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 3 - Days 4 and 5 Abrgavenny to Crickhowell via The Black Mountains

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Day 4 - Monday 6th June - 14.2 miles - 3,913 ft ascent

Abergavenny to Capel-y-ffin via Sugar Loaf and Chwarel y Fan

Bal Mawr Grwyne Fawr Reservoir from Chwarel y Fan Darren Lwyd and Capel-y-ffin Chapel at Capel-y-ffin Capel-y-ffin Youth Hostel Towards Gospel Pass Vale of Ewyas Hay Bluff Mynydd Troed Pen Allt-mawr Mynydd Troed Sugar Loaf and Skirrid Table Mountain and Crickhowell Cambrian Way Map
Days 4 and 5

After a good night's sleep, I arose at 7.45 and got myself ready for breakfast. There was mention of a light breakfast in the hostel information online, but I wasn't quite sure what this involved. There was nobody around at first but then the cleaners arrived upstairs (the hostel being down in a converted cellar), so I asked them and was told that it was just a matter of using the things in the fridge and cupboards. There were cereals, bread, tea, coffee, milk etc. so I had weetabix and four slices of toast. As I was eating breakfast, I was joined by the two Spanish girls and one other chap who was staying. One of the girls had finished a course in architectural renovation of historic buildings, so she and her friend were having a few days' holiday before returning to Spain.

The weather was very grey and overcast, with low cloud, as I set off back into town at 9.15, though it was not actually raining. In town, there were a few things I needed from the shops, such as things for lunch and another glasses case, as I had lost mine somewhere yesterday. It was about 9.45 before I started to head out on the road towards Sugar Loaf, which was obscured by cloud from about 1,000 ft upwards. The ascent via the Rholben ridge involves quite a steep climb at first and my exertions of the past couple of days had made me rather weary, so I just plodded up at a steady rate, taking several little breather stops on the way. At about 1,000 ft, the ridge starts to level to a much more gradual slope for quite a way, which was a welcome relief, before the final steep ascent to the summit. The cloud had lifted a little, but the last few hundred feet were shrouded in mist, which made it cold and damp and swallowed up what remained of the rather dismal view. Shortly after reaching checkpoint 6 at the summit, I was joined by another chap called Alan, who was also walking the Cambrian Way with a fairly similar schedule to mine. He set off down whilst I had a look along the summit ridge for a memorial I thought was there. I couldn't find one so I may have been mistaken or else it could have been removed, so I also made my way down. The descent was steep at first but then gentle and easy for the rest of the way. Half way down I caught up with Alan and we walked together for the next few miles. Near to the bottom was a somewhat steeper descent followed by a very boggy path near Fforest Coal Pit.

A steep minor road, which turns into a more gradually ascending track, then a bridleway, leads up onto the ridge overlooking the Vale of Ewyas. I had a good chat with my new found companion as we walked along until he eventually said "You aren't called George are you? - George Tod". He had seen my website with my account of this walk in 2000, which isn't all that surprising, as there are not many references to the Cambrian Way on the Internet, unlike more popular walks such as the Pennine Way or Coast to Coast. A little way along the ridge we stopped for lunch and stayed for some time, as there was no rush today with a lot less distance to cover than yesterday. The weather was improving very gradually, the cloud having now lifted from the hilltops with a little brightness trying to break through. Alan set off again after a while, but I stayed longer to write up my diary, also hoping that the weather might improve more whilst I was waiting. It was 15.00 when I set off again and my legs had started to stiffen up as a result of the work they had been doing since the start of the walk. I was also feeling very cold, even wearing my fleece, and it took a good stretch of brisk walking up the steady incline to both loosen up my leg muscles and warm me up.

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Cairn on Bal Mawr looking back towards
Sugar Loaf
Bal Mawr
Grwyne Fawr Reservoir from Chwarel y Fan
2228 ft
Chwarel y Fan

After a while, a long, narrow band of blue sky came along and allowed the sun to light up a long length of the Hatterall Ridge then, a short while later, it came over me, as the wind was blowing from the east. This was rather short-lived and was soon replaced by darker clouds, but at least there had been some reasonable views this afternoon. The Vale of Ewyas is very beautiful, so it would have been a shame not to be able to see it. The views to the west were not so attractive though, as the hillsides have a lot of forestry plantations, large swathes of which had recently been felled leaving the usual ugly mess.

My calf muscles were getting a bit painful at times, having swelled up somewhat now. This was more noticeable when I started walking again after a rest, but once I got going for a while it eased off. This is where I would have benefitted from more walks before embarking on to this one, but I am sure that it will get better before very long. A few gradual ascents brought me to the summit of Chwarel y Fan which, although it is the highest point on the ridge, is more like a raised hump than a peak. From there, a gentle descent leads down to the point where the route turns right and drops down into the valley to Capel-y-ffin. I could see Alan, who had gone on ahead of me, down near the bottom of the hill and, when I reached Capel-y-ffin he was in the phone box calling his wife. I then followed suit, as there was no mobile phone reception in the valley. Capel-y-ffin (chapel on the border) is checkpoint 7, which I reached at 17.30.

