Posts tagged ‘Black Mountains’

August 15, 2014

Black Mountain Magic

by backpackingbongos

I am quickly coming to realise that it is pointless weather watching during the week leading up to a backpack. Each day the forecast changes and you watch in dismay when the promised sunshine is replaced by a weather warning. In the end I took it as an omen that the Lakes should never be visited during the mad season called the School Holidays. Instead I headed south to the Black Mountains, a promise of sunshine and a much quieter weekend in the hills.

14 kilometres with 640 metres ascent

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A small car park in the Olchon valley is a superb high level springboard for the narrow ridge that leads to Black Hill. It was a bit of a challenge finding it though the maze of narrow high hedged lanes. As I locked up the car the heavy rain on the journey south had been replaced by shafts of sunshine piercing the heavy brooding clouds. After being cooped up in the car for four hours, Reuben was given his freedom. He was lucky enough to be off lead from the moment he left the car until he got back in it the following afternoon. I’m very happy to say he acted impeccably, remaining within a couple of metres of my side the whole time.

The ridge to Black Hill is a gem. It’s nowhere near knife-edged but contrasts greatly with the surrounding rolling hills. Height was quickly gained, although I frequently had to stop to look at the views. The mountains of Wales finish abruptly and meet the green rolling English countryside. It really is rather beautiful and there is a good feeling of height walking the eastern Black Mountain escarpments.

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One final shower had me hurriedly pulling on waterproofs which were soon removed again. A warm and windy afternoon followed which made me glad that I had decided not to go to the Lakes.

Hay Bluff is a cracking viewpoint and the only section of my route that could be considered busy. The Gospel Pass gives easy access and there were also folk climbing up from the car park directly below. Looking north into the hills of Wales I once again told myself that I will have to at some point put some time aside to walk the Offa’s Dyke Path.

Descending towards the Gospel Pass the scourge of the Brecon Beacons shattered the peace. A trio of trail bikes were speeding down the path from Lord Hereford’s Knob. A cloud of dust, the whine of engines and the smell of petrol followed in their wake. Not a good mix with the hikers, families and dogs enjoying the hills. They also churn up the hills as I was soon to see.

On the summit of Lord Hereford’s Knob (or Twmpa) I found myself humming Half Man Half Biscuit as we sunned ourselves in a sheltered hollow.

Twmpa Twmpa, you’re gonna need a jumper

It gets a bit chilly on Lord Hereford’s Knob

Thankfully it was a warm and sunny August afternoon on the hill.

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The walk along the escarpment towards Pen Rhos Dirion was a delight in the late afternoon sun. The Brecon Beacons rolled off into the distance, the distinctive summit of Pen y Fan easily identifiable. There were still a few people out enjoying the hills, everyone friendly and happy to be out. One family was jealous of the fact that I was going to be spending the night pitched high on the hills. I did not envy them that they would soon have to return back to their car and civilisation. Walking on I have to admit that my hackles did rise a bit due to the state of the path, wide and rutted by the passage of many motorbikes.

I found an idyllic pitch right at the head of Cwm Cwnstab, so before putting up my shelter I went in search of water. I was pleased when I found a tiny trickle but less than impressed when right next to it I discovered a turd and piece of toilet paper. Instead I moved on wishing the culprit a slow and horrible bowel related death.

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In the end I settled on a substandard pitch on the moors above Grwyne Fawr, hidden from sight from anyone using the track. It was only during the night when I discovered just how substandard it was. It was both lumpy and on a slope. I had put some silicone on my groundsheet to stop my mat slipping off. This worked. However it did not stop me sliding off my mat. Every time I adjusted my position I could feel gravity slowly exerting its force. It felt like a long night.

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Day 2 – 13 kilometres with 530 metres ascent

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I had plenty of time during the night to ponder the importance of selecting a good pitch. Reuben had no such troubles, curled up on his mat he snored the night away. When we got up we surprised a nearby group with their long hair and long faces. I don’t think it had crossed their minds that a man and dog would emerge from the pyramid pitched in the middle of the moor. The whole family stood there in a line watching us, Reuben providing the most interest. If we moved then dad would rush to the front of the group and flex his muscles before they all backed up and reformed in a line. Mum had lovely long blonde hair which nearly reached the ground. It was awkward performing my morning ablutions in front of them but they did not appear too bothered by that.

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Leaving the Welsh Mountain ponies behind we retraced our route back to the track. This quickly led us to the Grwyne Fawr reservoir and typically I spotted loads of idyllic looking camping spots along the way. I was tempted to pop down to the tiny bothy but really could not be bothered to bash a way through the tall bracken. Having visited a few times in the past it’s not one that I would be interested in staying in unless in a real emergency. It’s far too accessible and small.

