Posts tagged ‘Wales’

January 28, 2014

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.

August 11, 2012

A Bongo in the rolling Radnorshire hills pt2 – Gwaunceste hill and the Hergest ridge

by backpackingbongos

The high point of the road that crosses the Begwns was a perfect place to spend the night in the Bongo.  I was undisturbed until the first of the early morning dog walkers appeared.  I had a leisurely fried breakfast before setting off in the van via a series of very narrow winding lanes.  The pass above the isolated village of Glascwm was full of large shiny 4WD vehicles, all lined up in a row.  Very odd considering there was no one about and it gave the area the feel of a Chelsea car dealership.

Gwaunceste, Colva and Glascwm hills – 11.3 miles with 710 metres ascent

I squeezed the Bongo onto the verge a little way down the hill and walked back up to take the track that contours across the side of Little hill.  The village of Glascwm looked idyllic tucked into the deep green valley below.

Once again these hills provided exceptionally easy going as a wide grassy track took me through the bracken.  It’s a shame that the bracken has taken such a foothold  in the area.  The hills are pretty much choked in the stuff, almost to their summits.  However I bet the area looks pretty spectacular in the autumn then it dies down and turns various shades of golden brown.

A less defined track branched off to the right, which I followed before a final heather bash to the summit of Gwaunceste hill.  I sat for a while next to the trig point taking in the views, especially those to the west.  A patchwork of rolling green fields finally giving way to the more austere Cambrian mountains.

I retraced my steps and continued on the track as it descended to the north.  The high ground of the Radnor Forest was directly ahead with its prominent radio mast.

Following the edge of the moors the ground dropped steeply to my left, the isolated moorland of Llandegley rocks visible across the valley.

The next couple of miles were a joy to walk as a bridleway slowly climbed above one of the areas many Mawn pools, before dropping down into a hidden valley.  The valley is not named on my map and it had the feeling of being totally cut off from the rest of the world.  A bowl amongst the surrounding moors, where there does not appear to be a natural way in or out.

I rested and had lunch on a fallen tree next to a moss encrusted drystone wall.  I was really enjoying being out on the hills that day.  Although they are pretty unspectacular they do have a real charm that is difficult to put a finger on.  As I was packing up the only other hikers that I would see all day passed by with a cheery greeting.  I continued east towards the stream that eventually flows out of the valley and forms Gilwern Brook.

I managed to lose the bridleway for a bit when approaching the stream, briefly floundering amongst the bog.  Back on course I found another well defined track which led to Pant-glas.  This ramshackled building has a real charm and I have to admit that I was rather jealous of its owners.  It appeared to be an isolated smallholding, complete with large greenhouse.  This is proper off-grid living with power being supplied by a couple of small wind turbines.  It looked like at some point it had been connected to solar panels.  Although it was clear that no one was at home I had to resist the temptation to have a nosy through the windows.  If the owners read this and want to gift it to Backpackingbongos, please get in contact!

The grassy track continued to climb, giving great views back across the off-grid dwelling to the extensive hidden bowl in the hills.

As I crested the hill onto the moorland plateau my day quickly went down hill.  Rather than go over it once again, those who have not read it can follow this link to Get off my access land.

I left the trig point rather pissed off to be honest, an enjoyable day had turned sour.  A narrow track through the heather soon turned grassy as it descended across Llanfihangel hill.  I sat for a while, the excellent views south not lifting my mood.

Another superb grassy path took me to a boggy col before a byway led down into the valley.  A convoy of trail bikes noisily passed me by, kicking up a huge plume of choking dust that filled all my facial orifices.  I wanted to shake my poles at them angrily but they had just as much right to be there as I did.  A climb through sheep pastures brought me back to my initial outward route which I followed back to the van.

I sat and relaxed for a while and made a coffee.  I was keen to bag Glascwm hill so set off in the opposite direction.  A track took me close to the summit which was marked by a tiny pile of stones.  I did a little victory dance and offered a finger to the gamekeeper who had spoilt my day earlier.  He had mentioned that this was on his patch.  All around me the clouds were beginning to boil and churn, lines of showers tracking across the surrounding hills.  A rainbow formed in front of me.

As I descended the heavens opened and I managed to get my waterproof jacket on just in time.  It was too late for my lower half and I got back to the Bongo a dripping mess.  After changing into dry clothing I drove the few miles to the single track lane that crosses Llanbedr hill.  An excellent spot was located just before the road plunges down into the Edw valley.

