The world’s end – winter backpacking around the Elan Valley

by backpackingbongos

By the fourth day the only people who I had seen were a couple on a quad bike.  The mind starts playing games under these circumstances and I began to wonder if the apocalypse had finally arrived.

If your idea of a tough backpack involves the manicured paths of the Lake District with its attendant hoards, I advise that you leave this part of Mid-Wales well alone.  However if you regularly backpack with a snorkel and flippers and have the resolve to be truly alone, pop on down to these lonely moors.  To ensure that they are at their wettest come in winter when the days are also at their shortest.  You can be as miserable as you want and no one will know.

Day 1 – 10 kilometres with 330 metres ascent

The car park below the Claerwen dam size wise would not look out of place outside Sheffield’s Meadowhall.  There was only one other car there when I arrived.  Even on the hottest bank holiday weekend I can’t imagine it ever getting busy enough to fill up.

With myself and Reuben sporting packs with enough food and clothing for four days we set off up the bridleway alongside the Afon Arban.

There is nothing more irritating than within minutes of setting off you find yourself arse down on soggy ground.  A wet boulder and my boots provided zero friction.  Therefore my feet shot off from under me like a cartoon character slipping on a banana.  Reuben paid no attention to my sorry state as he was too busy eating sheep poo.

The bridleway up the Afon Arban soon becomes little more than the fantasy of the map makers.  However by contouring along the hillside a series of sheep trods led easily up the valley, avoiding the worst of the bog and tussocks.  Towards the headwaters a well-defined quad bike track led the way across a reasonably well-drained ridge.  We arrived at the edge of the forest with minimum fuss.  I was feeling rather pleased with myself with how we had so far managed to avoid being swallowed whole by a man eating bog.

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At the point where the bridleway meets the forest on the map there is simply a fence topped by barbed wire.  Thankfully I had done a bit of research before setting off on Geograph and discovered that there was a gate a few hundred metres to the north.  This led to a boggy ride through the forest, no sign of a bridleway at all on the ground.  I was glad when we finally reached the security of a forest track which we followed south for a couple of kilometres.

The marked bridleway to the bothy also did not exist on the ground.  I had been here before and found the hidden path that descends to the river though the trees.  It was eerie in their confines with mist drifting though the branches, the air becoming colder as we descended.

I had the usual sense of trepidation as we approached the bothy.  Who would be there and what would they be like?  However as we got closer to the building it became evident that no one was in residence.

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This is probably the remotest and certainly the most difficult of all the Welsh bothies to reach on foot.  A quick read through the bothy book confirmed that although well used it is not visited by the bothy vandals or party goers.  There had been no entries in the book so far this year, almost three weeks.

I sorted my gear, fetched water and then spent a couple of hours sawing rather wet wood.  Thankfully I had brought in some kindling and fire lighters with me.  Therefore with darkness falling a fire was soon blazing within the stove.  With boots already saturated I was very glad I had brought along a pair of down slippers.  Bothy luxury.  At one point the fire was so hot that the temperature in the room raised from 5C to 7C, so tropical that I could barely see my breath anymore!

I had a moment of alarm at around 9.00pm when whilst popping out for the loo I spotted headlights coming up the valley.  There is a knackered Byeway open to all traffic that runs quite close to the bothy.  Along it I could see three 4X4’s slowly moving.  I therefore feared that I was just about to be invaded by a large group.  Thankfully they soon disappeared and I spent a long but uneventful night with just the dog for company.

Day 2 – 13 kilometres with 400 metres ascent

Rain had come by the early hours as promised and it looked totally miserable outside.  I knew the weather was going to be less than favourable so had planned the first full day of the backpack to be short.  Therefore I lounged in my sleeping bag until about 9.00am, none to eager to get up in the cold damp bothy.

A couple of hours was spent drinking loads of coffee and sawing some wood for the next visitors.  At around 11.00am I decided that if I put off the inevitable any longer I could end up finishing the day in the dark.

It was a steep climb behind the bothy to the forestry track above.  This I followed before picking up the Byeway open to all traffic. This is a bit of a waterlogged mud fest.  The main problem was the several fords that have to be crossed.  Although only knee-deep it meant that my boots were soon full of cold water, there was no way I was going to take them off every five minutes.  Reuben had to be carried across the larger ones.

It was on this track that I saw the only people before close to the end of the fourth day.  Two quad bikers working their way across one of the fords.  The track got a bit too much hard work for me in the end, a parallel forestry track a more attractive option.

I had planned to take a bridleway through the forest and across the moors.  However at that spot on the map I was greeted with a dense barrier of newly planted spruce.  I backtracked a few hundred metres to a gate I had spotted, before an easy climb to the summit cairn of Pen-y-bwlch.  It was a grey and wild panorama that greeted us along with a face full of wind.

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We arrived at the abandoned farm and shearing sheds of Garreglwyd just as a violent squall swept down from the moors.  Shelter was taken in a barn whilst rain battered the rusty tin roof.