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After the relatively easy stroll the day before, I now had the challenge of crossing the grain of the Vale of Ewyas. This first involved a climb up to the intervening ridge, a long descent to Capel-y-ffin, followed by a bracken dominated climb to reach the Offa’s Dyke path on the border ridge. The route was stunning, the vale a myriad of greens and the general buzz of summer. The only downside was that much of it involved bashing through various tunnels of bracken. Half of the time I only knew that Reuben was there due to him banging into the back of my legs with his pack. I think he was glad of the shade from the summer sun though.

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There was one more long descent, this time down into the Olchon Valley. On the way I found a spring gushing with the coldest, tastiest water imaginable. I drank until my throat was numb and wetted my cap to cool my head. A lofty perch was found to sit and eat the rest of my food and take in the extensive views.

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We were once more descending through bracken and into the depths of the valley. It’s a quiet hidden place and I enjoyed the stroll through the fields and woods. There was some impressive fungi growing from a dead tree near the river.

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The handily located car park which I left the previous day was not so handy on the final climb of the day. The contours had not seemed very significant when I had been hurriedly throwing together the route. It was good to get back to the car and get my steaming boots off. Reuben quickly fell asleep on the backseat and provided no input on the drive home.

September 8, 2010

A fond farewell in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

For the past three years I have had the pleasure and privilege of using a beautiful and remote old farmhouse in the Black Mountains.  A rare place of solitude, isolation and retreat in a hectic world.  I arrived there for probably the last time last weekend for a final farewell as it has been sold by the current owners.  Driving from Nottingham the modern world slowly drifts away as you drive the final seven miles of narrow twisting lanes into a dead end valley surrounded by mountains and forest.  The keys to a locked barrier soon see you climbing up a muddy forestry track to a signpost pointing along a bridleway.  A decision has to be made here, park up and carry the tons of gear accumulated in the van or risk the steep, bumpy bridleway though a tunnel of deciduous trees.  Laziness always wins in the end and you duck as the branches of the trees scrape the roof of the van and the wheels slide over wet rock.  Suddenly sky dominates once again as a clearing is entered and the final rocky steps of the track brings you safely into the walled enclosure of a special place.

A journey I have made many times but this time was a little more special.  Just before reaching the farmhouse a flash of white caught my eye, behind the barn I spotted two fell ponies watching me nervously whilst grazing on the lush green grass.  Pure wild magic.

I had a day to myself before a couple of friends from Nottingham joined me for the weekend.  Many of the footpaths in the vicinity of the Farmhouse had felt the tread of my boots over the past three years, so I braved the track once more and headed for Cwmyoy.  Its crooked old church that twists like a corkscrew has a splendid backdrop of Hatterrall hill with its massive landslip, which reminded me of Alport Castles in the Peak District.  I will let some photos tell the story of the day:

A sunken path through a canopy of gnarled twisted old trees.

Looking up the lush green Vale of Ewyas from the top of the landslip.

Returning along the Offa’s Dyke path and the final trig point before descending.  The ridge gives a clear boundary between the mountains of Wales and the rolling hills of England.

The ridge snakes down terminating in a hill fort.

The scenery turned pastoral as I crossed the fields heading for the small wooded nature reserve above Strawberry cottage.

Back at the farmhouse I embraced the solitude whilst I had the place to myself, a comfy chair being dragged out into the garden.  A sweat was later worked up as I attempted to cut wood with a bow saw to light a fire for when it got dark and the night would push me inside.  A distant motor signaled the arrival of Steve and Tash who also embraced the magic of the surroundings and our accommodation for the weekend.  A convivial evening and night was spent burning wood, drinking beer and putting the world to right.  My pile of musty mattresses were pure luxury as I sank into them for the best nights sleep I have had for weeks.

The following morning was leisurely, spent just being in the forest and in and out of the ancient building full of character.  Exploring with my camera I started to notice things that had previously passed me by.

Ferns growing out of almost every single wall like mini hanging baskets.

An old drain pipe that nature is slowly turning the same colour as the surrounding stone.

The rusty old loo!

The dreamy porch inviting you into the house.

The old garden wall that is being reclaimed by nature.

A retreat deep in the woods hidden in a fold on the mountainside.

