I’m so relieved Harri has never suggested we join the South Wales Long-distance Walkers Association on one of their epic endurance walks otherwise we might have been doing today’s circular walk from Machen on New Year’s Day! Believe me, those LDWA hikers are seriously hardcore; this 22-miler with five steep ascents (jokingly named ‘Attack of the Pudding Punchers’ to reflect its timing straight after the indulgent Christmas period) was undertaken at the coldest, darkest, muddiest time of the year. And there was me concerned about my ability to complete the gruelling, hilly circuit on a warm, dry day in late April.
To be fair to Harri, realising how tired I was after an extremely physically active week (running, walking and a big garden clearance project) he had suggested several shorter, alternative walks this morning. I was tempted; however, I kept thinking about our forthcoming backpacking trip in Central Portugal and how I needed to increase my training mileage. Yes, I was up for this 22-miler, I told him, sounding more confident than I felt.
We parked at Machen and were soon heading in the direction of our local mountain, Mynydd Machen. When we first moved to Rhiwderin, we walked up here so frequently I used to joke that all routes led to Mynydd Machen. Nowadays, my daughter uses it as a training route for trail races. Fortunately, we didn’t have to climb all the way to the summit today, but would just be skirting around the lower slopes. We passed through fields which will be filled with ferns and turnips in a few months’ time and joined an old stone lane with a stream running alongside it (explaining the boggy patches and squelchy mud).
As we soldiered up the footpath towards Mynydd Machen, I remarked to Harri ‘I think it’s going to be a tough walk today’ not realising just how prophetic my words were. We’d barely entered the woods when we realised the footpath beyond the stile was blocked by felled trees. Unfortunately, for hikers and mountain bikers, having your route blocked by ‘harvesting operations’ is far from unusual (it was the reason we got so disorientated when we were walking in the forested hills above Machynlleth), but we often manage to scramble around the offending trunks and branches. Realising this was a non-starter (the entire slope was a mess of felled trees), we had no choice but to turn and follow a stone staircase up through the woodland. Someone had thoughtfully counted the steps and occasionally chalked the number of any one particular step – there were well over 500 but I forgot to check if the final one was numbered.
Our unexpected detour meant we now had no option but to summit Mynydd Machen (362 metres/1,118 feet). There’s no denying the views were great – Newport, Cardiff, Steep Holm, Flat Holm and Brean Down – but my legs could have done without the extra climbing. We left the summit and headed into the Sirhowy Valley to the village of Wattsville, where I once lived. The village was built in the late nineteenth century to house the miners who worked in nearby collieries.
It looked like blocked footpaths, detours and wrong turnings were going to be the order of the day because first we turned too soon and ended up scuttling down a horrendously steep, leaf-covered footpath through woods, and within minutes, another wrong turning ended up with us standing on the river’s edge staring up at Penllwyn Tramroad bridge when we were supposed to be walking over it!
Harri hadn’t been to Wattsville before and he was impressed with its natural beauty and tranquillity, as well as the lovely stone terraces. If it’s an outdoor lifestyle and affordable housing you crave, there can’t be many places with prettier walks and cycling routes on your doorstep. Of course, Wattsville is famous in local running circles for being the location of Islwyn Running Club‘s infamous ‘Murder Mile’. The race organisers describe it as ‘probably one of the toughest uphill miles in the country’ and are so sadistic they changed the original course in 2009 to make it even harder! Needless to say, it’s not one on my own bucket list but I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if my running-mad middle daughter tackled it one day.
The second summit of the day was Mynydd y Lan and we were meandering along enjoying the peaceful and very scenic landscape when we again encountered large, freshly felled trees blocking the path – and this with no advance warning on a waymarked footpath. This time any thoughts of a detour were pointless – there was just no alternative route. We scrambled over the massive tree trunks, Harri scraping the skin from his one leg and me twisting my bad knee. By now, we weren’t in the best of moods! An already tough circular route was becoming more difficult as we clambered and battled our way across the ‘harvesting’ site, the footpath completely obliterated. Never had the words ‘rape of the fair country’ felt more apt – the rutted slopes with their abandoned branches and logs looked dreadful and in complete contrast with the lush and green countryside on the other side of the valley. We were just thankful it was Sunday and there were no officials to order us off the site.
