded with wonderfully dramatic mountain scenery at close quarters, but we were also gifted an astonishing display of colour, ranging from the deep and verdant green of the plant cover to the rich red of the bare soil. These colours were separated by layer upon layer of horizontal, greyish-black rock strata and it was these strata. placed as if line by line with almost geometric precision, which gave the buttresses of the mountains a kind of texture which it is almost impossible to reproduce in a photograph.
We left the spot with reluctance bordering on sadness, knowing that for now we were leaving the mountains behind and that it would be only our backward glances that would tell us of this magnificent flank of folded hills, diminishing gradually as we progressed north into deepest rural mid Wales and towards our night’s destination, Llandovery.
By Llyn y Fan Fach and Picws Du
From the magic of the lake, the main route heads to Llanddeusant, adding extra distance, but with the gain of a possible night at the Youth Hostel. We were pressing on northwards so, from the Llyn, we found a handy, man-made culvert which seemed to head in a good direction for us and which made the traverse of the wide expanse of sloping, stream-indented ground called Twyn yr Esgair a shade easier. Eventually, after an hour or 2 of slog, we came, via the marked Roman Camp, to a road. This time, our intersection with the road was brief before we continued north on hillside tracks and amidst rolling country, to the hamlet of Sarnau. Then it was ever onwards through the little village of Myddfai, with its Prince of Wales associations until at last, after several more weary miles, we arrived at the town of Llandovery.
Llandovery was to be a real point of rest on our journey and it was planned to be such. For a start we had booked 2 nights at the Kings Head, a comfortable market square inn dating back centuries and now managed by very efficient and personable young Romanian woman and her chef husband. At first a rather inexperienced assistant had started to deny us the twin room we had definitely booked. He wanted to put us into a double, but he was soon sharply corrected by our competent manageress, who, much to our relief, pulled him up on his mistake smartly.
We were tired and so we booked a meal in the hotel, not wanting to mooch about too much, but somehow by default we found ourselves doing just that in the half hour before supper. We were trying, but not succeeding, in finding another pub with a different choice of beer. At that stage in the pandemic, we had not appreciated the acute shortage of labour in the hospitality industry, brought about by Brexit and which was causing pubs to close on certain days of the week. Back in the Kings Head, I remember finding the Fish and Chips and the Gower Gold, (‘refreshing, not at all blondish, cascade hops giving a pleasant finish’), pretty much heavenly, before I sank into the deepest of slumbers.
Tuesday June 8th Gallt y Bere Bridge back to Llandovery 17.73 km, 304m
During the previous day's long walk, I had become aware of a problem with the soles of my Hoka Hikers which were otherwise serving my feet pretty well. The boots were made of soft leather with a very thick and well-cushioned rocker sole, finished off with a Vibram cleated pattern glued to the base. I had spent many hours searching for boots that would help me overcome my big toe problem which has the posh name of Hallux Limitus - basically an arthritic toe joint. Hoka make excellent running shoes and these hiking boots used some of that technology to cushion the feet whilst limiting the amount of movement asked of the big toe. The sole is shaped a bit like the base of a rocking chair, making the foot rock through an angle of about 6 degrees as it takes a step. This way of reducing any pronounced movement of my big toe helped hugely in the avoidance of arthritic pain, so much so that I stopped being aware of any such discomfort. Nick, who was used to my occasional moaning, described the boots as 'transformational'.
Imagine my disappointment then when I became aware of a piece of one of the Vibram cleats actually dragging the ground - especially noticeable on a metalled road. When we got back from yesterday's walk, I had a good look at the soles of each boot and could see that the cleats of the Vibram pattern on the heals were, in some places, developing hanging 'chads' which meant I was able to pull or cut these pieces of cleat right off. We took some photos of the problem and I determined at least to discuss this fault with the manufacturer and see what might be done to remedy the weakness. As it was, once rid of the 'hanging chads', I could walk in them fine, but by the end of this walk, it was clear that, comfortable as they were, they were not robust enough for the job. The search for another kind of boot would certainly have to be resumed before embarking on part 2 of the walk which, amongst other challenges, would include Wales at its very roughest in the traverse of the Rhinogs.
