Part Cambrian Way 2016

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 4 - Days 5 & 6 Crickhowell to YHA Brecon


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Day 5 - Wednesday 8th June - 15.7 miles, 3450 ft ascent (Map measurements) - GPS 17.1 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.

Crickhowell (Porth y Berllan) to Talybont-on-Usk (White Hart Inn) via Llangattock Escarpement and Mynydd Llangynidr

After a very good breakfast at 8.00, I set off into town to get a few things for lunch, so it was about 9.30 by the time I set off. It was a sunny day and already quite warm but not as close as it had been before. After crossing the river, the route goes up through Llangattock to join the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal towpath for a while. Enjoying the pleasant walk, I was daydreaming and then realised that I should have turned off onto the road a quarter of a mile further back. At least I was now into a part of the walk with less daily mileage, so the wasted distance didn't matter too much, The exit from the towpath to the minor road is quite unusual in that there is a set of steps up the side of the bridge. The first two are wide, solid steps but the remaining four are just stones sticking out of the stonework of the bridge.

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Steps to Road from Canal Towpath
Steps to Road from Canal Towpath

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

It was now getting hotter as I turned off the road onto a track leading to the bottom of the escarpment. From there the route climbs two steep inclines built for lowering stone from the quarry down tramways. The first incline had shade from a lot of overhanging trees, and this helped to keep off the heat of the sun, but it was still hot and sweaty work requiring several short rests. The second incline had no shade, but was shorter and benefited from a bit of a breeze. With the climbing over, it was good to have a relaxing walk on the flat along the escarpment, with lovely views across to the Black Mountains, though this was still marred by the hazy conditions.

Although I have walked this route three times before, I have always been confused as to where exactly on the map, the locked cave Ogof Agen Allwedd is situated, The guidebook used to show this at the point where the right of way starts to descend to the valley floor, but I found that it was actually nearly a quarter of a mile beyond, and this had caused me confusion, sometimes making me take difficult routes down instead. I made an amendment to the 7th Edition of the guidebook to make this clearer for other walkers who may find the same problem, and this time I used my GPS so that I could be certain of its exact position. This time, however, I decided to see if I could find a route along the escarpment without dropping down at all. The reason for this was that I was exploring to see if I could find a route to avoid some of the road walking that lay further ahead thinking that by staying higher up I may meet up with a path up the hillside above the road. This looked fairly promising at first, but got more and more difficult as I progressed with fallen branches, prickly bushes, nettles and all manner of difficulties, making me wish I had never even contemplated the idea. However, I had come too far to turn back so I just had to struggle on until I finally came out on the hillside not far from the road. It was 12.20 and I needed a rest after my efforts, so I stopped for my lunch, taking off my polo shirt, which was soaked in sweat, and relaxed in the warm sunshine.

This had actually brought me out on the hillside overlooking the road and, sure enough, halfway down towards the road these was a path, but this could easily have been reached from the proper route without all the problems I had encountered. I was able to follow this for some way, walking parallel to the road. This was good for a while with a grassy, reasonably clear path away from any traffic. However, further on it became less and less distinct until the only sensible option was to drop down and walk along the road. This did at least save about half of the road walking, which was still worthwhile, as the road is very straight and vehicles travel along it at high speed. The weather was pleasant now with a cool breeze to offset the heat of the sun, as I followed the road for the rest of the way up the hill.

There was a fairly easy path across the moors towards the Chartist Cave, which was used to store arms for the uprising. Then it was in the middle of an open moor with no paths and few landmarks, so it was well hidden from the authorities. Although I was aware of a breeze, I thought it was only gentle until I nearly had my maps blown away and realised that there was actually quite a strong wind but it was a very warm one so it was only having a limited effect on keeping me cool. When I entered the cave it felt refreshingly cool, so I stayed in there for a rest for ten minutes, but when I got up and walked out of the cave it was like walking into a hot oven. It wasn't long, though, before I reacclimatised as I made my way towards the wide, dusty road leading to the quarry. A few vehicles were coming and going leaving clouds of dust in their wake, but the road was so wide that they didn't come too close.

