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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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!


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


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.



8 Responses to “Bank holiday in the Black Mountains”

  1. There’s nothing like a few days away from it all to recharge the batteries and this looks like just the place to do it.
    The building looks in fine condition!

  2. Paul, indeed it is a great place to get away from it all and recharge the batteries. It was a privilege to be able to stay there.

  3. you have reminded me once again why i feel so privileged to live close to the Black Mountains. I dont get up there half as much as i would like to but am determined to do at least a few overnighters this side of Christmas.
    The bothy/farmhouse looks great. I managed to stay in Nun’s Cross Farm in February this year on Dartmoor with a big bunch of friends and their kids. It was great although your bothy/farmhouse is in much better nick than the one we stayed at.
    I like Gaer too and if I really push myself I sometimes include it in a circular walk from Abergavenny railway station taking in Sugar Loaf and Skirrid Fawr as well.
    If you want to do a bivvy night up on Gaer sometime, give me a shout as I would be up for that as well. I also have the bivvy spot from heaven up on Skirrid Fawr if you are interested….. 🙂

  4. You are indeed lucky living close to the Black Mountains – not yet tired of the place myself. For me it is a good 3 to 3.5 hour drive to get there.
    Now that is one big day from Abergavenny station that you describe!
    I could well be persuaded to do a bivvy up on Gaer or the Skirrid. A couple of pints in the Skirrid Inn followed by a short climb to watch the sun set from the comfort of a bivvy bag would be good. Would need to be mid summer for me to bivvy though!

  5. I shall be doing such a thing come October just before the clocks go back and the cold nights demand a proper 2 skin tent.
    The circuit from Aber station taking in Sugar Loaf, Gaer and Skirrid is about 15miles which is a full but comfortable days walk.
    Anyway, if you ever want to try bivvying around the area, let me know and we can see whats possible

  6. When I next plan a visit to the area I will give you a shout, whether for a day walk, bivvy or wild camp – its all good to me!

  7. great stuff! Look forward to it 🙂


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