Share the Vision – Old Chapel Camp

DSC_0002On Friday 20th March a thin layer of cloud hovered over Worcester as I prepared for a weekend camp at the Old Chapel. I was meeting Caz from NCW at 10.30 so that we could visit Tesco together and buy all the necessary supplies for the weekend. At about 9.30 the light outside dimmed as though night were approaching. Looking up at the sky the sun was reduced to a perfect crescent as the moon passed in front of it. The thin layer of cloud enabled me to look directly at the eclipse and photograph it without fear of doing my eyes or the eye of the camera any harm. Part way through the phenomena the clouds cleared and it became impossible to see anything other than a brilliance in the sky. All definition was lost and gradually the light brightened as the moon moved away.

The shopping done and the car loaded up to its roof with tents, kit and food we headed off to the Old Chapel in the heart of the Black Mountains a few miles north of Crickhowell. The cloud that had been so helpful in allowing me to see the eclipse had now dispersed and the sky was beautifully clear and the thermometer in the car registered 14.5 degrees.

Camp all set

Camp all set

Preparing the chapel, establishing camp and sorting out all the food took most of the afternoon but we had time to relax by the river’s edge and enjoy the peace and quiet that is the Old Chapel (without any children, of course), watching a pair of grey wagtails hop from rock to rock in the river, deftly flicking their tails as they did so. Occasionally one would dart erratically in the air in pursuit of a passing insect before flopping back on to a stone.

During the evening the two sets of students arrived, firstly those from NCW, followed some time later by the King’s students. Having tucked into a hearty chilli and rice dinner the two groups paired off and sorted their camping arrangements out before spending the rest of the evening playing cards, socialising and getting used to each others’ company.

A guiding arm

A guiding arm

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and the prospects for a walk over the Brecon Beacons looked really good. After a cooked breakfast and picnic lunch making we drove round to the upper most car park in the Taf Fechan Forest below the Neuadd Reservoir. Here, we picked up the Taf Trail and returned to Blaen-y-glyn to pick up the Beacons Way path up a series of waterfalls, climbing steeply up to Craig y Fan Ddu, the route I had taken two weeks previously with the Crickhowell Walking Festival. While the path was not difficult the visually impaired students appreciated the reassurance of a guiding arm and a descriptive commentary whenever it was needed.

There's no fun like snow fun!

There’s no fun like snow fun!

There were still decent patches of snow on the higher sections of the route and, unlike my festival group, this group took full advantage of having some fun. As a group this was perfect; when playing in the snow all inhibitions disappear, disabilities don’t matter and everybody can enjoy themselves naturally and as equals. This did more for bonding than any other activity we had done so far. Whilst watching the fun I was not really paying a great deal of attention to any individual, and that led to my downfall. While happily minding my own business and enjoying the view a snowball fell from a great height on to the top of my head! A great shot from some distance and from a boy who had clearly benefitted from my cricket coaching when I taught him.

DSC_0029Having reached the ridge the path flattened out but we were now subject to a very keen breeze making it cold despite the glorious sunshine and clear skies. Cutting across the often tussocky and wet ground we reached the approach to Fan y Big at Craig Cwmoergwm where we sheltered from the wind and ate lunch. The pace had not been fast so we decided to miss out the summit of Fan y Big in favour of Cribyn and Pen y Fan. The climb up Cribyn got slower and slower and one or two of the visually impaired students became a little demoralised as they could not see clearly where they were aiming for but just a dark outline towering ominously above them. Boots were beginning to chafe and backs were becoming sore. Eventually we reached the top of Cribyn and when some realised that they were going to have to achieve an even bigger climb to get up Pen y Fan, their hearts dropped.

Choices and decision

Choices and decision

At the col between the two summits we discussed the issue. I was concerned that if we demoralised them further we might lose them. At the pace we were going we would not be finishing until about six and then not eating until about 8.30. Having decided it was not worth pushing them too hard, we gave the group the choice to descend or continue up Pen y Fan. Predictably, those who were suffering both physically and psychologically chose to retreat, ensuring that we had enough guides to look after them. While Jan and I took this group down the rest continued, and, watching them, their progress improved dramatically and they were on the summit of Pen y Fan in no time. Meanwhile, the rest of us trudged down the wide, easy track that ran along the lower slopes of Tor Glas, passing the now empty Upper Neuadd Reservoir to the minibus.

