I had spent the whole week in lethargic indecision about the weekend backpacking route. The weather forecast was changing quicker than I could keep pace with and I was struggling to decide where to go. All I knew was I fancied a night in the Trailstar and a night in a bothy. I wanted wildness and isolation without too much effort. In the end I decided to head to the Abergwesyn Common in Mid Wales with just the bare bones of a route and make it up as I went along.
Hands up who has heard of the Abergwesyn Common? If you are a hill walker who loves the rough stuff and solitude in large measures I urge you to make a visit. South of the Elan Valley the moors rise up and break the two thousand foot contour, the acres of tussock grass interspersed by long and lonely valleys. The 16,500 acre common stretches for 12 miles, a truly splendid place. Thankfully it is in the hands of the National Trust, protecting it from the scourge of the forestry blanketing the area at the time of purchase. Hopefully it will remain free from the pressures currently being placed on our diminishing wild places.
Day 1 – 5.1 miles with 450 metres ascent
I arrived in the hamlet of Abergwesyn after a long patience sapping drive along the A44 where the pace of life rarely goes over 30 mph. There is an off-road car park and public toilets, very convenient considering how remote and sparsely populated the area is. In the end I had decided to spend a night in the hills wild camping and then return to the car. I would then drive the following day to within striking distance of a bothy and haul in a large supply of logs and coal. After sorting mine and Reubens gear for a night out we were soon setting off back down the lane to pick up the bridleway into the rugged Afon Gwesyn. We passed a man with what I assume was his young daughter, wide-eyed at the sight of Reuben hauling his own gear. They were the last people I would see until the following afternoon.
I regretted not noticing the word ‘ford’ on the map when we were suddenly presented with a wide river that needed crossing. I decided to use the ‘run across before water can soak through the gaiters’ technique, which actually worked on this occasion. Reuben used the sniff around for ages before slowly ambling across technique. Climbing out of the woods I got a first glimpse of the long and lonely valley.
For me there is something undeniably attractive about following a remote valley to its source. I love the subtle changes along its course, from the homely and pastoral to a rugged middle and then the open expanse of the headwaters. The Afon Gwesyn is this respect did not disappoint and after leaving the last of civilisation behind we came across a series of cascades, with rocks to sit and ponder the surroundings.
There is not a footpath as such through the valley but a series of sheeptrods often running parallel to each other. The middle section was grassy and easy going and I ambled along stopping often to watch the numerous red kites circling overhead.
A spectacular cascade was the last final barrier to the uplands proper and it was a stiff climb alongside its tumbling waters. Above was a different world of bog and tussock, the going tough with sketchy paths simply leading into oozing bogs. It reminded me of parts of northern Dartmoor but without the tors puncturing the skyline.
Where the headwaters split, a moss-covered wall gave me a place to sit and eat my lunch whilst Reuben looked on with a hungry look in his eye. Little did he realise that his own dinner was so close having been stored in his backpack.
After the boggy tussocks of the valley the slopes up to the summit of Drygarn Fawr were easy going on mostly firm dry grass. The view to the south was spectacular, the snaking line of the valley leading the eye to the Brecon Beacons on the far horizon. This is wild and remote mid Wales at its best.
The final slopes of Drygarn Fawr were punctuated with rocky outcrops giving variety to the grassy terrain. The summit is unmistakable as it is adorned with a huge beehive cairn which strangely gave no shelter from the strong biting wind. I had thought about camping on the summit but I soon realised that it was too windy to make a comfortable pitch. On a calm evening it would be a perfect place to while away the hours. The views are extensive reaching from Pumlumon Fawr in the north to the Brecon Beacons in the south.
Instead I decided to have a punt at the nearby hill of Carreg yr Ast which rises above the surrounding bogs and tussocks. I ignored the bridleway marked on the map as it simply does not exist on the ground. We made a beeline for the second huge cairn and then followed a grassy ridge just above the rough stuff. The views were magnificent to the south where the skies were beginning to clear.
Veering to the left a final squelch was necessary in order to head directly up the widely spaced contours to Carreg yr Ast.
The summit was much less windy than Drygarn Fawr, although still pretty breezy. The grass was at its shortest around the cairn which gave broody views across the extensive Elan Valley moors. However a flat spot big enough for the Trailstar could not be found and I walked off to spend fifteen minutes going round in circles looking for the best spot to call home for the night.