The Talybont Variant that I was taking turns off to follow the route of an old tramway round the head of a very steep sided valley and parts of this used to get badly flooded where a stream crossed the route. There was no sign of this now so it was either because of the dry weather or possibly because something had been done to stop the stream flooding the track. Further along, a nice cool stream, Nant Ddu, crossed the way and I was able to cool myself down from its water. It wasn't so much that I lacked fluid, more that I needed something to cool me down instead of the lukewarm drink I was carrying.

After reaching the edge of Glyn Collwn, with the Talybont Reservoir down below, there is a choice of several paths that run along the hillside. The guidebook route follows the old Brinore Tramroad that used to carry stone from the quarry to the canal at Talybont on Usk and this runs along the top of the ridge, though it doesn't offer many views because of the trees and is also rather hard on the feet because it is stony and uneven. However, I am not sure whether any of the alternative tracks would be any better, as they all seem to suffer from the same problem. The long, straight track seemed to go on forever before it eventually ended up at a bridge over the canal right by the White Hart Inn where I was staying for the night. It is a busy pub serving food and offering B&B but they had recently converted part of the upstairs into a bunkhouse that was extremely well fitted out and they were hoping to get a five star rating for it. Before going up to the bunkhouse, however, my first objective was to get a pint of beer to quench my thirst. It is a real ale pub with a few to choose from and I had a very good pint of the Welsh Dragon. It did also have my favourite beer, Reverend James from Brains Brewery in Cardiff, but it was Reverand James Original, which is a lighter, summer beer rather than the darker Reverend James that I like best.

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White Hart Inn from Canal Bridge
White Hart Inn from Canal Bridge

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

There was no phone reception inside, but I was told that most people could get some reception on the bridge over the canal, so I was able to report back home. I was the only staying in the bunkhouse so I had plenty of space to spread out and, after a much needed shower and a change of clothes I went back down to have another pint anda large plate of gammon and chips which I ate outside in the warm evening sunshine. It is a popular pub and gets trade from canal boats as well as locals and walkers on one of the several local trails, which include the Taff Trail, the Usk Valley Walk and the Beacons Way.

There was a sleeping bag and pillow case provided and a good drying room, so I was able to wash out my things and also dry out some of my previous washing that was still damp despite being hung on the back of my rucksack for most of the day in hot, sunny weather. I was weary from all the heat, so went off to bed to lie down, though I could only sleep fitfully even though I was very tired.


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Day 6 - Thursday 9th June - 12.4 miles, 5950 ft ascent (Map measurements) - GPS 14.0 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.

Talybont-on-Usk (White Hart Inn) to YHA Brecon via Craig Pwllfa, Cribyn and Pen y Fan

I made myself a cup of tea whilst I was waiting until it was time for breakfast at 8.00. This, along with everything else here, was very good and also very large, which would keep me going on my traverse of the Beacons. I hadn't ordered a packed lunch, as there was a small shop/café not far away beside the canal where I got some sandwiches and a few other things. The weather was overcast but brightening up, as I went back past the White Hart to the Brinore Tramroad to retrace a couple of miles of the route on the way to Aber, where I would start my ascent of the Beacons from the eastern end of the ridge. I got a short way along and then realised that I hadn't filled my water bottles, so I turned back rather than try to find somewhere to fill them along the way. Fortunately I still had the piece of paper with the key code for the bunkhouse door, so I could just nip back in and out again without wasting much time.

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Canal, Talybont-on-Usk
Canal, Talybont-on-Usk

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

When I came to where I should turn to Aber, I rather carelessly overshot the footbridge and then had to backtrack again because I hadn't been keeping an eye on my GPS - not a very good start to the day, but it didn't matter as I only had twelve and a half miles to walk, though there was about 6000 ft of ascent.