Back at the chapel we drank cups of hot tea and ate cake. The other half of the group joined us less than an hour later.

Evening entertainment

Evening entertainment

After a dinner of chicken casserole, jacket potatoes and vegetables, we relaxed with more chatter and card games sitting around the wood burner. However, everybody was ready for an early night and by 10.30 we were all settled in our tents.

Sunday started off a little cloudy but the clouds soon cleared and the day developed into one of blue skies and spring-like sunshine. the plan was for the students to walk unaccompanied, a situation where the onus of care fell upon the King’s students without any prompts from the staff. If heads dropped it was their responsibility to motivate and encourage. We were going to drop them off at Forest Coal Pit and they were going to walk over Sugarloaf to be picked up at Porth-y-parc, just outside Abergavenny. The walk was pretty straightforward but the group would have to be mindful of the final steep ascent and the initial steep descent from the summit. While they were doing that I would return to the Old Chapel to strike camp, clean up and head for home.

I heard that they all got on well and were back in Worcester by 2.30, much sooner than originally planned but they had had a good weekend and achieved a lot. With exams dominating next term there will be little opportunity to build on the achievements of the weekend, so they will have to try to hold on to gains of the weekend, so that when they gather for the Iceland trip in July, they pick up where they left off. That is the hope, at least.

 

Shropshire/Welsh Border Country

The forecast for the day was good but when I opened the curtains there was a thick layer of fog lingering over the frosted rooftops. It might make the journey a little more cautious but the promise of warm sunshine would make it worth the effort. However, the legs didn’t seem to want to work properly after a day of wielding a tree felling axe in combat with an unwanted Whitebeam. How stone age man cleared forests for farm land is beyond me.

The drive to Khighton was pleasant enough, despite the fog, although once you get stuck behind a lorry on the A44, stuck behind it you remain. Hence the journey took a little longer than anticipated.

Leaving the road for the forest track, I parked the car on a bend in Kinsley Wood, slightly fearful that it might be susceptible to abuse as it was the only car there. A young deer, disturbed by my presence scampered off through the trees. By now the sun had burned its way through the fog and the temperature began to rise. Immediately dropping out of the wood the route took me along the edges of pasture fields with ewes tending closely to their new born lambs who skipped and gambolled in the sunshine. Rabbits scurried back to their warrens in the hedgerows as I approached, only to reappear after I had passed. The hedgerows were being undermined by a vast number of holes.

The path took me past the sleepy hamlet of Stowe with its church, farm and two or three dwellings. A dog barked at my presence. As I climbed above Stowe there was a perfect project for somebody wanting to create a magical cottage home for themselves. A gaping hole in the front wall revealed a roughly hewn staircase climbing up to small first floor rooms. Bathed in sunshine with mature woodland behind, it was in the perfect spot. Leaving the cottage and the woodland behind the route followed a wide track up a narrow valley overhung by Holloway Rocks, some of which had been quarried for local building. Either side of the path gorse bushes grew and I briefly saw a stoat scamper between them in an effort to escape from me.

Trees standing out against a sunlit field

Trees standing out against a sunlit field

Reaching the top of Stowe Hill the path again took me along the edge of pasture land, only this time I was high and it afforded me views across to neighbouring hills. Sadly, the clarity was not there as the atmosphere was still hazy from the morning fog. The going was now easy and I was able to cover the distance quite quickly, although, by the time I reached the farm track between fields, the going became slower again as I negotiated deep ruts full of murky water.

My lunchtime companion

My lunchtime companion

At Five Turnings I crossed the A488 and started the short climb up to Offa’s Dyke Path where I began to see one or two more people. On reaching the path, I headed north but soon stopped for lunch under the critical eye of a sheep. From here I had stunning views across the Teme Valley, patches of the river glistening in the hazy sunshine. Offa’s defensive dyke is easy to approach from the east but from my lofty lunch position, the Welsh would have expended a great deal more energy approaching it from the west.

Continuing north, I soon left Offa’s Dyke and headed across fields to the east, but still heading in a northerly direction. It was stunningly beautiful and I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather be. My only companions were farmers out in fields, hedge laying, muck spreading or tending their flocks. Birdsong filled the air only to be drowned out by ewes in the maternity wing of a farm being extremely vocal as the farmer laid out hay for them to eat in their muddy field.

