A Circular Walk from Clun

Clun Castle

Clun Castle

One of the effects of high pressure over the UK, something we have not seen for a long time during this dull, wet and warm winter, is a lot of hazy sunshine. That was certainly the case when, just a select, small group of us set out to walk the 11.5 mile circuit incorporating The Shropshire Way, Offa’s Dyke and The Jack Mytton Way. It seemed like a good opportunity for me to don a pair of shorts and expose my legs to a bit of vitamin D.

Having circumnavigated the castle guarding the valley, the walk follows a brook across fields before it begins to climb steadily up a long ridge, from the top of which the whole of the South Shropshire countryside opens out before you. There are no towns, factories, motorways or lines of pylons to blot the undulating 360 degree view. The high pressure haze meant that the view disappeared gradually with distance. Dropping briefly we then climbed around the northern edge of Hergan where we joined Offa’s Dyke, clearly showing on the ground. Now, the landscape was more undulating.

IMG_1951You might have expected the dyke to follow the uppermost line of the hills but this is not the case here. I suspect that being positioned half way up the westerly facing slope, at its steepest point, provided the best vantage point for those wanting to keep the Welsh out. If it had followed the hill tops there would have been the possibility of surprise, as they tended to round off and not provide the full view that any defenders would have felt comfortable with. It was from this vantage point that we enjoyed a long, lazy lunch, in the sunshine.

Offa's Dyke half way point

Offa’s Dyke half way point

Continuing south we descended steeply into the Clun Valley before climbing steadily up the other side. On reaching the top we left Offa’s Dyke and headed across fields of lambs and nursing ewes to pick up the Jack Mytton Way, named after an eccentric Shropshire squire of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. He was renowned for rebel rousing and for outlandish behaviour that privilege seemed to allow. His biography is a lot more interesting than this particular section of his trail, most of it being a quiet lane descending into Clun. Other sections are a lot more interesting and friendly on the feet.

IMG_1957As we walked into town we passed the church with its enormous tower, not in height but in girth. It was extremely impressive. The graveyard is dotted with headstones of long forgotten local people but there is one which belongs to playwright, John Osborne, who settled in the area, dying on Christmas Eve, 1994. He was joined by his fifth wife, helen Dawson, in 2004. Although he died penniless, he left an enormous legacy of outstanding plays that people of my generation grew up with.

Clun Bridge

Clun Bridge

In Clun, we were in time to visit the tea shop by the bridge for a Tardis-like pot of tea and the largest wedge of chocolate cake imaginable. It was a strange establishment that was part antique shop, part museum, as well as being a welcome tea stop. The warm weather had enticed hundreds of bluebottle flies out of the nooks and crannies in the crumbling fabric of the building and they lay dying on the shelf in the bay window. Get used to it, in a couple of weeks I will be picking flies out of my dal bhat in Nepal!

The Crickhowell Walking Festival 27th Feb. – 6th March 2016

The Crickhowell Walking Festival has been running for nine years and is one of the most well organised festivals of it kind in the UK (if we are to believe what our customers say). I have been involved most years as a walk leader and enjoy walking with new people, although many of those walking with me come back year after year.

Reaching the summit of Corn Du, Brecon Beacons

Reaching the summit of Corn Du, Brecon Beacons

This year I led the eastern section of the Beacons Way from west to east, a distance of 49 miles of mountainous country spread over four days. Last year I did it from east to west. It is always a gambol organising a festival such as this with the unpredictability of the Welsh weather but we have always been lucky with only the odd inclement day. This year has been no exception, although the days never turned out a badly as the forecasters predicted. I don’t know whether it is health and safety, the “Nanny State” or the haunting fear of not predicting the 1987 hurricane, but we are issued with so many weather warnings relating to heavy rain, freezing temperatures, snow, high pollen counts, rising UV levels, it is lucky that we dare venture out of our houses at all.

Standing firm in the strong winds on Crug Mawr

Standing firm in the strong winds on Crug Mawr

As a result, on my third day of walking I had seven people not show up because of what the forecasters had said. Yes, it was windy. Yes we did have some squally snow showers. Yes, it was cold if you stood still for long enough, but it was wonderful to feel the elements, the wind on you face, trying its best to knock you sideways off the path, the flakes of snow driven hard into your face like needles into a pin cushion. What is wrong with that? It is part of the rich tapestry of experiences that make life worth living. As I pointed out to my diminished group of walkers, any discomfort that we experience will only last a few hours, a discomfort that will turn into cherished experience as we sup a warming cup of tea or a refreshingly well-deserved beer at the end.

