The Cambrian Way 2010

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 2 - Days 2 & 3 - Cardiff Youth Hostel to Abergavenny


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Day 2 - Wednesday 2nd June - GPS 19.5 miles including 1.5 miles in error - 2,022 ft ascent

Cardiff Youth Hostel to Crosskeys via Rhymney Valley Ridgeway and Mynydd Machen

The GPS mileage figure is what I recorded from accommodation to accommodation, and includes any small detours, meandering around, and errors in route finding. In general this is about 5% to 15% greater than the mileage calculated from a map, depending upon the type of terrain, but in some cases is considerably more.

I was up at 7.30 ready for breakfast at eight o'clock with a good selection of both hot and cold things, all very nicely done and with no limit and the things you could have, which put it on a par with most B&Bs. Considering that the breakfast was included in the price, this hostel was very good value for money and far better than others I had booked in Snowdonia at 18 for bed only.

Being the first full day of the walk, it took me a little longer than usual to sort out everything I needed for the day, so it was 9.20 before I left the hostel and 9.45 before I rejoined the route by the weir on the River Taff. My GPS measured nearly 1.4 miles to get back on the route, which is further than it looks on the map, but that is because of the rather indirect route to get into the park.

I always marvel at the tranquillity in the park. Rooftops and buildings can be seen through the trees not far away, but there is hardly any traffic noise except where main roads actually cut across the park and river. There were squirrels about and the constant sound of birdsong with the only clue that this was near an urban area given by the number of joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. The route was still flat and easy, following the Taff Trail, which was well signposted along the river. A bit further along there are more open spaces and playing fields but still trees lining the riverbank. A small detour out of the park is required to go through a bridge under the railway and then by some suburban housing. There should be a restored water wheel by the roadside, and I was a little taken aback when it was no longer there, but then I saw a sign saying that it had been taken away for further restoration.

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Weir on River Taff, Cardiff
Weir on River Taff, Cardiff
Glamorgan Canal Nature Reserve, near Tongwynlais
Glamorgan Canal Nature Reserve

I was happily walking along following the Taff Trail in the pleasant morning sunshine and forgot to look out for the turning by the old canal, which is now a nature reserve. The next thing I knew I was at Forest Farm, about half a mile past the turning. I could have carried on that way and rejoined the route a bit further on, but I was trying to follow the guidebook as closely as possible, so retraced my steps back to where I had gone wrong. The canal is disused and covered in water lilies, some of which were just coming into flower with the benefit of some sunshine, but others that were in the shade were not yet in flower. There were quite a number of ducks and other wildfowl as well as squirrels and birds, with much flora including irises. Of course, it wouldn't have been quite complete without the odd supermarket trolley and a few bottles and cans!

The canal and nature reserve come to an abrupt end at a steep embankment leading up to a large intersection on the M4 motorway, but despite the close proximity of busy traffic, it was still very peaceful by the canal, so I had a rest there at 11.30. I was finding the walking quite easy, despite not being fully accustomed to the weight of my pack - it was far better that I was now walking in my boots, which have more cushioning and support than the trainers I was wearing yesterday afternoon. The sunshine was making it quite warm at times, but it was cool in the shaded areas of the nature reserve.

I was off again at 11.50, climbing the steps up to the motorway intersection - hardly mountain climbing, but the first climb on the way so far. There are a number of footpaths going over and under various parts of the intersection, which could be quite confusing, but the guidebook has a good sketch map of which ones to take to get out onto the road to Tongwynlais, with Castell Coch up above on the hillside. A steady climb up the hill out of Tongwynlais took me towards the access road to the castle, a picturesque Victorian castle rather than a real defensive one. Just before the access road, I took a footpath that ran just below but, as the guidebook says, this didn't go quite high enough to reach the castle and I had to scramble up a steep bank to reach it. This was checkpoint 2, which I reached at 12.20. There were quite a number of people around, it being still part of the Spring Bank Holiday week, but I didn't stop to look around myself, other than to take a couple of photographs, making my way up the hill through the forest to continue on the route towards the Ridgeway. Unfortunately, there are no views through the forest, but it was still pleasant and fairly easy walking in the sunshine with just a steady ascent.