The traverse of Dibyn Du was less than pleasant in the rain and I was glad to finally reach the security of the track along Llyn Egnant. The bothy was reached during the last of the grey light.  Once again it was dark and deserted inside, surprising in such an accessible bothy on a Saturday.  There are no trees in the vicinity and the woodshed was empty, a great disappointment as I dripped into the main room.  My rucksack when taken off soon sat within a widening pool of water.  Paramo is often given a bad press with regards to its waterproofness but I am glad to say I was totally dry under my Cascada.  On the other hand my eVent clad legs were soaked.

The downstairs was cold and uninviting without a fire, so we quickly retired to one of the wood panelled bedrooms upstairs.  With candles burning and dinner on it felt reasonable cosy (although it was only 4C up there).  However I do wish that I had not read someones ghostly experiences in the bothy book.  Thankfully the ‘Beware of the ghost’ graffiti on the stairs had been removed since my last visit!

I can report that nothing went bump in the night.

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Day 3 – 16 kilometres with 320 metres ascent

The world was transformed the following morning, sunny skies and a slight touch of frost.  It is much easier to get up, packed and going when the weather is fine.  I enjoyed a couple of cups of coffee in the sun outside the bothy before setting off.  It really is a lovely little building in a fine setting.

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I’m glad that the weather had turned for the best as the plan for the day was a long high level tramp across the moors.  The minor road gradually transforms itself into a track that deteriorates the further you go.  I wanted to walk the full length of the Monk’s Trod which on my map starts in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the River Claerwen.  A marked track on the map cuts a corner between the Claerddu and the Claerwen rivers before unceremoniously dumping you right in the middle of a bog.  A word of warning about the Elan bogs.  They are among the few that I actually consider to be dangerous.  Take your time, carry walking poles and check the ground in front of you if it looks dodgy.  Either that or take a dog and let him go first.

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Bog safely crossed and the next major obstacle was the Afon Claerwen itself.  This is a pretty big river and it has been raining for what feels like months.  Due to the crossing of the bog my boots were already full of water so there was no point in removing them to keep my feet dry.  I just picked a spot and waded, using poles for balance.  The water was cold, especially as it splashed over my knees, soaking my trousers from just below the line of my undies.  I was pleased that I got to the other side without mishap.

Reuben decided that he did not want to follow.  Instead he made unhappy dog noises and ran up and down the river bank.  In the end I had to cross back and then make a third crossing with 23kg of unhappy Staffy in my arms.  A very wet backpacker then found a rock to sit on for half an hour to steam in the sun.

I crossed this very spot one April, sitting down to put my boots back on.  I looked up to see three red kites circling overhead.  As I looked down a large otter popped out of the water a couple of feet away and ran into the nearby rushes. Possibly the best wildlife encounter of my life (with the exception of seeing a rhino whilst going out for a bike ride in Nepal).

Crossing the Monk’s Trod was much more pleasant than it was all those years ago.  Vehicles have since been banned and it appears that people have been respecting that ban.  I remember a horrid boggy struggle for a few miles.  There were still a few unpleasant stretches but in the whole the going was easy, giving the opportunity to enjoy the views along the way.

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As the track dropped from the moors and crossed pastures the low winter sun lit up the surrounding hills.  A fantastic moment and well worth the unpleasant rainy slog the day before.

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I could make out my bothy accommodation on the other side of the reservoir, close in distance but still a long distance on foot.

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An hour later and it was nearly dark when I arrived at the door.  For the third night in a row I entered an empty bothy.  This one had been recently re-built which meant that there was plenty of off-cuts of wood to fire up the large stove.  A really enjoyable evening was spent with Reuben on a newly built bench, the fire warming our bodies.  Reuben was much happier than he appears in this photo, honest!

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Day 4 – 14 kilometres with 450 metres ascent

There was a weird moment in the middle of the night when I woke with a start thinking that someone was banging loudly on the door. No one was and I think (or hope) that it was the remnants of a dream.

Reuben was very happy that morning as I discovered the ball I had carried for him in the bottom of my pack, perfect for a game of bothy fetch.

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There was not a breath of wind that morning, the reservoir without a single ripple to disturb its surface.  Rare calm after a tempestuous few weeks.  A superb location for a bothy.

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Our route along the reservoir was trackless, thankfully on a steep slope of cropped grass rather than through bog and tussocks.   I stopped many times to watch the reflections of the sky on the surface of the water.

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All of the dams in the valley were overflowing, huge man-made waterfalls with a powerful roar.  A magnificent sight.

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I had planned to cross the moors on a direct route back to the car.  However I was feeling a bit lazy that morning.  Instead I went for a slightly longer but much easier day.  The disused railway bed provided swift and pleasant walking down the valley.

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Whilst stopping for a snack break the clouds that had been increasing all morning finally deposited a steady rain.  Reuben hid under the bench and gave me a look that suggested that it was all my fault.

A final climb up through the forest and past a collection of telecoms related paraphernalia brought me back to the car.  The sun even came back to pay a visit before I drove home.

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The Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) is a fine organisation.  I have purposely not mentioned the names of where I stayed, or where they are located.  My usual route maps are also missing.  Planning a bothy adventure?  Consider joining the MBA and check out their website here.

