Part Cambrian Way 2016

Author: George Tod

Click on small photo to enlarge in situ. For photos in better weather see Cambrian Way website.
Part 2 - Days 1 & 2 Cardiff to Abergavenny


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Day 1 - Saturday 4th June - 19.2 miles, 2700 ft ascent (Map measurements) - GPS 22.0 miles

The GPS mileage figure includes 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.

Cardiff Youth Hostel to Solar Strand Hotel, Crosskeys via Rhymney Valley Ridgeway and Mynydd Machen

Breakfast started at 7.30, so I got down then as I wanted to get an early start for the long day ahead: my plotted route showed this as 19.2 miles from door to door. The breakfast buffet had quite a good selection of things both hot and cold. Like most such buffets, even in quite expensive hotels, the hot things are only lukewarm and eggs can have a dubious consistency, but it was good value for money. I managed to get everything sorted out and ready to go by 8.45 - I had a problem finding where I had put everything and sorting out which things I needed along the way, which is why I was rather slow getting started, but this was the first day so was only to be expected.

I set off on a different route from the one I had taken last night, and this avoided all the blocked off area of the building site. Starting to use my GPS to show if I was heading in the right direction, only caused confusion, as it kept trying to point me in what was obviously the wrong direction so, after wandering in and out of various housing estates in the suburbs, I decided to switch it off and on again to see if it worked any better. Lo and behold, it was now working properly. Then I remembered what had happened. When I switched it on inside the hotel it had no satellite signal so it asked me if I wanted it to continue searching. I pressed 'No', so it took me at my word and stopped looking for satellites. Even when there were satellite signals outside the building it didn't look for them and it kept on thinking I was still at the hostel and it was unaware which way I was moving, so it was hardly surprising that the result was total confusion. Switching off and on again made it start searching again and it was soon showing the right way. With a long day ahead, I could do without distractions like this, but at least I didn't waste too much time and effort. Although the GPS was showing the right direction, this is not always very good on city streets when plotted using an Ordnance Survey Map, so it was better just to follow street signs for the Castle instead.

I arrived at the castle, the official start of the Cambrian Way, at 9.15 and headed from there into Bute Park by the River Taff. The weather was rather dull and close, but at least it wasn't raining as I made my way past the ornamental gardens and then more informal area, where it was all very peaceful, though it was surprising how many joggers and cyclists were around. It seems to be the thing these days that, especially in city areas, there are large numbers of people who work hard at keeping fit and trim, whilst others just overeat and pile on weight. It is as if we are becoming more and more divided, with some taking health and fitness to the extreme, whilst others totally ignore all the warnings and are bringing about a huge obesity crisis with all its associated heath problems. The area along the coast near where I live abounds in caravan parks that seem to attract the most obese and unhealthy people imaginable and all they can manage to do is waddle slowly along the street and around the supermarkets, that is if they are not already on mobility scooters, whereas here in Cardiff there were a succession of trim young ladies in bright coloured lycra jogging along everywhere making a far more pleasant sight to behold.

One thing I do find in Cardiff is, that despite it being a fairly large city, it still retains a friendliness that is not found in many cities in England. It is still possible to get a 'Hello', or a nod or friendly smile from walkers in the parks and in the streets whereas this is usually only found in rural areas.

The first day of the Cambrian Way is not characteristic of the walk in general, which is subtitled 'The Mountain Connoisseur's Walk', but it does make it into a Welsh Coast to Coast Walk and the route is pleasant rather than inspiring. Beyond the park, which is remarkably free of the noise of city traffic and full of birdsong, there is a Nature Reserve on a stretch of disused canal, and this is also very secluded and free from traffic noise even though it ends very close to the M4 motorway. There is quite a lot of wildlife, and I came upon a heron perched on a log in the canal. I expected it to fly away as I approached, so I took a photo from some distance using a long zoom, but it seemed unconcerned as I approached are stayed where it was as I walked by.

