The Cambrian Way 2005

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 2 - Days 2 & 3 - Cardiff Youth Hostel to Abergavenny

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Day 2 - Saturday 4th June - 16.5 miles + 4 miles in error - 2,022 ft ascent

Cardiff Youth Hostel to Crosskeys via Rhymney Valley Ridgeway and Mynydd Machen

Mermaid Quay, Cardiff Bay Cardiff Castle Cardiff Castle Keep Wier on River Taff Water Wheel Ducklings on Disused Canal Castell Coch from M4 Castell Coch near Tongwynlais Old Spoil Heap from
Mynydd Machen Cambrian Way Map
Days 1 and 2

I woke a few times through the night and thought I could hear the sound of car tyres on wet tarmac, so I was preparing myself for a wet day. When I got up at 7.30, however, it was not as bad as I thought with just thick cloud but no rain. The reduced number of toilets and showers due to the refurbishment work caused a few problems but, as the hostel was not very full, there wasn't too much queuing. Breakfast was run as a buffet from 7.30 until 9.00 with a choice of any 6 items. This was alright, apart from the congealed fried egg, which was not up to the standards, either of home, or most B&Bs, though some three or four star hotels serve up the same sort of thing if they run a buffet for breakfast.

Without wasting much time, I managed to be off at 8.50 and back onto the route just after 9.00. Yesterday I walked the first small part in the trousers and trainers in which I had travelled, but now I was in shorts, polo shirt and boots which would be my standard walking gear for the rest of the way. It was hard to decide what the weather would do, with dark clouds and showers one minute, but patches of bright sunshine every now and again. The walk by the River Taff through a mixture of woodland and open spaces was not particularly picturesque, but a great improvement on the noise and bustle of the city traffic, not that I found Cardiff to be a particularly busy or noisy city. The riverside walk improves as it gets further out of the city and there were quite a few people about - dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, and rowing crews out on the river. After a while, the route parts company with the Taff and heads for a disused section of canal which is now a wildlife park, passing a renovated water wheel on the way. The canal is very secluded and peaceful and there were lots of water lilies just opening out. There were squirrels about in the trees and ducks on the canal with their baby ducklings, which were so light that they could walk on the water lilies without sinking. One lady passing by lamented that she thought that one of the ducks that had only two ducklings today had had seven the other day and thought the rest had been lost to predators. My new Finepix digital camera was now coming into its own with its 6 times optical zoom and the ability to work well with limited light, I was able to take photographs that I would not have found possible whilst using slow slide film as I had done in the past.

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Weir on River Taff, Cardiff
River Taff
Renovated water wheel at Whitchurch,
Water wheel
Ducklings on disused canal, now a nature reserve, at
Forest Farm, Cardiff
Disused Canal

The canal comes to an end by a large embankment of the M4 interchange with the A470 and it is difficult to believe that this busy intersection is so close to this peaceful haven. I stopped for a rest here at 10.35 before negotiating the maze of footpaths across the interchange. It was 11.00 by the time I set off again, not because I needed to rest for that long, but because I was writing up my diary whilst things were fresh in my mind. The length of my rest stops are generally determined by this, except for lunchtime breaks, where I tend to take a longer break, weather and time permitting. These rather long breaks do, however, allow me to give my legs and feet a good rest, though they can hamper the speed of progress when there is a long way to go.

A steep climb up the embankment led to a completely different world of noisy traffic and concrete flyovers and underpasses. In this network of looping slip roads and intersections devoted to road traffic, it is a little surprising that those on foot are also catered for with a series of footpaths right through the middle of it all. From here, the next checkpoint of Castell Coch can be clearly seen on the hillside above Tongwynlais amidst the trees. A short walk along the A470 led me into Tongwylais where a road leads up the hill to where the entrance road to the castle turns off. This is the first real ascent of the walk and where the extra weight of the rucksack starts to make itself felt. After a few days, as the body gets used to the weight, it is not so noticeable and the only difference then is how much easier it is to walk when it is taken off - it is like floating on air. However, I wasn't finding much difficulty and was able to walk at a good pace up the hillside, reaching Checkpoint 2, Castell Coch, at 11.30.

