The Cambrian Way 2010

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 1 - Preparation and First Day


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About the Walk

The Cambrian Way is a mountain walk from Cardiff on the South Coast of Wales to Conwy (to give it its now preferred Welsh spelling) on the North Coast. It was originally put forward by the Cambrian Way Committee in 1971 but, after a number of objections from various bodies concerned with footpath erosion and mountain safety, the scheme was abandoned in 1982. The Ramblers' Association have always favoured this walk as a candidate for becoming a National Trail but, despite the added publicity of the televised walk by Janet Street-Porter, it has still not received approval.

The first guide book to be published in 1984 was 'A Cambrian Way' by Richard Sale, but this book is less of a practical guide book than a book filled with interesting facts and historical information about places on the way. Some time later, Tony Drake produced a much more pocketable and practical guide book with a route that differs somewhat in places, to take advantage of certain land acquisitions and permissive paths that came along after Richard Sale's book was published. 'Cambrian Way', subtitled 'A Mountain Connoisseur's Walk', by A.J. Drake reached its 6th Edition (ISBN 0 9509580 5 7), published in 2008, and is highly recommended to anyone planning the walk as it contains a lot of useful information with regard to the distances, ascents and relative difficulty of the terrain, as well as a list of accommodation along the way. A list of amendments are included in each copy sold and the latest list can be found at http://www.cambrianway.org.uk/guide.htm.

Choice of the Walk

The time had come to start thinking about this year's walk. I had decided towards the end of last year to tackle a two-week section of the South West Coast Path and had already had copies of the two National Trail Guides for the northern coastal section as presents in anticipation. However, events had taken a turn in our hotel business, which meant that there was considerable uncertainty about what the future held in store.

We had seen a steady downturn in trade, starting towards the end of 2006, which was brought about by the ending of Objective One funding for North Wales. This is funding from the European Union to help build up business and create jobs in regions with a below average income level. North Wales had benefited from this from 2002 and our hotel, being mainly commercial, had seen a general improvement in business as money was injected into local projects. With the admission of many countries from Eastern Europe, however, the situation changed, as income levels in these countries were far lower than those in North Wales. This meant that funding was withdrawn from North Wales and switched to Eastern Europe.

In theory, countries that have received Objective One funding should, after a few years, have had enough of a boost to their economies to continue under their own steam. In practice though, the sudden withdrawal of funding caused many local projects to be put on hold awaiting decisions from the Welsh Assembly Government as to what would happen with a much-reduced budget. The 2007 budget brought about large cuts in many areas, which subsequently affected our trade. Companies tried to cut down on costs, which meant reining back on any unnecessary expenditure such as travel, hotel accommodation and meals.

Once the dust had settled towards the middle of 2007, we saw a small return of trade but not to anywhere near previous levels. It was not long then before any small recovery was knocked on the head by the credit crunch and subsequent recession. As a result, we had been forced into taking on more borrowing each year to keep the hotel running and, when our finances went even further into the red around Christmas 2009, the bank refused to lend us any more money. I don't blame them for this at all, as they just didn't want to see us digging ourselves any deeper into debt when there was no prospect of any improvement in trade in the near future.

Our only option was to put the hotel, which had already been on the market for three years, up for auction to try to get a quick sale. At auction, we were only likely to achieve a rock bottom price; around half of what we had expected to get when we first put it on the market at the peak of the property boom. The auction date was set for 21st April 2010, with completion one month later, should we manage to sell.

This left me with two possible scenarios with regard to my walk. The first was that we would not achieve a sale, which would mean that, with severely stretched finances, I would not be able to justify the cost of a walk. The second was that we would have sold the hotel, albeit at a low price, but then I could possibly contemplate a longer walk, as I would not have to leave my wife holding the fort keeping the hotel running. After some very tense moments at the auction when there was great difficulty getting the bidding going, we just managed to reach the reserve price. This was a very disappointing outcome, but at least we had achieved a sale, which would release us from the very tying and unrewarding hotel business. After clearing off all our debts, we would be left with enough money to buy a modest house with virtually nothing more to supplement our limited retirement income. Our reward for ten years of long hours and limited holidays was to end up with about half of the wealth we had when we went into the business.

