Thursday, 17 October 2019

Elan Valley

Friday 30th August 2019

My plans for this walk were stopped by the strong winds that were forecast for Wales. I was in the middle of a tour of Wales retracing some of the fantastic walks that I have done over the last twenty years, but nearly all of those walks were up mountains, and the top of a mountain is not the place you want to be in gale force winds that can knock you off your feet. I had planned to walk up the Aran range of mountains in the southern end of Snowdonia on a walk that I had previously done in 2004. Instead I considered staying in the Brecon Beacons National Park and doing another walk in the Black Mountains, but that would also be severely impacted by the strong winds. In desperation I looked at the map and noticed that between the Brecon Beacons National Park and Snowdonia National Park is an area of lower hills known as the Cambrian Mountains or in Welsh, the Elenydd. The Elenydd is not a national park or even a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and consequently is largely ignored by walkers. I had only once been to the area before when, in 2006, I walked up Plynlimon at the northern end of the Elenydd and the highest point.

The map indicated that my route towards Snowdonia would pass through the Elenydd close to the Elan Valley, which is an area that is not only famed for its picturesque scenery but is also sometimes known as the Welsh Lake District. I needed no other incentive, so driving up from Brecon I came into the Elan Valley and parked at the visitor centre. Since I had not planned to walk in the area I had no maps so I enquired inside on a possible walk that I could do and was recommended two walks that should take me all day around Caban Coch and Garreg Ddu Reservoirs. Climbing to the top of the dam that overlooks the visitor centre I was assailed by the winds that I had been trying to avoid though they were not as strong as they would have been if I’d been at the top of a mountain. I followed a path along the southern shore of Caban Coch Reservoir below grey, overcast skies through spectacular rocky scenery that made me think it was a travesty when this beautiful valley was marred by the construction of the many reservoirs that are in the area. The path bent round into a side valley and headed steeply uphill through bracken and heather to the ruins of Ty’n y Pant farmhouse where I turned right to head back downhill across the Nant y Gro and around the head of the valley.

The views were stunning across the tranquil, deserted valley as I stood sheltered from the wind thinking that this was a delightful spot and I just had to stop to take in the stunning surroundings with nature in abundance. Purple heather could be seen on the slopes of the hill opposite with scattered outcrops and a prominent cairn on top, while across the valley the craggy hill dropped steeply down to the reservoir. Eventually I tore myself away and rather than staying on the bridlepath I followed the directions I had been given “for best views of the reservoir” taking a path that drops down to a forestry road where I was able to take a relaxing walk around the side of the hill with views across the reservoir towards the viaduct that carries the road over the water. The grey, overcast skies threatened rain but held off while still spoiling my views across the reservoir. Eventually the wide track brought me to Llannerch y Cawr Farm and the road at the western tip of Caban Coch Reservoir. On the other side of the river that feeds the reservoir I took a path that climbs through heather to reach a track that follows the contour through a conifer plantation above the reservoir.

So far I had been walking largely on wide forestry tracks that are too artificial to be really satisfying to walk along, but that would soon change. Descending down a bridlepath I reached the viaduct that I had seen earlier and behind a car park I sat down near the water’s edge and had my lunch. The first set of directions I had been given directed me back to the visitor centre at this point, but now I got out my second set of directions to begin a circuit of Garreg Ddu Reservoir starting from the viaduct. The walk was now much better as I proceeded through deciduous, broadleaved woodland heading towards Cwm Coel that was much more delightful than the monotonous and artificial conifer plantations I had encountered earlier. Initially I was still walking along quite a wide track but after turning back out of Cwm Coel my route came off the track onto a narrow footpath that meanders delightfully around tree roots and crosses streams on plank bridges.

This was a gorgeous path through fabulous woodland and is just the sort of place I love to walk. I was entranced with every step and thoroughly enjoyed myself as I slowly meandered through the woodland not far from the western shore of Garreg Ddu Reservoir until eventually I came out of the wood and reached the northern tip of the reservoir. The impressive dam for Penygarreg Reservoir could be seen through the trees, but unfortunately I had no more time to explore more of this fabulous area, which will have to wait for another time. Instead I turned south on the other side of the reservoir following the course of the old railway that was built to help with the construction of the dams, and provided me with a good route off road and took me all the way back to the visitor centre. This was a fantastic walk that kept me out of the strong winds and took me through an amazing area that I had tragically forsaken all these years in my unreasonable search for mountains. I hope I return to the Elan Valley soon and extend my adventures to explore the Elenydd which I have ignored for too long.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Southern Black Mountains