The afternoon was spent walking up the local mountain behind the farmhouse, the 800 metre peak Pen y Gadair Fawr.  Unfortunately the approach is less than attractive being along a rather dull forestry track.  However this means that the miles are quickly eaten up and open countryside is soon reached, just before the final moorland rise to its summit cairn.  Unfortunately the surrounding countryside was eaten up by pretty murky conditions and the views were less than extensive.  The surrounding hills simply being grey outlines on the horizon.  The returning ridge line however is a joy to walk, high above two valleys and free from the conifer plantations.  The weather conditions meant that it was not really worth getting the camera out, except for the two below.  These will simply be labelled, “Ex punks turn last of the summer wine”.

Achy legs were amply rewarded on return to our accommodation later than afternoon, the two fell ponies had taken up residence in the garden.  Tiny nervous things they were too, although one did square up to an interested looking Jack Russell.  Does anyone know the origins of the Black Mountain Fell ponies?

Another wildlife spectacle revealed itself later that evening when Steve excitedly called us outside.  There was a steady stream of bad flying between the barns, darting through gaps with surprising speed and agility.  Movement on the rafters of the porch above our heads caught our eye.  Our torch beam picked out two bats hanging upside down just a couple of feet above us.  A wonderful sight although they quickly moved on to join the others feeding between the barns.

The excesses of the night before and tired bodies from the walk meant that we were all dozing in from of the fire not that long after it got dark.  Nights are atmospheric there with the combination of a huge open fire and gas lights.  Outside there is no noise apart from the owls and a distinct lack of light pollution.  The stars really get to shine!

The good old Met Office once again showed us how inaccurate their forecasts are.  We were promised sunshine, we got heavy rain and low cloud the following morning.  Our walk before leaving for home was high on atmosphere but low on views!

Farewell my forest and mountain retreat…………………

January 6, 2010

A very snowy New Year in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

These days I find the idea of a ‘traditional’ New Years Eve night out a bit of an ordeal, especially if spent amongst the sights, smells and violence of Nottingham City Centre.  So why not take advantage of some time off work, gather up some good friends and retire to a remote farmhouse deep in the woods of the Black Mountains?

We had been keeping an eye on the weather for a few days leading up to New Years Eve, as a large amount of snow had fallen over Wales.  We decided to brave it and the journey was snow free until in the distance we could see the distinctive profile of the Sugar Loaf coated in snow and looking all pointy and mountain like.  In fact the roads were snow free even into the Grwyne Fawr valley until we got to the forestry gate leading up to the farmhouse, where there was suddenly a few inches of the stuff.  The Bongo got almost to the top of the track before ice and gravity got the better of it and we found ourselves stuck.  Corrina was put to work with a spade in hand whilst I photographed her hard work.  After a while we realised we were going nowhere so started unpacking for the 15 min walk along the bridleway to the farmhouse.

It was at this point that Rob, Na and two year old Danny appeared, slowly plodding up the track weighed under a ton of gear.  Their car could not make it off the public road.  Having a two year old in tow meant that their car was still piled high with kit so I was persuaded to reverse the Bongo the three quarters of a mile back down to the road (not easy in snow and ice) to load up.  This time a bit more speed up the track gave me enough momentum to reach the top before becoming stuck again.  Something that I would try not to think about for a couple of days!

Our accommodation for the next few days was like stepping into a time warp, no road access, electricity or mod cons.  Just bags of atmosphere, gas lights and a huge roaring fire.  For us it was bliss!

At about 9pm we noticed that a huge moon had risen over the snowy landscape casting an amazing combination of light and shadow.  A good hour or so was spent trying to capture the scene on camera, not easy but here are a couple of my efforts.

Somehow we managed to miss the magic moment and at 12.40am we realised that another year had dawned, so outside for fun with sparklers.

Happy New Year!

10 Miles with 630 metres ascent

For a map of this route click here.

For the first day of the year I really wanted to ascend one of the finest Black Mountain summits, Pen Y Gadair Fawr, a pretty quick and easy stomp from where we were (well it is without snow on the ground).  I failed miserably in persuading anyone else to go with me, so at a rather late 11.00am I set off up the path.  The narrow path through the trees was even narrower than usual as the sheer weight of the snow on the trees meant that the branches were touching the ground.  The combination of snow, trees and the bluest of skies was magical.

The 500 metre contour brought me to a forestry track which can be followed north for a few miles, contouring high on the hillside.  Up here anything not covered in snow was decorated in thick clear ice, such as this tree which looked like it was made of crystal.

It was slow progress as I plodded on through deep powdery snow, my footprints disappearing behind me.

As I got higher the snow got deeper with drifts making progress more difficult and slower.  However the views got better, especially to the south with the valley leading the eye to the Skirrid in the distance.

I lost track of time and as I reached the end of the track I suddenly realised that it was nearly 3.00pm, how could it have taken 4 hours to walk only 4 miles?  It dawned on me that I would be doing fair bit of walking in the dark!