During the evening the van was buffeted by wind and rain, brief glimpses of the sun giving a faint promise of another sunset.  However it was not to be as a shower passed by just at the crucial moment.

It was another peaceful night except for one slightly alarming moment when I was woken at 3am.  I heard a slowly approaching vehicle with very load singing getting nearer and nearer, the occupants playing percussion by banging on the roof.  Thankfully they trundled by without stopping and I could hear them for several minutes as they crossed the moor.  I have a sneaky suspicion that drink / drug drive laws may not be strictly enforced in such rural areas!

I had another slow leisurely morning complete with fry-up whilst I decided where to hike that day.  I did not want to get home too late as I had work the following day.  I thought that the Hergest ridge would be a good quick option and it was in a homeward direction.

The Hergest ridge – 3.7 miles with 210 metres ascent

As I drove across the moor towards Paincastle I passed the same lot of 4WD vehicles that were lined up above Glascwm the day before.  Once again there was no one around, most peculiar.  Maybe there is a 4WD hill walking owners club?

I parked up outside the school in Gladestry and followed the Offa’s Dyke path steeply up a lane.  The walk to the summit of the hill was a simple there and back with superb scenery.  The lane gave way to a tree-lined track which led onto open country.  Once again the hill was infested with bracken but another superb wide grassy path made the going very pleasant.

Looking west into Wales.

The ‘forbidden’ Colva hill which I climbed the previous day.

Looking north towards the Radnor forest.

The steep and shapely Hanter hill.

The path passed close to the top of a steep valley, the views to the north and west being extensive for a relatively low hill.  If the rest of the Offa’s Dyke path offers scenery similar to this I would be keen to walk all of it.

I passed the unmarked high point of the hill and walked over to the trig point.  A truly excellent spot which I had thought would be crowded considering it was a warm and sunny summer sunday.  Instead I only had to share it with the numerous sheep and a herd of fell ponies.  The views east across the Midlands were only restricted by the summer haze.  If it was not for a lack of water it would be a great spot to pitch a tent for the night.

I soaked up the views for a while before reluctantly turning round and heading back down to the van and the drive home.

August 8, 2012

A Bongo in the rolling Radnorshire hills pt1 – Llanbedr hill and the Begwns

by backpackingbongos

North of the Black Mountains and to the east of the Cambrian Mountains sits a little know tract of hill country.  Between Hay-On-Wye in the south and Newtown in the north there is a long line of hills close to the English border.  These are gentle, whale back hills which culminate on the heights of Great Rhos and the Radnor Forest, just rising above the 2000ft contour.   This hill range does not really have a name, so for the purpose of these two posts I am going to refer to them as the Radnorshire hills.  Although Radnorshire itself was long swallowed up by the huge county of Powys.

Sandwiched between the heights of Great Rhos and the Black mountains is a large area of empty moorland.  Lush green valleys cut through the moors giving a contrast between the bleak and pastoral.  This area has been on my radar for years now but I have never really managed to put together a satisfactory backpacking route.  Although very remote in terms of nearby towns and villages it is a landscape dotted with farms and criss-crossed by narrow lanes.  Finding a hidden pitch and locating suitable water sources could be an issue.

The Bongo has been neglected recently and these hills looked like a perfect area for a spot of van wild camping.  The many high moorland roads with the potential to provide ideal spots to park up for the night.  My ankle was also playing up from a fall a couple of weeks previously so some short walks with a day pack would be ideal.  Due to the ankle, Reuben sadly had to be left at home.  I wanted to be able to use my Pacerpoles for support rather than being dragged along by a mass of muscle!

Llandedr hill and Red hill – 7.3 miles with 470 metres ascent

It was nearly 2.00pm by the time I parked the van and had finished a lengthy faff.  I had chosen to start the walk high up at 430 metres, aware that I may regret that most of the climbing would be at the end of the day.  However it was nice to start effortlessly with extensive views back across the English borders.

To the south sat a long line of high mountains, clearly broken down into three parts.  The whole of the northern escarpment of the Brecon Beacons National park filled the horizon.  I could make out the Black Mountains in the east, the Brecon Beacons themselves, and far to the west the Black Mountain.  I planned to spend the evening on a hill further to the south which is supposed to give one of the best grandstand views of them.

