The Black Mountain northern escarpment

Ann, Helen, Liz and Shona - the brave ones

Ann, Helen, Liz and Shona – the brave ones

A combination of Christmas looming and an atrocious weather forecast for the Black Mountains resulted in a limited turn out for this lovely walk. The forecast warned of winds of 55-60mph at 400m with driving rain. The temperature, because of wind chill would only be a degree or so above freezing. Not the pleasantest of conditions for a 10 mile walk and, I guess, if you were walking alone you would decide not to go. But I wasn’t alone. I had four intrepid ladies and a dog to consider and when you have spent an hour and a half in a car your body is ready for some exercise. In any case, the weather was nothing like as bad as the forecast had suggested. It was windy, but not that windy. There was moisture in the air but not a lot. It was cool but it was mid December. What do you expect when you go out on to the hills? So, always prepared to cut the walk short or deviate from the planned route should the need arise, we set off up the steep slope to Hay Bluff.

The wind was certainly stronger, but not impossible. The moisture in the air suggested it might be a good idea to put waterproofs on, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Along the uppermost reaches of Hay Bluff water had frozen overnight leaving behind a thin layer of ice which crunched under our heavy boots. The base of the cloud remained a few meters above our heads and there were occasional glimpses of brightness on distant green fields in the Wye Valley.

We were now walking into the teeth of the wind and it would be so until we dropped down off the ridge in five miles or so. It was good to be out, to feel the elements on exposed skin, to be warmed by the exercise and not to see another sole on the hills. The forecast must have put so many off. From Hay Bluff we descended to Gospel Pass, a point of escape if we chose, but didn’t, we continued to climb Twmpa, or more humorously called Lord Hereford’s Knob, and on to Dirion across the water laden peat bogs on the top. Something needs to be done about the motor bike scramblers who plough up this fragile environment with their heavily treaded tyres and potentially ruin it for ever. It was while walking along this stretch that the wind suddenly changed and came from the north.

Lunch with a view

Lunch with a view

My plan was for a lunch stop at a point where we would be sheltered from the south-westerly. Now we would be exposed. As luck would have it, by the time we reached lunch the wind had changed again and we had the pleasure of sitting in sheltered calm in the valley on the route down the Rhiw Cwnstab with views back along the escarpment. The heavy cloud muted the colours of the contrasting greens and browns but it was still a good place to be and we were all glad that we had made the effort.

After lunch we descended further and made our way beneath the escarpment. Looking up at the wall of mountain was probably more impressive than looking down from the top. The dull light meant that every feature was visible, every rocky outcrop, every nook and cranny. Ironically the lack of sunlight, and therefore shadow, highlighted the features.

We were keeping very well to the time plan and the weather showed no sign of deteriorating despite the forecast for it to do so. That is, not until the last 200m back to the cars, during which the rain fell more heavily and steadily, driven by the wind. Had it come earlier in the day, it might have been a less pleasant walk. As it was we were satisfied with our determination and deserved the cup of tea and cake at the Granary in Hay on Wye before heading home.

This is a really beautiful walk, not too arduous, but with stunning views. It will be worth repeating on another occasion, with a larger group and a guarantee of more settled weather. Next year, maybe.

Out and About

Monday 24th November dawned bright and cold with crystal clear skies and the first real frost of the winter. A good day to get out on the hills.

In February, and again in March, I have the dubious pleasure of guiding 60 French teenagers and their teachers in the Brecon Beacons National Park. They only want a walk for 2.5 – 3 hours. This presents a number of problems. They will be arriving by coach for which narrow lanes, lack of parking facilities and no suitable turning places make access difficult and lengthen the walk beyond the time allowed. February and March can be temperamental with the weather and to have a group insufficiently kitted out would be dangerous. Finally, with such numbers involved, each obstacle would delay progress significantly. Even if it only took each individual ten seconds to cross a style it would still take ten minutes to get everybody across.

Discussing the issue with David Thomas we decided upon Sugarloaf as the best option. It is relatively accessible to transport on the Abergavenny side, it is not too high and therefore potentially achievable, and even if there is too much snow on the higher slopes there are still circumnavigational routes that could still fit the bill.

With that in mind, David and I met in the car park for the Abergavenny Leisure Centre attached to King Henry VIII School. This was the nearest accessible car park for a coach. David had his dogs with him, a lively pair of spaniels with the combined capacity to drag you up any hill.

