Rhymney Valley: Maesycymmer to Senghenydd

Hengoed Viaduct, Hengoed, Rhymney Valley
It’s hard to believe the 16-arch Hengoed viaduct was built for £20,000

Since we returned from Portugal, we’ve been quite lazy. We’re still running, but not covering any great distances with our walks. Harri decided that we were going to push the distance a bit today and aim for roughly 15 miles. The terrain was hilly but not mountainous and the weather fine but not hot. It was time to remind ourselves that we were indeed serious hikers.

We parked at Maesycymmer, a pretty village which flourished in the nineteenth century when a railway viaduct was built across the Rhymney valley in 1853 (some of the houses were built to accommodate the construction workers). The railway was another casualty of the 1960s Beeching cuts; however, Hengoed Viaduct re-opened in 2000 and is now part of the National Cycle Route 47. We were heading in the opposite direction today, but it’s definitely worth a visit.

Foxgloves and a drystone wall on Mynydd Dimllaith above the Rhymney Valley. South East Wales
The views were well worth the climb

Harri’s plan was for us to join the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk, a 28-mile trail which follows the ridgeways either side of the Rhymney Valley. We’ve walked the circular route before – in fact it features in one of our early ebooks – but we did it over two days, splitting it into two linear walks and using local railway stations (Hengoed and Lisvane) to get us back to our starting point. The full walk begins at Machen; today we’d be following a section of it to create a scenic circular walk.

The first field we encountered brought memories of our previous walk here flooding back. Then, we’d been walking in the opposite direction and our sighs of relief at reaching the top of the fern-covered hill caught in our throats when we spotted a scary-looking dog tearing around the field. To be fair, as soon as the owner spotted us called his hound to heel and swiftly muzzled it, which just confirmed our fears regarding those fangs!

As we climbed the views began to open out and soon we had our first view of Mynydd Machen, our local mountain and my trail-running daughter’s regular summit. Harri noted that it is an unusual summit in that it looks the same from every angle unlike nearby (and slightly higher) Twmbarlwm which looks completely different depending on where you are viewing it. From some angles its distinctive ‘tump’, believed to be the remains of an Iron Age hillfort, practically disappears. Of course, the fact there’s a huge mast on top of Mynydd Machen generally assists with its identification (for me at least!).

Fly-tipping on Mynydd Dimllaith, Rhymney Valley, Caerphilly, South East Wales
It’s hard to believe there are people who think fly-tipping on mountains is fine

One of the saddest things we encounter on our local hikes is fly-tipping and it wasn’t long before we encountered the usual heap of rubbish strewn across the track. It’s hard to understand what’s going on in the heads of people who think it’s okay to transform wild landscapes into rubbish tips, but I guess there will always be certain mindless types around.

Gradually, other peaks came into sight, including the majestic Pen y Fan and Corn Du in the Brecon Beacons, and much closer, Mynydd Islwyn. Fortunately, our first summit of the day was much lower than those popular mountains, in fact, Mynydd Dimllaith didn’t really feel like a summit at all, just a levelling off of the footpath, coupled with some great views over Caerphilly. The castle (the largest in Wales and second biggest in the UK after Windsor Castle) was clearly visible from up here, and we realised we’d never looked down on the town from this particular angle before.

Llanbradach, Rhymney Valley, Caerphilly, South East Wales
Looking down on Llanbradach

After elevenses, we headed downhill again, retracing our steps for a while and then joining a lovely, wooded track which took us to the valley floor where we crossed the busy main road and the Rhymney River. Our next stop was Llanbradach, a leafy and rather desirable former mining village of just under 5,000 with rows of charming, stone houses and a railway link to Cardiff.

I’d have been quite happy to wander along its main street admiring the landmarks, but there was another hill to climb, this one rather more wooded than the first. The locating of several grand stone benches on a tarmac path soon got me onto my familiar rant about trees. The benches had clearly been positioned so local people could sit and enjoy the views (one had been erected in memory of a local councillor); however, the rampant growth of shrubby vegetation, trees and brambles had completely obscured them. I know there are worse casualties from a decade of austerity than benches, but it makes my blood boil to see how footpaths, walkways and even pleasant, uplifting views are being lost because cash-strapped councils can’t afford to maintain them. Harri now carries secateurs with him when he’s out running and when we’re walking locally (there’s no need of them in Portugal). I call him Secateur Man and joke that he’ll one day become the hero of a Marvel comic or blockbuster film. Seriously though, secateurs have almost become a necessity … unless you’re prepared to abort your walk whenever you reach an overgrown stile, gate or footpath.