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Darren Lwyd and Capel-y-ffin from descent of Chwarel y Fan
Tiny chapel at Capel-y-ffin, meaning chapel on the border
Chapel at Capel-y-ffin

Alan had been having problems with a painful blister on his heel and my calves were seizing up a bit, as we set off together on towards the youth hostel just over a mile from the village. A steep path leads part of the way up the hillside, then follows the contour round until it comes out just above the hostel. Last time I came this way, the path was in a terribly churned up state caused by pony trekkers, but this time I was pleased to find that it was in good condition with only the odd hoof print here and there. We arrived at the hostel at 18.15 to find that this lovely and popular hostel was yet another one under threat of closure. When Alan examined his feet, his blister was in a terrible state, having grown beyond the bounds of the blister plaster that he had applied, and was far too big now for anything to work effectively. He had done long distance walks before without problems, he had worn the same boots for quite a while without problems and now, despite his great reluctance to quit, he was faced with no real alternative. This just goes to show how easily the whole schedule of a walk can be thrown off balance. He had booked all his accommodation as far as King's Youth Hostel and arranged three weeks off work only to have to cancel it all at this early stage. I felt very much for him, as I would hate to have been in the same position myself and could imagine the disappointment he must have been feeling. I was also sad that one of the few Cambrian Way walkers that I might have been able to meet up with along the way would no longer be around. One slight consolation for Alan was that a lady staying at the hostel was going back to Cardiff in the morning and would be able to give him a lift.

Evening meals in the hostel have now moved on from the fixed price 3 course meal, to an la carte menu with each item individually priced. This is a transition that has been taking place over the past few years, although the fixed price option has generally been available before. In conjunction with this there has also been a tendency to move from a fixed meal time to an opening period for meals. This allows greater flexibility of choice, but also means that a three course meal has virtually doubled in price. On the positive side, the options available have improved and the portions are such that, even after an energetic day's walking, it is a struggle to eat a three course meal. There is also wine and beer on offer in many hostels which, in remote places, is a very welcome change. However, the whole thing adds up to a considerable increase in price - my 3 course meal, choosing some of the cheapest options available, still cost nearly twice as much as it would in the old system, though the standard of food was excellent and I would have had more than enough with two courses. Some of the drinks too are not cheap, with a 440ml can of beer or lager costing in the region of 2.50, although bottles of wine offer better value at about 5. The other major change in the YHA is that hostels are no longer just for members, as non members can use them for 3 extra per night. This means that for anyone intending to spend no more than 5 nights hostelling per year, it is not worth paying the 15 membership fee. The way that the YHA has moved in recent years is the source of much controversy, but the whole ethos now is to make money and any hostel that is not paying its way is faced with closure, regardless of what impact that has on hostellers.

What I found quite appalling about this whole policy on hostel closures was that, on the one hand there was a petition to sign to try to keep this popular and well used hostel open, but at the same time, a collection to raise money for the hostel to be upgraded from two to three stars. Presumably, if enough money could be raised to help fund an upgrade, the hostel would be spared from the axe, but what would happen to the money raised if the YHA still decided to close the hostel? It just seems like a scheme to blackmail people into contributing extra money with no promise that their contributions will achieve anything other than going into the general YHA kitty. I appreciate that the ever changing regulations have forced improvements upon the YHA, and that these can be expensive. Also large increases in the minimum wage over recent years have also pushed up costs, but the whole approach seems to be to sell off the less frequented hostels in order to pay for upgrades to others. The net result, particularly in rural Wales, has been a mass closure of hostels and a great loss to walkers, cyclists and others.

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Day 5 - Tuesday 7th June - 16 miles - 2,347 ft ascent

Capel-y-ffin Youth Hostel to Llangattock via Twmpa, Waun Fach and Pen Allt-mawr

Cambrian Way Map Days 4 to 5

I awoke to the sight of glorious sunshine. Alan was up early for his lift and I got up ready for breakfast at 8.00. The washing I had done last night was still damp, so I put it out in the warm sunshine for a while to help it along. There was not a cloud in the sky as I set off just after 9.00, and there was a gentle breeze to keep me cool. My left calf, which had been painful from the knee downwards, was now feeling much better and gave me no real trouble as I climbed the steep hillside above the hostel on a zigzag path. Before long I had reached the end of the Darren Lwyd ridge, which gave a lovely view down the Vale of Ewyas in the fine weather conditions. From there I made my way NW along the ridge towards Twmpa or Lord Hereford's Knob (was he really such a big chap, or just a boaster!). Unfortunately, some of these ridges are very broad and flat topped in places, so much of the view is lost and it often feels that not much progress is being made. However, from the steep edge of Lord Hereford's Knob (checkpoint 8 at 10.45), there were beautiful views over the Wye Valley, and across the Gospel Pass to Hay Bluff.

