The Cambrian Way 2000

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 1st Day from Cardiff to Risca

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About the Walk

The Cambrian Way is a mountain walk from Cardiff on the South Coast of Wales to Conwy 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. There has, however, been renewed interest in making it into a National Trail with pressure from The Ramblers' Association following the televised walk of the route by Janet Street-Porter. The Ramblers' Association have supported the idea from the outset, but the added publicity of the television series may help to sway the opposition.

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 has now reached its 5th Edition (ISBN 0 9509580 4 2) 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.

Compared to most other recognised walks in Britain, the Cambrian Way is much more challenging in that its route runs over most of the highest mountains in Wales. It is 275 miles in length and involves an ascent of 61,540 ft (18,742 metres) with a considerable amount of difficult terrain, so should not be undertaken by the faint-hearted. When taking account of the extra distance walked for accommodation stops, getting lost (which is all too easy), additional sightseeing etc. the total distance is unlikely to be less than 300 miles. The mileage calculated is purely that taken from map measurements and this does not take account of the difficulty of some of the terrain. Wainright's guide to the Pennine Way adds an extra twenty miles to the map distance to take account of difficult sections, and these are nothing compared with the difficulties of the Cambrian Way. However, I still prefer to work on map mileage, making my own allowances for the terrain, as any other measurement tends to be rather subjective.

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Planning the Walk

My first attempt at planning the walk was based on Richard Sale's book, which I borrowed from the library in 1996. I had asked for all seven relevant 1:50,000 O.S. maps for a Christmas present and marked them with the route from the book. I worked out a schedule of overnight stops in Youth Hostels and B&Bs and was all set to do the walk in the summer. However, my circumstances took a turn when I was made redundant early in 1996 and I felt that it was better to spend my time trying to find employment and to conserve my money than to spend three weeks time and several hundred pounds on a walking holiday. Having found a contract which lasted for over three years, pressure of work prevented me from taking on any long walks until the summer of 1999, when I managed to fit in a seven-day walk of the Cleveland Way. When this contract came to an end just before the Millennium, I was unable to find any other work and, eventually, my wife and I decided to sell our house and buy an hotel. The purchase of the hotel was scheduled for late July so it left me with the opportunity to fit in a walk before we took over.

At first I intended to follow the itinerary that I had worked out previously, but then found that five of the Youth Hostels where I had intended to stay had been closed. I started looking on the Internet for B&B accommodation when, by chance, I came across a mention of Tony Drake's guide book and managed to order a copy of the latest edition, which had just been published. This made a great difference to my planning, as I found that his recommended route varied somewhat from Richard Sale's route and seemed to be a better one. The book also gives a very good accommodation list as well as much practical advice, which enabled me to plan a slightly different schedule taking twenty days. One of the big advantages I found was in the very difficult 20 mile section over the Rhinog mountains from Barmouth to Trawsfynydd. This had caused me so much of a planning problem previously because there appeared to be no accommodation at all without making a detour of several miles, and the terrain seemed too difficult to enable this section to be walked in one day. Tony Drake's book gave details of a farm house at Cwm Nantcol, only two miles off the route, which I was able to use, saving me the much larger detour to Llanbedr Youth Hostel, which I had previously planned to make.

When planning the walk I had tried to take account of the difficult terrain on some of the sections and also of the large amount of ascent involved. I never like to have days with twenty miles of walking at the best of times, but sometimes these are unavoidable. On this walk I was even more aware that such days should be avoided, if at all possible. Some sections over the highest mountains were kept to very short distances indeed, both because of the ascent and also to allow more time to enjoy the scenery and to allow for any diversions that I may like to make.

After many telephone calls, I finally managed to get all of my accommodation booked, although it was not without one or two difficulties. I had hoped to stay at the Llanddeusant Youth Hostel, but this was full with a school party, and there seemed to be no other accommodation nearby. However, the warden at the hostel put me in touch with the Black Mountain Caravan Park, who agreed to hire me a static caravan as well as some bedding for the night. Llyn-y-Celyn Youth Hostel in the Brecon Beacons was also full and this made me use one of the alternative routes to stay at Ystradfellte Youth Hostel instead. Bryn Gwynant Youth Hostel at Nant Gwynant was also full, but I was able to book bunkhouse accommodation in a log cabin at Bryn Dinas, which was actually better in some ways, as it was closer to the main route. All in all, Youth Hostels tend to be a problem in June, as it is a very popular time for school parties, who often block book a whole hostel to the exclusion of normal Y.H.A. members. However, I tend to find this a good time of year for walking, so I just have to put up with having to find other accommodation.

I had taken advantage during my time out of work, to do a lot of walking, so I did not need to do much extra training to build up for this walk, although I knew it was going to be very strenuous. Shortly before the start, I did a couple of steep mountain walks in Snowdonia, just to get myself into the more strenuous walking that was going to be involved. I was quite apprehensive about the prospect of bad weather, as much of the walk is in the high mountains which are likely to be covered in low cloud for quite a bit of the time. In addition, as this walk was not officially recognised or waymarked, route finding was likely to present problems, especially in poor visibility.