Despite this downturn in our fortunes, my wife and I were both so relieved to be released from the constraints that had been imposed on our lives for ten years, that we didn't dwell on our misfortune but just looked forward to living a normal life again, even if it did mean that we would have to get used to living on a very modest income from pensions. When we look around at other people, particularly those in the pub trade, we consider ourselves fortunate. At least we owned the freehold of the hotel and were able to come out with some money. Those in leasehold property find that the money they have invested in the lease becomes worthless when trade takes a downturn, and they can be left with a pile of debts and not even a roof over their heads.

Now that the outcome was decided, at least I could start planning and booking my walk. Probably my favourite walk is the Cambrian Way, which I first walked in 2000 and again in 2005. It is a very challenging walk over the mountains of Wales and I was aware that, at the age of 65, I might soon find that it was a bit too strenuous to take on, so this seemed a good opportunity to give it another go whilst I still felt fit enough to take it onboard. The South West Coast Path would just have to wait until another year.


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Planning the Walk

Having done the walk twice before, I had a fair idea as to what sort of schedule I could achieve and which parts of the walk had proved the most difficult and may benefit from some changes to the schedule. There would inevitably be a few changes imposed by availability of hostels and B&Bs, some of which would have either closed or would be fully booked.

The most difficult section of the walk for accommodation is the stretch over the Rhinog Mountains, which is slow and hard going over difficult terrain, so needs to be split into two days for all but the very fittest. On my first walk in 2000, there was a small farmhouse offering B&B in Cwm Nantcol, a bit less than two miles off-route and I was able to stay there. By the time of my next walk in 2005, this farmhouse had stopped offering accommodation, so I had to go four miles off-route to another farm that had recently stopped doing B&B but who let me use their static caravan for the night. Even then I had to walk a further two miles to Llanbedr for an evening meal and back again.

Now, the only suggested option in the latest guidebook is to make use of taxis. It has been possible in the past to use the payphone in Cwm Nantcol to call a taxi to accommodation in either Llanbedr or one of the other towns or villages nearby, mobile phone coverage being very poor. However, the current situation with rural phone boxes is not good with many of them either removed, out of order or not taking cash, so this is not a very reliable option. Now the guidebook suggestion is to stay in Barmouth for two nights and take a taxi on the first day to Cwm Nantcol, walking this section in reverse back to Barmouth. The next day requires another taxi to Cwm Nantcol to continue the rest of the way. To me, this goes a little bit against the ethos of a long distance walk, which I try to do on foot as much as is possible, though I do make the odd exception now and again, generally in the form of a lift to a pub for an evening meal if it is a long distance away. The taxi option also involves quite a considerable extra expense, especially for a lone walker like myself with no one to share the cost.

A few years ago I noticed a place called Cae Gwyn beside the A470 near Bronaber, about 4 miles off-route to the east. They have a self-catering camping barn and also do B&B accommodation and there is a pub about a mile and a half away for an evening meal. This is not an ideal solution, but I decided to give it a try.

Another problem area for accommodation is in the Brecon Beacons. For the third time I was unable to get a bed in the most convenient place, Llwyn y Celyn Youth Hostel, which is very busy with school parties at this time of year, so had to take the Ystradfellte alternative again. The youth hostel there closed before my last visit in 2005 and the pub has only very limited opening times and no food. However, there are a couple of B&Bs who offer evening meals as well, so I was able to book one of those.

Another significant change to my schedule was from Dinas Mawddwy onwards. In 2000, my schedule was:

The section from King's hostel to Cwm Nantcol proved long and tiring, yet the sections over Snowdon and the Glyders seemed too easy and short.

In 2005, I decided to have an easy day after staying at King's hostel by booking B&B at Barmouth, thus making the first part of the Rhinogs shorter, especially as I had to go further off-route for accommodation there. I also decided to do Snowdon and the Glyders in one day, which proved rather taxing, but I then split the final day with a break at Rowen Youth Hostel. This added an extra night to my schedule, with only half a day's walk on the final day.

This year King's hostel was full, so I made my schedule:

The whole walk was scheduled to take 21 days plus a short walk from the start to Cardiff Youth Hostel on my day of arrival by train; a similar time to my previous walks but split up a little differently.