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Heron on Disused Canal, Whitchurch
Heron on Disused Canal, Whitchurch

Note: There are many more of my photos taken in better weather conditions on the Cambrian Way website

A series of little underpasses and walkways lead under the busy M4 junction and roundabout to pick up the road into Tongwynlais. This is where the first hill is encountered on the way up to Castell Coch, a Gothic Revival Castle built in the 19th Century, standing on the hillside above the town. I was getting on with the walking quite well and getting used to the weight of the pack on my back, which is quite a bit heavier than I carry on day walks. However, the extra weight was quite noticeable once I started climbing up the hill. After a few days, the weight of the pack becomes less noticeable and walking on the flat doesn't need to be any slower, but uphill there is still a need to go more slowly and keep stopping for more short rests when it is steep.

I stopped for a rest and a snack by the castle at about 12.00 and took the opportunity to phone home with a progress report. One of the advantages of having mobile phones on the same account is that it allows unlimited calls between them, so there was no worry about the cost of calls as there were when I was using pay as you go in the past. I, therefore, decided to keep in touch with home much more and would ring with a progress report whenever I stopped for a rest and there was mobile phone reception. One of the advantages of doing this in remote areas was that there was often no reception down in a valley where I was staying for the night, whereas there was reception on top of a hill or mountain that I had recently been upon. Having spoken to my wife not long before and warned her of the possible lack of communication, I then knew that she wouldn't be worrying about me, and I didn't have to try to find a pay phone to report back.

Beyond Castell Coch, there is a lot of walking along forest tracks which, though easy to follow and quick for walking, do not give many views and can become rather tedious. Since I last visited this area, quite a number of things have been developed to attract families into the area. One of these is the 'Three Bears Cave', which was actually the entrance to an old iron mine. It has recently been used as a setting for several TV programmes and Films such as Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Robin Hood, as it is conveniently placed only a short way from studios in Cardiff. It is just beside the route and has a large display board explaining its origins. A little further along, running parallel with the main track, is a Sculpture Trail, with large carved wooden sculptures of witches, animals and toadstools, obviously intended to attract children, but also providing a bit of light relief from the rather tedious forest track without adding any extra distance.

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Sculpture near Three Bears Cave
Sculpture near Three Bears Cave
Three Bears Cave
Three Bears Cave
Sculpture Trail Entrance
Sculpture Trail Entrance

Note: There are many more of my photos taken in better weather conditions on the Cambrian Way website

I reached the Car Park at the end of the Sculpture Trail and tried to find the small stretch of footpath shown in the guidebook, cutting the corner off a short stretch of road walking. This was with my Cambrian Way Trustee hat on, as I was concerned that the guidebook shows the route going this way, but I couldn't find the path last time and it is not shown on the latest Ordnance Survey maps. Again, despite careful scrutiny, I still couldn't find a path and went down a very unpleasant hillside with lots of brambles and other difficulties to reach the road, whereas it would have been a lot easier just to follow the road for a short way to where it doubles back on the other side of the valley. This is one of the things to pass on to the Ramblers Working Parties for further investigation when carrying out surveys of the route, although I am drawn to the conclusion that any path that may have once existed has become overgrown through lack of use. The only other explanation is that on 1:50,000 maps one of the hyphens in Bwlch-y-cwm is in exactly the place that the path is supposed to be.

Little distractions like this tend to add extra time and effort to an already long walk, but I was making quite good progress most of the way by keeping up a good walking pace and not stopping for too many rests, my next one being at an old quarry close to the Ridgeway route at Cefn Onn. Prior to this, there are few places with much of a view, whereas this offers views overlooking Caerphilly to the north and Cardiff to the south, although the visibility now made it difficult to see that far. It did brighten up a little whilst I ate the remainder of my lunch and I made another call home. My GPS said I had walked 12.5 miles, and I set off again at 2.10 pm to more easy walking on pleasant paths but with few distant views.