Offa's Dyke

Offa’s Dyke

Eventually, the path brought me back into contact with Offa’s Dyke, now a clearly defined ditch between two mounds. Three sheepdogs approached, always slightly unnerving, but while two ignored me the third wanted me fuss with it, much to the annoyance of the farmer (with the dog, not with me). Soon after, as I passed by Garbett Hall, two geese chased me away, far more scary, in retrospect, than three sheep dogs.

Now I began to climb steeply up to Cwm-sanaham Hill with its commanding view over the Teme Valley. A train rattled its way up the valley, although it was difficult to pick out in the haze. The climbing completed it was a wonderful ridge top walk along Offa’s Dyke towards Knighton. For much of the way the remains of the mound, now with a newly erected fence along it, could be clearly seen. I did wonder as to why a fence could be allowed to be erected on the mound, which clearly should have ancient monument status. It would not have caused any harm for it to have been placed slightly to the east, leaving the dyke unsullied by fence posts.

The River Teme meandering along its valley

The River Teme meandering along its valley

Reaching Kinsley Woods, Offa’s Dyke drops steeply into the Teme Valley and Knighton. I headed into the wood, eventually reaching my car, untouched and unharmed.  It had been a fantastic day out in glorious weather (my face was glowing) and through some truly beautiful countryside.

There are two long distance trails I would like to add to the menu for next year, Offa’s Dyke and the Teme Valley Way. If today has been a taste of what these two routes have to offer, then I think they are well worth giving serious consideration.

French Invasion (Part 2)

The forecast was dire! Heavy rain due to fall over the Black Mountains all afternoon! Sixty French teenagers not properly clothed or shod for such conditions. Would it be right to take them on to the hills, even if it was only Table Mountain, in such circumstances? The lead teacher would be disappointed if they couldn’t do the walk. No pressure, then. What to do if we decide it is not safe to go? They could do the town trails. That would help improve their English. So, dreading the consequences of impending bad weather, I left sunny Worcester and headed to Crickhowell in good time to rendezvous with fellow guides, David and Richard. As I headed west the cloud thickened so that, by the time I reached Crickhowell, the Black Mountains were shrouded in very heavy black clouds. I think they were the heaviest, black clouds I have ever seen that were not raining on the ground below.

60 French teenagers get the low down on the walk ahead

60 French teenagers get the low down on the walk ahead

At the appointed hour the French coach arrived outside the CRIC and deposited sixty French teenagers and their five teachers ready for a walk. They were from the same school as before and were the second half of the year group. Just one member of staff and the coach driver were the same. Before we left I gave them an idea of what we were doing and where we were going, pointing out Table Mountain, just visible through the heavy gloom. They did not seem perturbed by conditions, or their lack of adequate clothing or footwear, for what could turn out to be a very wet walk. By now I was quite looking forward to it; in another three hours it will be finished one way or another and they will disappear back to Cardiff.

The most dangerous part of the walk is getting the group from one side of town to the other. The pavements in Crickhowell, in places, are very narrow, necessitating two crossings of the busy A40, bringing traffic to a standstill for some time as the group makes its way across, first by the crossing and again a few yards up the road. If you time it right, and are really inconsiderate to drivers, you can stop them twice. However, we were considerate and helped maintain the flow of traffic.

DSC_0001

Enjoying the donkeys

Once on the hillside, the students could choose their pace, some wanting to forge ahead, while others less able or used to walking gently brought up the rear. We had plenty of stops in order to keep the group relatively together, the first giving them an opportunity to pet the two donkeys that eagerly craved their attention. Unfortunately, the Highland cattle and the enormous, but very docile English Longhorn cattle, that usually abide in this field, were not around to add to the spectacle.

DSC_0006Having failed to give the first group a chat about the history of Table Mountain because it was too cold to linger on the top, I gave this group the basic information at one of the rest points where we were able to look up and across to the summit. Everything I said was translated in detail by the lead teacher who ensured that we had their undivided attention. I finished by asking them why Table Mountain was not a permanent settlement but more of a look out and defensive position. Answers came back – “too cold”, “too rocky”, “too foggy”. Eventually, long before we reached the summit, one boy suggested that there was, “no water.” “Well done, you win the prize. Shake my hand. That is your prize.”