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Tongwynlais with Castell Coch on hillside
Tongwynlais
Rhymney Valley Ridgeway near Thornhill
Rhymney Valley Ridgeway
Rhymney Valley Ridgeway near Thornhill
Rhymney Valley Ridgeway

When I came to the first road crossing, I mistook the tarmacked road to the car park for the road itself and consequently took a wrong turning until I realised I was going too far downhill and had to turn round again, wasting about a third of a mile and some extra ascent. Once out of the forest there were more views, but seldom very wide or far ranging ones, more like glimpses of the countryside through trees lining the path. Further on, just before Thornhill, the route goes through a golf course, but there were not many golfers playing despite the good weather, though they could have been having lunch. Even though views were limited, the walking was more interesting, with mature woodland and a greater variety of trees than in the previous forestry plantation.

It was time for a lunch break, but I wanted to wait until I got somewhere with a view which, from previous experience was by the old quarry near Cefn Onn. Having already wasted time with a couple of mistakes in navigation, it was a case of more haste less speed as I made another silly mistake and started dropping down rather than being up near the top of the ridge. There are a few ups and downs along the route, so I had gone a few hundred yards before I realised my mistake and had to retrace my steps back up the hill to where I should have forked right. Passing through a wood with a vast area of wild garlic, I at last came out into the open by the quarry and was able to take my lunch break somewhat later than planned at 14.00. There was some distant haze, but there was a good view across the valley of the hills to the north, with Caerphilly down below and its castle just in view. It was very peaceful and relaxing in the sunshine overlooking the steep drop down into the quarry. The only sounds breaking the silence were the birds and the distant sound of some machinery way down in the valley. I finished off half of the packed lunch I had left from yesterday and set off again at 14.45.

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Old Quarry near Cefn Onn
Old Quarry near Cefn Onn
Caerphilly from Old Quarry near Cefn Onn
Caerphilly from Old Quarry

A mile or so of open walking with wide open views brought me to more woodland, which was greatly improved by having bright sunshine streaming in through the trees. Even forestry plantations look better in these conditions unless they are so densely overcrowded that they exclude any light at all. It was a joy just to be out walking in such good weather conditions whatever the scenery. There was some more open walking at Rudry and then back into woodland to Machen.

It doesn't help that my GPS spends most of its time saying 'Weak GPS signal - need clear view of sky' whenever there are overhanging trees or other obstacles in the way including my own body. For the last few walks I have started to make more use of my GPS as I am walking along. At first I just used to get it out and switch it on whenever I got a bit lost. There is then some delay whilst it searches for satellites and this can be a bit of a nuisance, though it does mean there is much less battery usage. I then started to leave my GPS on all the time I am walking so that it can record the actual distance I have walked. This also means there is no waiting whenever it is needed for a grid reference or direction. The problem is, though, that if it is kept in a pocket, it spends half of the time without enough satellite signals to work properly, so I used to put it in the top compartment of my rucksack. This then meant that whenever I needed it I had to stop, take off my rucksack and get it out. This time, as the Cambrian Way takes more navigating than many walks, I decided to have my GPS available all the time as well as leaving my glasses on all the time. This meant that I could read maps and the GPS without constantly having to put them on and take them off. However, this then left the question of what to do with the GPS whilst I was walking along. It will work reasonably well in my shirt pocket but the bulk and weight soon makes it uncomfortable there, so the only option was to keep it in my hand the whole time. This could be a nuisance at times, but I could always slip it into my shirt pocket for short periods whenever necessary. When used like this, battery life is much reduced and requires rechargeable batteries to be charged up every day or alkaline batteries to be replaced every couple of days. With the GPS always to hand, I could check my route more easily without even having to stop walking, though judging by today's performance I didn't seem to be making best use of it.