The fairly cool start to the day soon changed now that there was more sunshine, so when I started climbing up the ridge towards Twyn Du and Carn Pica it became a bit of a struggle in the heat. Now that I was some way up the hillside, there was a bit of a breeze to help keep me cool, but the temperature was steadily rising. There was a tree offering some shade, with good views back down into the valley, so that seemed like the ideal place for a rest. Before I arrived at the tree, a lamb had been taking advantage of the shade and it moved away as I approached, wandering further up the hill out of sight of its mother who had not been taking much notice. She then realised the lamb was missing and spent a long time bleating, trying to get a response from her lamb, but it had obviously gone out of earshot. Rather than going to look for it, she just carried on bleating as loudly as she could. Eventually, the lamb answered and peace was restored, and I moved on again so the lamb could return to its spot in the shade.

I continued onwards and upwards with my shirt off to try to keep a bit cooler, but I was still very hot, sweaty and thirsty when I managed to reach the top of Carn Pica even at about 2500 ft above sea level, so I decided to have an early lunch break and rest now that the hardest part of the climbing was over. There was a temptation to drink a lot, but I was aware that I still had quite a long walk ahead, so tried to ration myself. After a while, however, it clouded over with a cool breeze and even a few spots of rain, so it spared me from the heat even though it took the edge off the scenery.

It was now quite easy going with fairly gentle ups and downs along the ridge to Craig Cwareli and the weather started improving again, though still remained overcast and cool. As I progressed along the ridge, there were a few more people about, though most tend to approach Pen y Fan from the Storey Arms and do not venture to the eastern end of the ridge. I stopped to chat with one chap who told me that he had done the northern part of the Cambrian Way a few years ago. He didn't do the whole route because he had already done a lot of walking around the southern parts, so felt that he had already seen most of that. He mentioned that he often looked at the Cambrian Way website where the photographs helped remind him of his walk, as they were generally taken in much better weather conditions than he had encountered. I was able to tell him that they were all taken by me, most of them taken in 2010 when I was incredibly lucky with the weather.

With improving weather and all the beautiful Beacons scenery, the walking seemed no effort, with every little rest up any of the steeper slopes rewarded with panoramic views down the long ridges and deep valleys to the north and the distinctive flat topped twin peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du ahead. The Cambrian Way doesn't go to the summit of Fan y Big, but it doesn't add much to the distance to do so and involves only a gentle climb so I decided to go up there, choosing it as a good place to stop for the rest of my lunch. I tend not to eat all of my lunch at once, as it is better not to have too full a stomach when exerting a lot of energy - 'little and often' is the general recommendation to anyone involved in strenuous activities. This avoids too much blood being diverted to the stomach to digest the food when it is needed in other parts of the body, in this case my legs.

Path repairs are still ongoing around Fan y Big. Major path work started several years ago on the most popular areas further west and has gradually progressed eastwards where the problems were less serious. There are a few steep climbs along the ridge, but these are broken by stretches of easy walking and, although there is about 6000 ft of ascent in total, it doesn't really feel that much, especially as there is not too much distance involved and the scenery is so uplifting.

As I progressed towards Cribyn, where I stopped for another rest, there were more people about, but not the crowds I have seen sometimes. The worst times are when there are sponsored walks with masses of people swarming over the area, but there didn't seem to be any of those today, fortunately. With just one more major ascent to undertake, I could allow myself more to drink, though the thirst problem was now not so great with a cool breeze around. Along the ridge, which overlooks Brecon, there was quite a good mobile signal, so I phoned home with a progress report.

A drop down and a steep climb of several hundred feet brought me to the summit of Pen y Fan, where I was quite surprised by the lack of people, with only a few others around. It was now 4.00 and the weather was turning cooler and more overcast, so most people had probably been and gone by now. There was no point in lingering on the summit, so I headed straight over to Corn Du and then, after a short break, down to the Tommy Jones memorial. As I was descending the ridge, there was a helicopter circling around, and looking down to Llyn Cwm Llwch, there was a flare giving off red smoke, though I couldn't see anyone nearby. After circling round a few times and descending near to the flare, the helicopter went away. I assumed that it was just some exercise that was taking place and not a real emergency.