Emerging from the mist

Emerging from the mist

Once we reached the open hillside we gave them the opportunity to go ahead. There was little chance of them getting lost in the mist, which had now thickened considerably. They were making enough noise for us to know exactly where they were and they were sensible enough to wait whenever there was a fork in the path.

Eventually, everybody reached the summit. Last time we had stunning views of the surrounding hills and mountains. Today we saw nothing. One student remarked, “Have we come all this way for this?” It didn’t stop him from taking a photo of the mist. We were able to spend a lot more time on the summit, for despite the mist it was a lot warmer, and had been all the way up the hill. And the rain had held off.

What a view!!

What a view!!

All we had to do now was get down without it raining. This had been a much better group. There had been no issues with children being too unfit to complete the walk, there had been no twisted ankles or knees, the general behaviour of the group was better and the teachers seemed to be more engaged. The only let down was a couple of boys decided to chase some sheep as they passed through a field of heavily pregnant ewes. Had the farmer seen it he would not have been very happy. Fortunately, it went unnoticed by the farmer and we managed to recall the boys before any damage was done.

Back in Crickhowell, having again disrupted the flow of traffic through the town centre, we gave the group a photo of where they had been, a bit of information about table mountain that would seriously test their knowledge of English, and a certificate of achievement. Some said it was the best thing they had done so far while others said that if another opportunity comes their way that involves walking, they would decline it!  With that they left and, perhaps, we will have the pleasure of leading similar groups from the school next year.

The rain never did come!

Crickhowell Walking Festival 2015

This year saw the 8th Crickhowell Walking Festival, an annual event which occurs largely during the first week of March. Every year, so far, the weather has been kind to us, but each year we fear that our luck is going to run out. Yes, we have had the occasional bad day but nothing that has lasted very long. The first weekend started worryingly bad with strong winds, rain and snow; the same weather that made the Share the Vision group avoid the Brecon Beacons. On the Sunday, one walker had to be rescued by helicopter when he was taken ill. Whilst nobody wants to see somebody suffer, it is very reassuring to know that the safety systems work and that the guides are fully competent in dealing with difficult situations, a credit to the organisers who are thorough in their organisation and briefing.

We need not have worried about the weather, for the bad weekend turned into a glorious week where clear skies and brilliant sunshine dominated. A cool wind blew throughout and we did have fresh snow on the summits midweek, making the conditions and experiences perfect.

However, the festival is not just about walking, there are events taking place in the evenings to inspire and entertain. The bigger names are hosted in Clarence Hall that can hold up to 200 people, while local speakers tend to use the smaller venue of the Bear Hotel. This is where I headed to on Sunday evening to listen to local guide, Kevin Walker, talk about his trip last year to Nepal, to trek in the Khumbu to Everest, culminating with a climb of Island Peak. It proved to be an excellent, well photographed and recounted story.

My role during the festival was to lead four walks which, collectively made up the first four days of the Beacons Way covering a distance of 49 miles and a total ascent of 10,815 feet. The logistics of linear walks can be difficult but each day we met at the end point where we were transported by minibus to the starting point. This proved a much appreciated service and opens up the possibility of many more linear walks in future years.

Day 1 – Skirrid (Holy Mountain) to Llanthony I had a group of thirteen to guide with Rob Sunderland, a local man with extensive knowledge of the hills, as my back marker. Everybody seemed happy and game for a good walk and I looked forward to chatting with them as the walk evolved. I was particularly happy that half a dozen were going to be with me for all four days, a chance to get to know them well.

Ascending the muddy slope of Skirrid

Ascending the muddy slope of Skirrid

In bright sunshine we began by ascending Skirrid from its southern flanks. This took us quite steeply up a well made, if, at times, muddy path from the weekend rain, through a woodland of deciduous trees, whose branches creaked as they rubbed together in the the wind. I used the shelter of the trees to tell the group of some of the history, magic and myth of Skirrid, fearing that it might be too windy and cold on the summit to linger too long. Emerging from the trees on to the ridge we were blessed with pristine views across the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons to the west, the Welsh Marches of Herefordshire and across to the Malvern Hills to the east, the Shropshire hills to the north and the Bristol Channel with the Quantocks beyond to the south. The wind was bracing but I could think of nowhere I would rather be at the time. The beauty of the summit persuaded us to linger and enjoy the moment despite the chilly wind.