Sugarloaf

Sugarloaf

Leaving the outskirts of the town behind we headed up the wooded valley known as The Park. The now leafless beech trees looked majestic as their strong looking grey trunks pierced the blue sky above. It was a steady climb all the way up the valley and, although not steep, it seemed to be taking a long time before we seemed to be getting anywhere. There was not a breath of wind. Despite the air temperature probably still being in single figures, it was very warm. I had far too much clothing on. Towards the top of the valley there is a middle aged oak woodland that I had only ever seen from above before but never walked through. There is something special about a forest of oaks – they may not be the tallest trees but they are tree royalty. By the time we emerged on to the open hillside we had been going for well over an hour and a half and we were still 170m short of the summit. Realisation dawned that this was not going to work; it was too long and potentially too difficult for a significant percentage of the group depending upon their levels of fitness.

Table Mountain

Table Mountain

Abandoning any desire to head for the summit, we headed back down the ridge known as the Deri, a long finger pointing south to Abergavenny. Whilst it would have been very pleasant to go on to the summit and see the very clear expansive views, I had other ambitions for the afternoon. Further discussions with David, as we descended, came round to the view that Table Mountain, above Crickhowell, was probably the best option for such a group. The coach could easily reach Llanbedr where there was ample room for turning and a parking place. From there Table Mountain was easily accessible and there would be minimal obstacles to slow us down. We also agreed that where we had just been, plus venturing on to the summit and meandering around the open hillside before descending would probably make a good winter day walk for a group at some point in the future.

Having finished, David went to photograph Table Mountain so I could send a picture to France while I went to explore the Skirrid, a hill I had admired for many years but never been up. It is the start point for the first of a series of walks I am doing at next year’s Crickhowell Walking Festival, linking up sections of the Beacons Way. I wanted to have a look at the route and to determine how good the signage is. Judging by what I saw the signs are well placed and numerous.

Sunlit woodland

Sunlit woodland

The car park on the B4521 was surprisingly full for a Monday but as the weather was so beautiful it was also to be expected. The walk climbs quite steeply up the southern end of the hill, through Caer Wood. Despite the fact that the National Trust have done a lot of work to maintain the path, the recent spells of rain have rendered it quite muddy in places. the brilliant sunshine illuminated the trunks of the trees and it was surprising just how colourful the woods were despite the lack of leaves. The mosses on the northern side of the trunks was luminescent in the damp conditions.

The Black Mountains

The Black Mountains

Emerging from the wood I came out on to a narrow ridge climbing gently towards the summit at the very northern tip. The sun was gradually dipping towards the west, casting a stunning glow on the Black Mountains, a mixture of vivid greens and golden browns. To the east I could look over the area of Herefordshire where we had walked in September on the Three Castles Circuit. There it was predominantly vivid greens dotted with grazing sheep. The only castle that should have been visible was White Castle but it was difficult to distinguish the grey stone from the grey trees around it. The ground fell away steeply on either side and ahead, at the summit, it fell away sheer to the west. Below the remains of an ancient landslide protrude creating a second lower ridge. This is believed to have happened shortly after the last ice-age.

Looking south along the ridge from the summit

Looking south along the ridge from the summit

Reaching the summit, having climbed approximately 300m, I took time to enjoy the 360 degree vista. To the east were the Herefordshire hills with the Malverns behind. To the north, Clee Hill, The Long Mynd and the Stiperstones of Shropshire. To the west the whole of the Black Mountains with a hint of the Brecon Beacons beyond. To the south the Usk snaking its way across the expanse of farmland as it headed towards its final destination in the Bristol Channel, which could also be seen. Also to the south, the sun reflected off numerous glass or metal surfaces in Abergavenny, giving the appearance of the town being on fire.

Immediately north from the summit

Immediately north from the summit

On the summit are the remains of a small chapel, hence Skirrid being known as the Holy Mountain. Historically it has been a place of pilgrimage and there are a number of interesting legends associated with the hill.

From the summit the Beacons Way retraces itself for a couple of hundred metres before descending down the east side and continuing north. This avoids descending by the very steep nose immediately below the summit. Instead of following the Beacons Way, I turned and contoured south around the hill, back into the woods until I picked up the path by which I had ascended. As I reached the car the sun was just disappearing behind the hills to the west and the temperature began to drop appreciably.

Days like this are made for walking on the hills. They don’t have to be high to be enjoyed.

The Northern Escarpment of the Black Mountains

With a walk planned for next month I thought I ought to take the opportunity to have a look at it, although the Black Mountains is an area I know well. Having listened to an improving weather forecast I set out last Sunday to find, by the time I reached the car park, I was shrouded in thick mist and the rain was falling heavily. According to the forecast on my phone there was little chance of improvement throughout the day, the Black Mountains not necessarily complying with climatic trends elsewhere. It is best when you are doing a recce to be able to see so I abandoned my walk without bothering to change into my boots.