We'd booked a taxi for this morning to take us up to a bridge over the Afon Tywi, beyond the village of Rhandirmwyn ('land of minerals'), the idea being to walk the route backwards today so that we could have another night in Llandovery, enjoying its hot-spots. Rhandirmwyn is where lead mining once took place on a vast scale. The now-disused mines were the most extensive in South Wales and employed around 400 people, many of whom walked over the hills from all around to work there.
Our driver was chatty and clearly steeped in the locality. He was born in the town, educated there, married and had his kids there, divorced there and now was clearly a pillar of the business community there, being a stalwart of the Rotary club. He bemoaned the shortage of labour in the town but praised the get-up-and-go of our Romanian hosts. I found his conversation interesting and with so much Welsh spoken in the town, I wondered if he felt, as a non-Welsh speaker, at all excluded from the rekindled nationalism that we were becoming aware of as we progressed north. He was diplomatic in his response, which suggested that he had a greater knowledge of the language than at first he was prepared to own up to, at least to a couple of English blokes. He knew an awful lot about what was going on in the area and spoke with positive feeling about the hydro scheme and other conservation projects further up the valley.
We booked him again for the same ride next day and set off walking back in a southerly direction, following the beautiful river, and staying with it as much as we could. There were a few detours and some retracing of steps due to flooding, but we saw much of interest along the way, including an idyllic-looking pub by Rhandirmwyn Bridge (only open mid-week onwards sadly), advertising breakfasts and morning coffee as well as decent beer and the rest. We passed a camping and caravanning park which was already alive with visitors, no doubt like us, escaping the lockdowns.
Outside the Towy Bridge Inn
At Gwernpwll, we were approached by a lady who wasn't too helpful about showing us the true route of the right of way that we were seeking through some farm buildings. At first she pretended that we were on the wrong path and when we stuck to our guns, brandishing the GPS and with maps dangling from our shoulders, she relented and began to point out the correct way through a maze of buildings. By contrast, we were soon greeted in enormously friendly fashion by a group of youngsters who I think had learning disabilities and who were taking part in a class of some kind. We got the impression that Gwerpwll might be part of the larger Coleg Elidyr nearby and thus a centre for such youngsters. The Coleg, as their website says, works with young adults with complex learning needs and disabilities, teaching them to self advocate, build skills and find greater independence. What a wonderful place altogether.
The day was baking hot and it was hard to find a shady place to have our lunch, but we were enjoying the gentle walk, which was such a contrast to our preceding days in the high mountains and which was so beautifully rural and pastoral. At times, the fruit farms looked almost like vineyards in the sunshine, against the backdrop of the rolling hills. All was tranquility and peace so it was just a mite odd that we should strike up a rather fascinating discussion about feminism, misogyny and abuse of one kind or another! We are both close observers of the political and social scene in general, so a long walk can be a great chance to air views!
The day's walk was relatively short and undemanding and of course we were packless, so our progress was very fast, even though we felt we were ambling along. We were back in Llandovery by mid afternoon and so a good look around the town was in order. After an interesting visit to the atmospheric castle and learning about Gruffydd ap Rhys and his battles with the Normans, we noticed that the pub opposite our inn, called the White Hall Hotel, was now open, having been firmly shut the day before. This pub was previously remembered for the quality of its beer and so we drifted over there, only to find ourselves gatecrashing a funeral wake that was gathering apace. All the town's great and good seemed to be there suitably dressed, so our slovenly attire made me feel self-conscious, but it seemed not to matter. We hovered around a little and eventually managed to sneak a table for ourselves in the corner of the front yard where the funeral party were gathering in the afternoon sunshine. There we had what I would rate as very fine beer indeed called Cwrw Teifi. My notes say it was deep mahogany in colour, with a beery nose; like a red ale but hoppy and not at all sweet. Despite covid and all the havoc it has reeked, Welsh beer seems to be in fine fettle and there seems to be way more choice than you would ever imagine.