Tony Drake, in his guidebook, strongly recommends the use of 1:25,000 OS maps for the walk. I bought a set of 1:50,000 maps about 15 years ago and have been reluctant to replace them with 1:25,000 maps, thinking that with the aid of my (rather poor) memory of previous walks and with help from my GPS, I could manage all right. However, in some parts, the lack of field boundaries on the 1:50,000 maps makes navigation more difficult and it is still easy to lose the way. In theory, the GPS can help, but in practice it tends to be mainly when I have already gone wrong that I make use of the GPS to get me back on the right track, whereas the 1:25,000 maps may have helped me not to go wrong in the first place. Regardless of maps and GPS, most of my errors of navigation come down to not paying enough attention to the route and continuing to follow a well-trodden path without keeping my eye out for where I should be going next. In many ways, it is not always an advantage to have done the walk before, as I have a tendency to think that I know where I am going and don't keep my eye on the map as much as I would do when walking it for the first time.

At Machen, I decided it was time for another short rest before tackling the main climb of the day up Mynydd Machen. There was nowhere very nice to stop by the main road, but I saw a handy bench by the door of St John the Baptist's Church at 16.15 to have a drink and a fifteen-minute break. There is a steep climb up Mynydd Machen at first, but this turns into a gentler one as the path goes at a diagonal up the wooded hillside. I went up at a good pace, as there had not been a great deal of climbing so far, so I still had quite a bit of energy left. The views were limited because of the trees, but these did at least give me some shade to keep me cool. At the end of the forest, there is no properly defined path to the summit, but the obvious way is to go straight up the steep slope, which meant taking a few short breathers on the way, reaching the summit at 17.05 (Checkpoint 3).

Though its name would suggest that it is a mountain, at 1,192ft Mynydd Machen falls far short of the 2,000ft to be strictly classified as such, but it does give some good views of the nearby valleys, once home to a large number of coal mines before they became uneconomic. Because of its flat top, though, it is necessary to walk a little round the edges to get the best views, which I did before continuing down the track towards Risca. On reaching the road, there is some confusion about the right of way, which the OS maps show as going past the nearby farm, whereas the guidebook shows it going across the field to the right of the farm, where there was a gate and a stile but no fingerpost or waymark. It looks as if the path has been diverted away from the farm but that this has not been updated on the OS maps. However, this was not a problem and I was able to find a wide stile looking more like a horse jump, where the path entered the forest. This has a tendency to get overgrown, and on this occasion that was the case, though it was still possible to make my way through the undergrowth and saplings without too much difficulty.

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Crosskeys and Risca from Mynydd Machen
Crosskeys and Risca

Where the path emerged onto a forest track, the OS map shows it crossing over and continuing down the steep hillside, but there was no sign of a path there and I had to turn right along the track, going uphill again for a little way before the track doubled back and went down again. There was then a clearly marked bridleway going the rest of the way down to meet the road into Risca. My B&B was in Crosskeys, about half a mile off to the west and I arrived there at 18.05.

After freshening up with a shower and phoning home, I set off out to find somewhere to eat. The landlord suggested the Cross Keys, a quarter of a mile away but I didn't see it on my way and ended up in the Darran Inn where I ate last time, and where I stayed the time before when the previous owners did B&B. I had a lovely pint of Reverend James, which went down very quickly at the end of a hot day's walking. I then noticed on the menu that Wednesday was curry night with curry and a drink for only 5.75 plus 50p for naan bread. I had to double check that it was Wednesday, as I was already starting to lose track of time even at this early stage of the walk. It was, in fact, Wednesday, so I was in luck, though the drink was only a pint of Brains Smooth, but it was still a bargain. I sat outside for a while but all the tables were on a slope and rather uncomfortable so I had the meal inside instead and finished off with another pint of Reverend James outside before going back to watch TV for a while. The big news story of the day was about the multiple shootings in Cumbria and the subsequent suicide of the gunman, something that tends to make a place stick in one's mind, a bit like the events of 9/11 when I was walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in 2001.