Another thing I wanted to investigate was a World War 2 secret bunker that was intended to be a command and communications centre in the event of invasion. It was only a few years ago that this came to light after information was declassified. I had a rough idea of its whereabouts, and was just about to check my location on the map when I met a couple coming towards me, and they thought I was lost so stopped to offer help. They hadn't seen the bunker, but we had quite a chat about walking and the values of a modern GPS, so by the time they went on their way I had been distracted from my search for the bunker, which was probably not far away. By the time I started looking again, I had obviously gone too far and didn't have the time to turn back again. By now, I was starting to get weary, partly because of the monotony of the forest tracks, but I pressed on to Machen and reached the church, which I knew had a nicely situated seat with a pleasant view, ideally suited for another rest before the final push over Mynydd Machen to Crosskeys, where I was staying for the night. It was 3.55 and the sun made a brief appearance to brighten up the day. I was soon startled by a loud noise as the church bells rang 4 o'clock.

I was off again at 4.10 along the fairly steep but steady ascent, which follows a diagonal track up the steep hillside. Previously there was no mistaking the route, but some BMX tracks have now developed up and down the hillside, and these confused me at one point, and it was only when the path got very steep that I realised that this was intended as a fast downhill stretch for the bikes and not a good way to ascend. I soon scrambled back up to the main track where the going was a lot easier, with views starting to appear between gaps in the trees, though the hazy conditions limited them somewhat. At the end of the forest, the guidebook shows a sharp left up the steep hillside, making a direct line for the summit, but I went a little further along, following the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk that is marked on the Ordnance Survey Maps, taking a slightly less steep approach with better views over to the east, whilst only adding a couple of hundred yards to the distance. Towards the end of a long day, it was still a bit of a struggle, but with a few short rests I soon made it and stopped for a short rest and drink on a bench by the trig point.

The views from the summit were hazy, with visibility down to two or three miles, so I made my way on down towards Risca. Near the bottom of the hill there is a place where I had been unable to find the path previously. Again, I was unable to find it and took the wide forest track and road to get round instead, ending up in what seemed to be private land. However, I was in no mood to investigate further and just made my way in the easiest way possible, which was down the road into Machen and then on the Crosskeys, where I was staying in the Solar Strand Hotel. On the way down I had a missed phone call, which I assumed was from my wife, so I rang her. However, I realised later that it was the Hotel ringing me to ask what time I would be arriving

The old mining valleys are still somewhat depressed areas since the demise of the coal industry, though they have, with improved transport links, become commuter areas for Cardiff because they have an abundance of affordable housing. There are not many places to stay, and last time I stayed in Westwood Villas Guest House, but this had changed hands and then the new owners moved to new premises near the Station, with more rooms and a bar and restaurant. This was a bit further from the route, only about 0.2 miles, but every bit counts on an already long day. It also added a bit more to the start of the next day. On the plus side, I didn't have to go off for quite a way to find somewhere to eat, as I could get a meal and drinks in the hotel.

According to my route planning using online mapping, the walk should have been 19.2 miles, but my GPS showed 21.5 miles and there was a bit missing at the start because of the messing about with my GPS, so it was probably not far off 22 miles. However, it is only in recent years that people have had the accuracy of GPS, which takes account of every little bit of wandering here and there. Previously people never thought of including this in their calculations. The difference tends to vary depending on what sort of terrain is being covered, being less on fairly even, straight paths and more over rough or steep places where there may be much more wandering from side to side avoiding mud or rocks and maybe zigzagging up and down steep slopes. Typically it will amount to several percent plus any detours or mistakes in navigation. My method of working out how far I had left to my destination was to take the distance that had been calculated from online mapping and taking off the distance I had clocked up on my GPS. However, the discrepancy between online mapping and GPS meant that I needed to make adjustments for this. By adding about 10% onto my online mapping figure, this tended to give a better indication of how much further I had left to go when taking off what my GPS had clocked up.

