May 6, 2016

Escape to the Elenydd

by backpackingbongos

With the Colorado Trail now less than three months away I thought that I should start some training. The idea was for a 51 mile linear walk south to north across the Yorkshire Dales over the May Bank Holiday. Predictably my annual spring cold arrived just in time to scupper the whole thing, along with a rubbish weather forecast for the Dales.

Although I was not well enough to drag my carcass for miles across the moors with a heavy rucksack I was not too ill to have a leisurely explore in the camper van. With it being a spring Bank Holiday I switched on my misanthropic people avoidance radar and set the van on a course for the Elenydd.

Obviously the readers of this blog are hill connoisseurs and know exactly where the Elenydd is located. It’s a huge upland area of Wales that stretches roughly from Pumlumon in the north to Mynydd Epynt in the south. It includes gems such as the Elan valley, a brilliant place to explore. However for this visit I decided to head for the area surrounding Llyn Brianne, north of the town of Llandovery. The Bank Holiday people avoidance plan worked, on the hills over the weekend I passed a total of two couples, both within a minute of leaving the road. The moors themselves were totally deserted, just sheep and very optimistic skylarks. A few phone pictures and words:

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The problem with getting to Wales from the East Midlands is that Birmingham and the West Midlands are in the way. Words such as M6 and M42 fill me with fear and horror. Somehow I avoided the awkward bit and found myself passing Titterstone Clee Hill. Considering that there is a car park near the summit I felt it would be rude not to pay it a visit. I sat in the comfort of the van for a while watching a hail storm slowly progress across the Shropshire Hills. It was a few minutes of violence when it finally hit.

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It’s less than half an hour round trip to the summit itself. There you can have huge views with very little effort. This is made even better when viewed under blue skies whilst a northerly wind leaves pin sharp visibility.

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The view to the east is obscured by a large mast and a selection of giant golf balls, part of a radar station. Add to that extensive quarry workings and it is not the most beautiful of hills. The views are stunning though.

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The Sugar Loaf Halt on the Heart of Wales line is apparently the least used railway station in the UK, with an average of five passengers a month. I was going to use its car park but it turned out that it does not have one. Instead I parked at the start of a forestry track nearby to ascend the 511 metre Garn Wen. Located at the edge of the Elenydd and overlooking the Mynydd Epynt the views encompass rugged moors, forestry, green valleys and pastures. Reuben did his best above to blend into the scenery. Spot the dog?

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One thing that really struck me about this part of Wales is the lack of windfarms. There was not a single one to be seen in any direction, and the views were massive. Dominant on the horizon to the south was the Brecon Beacons National Park. I could clearly see the Black Mountains, the Pen Y Fan hills and the Black Mountain. Their shapes are unmistakable and the rolling foothills led to the sheer sense of scale.

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The road around the Llyn Brianne gives a rollercoaster of a drive. High above the reservoir it is single track all the way with many steep sections and hairpin bends. I found a cracking spot to park up for the night, traffic being non-existent after about 6pm. I was joined for a few hours by a couple of local lads in their camper before they eventually headed home. The following morning the birds were up early and singing their hearts out, it felt like spring had sprung, although temperatures were still close to freezing.

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I have a feeling that Gopa Uchaf and Garn Gron are not high on many people’s tick lists. They are located on the western edge of the Elenydd, not far from the village of Tregaron. They both give the feeling of standing on the shore of a vast moorland sea, the gentle slopes rising and falling like waves. The moors give the impression of easy walking but they are far from that. If the tussocks don’t twist an ankle, they will wear down your resolve.

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Orange bailing twine reminds me of my childhood in Suffolk where I often found myself lifting bails of straw onto a wobbly wheelbarrow. We always had to earn our pocket-money as kids. Here it was used to tie a slowly rotting gate to a moss and lichen encrusted post. I’m not quite ready to use it as a belt just yet.

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The joy of a campervan is stopping anywhere that takes your fancy and being able to enjoy the hills with some degree of comfort. The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn is also single track and there are plenty of arrows on the OS map to indicate the steepness. The Devil’s Staircase is impressive with its 1 in 4 gradient and several hairpins. I found a high commanding eyrie for the night and spent the evening with the tailgate open, enjoying the expansive views in the sun. I felt less smug the following morning when the cloud was covering the hills, drizzle being blown on the cold wind.

