Part Cambrian Way 2016
Author: George Tod
Click on small photo to enlarge in situ. For photos in better weather see Cambrian Way website.
|Part 1 - Preparation and First Day|
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Since doing my last long distance walk of the Cambrian Way in 2010, a lot of things have happened, which has meant that it was 6 years later before I embarked upon another one. First of all, we had the upheaval of selling our hotel at a rock bottom price, which left us with just enough to pay off our debts and buy a modestly priced bungalow in Kinmel Bay near Rhyl. We had already been considering retirement, as we were both 65, but the economic downturn meant that we had very little in our retirement pot, although we did have enough in pensions to meet our day to day needs. This meant that any holidays had to be kept to a tight budget and spent by my wife and me in a way that suited both of us, leaving nothing spare for me to indulge in my own walking holidays. However, living near lots of mountains and hills in North Wales, I was still able to have regular day walks in the nearby area with no more cost than the fuel to get to and from the starting points.
Although I was theoretically retired, it didn't mean that I was idle. With two daughters and various housing projects on the go, I was kept busy doing general building work and other DIY jobs as well as doing work for friends and neighbours. I am not one to sit watching daytime TV all day, so this gave me something to do and helped keep me fit.
At the beginning of 2014, my younger daughter, who was working for a recruitment agency at the time, came across a job as a gardener/handyman in a dementia home and decided that it would just be the thing for me. It was for 18 hours a week and initially temporary employment through an agency, but after several months the post was offered permanently and I then started working directly for the council. The advantage of this was that it gave a regular extra income which meant that there was more money to spend on holidays, hence the possibility of resuming long distance walks.
Another thing that had happened over this period was that Tony Drake, pioneer of the Cambrian Way had deteriorated in health and eventually died in 2012. In the few years prior to his death, I had been co-opted to set up the Cambrian Way website and got increasingly involved with updates to the guidebook alongside a long standing friend of Tony's, who also died, leaving me to look after Cambrian Way affairs on my own. After some time, it came to light that the intellectual property right to the guidebook had been left to three of us in a codicil to Tony's will with a view to setting up a Trust (I had never been informed of this before). Of the three of us, one had now died and the other no longer wanted any involvement, leaving the onus on me to take everything forward. I didn't mind looking after the website and day to day correspondence with walkers, but I didn't particularly want to have the burden of setting up a Trust, finding other members to be Trustees and organising publication of the next edition of the guidebook. Fortunately, Tony Drake had also left a considerable sum of money to The Ramblers to be spent on promoting the Cambrian Way and on maintenance of the route, so I became involved with their working groups and found willing Trustees with legal expertise, who could take care of that side of things.
Another opportunity arose for doing a long distance walk because of the European Football Championship in 2016. Having been caught up with all of this on a previous Championship whilst we were on holiday in France, my wife decided we should avoid this time of year for our 2016 holiday and go in September instead. This left June free, my favourite time for walks, although I was still limited with the amount of leave I had with my job, so there was just two weeks that I could take. Having so much involvement with the Cambrian Way, which I have always considered to be the best walk in Britain, this seemed the obvious choice even though I would only be able to do two thirds of the walk in a fortnight. The walk would serve the additional purpose of checking out the route. I had created GPX files of the route from online maps for downloading from the website but never had the opportunity to put them to the test. I had recently purchased a Garmin etrex 10 to replace my old Garmin etrex and this had the ability of holding a large number of route files which I could try out on the way.
Although I had done the complete walk three times before, the actual route taken depends on where accommodation can be found and this tends to change somewhat over the years with Youth Hostels closing and B&Bs being sold to people who just want them as private houses or want to convert them into holiday flats for weekly letting. One area that is difficult for accommodation is the Brecon Beacons, and I had always had to take the Ystradfellte variant because the Youth Hostel at Llwyn-y-celyn (now called YHA Brecon) had always been full. This time I wanted to walk one of the other routes for a change so decided to look at availability of this hostel and the Llanddeusant hostel to see if I could choose my dates to fit in with places being available, which I was able to do, though this did not fit in with availability at Danywenallt Hostel. However, this didn't matter too much as there was plenty of accommodation in Talybont-on-Usk, including a new Bunkhouse at the White Hart pub.