Glorious spring scenery in the Black Mountains

Glorious spring scenery in the Black Mountains

In the four days that I was walking you could not have asked for a more diverse range of conditions from one day to the next. The so-called “severe” day was bracketed with two days of sporadic Spring-like sunshine, warm enough to enjoy a relaxing lunch stop.

In addition to the 92 walks, which cater for all abilities with distances ranging from 2 – 19 miles, from flat valleys walks to multi ascents and descents, there are a number of events to help visitors appreciate the area more, to teach them how to take themselves off into the hills with confidence, and to entertain. The star attraction this year was Kenton Cool, eleven times summiteer of Everest, including the ‘Everest Three Peaks’ in one climb (Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse). Wow!

It really is an excellent festival that involves everybody in the town and brings in visitors at what would be a normally quiet time of year. Why not try it for yourself next year – February 26th – March 5th 2017!

Man Down! Man Down!

In the morning the sun shone and the night time rain that had fallen sporadically throughout had coated the upper slopes of the Black Mountains with a dusting of snow.

Our original plan was to drive round to Cwmyoy and walk from there on to Offa’s Dyke and Hatterrall Hill, but with sunshine not guaranteed to last and the prospect of snow showers, we felt it better to walk from and return to the Old Chapel rather than change in an exposed car park.

IMG_1717There were just ten of us walking, others having other commitments or were still suffering the effects of yesterday’s wet and windy adventure. I knew there were ten as I did a head count as we were leaving. However, about half a mile into the walk, it became apparent that we were a man down! Peter Hardyman was missing! How can that happen? How can we lose somebody in such a short time? Simon ventured back down the track but there was no sign of Peter. Having waited for ten minutes we accepted our loss and carried on.

IMG_1718For the next hour we climbed continuously at a steady pace up to the ridge that leads north to Gadair Fawr and Waun Fach and south, eventually descending into Llanbedr. It was good to get some views after the restrictions of the day before and the colours were noticeably brighter than we would normally expect at this time of year; a sign of the exceptionally mild winter and the fact that the growing season has never really ended. There was even frog spawn carelessly clustered in some of the puddles in the rutted paths. A significant cold snap or an unseasonal drought will seriously reduce their chances of survival.

Crug Mawr

Crug Mawr

As we walked along the ridge squally showers of fine but very sharp snow swept across on the strengthening wind. During these occasions the mountains took on a moody appearance. Between showers the sun shone and the colours picked up. As the morning progressed into the afternoon the showers became more frequent. Fortunately, the sun shone while we were on the top of Crug Mawr.

Descending to Blaenau Isaf, we returned to the Old Chapel. Peter re-joined us fifteen minutes later. He had taken himself off when he, having popped back to the chapel for his ice axe(!), didn’t know where we were heading. To be fair he had managed to send me a text message to let me know where he was going. Sometimes I find children much easier to manage!

We had a great weekend with extremes of weather, super food, lots of alcohol, good conversation and many laughs, all the things you need to add spice to life. Thanks to all those who took part and made it a memorable weekend.

Wales at its wet best!

Nothing was going to stop us having a good weekend in the Brecon Beacons as we gathered on Friday evening at the Old Chapel. There were 15 of us all together, although there should have been more but a less than pleasant weather forecast seemed to have deterred some, not that they would admit that that was the reason.

During the evening the collection of empty bottles in the corner increased as the supplies of full ones dwindled! Tongues loosened and laughter echoed around the room as the heat from the wood burner condensed on the cold, stone walls.

As forecast, the rain started to fall heavily at about 4.00am and was set to last well into the next night. Those of us who were camping emerged from our tents on to an already soggy field.

Crossing the swollen Afon Tarell

Crossing the swollen Afon Tarell

Fortified with a full Welsh, we drove over to Storey Arms determined to fulfil our walking ambitions, if only to respond to the derisory remarks from ‘lounge lizard’ Crowcroft, safe and warm in his Northants home. It was wet. Very wet, and windy. Fortunately, as we set out, the wind was behind us, pushing us along the Taff Trail towards the youth hostel. The ground was absolutely sodden, muddy and very slippery and we found ourselves using a lot of energy trying not to slip.

Lunch!

Lunch!

Remarkably, it was somehow enjoyable. Our kit was being put to the test, and largely failing. It was also stunningly beautiful. Although the higher summits were hugged by dense, water laden clouds, the slopes were streaked with gashes of rushing streams tumbling erratically down, filling and flooding the larger tracts of water in the valley floors. Fortunately it was not particularly cold, even in the strengthening wind. The only time we began to cool down was when we stopped for a quick ten minutes to put some fuel into our bodies, just prior to the longest climb of the day.