It is easy to think that all the climbing has finished by this point, but the route down to the Storey Arms goes down a dip and up the other side. It is only a climb of about 150 ft, but can come as a bit of a shock if you thought it was all over. One advantage of having done the walk on previous occasions is that I can psyche myself up to these things and then take them in my stride. It is often what goes on in the mind that determines how well people can cope with strenuous activities rather than the body itself, apart from when some physical injury is involved, and even then people can often overcome this with strong willpower.

Down at the road by the Storey Arms, there were still quite a lot of parked cars and people who had obviously returned from Pen y Fan. In the guidebook there is mention of being able to buy an ice cream, but I had been told that now it is possible to buy a lot more than that from a burger van, and there it was as a more or less permanent feature in the car park area, proudly displaying its name of 'THE STOREY ARMS REFRESHMENTS'. It obviously attracts a lot of business from walkers who are hungry after their trip to the summit. There was nothing to say what times the van is open, but one can assume that whenever there are plenty of walkers around, they will take advantage of the trade. At weekends the car parks and road can be jammed with cars, many of which double park, bringing a lot of money to coffers of the Council from fixed penalty notices. I didn't bother about any refreshments, as I had already had enough to eat and it was not long before I would reach YHA Brecon a couple of miles away.

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Storey Arms Refreshments
Storey Arms Refreshments

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

There is a convenient and easy track leading down to the Youth Hostel, avoiding the busy main road. It becomes a bit trickier finding the footpath from the track to the hostel, but there are some waymarks to help, and I arrived at 6.00. I had pre-booked everything including dinner, breakfast and packed lunch, so it was just a matter of choosing from the options as I checked in. The hostel was very busy, which is what I had expected, as it attracts lots of walkers heading for Pen y Fan as well as other parts of the Brecon Beacons plus cyclists and other tourists. This is the first time I have managed to find a bed here in four walks of the Cambrian Way, and that was only because I planned the walk around availability of accommodation both here and YHA Llanddeusant.

As I headed for my dormitory, I passed doors marked 'Drying Room', so I thought that I would be able to do my washing with a good chance of getting it dry. The dormitory was almost full when I arrived, with only a couple of top bunks remaining. The problem was that there was very little space to put any of my things. Those in the lower bunks had put all their belongings underneath them leaving no room for anything else and there were no cupboards or lockers for anyone else. The only space I could find was next to the washbasin where it would get in the way. This made it very difficult for me to sort out the things I needed for getting a shower and washing out clothes plus anything else I needed to do. Consequently I ended up taking various things with me around the building and forgetting where I had left them, then hunting round later trying to find them.

After having a much needed shower, I washed a few things out and went to the drying room only to find it was stone cold. Some places use off-peak electricity to heat them overnight, so there was still some hope that it might warm up later.

Apart from the overcrowding, the hostel was very good, with friendly staff and good homemade meals. I was somewhat concerned about letting YHA Llanddeusant know that I had a long day's walk to get there and that I would be rather late arriving. I didn't want anyone calling out the mountain rescue team because I hadn't arrived, and I was also not sure whether a warden would actually be on site or whether it may be someone who lived nearby and just came to check people in. The Brecon warden tried to let them know but couldn't get through. The problem is that it is a small, basic hostel manned either by volunteer wardens or by wardens brought in from elsewhere, so there is a lack of continuity. He did, however, establish that there was only one woman and myself booked in for tomorrow night, and he gave me the hostel's direct number so that I could try ringing when I was on my way there. This was a great advantage, as calls to the hostel's 0845 number cost about 53p per minute from a mobile phone: 3p to the YHA and 50p to the phone company, and in any case they often get diverted to another hostel or to head office.

Dinner was at 7.00 and was served on long bench tables, which encourages people to get to know each other and to join in conversation, which is the way traditional hostels worked. In recent years a lot of this has been lost as hostels have been modernised and fitted with small, individual tables, and the hostels in urban areas tend to have less of a communal atmosphere, as people tend to have less interests in common. The evening meal was soup, beef pie with chips, then crumble with custard; traditional hostelling fare, but all very tasty. There was a lot of lively conversation on the table, despite the big mix of ages; a couple of young men who were brothers, a few older ones and a woman from Australia, all joining in. The conversation kept going well beyond dinner time and only ended as people left to go to bed.


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