It was 6.30 when I arrived at the hotel and they were keen to find out if I wanted a meal, as they wanted to close the kitchen, so I arranged to be down for 7.00 after having a shower and getting changed. The menu was rather limited, and I opted for chicken strips with chips. They had run out of those but offered chicken balls instead and I had a pint of Doom Bar to quench my thirst. The beer was just at the point of going off, with a hint of vinegar, but it was drinkable after a long, thirsty walk. When the food arrived, it was a large bowl full of the chicken balls accompanied by a huge portion of chips and some sauces, but not a bit sign of vegetables or salad. I had noticed the absence of these things on the whole menu but just assumed that some vegetables of the day would appear. Presumably, healthy eating has not arrived in this part of the world. There was also a distinct lack of fruit in any of the desserts as well. That didn't matter, though as, after struggling through all the chicken and about two thirds of the chips, I was so full that I couldn't eat any more. In hindsight, I would have fared better with the jacket potato instead of the chips, but I didn't think at the time.

My feet were feeling tender from all the walking so I went to lie down in bed and watched a bit of TV for a while in the very hot bedroom. When I first booked the room, I was told that breakfast was from 7.30, which was fine as it meant I could get off to an early start. However, I now found out it was from 8.30, as it was a Sunday and they must have not realised when I was booking. I had an even longer walk tomorrow with more ups and downs, so it meant that I was likely to be very late arriving and there would be less chance of getting something to eat without having to walk into town. The only option seemed to be to get everything ready before breakfast so I could just go as soon as I had finished.


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Day 2 - Sunday 5th June - 20.6 miles, 3600 ft ascent (Map measurements) - GPS 23.0 miles

The GPS mileage figure includes 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.

Crosskeys (Solar Strand Hotel) to Abergavenny (Great Western Hotel) via Twmbarlwm and Blorenge

I was awake early, as I cannot sleep for a long time these days even when I am very tired. When I started looking at the options, I decided it would be better just to set off early without breakfast. I was still fairly full from last night's meal, and I had an apple and some flapjack left from yesterday and some biscuits from the room, so I had these with a cup of tea for breakfast and set off at 7.30 leaving a note on reception to say I wouldn't be staying for breakfast. I knew if nothing else that I would get to Pontypool by about midday, so I would be able to buy things there for lunch.

It was still dull and cool as I set off down the road to rejoin the route. I walked straight past the road I should have taken going up to join the canal but didn't worry, as I had done exactly the same thing before. It just meant turning further along to join the route where it leaves the canal to head towards the old hill fort of Twmbarlwm. After a steady uphill walk along the road, a track leads up towards the steep climb to the summit ridge. I had to take this steadily with several short rests, but at least it was still quite cool. I had developed one blister yesterday, but it wasn't causing me too much of a problem so far, and I was feeling quite refreshed after a night's rest.

The views were very limited in the dull weather, but along the ridge it was fast and easy walking along grassy paths most of the way, passing sheep, ponies and highland cattle with their long sharp horns. After descending to the track by the boundary wall of the common, I soon came across a tall, green kissing gate to the right with a sign saying 'Blaen Bran Community Woodland'. It looked interesting, so I decided to walk through there on a track that runs more or less parallel to the guidebook route, rejoining it further along. The first problem was that the kissing gate had not been designed with large rucksacks in mind so it required an act of extreme contortion to get through, but I did manage it without having to remove my rucksack. There are various parts to this Woodland area, which is centred around the small Blaen Bran Reservoir. The reservoir itself looked rather unappetising, being a yellowish brown colour, although it was in a pleasant setting among the trees. There were other walks further down, but my route just kept to the top, passing some wooden mushrooms carved from tree stumps. One main advantage of this route is that it is on a smooth surfaced path which is easy on the feet, compared to the rough, stony path taken by the normal route. After about three quarters of a mile there was another kissing gate that required a repeat of the contortions to get through, and then I quickly rejoined the track off the common.