On top of Skirrid

On top of Skirrid

The light was stunning. The sun is still relatively low in the sky but its brightness picked out the vivid greens of the grass, just beginning to show signs of spring growth. It highlighted the many colours of dormant trees awaiting a little more warmth before their burst of fresh growth. The greys and browns of tree bark patterned with lichen, the oranges and reds of last year’s growth providing a halo around the canopy of each tree, and all set against a backdrop of green pasture, brown/orange bracken, grass, heather and forested hills in the sunshine.

Descending across a patchwork of fields with heavily pregnant ewes grazing contentedly, we reached the small village of Llanvihangel Crucorney boasting to have the oldest pub in Wales. This is not the only pub to boast such, but it is certainly a strong contender. Judge Jeffries presided there and inside there is the beam from which they hung offenders. We avoided the temptation and continued with our journey, climbing out of the village towards Hatterrall Hill, where the Beacons Way joins Offa’s Dyke for a short distance. It was on the slopes of Hatterrall Hill that we hunkered down behind a wall or in the ditch, which forms part of the iron age fort, for lunch.

This was a good opportunity to catch up with the group and learn more of them. They had travelled from a wide variety of places to take part and this is testament to how well known the festival is becoming. As well as local people from Abergavenny and the surrounding area, there were others from Gloucester, Hereford, Manchester, London and Malvern. Whilst those that were local could go home each evening, those that had travelled tended to stay in local accommodation, fulfilling the ambitions of the festival to help all of the local community to benefit. It was great to meet new people and to relish in their enthusiasm for walking and the outdoors.

The Beacons Way and Offa's Dyke join together over Hatterrall Hill

The Beacons Way and Offa’s Dyke join together over Hatterrall Hill

Continuing, we climbed to the trig point on Hatterrall Hill, continuing to follow the ridge that makes up Offa’s Dyke, before descending via the Pony Track to Llanthony Priory. We finished at 3.30pm, in good time, but this was going to be the easiest day and was, as such, a good introduction for the harder days to come.

In the evening I went to Clarence Hall to watch the BritRock films, a series of films by Alastair Lee, on climbing, mountain biking and other ambitious activities in the outdoors. An enjoyable evening culminating with some chat in the bar of the Bear before heading up the Grwynefechan Valley and my tent in the grounds of the Old Chapel.

Day 2 – Llanthony to Crickhowell There are four main ridges in the Black Mountains and while we walked on one yesterday, we were to cross the other three during the course of day 2, making it a more taxing and longer day.

I awoke with the birds at first light to discover that my tent was frozen and the hills were covered with a significant fresh fall of snow. The skies were again clear, and, although it may well remain cold, the conditions were going to be perfect for walking.

looking back at Llanthony Priory

looking back at Llanthony Priory

Gathering in Crickhowell, I now had a new group of fourteen that still included the six from yesterday. Today, my group included two from Dubai, although they have long established links with this part of the country. It is good to know that they combine visiting family with enjoying the very different elements of the Black Mountains. Cold, wind and snow must be a huge contrast to the dry desert of the middle east. My back marker for the day was Sion James, a local guide and one of the main organisers of the festival. Good company.

Bal Bach

Bal Bach

I was not looking forward to the first part of today’s walk, the climb up from Llanthony to Bal Bach. It was always the first climb on the 42km Big Black Mountain Challenge, an event that takes place each May, and I have bitter memories of the pressure one felt to go fast because of the volume of walkers and runners behind. I was hoping that today’s climb up to Bal Bach was going to be less pressurised and more enjoyable. And that is how it turned out. We soon hit the snow line and as we climbed it became deeper and deeper, so that, by the time we reached the summit, it was about four inches deep and beautifully crunchy under our boots. Despite the cool wind, it was a good place to stop for photos and to recover from the climb while sucking a Werther’s Original!

The next section of the walk was an easy, two and a half mile, gentle down hill section into the Gwryne Fawr Valley. The walk was punctuated with interesting historical tales, the most recent being a marker post denoting a boundary. Pre 1974 there was a circle of Herefordshire completely detached from the rest of the county and surrounded by Monmouthshire – a bizarre quirk of history. However, the much more interesting, and bloodthirsty tale is that which surrounds the ‘Revenge Stone’ a little further down the ridge. Richard de Clare, a Norman knight, had invited several Welsh barons in Crickhowell Castle to celebrate Christmas. Having persuaded his guests to leave their weapons outside he slaughtered them all.

