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 4 - Days 6 and 7 - Llangattock to Ystradfellte

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Day 6 - Wedesday 8th June - 12.4 miles - 1,808 ft ascent

Llangattock to Talybont-on-Usk

Canal at LLangottock Crickhowell and Black Mountains Llangattock Escarpment near Caves Sugar Loaf and Llangattock Escarpment Talybont Reservoir Remains of Bridge over River Caerfanell Cambrian Way Map
Day 6

The early morning sunshine woke me after a good night's sleep, but I lay in bed until it was nearly time for breakfast. With all the exposure to pollen in the fine weather, I had a touch of hay fever, though not enough to cause much discomfort other than a runny nose, which I could cope with. The sun had caught me in places, particularly on my forehead, so some sun tan lotion would be advisable before I set off for the day. I went down for breakfast at 8.30, as I was not in a hurry, with only a fairly short day's walk ahead. The landlady had only taken over 5 weeks previously, as her first venture into B&B, so I chatted to her for a while about how she was finding things, and the plans she had for expanding the business in future. It was about 9.15 when I set off back across the river to Crickhowell to buy things for lunch and to get some cash from the bank.

The bank I had visited last night didn't open until 10.00, so I wrote a postcard home and wandered around town waiting for it to open. When it did, it was still no use, as they wouldn't cash a Barclay's cheque anyway, but they did direct me to the Nat West Bank around the corner that I hadn't seen last night. They had a cash machine, so I could have got my money at any time, if I had known. Now armed with enough cash to last me for quite a few days, I went back across the river and made my way to Llangattock. I missed the turning to take me up to the canal, so joined it for only a very short stretch from the Blaen Onneu road to the minor road leading up the escarpment. I was following a couple of elderly local walkers until we came to the steep ascent of the escarpment, where they were heading off in a different direction. They told me that the path up this way was an old tramway for bringing limestone down from the quarries on the escarpment to the canal, and it ran straight down the steep hillside. It was already hot in the bright sunshine, but the old tramway was shrouded by trees, which helped to keep me cool as I toiled up the slope. After a while, it reached a level with a second tramway running up the rest of the way. That one was at an angle to the slope, which made it a little less steep, though it didn't offer any shade. This tramway didn't go on for very long, though, before it reached the main level of the escarpment.

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Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal,
Canal at
Crickhowell and Black Mountains from Llangattock Escarpment
Crickhowell & Black Mountains

Although all this steep climbing had seemed like hard work, it had only taken about 20 minutes at most, with the promise of easier walking for the rest of the day. There was a splendid view from the escarpment looking across at Pen Cerrig-calch, Table Mountain and Sugar Loaf with Crickhowell and Llangattock down below. I stopped for a drink of water and to admire the view before starting to look for Eglwys Faen cave, which is not the easiest thing to find. There are many little footpaths going up the hillside, often to the entrances to small caves, so I had to explore several of these before I found the one that opened out into a large chamber. Not having a torch - only a miniature light with a very limited range, I ventured only as far as I could see by the light from the entrance. Once again, the Agen Allwedd cave (checkpoint 11 at 12.25), which has a locked door at its entrance, is not that easy to find as there is a temptation to follow a footpath down off the escarpment before reaching it.

About 35 years ago, I went caving in Agen Allwedd with my brother and some of his friends. It was my first venture into caving and meant that I had to overcome the claustrophobia that I had suffered since childhood. I soon managed to do this and was (fairly) happily crawling through narrow passages and tight squeezes. It is hard to say how far we got underground, as it is quite difficult to estimate, though there were reputed to be seven miles of passageways down there. We reached a point where there was a tight squeeze down a vertical slit in the rocks, which I thought was a little bit too much, and the rest of the party were pretty much in agreement, though the more experienced ones, including my brother, would have been happy to continue. It was quite fortunate that the cave didn't get flooded as, when we returned to the entrance, the weather had turned to heavy rain and the tents we had been camping in on the escarpment were awash. Although I found this a fascinating experience, I wasn't tempted to take up caving seriously and, apart from the odd brief encounter, preferred to stay above ground.