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Day 3 - Thursday 3rd June - GPS 21.6 miles - 3,200 ft ascent

Crosskeys to Abergavenny via Twmbarlwm and Blorenge

The GPS mileage figure is what I recorded from accommodation to accommodation, and includes any small detours, meandering around, and errors in route finding. In general this is about 5% to 15% greater than the mileage calculated from a map, depending upon the type of terrain, but in some cases is considerably more.

I had a good breakfast at eight o'clock and chatted for a while with the landlady about the state of business in the recession, so then had to rush around to get away by 9.05, as I had a long walk ahead and needed to get off to a reasonably early start. It was a lovely day but with some distant haze limiting the visibility to about ten miles. Walking towards Risca to rejoin the route, I forgot to look for the turning up to join the canal towpath, so turned up by The Darran Inn a little further along. There is a long steady climb up the road and then a track, but I kept on going as I still felt fresh and I had no problems with my feet or leg muscles so far. The shade from the trees kept me cooler, but I was still getting quite hot in the morning sunshine. Towards the summit of Twmbarlwm, an old hill fort, the path gets considerably steeper, so I had to have a few short breathers until the slope started to ease off and I was able to walk continuously again, reaching the summit at 10.05 (checkpoint 4).

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Sculpture at Pegwn-y-bwlch on ascent of Twmbarlwm
Sculpture on ascent of Twmbarlwm
Looking back down to Pegwn-y-bwlch on ascent of Twmbarlwm
Looking back down from Twmbarlwm
Outer Fortified Ditch of Twmbarlwm
Outer Fortified Ditch of Twmbarlwm

At the summit there was a nice cool breeze and I stopped for a drink and a 10-minute rest. The views were somewhat limited by the haze, but there was still quite a bit that could be seen. I was just pondering on the fact that nobody else was around on such a nice morning, other than a man in a van on a track below, when a couple arrived at the summit just as I had departed and then several others appeared as I walked along the ridge.

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Summit of Twmbarlwm Hill Fort
Summit of Twmbarlwm Hill Fort
Ponies on Mynydd Henllys north of Twmbarlwm
Ponies on Mynydd Henllys

The walking was easy, along grassy tracks, though they were deeply rutted in places, partly by motorcycles being illegally ridden over the hills. The views over the low lying land below were nothing particularly special but it was nice open walking in fine weather, so that made me feel good to be there. After a while, the route drops down the hillside towards the small Blaen Blan Reservoirs. I always seem to take the wrong path down here, staying too far up the hillside and then having to double back down a steep path, because I have been taking a little bit too much notice of the comment on the sketch map in the guidebook saying 'keep to contour'. This is a case where the 1:25,000 OS map may have helped, as the footpaths around here look rather confused on my 1:50,000 map. The reservoirs were dry at the moment and I wasn't sure whether this was because of the long spell of dry weather or whether they had been drained for some reason, as they were not empty on my last visit. I notice that they are shown on the latest 1:25,000 map as disused and not coloured in blue, whereas the 1:50,000 maps shows them in blue and doesn't mention disused, so they may only recently have been taken out of service.

The path then follows the boundary wall of the common, which is not the best, as there are overhanging branches from the woodland on the other side of the wall making it necessary to walk, in parts, on the steeply sloping hillside, with no views to either side, and it made me wonder whether there might be a more attractive and easier route with better views by following the ridge further along before dropping down. On my first walk here I went over to the summit of Mynydd Twyn-glas, simply because I was keen to do as many summits as possible near to the route, but this rather flat topped summit was not particularly interesting. However, there are one or two other routes following the edge of the hillside near the top that may well offer a more interesting route.

