Machen to Castell Coch … and back (a 20-mile circular)

Walking along a tranquil lane near Draethen
Walking along a tranquil lane near Draethen

It’s been almost a month since we returned to Wales and, despite our best intentions, until today we’d only been out walking once. In the Algarve, we’d been able to walk most weekends – on both days – however, the spring weather here is so changeable it’s impossible to make plans. The forecast was for a dry and sunny weekend; however with Saturday earmarked for Newport parkrun‘s 6th anniversary, we were left with just Sunday to go hiking, the day British Summertime kicked in.

We hadn’t set our alarm clocks so it was nearly 10am by the time we were ready to set off. Fortunately, the starting point for today’s walk was the village of Machen, just four miles away, so it wasn’t long before we were strolling alongside the Rhymney.

Quite a bit of today’s route would see us revisiting trails and paths we’ve walked in previous years – Harri has actually written an ebook featuring the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk and the Rhymney Valley Circular (Rhymney Valley Walks) – however, I was delighted to hear there would also be some ‘new’ walking involved.

Approaching Craig Ruperra (spot those heads on the top)
Approaching Craig Ruperra (spot those heads on the top)

Whatever your views about the UK Government’s relentless austerity agenda (and I’m not going to get into politics here), there’s no doubt that decades of cutbacks and reduced budgets has hit local authorities badly. While they struggle to fund even essential (and statutory) services like social care and education, it’s perhaps understandable that clearing footpaths is not going to be anyone’s priority. Caerphilly council has always scored highly on footpath maintenance, but when we joined one of their promoted walks near Draethen, it was clear that things were not what they used to be. Despite being early spring, with little vegetation yet growing, there were already bramble shoots blocking our route and scratching at our legs. Harri was concerned that within a few months the route would become impassable (like the majority of Newport council’s footpaths have been for years!).

The neglected footpath was in stark comparison to the pristine, wide, mud-free, gravel footpath we joined minutes later in Coed Craig Ruperra. This time the responsibility for maintenance lies with the Ruperra Woodland Trust and their bands of volunteers are doing an outstanding job.

Walking through xxxx
Walking through Coed Coesau Whips

Spring was definitely in the air this morning. We’re used to walking for miles without seeing a soul, but as we approached Craig Ruperra,  we saw several people had reached the ruined boundary walls of the 17th century summerhouse before us!  At the top of the spiral footpath, we realised our favourite, peaceful picnicking spot had already been claimed by a large group of walkers. They turned out to be Pontypool Ramblers and they were a friendly lot, if rather perturbed by our lack of warm-weather clothing (we were in shorts, lightweight tops and running shoes, while the majority of them were in big boots, long trousers, gaiters, fleeces and winter coats).

We hadn’t been walking again for long before we ran into another walking group and then – in Coed Coesau Whips (even Harri has no idea of the etymology of that name) – we bumped into a fellow Lliswerry Runners member Kev, who was out walking with friends and family. It might have been new territory for us, but Kev told us he runs in these woods regularly. 

The stunning ridge on Craig Lisvane
The stunning ridge on Craig Llys-faen

After a long climb, we eventually emerged on the top of Craig Llys-faen and joined a beautiful, tree-lined ridgeway path with the most incredible views. Why we’ve never explored this lovely peaceful hill before I have no idea, but I’m so pleased we did today because the views were far-reaching and splendid. Far down on our left (south) lay Lisvane reservoir and, beyond that, the sprawling city of Cardiff and the Bristol Channel. To our near-right the sloping fields were grazed by sheep and cows and in the distance the high Beacon summits of Pen y Fan, Corn Du and Cribyn looked enticing.

Today was another first for me. I’ve always jotted down my thoughts in little notepads, but today I’d decided to experiment with Harri’s digital voice recorder. He’d already reminded me that it wasn’t a phone so didn’t need to be held to my ear, but I was still struggling to sound natural as I talked into it. I was just waxing lyrically about my surroundings when I realised a runner had stopped for a quick breather at the top of the hill and was looking at me quizzically. I explained about this blog and we got chatting. Turns out he hailed from Aberystwyth, had set off from Lisvane and thought he was now running along the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway. It seems I’m not the only person who struggles to work out exactly which mountain I’m on! Fortunately, Harri was on hand with directions for a circular run which would include his intended ridge.