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Llangattock Escarpment near Caves
Llangattock Escarpment
Sugar Loaf and Llangattock Escarpment
from near caves
Sugar Loaf from escarpment

I stopped for lunch and some sunbathing near the cave entrance and the two chaps I met earlier came past, having taken a different route up. I was a little confused by the route at this point, as the main path descended from the escarpment some way back, whereas my guide book showed it going off right by the cave. There was another path going down closer by, but this was badly overgrown and didn't look very promising. When I set off again at 13.20, I decided to continue on the path along the escarpment rather than go back to the easier route down, as the two chaps had said that there was a rather tortuous route along there. It wasn't too bad for a while but then became more and more overgrown with hawthorn trees and other obstacles. The sheep had been through, but they didn't need anywhere near so much headroom as I did. After what seemed like a very long while, it improved again, but only after I had been prickled, scratched and nettled as well as having to have many attempts at limbo dancing and other contortions to get through - not a route to be recommended without a chainsaw! The plus point at the end of this was that I was still quite high up and able to take a higher route up the hillside, giving me better views and being somewhat cooler than further down.

I had not made very good progress today, with a late start, time spent looking for caves and this last tortuous stretch through the undergrowth. The rest of the day's route is less interesting, though, so I should be less inclined to hang around. One thing that can happen on fairly short days is that there can be a feeling that there is plenty of time to spare, so there is no need to press on. This continues until the realisation creeps in that time is running out and that it is necessary to do some fast walking to get back on schedule. Although I have done this time and time again, I still can fall very easily into the same trap.

It was not always easy going over the open moorland, though there were generally a few sheep tracks to follow making the walking easier. I took a short break just before reaching the B4560 road and, from the highest point, there was a good panorama of distant hills and mountains. As I was now heading over a rather featureless open moor, I entered the grid reference of the trig point that I was heading for into my GPS, in case I couldn't see it as I walked along. After reaching the trig point, I joined a much better path up to the Chartist Caves, where a plaque proclaims:-

"Pikes and other weapons were secretly made and stockpiled in these caves during the summer of 1839. They were subsequently carried by Tredegar Chartists on the great march to seize Newport, 3rd - 5th November 1839. This became the biggest armed clash between the government and the British people in the nineteenth century and resulted in over twenty deaths and the last mass treason trial in British history. This plaque was placed here by Tredegar Town Council in 1989 to mark the 150th anniversary of the insurrection which eventually helped win democratic rights for all British people."

The path continued along towards the road that I needed to join, but last time I found that it swung round too far south, so I entered into my GPS the grid reference of the point where I wanted to join the road and headed towards that using, wherever possible sheep tracks or other small paths, as any sort of path is better than no path at all. After a while, the road came into view and I no longer needed my GPS for navigation. A little way along the road, the route, which is actually one of several variants from the main route for accommodation, turns onto the disused Brinore Tramway near the large Hendre Quarry. The views across the valley are very good to start with, but are mostly lost when the tramway swings round the head of the valley and into some forestry. The tramway is very badly drained in places, which can make it very boggy at times, though it wasn't too bad today. Further along, the track emerges from the trees and the fine views return. Eventually the route doubles back down the other side of the ridge, through forestry, overlooking the Talybont Reservoir, which came into full view though a large clearing in the trees. From here, it was also possible to see the tiny hamlet of Abercynafon where I was heading for my B&B.

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Talybont Reservoir with Abercynafon to
Talybont Reservoir
River Caerfanell and remains of bridge to Abercynafon,
swept away in 1999, soon to be replaced
River Caerfanell

The bridge over the River Caerfanell near Abercynafon was washed away in 1999 and still had not been rebuilt 6 years later, so I was expecting to have to wade across. Fortunately, though, the river was very low and it was possible to walk across on stones without getting my feet wet, which was a bonus. Apparently a new bridge has been constructed and is awaiting imminent installation, which will make life easier for walkers in the future. I arrived at the B&B at 18.15 after doing what I mentioned earlier - dawdling around for a large part of the day, thinking that I had lots of spare time, then hurrying along for the last few miles because I was running behind schedule.

The set-up at the B&B is that they do not cook evening meals, but provide transport to one of the pubs in Talybont-on-Usk with collection later. I had the luxury of a bath to soak in, followed by a pot of tea with a large slab of fruit cake, and was then dropped off at the White Hart, whilst the couple visited their son. The good old Reverend James awaited me at the bar, and there was a good choice of meals on offer. I chose a very good smoked haddock and spinach bake at 6.95, and ate it outside in the warmth of the pleasant evening. Today had been a marvellous one for walking - not quite the unbroken sunshine of yesterday, but still very good. The scenery had been somewhat different with quite a stretch of open moorland, which did not offer such spectacular views as are to be seen from steep sided ridges or edges, though it did offer long distance views over towards the horizon. The thing about a good long distance walk is that it should have a variety of scenery to make it more interesting, as it is possible to tire of too much similar scenery, even if it is very grand. This being the fifth full day of walking, I was now getting into my stride and more comfortable with carrying a heavy pack, so I was better able to enjoy the walking. Admittedly, this has not been a very taxing day, but it has had its moments, such as the steep climb up onto the escarpment. My lift back was a little later than expected, so I was not sure whether to get another pint, thinking that I may have to down it quickly if they suddenly turned up. However, it just worked out nicely and I had just about finished it by the time they arrived.