We finally identified the footpath on the far side of the harvested area only to find it almost immediately blocked again. Despite our rapidly-blackening moods, we did chuckle briefly when we squeezed our way around a blocked stile to spot a sign on the other side stating ‘no authorised persons beyond this point’. The order came from Euroforest, the company responsible for the ravaged landscape around us and the destruction, albeit temporary, of the footpath we were trying to follow. It was a small victory to have ignored the instruction and crossed the ‘off-limits’ mountainside and footpath but a victory nonetheless.
We finally stopped for elevenses just after noon and then we were off again, climbing to the top of the ridge and then crossing the flat-topped summit of Mynydd y Lan (381 metres/1250 feet) with its large solar farm. In normal spring conditions, this area with its swaying grasses would undoubtedly have been wet and marshy, but today the ground underfoot was as hard as stone with not a puddle in sight. Just to demonstrate that my geography hasn’t improved since I failed my O level, I identified the sprawling town below as Caerphilly (it was actually Ystrad Mynach).
Soon we were heading downhill again along a narrow, wooded valley. I had a sudden feeling of déjà vu, although Harri insisted we haven’t walked this route previously (we have, I’m sure of it). We passed a waymark for the Raven Walk, a strenuous 12-mile waymarked walk, which is currently impassable due to tree felling at Cwmcarn Forest. Just as we heard the main road running through Abercarn, our footpath veered uphill again. I wouldn’t have minded, but we were now climbing very steeply, which seemed to serve no purpose when we were supposedly heading down to Abercarn. It was at this point that I knew I wouldn’t survive the entire 22 miles … we hadn’t even had lunch and I was flagging miserably.
We reached Abercarn where the terraced streets were as peaceful and traffic-free as those of my own childhood. The village’s name might seem strange to a Welsh speaker as it’s not located on the Carn brook at all, but on the confluence of the Ebbw and Gwyddon rivers. If Welsh place name conventions had been followed the village would be called Abergwyddon; however, local legend explains how the station master at nearby Abercarn could not spell the correct name and so adopted the easier Abercarn. Apparently, there are old maps which mark the village as Abergwyddon.
After a quick lunch in Abercarn cemetery, we were immediately heading up another horrendously steep hill with houses dotted along it. When we’re walking in such places, I often wonder if local residents are inclined to walk anywhere. It would be easier to roll down that hill than to set off on foot. As for walking back up with a bag of shopping … I doubt it ever happens.
It was halfway up this killer hill that I decided I’d had enough. Hiking is supposed to be enjoyable, but I was starting to feel like I’ signed up for military training. It seemed we were either clambering up impossibly steep hills or edging our way down precipitous and hairy footpaths. We’d had far too many issues with tree felling and there was still no sign of the promised sunshine. Moreover, I was absolutely shattered with several hills still to climb. Fortunately, when I unleashed my woes on Harri, he needed little persuading to cut the route short.
It was with much relief that we headed towards Cwmcarn through more woodlands where the bluebells were out in force. Now the pressure was off, I could at last begin to enjoy my surroundings.
For the second week running, we found ourselves walking along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, this time the Crumlin Arm. The recent dry spell has dramatically reduced water levels and many tree roots are now completely exposed. Where once the water came right up to the grassy bank, there are now exposed mud flats along certain sections. I just hope these marked changes to their habitat doesn’t adversely affect the mallards and moor hens which nest along this stretch of canal.
Before long we had rejoined the original LDWA route, which unfortunately meant we had one last climb (Mynydd Machen again). By now, my legs were really protesting and Harri even suggested I walk home along the riverside path and he retrieved the car alone. But I could see he was tired too and it seemed mean to abandon him now. I changed my shoes (yes, I carried an extra pair) and vowed to plod on alongside him, not imagining those fanatical tree fellers would have one final laugh.
We were just descending to Machen and could see the Rhymney River in the valley below, when for the umpteenth time today our footpath was suddenly blocked by large, felled trees. This time there was no clambering over them – they were just too big. I wanted to weep as I followed Harri back up the mountain to rejoin our morning’s – and a longer – route down to Machen. It just seems so wrong that an established footpath – part of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk and a route many people use to come down off Mynydd Machen – can be obliterated by unannounced tree-felling operations. The more I thought about the total disregard for hikers – and mountain bikers – the more angry I became. It’s probably a good job it was Sunday afternoon and there were no tree fellers about!
Maybe we would have completed the LDWA’s 22-mile circular had we not encountered so many felled trees, who knows? Despite cutting the walk short, we’d still covered 27.66 kilometres (17.2 miles) with 1306 metres (4287 feet) of ascent. Not a distance to be sniffed at. I told you those Long-Distance Walkers were hardcore!