I had decided I was not going to do the planned walk from Hay Bluff along Offa’s Dyke, dropping into Capel-y-ffin to then climb up to Twmpa before returning to the start point. We have all walked Offa’s Dyke, which can be boring at the best of times. We have all slithered on the descent to Vision Farm and wallowed in the mud along the track to Capel-y-ffin. None of us needed to do those again either. So I decided to go where we had not been before and explore the northern escarpment of the Black Mountains from the two perspectives of high and low.

Mist on the top of Hay Bluff

Mist on the top of Hay Bluff

Yesterday, Tuesday, held more promise, so I set out again to find the tops shrouded in cloud but, this time, with a much better chance of breaking free from it. It was chilly when I emerged from the car and for the first time this season I wore two fleeces, a hat and gloves. Heading into the mist I climbed the steep path up to Hay Bluff. The wind was coming from the south, so once I reached the ridge the mist doused me in a very fine spray. As I descended towards Gospel Pass the mist began to thin and blue sky could be seen through it, Twmpa (Lord Hereford’s Knob) kept emerging and disappearing again, but the signs were there that it was going to clear and be a spectacular day. Already it was much brighter to the south and by the time I reached the summit of Twmpa I was bathed in not-so-warm sunshine. To the east Hay Bluff was still shrouded.

The walk along the top of the escarpment is beautiful, not for the features on the top but for the occasional glimpses down the face into gullies, and for the far reaching views across the Wye Valley to the hills and mountains of mid-Wales. The colours were stunning with the browns of the now dead bracken contrasting with the vivid greens of the well watered grass. The trees still held a little colour but they were clearly fading fast and they prepared for their winter sleep. One worrying aspect of this walk, particularly having passed the trig point on Pen Rhos Dirion, were the many tracks created by off-road motorbikes, churning up the fragile grasses, obliterating the path and turning the area into a quagmire. The tracks cover an area at least the width of three lanes of a motorway and is clearly a playground for those who should not be there, but are difficult to control.

Looking east at Twmpa from Rhiw Cwnstab

Looking east at Twmpa from Rhiw Cwnstab

On reaching the deep cleft that is Cwm Cwnstab I descended by Rhiw Cwnstab. The route is so named, I am led to believe, from the time when construction workers were building the Grwyne Fawr Reservoir, started in 1912, interrupted by the First World War, and concluded in 1928. Down valley from the construction site a village, Blaen-y-cwm, was created for the workforce, which included all the necessary facilities of a school, chapel and pub. The latter was very popular, particularly on pay day when a surfeit of booze encouraged the men to brawl. Usually a young lad would be sent over the hill to Talgarth to summon the local constable who would walk over to sort matters out, thus the route became known as Rhiw Cwnstab. True or not it makes for an interesting story. The view on the way down this route is stunning and on a good day is an ideal spot for lunch. Looking east you have the crenelated slopes as far as Twmpa to admire. To the north the patchwork of fields and moorland sloping down to the River Wye with the hills of mid-Wales rising beyond. To the west is the even more stunning northern escarpment of the Brecon Beacons, although not as clearly defined in the late autumn haze.

The walk so far had been very easy to navigate and I was expecting more navigational decisions to be made on the return along the foot of the escarpment. The map shows a wide variety of paths crisscrossing each other with no direct line to follow. However, on the ground, while there were many paths to follow, there was one which seemed to follow a direct west to east line. Being at the foot of the escarpment it tended to be quite wet and muddy in places where run off had gathered in the grooves, largely created by livestock, that make up the path. The path undulated without being too arduous, although there is one climb a little longer than the others as I chose to stay high over a spur running off Twmpa. As I rounded the spur Hay Bluff came into view, or at least it would have had it not still been shrouded in cloud.

Atmospheric Twmpa

Atmospheric Twmpa

Walking on my own it had taken me five hours to cover the ten miles. I only stopped once, for twenty minutes for lunch. With a group it will take a little longer. I never tire of walking in the Black Mountains but it is refreshing when you do a route you have not done before. I have walked along the top before, mostly in a west to east direction, but I had never done the lower level return before and it makes for a very interesting and pleasurable walk. It does need reasonable weather to gain the most from it.  I saw not a sole all day and as I looked back at Twmpa from my car it displayed itself atmospherically in moody lighting. I think those who join me next month will enjoy this walk.