Some year later, in 1135, Morgan ap Owen, who had been too young to attend the Christmas gathering, took his revenge. Richard was travelling from Abergavenny to Talgarth and Brecon when he was ambushed and slaughtered by Morgan and his men!

At the lowest point of the walk, adjacent to the Grwyne Fawr River, there is a Tabernacle Chapel with a small graveyard attached. The graves were ablaze with white snowdrops.

Enjoying the sunshine at Partrishow Church

Enjoying the sunshine at Partrishow Church

Climbing up the other side of the valley, we quite soon reached the beautiful Partrishow Church, perched on the hillside with far reaching views. Sitting on the south side, bathed is gloriously warm sunshine and sheltered from any wind, we ate our lunch. Again, the headstones rose out of a sea of white snowdrops with their droopy heads turned down in embarrassment at their own beauty. It was an idyllic place to stop and we were quite content to linger and not rush into the rest of the walk. We were happy to allow it to last as long as we could and therefore gave ourselves time to explore the inside of the church with its ornate wood carving and ancient wall paintings.

Descending Crug Mawr

Descending Crug Mawr

The climb up the narrow tarmac road immediately after lunch was a rude awakening after our lazy rest at the church. The heart pumped and the legs ached in those first few minutes and although the climb continued on the open hillside, it seemed so much easier than the road. The climb took us to the trig point on Crug Mawr, most of the snow now having melted in the sunshine. It was just the higher peaks that held on to it and, looking back at the ridge from Bal Bach, where there had been several inches, there was now none. How quickly things can change.

The Grwynefechan Valley

The Grwynefechan Valley

The descent from Crug Mawr brought us down into the Grwynefechan Valley, considered by many as the most beautiful in the Black Mountains. It is surrounded by the highest peaks of the range and culminates in a wall of mountains, including the highest, Waun Fach, at its head. Its patchwork of pasture, forest and open hillside looked stunning in the afternoon light.

By the time we reached the crossing of the Grwynefechan river it was time for a snack and a drink sitting on the remains of one of the bridge spans left on the riverside in a beautiful patch of meadow. The old bridge had been destroyed by a flood and the remains now make for a very handy seat.

DSC_0043We now had just one climb to do, that up the west side of the Grwynefechan Valley to Table Mountain, overlooking Crickhowell. Legs were beginning to tire a little and the afternoon was drawing to a close. As we neared Table Mountain we hit the full force of the wind and in the late afternoon, as the sun was sinking in the west, the temperature began to plummet. Just enough time for a silhouette photo against the clear skies. It was too cold to linger there any further, so we made a hasty retreat out of the wind.

DSC_0046The descent was down a beautiful wooded cleft in the hillside following the line of a brook to fields above the town. In the bottom field we were greeted by two friendly donkeys, a huge, but very docile, English Longhorn bull with the biggest horns I have ever seen and a few, similarly docile, Highland Cattle. Tucked away in the corner of the field was a rusting JCB with a very surprised driver at the controls!

We reached the centre of Crickhowell at 5.45, making the day significantly longer but thoroughly enjoyable.

In the evening I met up with friends Simon and Ann to listen to David Thomas give an illustrated account of our 2012 trip to the north side of K2, a trip we had all been on and which I led. David did a good job and we hardly felt the need to heckle at all! This was also the evening that I fell off the wagon. Having foregone alcohol for two months, the exertions of the day helped me realise that sometimes you have to reward yourself. I think it was justified, particularly as there had been no weight loss benefit from being so strict on myself.

Day 3 – Crickhowell to Llangynidr More brilliant sunshine and clear skies greeted me as I emerged from my tent. I felt I had slept well but I was still feeling a little jaded. Maybe I had spent half the night sleeping off the alcohol and not the exertion of the day. When I met the group, those who had been with me throughout were also feeling a little tired. Perhaps it was the walking that made me feel jaded today and not the beer! I felt I had an excuse to do some more research in the evening. Reassuringly, the walk was less arduous today with only a couple of climbs, although the distance was up slightly.

Setting out from CRIC, we retraced our steps through town until we reached the farm where the path begins to climb up towards the Darren on the southern flanks of Pen Cerrig-calch. My back marker today was Joyce Daly, another local with huge interest and enthusiasm for the outdoors. The route took us through the deserted village of Twyn. In the First World War all the men and boys signed up to join the Lads Regiment and went off to fight in the trenches. Sadly, not one of them survived and, as a result, the women abandoned the village. All that remains of the old village are a few tumbled town cottages gradually being consumed by nature and the environment.