I tended to stick to a fairly similar schedule to ones I had done before, though inevitably there were a few minor changes to make. On previous occasions, I had stayed at the old Cardiff Youth Hostel near Roath Park, doing a short bit of the route after arriving by train in the afternoon. However, a new flagship hostel with 24 hour reception had been opened by the YHA in the old Mercure Hotel just over a mile to the east of the City Centre, so I found that I could get a train after work on the Friday evening and then start the walk on Saturday morning, thus helping me to avoid an extra day. I had always walked from Cardiff to Abergavenny in two days, ignoring Tony Drake's advice, and found that I could manage it, but not without a struggle. This time, however, things conspired to add extra bits onto these two days. No longer would I have a bit of a head start on the route from Cardiff, but an extra bit of walking to get from the hostel to the beginning of the walk at Cardiff Castle. At the end of the first day, the B&B that used to be in Crosskeys had changed hands and then moved premises adding a bit extra to the first and second days, and the Bunkhouse I had used a couple of times previously in Abergavenny was by the railway station, a little way beyond the town centre, so I was faced with a few miles extra on what were already long days, making them over 20 miles, and even more when measured on my GPS. Nevertheless, I was not daunted too much by this as, despite now being 71, I felt fitter than ever and able to spend longer on my feet between rests, thanks partly to spending most of my time at work on my feet and also by doing long mountain walks without many rest stops.
My choice of staying at Talybont-on-Usk, YHA Brecon and YHA Llanddeusant meant that I would be taking a considerably different route across the Beacons, which is what I wanted, but it also involved more mountain climbing on top of long distances. However, having had a few days to get into the walk, I thought I would be able to cope. One problem that worried me all along is what I could do for food at YHA Llanddeusant, which is self-catering only. The nearest shop is 7 miles away and there is nowhere near for an evening meal. On my first two walks there was a pub at Talsarn, but that closed down and became the Red Kite Feeding Centre with only a café which was not open in the evening. On my third walk, I didn't realise that the pub was closed, but the volunteer wardens at the hostel had stocked up with food for themselves and kindly sold me things for me to make for my evening meal and breakfast. Unfortunately this cannot be relied upon and it it difficult to know who will be running the hostel at any particular time. It didn't help that the YHA website showed a Shop and Licensed Bar on one page but warned that there was nothing on site on another page, though I knew from my own experience that the latter was more likely to be true. The other problem is that is very difficult to find out what the real situation is. Other hostels deal with the bookings and a succession of different people act as wardens. The only safe thing to do was to take my own supplies but I didn't want to be carrying too much extra weight with some very demanding walking along the way. I studied all sorts of dried food and found that about the best you can get is 500 kcal from 100g of dried food no matter how much you pay for it. The only things that seems to do better are nuts which manage about 600 kcal per 100g. Not knowing what I might be able to buy along the way, I decided to take a couple of 100g packets of pasta based food right from the start, and then buy a few biscuits, chocolates or similar things on the way. However, considering I would probably use about 4,000 kcal in a day, that would still leave me with quite a shortfall.
Further along the route, the accommodation is not quite so hard to find, provided you are prepared to pay the price. Many of the B&Bs run by elderly couples for a bit of extra income have closed down or have been given expensive makeovers by new owners who, quite reasonably, want to get a return on their investment. Modern living means that most people are looking for a much higher standard of accommodation than previously, whereas I am content with a bed and a roof over my head. Also most B&Bs cater for couples and often have supplements for single occupancy and in popular tourist places they often will not take single night bookings at busy times. Consequently I ended having no option but to pay the prices or be stuck with nowhere to stay. The final sticking point was the last section of my walk from Dinas Mawddwy to Barmouth. Ideally this would be a day and a half at least, as there are a lot of mountains along the way and about 20 miles of walking. I wanted to go as far as YHA King's and then complete the walk to Barmouth the next day before catching the train home. However, King's had no beds available (someone told me that its future is in doubt), and any other suitably placed accommodation was either very expensive, needed a considerable detour or had no evening meal availability nearby. In the end, I decided just to bite the bullet and do it in one day, relying on the fact that I could arrive late and still find food in Barmouth, and with no walking the next day it wouldn't matter how tired I was.