Training

Last year I had done hardly any walking prior to my long distance walk because I was heavily involved with work on my daughter's house and on the hotel. This was not ideal and meant that it took several days of the walk getting myself back into shape, suffering aching legs in the process. Although work on my daughter's house was still ongoing this year, we managed to get part of it finished sufficiently for her and her partner to move in at Christmas, and I was able to start taking more time out for walks, doing several reasonably long hill and mountain walks as well as my daily two to three mile walks with the dogs. This made me feel a lot happier about setting on a walk like the Cambrian Way, which would have been much more difficult to undertake without training.

There was also another factor to consider, which was my age. This will undoubtedly take its toll at some stage, though it has not done so yet. At 65, I cannot always muster the bursts of energy that I might have done ten or twenty years ago, but I can still manage to do similar daily schedules by taking one or two more rests here and there without adding too much extra to the time required. It still encourages me when I see people in their seventies and eighties up in the mountains and I only hope that I can continue to be up there as well when I am that age, even if I do have to slow down a bit. It also encourages me to think that I can still take on far more than I could in my teens and early twenties, mainly because I lead a far more active life now, rather than the sedentary life I led when I was younger, with just occasional bouts of mountain climbing, but never enough to get properly fit.


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Diary of the Walk

Day 1 - Tuesday 1st June - GPS 7.8 miles (only 2 miles on route) - very little ascent

Home to Cardiff Youth Hostel via Cardiff Bay and Castle

The GPS mileage figure is what I recorded from accommodation to accommodation, and includes any small detours, meandering around, and errors in route finding. In general this is about 5% to 15% greater than the mileage calculated from a map, depending upon the type of terrain, but in some cases is considerably more.

After several weeks of bright and sunny weather, the time had come for me to set off on my walk and I awoke to a damp, drizzly morning with low cloud everywhere. It didn't worry me too much, however, as it was a day mainly for travelling by train from North Wales to Cardiff. There was just a bit of walking to do along the route to Cardiff Youth Hostel, which is on the outskirts of the city. Normally, I also walk down to the redeveloped docklands area by Cardiff Bay and then back along the River Taff, almost to where I started from, before walking to the hostel. However, I could easily miss out the return trip to the bay if the weather were still bad.

Still, the weather did make a difference to the way I felt as I set off on the train. Bright, sunny weather brings about a surge of enthusiasm to get started, with the promise of beautiful scenery and enjoyable walking. The damp and dreary weather on the way, with the hills covered in low cloud, had the opposite effect with thoughts of trudging along in the rain and mist with no views, just trying to get finished and to get dry. After a while, the drizzle more or less stopped, but the blanket of low cloud stayed firmly in place all the way to Cardiff.

The journey was uneventful with the trains all running on time and there was not too long to wait between connections. There was not even the overcrowding that is commonplace for some parts of the journey, but then I was travelling on the Tuesday of the Spring Bank Holiday when all the schools and colleges were closed and many people would be on holiday, but not generally travelling. I arrived in Cardiff Station just before 15.00 and decided that, as the rain had virtually stopped, to do my usual walk down to Cardiff Bay.

It was interesting to see that there had been quite a lot of new development to add to already extensive dockland development I had seen before, with large blocks of apartments everywhere. I reached the bay via a wetland park, which was very pleasant with lots of wildfowl and wetland plants. From there I wandered along to Mermaid Quay and then to the Bute Dock building with the Welsh Assembly Government building next to it. Last time I was here, the Welsh Assembly building was still a building site with just the red-bricked offices at the rear fully built, but not the frontage built out of slate and wood. I had seen the completed building many times on television and had some reservations about its design, but seeing it for real did nothing to improve my feelings. The whole thing looked totally out of place and the extensive use of grey slate didn't blend in with anything else nearby, especially the beautiful Bute Dock building. It may have looked better in one of the slate areas of North Wales, where it would have been in harmony with the surroundings, but it just didn't fit into the architecture of Cardiff.

