When he was 24, Harri decided it was a good idea to cycle from his parents’ home in Henllys, Cwmbran to Swansea where his brother was at university. Despite having road tyres fitted on his bike, he followed Route 47 so he could enjoy the more scenic albeit longer route across the mountains. His one-off, seven-hour journey left him exhausted and starving (I wasn’t around to make the sandwiches in those days!); it also took him through Afan Argoed Forest Park, our destination for this weekend’s hike.
A large plume of smoke drifted above Port Talbot steelworks as we left the motorway and headed up Afan valley. Within minutes, we were in a different world altogether, one of peace and tranquillity, of wooded slopes and natural beauty. The steep-sided Afan valley wasn’t always this peaceful, of course; from the late 1850s, the upper valley was mined for its coal, while further south the Afan river made the location ideal for tinplate, iron and copper production.
Harri might be familiar with the area from his cycling days, but this was my first visit and I was impressed with the landscape long before we pulled up at the visitor centre, where all-day parking was just £1 per car. Anyone with an interest in mountain biking will know this forest for its mountain bike trails, including the hair-raising and imaginatively named White’s Level, Y Wâl (The Wall) – both graded difficult – and the W² with its terrifying ‘severe’ rating. Though forest officials do a great job of keeping serious bikers and everyone else apart, Harri reminded me that we needed to be on the lookout for fast-moving bikes from the outset.
As well as having toilets and a tearoom, the visitor centre is the starting point for several hiking trails, including several short walks for those wishing to enjoy the scenery without walking miles.
We were only aiming to cover about 12 miles today and Harri was carrying everything except my packed lunch on account of my (still) bruised and aching upper arm. We headed into the forest on the Rookie Trail which, as the name suggests, is the easiest biking trail, but almost immediately headed underneath the A4107 and over the River Afan. Here, Harri got annoyed at a sign erected by the Afan River Angling Club which warned visitors that it is a criminal offence for non-members to paddle, i.e. in canoes, kayaks, etc, on the river. While there’s no doubt the club’s members have done a grand job restoring the river from its former polluted state with the resulting return of wildlife, their claim that paddling is a criminal offence is simply not true. If any offence was, in fact, being committed it would be one of trespass, a civil offence. Even then the matter is far from clear-cut as some rivers are universally accepted as having a right of navigation’ while others are subject only to ‘access agreements’ at certain times of year or in certain circumstances.
The River Access For All campaign is trying to rectify this muddled legal position across England and Wales, but for now the only individual we spotted who was brave enough to ignore the warnings and ‘paddle’ in the Afan was a heron!
We set off along a level track laid on the former railway line, shocked at the extent to which Japanese Knotweed has taken hold in this valley … it’s even growing thickly beneath the trees. It seemed ironic that while thousands of Japanese larch were being felled to eradicate the deadly, fungus-like larch disease, its more invasive compatriot should be flourishing here.
After a steep climb, we emerged at the ruined Gyfylchi Methodist Chapel, which was built c.1775-1777 and provided a place of rest and prayer for travellers following the Cistercian Way. Only one wall of the original chapel is still standing; however, stone from the disused colliers’ cottages the chapel once served has been used to build a mountain centre up here. It really is the loveliest of spots with great facilities, including a burger shop, a lodge, a cafe and children’s play area, and wonderful views. There were yurts and wooden cabins, plus donkeys grazing happily in an adjacent field. We’re so unaccustomed to encountering decent facilities on our walks that seeing all this on top of a mountain made me think I’d been momentarily transported to a National Park in the US!
In the distance, the mountain slopes looked naked after extensive felling, the forest tracks distinctive as they zig-zagged across the landscape. Harri pointed out the contours of a mountain bike route, which must once have meandered through the larch forest but was now exposed to the elements.
I’d have been happy enough to stick to the level tracks; however, our route crossed the Pelenna stream (a tributary of the Afan which was even more polluted than the Afan itself until reed beds were created to tackle the acidic, iron-rich drainage from the abandoned coal mines). As we began our descent, I started worrying about slipping on the mud. Dealing with an injury is one thing, but it’s easy to lose confidence in your legs and their ability to keep you upright!