From the point of view of safety, it would have been a great advantage to take a mobile phone but, looking at the route and the very poor network coverage offered in most of the areas, there seemed little point in carrying the extra weight as I would only be able to use it in a few places. I would just have to rely for security on a survival bag and the fact that my wife would raise the alarm if I failed to arrive at any of my scheduled stops.

My equipment was much the same as on previous walks, keeping the weight down to a minimum level, whilst not leaving myself short of any essentials. I intended to do the walk in shorts despite the fact that there may be some rather cold periods on the mountaintops. Shorts give more freedom of movement, and legs tend not to get too cold whilst they are working and generating heat. It is also easier to wash and dry muddy legs than muddy trousers at the end of the day so, on balance I find shorts to be preferable.

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Diary of the Walk

Day 0 - Tuesday 30th May - 6 miles - Dinner, B&B and packed lunch 22.50

Home to Cardiff Youth Hostel via Docks and Castle

I took the 9.15 coach from Doncaster to Cardiff via Nottingham, Birmingham, Ross on Wye and Newport in beautifully sunny weather for most of the way, arriving in Cardiff at 15.45. The journey was uneventful, but I was heartened by the fine weather and hoped that it would stay that way. The route in Tony Drake's book starts at Cardiff Castle, but he says that he intends to extend it to the docks in his next edition. Having a reasonable amount of time to spare, I decided to walk down to the docks for the sake of making it a complete coast to coast walk, and then head back up the Taff Trail as far as the nearest point to the Youth Hostel at Maindy, thus saving a walk back in the opposite direction to the starting point the next morning.

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Bute Docks Co. Building
Mermaid Quay Cardiff
Start of Cambrian Way
Cardiff Castle from Cathays Park

The dockland area around Cardiff Bay has been redeveloped and is the home of, amongst other things, The National Assembly for Wales. However, the most impressive building, to my mind, is the fine old brick building of the Bute Docks Company, which is being renovated to its former glory. I spent a little time around the waterfront near Mermaid Quay in the pleasant sunshine before heading off along the Taff Trail, which either starts at, or passes by, the quay and then follows the river up past the huge National Stadium to Cardiff Castle, then along much the same route as the first part of the Cambrian Way. The castle is an impressive building, but appears to have largely been rebuilt in recent times, so is not so historically important as some of the other castles in Wales. It was closed by the time I got there so I did not go in, not that I would have had time to have a proper look around as I wanted to get to the Youth Hostel in time for an evening meal. From the castle onwards, the route follows the river through Cathays Park by the Taff. Very soon it feels as if the city has been left well behind. Even though the built up areas are not far away, it is remarkably peaceful and quiet along the riverbanks, sheltered from the noise by trees. About a mile north of the castle I headed off in the direction of the Youth Hostel near Roath Park and arrived there at 6.35 p.m.

The walk down to the docks then back to the Castle and on to the Youth Hostel was further than I thought - when I checked on the map it was about 6 miles. I had been walking in a cheap pair of trainers, with little cushioning in the soles - I took these because of their light weight, but they were only intended for evening wear and not for walking very far. With the extra weight of my pack, my feet were already starting to feel a bit sore.

The hostel is a new style one with cafeteria service from 6 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. and it even had a pay-computer for Internet access. When I arrived, there was nobody at reception, as they were all serving meals in the cafeteria which was completely full and had a queue still waiting for tables, so I phoned home and then joined the queue for a meal. With the cafeteria service it is possible to have either the full three-course meal at the fixed price of 4.80, or to just pay for what you have if it is less than that. I had curried chicken with a glass of wine (yes! things have changed in the Y.H.A.), ice cream and coffee. The hostel was mainly occupied by a party of Dutch teenagers plus a few Dutch adults. This is typical of city hostels, which tend to be popular with foreign visitors, who are using them purely as a cheap way of staying in the city, and not as a means of pursuing outdoor activities. I was in a four-bunk dormitory, although there was only one other chap in there, and he didn't enter into much conversation.

After dinner I took a stroll around Roath Park in the pleasant evening sunshine before setting off in search of a pub. Even though the area is well populated I had to walk quite a long way before I came across the Albany Hotel. There was a quiz going on at the time, but it was a pleasant pub and served some good Brain's bitter, a local Cardiff brew. On the way back from the pub I met the chap who was sharing my room, but he arrived back at the hostel after I had gone to bed.

Although it is logical to start this walk by the coast, the first part of the walk, though pleasant, is not the mountain walk that the Cambrian Way is all about - that would have to wait until a little later.

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Day 1 - Wednesday 31st May - 16.7 miles - 2,022 ft ascent - B&B 17.50

Cardiff Youth Hostel to Darren Inn, Risca via Rhymney Valley Ridgeway and Mynydd Machen

There was a lot of noise from the traffic and trains in the morning, as I got up at 7.30 for breakfast at 8.00. I was the first one there, as the other Dutch groups were going in at 8.30, so I was able to get off to an 8.50 start, leaving the chap who was sharing my room still in bed.