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The highest point of the Mynydd Epynt is probably the quickest hill bag in the whole of Wales, mostly due to the fact that it is a couple of hundred metres from the road. What makes it tricky though is that it is on an active MOD firing range. After a bit of online research I discovered that there was no firing over the weekend. I made a quick dash for it.

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The Radnor hills made a good stopover on the way back to Nottingham. To the north of the village of New Radnor they rise to over two thousand feet. However the most shapely of these is the lower Whimble, which apparently used to have access issues. The van was parked for the night in a high forestry car park and Reuben and I had a bimble up Whimble. The wind was blowing and the cloud was covering the higher tops but the view was still spectacular. The path to the top is surprisingly steep.

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The car park was a peaceful place to spend the night, with the exception of the usual late evening and early morning dog walkers.

Mid Wales is a superb place to visit when the more popular hills are going to be busy. Yes there are no rocky ridges and spectacular peaks, however there is a great feeling of wildness and getting away from it all. Even the quiet roads are a pleasure to drive, perfect to explore in a camper van.

April 26, 2016

Backpacking Walden – Yorkshire’s hidden dale

by backpackingbongos

West Burton is one of those picture perfect Dales villages, stone cottages surrounding a large village green. The only thing spoiling it was the long line of cars parked along the narrow road. I added to it, leaving the Doblo overnight as I headed up the Dale for a horseshoe walk around Walden.

I really want to call it Walden Dale because it is a Dale and a fine one at that. However the OS map simply has the words ‘Walden’ in the middle, so Walden I will call it.

Total distance – 26 kilometres with 800 metres ascent

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It was one of those filthy late winter days, cold, grey and murky. The tops of the hills were invisible, much of the views obscured by haze even in the valleys. I set off along wet tarmac before squelching my way up a bridleway and onto Carlton Moor. There is a Carlton about half a mile away from where I live in Nottingham. Sadly there are no drystone walls, moorland grasses whispering in the wind or fresh invigorating air there.

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I caught my breath on the summit of Harland hill, just in time for the murk to part for a while. My weekend route was at my feet, painted like a faint watercolour, soft greens and greys, the sun providing no visual warmth.

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It’s a long moorland trudge following the watershed to the summit of Brown Haw. Instead I dropped down to the north and followed a landrover track as it wound its way through an increasingly snowy landscape.

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I eventually had to leave the comfort and security of the track and the easy progress that it provided. A thin sheep trod took me upwards and onto the summit . The views once again briefly opened up, this time with Walden widening out to the north towards Wensleydale.

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Brown Haw was defended from the north by a brand new and very sturdy fence. That in itself would not normally be a problem as without barbed wire fences are easily hopped over by the long-legged. The problem was the following garish sign that was posted every few metres, a big long danger zone snaking off into the mist.

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This provided me with a bit of a dilemma. Did I want to risk being sterilised as I attempted to step over? There was no stile or crossing point in view in either direction. As I child growing up in Suffolk one of the challenges we undertook was seeing how long we could hold onto an electric fence for. Therefore I took a deep breath and, nothing. There was no shock involved. In the end Brown Haw was a bit of an anticlimax.

With dusk arriving early I soon found a level pitch at the head of the dale, an area of limestone providing good firm grass. It soon got cold, a damp chill in the air and I was glad to get into a nice warm winter sleeping bag.

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A light snow fell in the night and I awoke to a thick mist, the snow emphasising the general gloom. It had been still, cold and humid leaving the inner tent dripping with condensation. I was warm and snug inside my sleeping bag but the warm air from my body had reached the outer which was soaked due to the dew point being reached.

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I love wild camping mornings, the ritual of waking up in the wilds and making a brew whilst snug and warm in bed. It was the first time I had used an alcohol stove for many years. I had decided to get a Flatcat Bobcat Jr to take to Colorado in the summer. On its first use I was impressed at just how fuel-efficient it is, although it is much slower than using gas.