Thursday 29th August 2019

During my holiday in Wales I was going back to the places where some of my earliest and most memorable walks have been done, and one such walk was in the Black Mountains in 2002. On that occasion I parked at the end of a narrow lane off the A479 at Pengenffordd, but now I stopped in the car park that is beside the Dragon’s Back Inn on the main road, and paid a small fee for the pleasure. I set off along the tree-lined lane behind the car park heading south-east following the route of the walk that I did seventeen years ago. The weather back then was good, but that was not the case now as the heatwave that I had enjoyed over the weekend was now a distant memory so that on the day before while it rained often I spent my time browsing the second-hand bookshops of Hay-on-Wye. After a short walk along a road I came off and climbed up a lane that took me to the edge of the open hillside just as the sun started to break through the clouds and I was hopeful for a greater improvement in the overcast weather, but it was not to be as almost immediately it started raining. So it was that I toiled up the hill through the rain and bracken to plunge into the clouds and reach the top of the ridge at the low point between Pen Trumau and Mynydd Llysiau. In 2002 I had turned left at this point to pass over Pen Trumau and head towards Waun Fach, but now I turned right to walk to the top of Mynydd Llysiau.

I must have walked along this ridge before but I can’t remember when, and with the rain having stopped I quite enjoyed it especially on the climb up where the ridge is narrow even though I still had low clouds. On the other side of Mynydd Llysiau the ridge broadens and as I descended the clouds cleared and the wind picked up viciously so that it was very unpleasant as I was buffeted by the winds while crossing the broad saddle and up to the top of Pen Twyn Glas. Rain is not a problem as you can put waterproofs on and keep walking, however if it is windy then that rain can blow horizontally into your face and through your waterproofs. Even if it’s not raining it can be difficult to walk in really strong winds and I have encountered enough windy days on mountains to not want to go walking against the wind. I had planned to turn right at Pen Twyn Glas to head over Pen Allt-mawr, but in view of the strong winds and poor weather I veered left along the ridge that descends over Tal Trwynau. My decision was justified by the resumption of the rain, but now I was sheltered by the higher ridge to my right as I descended the heather covered ridge passing the remains of quarry workings until I eventually reached the edge of a conifer plantation.

At this point I was reluctant to keep going on this walk as the strong wind had knocked all the enthusiasm out of me, but soon after I had started walking again the rain stopped and the sun came out, which greatly improved my outlook and encouraged me to keep walking and climb the ridge across the valley that terminates on Crug Mawr. After crossing the valley I took a path past Blaenau up the lovely Nant y ffin valley with by now stunning views behind me in the sunshine towards the ridge that terminates on Pen Cerrig-calch. It was very pleasant walking up that path and made up for my earlier despondency as I made my way up to the top of the ridge that runs along the edge of the Mynydd Du Forest to the southern tip of the Black Mountains. I don’t think I have ever been up Crug Mawr before, at the end of this ridge, and I didn’t now as I turned left and followed the edge of the plantation with heather covered slopes to my left and the highest peaks of the Black Mountains ahead of me on the horizon. Over the Grwyne Fawr valley to my right I could see the southern ends of the easternmost ridges of the Black Mountains that terminate on Bal Mawr and Hatterrall Hill, and it all looked fabulous in the sunshine.

However it wasn’t long before the clouds enveloped the skies once more and with them the winds picked up as I slowly made my way along the ridge gradually gaining height as I passed over Pen Twyn Mawr. The winds were very strong and cold by the time I reached the top of the distinctively shaped peak of Pen y Gadair Fawr that deserves to be the highest point in the Black Mountains, but that honour is taken by the wide, boggy plateau nearby of Waun Fach. A good footpath has now been built that eased my passage through the bogs between the two peaks and up to the boggy summit of Waun Fach where I remember there was previously a large block of concrete in the middle of a broad bog. That is now gone leaving a more undefined summit beside junction of paths where there is a small, square rock with O.S. written on it. Continuing along the path on the north-east ridge I descended to the shallow peak of Pen y Manllwyn and just beyond came upon the route, once more, of my 2002 walk that had descended to Grwyne Fawr Reservoir and back round via Rhos Dirion. To my left was an undulating ridge that is simply called Y Grib, the ridge, that I remember being an utter delight when I descended it in 2002, and had been my primary target for this walk.

The weather was now deteriorating with each step so that I was not making this descent in as good a weather as I had enjoyed before, but nevertheless it was fabulous to sail down the ridge keeping to the crest all the way down to the final rise up to the remains of Castell Dinas that overlooks the Dragon’s Back Inn and my car. This walk was not the same as the memorable walk that I did in 2002, but instead tried to also conjure up memories of other walks that I have done in the Black Mountains, although ultimately the poor weather did me no favours as I wasn’t seeing the area at its best, but I should be grateful that I did have some sunshine on the walk. Sadly this was the last walk during my holiday in the Brecon Beacons National Park before heading north, but I could have easily spent the whole fortnight in the park and enjoyed every moment. The Brecon Beacons National Park was the scene of most of my earliest hill walks and has shaped my experiences ever since, and so I have great memories and fondness for this area that has been rekindled on my memorial tour. I hope it is not too long before I return to the Brecon Beacons and resume my love affair with this fabulous area.