A Cambrian Caper


Four of us set off early on friday 4th November for the Elan Valley in mid Wales and a weekend backpack.
This is the route I had planned, which bears a strong resemblance to Martin's walk here.  It pained me slightly to do such a similar route but then Martin does put together good routes, so what can you do!

It was a good little bimble over mostly easy gentle hills, notwithstanding the bog, groundwater and tussocks which were considerable.  On the first night we found a great pitch by a small river, just before it started to rain.  For the remainder of the weekend, the weather was fairly mild and very clear.   On the second night we stayed in the Claerddu bothy owned by the Elan Valley Trust.  It was beautifully kept and whisky was imbibed.  The last day we walked the Monks Trod, a muddy but ancient path with some access issues.  We saw star jelly, fox moth caterpillars (not rare) many red kites and 2 cormorants, practiced a little timing/pacing, had to cut corners on the route in order to complete the walk without breaking ankles in the dark, but it was still nice to get some wind in the sails again after a month or 2 back in the city.  Before we dashed back to Babylon we stopped at the Cornhill Inn, a friendly local boozer in Rhayeader with a wood burner and superbly kept ales that change weekly.

If I had to change anything I would make better use of the limited daylight hours and set off by 7.30 or 8am - now that the clocks have gone forward, its pitch dark by 5.15pm in the hills.  I would also dispense with following some of the paths and stay on the tops, although it was fairly boggy up there too.

For the first time I wore trail shoes (not boots) with a multiday load (albeit only 2 days food) - something I have been building towards gradually for about 18 months, and it worked out fine.  Strengthening legs and feet needs to be done over time, I think, or maybe its just a confidence thing... but I wouldn't put money on that, probably its both.  My friends all wore leather boots and had wet feet too - no chance of keeping dry through bog and tussock - but I think I've seen the last of soggy, heavy boots for myself in 3 seasons.  Jury still out about full-on snow/ice footwear for me at the moment.  I adopted joe's method of using thin neoprene socks, specifically the NRS 0.5mm sock, purchased from the UK distributor, Rapid Kayaks, who were extremely quick and helpful.  Worn with just a merino liner sock, this caboodle stopped my toes getting too cold, even when stationary - the volume is small so circulation was fine,  its a good setup.

I felt energised and fleet footed at about 7.5kg all in, bouncing along on the walk, even jogging up little hills.  Things are getting easier and evolving.

Here's a few more photos on flickr

Ultrawet in Pumlumon (pt 2) - soaked to the skinny

In mid May, a friend and I went on a 3 day circuit of the northern Cambrian mountains.  Tim is walking with me a part of the way in the Pyrenees, and wanted to test kit and the water before the off.  I wanted to witness a remote and lonely place, before planned industrialisation changes its character even more.  We tested, walked and witnessed, it was a wet and wild weekend.

We left the car at Eisteddfa, for which they charged a tenner for 3 nights.  As we suited and booted it began to spit, and slowly we ascended the track behind the farm, past old mines, to the blustery cloud shrouded highs of Plynlimon, chatting our usual brand of rubbish.  Cold start, warm hearts.

After lunch on the top the weather clears a little and the reservoir is revealed.  We head off east in moderate wind, glad of each others company as both of us are amblers of the first order given half the chance, and stop often to take photos.  Tim's becoming a bit of a naturalist in his dotage and likes to take pictures of small things - come to think of it, so do I.

After east for a while we follow the broad ridge north, and as cloud swirls fast around our heads huge numbers of wind turbines are revealed on the hills all around us.  There are so many installations of all sizes that after a while we lose count.  Pylons, access roads and Forestry Commission plantations causing soil acidification mark our view.

This is a place of great symbolic and cultural value to Wales, and ecologically is of untold value.  The biodiversity here is just mindblowing - we saw so many different types of mosses, fungi and small plants,  and its also the source of several major river systems that flow across the UK - in some sense it's the cradle of the west.   It kind of broke my heart this place, so much beauty so little care.

Arwystli is a fine walk to the cairns and here the country opens wide and reveals its true vastness.  The wind howls and the cloud breaks.  Oh, we are frail and silly.  Before us, the sun lights up the land ahead, we follow the boundary down past the source of the Wye to the source of the Severn.  Did the last true Prince of Wales fight the English for resources, the same as it ever was?  The source of the Severn may be a humble pool, but it seems laden with memory.  And water.

From here the weather gets choppy and the going more difficult.  Thigh high tussock heads and occasional hail welcome us in.  The best weather vane is a half frozen Snickers, so its cold for May.  We stumble along our soggy way, cutting across country and then down slowly to our stopping place.  Ankle troubling heather and grasses, then rainbows, bogs and marshland.