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Capel-y-ffin Youth Hostel in a beautiful setting
YHA Capel-y-ffin
Towards Gospel Pass from near
Capel-y-ffin Youth Hostel
Gospel Pass
Vale of Ewyas from Darren Lwyd
Vale of Ewyas

As I was having a break, a chap came along and joined me for a while. He was living in Cyprus, but doing a couple of days' walking whilst he was back in Wales. He had the same GPS as me, and was wondering why it was giving grid references that were about half a kilometer out, so I was able to tell him how to set the correct O.S. map datum. In return, he showed me how to manually input a grid reference, which I had never managed to work out before, so this was a very useful encounter for both of us. There followed a glorious stretch of walking along the steep sided edge overlooking the Wye Valley and, as the path turned southwards towards Waun Fach, there were some great views to the west over Mynydd Troed towards the Brecon Beacons. The distant haze towards the sun made it difficult to make out each individual ridge of the Beacons, but the highest peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du stood out clearly above the rest.

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Hay Bluff and Gospel Pass from Lord
Hereford's Knob
Hay Bluff
Mynydd Troed from Mynydd Bychan with Pen y Fan in far distance
Mynydd Troed
Pen Allt-mawr and Pen Carrig-calch with
Sugar Loaf to the left
Pen Allt-mawr

This was a lovely place to stop for a lunch break with a beautiful view before me and the pleasant warmth of the sunshine, although a cool breeze meant that it was not quite sunbathing weather without finding a sheltered hollow. Despite the fine weather, there were few people about, though I did meet up with a couple of heavily loaded youngsters doing their Duke of Edingurgh Award.

After relaxing for an hour, I headed off up the steady ascent of Waun Fach, the highest point of the day and highest point in The Black Mountains at 2660 ft (checkpoint 9 at 13.40). It is a round topped mountain with a summit of oozing peat surrounding what appeared to be the concrete base that used to support a trig point. It is reminiscent of Black Hill and Cheviot Summit on the Pennine Way, though the peat is neither as deep nor does it cover such an extensive area. Dropping down from the summit, the views got even better, with a whole panorama of hills and valleys from Pen y Gadair Fawr on the ridge to the east, to Sugar Loaf in the distance, Pen Allt-mawr, where I was heading, then across the lovely Rhiangoll Valley (a tributary of the Usk) to Mynydd Troed and the Brecon Beacons in the distance. From here, Pen y Gadair Fawr looks higher than Waun Fach, though this is an illusion caused by the gentle slope of the whole ridge. I used my new found GPS skills to enter the grid referencr of my B&B for the night and it gave a distance of 11.2 km, as the crow flies. There was still a bit of climbing to do, as Pen Allt-mawr loomed ahead with a steep climb that was almost a scramble in places, but the views from the top (checkpoint 10 at 15.50) were wonderful and well worth the effort. The ridge then gets broader on the way to Pen Cerrig-calch, so the views are not as good for a while. I headed too far to the west to start with until I realised and cut back across rough ground, where I put my foot down a deep hole hidden in the undergrowth. Fortunately, I was not hurt, just taken by surprise, but it could easily have been worse. After the easy ascent of Pen Cerrig-calch, all that remained now was to drop down the hillside to Table Mountain. From here, the views across to Sugar Loaf and down onto Table Mountain and Crickhowell were splendid. The path down is quite steep but not difficult, though it has quite a long way to descend. Table Mountain is an old hill fort in a fine defensive position and there is, again, a steep path from there down to meet the road into Crickhowell.

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Mynydd Troed from Pen Allt-mawr
Mynydd Troed
Sugar Loaf and Skirrid from
Pen Cerrig-calch
Sugar Loaf & Skirrid
Table Mountain and Crickhowell from
descent of Pen Cerrig-calch
Table Mountain & Crickhowell

My B&B was just across the river in the village of Legar, and was very easy to find, so I didn't have a repeat of yesterday's fiasco. I had a very nice en-suite room in an attic conversion, with views of Table Mountain on one side and the Llangattock escarpment on the other. After a refreshing pot of tea and a shower, I went to the pub nearby, the Vine Tree, for a much needed pint of London Pride, followed by a pint of Golden Valley Welsh Bitter, which I drank outside looking across at Table Mountain. My legs were still aching a bit, but much less than yesterday and, apart from feeling a bit weary at times, I had not suffered any problems on today's walk. The Vine Tree had a very good menu, but was a little pricey, so I decided to go back across the river into Crickhowell to see if I could find somewhere more reasonable, although this is a very expensive place in general. I tried to find the place I had eaten at before but couldn't remember where it was, nor its name, which didn't help. As it would be some way before I reached another town, I thought it would be best to top up with cash, but the only bank I could find was a Lloyds TSB with no cash machine, so I finally ended up at the Bridge End for a lasagne and jacket potato and a pint of Bass, sitting outside by the river.

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