For supper, we'd booked a table at the town's Indian Restaurant, previously remembered as an excellent eatery and so with high hopes, we turned up at the restaurant, to find it much changed. From a bustling and lively Indian, it was now almost empty and a bit spartan in both furnishings and decor. The greeting was friendly and the food was acceptable. As usual we ordered a bottle of the house red as an accompaniment but this caused some surprise as I guess most Llandoveryans drink lager with their curry. Anyhow the bottle was produced, but it was explained that unfortunately the restaurant did not have a corkscrew to open it!. A runner was sent down the road to the Coop store to purchase one and after a while, the bottle was produced for a second time, but now, amidst further profuse apologies, it was explained that, on being drawn, the cork had disintegrated and the remnants of it were now floating in the wine itself! We were thirsty so we waived the apologies to one side, anxious to enjoy the wine whilst our food was still on the table. By way of a coda and as has now almost become a tradition when Nick and I are walking, the generous remnants of the Indian meal were packed up and mightily enjoyed at lunch the next day. Cold curry might mot sound great, but believe you me, using some nan bread as a scoop, the dishes taste absolutely wonderful on the open road!
Wednesday June 9th Llandovery to Tregaron 27.38 km, 517m
Our taxi man greeted us punctually, even though he had been observed the previous night attending the town's weekly Rotary Club function which was taking place in our hotel. We had barely recognised him then, dressed in a dapper suit, the baseball cap having been replaced by a smart trilby, and looking very much the part of the successful businessman of the town. Up we went in his efficient vehicle, serviced by himself so he told us, to the Gallt y Bere bridge where for the second time he warmly wished us bon voyage. As we set off along the soon-to-be-called Afon Doethie and its remarkable valley, we became aware slowly that we were entering truly a world apart. The path follows the course of the river between steep-sided and ever more wild hillsides and the feeling of being deeply remote was becoming more and more intense. At one of the stops, I took a video of the scene and amidst the sounds of birdsong and nature all around, a cuckoo suddenly struck up. It was not the first of the walk, but it was easily the most remote, and it was piercingly beautiful.
The Doethďe Valley
The valley walk is continuous and sustained in its natural glory and lasts for several hours. It's not always easy and our walk on this day was often boggy with detours necessary around some unstable sections. At last the Hostel at Ty'n-y-Cornel is reached and here, although it was still too early for lunch, we had a good pause in order to read the plaque to Tony Drake, the walk's founder and to gaze in through the windows of the hostel where we had spent such a memorable night 5 years before. If there is a place which encapsulates the wild beauty of this whole walk, then this is it. In its quiet and undemonstrative way, it could almost be a shrine. I hadn't been aware that there is a separate hut opposite the old stone cottage where the trust that runs the hostel has provided a kettle and tea and coffee for the refreshment of walkers. There are books and maps available and a little box for contributions to help with the upkeep of this wonderful and quite moving little haven.
We pushed on against a darkening sky, knowing what was up ahead and not relishing the prospect very much. Our experience of the area had been summed-up, completely inadequately, in the old guide by the use of the phrase: 'tussocks undefined', a term which we have bandied about with humour ever since. The continuation of the track from Ty'n-y-Cornel, having been joined by another track from the nearest farm, Blaendoethie, then veers to the north east and begins to peter-out. Conditions under foot worsen rapidly until one is coping with dense tussocks of rough grass between which are nearly invisible cavities, like interlinked channels which head this way and that and which, on some almost subterranean level form an indecipherable maze in which your boot has no choice but to place itself, blind as it were to the direction your foot might land up in. The alternative is to try hopping from tussock to tussock, a game which might be entertaining for a few seconds, but runs the risk of serious ankle injury and in any case is painfully slow. No two tussocks are the same - some may hold you and some may not - so it's a mugs game, trying to figure it all out.
