It looked like we were going to be weather blessed, the forecast the night before showing temperatures reaching up to 21 C with clear sunny skies. Not bad for the second weekend in October!
Friday morning we set off for an area which when mentioned makes my heart skip a little bit, that area is called the Elenydd, the green desert of Wales. The Elenydd covers a vast area, to the north is Pumlumon, whilst to the south is the town of Llandovery. A huge sprawling mass of upland hills, not the most spectacular you can find in Wales but most definitely the loneliest. One of those rare places where you can walk all day with the only company being the numerous red kites soaring in the sky above. Being a misanthropic sort of backpacker this area is right up my street. This also is not an area for the novice as many of the upland paths exist only in the minds of the map maker and there is rarely anyone around to seek advice. Plus some of those boggy tussocks can swallow a person whole before spitting them out in a soggy mess!
Day 1 – 4.1 miles with 430 metres ascent
A later start than originally planned and some crappy traffic trying to get around Birmingham on the M42 meant that it was pretty much 3.00pm by the time the Bongo was parked up in Rhandirmwyn. We left it snuggled up to the bus shelter, shouldered our packs and drooled outside the tea room with plans being made for our return on Sunday. I paid particular attention to the part of the menu that mentioned ‘chips’. With lunch already in our bellies courtesy of M&S on the motorway down we set off to find the first footpath that would lead us up into the hills. Mixed messages were immediately given out with a footpath sign pointing through a gate with a ‘beware of the dog sign’ stuck to it. The next fence was amply signed by yellow arrow things and we began to think that maybe things are changing in Wales and all paths would be easy to follow. No such luck as we were then confronted by a solid wall of conifers with a neglected stile being the only evidence that a path once existed. There was then a very sweaty half hour as we followed a non existent path through deep, steep conifers using a rotting fence as a handrail. We were eventually spat out into a clearing where bracken had taken over what may once upon a time been a track. Deeper and higher into the forest we went, slow going and a test of micro navigation until the open ridge line was reached and the navigator (me) sighed with relief.
At this point I feel that I should point out that the cheerful weatherman the night before had been spinning another tale of pure fiction. The wind was getting up enough courage to call itself a gale and heavy mist and haze covered all views. All in all under the conditions a rather uninspiring spot. Inspiration was further relegated as a long trudge followed along a forestry track, enlivened only by myself trying to walk with pacerpoles for the first time. Not an easy thing to get right for the first few minutes (or hour!).
A trig point was reached at the edge of the forest meaning it was time to off-road and see if we could locate the bridleway which is confidently marked by green dashes on the map. Don’t look for it as it is not there and be carefull and suspicious of areas on these moors that give way from tussocks to reeds at the heads of valleys. Realisation that you are in the middle of a bog always comes too late and you just have to put up with muddy water filling your boots. Extricated to firmer ground we headed for the spot I had identified for a high wild camp, which indeed was flat, sheltered and gave the promise of good views if the mist cleared a bit. Unfortunately it was a thistle fest, tall, small and those ones that hug the ground. Not a place to pitch a tent. We found a flat bit of ground higher up, exposed to the full force of the wind. Not an ideal spot but darkness was not far away. It took two people to wrestle one man tents into tent like forms as they tried to launch themselves into the air.
No photos today as to put it simply, the weather was crap.
Day 2 – 11.2 miles with 790 metres ascent
It was a windy night, full of those unpredictable gusts followed by silence before another onslaught crashed into the tent. You could hear the wind roaring across the moors and you could never be certain whether they would be heading for you. Dawn brought a heavy persistent mizzle and lower clouds, just skimming the tops of the tents. With the wind and damp air it took us a while to stir from the comfort of sleeping bags and tents. Once again it was a two man wrestling match to get each tent back into its bag, any careless mistake and it would become a very expensive kite. Packed up it was back down to where I originally planned to camp. Here we left the non existent bridleway and contoured through pastures to come out at a minor road which we followed towards the dam at Llyn Brianne. The view down to the River Towey was pretty impressive even through the murk.
The public loo’s at the car park are just about hanging on, although in a bit of a state. The people who use the gents seemingly preoccupied with putting body parts into mouths according to the extensive graffiti. Signs surrounding the reservoir were also preoccupied, this time with stopping people enjoying themselves on the water in canoes. CCTV cameras pointing in all directions, it all felt a bit odd and bleak so we crossed the dam which was impressive by its size.