I was feeling tired and in need of a rest, but decided to carry on to get a few more miles in before stopping for a lunch break at Pontypool. Eventually the route opened out more on the way to Mountain Ash, albeit on a more uneven track and then it runs alongside the minor road past the Lamb Inn before dropping down to Pontypool. The map in the guidebook shows a road running all the way down, whereas there is a section of road to start with, then a rough, sunken lane followed by another road at the bottom leading out by a roundabout near Pontypool Park. On the way to the park is an Esso filling station with a shop where I was able to buy some things for lunch, which I ate sitting on a bench just inside the park gates. It was 12.30 and I definitely needed a good rest, having walked about nine miles with only one short rest on Twmbarlwm.

At 13.10, I was off again, taking the steep and rather overgrown path up the hill beside the park. I was not feeling as fit now as I was first thing this morning, but I just kept up a steady plod and gradually the slope eased off and the views opened up as I headed towards the Watch Tower, a folly on the ridge. There was a backdrop of hills now to the south and west. This was good, open walking country now, though the paths were sometimes uneven and my heels were starting to get sore where my boots were starting to rub. This rang a few alarm bells, as the last thing I wanted at this stage of the walk was blistered heels, so I tried to walk more carefully, placing my feet down more evenly to avoid as much of the rubbing as I could.

Reaching Garn Wen at 14.20, I stopped for a ten-minute rest and a drink before continuing along a path by the eastern edge of the common. This was more fine walking country with good distant views and lots of interesting undulations on the common itself. There were paths and tracks running all over the place, as is often the case over commons, but the route near the edge also gave better views down into the valleys below. At one point there was a good view of Abergavenny, with Sugar Loaf on one side and Skirrid on the other. I only noticed later that the guidebook shows a more direct route, cutting of a bit off the corner, but it was too late to bother trying to make my way across rough moorland to rejoin the route and it was easier just to continue the way I was going.

Now moving away from the edge of the common, the views were more limited, with some distant views but with few features nearby. The miles always seem to take longer over this sort of country, as the scenery only changes very slowly. I eventually reached the minor road crossing and picked up the path towards Foxhunter's Grave, which is easy to find using the twin radio masts nearby as a guide. This is the country for stubbed toes, trips and twisted ankles if care is not taken, as there are lots of stones sticking up in the path and it needs eyes constantly on the ground to avoid them. However, there was not much of a view to look at anyway, just a lot of featureless moorland, so it didn't matter too much that all my attention was on the ground. Though the path meanders around somewhat, it is easy to follow, as there are marker posts for much of the way, with a fairly clearly defined path through the heather. After what seemed like a very long time, the radio masts gradually got closer and closer and I reached the roadside car park by Foxhunter's Grave at 16.20.

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Foxhunter's Grave
Foxhunter's Grave
Blorenge from Foxhunter's Grave
Blorenge from Foxhunter's Grave
Summit of Blorenge with Sugar Loaf behind
Summit of Blorenge with Sugar Loaf behind

I was quite surprised by how many people there were around the car park, though only a few seemed to be visiting the grave itself, which is only a short walk away. My shoulders were aching a bit by now, so I stopped for a rest and a drink near the grave, with about four miles left to go. At 16.45 I set off up the gently sloping path towards Blorenge. The summit itself, which I reached at 17.00 (checkpoint 5), is just a small mound of stones on a rather flat-topped plateau, but the real beauty lies at the edge of the steep northern face. Though I had been here twice before, the first time was in fairly poor weather and the second time in mist, so this was my first chance to see the views in brilliant weather conditions. The sun was shining brightly and the earlier haze had mostly cleared sufficiently to give a good view of the surrounding mountains. There were already some views of Sugar Loaf and the Black Mountains from the summit, but the vista from the edge was absolutely stunning, with a bird's eye view of Abergavenny below, the whole of the Black Mountains to the north-west and a full view of Sugar Loaf and Skirrid. It is views like this that make all the effort of walking and climbing worthwhile and I had to sit there for a while just taking it all in.

