Rhymney Valley: Mynydd Machen and Cefn Onn

Cows, Mynydd Machen, Twmbarlwm, Risca, Caerphilly, Sirhowy Valley Walk, Rhiwderin
What are they looking at? Cows grazing on the slopes of Mynydd Machen

Once again, the weekend’s forecast was for unsettled weather. There seemed little point in driving miles to ‘enjoy’ what could turn out to be a very soggy walk; however, we still wanted to get out there. We are fortunate in having some wonderful scenery right here on our doorstep – the Sirhowy Valley Walk runs through our village – so it was another ‘stay local’ Sunday for us, though with promised new footpaths to explore.

Today’s walk was a 15-miler, based on a South Wales Long-Distance Walkers Association route called Summits and Bluebells, but starting from Rhiwderin rather than Lisvane, Cardiff.

Coed Mawr, Mynydd Machen, Sirhowy Valley Walk
Walking through Coed Mawr near Rhiwderin

It was sunny and warm when we set off on foot at 9.30 am, but I was’t taking any chances. I might be wearing shorts, but I’d packed a warm fleece and lightweight raincoat just in case (and in the unlikely event the weather should improve, there was also a short-sleeved tee-shirt in my rucksack).

When we first moved here ten years ago, I used to joke that all routes led to, or finished at, Mynydd Machen, and today was no exception. We followed meandering footpaths through familiar fields and soon reached Coed Mawr, a pretty wooded area, blanketed with bluebells in the spring, and perfect for beginner trail runners.

Illegal motorcycling on footpath, motorcyclist, Coed Mawr, Rhiwderin, Mynydd Machen, Caerphilly
It is illegal to drive along a footpath as this motorcyclist is doing

It’s generally a very peaceful place, beloved by local hikers and dog walkers, so we were a little taken aback when a motorcyclist first whizzed past us in the woods and then passed us again when were walking along a level, winding footpath.

As the Ramblers helpfully clarify on their website, ‘Anyone who drives a motor vehicle [and this includes a motor cycle] on a footpath, bridleway or restricted byway without permission is committing an offence’. I don’t actually dislike motorbikes – I used to love going to speedway at Somerton Park. No, my concern was that people simply don’t expect to encounter a motorbike on these footpaths … I run along this one regularly (I like the fact it’s not too steep) and it has never occurred to me that I should be on the lookout for oncoming traffic!

Mynydd Machen, Sirhowy Valley Walk, Rhiwderin, Caerphilly
The footpath up Mynydd Machen wasn’t always this wide and rutted

I continued to tut about the rider’s unacceptable behaviour all the way to the cattle grid, beyond which the surface of the mountain road has disintegrated to the extent that it’s no longer driveable in anything but a four-wheel drive. There’s still a car park up here, but there are no longer any cars parked in it. Off the metalled surface, the footpath to the top of Mynydd Machen was wide and deeply rutted, the natural beauty of the landscape devastated by the continual use of the mountain by off-road motorcyclists.

Harri said the top of Twmbarlwm used to look much the same, until 2010 when the Cymdeithas Twmbarlwm Society was set up to put a stop to the reckless vandalism. With support from what they call ‘the powers-that-be’, they have managed to restore Newport’s local mountain to the peaceful hilltop we all love.

Mynydd Machen summit, Sirhowy Valley Walk, Caerphilly, Tracy Burton
After three miles of climbing I needed a rest!

At 362 metres, Mynydd Machen might be dwarfed by nearby Twmbarlwm (419 metres), but it’s still tough going and after three miles of mostly uphill walking I was relieved when we reached the trig point. The abundance of purple heather combined with the low temperature made it feel more like the mid-autumn than mid-summer. The earlier blue sky was fast being replaced by cloud and I was relieved I’d packed that raincoat.

From the summit, we continued along the Sirhowy Valley Walk past a distinctive towering slag heap, a reminder that the valley below – home to villages like Wattsville, Cwmfelinfach and Ynysddu – was once mined for coal. Incidentally, until I was writing this blog I had no idea that the singer Ricky Valence (‘Tell Laura I Love Her’) hailed from Ynysddu (for some reason, I’d always thought he was American!). Our hearts sank when we heard the familiar roar of motor bike engines behind us. It seemed Mynydd Machen was the place to be if you want to practice your off-road stunts on a Sunday morning (though it was hard not to be impressed at the riders’ daring as they raced up and down those almost vertical slopes).

Motorcyclists, motorbike stunts, Mynydd Machen, Sirhowy Valley Walk, Caerphilly
Motorcyclists riding on the slag heap on Mynydd Machen

Next to me, Harri commented how strange it was to stand high on a ridge looking down at communities in neighbouring valleys. They looked so close from up here – and geographically they were – however, they were separated by miles in terms of the local transport infrastructure.

At the bottom of a particularly steep and difficult section of downhill track, we parted company with the Sirhowy Valley Walk and turned left onto a grassy lane (Penrhiw Lane) which would eventually take us to the floor of the Rhymney Valley at Machen. Harri thought we were probably following the old road that linked the two valleys (the lane crosses the ridge at the lowest point) although it is no longer passable for vehicles. It was very peaceful now we’d left the noise of the motorcyclists behind, so we decided to stop for elevenses on a collapsed drystone wall, watched by three wary sheep.

Sheep, Wales The grassy lane would have once linked the Crossing from the Sirhowy and Rhymney valleys
This grassy lane would have once linked the Sirhowy and Rhymney valleys

From this angle, the full extent of the tree felling on Mynydd Machen was very apparent; the nearside of the mountain was bare, with piles of timber lining the forest track.