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Once packed and walking the cloud level lifted for a while and I began to get hopeful that it would clear as forecast. Alas this was not the case and much of the rest of the day was spent walking with heavy snow blowing in my face, visibility often falling close to zero.

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Rather than climbing to the summit of Buckden Pike I stuck to the landrover track for a while before finally striking off up rough slopes to the summit of Naughtberry hill. From there to Wasset Fell the going was probably the least fun way of spending part of a weekend. A shooting hut was marked on the map at Wasset Fell but it was clear it had fallen down years ago. Instead I stood on the exposed fell and shivered whilst I wolfed down some food.

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Floutgate scar provides a bit of drama, the end of the high moors before they drop into Bishopsdale. In the distance I  could just make out Castle Bolton in Wensleydale, the castle itself illuminated by a brief shaft of sunlight.

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Spring finally arrived as I crossed the fields in the dale, the sun chasing winter away. The contrast between moor and valley could not have been greater.

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Once back at the van in West Burton the sun and clouds had a brief atmospheric battle before once again the clouds took control.

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April 20, 2016

Shropshire spring snow surprise

by backpackingbongos

Last Friday was a forgettable weather day. We were greeted at the Ratlinghope campsite in the middle of the Shropshire hills by misty, murky weather, a fine drizzle falling. It was the first time that we had taken out the boot awning for the van. Without any prior practice and with heavy rain due any moment it was an experience akin to putting a square peg in a round hole. We eventually wrestled it into place and spent the rest of the afternoon huddled inside whilst the promised heavy rain fell for a few hours.

I had persuaded Mrs Bongo to join Reuben and I for a weekend camping to celebrate my birthday. The lure was a warm pub with good food to while away the evenings. The Bridges Pub which is a fifteen minute walk down narrow country lanes did not disappoint, the food and beer was excellent. Friends later joined us after driving all the way from Nottingham after work. A convivial evening was spent and I have to say that I was uncomfortably full of food and beer by the time I got to bed.

The forecast was for snow during the early hours of the morning, something I was fairly sceptical of due to how mild it felt that night. I poked my head out of the van a couple of times during the night but just got a face full of drizzle. I was therefore like a kid at Christmas when at 7am I was greeted with this.

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A good couple of inches of soft powdery snow had fallen, the air still and quiet, the dawn chorus hushed. I ran round unsuitably dressed for a few minutes before diving back into the van and the comfort of a warm duvet.

We were all up and about by 9am, the snow still deep and crisp, the sky blue and the sun warm. It was weird sitting around eating breakfast in just a baselayer, with spring in the air whilst winter nipped at our feet.

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Later that day we spent a few hours exploring Adison Hill and the Long Mynd. The snow soon melted but the northerly airflow left incredibly clear skies. To the west much of Wales was laid out at our feet, we could clearly make out Cadair Idris, the Arrans and the Berwyns.

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All in all a splendid birthday weekend with my wife and good friends.

April 3, 2016

Micro wild vanping in the Carsphairn hills (part two)

by backpackingbongos

Downgrading from the Bongo to a Doblo sized campervan has taken a little bit of adjustment. During bad weather it’s not quite as simple as shutting the door and being protected from the elements. Everything takes a bit of thinking about, there really is not much room, especially with a wet dog in tow!

It is designed so that the kitchen is outside under the tailgate, fine if it is not hammering it down with hail being thrown at you on thirty mile an hour winds. Therefore with much shifting about of gear I managed to bring the cooker inside which enabled breakfast to be made with a modicum of comfort. To avoid suffocating in the small space a couple of windows have to be left open, the hail and rain finding an easy way in.

After a few days living in it in bad weather, things start to get a bit grubby inside, all sense of order is lost. You really can’t remember what has happened to your last pair of dry socks. You wonder if you will ever get rid of all those dog hairs.

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Each evening just before it got dark I would stand outside Chrissie and Geoff’s van with my nose pressed up against the window. Next to me would be a shivering staffy, his face a picture of unhappiness. More often than not we would get an invite inside and Reuben would prostrate himself on the sofa, a big grin on his face.