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Abergavenny and Skirrid from Blorenge
Abergavenny and Skirrid from Blorenge
Sugar Loaf from Blorenge
Sugar Loaf from Blorenge

After a while it was time it was time to move on, as I still had a few miles more to walk to reach my accommodation in the Black Sheep Backpackers' Hostel near Abergavenny railway station. On previous occasions, I have made my way along the edge of Blorenge southwards past the steep cliffs until I found a way down the steep hillside, but this time I investigated the route directly beneath and found a path, albeit very steep, going straight to where I needed to go. There were steps in the soil where people had climbed up and down the steepest part of the slope, so this made things easier, though it is always more difficult trying to maintain balance with a heavy pack. It was a bit of a strain at the end of a long day's walk, but it was not too long before I reached the bottom and started on another steep path down to the tunnel under the canal. After all the strain on my legs from the steep descent, it was a relief to get onto more level ground for the rest of the way into Abergavenny and then along the Brecon road to the Hotel by the station. The Great Western is a pub, which which also houses the hostel, and I arrived there at 18.30.

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Tunnel under Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal near Abergavenny
Tunnel under Canal
River Usk at Abergavenny
River Usk at Abergavenny

The first thing I needed was a pint of bitter and the next thing was a shower, after which I felt much better, though I was still rather weary. The shower was just across the corridor from my dormitory, which had a door with a key code lock to which I had been given the access key written on a card. I was careful to take the card with me to the shower so that I didn't get locked out. However, when I had had my shower and returned to the dormitory I realised that I had a problem. I hadn't bothered to take my glasses with me and with rather dim lighting in the corridor and eyes that were rather tired I could make out neither the numbers on the keypad nor the code that was written down on the card. There was a window at the end of the corridor giving more light, so by going over there and straining my eyes I just about managed to read the code from the card but when I returned to the door I was still struggling to make out the numbers on the keypad. After a lot of squinting and some guesswork and logical deduction plus a lot of trial and error, I managed to figure out the keypad layout but no matter how I tried I couldn't get the door to open. I kept making trips to and from the window to check that I had read the code correctly, but still had no success in opening the door. It was getting to the point when I was going to have to admit defeat and go back to the young lady in the bar for help when she just happened to come along the corridor. She quickly pointed out that what I thought was a 7 was actually a Y, the keypad having numbers from 0 to 9, C for Clear and X, Y and Z. At once, I was able to get back into the dormitory and get myself ready to go for something to eat.

Last time I stayed in this hostel was in 2005, when the only accommodation was a mixed-sex dormitory in the basement with a rather grubby shower that had seen better days. Now, however, the basement had been refurbished with some new showers and a lounge as well as the kitchen that was already there previously, but all the accommodation was now in rooms on the first floor of the hotel. Everything was of a considerably better standard, though some of the maintenance was a bit lacking, but no worse than many youth hostels. At 15 a night including a help-yourself light breakfast of cereals, toast etc., it represented good value for money, especially in an area where many B&Bs are quite expensive.

The Great Western Hotel didn't appear to be serving any food, so I went back into town for something to eat. There were several pubs and restaurants in town, but I decided to have some fish, chips and mushy peas from the chip shop. The fish and chips were already cooked, but I had to wait about five minutes for the mushy peas to be heated up in the microwave. However, when I came to eat the peas, they were only lukewarm and tasted quite revolting. The fish and chips were also not particularly good, so I would probably have been far better off getting a bar meal somewhere.

After wandering around town for a little while, I called in at the Hen and Chickens for a couple of pints of Reverend James before heading back to the hostel for an early night. When I got back, my only roommate, whose large rucksack and walking boots were in the room before I went out, was already in bed trying to sleep, so I went to bed myself to do the same.


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