With all the accommodation booked, it was then down to sorting out what things to take with me. I have old lists of things to jog my memory, but a number of things change over the years and it is also important to take account of possible weather conditions. On the plus side, many of the electronic gadgets have improved by having reduced weight and chargers are also very much lighter than they used to be, though there is also a tendency to take more gadgets than before. I used to take a battery charger to charge A4 batteries for my GPS, but this is quite heavy, so I decided to ditch it in favour of alkaline batteries. My new GPS is very light on power, as it has a black and white liquid crystal display which only needs a backlight in the dark. If energy saving settings are used, it will run for about 4 to 5 days of walking on one pair of batteries.
Another thing I did to save weight was to use my subscription to OS Maps (one year free with my Garmin erex 10 GPS), which enabled me to print out A4 maps at 1:25,000 scale of the route I would be taking. By printing double sided, I got all of them onto 21 sheets of A4 paper, making a big saving in weight from normal Ordnance Survey Maps. I also had the luxury of 1:25,000 maps for the first time as, when I did my first walk of the Cambrian Way, Explorer maps were not available except for National Parks and so I used 1:50,000 Landranger maps instead. I then continued to use these on subsequent walks, though they did make route finding considerably harder without the better detail that is shown on Explorer maps. Also, instead of taking the guidebook, I printed out the centre pages with the maps and route description, thus cutting down on a bit of weight as well. It may seem ironic, but as the person who did most of the editing and updating of the 7th Edition guidebook, I have never even seen a copy, as they have been sent elsewhere for distribution. I do, however, have everything on my computer, so am able to print off what I need.
The potential weather posed something of a problem, as it was obvious that 2016 was going to be very unsettled because of the bad position of the Jet Stream, so I would have to expect the worst. This meant that I took both a fleece and a thick jumper as well as a woolly hat and gloves, fearing that I might need them on the mountains. As it happened, only the fleece was needed on occasions, but it was better to be on the safe side.
One of the problems I have had in the past is what to add to water to make it more palatable when it gets lukewarm. Some years ago, I discovered Kool Aid in sachets, which comes from the USA but is available online in the UK. By using sweeteners instead of sugar it is possible to take enough for a whole walk without it having much weight. However, my wife noticed some 'Squirty Squash' in Aldi and this is a super concentrated water flavouring that makes 6 litres from a 48ml container. This is so much easier to use as there is no need to measure out powder from sachets (I used to use half a packet to make 2 litres of water for the day). Instead, just a squirt into the neck of a water container does the trick. I actually found that I used less than recommended, which gave adequate flavour without being too sweet, so I got about 10 litres from one container. I then discovered that there are a whole host of similar products from different manufacturers to choose from now that flavoured water has become fashionable.
Another problem is washing clothes, as I rely on doing this on a regular basis to avoid carrying too many spares or relying on accommodation providers to do washing. I used to take hand wash powder, which is much lighter than liquids, but this seems to have gone out of fashion. However, it is now possible to buy 'Washing Powder in a Sheet', which comes in a self-seal packet of 10 sheets and is very light and easy to use. These are not widely available at the moment but can easily be obtained online. The one I used was called 'Fabrite'.
I always take a number of things such as sun lotion, deodorant, shower gel, Savlon, blister dressings, compass, small torch, paper hankies, surgical tape (helps prevent blisters), super glue, survival bag, some tea, coffee, powdered milk, plastic knife fork and spoon and a sports towel etc. just in case, though many of these I never use. The secret is to find small, travel sized containers, or take part-used ones to minimise on weight. When staying in B&Bs or hotels, some of these items are unnecessary, but in hostels and bunkhouses they are often needed.
Because of the challenging nature of the walk combined with my age, it was a good opportunity to get sponsorship for charity, as most people would not even contemplate walking even one day of it themselves. Consequently, my wife decided to get sponsorship to raise funds for a Community Garden at the church that she is involved with, and I also got sponsorship from people at work to raise money for a 'Secret Garden' project for the residents. I always feel like a fraud when doing this, because my real motive is because I enjoy it, but if others can use it for good causes they may as well do so.