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Castell Coch on far hillside, seen from M4 interchange
Castell Coch from M4
Castell Coch, the red castle
Castell Coch

From the castle, the route follows the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway which, unfortunately, despite the hint of such from its name, doesn't offer much in the way of views. The first part is along rather tedious forestry tracks, which then give way to bridleways. The latter are more interesting, as they meander around more, but they are mainly screened by trees giving only occasional views of the surrounding countryside. The weather had turned rather cold and windy and was always threatening to rain, though I had not needed to put on my waterproofs so far. After passing through a golf course I thought I would stop for a lunch break by the old quarry in a fairly open position, where I stopped last time I did the walk. I kept expecting the views to open out a bit, but they didn't do so and I passed through another golf course that I didn't remember from before, though these things spring up all over the place these days. Eventually, I decided that I would stop anyway, as I was getting hungry and in need of a rest. The cool wind made me put on my fleece and I didn't stop for too long as I was starting to get cold. Still being rather unsure of exactly where I was in relation to the map, I continued to the next road junction where I could find my bearings. The road layout at this point didn't appear to agree with my map, so I resorted to getting a grid reference from my GPS. As I read the figures, I couldn't believe what they were saying, showing me to be about 4km from where I expected to be. Then I turned back round and recognised the place I had passed a couple of hours earlier. Somehow I had managed to do a U turn and head back in the opposite direction, which explained the 'second' golf course I had passed through. There was nothing for it but to head back again at as fast a pace as I could to try to make up for lost time. On the way, I passed through the golf course for the third time and then eventually found the place where I had gone wrong. A path veered off slightly to the right of the correct one and I was tempted to follow it because the guide book showed a slight kink to the right. The one I took must have kept on turning round the hillside until it rejoined the path in the opposite direction. This now explained why things didn't look like what I had remembered from last time, why I missed the quarry and why the views didn't open up more. The problem is that whilst walking on paths enclosed by trees it is very difficult to tell which direction the route is heading. Even with a GPS there are often problems because of loss of signal through the trees, though a compass would still give a correct bearing. The problem is that it is all too easy to keep following a good footpath without realising that there is anything wrong. Only when things don't seem to look right is the GPS or the compass brought into use, and this may be quite a while later.

The net result of my mistake was that I had to walk about 4 miles extra, making the 16 mile walk into a 20 mile walk. However, it had not been a difficult day's walk so it didn't cause me too many problems, apart from having to hurry more so that I was not too late getting to my destination. The proper route does open out more, giving views across the valley to Caerphilly, though not for long, and it is soon back to being hemmed in by trees with another forestry section leading to Machen. There is a steady climb from Machen up to the summit of Mynydd Machen, taking an oblique angle up the steep hillside, and I managed to make good time up to the top where there was a strong, cold wind blowing. This is checkpoint 3 and I reached it at 17.30. It was still very overcast but there were one or two patches of sunlight to brighten up some parts of the landscape. In fine conditions there are some good views from here and, even in these rather poor conditions, it still offered the best views of the day. The rather unexpected thing that is prominently in view on top of a hill to the west, is a huge spoil heap from the old coal mining days. There are plenty of spoil heaps around this area, but it is unusual to find one so high up. It has been partly covered in vegetation over the years and conjures up for me the image of a burial mound for a huge giant. The route down into Risca was fairly easy and I found my B&B in Crosskeys without difficulty, though I was glad to reach it, having been pushing on at quite a fast pace.

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Seen from Mynydd Machen, this old spoil heap reminds me of a huge burial mound
Old Spoil Heap

After a welcome shower and a change of clothes I set off in search of food and drink. Unfortunately Crosskeys didn't seem to have much on offer, so I continued down the road towards Risca, where I found the Darren Inn. This was where I stayed 5 years ago, but when I tried to book this time I was told that they were no longer doing accommodation. It was obvious when I got there, that there had been a change of landlord, as the whole place had been refurbished and they were serving food all day, whereas when I stayed before they were not serving food and I had to go a long way down the road to a fish and chip shop before I could get anything to eat. I was also pleased to see Reverend James on draught, as that is one of my favourite beers, brewed by Brains. It wasn't quite as good as it should be, but it still went down well after a long day's walk, together with a steak and ale pie.