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On the Easter Monday Geoff and Chrissie decided that they would start to make their way south, leaving me with a cream egg. The forecast for the day was reasonable so Reuben and I went back into the hills to bag some more Donald’s and tops (hills over 2000ft in this part of the world). The day started off cruelly with a lung busting climb up the steep slopes of Ewe hill.

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It was whilst descending from the summit en-route for Alwhat where I came across a rather sad sight in these lovely quiet hills. A wind monitoring mast had been erected, a sizeable structure when up close. There are plans for the massive Lorg windfarm here with turbines up to five hundred feet high. One thing I had noticed over the past couple of days was just how many of these things had sprouted up in the surrounding area. It looks like the wind rush in these parts is not yet over.

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The grassy slopes of Alwhat was easily gained and a short descent and re-ascent brought us to the summit of Alhang. In the col between Alhang and Windy Standard there was yet another wind monitoring mast.

It was on the ascent of Windy Standard that some of the wind turbines that make up Windy Standard wind farm came into view. By modern-day standards these turbines are tiny at 35 metres high, the blades spinning furiously rather than the slow whoosh you get these days.

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To the north and east the landscape remains relatively untouched, rolling hills filling the horizon all the way to the snow-capped Lowther hill.

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The summit of Windy Standard itself is dominated by turbines which march down the ridges to the north. As far as wind farms go it certainly is not the most offensive that I have come across. With such small turbines they were not really that noticeable from the surrounding hills the previous couple of days. The roads that service them being no wider than landrover tracks. What was very noticeable however was the nearby construction of Windy Standard 2 wind farm. There massive wide highways had been constructed across the hillsides, banks of earth piled at the side. Numerous diggers and trucks were at work clearing areas the size of football pitches to lay the foundations for the massive new turbines. The whole area was a horrible mess. Coming home and looking at the internet there are already plans for Windy Standard 3😦

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Reuben and I quickly turned our backs on the whole sorry scene and hurried down the slopes to the south. This was also due to the black clouds piling in from the north. With all the recent stormy weather the last place I wanted to be was surrounded by turbines if there was a threat of lightning! This lead to the head of the Holm Burn with its numerous drumlins, a good place for Reuben to pull a pose.

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Down in the glen is an atmospheric ruin, this must have been a truly remote spot before the advent of the motor car. I sat on the low wall that surrounds an old stand of trees, soaking up the rare warm rays of the sun.

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The only difficulty of the day came at the end of the walk whilst trying to get back onto the public road. I ended up inadvertently trespassing through someones garden, luckily no one was at home. I felt guilty as I joined the track, sending up a chorus of barking from the nearby farm.

Back at the van I fancied a change from the hills and decided to drive to the Solway coast to spend the night. Dalbeattie provided some half decent fish and chips en-route for Powillimount. I arrived at the beach during the golden hour, the sun just beginning to descend behind the hills to the west. It is a lovely spot but I decided not to stay the night. There was too much coming and going and sadly the car park was full of blowing litter. Instead I sat on the rocks for a while as the last of the Easter bank holiday disappeared into a warm glow.

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* All photos taken with iPhone 6s Plus.

March 30, 2016

Micro wild vanping in the Carsphairn hills (part one)

by backpackingbongos

The headlights on the van pierced the darkness as I steered a course along the bumpy track in the depths of the Galloway Forest Park. A small gravel car park overlooks the deserted settlement of Polmaddy, invisible under the inky black sky. I had been driving for seven hours, especially tiring after a day at work. The Easter weekend had given me a five day slot to escape into one of the quietest places I could think of. I was keen to use every moment of it.

Ten minutes of fumbling saw the Doblo being turned from a daily run around into a fully fledged micro camper, complete with a full length and very comfy bed. Reuben could be heard exploring the immediate surroundings, his name tag tinkling on his collar as he sniffed and pee’d his way along.

It’s always very exciting waking up in the morning after arriving somewhere the night before in the dark. I removed the blinds to a sparkling morning, birdsong filling the crisp air. Coffee was brewed and breakfast eaten outside whilst Reuben once again sniffed at and pee’d on his surroundings.