Faced with difficult terrain, be it hilly or just plain hard going, I tend just to plod on. Depending on his mood however, Nick can get quite irritable, - frustrated no doubt that his usual tank-like progress is no longer possible. This mood kicked in fairly quickly on the arrival of the tussocks and even I was beginning to blanche at the thought of an hour or more of this stuff. In the time taken for me to catch him up, I could see that the map and the GPS were being consulted in earnest. When I reached him, a suggestion was being floated for my consideration. Some distance over to our left was the forestry, alongside which it was already planned that we should navigate some kind of a route, till we should reach a road running west to Tregaron. Nick had observed that a whole swathe of this forestry had been cut away and that further over, there now appeared to be an opening in the trees which coincided on the map with the beginning of northwards-heading forestry track. If we could get over to that track, then our progress north, notwithstanding a few kinks in the route here and there, would be so much easier. The gamble was that the tracks might not hold out. Mapped forestry tracks are not reliable and neither are the shape or the frequency of the plantations themselves, which can change substantially from year to year. It took me a nano second to decide that this plan was worth a go. Almost anything was better than the effing tussocks! In the 20 minutes or so it took to get to the track, our spirits became increasingly buoyed and by the time we reached the track and paused to settle into our cold curry lunch, I was for giving my son a huge hug and a medal. It was a genius decision and saved us hour upon hour of agony!
The forest tracks really worked out for us and we minded not at all the rather dull walk through the serried ranks of conifers. We rejoined our route on the minor road to Tregaron, but soon left it to traverse the slopes of Craig Clogan, high above the valley road. Too high in fact, so we had to make a rare correction, losing all of that height. We came to an interesting-looking farm called Pantshiri where we first met some friendly, dumpy little pigs by a gate, before bumping into their owner and his wife. I could tell they were an unusual breed, the pigs that is, so I asked what they were called. Kunekunes apparently, - a breed from New Zealand and the Maori name means 'fat and round', which is exactly what they were, with big spots. The couple were English and had lived in this gloriously remote spot for a number of years. They were selling up though. The winter storm had ripped through their barn tearing off the roof and he said their health was not that good either. It looked like they were almost self sufficient with a productive garden and a hot house teeming with plants. It struck me that they might have been slightly ageing hippies, seeking a dream which had not quite materialised. He hinted that he didn't think much of his neighbours and was contemptuous of the way he said they tended to shoot anything that moved. They were particularly concerned about a pair of Golden Eagles that had come back to the valley. He told us to look out for them. He showed us the best walking route into Tregaron which we felt gave us the right and privilege to leave the footpaths and stick with the shorter farm tracks, though they were not always technically rights of way.
We had one more encounter before arriving at Tregaron. Just before the town and after a stretch of road, we spotted a little path and right of way, which weaved around a row of cottages called Aberdwr. The path was unclear but passed directly across a field right in front of these cottages. We felt unseen eyes as we sought some kind of exit from this field, but all the while we were being closely followed by the sole occupant of this field which was the friendliest and most affectionate horse I have ever come across. He took a particular liking to Nick and followed him up and down and around, as we checked the far fence, looking for a gate or a style. In the end we had to retreat and walk back across the field towards the row of cottages. As I half expected, someone appeared and a rather pale-looking older man limped towards us and started speaking. What he said was barely audible and virtually unintelligible too. From the limpness of one arm to the lopsided features of his face, we knew immediately that he was a stroke victim. He pointed first to his leg, then to his mouth and then to his head and then he gave a shrug which told us immediately that we should try to be patient because he was having difficulty. He was really trying to tell us something about the path that we were searching for, but it was quite impossible to understand him and all the while, the poor man was struggling for his words, desperately trying to find the language that he no longer had at his command. There were long pauses where we felt all we could do was wait for him to find some way of saying whatever it was that he wanted to say. During all of this difficult and at times painful attempt to communicate, the horse was getting up quite remarkably close and personal with Nick, putting its head over his shoulder, nuzzling into his his jacket and practically licking his face. It really was a totally bizarre situation and was quite comical, I suppose except for the tragedy of the man with his sad loss of clear speech. We bade him a grateful farewell, although we were not really any the wiser as to what he was trying to tell us.
