Our first three weeks back in Wales have been spent gradually re-acclimatising to the damp climate. While it’s continued to be so cold and wet, hiking has definitely been off the agenda for me (though Harri did take himself out for a 22-kilometre walk when I was at parkrun last week).
This last week there are at last some signs that spring has finally arrived. There are lambs in the fields above Rhiwderin and daffodils growing along the grass verges (although their presence might be short-lived because I recently caught a light-fingered neighbour helping himself to a bunch). In our garden, the forget-me-knots have burst into flower and there already seem to be a lot of bees around. Most importantly, we’re back on the summer route at Newport parkrun (at 5km, it’s the same distance but running two longer laps is just psychologically easier than tackling three shorter ones as parkrunners must do throughout the wet winter months). For several days, it was positively balmy here in South Wales, though on a less positive note, I spotted my first slug slithering its way across the garden path on Saturday afternoon.
If spring had arrived, it was time to go hiking in the Welsh mountains. Having walked up Mynydd Machen a few days previously, Harri was confident the high landscapes were rapidly drying out, meaning we shouldn’t have too much problem with groundwater and mud (music to my ears).
Bryngarw Country Park offers all-day parking for £2.50 and is a delightful spot from which to set off. I vaguely recall bringing my older daughters here when they small. In those pre-digital days we generally survived a family outing without the need for photographs meaning there is no record of that particular outing. And, after a quarter of a century, all I could remember about the place was its lovely oriental gardens and a pretty Japanese-style bridge (thankfully both are still there).
Harri assured me we’d be walking through the Oriental gardens towards the end of our hike, but for now our route took us along a pretty woodland footpath next to the River Garw, where the wood anemones were already in full bloom. We left the country park and crossed the confluence of the Garw and much larger Ogwr (which flows past Ogmore castle) and joined the National Cycle Route 4. The tarmac path stretched endlessly ahead through the Ogmore valley, bringing back memories of our epic cycle path walking in Central Portugal last summer. Level paths like this make it easy to cover several miles very quickly; however, they can soon become tedious, especially if the landscape is unchanging.
The sun filtered through the trees onto the valley floor and water cascaded down the rocky slopes into an adjacent stream.
At Blackmill we left the cycle path and crossed the busy road to join a steep country lane out of the valley. I might have missed a rather large reminder of this area’s industrial heritage had Harri not stopped me and pointed down a side street. The Blackmill viaduct was completed in 1876 by the industrialist and colliery owner Lord David Davies as part of an integrated system to transport coal to his proposed new docks at Barry (they didn’t actually receive Royal Assent until August 1884). The viaduct was taken down during World War II so its metal could be reused. Sadly, all that remains of the once iconic structure are those towering, stone piers.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the valleys are a very different place, with the majority of industry (and jobs) now gone. There were no freight trains hurtling past as we gazed down at what remained of the viaduct. After a few miles of level walking, we were now climbing our first hill of the day and it was tough going. I can never understand how my walking fitness disappears so rapidly. Little over three weeks ago, I’d walked over 60 miles in a mammoth three-day trip from Albufeira to Salir. Today, with a much lighter backpack, I could barely put one foot in front of the other.
After climbing steadily for a while and crossing another road, we crossed a stile to join a footpath through a pretty steep-sided valley. The riverside path looked suspiciously boggy from the outset; however, Harri assured me that it would soon improve. He was wrong. Despite the glorious scenery – sloping banks covered with trees, pillows of moss covering the valley floor, wagtails jumping from stone to stone in the river – our onward route went from bad to worse. I tried not to complain (honest), but as the path deteriorated into a mud bath and we circumnavigated brambles and fallen trees, our pace slowed right down and it became harder to remain cheerful.
With elevenses well overdue, we looked for somewhere to sit but there was nowhere. Eventually we joined a forestry track and our rumbling tummies persuaded us to eat standing up. My relief at finally encountering solid ground was short-lived as the track climbed steadily for what felt like an eternity. There was little doubt that my energy levels were at an all-time low today.
Fortunately, the promised fine weather had now arrived, the sky was blue and there was barely a cloud overhead. Eventually, we left the shade of the larch trees and emerged into glorious sunshine on the open mountain. We’d been walking for three hours, had covered just six miles and I was wondering how I was going to summon up the energy to keep going for another twelve or so.
We were now walking in wind turbine land which meant solid tracks … or at least that’s what I’d thought until Harri led us straight into a bog (those familiar mountain grasses are always a telltale sign that it’s wet underneath). Worse, the saturated ground meant the footpath we were meant to be following had disappeared. We headed for a distant gate, hoping there was a through-route to the gravel track running between the turbines. Success!
Despite my general lethargy, it was hard not to be impressed by the strange landscape, especially the contrasting colours: white turbines against a blue sky, dead vegetation next to new growth. The distant views were incredible too. Although it was hazy towards the coast, we could see the sprawl of Cardiff Bay and the high hills of Exmoor on the far side of the Bristol Channel.