Llanbedr hill is a breeze to walk across, a wide track allowing swift progress.  This is excellent open country, empty hills rolling into the distance.  If you want thrills with your hills I advise you to stay away!

Gareg Lwyd is one of a few outcrops that break the landscape and provide a feature on this long finger of moorland.  It is a particularly attractive spot with a pool at the base of the rocks.

It was an excellent spot to sit, the rocks providing shelter from the breeze.  I watched a cyclist pass on the track I had walked, the only person I would see for the rest of the day.  I got so relaxed that it was a bit of an effort to get myself moving again.

A narrow path across rough ground took me to Cwm Lago where I picked up a path that contours across the northern slopes of the hill.

This path was simply a joy to walk with its sheep nibbled grassy surface, it almost invites you to remove your shoes and walk barefoot.  I floated along high above the Edw valley, the escarpment dropping steeply to a patchwork of fields.  Everywhere I looked there was a riot of every shade of green and there was a smell of summer on the warm air.  This played havoc with my hay fever!

I would have been happy for the path to go on for ever as it descended gently towards the valley.  Unfortunately it soon deposited me onto a steep minor lane.  I soon branched off towards Rhulen along another lane that was barely wide enough for a vehicle, the high hedgerows towering above me.  I was thankful for the shade they provided as I had lost the cooling breeze from the moorland heights.

I don’t normally get very excited about churches but the one at Rhulen is a bit of a hidden gem.  It’s a lovely old building and I spent a while nosing around its cool dark interior before utilising the bench in the churchyard.  There was a real feeling of time having stood still there, the hustle and bustle of city life felt far far away.

The road at the head of the valley turned into a track which gave an easy ascent back onto the moors.  At its highest point I headed directly for the trig point on Red hill.  The heather looked like a huge square had been mown into it, a curious feature but one I took full advantage of to get to the top.  Views to the north were restricted by the bulk of Glascwm hill but to the south the line of the Brecon Beacons revealed their full glory.

It was an easy yomp back down to the Bongo which I could see glimmering in the distance.  The wide grassy tracks across these moors mean that it is real hands in the pockets striding country.

I had noticed on my maps an isolated hill just to the south of Paincastle which stood out when I got back to the Bongo.  The Begwns are owned by the National Trust and I thought it would be an ideal place to watch the sun set.  I drove the few miles south, fingers crossed that I would not meet any oncoming traffic on the steep and very narrow lanes, which are rather lacking in passing places.

I parked on the common next to the road, a cracking spot with the Black Mountains looking rather special behind me in the sunshine.  A farmer came rumbling down a track on the hill opposite and waved as he passed, which I took as an endorsement for the spot I had chosen.  I sat and cooked dinner in the van, entertained by a young foal running about and making a right racket.

The Begwns – 1.2 miles with 60 metres ascent

At about 9.00pm I made the short ten minute amble up to The Roundabout, which is the summit of the Begwns.  The top itself is unmarked and hidden amongst some trees that sit within a large circular dry stone wall structure.  A large seating area had been built inside by the millennium project of Painscastle.  I would imagine that it would be a welcome spot to eat lunch on a wild windy day.

I wandered over to the trig point for grandstand views of Pen y Fan, the setting sun just beginning to give the sky a pinkish hue.  In terms of view versus the effort involved in getting to the top, this hill probably has the best ratio in the whole of Wales!  Isolated from other high ground there is an extensive 360 panorama and I wandered around for a while taking it all in.

Even the sheep appeared to be transfixed by the view and the setting sun.

I walked a little way to the west and watched the sun slowly sink below the horizon, a light show that I will never tire of.

With the spectacle over I slowly headed back down to the van, passing a group on their way up.  Sadly they had missed the sunset by a few minutes.  However the show was not over and the sky caught fire once more, turning yellow then orange and finally a deep red.  Magical.

I got back to the Bongo a happy man.  I had picked a truly peaceful spot and I was not aware of any vehicles passing in the night.

October 15, 2010

A Elenydd backpack from Rhandirmwyn

by backpackingbongos

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?

