French Invasion (Part 1)

On the 18th Feb. I eagerly(?) anticipated the arrival of 60 French teenagers and their teachers in the car park to Crickhowell High School, our meeting point for a two and a half to three hour walk up Table Mountain. It had been a lovely bright morning in the Black Mountains but as I waited heavy clouds gathered over Pen Cerrig-calch and there was a chill in the increasing wind. It was a good job I arrived at the meeting point early, only because I wanted to check out the exit from the school to Everest Drive, our planned route to the start of the walk. As I returned to the school the longest coach I have ever seen drove into the car park with a driver still recovering from having driven it over the extremely narrow Crickhowell Bridge. At least he was still smiling as his paintwork was unscathed.

What we should have realised is that the students would all need to use the toilets after their journey from Cardiff. This meant walking them through Crickhowell, crossing the busy A40 outside Webbs, to take them to the toilets attached to CRIC. I had visions of traffic alerts on Radio 2 warning drivers of severe delays on the A40 in Crickhowell while 60 children and their teachers cross the road. Delays compounded by the fact that we had to do it again, twice, post toilet visit, in order to get to the start of the walk! The half hour we had gained by them arriving early was now lost.

The route took us up Cwm Cumbeth, along the Beacons Way, a mixture of pasture land with friendly donkeys and the linear woodland of Cumbeth Brook. With such a large group the distance between the front and the back of the line grew quickly and it was soon apparent that one or two of the students were not going to make it. Roger, a local guide we had persuaded to join us, found himself heading back with a couple of students and a member of the French staff. Things were not going quite as planned. While those at the back were struggling those at the front were getting chilled having to wait for them. In the end I had to keep them moving in order to keep warm and hope that those at the back could make it with David looking after them.

The children had very limited English but it was not hard to understand that they appreciated the countryside. They come from Pas de Calais Department, their nearest town being Arras. It is a few years since I have driven through the area but it is not renowned for its beautiful countryside, so it is easy to understand their appreciation of the Black Mountains. They were clicking away with their cameras and mobile phones, and those tuned into their music seemed to be distracted by their surroundings.

When walking with such a big group things never really work out as you planned. It was my intention to give the group some background information about the Iron Age Fort but everything conspired against me doing that. Then we had a twisted knee. One of the boys sat a couple of hundred yards from the summit complaining of a painful knee. David strapped it up and we decided to get him down by the shortest route, using my poles for support, where we could call upon somebody to run him to the surgery for a check up. This now took David away and a second member of the French staff team. No sooner had they gone when a girl twisted her ankle. I strapped her up and gave her a helping hand down the, often steep, slope towards Crickhowell. David caught up, having despatched the boy and his teacher to the surgery and we managed to get them all back to their bus by 5.00pm, each given a certificate of achievement.

As I pointed out, it did not necessarily go as planned, but we delivered what they wanted, a walk in the Brecon Beacons/Black Mountains. What I was wanting to achieve was added value, more than just a walk but an insight into the history and culture of the area. Injurious distractions, a very chilly wind and children not best equipped for it, and a tight time schedule meant I could not deliver everything as I would have liked.

However, a text message in the evening assured me that the children had had a good time and that as far as the school was concerned it had been a successful outing for them. We certainly learnt from the experience, learning that we shall take into French Invasion (2) on March 11th!

Lake District Weekend

I was suffering a chest infection, so this blog is written by David Thomas.

With John away, Robin Humphreys kindly “volunteered” to take over leadership duties. His first action was to summon everyone to Tweedie’s Bar in Grasmere, whether, despite, or because of, the consumption of many pints of beer a decision was made that as the weather forecast was poor for the morrow, we should play it a little conservatively and head for Fairfield instead of Helvellyn

image1In the morning – grey and not too cold at Grasmere – Robin ordered crampons all round. Maybe a little excessive we thought, but obediently complied. Having walked along some lanes to the other side of the valley, we now started up a wide track alongside a very busy stream, Little Tongue Gill. This now has a new mini-hydro scheme on it with the generator building cunningly half-buried near the road and the take-off much higher up where we headed onto open moorland. The weather was still fine, but dashing clouds above warned of high winds and snow flurries.

2015-01-17 13.16.16As we ascended the track got steeper and we had a couple of bail-outs, so, as they were accompanied on their descent we were down to 12 as we arrived at Grisedale Tarn – the last vertical 100 metres up to it was a hard pull from Hause Moss. At the tarn we had some discussion about lunch, but as it was only 11.30 we decided to press on up the face of Fairfield. This got progressively steeper and more windswept and, more icy. Steve Crowcroft, Robin and I stopped to put on crampons, which put us, Robin especially, well behind the pack, who were manfully struggling up the steep icy slope. They therefore had rather a long wait at the top in what was now one of the frequent snow squalls passing across. It was very cold and visibility was also quite bad.

image2All together again, we set off south towards Great Rigg. As we did the weather cleared to reveal fantastic views to the south and west – to the south with the low sunlight flashing off the lakes and to the west range after range of snow covered mountains, with bracken browned sides and grass greened valleys. Beautiful. In high spirits we arrived on Great Rigg for a group photo, before setting off on the long trek down to Grasmere. An excellent day – and a good choice as the alternative planned route up Helvellyn would have been very demanding in the conditions.

The forecast for Sunday was not good in the morning, with high winds, clearing up from about 3pm, but with the winds intact. We agreed to do Pike O’Blisco, from the Langdale valley. I’ll not go into enormous details here – I’ll leave it to myth and legend to expand the story, which will no doubt improve with the telling – but because of one of our cars getting stuck in the snow on the way to our start at Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel with three others in convoy and then finding an injured motorcyclist in the road and having to call Mountain Rescue and an ambulance, we were only nine starters for the day.

P1070874_edited-2We set off up to Blea Tarn – an easy walk and a pleasant stroll around the tarn and then around the side of Pike O’Blisco to a road leading up to Wrynose Pass. The road got steeper and the snow deeper and as we arrived at the point where the footpath leads up to the summit of the Pike another discussion was held as to the wisdom of going up further. We could see spindrift off the tops and even where we were there were gusts of cold northerly wind. A sensible decision – as it turned out in retrospect – led us on up the road before turning north to head for Red Tarn. We were now in 6 inches or more of snow, drifting deeper in places and walking into the teeth of the gale. It was bitterly cold and the going hard. A stop for lunch in the rather poor shelter afforded by some rocks was a short and dismal affair and so we soldiered on, with our spirits kept high by the beautiful scenery around us. Where else can you get such views without actually being there?

P1070883_edited-2Past the tarn we started a very steep descent along a path, which the kindly people of the National Park had repaired with rocks. Unfortunately, the rocks faced slightly downhill – to aid drainage we suspect – and the result was an ice and snow covered lethally slippery slope. No damage done we arrived at the valley floor to be met by two of the motorcyclist rescuers to hear the full details of their story over a nice cup of tea in the very welcoming Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. Here we met other walkers with tales of being blown over by the high winds on the peaks, as I said a sensible decision not to go for glory.

Robin’s spell as a stand-in leader provided a real test of route decision making both before and during the day as well as coping with a variety of tests due to walker’s abilities etc. We all felt he had performed his role admirably and look forward to the next time…..!

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.