 

 

Adventure Guide with Classic Journeys – 2015 Trip Programme

DSC_0180Adventure Guide, with Classic Journeys, has a full and increasing programme for the years ahead, with something for everybody from cultural tours to mountain treks to long distance trails in the UK. Built on the success of more than 20 years of training and trekking with the King’s Himalayan Club, the following programme is available in 2015.

Mera Peak (6486m) Dates 26th March -20th April 2015 A stunning trek and climb in the Nepal Himalaya. A unique opportunity to climb the highest trekking peak in Nepal as part of a fabulous 18 day trek in a less frequented area giving you a real taste of adventure.

The Dales Way – Dates 6th – 14th June 2015 A fully supported camping trip from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere through some of England’s most beautiful countryside.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path – Dates 27th June – 5th July 2015 A fully supported camping trip. This is not the path in its entirety but includes the best sections to fit within the time frame.

Iceland – Dates 24th July – 2nd August 2015 A breath taking 5-day trek in the remote northeast and an opportunity to visit some of Iceland’s most spectacular attractions. Iceland is one of the most understated countries in the world. This trip not only takes you whale watching from Husavik, it also takes you to the thermal activity around Lake Myvatn, to the tallest waterfall in the country, climbs a spectacular peak and incorporates a stunning, remote 4/5 day trek in the NE of the country.

The Cotswold Way – Dates 4th – 13th September 2015 A fully supported camping trip in a beautiful stretch of rural England with attractive market towns and quaint villages.

Shivling and the Source of the Ganges – Dates 20th Sept. – 3rd Oct. 2015 A trek in the Garhwal Himalaya, northern India, to the Source of the Ganges in the shadow of Shivling. The Ganges is religiously important to approximately one billion Hindus. This 13-day trip takes us into the Garhwal Himalaya to the source of the Ganges, where many Sadhus (Holy men) reside and on to Shivling Base Camp for stunning views of this spectacular mountain. At 6543m, it is not the highest Himalayan peak by any means but it too is of huge religious importance, being the sacred symbol of the God, Lord Shiva.

 Possible destinations for the next two or three years

Sri Lanka – a rich mixture of culture, adventure and relaxation in a country that is emerging after many years of civil war.

Makalu Base Camp (5400m) - a trek to the fifth highest mountain in the world in memory of Scott Rennie and to raise funds for CRY – April 2016

Greenlanda chance to visit the vast emptiness of Greenland with its spectacular scenery.

Galapagos Islandsan opportunity to explore the unique flora and fauna of theseremote islands. This trip can include some time on mainland Ecuador

Vietnaman off the beaten track trip trekking among the hill tribes of the north as well as visiting some of the better known sights and including a short extension into Cambodia

For more information email john@adventureguide.org.uk call 07944611253

Double Booked

It was one of those weekends when you needed to be in two places at the same time. ‘Share the Vision’ had a training weekend based at King’s YHA near Dolgellau and I was leading a group of friends on a walk in the Forest of Dean on the Sunday. Not wishing to disappoint, I spent Friday evening and Saturday in Wales and Sunday in the Forest of Dean.

From the summit on a blustery autumnal day

From the summit on a blustery autumnal day

Looking up the forecast for Saturday we were not encouraged. The morning was to be very wet following lots of overnight rain, very windy on exposed slopes, cold on the summits but brightening as the day progressed. Certainly the ground was waterlogged and the river flowing past the youth hostel was full, fast and coloured. However, having travelled all this way we were not going to be deterred from climbing Cadair Idris with the group. To make life easier for us we only had three visually impaired students to look after, although flat light, mist and rain was going to make it more difficult for them. With ten sighted guides we were going to be able to share the responsibilities.

Saturday dawned dry and reasonably bright after some heavy overnight rain. This was already a bonus and the longer it lasted the more optimistic we became. The aim was to drive round to Minffordd on the south side and walk across Cadair and back to the hostel on the north side.

The stepped climb up through the trees, with the Nant Cadair cascading noisily to our right, is steep and a heart pumping introduction to the walk. However, the advantage is that you gain height quickly and once clear of the trees the views, despite the dank conditions made the effort worthwhile. The students coped well with the guiding on the narrow steep path, with a running commentary of the terrain under their feet from the lead guide and a second behind to assist if needed with stumbles and foot placement. The experience gave the guides confidence in such terrain and those being guided felt they could trust those looking after them.