According to the weather forecast relayed from home, it was going to be wet tomorrow but brightening up after that, though there is nothing really to do on a long distance walk that has been fully booked in advance, other than keep on going and see what develops.

Today's walk was not really in keeping with the character of the Cambrian Way, but is probably the best route available to link the coast at Cardiff with the real part of this mountain walk. The Ridgeway is a disappointment, as the name tends to suggests a walk along the crest of a ridge with views all around. In practice, it is obscured by trees for the majority of the way, and good views are few and far between. The only real viewpoint of the day was from Mynydd Machen, whose summit is above the trees giving good views of the hills and valleys all around. Today, however, the rather dreary weather impaired the visibility and detracted from the distant scenery.

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Day 3 - Sunday 5th June - 19.7 miles - 3,200 ft ascent

Crosskeys to Abergavenny via Twmbarlwm and Blorenge

Old hill fort of Twmbarlwm Folly, or Watch Tower Towards Goose and Cuckoo Pub Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal Cambrian Way Map Day 3

I arose at 7.45 for an 8.00 breakfast. When I am walking I try to have a substantial meal to start the day so that I do not suffer from low blood sugars half way through the morning, so I had muesli followed by a very good full breakfast. The B&B had been taken over by new owners only 6 months previously and they had done a lot of refurbishment, with nearly everything looking new. After packing my rucksack, I managed to set off at 8.45 and rejoined the route near the Darren Inn by 9.00. There is a steep minor road, then a track up to the top of the pass, then an even steeper path up the hillside towards the summit of Twmbarlwn until it starts to level off near the rounded hilltop. An old hill fort stands at the top and is checkpoint 4 on the route, which I reached at 9.45. This is a fine vantage point with views to the coast and of the hills round about, although it was still very overcast and grey. The weather was very close on the way up with no air movement, but higher up a cool breeze made it more pleasant. The steep climbs on the way up gave way to some very easy ridge walking with wide views across to the coast and over Newport, albeit rather grey in the prevailing weather conditions.

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Old hill fort of Twmbarlwm, 1374 ft
Summit of Twmbarlwm

Even though I had a longer than expected day yesterday, and had to press on rapidly towards the end, I was not finding any difficulty with the walk, apart from a little stiffness in my legs, which was probably the result of not having done enough walking prior to setting off on this one. After a few miles along the ridge, the route drops steeply down to a track by the Blaen Bran Reservoir where I stopped for a rest. Before long it started to rain, so I packed everything well, particularly my camera, and put on my waterproofs. Despite the rather poor weather, there were quite a few people out on the hills - some walkers, a lot of mountain bikers and some motorcycle scramblers who were racing around the hillsides making a lot of noise and leaving some terrible scars on the landscape. The rain was steady, but not very heavy and it did not obscure the views too badly, so the walking was still enjoyable. The route runs along a common, parallel to the road for a while before dropping down on a minor lane into Pontypool.

There is an Esso filling station with a shop directly alongside the route to Pontypool Park, so that was a convenient place to buy things for lunch, and the park provided some shelter under trees to stop and eat them. I had made quite good time, reaching Pontypool at 12.10 and setting off again from the park at 12.50. The guide book indicates that a small detour can be made via the park so, as I was already part way into the park, I decided to take that route. On my way out of the park to rejoin the main route, I met a chap called Lance who lived locally and was out walking for the day. We walked along together for quite a way and he told me of many of his exploits in the mountain rescue team and also imparted some of his knowledge of the local area. We reached the Folly or Watch Tower, which houses a shell grotto, though it was closed at the time and then continued together over Garn Wen as far as the turn off for the Goose and Cuckoo pub, where Lance was heading. The weather was better than I expected - the rain around lunchtime eased off for a few hours and the views, though not wonderful, were still quite good. It had made a pleasant change to have a walking companion for a while, as I am used to doing most of my walking alone.