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Day 7 - Thursday 9th June - 16.9 miles - 5,015 ft ascent

Talybont-on-Usk to Ystradfellte via Brecon Beacons

West from Craig Cwareli West from near Fan y Big Fan y Big from Cribyn Pen y Fan and Corn Du Cribyn from Pen y Fan Corn Du from Pen y Fan Tommy Jones Memorial Reservoirs from above Storey Arms Cambrian Way Map Day 7

I awoke to beautiful sunshine again and tried to get as much ready as I could, as breakfast was not until 8.30 and I had quite a long day ahead - a fairly reasonable distance, but a lot of ascent. Everything was just so here with some fresh fruit salad, cereals, yoghurt, full breakfast with potato waffle and two types of brown bread, one of them with cinnamon, for toast. I also got a packed lunch, which I had forgotten to order in advance, but it was OK because Alan, who had booked here but cancelled, had ordered one.

It was 9.20 before I managed to set off along the road to the Torpantau Pass. It was flat at first and quite hot in the sunshine, but then climbed steeply up through forestry to the top of the pass. The trees stopped any breeze that might have cooled me, but didn't shield me from the sun, so it was hot work for a while. From the top of the road pass, the path up Craig y Fan Ddu was very steep at first, but there was a cooling breeze and a little more cloud now that I was higher up above the forestry. The views opened up more and eventually the path levelled out to a gentler slope at the top of the ridge, making the walking easier. The route then heads across open moorland for half a mile to Craig Cwareli, where a beautiful vista awaited - a whole series of the Fans lay before me with Fan y Big, Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du. There were not many people about, mainly just soldiers on training exercises. I stopped for a rest and drink of water overlooking this fine view before walking to the end of the Craig Cwareli ridge, then back again towards Cribyn, skirting round Fan y Big. The route doesn't take in the Fan y Big summit, probably because there is already enough climbing without adding any more. There was a little more cloud about as I made my way up the steep path to Cribyn, though it was still a fine day, but the Beacons are at their spectacular best when sunlight highlights the red rock strata protruding from the steep hillsides.

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Fan y Big, Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du
from Craig Cwareli
West from Craig Cwareli
Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du
from near Fan y Big
West from near Fan y Big
Looking back at Fan y Big from Cribyn
Fan y Big from Cribyn

It was time for a lunch break when I reached the summit of Cribyn at 12.40, with a fine view across to Pen y Fan and Corn Du. There was already a group of 5 girls at the summit and then a large group of men arrived, part of an even bigger group, as I discovered when I heard one of them phoning a friend who was on the top of Pen y Fan. Such large numbers of people detract from the peace and serenity of the mountains but, unfortunately, the Beacons do attract people in large numbers. My packed lunch consisted of a ham roll, a cheese roll, a banana, a yoghurt, fresh strawberries, Twix bars, crisps and a slice of fruit cake, so I wouldn't be going hungry. Eventually, the large party moved on, making it far more peaceful for the rest of my break.

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Pen y Fan and Corn Du from Cribyn
Pen y Fan and Corn Du
Looking back at Cribyn from Pen y Fan
Cribyn from Pen y Fan
Corn Du from badly eroded summit of
Pen y Fan
Corn Du from Pen y Fan

From Cribyn, there was a drop down followed by a climb of several hundred feet to the summit of Pen y Fan, the highest point in the Brecon Beacons (checkpoint 12 at 14.10). The climb was not too difficult, but when I reached the top, there was a large school party plus a lot of the group I had met before on Cribyn. The paths and summit are very badly eroded because of the large number of people who climb to this summit in particular, as it is the highest mountain in this part of Wales. The only solution to this problem will be to repair the paths with stone, as in many other popular places. It is an expensive undertaking, but is the only way to cope with the large amount of foot traffic that is encountered.

Many of the objectors to walks such as the Cambrian Way cite erosion of the route as a major factor to support their arguments. However, in my experience, the erosion caused by walkers of long distance footpaths is but a drop in the ocean compared with that caused by the masses of other people who head for the most popular places, generally the highest mountains in a particular area. As was the case today, where I was probably the only person on the Beacons walking the Cambrian Way, there were about a hundred others in large groups just heading for the highest peaks. If you compare this to much of the route I walked in less popular areas, many of my problems centred around the fact that there was too little erosion of footpaths making many of them very difficult to find at all, and things would have been a lot easier if more people had walked the route to create some sort of footpath that was actually visible. Bearing in mind that each of the Cambrian Way walkers uses the footpaths along the whole route to the same extent, it is obvious that they are not the ones causing the vast majority of the erosion and, even if their numbers were to increase tenfold, the situation would not be much different.