I was disappointed to discover that our lodging in Tregaraon, the Glan Brennig Guest House was a kilometre out of town and we had to walk on a busy A road to reach it. The house itself was quite imposing and was set back amidst peaceful grounds bordering on the Afon Brennig. There was nobody to greet us on arrival because we had been given a code and a room number by the owner, previously. As we entered, we got a clear impression that the place was trying to convey a certain ethos, but we couldn't quite put a finger on what that was. There were books and pictures all around and even some statues and figures, but there didn't quite seem to be a theme. It was all rather smart and a bit 'Country Life-ish' and we felt a bit out of place to be honest. We found our room and - shock horror - only the double bed was made up! There was a single bed in a kind of anteroom but it had a bare mattress only. I was not best pleased and rang the telephone number straight away. A woman answered who, it turned out, ran the cafe which was associated with the place and which was tucked around the back, in part of what were once the outbuildings of the place. She was apologetic and blamed booking.com who, she said told her nothing about her guests and their needs. Someone would be along to make up the bed shortly. An elderly, well-spoken woman soon tapped on the door carrying bedding and proceeded to work on what turned out to be my bed, making me feel quite guilty for standing around and watching her all the while. I did lend a hand eventually and found out that she and her daughter ran the place as a kind of non-aligned retreat, clearly keeping any sense of identification with a specific spiritual pathway quite vague. This approach appeared to be working, judging by the full house at breakfast in the Cafe next morning. It was certainly working better than the hapless Louise, host of the Star at Dylife, where we stayed some years back, who had rechristened the old drovers pub, the Star Retreat and had promptly lost most of her local trade, at least that's what we divined when we heard it was up for sale soon afterwards.
As the English hippy farmer had told us we would, we had a fine meal in the 17th century Talbot Hotel in the town square, having popped into the Llew Coch on the way to see what English incomers (as they turned out to be) would do with their pub project in deepest mid Wales. It wasn't a bad refurb - simple, with whitewashed stone walls and the red theme made very prominent. The trouble was - no real ale, which made the glorious pints of Cwrw Teifi in the Talbot doubly welcome.
Thursday June 10th Tregaron to Pontrhydfendigaid 16.4 km, 303m
This, we knew, would be our easiest day, but the strange thing is that as I write, I can only remember the day with difficulty! It being a short day, we decided to alter the route slightly, opting for higher ground to the east and descending to Strata Florida via forest and woodland paths, to finish up with a riverside path to Pontrhydfendigaid. I do remember that it was not at all clear as we went along, that the forest paths would work out. There were moments of doubt, trial and error, but eventually we hit a good path and descended with ease to the mediaeval ruins of the Abbey at Strata Florida. We paused here because it was another highly atmospheric scene in which it was possible to let the imagination wander and try to visualise the life of such a monastery at that time. We got a free pass to the ruins, as covid had closed up the shop, cafe and toilets. We relaxed with water, cereal bars and chocolate instead!
It was but a few short kilometres alongside the Afon Teifi to the splendidly-named village of Pontrhydfendigaid, where we reacquainted ourselves with the basic but friendly Red Lion pub, our overnight billet. The name of the village means, 'bridge at the ford of the blessed ones', a reference presumably to the use of this route by the monks from the abbey. With my smattering of Welsh, I liked saying this name a lot, but the locals refer to the place simply as 'Bont'. As we passed by, we were sorry to see the other pub in the village, the Black Lion, closed up and 'Ar Werth': for sale. We reckoned last time we were here, this was the classier of the 2 pubs, but now we figured that, in a place this size, it was unlikely any longer to be able to support 2 hostelries, no matter how they configured themselves to attract all possible trade.
I have to own up at this stage to a slight feeling of guilt because taking the route that we did, west of the main CW route from Ty'n-y-cornel, we were not only making it easier for ourselves in terms of the walking and overnights, but we were also missing a wild and remote route which follows the so-called 'Monks' Trod' from Strata Florida and which then goes on up by the Teifi Pools (a remote area of lakes), and on to Cwmystwyth. On this wild trek, an overnight can be made at a camping bothy at Claerddu, which might well be a rough night if a sleeping bag is not carried, but which sounds amazing. Let me say firmly here in this blog that this is one of the many reasons why I would like to walk this fabulous route again one day.