As for the large canopy that extends out over the steps to the front, which is the main feature of the building, it looked like some huge awning with spindly poles at the front for support, making it look out of proportion and again out of place. It would be more fitting over a bandstand in a park somewhere. The only thing I could see in its favour was that it cost considerably less than the Scottish Parliament building. But then these things are all a matter of taste and I am sure that some people must think it is wonderful. There is nothing I could see to say what the building is, presumably for security reasons, and I passed a couple of ladies who were discussing its use, thinking it was probably for open air concerts or something, which I found quite amusing.

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Bute Dock & Welsh Assembly Government Building, Cardiff
Welsh Assembly, Cardiff
Cardiff Castle Clock Tower
Cardiff Castle Clock Tower

The whole area was very quiet compared to last time I came, when there was an eisteddfod on at the arts centre. With the weather still dreary, I made my way back beside the River Taff, past the Millennium Stadium and Brains Brewery, to Cardiff Castle, the official start of the walk, which I reached at 16.45 (checkpoint 1). Even the front of the castle had changed, with a new entrance and ticket office outside the castle gates so that it was no longer possible to reach the gates for a better view of the keep inside the walls without buying a ticket.

From the castle, I followed the route alongside the Taff through Cathay's Park, first past ornamental gardens and then along mature wooded riverbanks. The woodland thinned out further along towards the weir, where I turned off to find an exit from the park and make my way to the youth hostel. Because some of the park exits are not very obvious, there are various signs pointing in the direction of the nearest exit, but not saying where the exit leads to, so the nearest one is not necessarily the one that you want. There is a cycle track running along the eastern side of the park and I made my way along that until I found the exit I was looking for, which meant doubling back a little, but there was no other one I could see taking me nearer to where I wanted to be.

By now I was feeling a bit tired and my shoulders were aching from the weight of my pack, but then I had walked for nearly seven miles without a rest, so it was not surprising. There was no point in stopping now, so I carried on along the main road, across the railway bridge and down back streets past the huge cemetery to the youth hostel, which I reached at 17.55. This again had changed somewhat since last time I stayed when it was in the middle of a refurbishment. Despite being a city hostel, it is still quite small and quiet, probably because it is a couple of miles from the city centre. There were plans at one time to build a new flagship hostel in the Cardiff Bay area but this never materialised, presumably from lack of funds.

A very friendly and efficient young lady greeted me when I arrived and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 16 I had paid for my bed online also included breakfast. My YHA membership had expired, so I renewed it for 15.95 when I checked in. It is debateable as to whether it is worth taking out membership these days. At one time it wasn't possible for non-members to stay at most hostels, but now non-members just have to pay an extra 3 on the price of a bed. This means that you have to stay at more than five hostels in one year to make it worthwhile joining. I had managed to book six hostels on this walk, so it was just worthwhile renewing my membership. Also, the membership runs to the end of the month in which you join and this was 1st June, so I effectively got 13 months membership for the price of 12. The hostel doesn't serve evening meals, but I had already decided to go out to The Heath at the opposite corner of the cemetery. The hostel refurbishment had incorporated an en-suite wet room with disabled facilities in the dormitory that I was allocated, which was quite handy, and there were only a couple of other chaps in there with me, so it was quite peaceful.

After a rest, I set off to The Heath with the weather showing distinct signs of improvement. There were a few patches of sunshine to brighten up the evening and to give me more hope for tomorrow's walk. At The Heath they were only serving a limited menu of bar meals, but that was fine for me and I had some very good chilli nachos with a portion of chips for less than 5 along with a couple of pints of Brains SA at 2.65 a pint. It is very good for consumers these days with pubs offering cheap deals on food and drink, but looking at it from the other side of the fence it is a different story. Many of these deals return very little profit except, perhaps, for the large chains that have bulk purchasing power and large volume turnover giving efficiency of scale. Other pubs have to try to match these if they want to retain customers, even if they make little or nothing on them. Also, breweries keep on pushing up prices to the licensed trade, particularly of beers, at more than the rate of inflation, whilst at the same time, discounting more and more heavily to the supermarkets. Pubs cannot pass on these price rises in a recession for fear of losing what little trade they have, so end up having to reduce profits. The upshot of this is that many of our traditional pubs will close forever and all that will remain will be the big chains. The Heath, like many pubs these days, was very quiet, with just a handful of locals at the bar barely enough to pay the staff wages, never mind all the other overheads.

I returned to the hostel and to bed.


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