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From The Taff Trail
River Taff Cardiff
Castell Coch is on Hillside

I retraced my route back to where I left the Taff Trail, passing all the busy rush-hour traffic for a mile or more and getting back on the route by 9.15 at about one mile from the present starting point at Cardiff Castle. It was already very warm and sunny, and the path alongside the River Taff gave some welcome coolness under the trees, which also blocked off the traffic noise, leaving only the sound of birdsong. The walk by the river was easy and pleasant but I missed a turning to go along by the canal. It was not essential to turn back, but I did not want to start deviating from the route at this early stage, so I retraced my steps for about a third of a mile to the turning. The canal was very picturesque, as it was overgrown with water lilies with dragonflies hopping from one to another. There were also lots of irises in a lovely wooded setting which was very tranquil right up to the busy M4 interchange. It was hard to believe that this calm and secluded place was right next to a busy motorway. Even the route across the motorway intersection, through underpasses and over footbridges, was well sheltered from the busy traffic, and I even noticed a spotted orchid growing by the wayside.

After negotiating the motorway intersection, the route led through Tongwynlais, which is overlooked by Castle Coch up on the hillside. This was the first hill on the route, so I now started to feel that the walk was properly under way. There was very little breeze and it was very warm as I stopped for a drink and a snack by Castle Coch. It was very pleasant in the wooded surroundings apart from the distant roar of traffic. Quite a few people were visiting the castle, which was built as a folly, and many were sitting around enjoying the sunshine.

I set off again at 11.50 climbing up the path through the trees. It was hot work climbing upwards despite the coolness offered by the trees, so I soon stopped to take off my top. Unfortunately, though the trees give some welcome coolness, they also block out all of the view and, what started off being rather pleasant, soon started to get monotonous. Eventually, near Thornhill, the trees thin out affording views across the valley towards another ridge running parallel. One section of the woodland was completely carpeted in white with wild garlic to the almost total exclusion of any other vegetation.

Further along the view opens up more to give a view overlooking Caerphilly as well as the radio masts on Mynydd Machen which I would pass a couple of miles from the end of the day's walk. I stopped by an old quarry for lunch in the warm sunshine but it soon clouded over and was not so good for sunbathing as I had thought. I had ordered a large packed lunch from the Youth Hostel, as the standard ones are often not substantial enough to satisfy the needs on a long day's walk. After an hour airing my feet with my boots and socks off, I set off again on my way. After Castle Coch I had seen very few people around apart from golfers, some workmen and a girl on a pony.

After another mile or so offering a hazy view I was back into trees again for most of the way into Machen. The odd short stretch of forest or woodland can be pleasant on a walk, but this part of the walk has too much for my liking. I doubt whether there is really any better alternative route over this section, but I do think that the Forestry Commission have a lot to answer for when it comes to destroying views from hilltops.

Quickly passing through the former mining village of Machen, I started the ascent of Mynydd Machen, the first real summit of the walk. There was quite a steep path up through forestry followed by an even steeper path up the open hillside. There were good views all around but spoiled by the weather which was now overcast with a cold wind blowing at the summit. By walking a little way from the rounded summit, it was possible to view a number of the mining valleys such as the Ebbw and Rhymney valleys, which were once the centre of a huge mining industry, when the whole region, including all the hillsides, was covered in coal dust. Now that all of the coal mines have been closed down, they have gradually been replaced by lighter industry giving rise to a much cleaner environment, but the area still retains much of the industrial character of former times.

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Looks like huge burial mound
Spoil Heap from Mynydd Machen
Heart of former mining industry
Ebbw Valley from Mynydd Machen

One interesting feature to the west of Mynydd Machen is a spoil heap in the form of a long ridge on top of the adjoining hillside and looking somewhat like a huge ancient burial mound. Now that it has been covered by vegetation it is a rather a fine addition to the landscape rather than the eyesore that it no doubt was in former days.

As I started to make my way down towards Risca it started to rain a little. The route down presented some slight difficulties as the footpath at one point had disappeared in a field of crops, and the continuation through the forest was rather overgrown, but it was worthwhile taking this route rather than the road as there were still lots of bluebells in flower along the path.

After crossing the Ebbw River and following a short stretch of the Brecon Canal, I arrived at the Darren Inn at 18.00 and had a relaxing soak in the bath before going down for a meal. Unfortunately, they only did bar meals at lunch times and Thursday to Saturday evenings, trade being very slack earlier in the week. They were, however, selling some good Buckley's IPA at only 1.20 a pint. There were a number of other pubs down the road but none seemed to be doing any food either, so I ended up having fish, chips and peas from the chip shop. I then returned to the Darren Inn for another pint before going off to watch some television in my room and then have an early night ready for the next day's walk.

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