Friday June 11th Pontrhydfendigaid to Ponterwyd 24.68 km, 836m
Last day of this half of the walk! At last, after wonderful walking weather for almost the whole of the way so far, the weather finally turned against us and not only was it raining, but our boggy field and moorland paths were soaking wet which significantly impacted on our foot comfort on this day. We couldn't understand at first why it was that water was getting so quickly into the inside of our boots and by mid morning at least one of us was wringing out socks to make things more comfortable. My boots had already proved themselves to be nowhere near up to the demands of this route, even in the good weather we'd had, so in a way, I was not surprised that mine were leaking, but Nick's boots were good quality Scarpas, and fairly new at that. Later on, he thought he'd figured it out. We were wearing shorts and the long grass and bushes were constantly dousing our legs with water. It was this water, he believed which was running down our legs and getting into the top of our boots and this did seem to me to be a very plausible explanation.
The weather was damp and our boots were soggy and the route, at least in the morning, was not very inspiring, even conspiring against us in the village of Pont-rhyd-y-groes, where at first it failed to show on the ground and then later on, barred our way at a point where I had plotted a connecting link. It meant more road walking than planned, but we were looking forward to a break and possibly a cup of tea or an ice cream in Devil's Bridge. This last wish was deliciously fulfilled!
The next part of the walk took us deeply down into the vale of Rheidol where the ancient conifers have grown to a tremendous height and where you can, as you descend gaze at the crown of these trees whose roots are at least a couple of hundred feet below you. I took one of my best pictures of the trip here, because the rain had stopped and the trees were steaming, like a scene from a Nordic forest. We crossed the narrow gauge railway, which we were sure was covid-suspended and later the Afon Rheidol, which is so scenic, before selecting a route up through the forest on the other side of the valley which worked out well for us. Suddenly we heard the whistle of the little steam engine and I whipped out the phone to make a video of its progress, often its plume of smoke and the sound of the whistle being the only indication of its position, high up amongst the trees.
Through the thick forest in the Rheidol Valley
The steep path up through the dense forest became a minor road and soon we were in the charming hamlet of Ystumtuen where I paused to take in the majestic frontage of the chapel there, which in some ways I would have liked to have entered, to get a feel for the deeply Welsh community it served and how they entered into their own very individual way of worship. Next door was the old school which had for a long while been a Youth Hostel, but which, like so many other unique places run by the YHA, had been disposed of by the bean counters of the organisation some years back.
After Ystumtuen, the path leaves the road and climbs up to Bwlch Gwyn, on the southern flank of which and high above us, stood a man and his dog. He stayed there a while and seemed to be observing us as we made our way up to the top of the pass. As we reached the summit he too had descended to that point, perhaps with the purpose of passing the time of day. We had a short but interesting conversation and he told us that he had been born in Wales but had moved to the house just below us from Leicester only 4 months ago. Something about him breathed the fresh excitement of a dream truly fulfilled and he told us of his daily walks and his thrill at living in such a beautiful place. It was quite uplifting to hear of someone who, despite the bleakness of the covid lock-downs, had still managed to follow his dream and find a life so full of riches and adventure.
The wonderfully verdant upper Cwm Rheidol was spread out before us as we rounded Bryn Brâs and it was not long after this that our day's and our journey's end at Ponterwyd came into view. They were not quite ready for us at the George Borrow Hotel, but we were not worried. We had some hugs to catch up on and some sweet words of congratulation to utter to each other, before we settled into the familiar place, occupying the same room with the lovely view as 5 years before.
I was pretty pleased with myself and my ability to keep walking. I wasn't in bad shape considering that we had covered 380 km and had climbed 9361m. Wouldn't like to have done it without Nick though!
A well earned pint at the end of the walk
Here's to our success in the second part of journey which begins tomorrow!
Tony Ovenell 27th August 2021