IMG_1712The climb took us up the narrowing valley beneath the towering cliffs of Craig Cwm-du with many tumbling waterfalls cascading down them. The path was perilously close to the raging stream, so much so that we had to climb above it and cut across tussocky heather to Fan Frynych. On the top the wind cut loose and blasted us with needles of face peircing rain, forcing us to squint to protect our eyes.

Cutting across the open moorland that makes up Fan Frynych, we picked up the path that skirted along the edge of the impressive cliffs that make up the sweeping arc of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad. In places the path went worryingly close to the edge. This would not normally be a worry but in the strong wind an unexpected gust could easily catch you off guard. Eventually leaving the edge we again cut across the tussocky grass, crossing numerous swollen streams towards the car park, visible for a long time but slow to reach. By the time we did reach it at 3.30pm it was virtually empty, only the hardiest of walkers still out on the hills.

Having finished the walk we were keen to head back quickly to change before heading to the Red Lion in Llanbedr for the Scotland v England match – not pretty but the right result. It had been a while since I had visited the Red Lion but it was great to be made to feel so welcome by everybody, irrespective of which side of the bar they stood.

Peter Hardyman

Peter Hardyman

In the evening, having feasted well and drunk considerably more, the conversation and laughter rang out. The most amusing among us was the usually reserved Peter Hardyman. Having only brought a pair of walking boots with him, he had nothing dry to wear on his feet. The stone floor of the chapel was cold, so he fashioned out a pair of slippers made from a discarded wine box and a discarded beer box. He really shouldn’t mix his boxes! The mop head wig and ice axe completed a very bizarre picture.

There will be headaches in the morning!

 

Citadel

Citadel_landscape_poster_lrWhen you know a leading character in an event it seriously heightens the interest. I have always been drawn towards mountain expedition stories but ‘Citadel’, the latest offering from Alastair Lee and Posing Productions, is of particular interest. It is the story of Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey’s attempt to climb the previously unclimbed north-west ridge of Citadel, a stunningly beautiful mountain in the remote Neocola Mountains of Alaska. My interest? Jon Bracey. Today Jon is a muscularly toned climber with features carved out of the rock on which he climbs. I remember him being a relatively short, reserved, yet still very fit teenager who would bury his head in a climbing magazine at every opportunity. I would like to think that by taking him on a school expedition to the Himalaya in 1993, when he was an impressionable 17 years old, I opened his mind to big mountains and, in some way, influenced the route he has taken in life.

The film opens with some stunning aerial footage homing in on the Citadel. As it does so you gradually become aware of people, invisible, somewhere on the mountain. Those first indistinct human voices grow as the camera zooms in on Matt and Jon, ant like, camped on the top of a steep snow slope. The scale and the technical difficulty of the climb is incomprehensible.

With the introduction over the climbers talk of the reality of climbing, the risks and the losses, before taking us back to their respective homes in the Alps, Matt to his constant drive for fitness, while Jon has two young children keeping him on his toes. The balance of family, paid work as a top guide, and doing what you love is difficult but Jon seems to have got it right.

Returning to the Citadel, where the optimism of fellow climbers with knowledge of the mountain, is not flowing, Matt and Jon  are flown in with the unseen camera team and deposited on the glacier. Base Camp is established and then they have to sit out a storm and wait for the mountain to accept them on to its upper slopes. When the weather finally clears the mountain does not make life easy for them; soft, loose snow reveals almost flawless rock beneath it and the going is slow. Close ups of crampon tips grasping at the smallest of niches sets our hearts racing. With only three days of food in their packs they cannot afford to linger too long and they are already under pressure.

At the end of the first, long day (fourteen hours of climbing) they cut a small ledge in the snow to camp for the night. This was where we were first introduced to them on the mountain. The following morning this proved to be almost their high point, for now, the granite was flawless and impossible to climb without screwing bolts into the rock, something which purists Matt and Jon refuse to do. Sticking firmly to their principles they concede defeat, the mountain has beaten them, and they retreat to base camp to decide their next move.

The north-west ridge might have beaten them but there was still a chance they could bag the also unclimbed north ridge, tackling it lightweight in one day. Setting out early, Matt had to cope with stomach issues but, together, they put their heads down and climbed the route at a phenomenal pace, advertising just what fit and exceptionally capable climbers they are.

Alastair Lee has produced a superbly crafted film with stunning mountain shots and a clear narrative running throughout. He is, by far, the best mountain film maker in the country. If you love mountain films, make sure you see this one. It will be showing at King’s School, Worcester, Thursday 4th Feb. 2016 at 7.00pm.

As for Matt and Jon. Well done, guys. I am particularly proud of what you have achieved, Jon.