While I fretted about recording my thoughts, Harri was staring out at the Bristol Channel and pondering the geological rationale for the existence of English island of Steep Holm (and to a lesser-degree the neighbouring Welsh island of Flat Holm). I had no idea so I checked. It seems geologists believe both islands are a continuation of the Mendip Hills at Brean Down, despite the fact the dip angle of Steep Holm runs the ‘wrong’ way. It’s weird to think that tens of thousands of years ago sea levels were eight metres lower and we would have been gazing down upon a large, tundra plain with two hills midway and not a great expanse of water with one of the highest tidal ranges in the world.

The familiar paths o
This wooded pathway near Cefn Onn is one of my favourites

Before long we were back on the Ridgeway Valley Walk just past Cefn Onn, where our views  of Caerphilly, its castle and the wider Rhymney Valley were as spectacular as the ones towards England.

One of the best things about walking this early in the year is that your views aren’t obscured by dense, leafy woodlands. The warm sunlight filtering through the leafless branches means low-lying plants like primroses and wood anemones bloom early before the trees get their leaves, transforming the forest landscape into an enchanting place. Unfortunately, it was still a little early for one of my own favourites: wild garlic. The green leaves were carpeting the woodland floor but there was no sign yet of the white flowers or their distinctive aroma.

We remembered there were picnic tables at Castell Coch, but on this lovely afternoon the grounds of this Gothic fairytale castle were teeming with courting couples and family groups. Thus, we ended up munching our lunch perched on a large sown-off tree trunk (not ideal when you’re trying to eat a messy, chicken salad).

Harri chose this moment of calm to drop his bombshell. ‘That’s three summits done, three more to go,’ he told me. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. My legs were already protesting from the morning’s numerous climbs; I had (wrongly) assumed we’d done all the hard bits and the last few hours would get easier. That was another misconception. While I thought we were around two-thirds of the way around the route, it transpired we’d walked little more than half the distance. Oh dear!

Harri was so keen for us to build our fitness levels so that we would survive our next European walking trip that he had devised South East Wales’ very own Six Peaks Challenge:

  • Craig Ruperra: 182 m (591 ft)
  • Craig Lisvane: 265 m (869 ft)
  • Cefn Onn: 259 m (849 ft)
  • Craig yr Allt: 273 m (896 ft)
  • Caerphilly Mountain: 271 m (889 ft)
  • Mynydd Rudry: 222 m (727 ft)

I could have wept. I didn’t think my aching legs would survive another three ascents … and the downhill bits are equally painful for running-ravaged middle-aged knees.

The stretch of Taff Trail between Castell Coch and the start of the ascent up Craig yr Allt was for me the most boring bit of the whole walk and yet this is where we passed the most walkers, including lots of families and dog walkers. I guess that’s because it’s flat; I should probably enjoy this part of the route for the same reason, but I find it tedious, particularly because the view of Taff valley is mostly obscured by trees.

Pausing for a breather on
Pausing for a breather on Craig yr Allt

Thankfully, the landscape soon opened out again as we set out on the zig-zagging footpath to the summit of Craig yr Allt. It was late afternoon and the air was clearer across the channel too, so clear that we could see Brean Down jutting out into the sea. A group of horse riders passed, not once but twice, proving that four legs are much more capable of getting you up – and down – mountains than two.

After Craig yr Allt, it was mind over matter as I forced my legs to keep moving. Combining the first day of my low-carbohydrate diet with a twenty-mile hike was probably not the wisest decision. Harri, his belly full of chocolate, cereal bars, bread rolls and crisps, seemed to have a lot more energy than me.

Harri at Craig yr Allt
Harri at Craig yr Allt

Despite the arrival of British summertime, it was getting dark when we arrived back at our car at 7.45pm. Harri blamed the late hour on all the en route conversations we’d had … the last being a couple of locals we’d met near Waterloo. They’d moved from Wales to the South West a couple of years ago, but had missed home and had recently returned to their roots.

Our fifth summit of the day - Caerphilly mountain
Our fifth summit of the day – Caerphilly mountain

We had covered 20.66 miles in total. We’d walked similar distances in the Algarve but over much easier terrain. Today was tough. Harri estimated we’d climbed the rough equivalent of climbing Mount Snowdon (1085 m/3559 ft) from sea level. Not bad when you consider we’d driven just four miles from our front door to the walk’s starting point … and all I’d eaten all day was a handful of cashews and a chicken salad!

Harri is now tracking our routes with Strava, I can actually share our route with you all. Happy hiking!

Machen to Castell Coch circular

Leave a Reply