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I was going to meet up with Chrissie and Geoff later that evening, but first I wanted to make the best of the unexpectedly good weather window. The van was pointed in the direction of the Green Well of Scotland where it was deposited on a grassy verge. The plan for the day was the 797 metre summit of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn. This rises head and shoulder above the immediate hills, its grassy dome punctuated by rocks piercing the earth. It’s a simple grassy walk, firstly along a track before breaking off to ascend Dunool and then contouring round to the summit of Beninner.

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Lunch was had sheltering behind a boulder that provided scant shelter, Reuben shivering until I put on his warm jacket. He did not turn down the crusts from my sandwiches. I kept close to the steep fractured western slopes on the way to the deserted summit of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn. The view was across miles of empty hills and on towards the Central Belt. The weather was on the turn, cloud building from the west and the wind gusting to gale force. The zip on my jacket got stuck and I managed to break it whilst battling the wind. This resulted in it being zipped to the neck but gaping in the middle. I like to think that it accentuated the fine curve of my belly.

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A drystone wall provides a steep but direct way back down to the track, on which I followed a short distance behind a couple. As a misanthropic hill walker this made me uneasy as I wanted the whole hill to myself with none of my fellow humans clogging up the view. There were also practical considerations such as do I quickly overtake or stop regularly so as not to get too close. You probably now understand why I rarely visit the Lake District.

The weather forecast for the following day was for wind and rain of Biblical proportions, apt really considering that it was the Easter weekend. A sheltered woodland site was therefore chosen to spend the night and meet up with Chrissie and Geoff and their very energetic hounds. No sooner had the van once again been turned into a camper they turned up. The dogs spent a good hour running after a ball, enough to ensure that they would be sensible during the evening.

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A top tip when wild vanping in a very small van is to invite along people with a very big van. This means that you have the benefits of something easy to drive with great fuel economy but also somewhere warm and comfy to spend the evening. Sadly Chrissie does not drink so Geoff and I had to finish a bottle of red and some beer all to ourselves. Nonsense was probably spoken and I later retired to the cold Doblo with a dog who would have much rather stayed in the big, warm and very comfy van.

The weather forecast duly delivered the next day, trees creaking in the wind, the continuous pounding of rain on the van roof. The planned four mile walk was quickly dismissed. A quick yomp was followed by lots of sitting in the big van, the heating creating a sauna from our wet clothing, steaming hot drinks and snoring dogs adding to the pleasant fug.

We later relocated to a much more remote spot, six miles up a dead-end valley, accessed by a single track road. The amount of water pouring off the hills and into the Water of Ken was an impressive sight. Fields had quickly become lakes and water was crashing down the steep rocky sections of river.

It was a night with the vans being rocked by increasingly strong winds, rain coming in violent squalls, punctuated by moments of calm. These moments of calm would often catch you out if you dared go outside without full waterproofs. Hail would be thrown at you without warning, sending you running and cursing.

The following day had promised improving weather and I was lulled into a false sense of security whilst climbing onto Colt Hill with Reuben. The sky quickly darkened and curtains of hail swept down the valley. The icy crystals were painful on exposed skin and Reuben quickly let his displeasure be known. We huddled together behind a stone wall as ragged clouds covered the hills. The storm departed as quickly as it came but it set up a regular pattern for the rest of the day.

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The reason I had chosen Colt Hill was because I wanted to see one of the Striding Arches, a collection of sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. You can read about the project here. Large sandstone blocks make up this particular arch, perfect Reuben thought for giving his back a good rub.

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The way back to the vans was through a dark mossy forest, the trees draped in living curtains of green. Ideal for making art work of my own, although I’m not sure Reuben was very impressed.

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A mile or so further up the valley from the vans we passed the lonely cottage of Lorg. From what I can gather on the internet it has been deserted for years. It is a place that really appeals to me, an isolated cottage at the end of a remote glen in a little known part of the country. It even has telephone poles and an electricity supply. However things in this quiet glen could soon be changing, the men with machines are planning to industrialise the immediate surroundings. More of that in the next post.

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