The Trailstar was pitched facing to the north, a swell of very bleak moorland rising and falling to the far horizon, no man-made structure visible. Low clouds were drifting across from the west giving an inhospitable feeling to camp in the fading light.
I still needed to collect water and the nearest stream was downhill and several hundred metres away. I set off through the tussocks with a torch in my pocket, Reuben close behind. With several litres collected it was a long and slow return back to the Trailstar. In the half-light I started wondering what I would do if my shelter was no longer there or I could not find it. My imagination often starts to run away when I am on the hills alone just as night is falling. Of course it was there and I settled in for the night, cooking dinner and reading post apocalyptic fiction on my Kindle.
It took an age to get to sleep, the wind whipping under the shelter felt like it was blowing straight through my sleeping bag. My body warmth was getting stripped away and blown across the damp moor. Even Reuben in his fleece romper suit was shivering. I put on my down jacket and moved closer to the dog, eventually drifting off to sleep.
Day 2 – 7.6 miles with 280 metres ascent
I sensed a change in the weather even before I opened my eyes. I rolled over onto my stomach and peered out of the Trailstar into the pre dawn light. The sky was totally clear with the last of the stars fading away, the horizon tinged a dark pink. Sitting and firing up the Caldera stove I brushed against the nylon of the shelter, it was coated in frost.
With a hot drink in my hand I exited the shelter into a magical world. The clarity of the air was wonderful in the soft light. The Brecon Beacons which the day before had been in the far distance appeared to be in touching distance, a pink veil above them. Reuben refused to get out of bed and I wandered around camp alone in a bid to keep warm.
Suddenly the sun burst over the horizon, the pink glow turning to vivid oranges and reds as the rays hit the frozen ground. I stood there for a while transfixed and then ran around firing off scores of photographs which can not do justice to what my eyes witnessed.
With the sun fully up and the temperature just beginning to nudge on the positive side of zero, Reuben finally joined me to provide a bit of foreground interest to the photos.
With the ‘magical hour’ gone we both retired back to the Trailstar for breakfast. With the rays of the sun shining through the fabric it actually felt rather warm and I lazed around for a while, not particularly eager to pack.
I have to admit that I then began to regret not setting out with two days food for both myself and Reuben. I really fancied spending another night in the hills without returning back to the car, perhaps walking to Moel Prysgau bothy. The weather by now should have been low cloud and drizzle, thankfully the forecast was drastically wrong. A day on the high moors followed by night in the forest bothy appealed. Sadly I would have to walk back to the car to get more supplies before heading out again.
I quickly packed and headed towards the distinctive cairned top of Carnau, another dry grassy prominence above the bog and tussocks. To the south I could identify the Black Mountains, the central Brecon Beacons, the Fforest Fawr hills and the Black Mountain, all appearing as a huge wall of shapely peaks. Sadly my camera could not capture the scene effectively due to the haze and bright sun. Instead I had to be content with capturing my immediate surroundings, including the nearby peak of Gorllwyn which also breaks the 2000ft contour.
Time passed quickly whilst I was doing not very much at all, more time spent sitting than walking already. The line of another non-existent bridleway was located and I set off down hill towards an extensive tract of forestry, making the most of the open moors while they lasted.
An abandoned farmstead was explored at Pen-cae, one of the abandoned but locked cottages looked like it would make a cracking bothy. Otherwise the surrounding buildings had an air of damp decay about them, the dark of the conifers adding to the sense of gloom. Descending steeply downhill a confusing junction of tracks was met, none of which were marked on the map. I made an educated guess and successfully located the correct bridleway, stopping to remove layers next to a footbridge over a sparkling stream. In the shelter of the valley it was warm and I continued in just a baselayer, enjoying the first taste of spring. This secret little hidden valley was a gem, a mixture of open pasture, birch, moss-covered boulders and forestry.
A steep climb to the ridge above was punishing in warmth that my body was not used to. I made a mistake in removing my gaiters as it was so warm, to then almost immediately find myself squelching through an incredibly boggy forest ride. An undulating bridleway then took us across splendid Welsh pastures via little secretive wooded dells and hidden cottages back to the car.
It was annoying to be back so soon but I noticed that the weather had suddenly changed. High level cloud had blocked out the sun and a cool wind started to blow down the valley. I repacked my rucksack and located a bag of coal and another of wood. It was time to head out for a night in a remote bothy.