Heading up the Minffordd Track

Heading up the Minffordd Track

Having reached Llyn Cau we then took the Minffordd Path around the impressive ridge to the south of the lake with cliffs and steep gullies falling away to our right. The path reaches a summit before dropping quite steeply over a rock strewn slope to Craig Cau. This downward slope proved to be the hardest obstacle so far and the guides had to be extra vigilant to get their partners down safely. Often, those with visual impairment find depth of field very difficult, not knowing how deep a step is or whether a gap between rocks is solid or not. The fact that they negotiated this safely gives credit to the guides and to the visually impaired in trusting those looking after them.

On the summit

On the summit

Throughout the morning we had had very little rain, just a few short spells, but nothing as bad as the forecast had suggested. While we had been walking around the ridge the summit of Cadair had mostly been shrouded in cloud but eventually that lifted, giving us a view of our target, which we reached three and a quarter hours after leaving the car park. On the summit we were exposed to the strong winds, so we took refuge in the substantial stone shelter where we ate our picnic lunch. We really had been lucky; we had a view below the heavy layer of cloud only a few metres above our heads and we had remained relatively dry.

Contrasting colours of autumn

Contrasting colours of autumn

As we ate lunch we soon began to feel chilled so it was time to begin the descent. Now we were in the full force of the wind, and the heavy rain, which began to fall, making up for not soaking us in the morning. The wind meant that any exposed skin was peppered with sharp needles of viciously propelled water droplets. Despite the rain, the strong winds and one or two areas which required some rocky negotiation, it was a good route down. Occasionally glimpses of sunshine would light up distant hills highlighting the stunning colours of autumn from the vivid greens of pasture land, the varying yellows of ageing leaves to the copper coloured bracken and long grasses on the open hillsides.

Finally, our approach to the youth hostel was through the trees accompanying the fast flowing Gwynant, a beautiful way to end a walk, to reach warmth, dry clothes, a cup of tea and loads of yummy cakes!

Leaving them to enjoy their cakes, I headed back to Worcester to dry my kit before heading for the Forest of Dean. While I was going to be there the ‘Share the Vision’ group were going to enjoy another day’s walking near Dolgellau.

For me, the sun shone brightly on Sunday morning and it promised to remain so until a band of rain moved in late in the afternoon. Hopefully, by the time it came we would be finished. Twenty of us gathered in the car park at Symonds Yat, disappointed to see notices announcing that the cafe would not be open today, depriving us of tea and cake at the end of the walk.

Making our way through the forest

Making our way through the forest

There were still plenty of the vibrant autumnal colours to enjoy despite recent cold snaps, heavy rains and strong winds. The carpet of leaves on the ground was thicker and there was significantly more mud to squelch through. At 11.00am we paused for two minutes to reflect upon those who sacrificed themselves for our liberty. With dappled sunlight penetrating the trees and the sound of water on its hasty journey down the hill, it was easy to reflect on how lucky we were to be where we were. The carpet of leaves on the ground were reminiscent of poppy petals, and, having recently visited the poppies at the Tower of London, made it all the more poignant.

The Suck Stone

The Suck Stone

Heading for the Suck Stone we perched on the rocks of an escarpment and enjoyed a welcome break while we admired the view over the wooded hills of the Wye Valley. The Suck Stone is a detached piece of rock from the escarpment and is reputably the largest piece of rock in the British Isles, weighing in at a mighty 30,000 tons (imperial).

Descending past the Suck Stone we gathered pace on a wide forest trail before crossing the B4136 and continued to Monmouth. The recent rain had found its way into the river and the levels were quite high. Now the murky, brown water was flowing relatively quickly and was much more vocal. A long stretch of the path crosses fields of pasture before rounding a corner and heading back into the trees. We were all walking at a steady pace with a tendency to keep your eyes focused on the path at your feet. This strategy led to my demise as I did not see the low branch straddling the path. It stopped me dead in my tracks as my head thumped into the hard timber with a skin splitting crunch. I could feel the fold of skin peeled back by the impact and the slight oozing of blood. Fortunately the bleeding was not profuse and I was not in any great pain. My own stupid fault, just get on with it. My head began to feel a bit like the top of a tomato sauce jar with the seal on the lid broken and messy tomato ketchup coagulating around the opening.

The River Wye from the look out

The River Wye from the look out

The sunshine of the morning had gone and the clouds were building for the expected rain. I was quite keen to get back before it came and certainly before the car park barrier was locked at 5.00pm. There was no reason to linger on this stretch of the walk and so we made good progress, getting back ten minutes before sunset and just as the rain began to fall. Good timing.

It is an excellent twelve mile walk through varied countryside, and one which could easily be repeated according to the seasons in order to gain a different perspective and emphasis each time. Shame about the cafe and the lack of tea and cakes at the end.