As I gazed at the lush landscape, I thought, not for the first time, how the Rhymney Valley with its industrial heritage, historic buildings, peaceful woodlands and stunning views is vastly under-rated by hikers and why that should be? Though perhaps I should stop writing about this lovely place and hope it remains ‘undiscovered’ forever?

At Machen, I did a double-take when I spotted my childhood mate, Gary, who lives in Machen and was out enjoying a post-lunch walk with his wife Suzanne and their two-year-old border collie. We strolled along on the Machen Forge Trail together for a while, chatting about walking generally, our adventures in Portugal and this blog (I’m delighted to say Gary is an avid follower). Eventually our paths diverged and we bade farewell, with a promise to pop in for a cuppa next time we’re passing.

Harri Garrod Roberts, woods at Cefn Onn, Rhymney Valley, Caerphilly
Beautiful woods but nowhere to sit for lunch

We’d wandered along a well-defined path at the foot of Mynydd Rudry and were following a gravel track through more woods when I realised (somewhat belatedly) that this was the same route I’d walked with my middle daughter just over a week ago. She’d been stuck in the office all day and had cajoled me to go out exploring new trail running routes with her before tea. Fortunately, we weren’t actually running them – she’s far too fast for me – but just walking ad working out how she could link some favourite existing routes to make them longer.

Unfortunately, ten days makes a big difference to a terrain when it’s been raining and it was much muddier underfoot than it had been then (and there were a lot of tyre marks in the mud). Caerphilly council promotes several horse-riding routes in the Mynydd Rudry area and when it’s been raining, the horses’ hooves churn up the wet ground to such an extent that it can become a real quagmire. It soon became clear that the tyre marks belonged to a four-wheel drive vehicle involved in a gravel-laying exercise to improve the surface of the higher-level paths. It seemed kind of ironic that one section of the path should be made worse in the process of improving another section … let’s hope the new gravel surfaces are extended to all the muddy sections!

We’d covered 8.5 miles and I was beginning to suspect that today’s walk might end up being longer than the 15 miles Harri had mentioned. My stomach was telling me it was time for lunch, but we were now walking through more woods and there wasn’t a bench or patch of grass to be seen.

Rhymney Valley Walk, Cefn Onn country park, Lisvane,
Descending to Cefn Onn country park

I’d long been confused by the place name Cefn Onn, so Harri quickly explained that it was used interchangeably to describe the wooded ridge to our left (the name means ‘ridge of the ash trees’) as well as the country park that rises from Lisvane in north Cardiff to the ridge of the same name. It was here, high above the park, that Harri transformed himself into Secateur Man for the first time today … goodness, the path was overgrown with brambles, although with so much rain recently it’s hardly surprising. It took over half an hour to edge forward just a few hundred metres and I was certainly ready for my lunch when that bench finally materialised (though sadly the only views were of towering trees and brambles).

It’s always good to eat, and we felt somewhat revived as we headed west along a single track with great views down to Cardiff … well, except for when the vegetation soared above our heads. From this angle Flat Holm was so perfectly lined up with Steep Holm, an uninitiated eye would never notice it was there!

Bristol Channel, Newport, Mynydd Machen, Sirhowy Valley Walk
We had some great distant views on today’s walk

Since Harri bought me a Tom Tom watch for my birthday, I’ve been recording our walks and I’ve often been dismayed at how slow our progress can be. We like to think we can walk 3-4 miles an hour – and we certainly can if we’re walking on level pavements – however, when we’re battling through overgrown footpaths or facing long, steady climbs our progress can be very, very slow. Today was one of the very, very slow days and it wasn’t about to get any faster.

No sooner had I got used to stretching my legs and upping the pace than we were joining another wooded track, which gradually became narrower and more overgrown. My poor legs were getting torn to shreds and I craved some easy walking. Having already admitted that, yes, the walk was going to be longer than 15 miles, Harri now gave me three options for completing the walk. I chose the middle option, which meant cutting out the summerhouse in Coed Craig Ruperra, but did include walking over the Iron Bridge, walking through the wheat fields near Plas Machen and finishing with a walk through Parc Wood.

Ruperra Castle, first mock castle in Wales,
Ruperra Castle was the first mock castle built in Wales

As we passed Ruperra Castle, I noticed the chest-high gate (easy to climb over) has now been replaced with high-level security fencing and I wondered what the future holds for the burnt-out shell of this seventeenth-century mock castle. The birthplace of Godfrey Charles Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar, has been standing empty since it was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.

The final section of our walk was along familiar footpaths, which was just as well as I was too tired to fully appreciate the scenery. We crossed the Iron Bridge, built in 1829 as part of a carriage drive linking Ruperra Castle with Machen Church and Plas Machen. The bridge was found to be in danger of collapse in 2008 and was painstakingly restored. In fact, Harri did the Welsh translation for the new interpretation boards.

Wheat field, Rhymney Valley, near Plas Machen
Nearly home … Harri in a wheat field near Plas Machen

Other than a light sprinkling of rain halfway through the day, we’d been very lucky with the weather. I wasn’t surprised to learn our 15-mile walk had turned into an 18-miler and a tough one at that, but overall it had been a good day’s walking with the added bonus of bumping into an old friend.

We’ve done a lot of local walking recently so Harri has promised me we can explore new pastures next Sunday … watch this space!!

If you’d like to follow in our footsteps here is our route (28.11km) as recorded on Viewranger. I’m afraid this is probably another walk where those secateurs are going to come in handy!

 

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