Leaving the comfort of the track I found myself in an arctic wilderness, everything covered in a rhime of ice.  Grassy fronds sticking out of the snow tinkled like wind chimes in the freezing cold wind.  An icy fence led the way towards Pen Y Gadair Fawr.

I was now finding myself taking a couple of easy steps on solid ice followed by sinking into hidden dips up to my waist.  It was hard going until the final steep slopes up to the summit where the security of an ice axe would have given a bit of comfort on the compacted snow.  From the frozen summit cairn the temperature was minus 3 c and I had a panorama of snow and ice as far as the eye could see.

Time was moving fast and the sun beginning to set so I reluctantly headed south again, until the light caught my eye.

The sun then started its fiery descent and I fired off scores of photographs, the next three are a bit indulgent but I have not seen a sunset like it for years.

I finally put my camera away and continued my struggle thought the snow, becoming increasingly tired and frustrated by my slow progress.  The icy crust was beginning to bruise my shins and when I disappeared up to my waist I struggled to get out again, crawling on my knees.  Darkness was approaching fast so I decided to abandon the tops and headed back down to the track and the security of my footprints.  It was much easier going and I could follow the trail I had previously broken through the snow.  At about 5.00pm I was treated to a red moon rising above the hills.

I began to worry that my friends were expecting me back before dark and that the text message I sent earlier warning I would be late was useless, with there being no reception back at the farmhouse.  Therefore when I staggered in rather tired at 7.00pm a worried looking Na told me that Rob and Corrina had set off ten minutes previously to go and raise the alarm.  I legged it shouting out to them, thankfully catching them up before they reached the road.  An embarrassing false alarm was diverted at the last minute.  It had taken me 8 hours to walk what is usually an easy 10 miles, I will definitely factor in the difficulty of snow on my next walk!  My apologies for making everyone worry.

I had planned to stay the Saturday night there on my own to do some more walking whilst everyone else went home.  However my aching body and the fact that the Bongo needed digging out again meant that I reluctantly returned home early on the Saturday.  A good choice as by the time we had cleaned up, done several trips to load up the van and dug it out most of the day had gone.

A great couple of days in good company in a special location.

January 3, 2010

Snowy Black Mountain Panoramas

by backpackingbongos

Happy New Year everyone!

We got back yesterday evening after spending the New Year in the Black Mountains.  A great time was had by all and the scenery was stunning under a huge dumping of snow.  I found out that the Bongo does not like steep snowy tracks and a fair bit of time was spent with shovel in hand!  A trip report in the next few days but in the meantime here are some ‘Panorama’ shots created by stitching several photos together.

Our remote home in the forest for a couple of nights, no road or electricity.  Bliss.

The next couple of photos were taken on the track just below the Crug Mawr, Pen Y Gadair Fawr ridge.

A 360 degree panorama shot taken from the summit of Pen Y Gadair Fawr.

The next couple of photos were taken just below the summit of Pen Y Gadair Fawr, with the sun beginning to set I had a long way still to go!

September 4, 2009

Bank holiday in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

Last weekend I had the privilege of staying in a friends isolated Welsh longhouse / bothy situated deep in a forest in the Black Mountains.  No road access, no electricity or mod cons, just loads of space and tranquility to share with friends.

We left Nottingham on the Friday evening at about 7.00pm hoping that the early Bank holiday traffic would have died down a bit.  Generally it was pretty good except for a section of the M5 where we had a brief moment when we thought we could be there all night.  We were soon driving down the deserted lanes of the Black mountains into the dead end valley of Grwyne Fawr.  Rich and Trish were already there with their son and were waiting in their car at the locked forestry gate when we arrived at about 10.30pm.  A surfaced forestry track soon gives way to a bumpy bridleway that twists and turns through woodland before arriving at the bothy, pitch black and shuttered.  Arrival in the dark is a bit spooky but once the shutters were off and the gas lights and kettle were on it started to feel like home.  Time quickly passed and it was soon time for bed.

I was the last one out of bed the following morning but the first one out of the bothy as I was itching to stretch my legs on the Black Mountains.  Corrina decided to wait in for Rob and Naomi to arrive, whilst Rich and Trish were occupied with keeping three year old Tobias occupied without toys or TV!

Pen Y Gadair Fawr – 13.4 miles with 1000 metres ascent

I was soon toiling up a steep path through dark and gloomy conifers, trying to get my lungs and legs used to a bit of exercise.  A short bit of pain soon gave me the gain of reaching the col just north of Crug Mawr.  The heather up here was in full bloom and I could see my route ahead in the Grwyne Fechan valley.  Unfortunately all my hard work climbing was to be dented by a large descent down from 524m to 214m.  However this was easy on the legs as well as the eyes and I enjoyed the rapid descent through scenic Nant y Fin on a narrow grassy path.