September 8, 2010

A fond farewell in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

For the past three years I have had the pleasure and privilege of using a beautiful and remote old farmhouse in the Black Mountains.  A rare place of solitude, isolation and retreat in a hectic world.  I arrived there for probably the last time last weekend for a final farewell as it has been sold by the current owners.  Driving from Nottingham the modern world slowly drifts away as you drive the final seven miles of narrow twisting lanes into a dead end valley surrounded by mountains and forest.  The keys to a locked barrier soon see you climbing up a muddy forestry track to a signpost pointing along a bridleway.  A decision has to be made here, park up and carry the tons of gear accumulated in the van or risk the steep, bumpy bridleway though a tunnel of deciduous trees.  Laziness always wins in the end and you duck as the branches of the trees scrape the roof of the van and the wheels slide over wet rock.  Suddenly sky dominates once again as a clearing is entered and the final rocky steps of the track brings you safely into the walled enclosure of a special place.

A journey I have made many times but this time was a little more special.  Just before reaching the farmhouse a flash of white caught my eye, behind the barn I spotted two fell ponies watching me nervously whilst grazing on the lush green grass.  Pure wild magic.

I had a day to myself before a couple of friends from Nottingham joined me for the weekend.  Many of the footpaths in the vicinity of the Farmhouse had felt the tread of my boots over the past three years, so I braved the track once more and headed for Cwmyoy.  Its crooked old church that twists like a corkscrew has a splendid backdrop of Hatterrall hill with its massive landslip, which reminded me of Alport Castles in the Peak District.  I will let some photos tell the story of the day:

A sunken path through a canopy of gnarled twisted old trees.

Looking up the lush green Vale of Ewyas from the top of the landslip.

Returning along the Offa’s Dyke path and the final trig point before descending.  The ridge gives a clear boundary between the mountains of Wales and the rolling hills of England.

The ridge snakes down terminating in a hill fort.

The scenery turned pastoral as I crossed the fields heading for the small wooded nature reserve above Strawberry cottage.

Back at the farmhouse I embraced the solitude whilst I had the place to myself, a comfy chair being dragged out into the garden.  A sweat was later worked up as I attempted to cut wood with a bow saw to light a fire for when it got dark and the night would push me inside.  A distant motor signaled the arrival of Steve and Tash who also embraced the magic of the surroundings and our accommodation for the weekend.  A convivial evening and night was spent burning wood, drinking beer and putting the world to right.  My pile of musty mattresses were pure luxury as I sank into them for the best nights sleep I have had for weeks.

The following morning was leisurely, spent just being in the forest and in and out of the ancient building full of character.  Exploring with my camera I started to notice things that had previously passed me by.

Ferns growing out of almost every single wall like mini hanging baskets.

An old drain pipe that nature is slowly turning the same colour as the surrounding stone.

The rusty old loo!

The dreamy porch inviting you into the house.

The old garden wall that is being reclaimed by nature.

A retreat deep in the woods hidden in a fold on the mountainside.

The afternoon was spent walking up the local mountain behind the farmhouse, the 800 metre peak Pen y Gadair Fawr.  Unfortunately the approach is less than attractive being along a rather dull forestry track.  However this means that the miles are quickly eaten up and open countryside is soon reached, just before the final moorland rise to its summit cairn.  Unfortunately the surrounding countryside was eaten up by pretty murky conditions and the views were less than extensive.  The surrounding hills simply being grey outlines on the horizon.  The returning ridge line however is a joy to walk, high above two valleys and free from the conifer plantations.  The weather conditions meant that it was not really worth getting the camera out, except for the two below.  These will simply be labelled, “Ex punks turn last of the summer wine”.

Achy legs were amply rewarded on return to our accommodation later than afternoon, the two fell ponies had taken up residence in the garden.  Tiny nervous things they were too, although one did square up to an interested looking Jack Russell.  Does anyone know the origins of the Black Mountain Fell ponies?

Another wildlife spectacle revealed itself later that evening when Steve excitedly called us outside.  There was a steady stream of bad flying between the barns, darting through gaps with surprising speed and agility.  Movement on the rafters of the porch above our heads caught our eye.  Our torch beam picked out two bats hanging upside down just a couple of feet above us.  A wonderful sight although they quickly moved on to join the others feeding between the barns.

The excesses of the night before and tired bodies from the walk meant that we were all dozing in from of the fire not that long after it got dark.  Nights are atmospheric there with the combination of a huge open fire and gas lights.  Outside there is no noise apart from the owls and a distinct lack of light pollution.  The stars really get to shine!

The good old Met Office once again showed us how inaccurate their forecasts are.  We were promised sunshine, we got heavy rain and low cloud the following morning.  Our walk before leaving for home was high on atmosphere but low on views!

Farewell my forest and mountain retreat…………………

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