Tretwr

Tretwr

Having reached the open hillside the route, for several miles, largely contoured around the hill overlooking the Usk Valley. Below us the river shimmered in the sunlight. Ahead, we looked upon the snow clad Brecon Beacons, our destination on the last day of this four day walk.

When I walked this route a couple of weeks previously I had been disappointed by the lack of respect shown by those involved with the Glenusk Estate shoot, destroying the vegetation and leaving all sorts of equipment littering the hillside. I was pleased to see that things had improved, that the debris had been removed and it all looked a lot tidier. There are more people than just game hunters (if you can call it hunting) wanting to use these hills and we should all make the effort to look after them for each other and not be selfish in how we use them.

Coffee break

Coffee break

After several miles we began the descent into the village of Cwmdu where we sat on the steps leading to the church. We had seen buzzards circling the skies during the walk in the morning and as we approached Cwmdu I saw a sparrow hawk dart just above the hedges looking for an opportunist meal. While we were sitting, eating lunch and enjoying yet more warm sunshine, a red kite circled majestically overhead. It is good to see that they are becoming more widespread and are not just concentrated in small pockets.

Leaving Cwmdu, we ventured up the hidden valley, a beautiful, short valley with a wall of hills at its top end. The lane, up which we walked, was planted with daffodils, which, given a few more days, would be a blaze of colour. Near the top of the valley is the most stunning stone house and above that, by contrast, the last settlement in the valley, a ramshackle abode with an array of crudely built sheds around it and littered with decaying farm machinery and vehicles. A stunning location in need of some TLC.

Looking across at Pen Allt-mawr and Pen Cerrig-calch

Looking across at Pen Allt-mawr and Pen Cerrig-calch

A short, steep climb took us to the top of the ridge below Mynnyd Llangorse. From here we descended the ridge to Cefn Moel with views of the lake at Llangorse shimmering like a jewel as it accurately reflected the blue sky above. It was a stunning ridge, so much so that we felt it necessary to linger on it as long as possible, stopping for an afternoon snack in the lea of the stiff, cold wind travelling across from the still snow-clad Beacons.

The bridge over the River Usk at Llangynidr

The bridge over the River Usk at Llangynidr

Leave we must, so we made the short descent into Bwlch, crossing the busy A40 to continue through fields towards Llangynidr. The hardest part of the day was the last part of the walk, along the B4560 into the village. The hard surface jarred our limbs as we descended to the bridge over the River Usk, only to climb up to the top of the village where our cars were waiting for us. As I predicted, we finished the walk at 4.30.

In the evening I didn’t have an event to go to so I met up with friends and we had a meal at the Bear. I felt I deserved a steak and it did not let me down. I also conducted some more research into the effects of beer and hoped I would have a better analysis in the morning.

Day 4 – Llangynidr to Storey Arms The final day was the longest in terms of distance, approximately 14 miles and the greatest ascent. We also had the longest road journey, which meant that we would be a little later setting out. My concern was that I was speaking in the evening at a Rotary dinner and that it might all be a bit of a rush at the end of the day. Rob Sunderland was my back marker again and Sion was going to take over leading the group from the gap between Fan y Big and Crybn, giving me time to get back and organised. I felt more energised today so I assessed that no harm can be done by drinking a beer or two in the evening.

Today, there was much more cloud and there was still a stiff breeze. Although it was supposed to be getting warmer, the forecast predicted that on the summits the temperature would be several degrees below freezing, taking into account the wind chill.

Climbing gently, but steadily out of Llangynidr we reached the ridge of Bryn Melyn, overlooking Talybont Reservoir after about an hour. Then started the least pleasant section of the the whole of the four day route. The surrounding scenery was fabulous but for 6km we were walking along the wide cinder track of the former tram way. The positive of this section was that we could cover the ground quickly but it was tiring on the feet. it was also the only section where we became quite spread out.

Climbing up to Craig y Fan Ddu

Climbing up to Craig y Fan Ddu

Reaching the top car park at Blaen-y-glyn we stopped for lunch, recharging our batteries before the steep climb up to Criag y Fan Ddu. I set out before the group in the hope that I would get a signal and be able to make contact with Sion. I wanted to keep him informed of our progress so that he didn’t find himself waiting too long for us and getting cold. It was cold across the top and there was still quite a lot of snow about. Amazingly, I met a couple of young men in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and thin jackets walking across the top. They looked cold and admitted they were not properly dressed. Why do people put themselves, and possibly others at risk?

Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du from Fan y Big

Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du from Fan y Big

From Blaen Caer fanell we cut across the moor to pick up the line of the northern escarpment, which would bring us gently to the summit of Fan y Big and a last photo opportunity before I left them in the safe hands of Sion. Descending to the col we met Sion and while he continued with the group round the back of Cribyn, up Pen y Fan and Corn Du before the easy descent to Storey Arms, I headed down to the Taf Fechan Forest to pick up Sion’s car in order to get back to Crickhowell.

The timing proved to be perfect and I wowed Crickhowell Rotary with my talk on ‘Share the Vision’.

The faithful 6

The faithful 6 and me

The four days of walking with a mixed group of walkers each day was hugely enjoyable, made even better by having a core who were with me throughout. We had become quite attached by the end and I know, I for one, will look forward to, hopefully, walking with them again one day.

Beyond my involvement with the festival the weather continued to be good right up until the end. Maybe they’ll have bad weather next year when I will not be able to join them because I’ll be walking in the Western Ghats in India. Somebody’s got to do it!

Worcestershire (Pen y Fan) Way

Those eagle-eyed readers will know that we should have been walking in the Brecon Beacons today, culminating in an ascent of Pen y Fan. So why am I going to write about the Worcestershire Way? The forecast was not good. The Brecon Beacons was to be blessed with regular heavy snow showers with strong, gale force winds gusting up to 70 – 80 mph. Not a pleasant place to be when you are blind or visually impaired so we decided upon the safer option of walking part of the less exposed Worcestershire Way. What a bright, sunny morning it was in Worcestershire, although it was windy and had been even windier in the night.

Only ten students were able to take part, many of the King’s contingent being otherwise occupied. As they piled into the bus, I followed in my car as I was heading off at the end to Wales for the Crickhowell Walking Festival. The minibus dropped the students and the staff, who were not driving, at the foot of a steep climb up from the lane, about half way between Martley and Abberley. It was a bit cruel to drop them there, for no sooner had they climbed they would drop again steeply before climbing steeply again.

Lily

Lily

Meanwhile Phil and I drove to Ribbesford Church with the intention of walking to meet the group. We also had Phil’s delightful dog, Lily, with us, a working spaniel so alert, enthusiastic, loyal and obedient.  I am often content to walk in silence, even in the company of others, but this morning Phil and I talked constantly for the whole five miles until we met the group. Phil has recently become a ‘daddy’ and this was the first time we had been together since that happy occasion. I say ‘happy’ but judging from the graphic detail in Phil’s description of the event, it must have been very harrowing as he and Amy went through a difficult birth. Nevertheless, the outcome, Harry, has made them both immensely happy even if his introduction to the world was a bit traumatic.

On the approach to Joan’s Hole, a lovely, tree filled valley with a wooden house by the brook, I began to think it must be time we were meeting the group coming towards us. This thought came to the fore of our mind as we were presented with a gate opening on to a field of horses who had absolutely churned up the grass on the other side of the gate, turning the area into a quagmire of very wet mud. “Let’s wait here,” I thought. They can’t be far away. We went through, across the field and into the area known as Joan’s Hole. What happened next? We met the group! We could have stayed behind the gate and the mud, waited five minutes and they would have met us. All that mud, for nothing!

The walk back with the group was very pleasant with more varied conversation. We soon stopped for lunch at the edge of a field, sheltered from the wind and in the sunshine. It was here that we met the only other walkers of the day, a group heading south who complained that we had pinched their lunch spot. Tough! There was plenty of room for them but they chose to continue.

As the end of the walk drew near the cloud built up and we had the beginnings of a front passing over us. Fortunately, we made it back to the vehicles before the heavens opened. It was not Pen y Fan but it was a worthy alternative. When I, later in the afternoon, arrived in Crickhowell for the walking festival, there had been a group on the Brecon Beacons and the conditions were awful with some members abandoning their walk and one man, who was taken ill, had to be airlifted to hospital. Whilst I was initially disappointed we were not going to the Brecon Beacons with the group, it proved to be the right decision.