Civilisation was soon left far behind as we followed the reservoir track before a pleasant descent into a valley un-named on the map. Reaching Troed-rhiw-ruddwen we had to make a decision, follow the planned route up the spectacular Doethie or shorten the day by heading towards the Pysgotwr. After a very late start we were pretty behind where I had planned us to be by now, so we decided to have a more leisurely day and go for a short cut.
I knew that I was entering an area where the farmer has a reputation for being pretty aggressive towards Hikers, but I was not sure exactly where about we could be made to feel unwelcome. I have read stories of people being attacked trying to use rights of way, with even the farmers children being set on the unsuspecting public. I will try to dig it out but I am sure that Jim Perrin has written an article on his experience at the hand of the landowner in this area.
It was therefore with a degree of trepidation that we followed a track that is not a right of way towards the bridge over the river Doethie (the bridleway fords from the other side and the river is pretty substantial). The scenery began to get ever more spectacular, which was hard to capture in the poor light.
Safely across the bridge and back onto the right of way I started to fret about approaching the buildings at Troed-rhiw-cymmer, which I am sure I had read about hostility. We managed to bypass on a track round the back and started ascending steeply with splendid views north right up the wild Doethie valley.
The track soon levels out and crossed rugged moorland, full of bogs and deep tussocks, the bridleway being non existent on the ground we stuck to the hard surface. A standing stone was the only thing to break up the endless flow of wind blown grass.
Descending towards Bryn-ambor we saw a magnificent sight. Five horses were running up the track a mile or so away, speedily getting closer towards us. Right at the last minute they exited the track, a foal excitedly leading the way across the moors. It was pretty much at that moment that shafts of sunlight broke through the gloom, lighting up the autumnal valley of Afon Pysgotwr Fawr.
Approaching the road head we saw what from a distance looked like two elderly women in headscarves, next to a quad bike that soon sped off. As we approached it became apparent that it was two young teenagers attired in a strange combination of urban hoodie and welly boots. They were waiting for us and greeted us with a barrage of questions, “where have you been?”, “Where are you going?”. That sort of thing. They then went into detail that their dad owned all of this land which appeared to stretch for miles in either direction. It was an odd sort of encounter, they were not particularly intimidating but I started to feel that it could go either way. It became apparent that these were those kids I had read about, whose dad had used in the past to scare off unwanted hikers. If you visit this area make sure that you stick to rights of way or access land and be prepared to be challenged. We remained polite and made our excuses, crossing the bridge towards Bryn-glas and off their land.
Bryn-glas was tricky as the path went between the farm buildings where we spotted two large sleeping dogs. Keen to avoid surprising them and the risk of being bitten, we did a bit of climbing over barbed wire fences and fell in a bog in a bid to reach the security of the track on the other side of the farm. It worked and we were soon descending into another much wilder valley, Afon Pysgotwr Fach, which I have named valley of the tussocks. These were man eating beasts, almost impossible to walk through without lurching, tripping and falling. The stream through the valley would be easy to cross if you could find solid ground on either side!
The difficult ground soon gave way to easier grass as we headed for the summit of Carn Nant-yr-ast and its trig point.
After more rough tussocky ground we soon made it to the deserted farm of Blaen-Cothie where after a bit of hunting we found a great flat bit of ground with short cropped grass. Even the wind which had been howling all day dropped enough to give us a peaceful night.
Day 3 – 11.7 miles with 570 metres ascent
Sunday was meant to be bright and sunny but once again we woke to dull overcast skies, at least packing this time was not an ordeal in tempestuous winds.
The ruins of Blaen-Cothie was a bit of a haunting sight on this bleak October morning, it really is located in the middle of nowhere. The only concession to modernity being the encroaching plantation and a large corrugated barn across the river. It must have been a hard life here.
Miles of easy track and a minor lane brought us to the peaceful little hamlet of Cwrt-y-cadno where an old drovers road leads you through high pastures onto the extensive moorland plateau of the Mynydd Mallaen. For some reason I have always fancied a walk up here, in the end it was nice but not really that exciting! A boggy track and some off road tussock bashing soon brought us to the huge cairn and summit trig point. The sky by now was very blue but the haze still hung over the distant hills, taking away any extensive views. Our eyes were drawn to the badlands to the north and farmers lying in wait for unsuspecting hikers!
It was a pleasant romp across the moors back to Rhandirmwyn and the trusty Bongo. Once again the vastness of the open grassland being broken up by a solitary standing stone, the only landmark for miles. As the afternoon progressed it got hotter and hotter until when we hit the valley bottom it felt like mid summer once again.
Possibly the last time we feel the heat of the sun on our faces whilst backpacking for several months now?