Abergwesyn Common – a night in the green desert

by backpackingbongos

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.

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32 Responses to “Abergwesyn Common – a night in the green desert”

  1. nice wee trip……. your Trailstar looks like mine inside….too the untrained eye looks like a train crash !!!!! I blame the dog very untidy creatures 🙂

    • Perhaps I should have done a spot of tidying prior to taking that photograph? It may look like chaos but everything has its place, honest. Although I always do seem to misplace my lighter………

      • Same here so I have a light bag to keep kettle and burner/spoon in and fasten my fire steel to the cord of that bag, helps alot with funding it.

  2. Super couple of days there by the looks of it. Just my type of countryside, empty moorland as far as the eye can see.
    I’m sure Reuben’s panniers look more full every time he goes out – are you sneaking bits of your gear in as well?:)

    • It is a fantastic area Chrissie, as wild and lonely as it gets. Obviously the thought of sneaking gear into Reubens panniers has never crossed my mind, although now that you have put that idea into my head…….

  3. I’m with Chrissie on Reuben’s panniers, surely there’s more than a couple of doggy dinners in there? Or perhaps he has his own kindle with those canine best sellers ‘How to Outwit Rabbits’ and ‘Lampposts I have known’? But it’s a very lovely post about a very fine looking area of remote moorland; the pics are cracking – the new camera seems to be the biz – and that sunrise looks sublime; what it’s all about, eh? Your descriptive powers aren’t letting you down either. Good work, Mr B.
    We were up the Lowthers today and the clag was so thick we couldn’t even see the ‘golf ball’ from 100 yards! Bagged 6 stoat traps, mind!

    • It’s all those nice fleecy blankets and doggie romper suits along with a good supply of meaty sticks in the panniers Pete. I do like to make sure that Reuben is nice and comfy and well fed. It was a simply lovely couple of days on the hill, the sunrise being the real icing on the cake.

      Shame the Lowthers were misted out as there are some cracking views from the tops. Keep knocking off those stoat traps though, a real Soutehrn Upland speciality.

  4. Sigh…It looks lovely…!

    Seeing Reuben look so dashing, I was reminded of a very cute and friendly female Staffie which we met at the Goyt Inn in Whalley Bridge. Named “Chaos”…I would fancy Reuben chances 😉

    • He’s a handsome chap eh? I’m sure that Reuben would win over any Female Staffies with his full body wagg and doggy charm.

  5. I can see why you were kicking yourself for not taking more food. This looks superb. How are you getting on with the Trailstar? Mine is on order, but I’ve yet to decide on bivvy/inner options…

    • I really was kicking myself about the food as to spend more time in the wilds would have been great Fraser. However the following day was totally clagged out with wind and rain so would not have been too pleasant to hike in.

      I’m really enjoying the Trailstar, its easy to pitch and plenty of room for me and a wet, smelly dog. No worries about his claws damaging my Scarp groundsheet. I have just inherited a MLD superlight bivy which I’m looking forward to using on the hills. In the wind the Trailstar does get a little breezy.

  6. I’d like to think I’d inspired you but I think you’ve been up this way before :). I did pretty much the same route in a day walk in November last year (link below) so it was great reading someone else’s review of the same walk. I’ve also got my eye on a summit camp on Drygarn Fawr and as soon as I get chance I’ll be up there. A truly magnificent area of wilderness and you are indeed a blessed and lucky chap to get that sunrise. Your photos and writing do it more than justice. Inspired

    http://surfnslide.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/cwmdeuddwr-hills-a-walk-on-the-wild-side/

    • I remember that post well Andy. It is many years since I was up on those hills and they were just as wild and wonderful as they were back then. I hope you manage to get a wild camp on the summit as it would be a superb place to spend the night.

  7. Oh yes, our first Elan Valley report included the Gwesyn valley (and a pitch on Drygarn Fawr). Superb stuff with that glorious dawn light. I don’t recall that ford though, maybe it was just a very small flow when we were there.
    The traverse from Drygarn Fawr to Gorllwyn (usually to bag the Nuttalls) seems to me one of those essential rites of passage for hillwalkers, rather like bagging Kinder Scout.

    • I have to say that I am a big fan of the Gwesyn valley, a great place to backpack. I did the ridge from Drygarn Fawr to Gorllwyn a few years back. I have to admit that although the weather was good on this trip I was not keen to repeat that route!

  8. Wonderful pitch high up you had. Like that. Camera is delivering for you too. Really nice walk that. Envy stuff that.

    • It’s great when you are able to pitch high in the hills Martin, that was a special wild camp. Enjoyings using the new camera. Thanks.

  9. Looks like a wonderful trip and what a sunrise! There is something special about a sunrise, not that there is anything wrong with sunsets, but a sunrise has a truly magical quality to it. Nicely captured too, looks like you are getting to grips with the new camera.

    • I agree about sunrises David, perhaps its because we don’t see as many (well I don’t as I’m usually asleep!) compared with sunsets. The light is different and often the air is clearer. There is something about being wrapped up against the cold air and waiting for the sun to pop up over the horizon. My technique at the moment with the camera is simply to shoot loads at lots of different settings – the law of averages means that at least some come out good. The rest get binned.

  10. The photos in the early morning light are superb, you have me itching to get out and camp, something I don’t seem to have done for far too many years. (My gear now probably belongs in a museum). ‘Post-apocalyptic fiction’: The Road, Riddley Walker, The Book of Dave….do tell?

    • Get out and scratch that itch! The book i am reading is ‘The Passage’ by Justin Cronin, a hefty tome so very glad I have got it on kindle for when in the hills.

  11. Super post about a superb looking area!

    Mid-Wales is a bit of a “terra incognita” for me, for no other reason than I’ve just never taken the time to go. On the basis of this report, I should rectify the matter …. soon!

    • One of the best things about Mid-wales is that not many people take the time to visit, all the better for it! If you like your hills wild and rolling without crowds of people then I strongly suggest a visit.

  12. Absolutely fell in love with this post. It’s an area near and dear to me, and I can’t wait to get out with a backpack again myself. Good vibe, great photos, cute dog. Can’t wait to explore more of the blog.

  13. I can remember driving from the Llarwyted Wells towards Tregaron, over the Abergwesyn Common in a brand new week old Citroen Berlingo van in April 1989.

    The intensity of the rain,was so great that occasionally the van was wallowing as if driving on sheet ice, and trying to correct the steering would have been dangerous.

    The Rhayader to Aberystwyth Cwmystwyth road, is remote, but anyone who has driven or ventured across the Abergwesyn Common will realise its one of the most secluded and remotest areas in the whole of Wales.

    Stunning scenery,but not the place to break down,because the walk to rescue would be very long indeed,and recently I was unable to get a mobile signal anywhere along its desolate length.

  14. This is the 2nd time I’ve accidentally come across your blog while looking for information about trekking in this area of Wales. I’m just about to set off from Llanwrtyd or Sugar Loaf via Abergwesyn and Elan Valley over to the Teifi Pools and home in Ysbyty Ystwyth. Reading this with my ever diminishing battery on my phone has been extremely useful. I too travel with my dog although she didn’t like the panniers I got for her so I may need to find a better fit. What kind do you use?
    Thanks for the blog, it’s almost inspiring me to do the same after 3 weeks of trekking around Snowdonia then the Beacons and now mid Wales. Maybe next time I’ll take notes other than pictures

    • Hi Matt, it’s good to hear that the blog has been useful when planning some backpacking routes. Mid Wales is a superb part of the world, one of my favourites. The Panniers that I use are from Ruffwear, Reuben initially hated them but they now signal good times ahead!!

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