On the other side of the Pelenna, we followed another level path and looked in vain for somewhere to sit and eat, until eventually hunger forced us to perch on the step up onto a second wooden bridge. We’d missed elevenses altogether so we agreed to have lunch now and postpone our mid-morning snack until this afternoon. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we set off again, we stumbled upon the prettiest sub-valley strewn with bottom-sized boulders either side of a pretty, gurgling brook. How it is that whenever we admit defeat and stop in a less-than-perfect picnic spot, we inevitably stumble upon somewhere much nicer within minutes of setting off again?
Our next challenge was crossing an extensive area of marshland without a) getting our feet wet or b) me falling over again. The waymarked route was pointing us straight across the middle, which concerned me as there seemed to be a lot of water tumbling off the mountains. Harri took a few tentative steps, agreed the route seemed rather wet and suggested we instead stuck to a wide, grassy path along the edge of the marsh. While this meant walking slightly farther, anything was better than wet feet. All was going well until the wide became narrow, and the grassy became marshy; with roughly 100 metres to go before we reached the road our ‘footpath’ deteriorated into a squelching, peat bog. When Harri declared our detour was actually wetter than the original route, there seemed little point in forging ahead.
So we backtracked and discovered that if we kept slightly to the left of the waymarked route we could avoid the worst of the boggy parts. It was all going so well when, just metres from the road, we again encountered a horribly difficult section. By now, I was past caring about getting wet feet; the ground was so deeply rutted and uneven that I was terrified of putting my foot in the wrong place and falling, thus aggravating my existing injury. Having finally reached solid land, I couldn’t believe my eyes when Harri said we had to rejoin the marsh on the other side to reach the wooded track we needed to be on. He must have seen the look on my face, because he quickly checked his online map and assured me we could stick to the road and join it further on.
We’d been climbing steadily since lunch and now we were rewarded with distant views towards Swansea and the Mumbles. Black cows grazed on these high slopes and several were very vocal in their greeting. We were following a bridleway, in fact we were now walking along the Great Dragon Ride, a 471-km (293-mile) trans-Wales bridle trail. In theory, this should have meant easy access for hikers, but a padlocked gate now barred our onward route. Being on foot, we were able to remove our rucksacks and squeeze through a tight gap, but clearly someone on horseback wouldn’t have this option. Having cursed Afan River Angling Club this morning, I now found myself cussing about spiteful landowners who seem hellbent on stopping people following perfectly legal footpaths and bridleways across their land. We ought to report these incidents as we (frequently) come across them, I know.
After several kilometres of wonderful walking with superb distant views (we could see Pen y Fan and Corn Du at one point), we left the open mountain to walk through pine woods. Here, we were intrigued by some strange-looking mushrooms with white stalks and red tops. On the basis of their colour, Harri immediately surmised they were poisonous; however, I’ve since consulted an excellent website called Wild Food UK, I think I’ve identified them as the non-poisonous but unpleasant-tasting Ruby Bolete. (If anyone knows better, please let me know.)
Somewhere along that wooded track we reached the highest point of the walk, and at 470 metres (higher than our local mountain Mynydd Machen) the air was starting to feel decidedly autumnal.
Our descent was varied and involved some scarily steep and loose-stoned sections, followed by narrow footpaths which eventually emerged next to the Cregan stream and led us through Abercregan, a former mining village with around thirty houses (most having been long demolished). It’s a pretty spot – and we were greeted in a friendly manner by a local resident – but there is little here, the community having lost its facilities years ago.
We arrived back at Afan Forest Visitor Centre at around 5.45pm and, as the website states the facilities are open until 6pm, we were surprised to find the car park practically empty and everything locked up (including the toilet block).
After roughly fourteen miles, we were feeling weary; however, we had one last thing to do before we left the Afan valley. Pontrhydyfen – the village where Richard Burton was born on November 10, 1925 and spent his childhood – was just two miles down the road and I wanted to see his house. Fortunately, it’s located just past the first of two viaducts and is easy enough to spot, thanks to two plaques on the wall of the porch (the present-day owners are obviously good sports). At the risk of being mistaken for overseas tourists, I posed outside the house for a photograph.
It’s odd to think this little village of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants (830, 2011 Census) has produced such artistic and cultural talent. As well as Burton, the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans, singer and songwriter Geraint Griffiths, and the late actor Mark Frankel were born here. Burton’s contemporary Ivor Emmanuel (best remembered as Private Owen in the film Zulu) was born in nearby Margam but lived here as a child.
As always, Harri recorded our route on Viewranger so if you want to follow it here’s the link. (He has deleted our first attempt to cross the marshland.)
Richard Burton w