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Blaen Blan Sculptures
Blaen Blan Sculptures
Blaen Blan Reservoir
Blaen Blan Reservoir
Blaen Blan Kissing Gate
Blaen Blan Kissing Gate

Note: There are many more of my photos taken in better weather conditions on the Cambrian Way website

Soon the track joins a minor road, but there are routes along the edge of the common to avoid road walking for most of the way. The pub at Penrheol was still closed with signs trying to attract buyers, but like so many rural pubs it is difficult to make them pay when there are only a few scattered houses and farms nearby, meaning that most people would have to drive to get there. The rest of the way to Pontypool follows a narrow lane down the hillside, joining a busy road and going through an underpass of the A492, then towards the entrance of Pontypool Park. Just before reaching the park gates is a filling station with a shop and this had a good selection of things for lunch. I was then able to have an early lunch sitting on a bench in the park at 11.30 to make up for my limited breakfast. The sun even came out for a while, but there was still a pleasantly cool breeze that was good for walking.

After a rest and a phone call home, I set off at 12.00 going back through the Pontymoel Gates of the park. These very ornate gates are Grade II listed and were remodelled from earlier gates in 1835. They are often spelled as 'Pontymoile', which is just an Anglicised version of the Welsh. A little further along the road is the route up along the ridge above the park which was quite overgrown in many places, though it was possible to walk up the grassy hillside to the right of the sunken lane. I could also see a new footpath at the other side of the lane over the wall, but wasn't sure where that could be joined further down, though I was able to cross over to it further up.

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Pontymoel Park Gates
Pontymoel Park Gates
Shell Grotto, Pontypool
Shell Grotto, Pontypool
Watch Tower, Pontypool
Watch Tower, Pontypool

Note: There are many more of my photos taken in better weather conditions on the Cambrian Way website

There are a few interesting landmarks along the ridge, the first being the Shell Grotto just off to the left, which dates back to 1794 with many improvements added around 1830. It fell into disrepair, but was carefully restored in 1996. However, it became apparent that the building was unsafe and would require very costly further repairs, so it has remained closed to the public for many years.

The next landmark, is the Folly or Watch Tower, originally built around 1770 on the site of a Roman Watch Tower, it was demolished in 1940 to avoid being used as a landmark for German bombers. Rebuilding work started in 1990 and it was reopened in 1994. This can be seen from quite a distance away in its prominent position further up the ridge. The weather conditions were improving with gradually increasing sunshine and a pleasantly cool breeze making it ideal for walking with the views gradually improving, though there was still some haze around. I met two couples in difference places along the way and both of them expressed amazement at the distance that I was walking.

There was still quite a distance to cover, so I pressed on with just a couple of short stops for drinks of water, which I was much in need of in the warm conditions, but I did have just enough to see me through. Most of the way is over moorland common, which is quite easy on the feet and it was possible to make good progress. The next point of interest was the pair of aerial masts in the far distance, which are close to a roadside car park by Foxhunter's Grave. The remains of this famous showjumper, or at least some of his remains were buried at this moorland location when he died in 1959. His skeleton is displayed in the Royal Veterinary Museum. The grave has a board listing all his achievements and the site attracts quite a number of visitors as they drive over this scenic moorland road.

Further gentle climbing led to the summit of Blorenge, the highest point of the day at 1833 ft above sea level. However, the summit itself offers only distance views and, although there had been some improvement in visibility, it was still rather limited. The really stunning view came half a mile further on at the steep northeast edge of moor overlooking Abrergavenny, with Sugar Loaf to the left and Skirrid to the right, and these were near enough to be reasonably clear despite the haze. I had a bit of a dilemma as to which route to take from Blorenge into town, as the shortest route goes straight down the very steep face, whereas Tony Drake suggested taking a slightly less steep route by looping round a bit of a way to the east, where there is no clear path. Neither of these are approved by the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, who say the only right of way involves a much larger loop adding 2 miles to the route. However, their findings are based only on pathways that are marked as rights of way on Ordnance Survey maps or that are on Access Land, and there is a short bit of the steep descents that is neither of these. What they do not take account of is that in many places around the mountains there are paths that have developed over the years that have Common Law access rights because of continuous use without being closed to the public. Tony Drake was very knowledgeable about such things, and was presented with an MBE for services to footpaths, so there is more reason to believe his findings that those of the National Park Authority. I was in no mind to add 2 miles onto the walk at this stage and, having tried Tony Drake's suggested route previously without finding it particularly easy to find or follow, I opted for the steep direct descent. Fortunately it was dry, so there was less chance of slipping, and a series of steps have formed in the soil by people using this route, so it was not as difficult as it might have been. However, it was still quite a strain on my legs and knees with a fairly heavy pack on my back, and there was a constant worry about losing my balance, though it was always possible to scramble down backwards in the steepest places to allow hand holds.