There is no point in trying to discourage people from enjoying the beauty of the mountains, though many are only "peak baggers" who often do not even appreciate the beauty of the scenery around them. In a free country, people are going to walk where they want, regardless of whether the National Park and other authorities would like them to or not. Walking generates a great deal of revenue for the local economy in many deprived areas so, rather than trying to discourage walking, it is far better to tackle the problem of erosion where it occurs and accept whatever number of people come for whatever reason. Of course, to true mountain lovers, masses of people spoil the feeling of freedom and solitude that the mountains would otherwise offer. That is why I would never climb Snowdon on a summer weekend, and tend to reserve my visits for weekdays outside of the main season, when it is far more peaceful, though never completely free of people for long. To enjoy the real beauty and solitude of the mountains I frequently walk over many of the lesser peaks, which often offer equally magnificent scenery whilst being devoid of the hoards or people.

The weather had now turned rather cool and overcast, so I didn't linger on the summit but made my way over to Corn Du, which involved only a small climb, then on down to the Tommy Jones memorial, where I had a drink of water and a short break. The memorial is at the spot where the body of a five year old boy was found nearly a month after he had gone missing from a farm in the valley. From this point, there was the choice of either heading back across to the main path, which dipped down into the valley before crossing the next ridge to the Storey Arms, or skirting around the head of the valley before joining the main path. There was enough climbing already in today's walk, so I decided to take the easier, if slightly longer route.

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Tommy Jones Memorial looking back at
Corn Du and Pen y Fan
Tommy Jones Memorial
Brecons and Cantref Reservoirs from
above Storey Arms
Reservoirs from above Storey Arms

At the Storey Arms (once a pub, but now an outdoor centre), I set off up the hillside towards Ystradfellte. There was a considerable section of undefined route, so I entered a couple of waymarks into my GPS to ensure that I kept on the right track. I stayed on footpaths as long as they were heading in vaguely the right direction, but when it was obvious that they were leading away, I made my way across the open moor, following my GPS. This worked very well and I picked up a footpath to the west side of the valley. There are a whole series of footpaths, mostly sheep tracks, at various levels up the hillside. It is, however, a mistake to go for the lowest ones, as there are lots of little streams running down the side of the valley and the lower down the hillside, the deeper are the valleys that they have carved, and the more awkward they are to negotiate. This is not the easiest area for walking, but I managed to keep up a fairly good pace, arriving in the village at 6.10.

My B&B was just down the road from the pub, the New Inn. The only problem was that the pub now only opens on Fridays and Saturdays and even then they don't serve meals. My B&B used to rely upon the pub to serve evening meals for their guests, but when they stopped doing meals, the B&B were faced with the decision of either making meals themselves, which they didn't really want to do, or provide transport to somewhere else. This does not just apply to walkers, but also to people who have driven there but want to have a drink with their meals. They had agreed to make a meal for me, and I had a casserole followed by rhubarb crumble. The village were also suffering with their telephone network, which had been giving problems for months, and there was no mobile reception, so this just added to the problems they were suffering. When I rang to try to book, the phone line was diverted to the mother's phone and she had to pass on messages whenever they could contact her. The public phone box was now out of action and it was suspected that this line had been used to replace someone else's faulty one. There was a desperate need for extra capacity, but BT were not prepared to invest the money to upgrade the lines to the village. I was just about to ask if I could make a call home from the B&B's phone, which was at least now working, when my wife rang through there to check that I was OK.

The telephone and pub problems were just a couple of things causing concern, another thing was the usual problem of rising property prices, putting property out of reach of locals and into the hands of people who wanted them as second homes. As such they were left empty for much of the time, and contributed to the decline of traditional village life. This is all too common in areas of natural beauty, and is the cause of great concern to many rural communities like this one.

After a chat, I went off to explore the Porth yr Ogof caves down the road from the youth hostel, which had recently been closed and sold, presumably to pay for the refurbishment of some other hostel. The river disappears under a large natural stone bridge, reappearing from a large chasm a few hundred yards further downstream. At various places in between there are caves going down to meet the stream, which splits into two or more sections underground. Exploring these caves can be dangerous, with fast flowing currents, and a number of deaths have occurred, so there are notices everywhere warning of the perils.

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