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After a last minute rush to get all my maps printed, then mark the route in highlighter, print relevant pages from the guidebook, copy tracks to my GPS and check that I had not forgotten anything, I was ready to catch the train from Rhyl to Cardiff. My younger daughter Jen gave me a lift to the station and helped me to get the tickets I had already booked online printed from the automatic machine. By booking well ahead, there is a big saving and it only cost £23.75, which I considered to be very reasonable. This particular train had the advantage of being direct whereas many involve one or more changes, and it was scheduled to arrive at around 9.30 pm. YHA Cardiff is a big International Hostel with 24 hour reception and a bar open until 3 am, so there was no worry about what time I arrived.
The platform was very busy with holidaymakers and a grandma with two young children sat next to me whilst their respective mothers sat inside in the waiting room with all of the luggage. The little boy of about two was having screaming tantrums, whereas the little girl of about the same age was somewhat better behaved. The train was a few minutes late, and I tried to find a space away from the kids, but it was fairly crowded so I didn't manage to escape. The train seemed to be going rather slowly, but I didn't think anything of it until an announcement came to say we were running behind schedule because of a fault and we would have to change to another train at Chester. This was a good start, but at least I wasn't worried about being late at the YHA.
The change at Chester went very smoothly, as there was already a replacement train waiting at the platform and our train just pulled in behind. There were already other people on the train, so it was again quite busy and I tried to escape screaming children again, but they followed me down the train looking for seats. At least they were not going all the way to Cardiff, but changing to go to Birmingham, so I didn't have to endure them for too long, although it wasn't exactly peaceful with many others on the train. The train now rattled along at quite high speed and gradually got less crowded as people got off at various stations along the way. By the time we were approaching Cardiff, all the lost time had been made up and we arrived pretty much on schedule.
YHA Cardiff is, in theory, a bit over a mile east of Central Station and I started heading in the right direction, using my OS Map of Cardiff. After a while, I was unsure about my whereabouts, so stopped to get out my GPS which had the hostel marked as the start of my route, and I tried to use that to find my way. First Mistake! Ordnance Survey Maps and GPS are not much use in a city, as the way you want to go is often not possible, either because it is a fast moving expressway with no pedestrian access, or there is a railway line blocking off all the streets. In this case a huge area was cordoned off for the building of a new road bridge, so I spent a long time walking whilst getting no closer to my destination until I had circumnavigated the huge building site and finally found the hostel.
To anyone who is familiar with traditional Youth Hostels, Cardiff comes as quite a shock, as it is basically the old Mercure Hotel with sets of bunk beds instead of normal beds in small en-suite dormitories. The reception area is very modern with a bar open until 3 am, and they were only just removing food menus around 10.30 pm when I arrived. Although aimed at young people and International travellers, the young staff were very welcoming and friendly, so it did have a pleasant atmosphere, though it was noticeable that everyone tended to sit apart from others rather than joining in on communal tables as is the case in most rural hostels. However, it is a case of 'horses for courses' and it serves well in a big city, providing high standard facilities at budget prices.
YHA Cardiff, a very modern hostel
I had eaten before leaving home, so I dropped off my rucksack in my dormitory and went down to the bar for a half litre bottle of Marsden's Oyster Stout before going to bed, resisting any temptation to stay until last orders at 3 am. The rooms are fitted, as a number of modern hotels are, with an electricity supply that only works when a room card is inserted in a slot by the door. This is fine for one person or family, but when there are several strangers sharing the room it is far from smooth in operation. If nobody else has left a card in when you enter, putting in your own card makes whatever lights or equipment that have been left turned on come to life, with the TV playing some YHA propaganda video and various bed and room lights coming on. When you then want to leave the room, you have to take your card key in order to be able to get back in again, in which case the lights and power go off for anyone else in the room unless they come and put their own card in the slot. This is obviously a good energy saving measure and it is easy to see why the YHA retain the system, but it is a nuisance for everyone who is staying, though I doubt that that is much of a concern to the YHA, who are happy to let everyone muddle along trying to cope with the system.
Although dormitories enable bed prices to be cheap, there are downsides in that there is generally at least one person who snores. In this case there was one man whose snoring hit the resonant frequency of the room, which reverberated to his every breath. However, once I manage to get to sleep, I sleep very soundly for a few hours, so I did get enough sleep to see me through the coming day.
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