After a mile or so, Harri stopped at another gate and pointed to the marshland beyond. This was our onward route, he said. Oh no it’s not, I replied, digging my heels in. I’d had enough of splashing through mud and water for one day. After a few minutes, he relented, but unfortunately my victory was short-lived. When we reached the last in the long line of wind turbines the access track we were following came to an abrupt end. I might have avoided the worst of the marshland, but there was no escaping the peaty mountain ahead.
Despite the fine weather, we were now walking at over 500 metres and it was a bit nippy up here on Mynydd William Meyrick. It was an curious name for a Welsh mountain, I thought; in fact, it’s more customary to name them after nearby settlements, topographical features or elements relating to location. Who was this William Meyrick? After a little research, the only William Meyrick I could uncover with links to South Wales was a cricketer who was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1808. In fact, several websites suggested the mountain was named after this batsman who lived mostly England and played for their national team. Harri and I doubt the validity of this bizarre claim and believe the correct William Meyrick was probably a local landowner with no claim to fame that would merit mention on a website.
Mynydd William Meyrick is the site of an unfortunate World War 2 accident. Pilot Officer Harry Maguire crashed his Hawker Hurricane into the mountain in low cloud (nothing remains of the plane; however, there is a stone commemorating him in the Berwyn Centre, Nantymoel).
Spotting a line of exposed coal seams, we settled down for lunch. Despite the fantastic views, it was too cold to linger for long and soon we were on our way. Far below us was Nantymoel, a former mining village which saw its last mine (the Wyndham) close in September 1983, just six months before the National Miners Strike.
At this height, the views extended for miles and we could see the high peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du in the distant Brecon Beacons and even Hay Bluff at the northern tip of the Black Mountains. Below us, the A4061 road weaved its way through Nantymoel before snaking up the mountain to reach Bwlch-y-Clawdd then dipping down into the Rhondda Fawr, the larger of the two valleys which comprise the Rhondda. We gazed down at Cwmparc in a side valley and beyond it to Treorchy, home to the famed Treorchy Male Voice Choir.
All the climbing meant our average pace had been abysmal. The road was relatively quiet up here on the ridge, so we decided to opt for half an hour of easy walking. With the recent publicity about plastic bottles and the long-term damage they do to the environment, I was dismayed to see so many strewn along the road’s grass ridge. It’s impossible to understand what’s going on in the heads of car drivers/passengers whose response to finding themselves in an unspoilt natural landscape is to toss a plastic bottle out of the window. I suspect very little.
Too soon it was time to join a rutted track which delivered us back onto the open mountain and Mynydd Llangeinwyr, the highest mountain in Bridgend county borough. We’d been relatively sheltered on the road, but now the wind buffeted us from all directions. I was surprised to spot Nantymoel below once more until Harri explained that we’d done a big U-turn while walking along the road and were now following the ridge on the opposite side of the Ogmore Valley. From up here, the villages looked like toy towns, their terraces like rows of dolls’ houses.
A red kite hovered above us as we wandered along various peaty paths which frequently deteriorated into bogs. These wide ridges can quickly become monotonous for hikers; there are few landmarks and the valleys below are mostly out of sight. One point of interest was the raised dyke which meandered across the high moor. Apparently these raised banks, some of which were built at the same time as Offa’s Dyke farther east, i.e. around 790 AD, mark a prehistoric route along the ridgeway between the valleys.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones enjoying a mid-week jaunt, for we’d barely got going when we heard the familiar sound of off-road motorbikes. We see many of these unlicensed bikes on our hikes, including on our local mountain Mynydd Machen. There is no right to drive across common land unless you are accessing your own property, but it doesn’t seem to stop these kids churning up the footpaths, terrifying the wildlife and ruining everyone else’s enjoyment of the countryside. This particular trio couldn’t even be bothered to steer their bikes off the wide footpath as we approached, but just sat there revving and sending mud flying everywhere.
The last section of mountain walking felt endless, and though our general trajectory was downhill there were still plenty of what Harri likes to refer to as ‘rises’ and I more accurately call hills. We briefly got excited when Harri spotted Gower peninsular in the distance, but I was mostly too weary to do anything other than trudge along behind him taking the occasional photograph of sheep.
Harri had mentioned that we’d be passing the Llangeinor Arms towards the end of our circular route, but knowing Wales as we do, we hadn’t really expected to find a pub open for business at 6pm. We weren’t wrong … though the beer garden and views looked lovely, the pub’s doors were firmly closed. There were just a few fields to cross before we joined a grassy (and muddy) path alongside the Afon Garw and finally we were back in Bryngarw Country Park.
If you want to know more about the Bridgend area, I stumbled upon this interesting website called Bridgend Bites
Harri has uploaded our 29.81 km (18.5 mile) route onto Viewranger. Just click here for a downloadable map.