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31 Comments to “The world’s end – winter backpacking around the Elan Valley”

  1. A few of those photos made me think of Kielder and Northumberland – very enticing. Sounded a touch boggy and damp though! The bothies all looked nice and I’m sure Reuben appreciated the comfort, although Dixie says he does need a mat to go under his blanket when he’s sleeping on a wooden platform… And Dixie and I were quite disappointed we couldn’t make it to that haunted one – we were looking forward to a bit of ghost hunting.

    • Yes the moors were very boggy and damp. It’s an area that I am sure that you would enjoy Chrissie. Maybe I will one day treat Reuben to a mat to go under his blanket (actually I do have one for him but its large and there was not enough room to pack it this time).

  2. Excellent adventure, and hadn’t realised quite how close it is to my planned Cambrian Way route as every time I’ve looked at the Elan Valley it’s been with a view to picking off the two Nuttalls to the east. I already have bothy number 2 in my plan for when I do the Cambrian, so thanks for doing a recce for me 🙂

    • Bothy number two is a corker. Fancy the Cambrian way myself. A few years ago I attempted to walk from near Conwy to the Gower. Got as far as the Elan Valley but a family emergency meant I had to dash home. Enjoy your big walk.

  3. Excellent report James as usual. Gotta love bogs and those looked particularly fine on this trip. Some fine photos. Never stayed in a bothy which is something that I need to remedy I reckon. The MBA obviously do a fine job as my typical view of a bothy doesnt match up with those you stayed in!

    • Thanks, yep the bogs were splendid. Bothies really vary from being a real doss to the height of luxury. It also depends on their users.

  4. Looks amazing. The pack puppy looked very happy

  5. Smashing few days out that James. Very enjoyable post. Thanks.

  6. The hills round there have a certain charm that’s hard to put into words or photos. I’ve scratched their surface a few times but I need to do more. You are indeed a determined fellow to go out backpacking this time of year. Are you SURE Reuben enjoys these soggy trips! 🙂

    • It’s the best time of the year to go backpacking Andy. No bugs and you get the hills to yourself. The weather is often crap and the days long though.

  7. Well done Jimmy ! Those photos of your last night’s bothy with the lake behind, show the sheepfold I will be rebuilding this coming Spring – but it is DRY stone walling and although I will be camping with my American sidekick (Welshcakes.wordpress.com) we AIN’T going out there in the weather you experienced !! I live on the south side of the Elan, near Abergwesyn on the banks of the Cammarch – I love your portayal of the land ‘behind me’ !! Keep it up and keep safe – you are right about those bogs ! .

    • You do live in a splendid spot, love the area around Abergwesyn. Good luck with the dry stone walling, you may have to wait a while until it is properly dry though!

  8. Brilliant read, thank you. A backpack around the Elan has been on my list for more years than I can remember – I must actually do it!
    Cheers

  9. Fantastic James,the Elan Valley is a lovely area.

  10. This looks like my kind of place 🙂 The river crossing sounded quite fraught too, especially as you had to make two trips 🙂

  11. Its bog hell, wild and fantastic backpacking James. I need to go back. Those bothies are ace and I know where they are. great report and thanks for writing that up.

  12. Hi

    I really enjoyed that and especially the pics of Reuben – thanks.
    I walked up the Towy valley in the mid ’80’s (when all the Youth Hostels were open) starting from Cynghordy; three days of rain!
    All the best

    • Not the best place to be in the rain! I have started a backpack from Cynghordy (after getting the train there) – a great valley to walk up. I think a couple of the remote hostels are still going. Cheers.

  13. Some stunning landscapes around the Elan – nice post.

  14. Really enjoyed reading your Elan trip. Great bothy’s; will do a wander around there one sunny day. All change on the Summer trip to Scandinavia and the Kungsleden for me……….got an message from a Nepalese friend telling me that the Dalai Lama was doing an Annual ceremony in Ladakh this July. Had to go and see him so rushed off to buy a ticket to Delhi and Leh.  Got 3 weeks there so will finish with some local solo treks using homestays, tent and imagination!     Ordered a cuben fibre Duomid from MLD. Taking me months of deliberating……….which shelter; which shelter…. women always changing their minds! Will take that with me and show it off to the locals. Might invite ‘His Holiness’ in for a cuppa.    The Arctic Circle will have to wait awhile; grateful for that info’ tho’ I’m giving a friend a lift up to the TGO this May and doing food drops for him. I guess you are still walking it this year??                              Cheers,                                         Annie W.

    • Hi Annie. Ladakh is a splendid place, spent a few weeks there when we were travelling round the india. You will love it! Hope you manage to get to see the Dalai Lama, he came to Nottingham not so long ago and we saw him speak at the ice arena.

      The Kungsleden will be there for you next year!

      No TGO Challenge for me this year, have decided to do it every two with something different in between.

  15. Some really beautiful photos in there. I especially like the last one of the bothy with the reservoir in the background. Gorgeous!

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