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I never really look forward to a walk along a tarmaced road but the lane through the valley was deserted of traffic.  The road turns to a track and then a grassy bridleway before descending down to Tal-y-maes bridge.  The brown hills ahead contrasting with the green grass and trees of the valley bottom.

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The well graded grassy bridleway ascends out of the valley floor and heads for the col between Mynydd LLysiau and Pen Trumau.  Progress was swift and I was surprised not to have passed any other walkers out so far that day.  However looking to the skyline I could see groups of walkers up on the ridges.  Having a slightly misanthropic attitude when walking I decided that I would continue to seek out solitude and not mingle with the crowds.

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Instead of climbing to the col I left the bridleway just before it dog legs south and continued up the valley on a narrow path.  The path crossed the stream near the head of the valley then promptly disappeared.  I had intended climbing Waun Fach but can remember the black slimy peat from a previous visit and to be honest I could really not be arsed wading across it.  Following a feint sheep trod I climbed to around 650m and then contoured around the hillside to the head of Nant y Gadair.  A great choice as there were no people and big views down into the valley.

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The summit cairn of Pen y Gadair Fawr was soon at my feet for the umpteenth time and I took in the very familiar view.  The aim was now to keep to the ridge leading south before dropping down into the valley.  I have to admit that I cocked up a bit after getting chatting to another couple of walkers and forgot to check the map.  I had not noticed that I had descended too far so had a decision to make.  Either climb back up and start again or follow a high level forestry track that contours around the hillside.  I went for the forestry track option!  There were a fair few miles yet to go but they flew by as I pounded the level track.  The views to my left and ahead were extensive, although plantations dominated the landscape.

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Rob and Naomi had arrived at the bothy with their young son by the time I got back.  Naomi especially was rather taken by the building and its surroundings and there was much discussion along the lines of “If I lived here………..”.  The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent in good company chatting around the fire and eating large amounts of curry.  We would occasionally go outside to stand in the darkness and lap up the silence which at times was absolute.  There was no wind or noise from roads or aircraft, standing in silence you could hear your own heartbeat.  This would be shattered every now and then by the bleating of a sheep which would echo through the forest.  There was also no sign of any light pollution and it was a shame that the sky had clouded over hiding the stairs.  The world could have ended and we would have been none the wiser.

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Once again I was the last one out of bed the following morning and a couple of hours were spent being a bit lazy and filling up on more food.

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Gaer hill fort – 7.3 miles with 470 metres ascent

Rob and I timed our days walking to coincide with Rich and Trish leaving as we could follow them down the track and unlock the forestry gate for them.  The track down from the bothy passes through a tunnel of deciduous trees indicating that the track was here long before the forestry commission planted their lines of regimented conifers.

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At the road we let Rich and Trish out and headed towards the cottage of Cadwgan where we picked up a footpath that slowly rose out of the valley onto the long spur that runs between Gaer and Bal-Mawr.  The bracken had really taken hold here and it was often up to our chests on this little used path.

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This mile of ridge that leads to and includes Gaer is one of my favourite spots in the Black mountains.  Although not of great height the views are pretty extensive on both sides and in parts is lined by some fine old tress.  It is a good spot to look out over at the landslip just above the village of Cwmyoy.

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The small summit of Gaer is all too quickly reached and I think that this is probably one of the finest view points in the black Mountains.  Looking north you see the ridge stretching out in front of you, although the higher ground today was hidden in cloud.  On either side of it you can look up the Vale of Ewyas and the Grwyne Fawr valley.  To the south there is a wedge of low moorland called Bryn Arw with the Sugarloaf and the skirrid on either side.  One day I would like to come and bivvy up here.

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The original plan had been to continue on and climb Bryn Awr but neither of us really could be bothered and the weather was not looking promising with low cloud sitting at around the 400 metre mark.  We took a fine wooded track down to the tabernacle church passing an untranslated Welsh sign.  I assume that it was inviting us to close the gate!

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Passing through Partrishow a bridleway took us back to our home for the night in the woods.

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When we arrived back Naomi and Corrina were in the forest dragging out wood to dry in the barn.  We joined them for a while before getting wet footwear off and getting the kettle on.  Giant logs were then sawed up (mostly by Naomi who displayed large amounts of stamina and persistence) and a good fire was lit.

A great sociable weekend was had by all, far away from the maddening crowds that often persist on an August bank holiday.

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