Footpath above Llanbradach, Rhymney Valley, Caerphilly, South East Wales
Don’t be fooled … this clear footpath soon became overgrown and hard to follow

Fortunately, our uphill route seemed relatively clear and well-trodden … at first anyway. We followed a narrow footpath through woods dominated by towering conifers and lots of ferns. We were alarmed to see how much Japanese Knotweed was growing up here. This non-native and very invasive plant (it is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world’s worst invasive species) spreads rapidly and is incredibly difficult to eradicate once it’s established itself on a site. It seems strange now, but it was originally introduced to these shores as an ornamental plant. The roots can sink as deep as seven foot, causing damage to buildings, paving, walls and water channels. They often seem at their most dense alongside rivers and railway lines, making me wonder if the plant had spread uphill from the railway track.

As the path ahead grew steeper and more and more swamped by vegetation and brambles, we missed a left turning and sought help from a local dog walker, who lamented the fact that local children no longer played in the woods above Llanbradach, which used to help keep the footpaths clear. This quite recent cultural change meant both were now at risk at becoming overgrown! The path’s gradient increased and I puffed and panted my way to the top. Eventually, we emerged on a forestry track and our efforts were rewarded with pretty yellow, pink and purple wildflowers and extensive views of the Bristol Channel (and Uskmouth Power Station’s one remaining chimney).

Harri Garrod Roberts walking the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk above Llanbradach, Caerphilly, South East Wales
The route ahead was anything but clear when we emerged from the woods

As blood dripped from my knee (the result of being badly scratched by brambles), we wandered around on the mountain looking for the route ahead. With long-established footpaths no longer being regularly walked or cleared (and rights of way frequently being carelessly blocked by farmers), it’s getting harder and harder to go out for a walk in the country or mountains. We were following a route walked by the Long Distance Walkers Association in the spring, but already it was becoming impassable. After much consideration, Harri deduced that we had no option but to clamber over an awkward stony bank strewn long-felled tree trunks and edge our way along narrow, uneven stretch of path sandwiched between the bank and a barbed wire fence. Our reward at the end of this tricky stretch … a wooden fence blocking our route (there was no alternative but to climb over that too).

Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk, Caerphilly, South East Wales
At last we could see the footpath … or was it simply a sheep trail?

After lunch sitting on slate crags on the open mountain, we wandered downhill across what Harri poetically described as ‘voluptuous hills’. It wasn’t until we’d reached the bottom of a sloping field that he mentioned casually that there had been a bull lounging on the grass in the midst of his harem.

Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk, above Abertridwr, Caerphilly, South East Wales
Harri’s ‘voluptuous hills’ hid a large bull

Abertridwr is another coal mining village, a pretty enough place which moreorless runs into Senghenydd both on the surface and underground (Windsor Colliery in Abertridwr was linked to Universal Colliery for ventilation reasons). Universal Colliery was the site of the worst mining disaster in the UK on October 14, 1913 when a gas explosion wrecked the mine and killed 439 men and boys. Twelve years earlier, three explosions at the same colliery had killed 81 miners. There has been a memorial in Senghenydd to commemorate the men who died in the disaster since 1981; however on the centenary of the disaster a Welsh national memorial was unveiled at the former pithead. I wished we’d had time to visit it, but we still had a fair distance to cover.

Abertridwr and Senghenydd, mining villages, Rhymney Valley, Caerphilly, South East Wales
The former mining communities of Abertridwr and Senghenydd run into one another
The final hill of the day involved the rather hairy crossing of a large field full of curious bullocks who immediately began to rush towards us … why do so many footpaths run right through the centre of fields where we walkers are at our most conspicuous, I wondered? Fortunately, Harri spent his childhood on a farm so he’s completely at ease with charging bullocks … the trick it seems is to run at them waving your arms high. The other thing about cows generally is that the minute you’re out of sight – even if you just stand behind a tree for a minute or so – they instantly forget you exist and wander off. Short term memories, apparently!
Slag piles, Abertridwr, Senghenydd, Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk, Caerphilly, South East Wales
The slag piles are a reminder of this area’s mining past
Sadly, our walk ended with more overgrown footpaths, this time as we edged off the mountain along a dry-stone wall. Again, the secateurs came out as we battled our way through head-high ferns and brambles along what would have once been a regularly used lane. I realise local councils are struggling to manage the books – and essential services like education, social care, rubbish collection, etc must clearly take precedence over the ‘nice-to-haves’  – but it will be massive loss to Wales (and local tourism) if there comes a day when our rural footpaths have ceased to exist though collective apathy and neglect.
Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk, Caerphilly, South East Wales
Just one more footpath to cut our way through and we’re finished

 

If you’d like to follow in our footsteps here is our route (23.9km) as recorded on Viewranger. But don’t forget those secateurs because you’ll definitely be needing them!

 

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