The steep slope seemed to go on for ever, but then gradually eased off a bit to my great relief, but the descent was still not over, as the path then continues down through woodland to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and beyond on a steep incline that was once used for carrying stone from nearby quarries. The interesting feature at the canal is where the track goes through a dark tunnel under both the canal and a house that is built next to the canal. Coming from the sunshine it looked pitch black, but it was just possible to see the other end and my eyes started to get accustomed to the dark before being dazzled again at the other end.

By now I was getting rather weary, especially after the steep descent, but the rest of the way was on roads and paths into town, first of all going under a tunnel beneath the busy Heads of The Valley Road, the A465, then round the large cemetery at Llanfoist, where there is an old oak tree with a circular metal seat build around its trunk opposite the main entrance. As the tree has kept on growing, the metal seat has become embedded into it to quite a depth. From there, the route goes over the road bridge crossing the River Usk and into Abergavenny via the Castle. However, I was staying at the Great Western Hotel near the railway station, which is on the road out of the other side of town three quarter of a mile further on and this also included a climb uphill, not very much of a climb, but after over 20 miles of walking, any incline feels like quite an effort.

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Seat Sunken into Tree, Llanfoist
Seat Sunken into Tree, Llanfoist

Note: There are many more of my photos taken in better weather conditions on the Cambrian Way website

The first thing I needed when I arrived was a pint of beer from the bar, where the young barman was very friendly and chatty. When I came to pay for my pint plus the bunkhouse bed, which included bedding and a self service breakfast, I had change out of £20 and he commented "It can't be bad to get bed and breakfast plus a pint for less than £20!" I had to agree with him, especially in a town very popular with tourists. Just then a chap came into the bar in an a belligerent manner and announced "I've come in here to say that I am never going to come in here again!", and proceeded to ramble on about some past history of arguments with the owner and being barred from the pub. He went on and on about how he had been a regular customer for 50 years and started bringing up all sorts of happenings in the past and getting quite aggressive, handing out lots of verbal abuse both to the barman and about the owner. The young barman handled the situation brilliantly, making counter arguments and putting him in his place in a well reasoned manner without resorting to the sort of abuse that was being thrown at him. One of the obvious responses being "If you have just come to say you are never coming in here again, why did you just not come in in the first place?", but that logic didn't register with the chap and he just carried on ranting in the same vein, whilst I just sat there being highly amused by the situation.

Eventually, a lady came into the bar and dragged him away to restore the peace and I went off to have a shower and get changed, ready to walk back into town to find something to eat. There was no food being served because it was Sunday evening and the chef was off after Sunday lunch.

My GPS said I had walked 23.1 miles as opposed to the map distance of 20.6 miles, so it was not surprising that my feet were aching and I was feeling rather tired - that steep descent from Blorenge had not done anything to help either. The prospect of another one and a half miles walk didn't please me, but after a shower and change of footwear into my trainers, I set off walking very steadily towards the centre of town. There was a pub on the way, by they were not doing food either and the nearest place I could find was a café with a special offer of fish chips and peas for £5, so I called in there. It was actually nearer than I had estimated and only about half a mile, but that was still an extra mile there and back. It is surprising that when you think you can't walk another step, once you get going it is not too bad, especially without a rucksack and walking at a very gentle pace. When I got back I had another pint sitting outside in the warm sunny evening by which the barman was off duty and having a drink himself outside. He said that the chap had been back again hurling more abuse whilst I was away. It was obvious that the chap had either some mental health problem or dementia. After finishing my pint I then went to rest my weary feet in bed.

There was just one other chap called John staying for the night and he came in a bit later on.


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