We come to rest by the sluice gate at Bugeilyn.  Tim curses a lack of waterproofs and his cotton clothing and I supply medicinal whisky.

Day 2, and a late late start.  Up to the track and around via a pontoon bridge, boat house and a Victorian? ruin to Glaslyn.  Its blustery and the rain threatens but doesn't come yet.  Near here we pass 3 walkers, the only others we see all weekend.

We cut west and descend on a steep slippery path to Glyndwrs Way.  This valley is heavenly, covered in oak, apple and hawthorn blossom.  The sun noses out on the nose of the green hills, on our left eroded gullies on the brown slopes below the suspended lake of Glaslyn.

Down in to the valley proper, and an hour or 2 of finding our way through fields and across streams, up old and little used paths, cut across by gates and barbed wire fences.  Not much time for CRoW in Wales, instead a caravan named freedom.

Back up a catenary cut ridge line to the crest near Mawnog, and more bones.  Sometimes, death is beautiful, sometimes death is just soup.  The climb is steep, windy and cold.  As we descend to the tree plantation, the weather comes in again.  Soggy trudge through the forest, laughing.

Into the valley of Hyddgen, a soundless hymn to desolation.  The bridleway blocked by a sheep transport, the slopes of the hills on both sides broken only by conifer plantations and the occasional large farm building.  Rain troubles our way mostly, but the sun briefly lights up Byrn Moel.  We continue south past the end of the road into the empty, open heart.

A ford and a scout for an evening camp.  The wind comes from all four sides where the Hyddgen meets the Hengwm, under the misty mass of Pumlumon.  I wish we had more time to explore the eastern watercourse, but its the end of the day, we're wet and need to pitch.  Through old dry stone walls to the ill advised cover of a walled tree plantation, we hope they won't keel over in the night.  Malt loaf and custard for desert.

Day 3, another late one.  Early on its sunny, but that soon changes.  We aim for a path on the map that doesn't exist on the ground, then are forced to double back as the river is too high and fast to cross.  Back to the footbridge, we lose an hour or more.  Now, some bog trotting.

And the rain.  Not regular rain, no but the finest Welsh stuff that gets into everything and persists for decades at a time.  No waterproof can match this, it's peerless.  Tim is soaked within an hour, I last longer, but eventually water gets in.  Slowly, we circumnavigate the northern slopes of Nant y Moch, seeing not a soul.  Beautiful, miserable, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Contouring on Drosgol a few minutes of sublime peace... suddenly quiet in here, between the ears and under hood.  Steep path dense mists, Tim concerned about the slope in the wet, its true a slip would not be so nice here.  The rain continues.

We stop for lunch.  Its cold.  We move on quickly, warmer.  Eventually we hit track and the going gets easier.  Tim empties the gore tex socks I lent him, water shoots out.  After a while the rain stops for a little, and we make our way onto higher moorland away from the reservoir.  The winds toys with us for a bit before the rain returns again.  Then they both take it in turns to tickle us a bit more.

Despite the hopeless dreich, one further moment of peace and clarity at Bwlchystyllen.  A lamb shelters in the lee of a ruined farmstead wall, an apple tree stands by the side of the bridleway onward.  This track curves round then gently rises above a wide open floodplain, a otherworldly land of signs and wonders, stories of spectres told by warm fires or bible scenes described in sombre pigment by renaissance painters.

Afterwards, we aim for a path that barely exists and head up onto higher moorland still under Disgwylfa Fawr.  Visibility is minimal but we decide to cut our losses and navigate between the Fawr and Fach to the valley beyond, and our shelter for the night.  The next little while is spent on bearings and map badgering.  Forget it, read the land.  But it all pays off both ways and we land squarely in bog before reaching the ridge crest track above Afon Rheidol.  Dinosaur backed hill/fort stands guard on our right.  Its memory lane, full to the brim and over.  So, over we go, still in the rain, down to the waterfall and the farmhouse, and over the footbridge.  We find shelter above the waterfall in the shade of trees.  Late, but we dry off, cook and crash out.  Not before we finish the whisky.

Day 4, and a wee walk out.  Its short, and thankfully it has at last stopped raining, though the skies are still heavy.  We move fast and plough along forestry tracks, then rocky, soggy paths littered with treefall and roughly cut though with telegraph poles.  See yet more turbines as we reach the crest and begin the descent.  Its feels a little apocalyptic.  Back at the car we change and eat.  Towards Rhaeadr its so sunny, you wouldn't guess at the brooding magnificence from which we'd just emerged.

Distance: 31.25m or 50.3km
Elevation range: 1550 approx
Basic map below, map in detail here