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Standing by the Folly, or Watch Tower, north of Pontypool
Folly, or Watch Tower
East towards Goose and Cuckoo Pub (not in photo), North of Mynydd Garnclochdy
North of Mynydd Garnclochdy

When Lance turned off I stopped for a rest until the rain returned and made me continue on my way. The mist started to fall over the hills, though not enough to block the visibility completely, so I was still able to see the next landmark of the twin radio masts near Foxhunter's grave. The two and a half miles to there across Mynydd y Garn Fawr do not provide the easiest walking conditions. The path is rough and stony running over a rather featureless heather moor, which had recently suffered from a fire, so it seemed an eternity before I reached the masts, following the path marked by wooden stakes.

At the Foxhunter car park, I took a short break before visiting the plaque marking the grave of this great showjumper. Soon after setting off again, I realised that I shouldn't have carried on past the grave, as that was heading in the wrong direction, so I headed across the open moor to regain the path up to Blorenge, the highest point of the day's walk at 1833 ft. It was not much of a climb, as the route had been gradually ascending for quite a long way, and the path was easier and less stony. With the increased altitude came more mist and drizzle and the visibility deteriorated considerably as I neared the summit, which is checkpoint 5. The summit itself is unspectacular, being merely a raised mound on a large area of moor, and this was particularly so in the poor visibility that prevailed, though I doubt there is much of a view on a clear day. The more spectacular view, which was largely swallowed up in the mist for me, is half a mile further on, where there is a very steep drop down to Abergavenny. It was difficult to decide which was the best route down the steep hillside, especially as my view was limited by the mist, so I walked a little way along the edge where I did manage to get a patchy view in places and decided to chance one of the slightly less steep routes down. This had taken me a little way off to the right, so I had to skirt back round further down to join the route into Abergavenny. Another steep path brought me down to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, where the path drops through a tunnel under a house and the canal itself.

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Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal on
descent of Blorenge. The path goes through a tunnel beneath the house and canal
Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal

By now the drizzle had increased to steady rain, as I made my way along by the River Usk and by Abergavenny Castle into the town centre. The Black Sheep Backpacker's Hostel I was headed for was in Station Road but, the way my map was folded, the station was not visible. Not wanting to get my map wet by opening it out in the rain, I decided to look for a signpost or a street map in the town centre. There were street maps, but no sign of Station Road, so I then decide that the best option was to use my GPS to head for the grid reference that I had logged for the hostel. This took me up to the other end of town, where I asked one or two people for directions. None were able to help much, though someone said that the station was over at the opposite side of town. The situation was confused by the existence of a Station Hotel nearby, presumably from the one-time existence of another station, but there was no sign of a Station Road anywhere around. Using my GPS to get to the exact grid reference, I realised that this was not the place I wanted, but the place I had stayed last time I did the walk - I had forgotten to edit the new reference into my route plan. The rain had gradually been getting heavier and, by this time, I was feeling rather wet and miserable, as I realised that I needed to return to the other side of town to look for the station. I did find a signpost for the station, but this took me in the wrong direction so I did a large loop around without any sign of it. I suspect that the sign I followed is one which can swivel round in the wind or when some prankster decides to play a joke. After a couple of laps round hunting for a clue, I met a couple of young ladies and asked if they knew where it was. They saw my rucksack and asked if I were looking for the Black Sheep Hostel, as it turned out that they were staying there too. They were Spanish and were staying there on their tour around Wales. Unfortunately, they were also a bit lost, so we did another lap round the circuit before asking a man, who pointed us in the right direction. I must have spent over an hour wandering around in the pouring rain when I should have just found somewhere sheltered to open up my map and see where the station was.

After all this, the first thing I wanted was a pint, which was no problem as the hostel was in The Great Western Hotel. Having quenched my thirst, it was then time to make for the dormitory and freshen up with a shower. It was getting a bit late by now so rather than head back into town again for food, I made do with what they had on offer in the bar; a pasty, a steak and kidney pie, crisps and a few pints of Welsh Pride bitter, before retiring to my bed.

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