After a few days on the river, it was off to Malvern to finally visit the Malvern Hills. The short chain of hills is an eye-catching feature in the landscape, rising abruptly from the low-lying surrounds. We've seen them in passing and have always meant to visit, but it took us several years to get around to it! We just had one morning to climb to the top of one of the hills and enjoy a cup of tea sheltering from the stiff breeze. But what a morning! I loved being able to pick out other places we've been (the line of Hay Bluff was just visible in the hazy distance) and other hills we might want to climb.
Wales, Malvern, Birmingham, London, Sussex, Kent . . . August was jam-packed with activities as we made the most of our summer holidays. This is a bit of an epic post - though, to be fair, it's mainly photos.
After walking from channel to channel, our holiday continued with a short stay in Monmouthshire. Our Airbnb wasn't far from Rockfield Studios, actually, and the museum in Monmouth had an interesting exhibition about the studio. We were also delighted to discover Monteas, a looseleaf tea shop with a friendly owner. We bought some delicious tea.
From Monmouth, we went canoeing down the River Wye, which was great fun. I'd only kayaked before, so it was interesting to get a feel for canoeing - it feels much more sedate and, if you're in a canoe with others, there's more team work and communication.
After a few days on the river, it was off to Malvern to finally visit the Malvern Hills. The short chain of hills is an eye-catching feature in the landscape, rising abruptly from the low-lying surrounds. We've seen them in passing and have always meant to visit, but it took us several years to get around to it! We just had one morning to climb to the top of one of the hills and enjoy a cup of tea sheltering from the stiff breeze. But what a morning! I loved being able to pick out other places we've been (the line of Hay Bluff was just visible in the hazy distance) and other hills we might want to climb.
Malvern was an overnight stop on our way to Birmingham, where we stayed with a friend and spent a couple of days exploring the city (and washing our clothes, because after two weeks of walking, canoeing and sightseeing, we were a bit smelly). She took us around the city and we got to spend a few hours in the fabulous Library of Birmingham, another place we've been meaning to check out for years. We browsed books (and borrowed some, thanks to our friend!), admired the old Shakespeare Memorial Room which has been incorporated in the top floor of the contemporary building and wandered around the roof gardens checking out the view.
On the way back to London, we detoured to visit the Alpkit warehouse and showroom, to look for kit in advance of our Snowy River adventure. That was fun, especially because they let me climb inside the fluffiest sleeping bag I have ever seen. I've always wanted to try one of those out, though I have absolutely no reason to use one in earnest!
In London, we met up with a friend for breakfast and did a bit of city exploring to find some wooden streets. Yep. Did you know that the streets of London (and Melbourne, and many other cities) were once paved with wood? You can read about it in this great article by Ian Visits. I came across this when doing some research for our Snowy River adventure (a proper research rabbit hole) and decided I wanted to see it for myself. Our walk took us down some interesting back streets as well as along main roads, making for a fun afternoon wandering around the city.
Home again, home again. But being home didn't stop us getting out and about. We were making the most of our time before heading back to work.
Wild swimming in the River Rother near Newenden. (Most people venture out in boats hired from the campsite.)
On the last day of August we walked all the way around Bewl Water. We'd been meaning to do the 20km/12.5mi circuit for a while and the weather forecast was fine, so off we set! Our circuit took us anti-clockwise from the main carpark/cafe area, along dirt and paved paths, down country lanes, around a few small hills, through woods and fields and along the Sussex Border Path for a while. It's a great walk if you're up for doing something of that length.
And on that note, let's call it a day (or a month)!
(Because you all like a listicle, right? . . . right?)
After walking 100km from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, we went on a three day canoeing and camping trip down the River Wye on the Wales/England border. In some ways, this was an extension of last year’s walk across Wales. We hired a canoe from Wye Valley Canoes and paddled from Glasbury to Hereford, staying overnight at Whitney Bridge and Preston-on-Wye campgrounds. Here's what I learnt.
It’s easier than you might expect . . .
We’d never been canoeing before (kayaking, yes - canoeing, no), so we really had no idea how far we’d be able to paddle in a day, or how long people generally think “a day” should be when canoeing. We decided to go for shorter sections, just in case - about 10 miles (16km) each day.
Turns out, canoeing downstream is (or can be) pretty easy and pretty speedy. The river carried us along without much effort on our part and we covered the 10 miles in about 4 hours each day. In fact, the first day went so quickly we hardly bothered with paddling after that. Instead, we left our campsites late, noodled around on beaches for leisurely lunches and cups of tea, and slipped silently past hills, woods, farms and fields. One highlight of many was our view of The Weir Garden - we stopped opposite and had a chat to a few people across the river.
. . . But the wind can be a pain in the proverbial
There’s an exception to the idyll I’ve just described. On the second day a strong headwind came whooshing up the river valley and we had no idea how to deal with it! Any onlookers must have laughed as we turned Old Town (our canoe's name) in a giant circle, got ourselves stuck in the shallows, then headed off in long, meandering zigzags downstream. We turned a corner and got a bit of relief: the high riverbank protected us instead of funnelling the wind straight at us; the wind was coming from a different angle; and the miniature storm had almost blown itself out. We did get caught in a mini-downpour, too, but we dragged the canoe up under a weeping willow tree and waited until it passed over. Silver lining: the wind dried us out in no time.
Literal pain in the butt: also a possibility
I was expecting to get sore shoulders, back and/or neck from the repetitive action, but I only had a few twinges and no real stiffness the next day. Keeping our actual paddling to a minimum probably helped! I wasn’t expecting to get a sore bum, but apparently there is such a thing as too much sitting down and looking at beautiful scenery.
Shut up, chill out
On our last day, barely a breath of wind disturbed the water ahead of us. We slid over a mirror of trees, dipping our paddles into clouds. A deer bent its head to the river to drink, grazed on some leaves, didn’t notice us until we were close. It watched us for a stretched-out moment, until something in our statue-still shapes gave us away as human then it turned tail and disappeared up the hill. A kingfisher splashed out of the river and sat on a dead branch to eat a tiny minnow. All through our trip, kites and buzzards circled over riverside fields, some resting on nearby trees before flapping low over the river and curving out towards the hills. Every now and then the fish would jump. Mostly we heard them, sometimes saw the splash before the ripples. But if we were lucky we’d see them leap in wriggling silver lines from the water towards the sky before flopping back. In our silence we heard the water lapping against the boat, the bees in the flowers, the creak of branch on branch. I thought I saw an otter once, but it turned out to be a fishing line making strange patterns in the water. (At Monnington Falls, Dan spotted an angler beside a rapid just in time to shout that we were coming through - there was no way we could have stopped at that point - proving that sometimes you need to be quiet, but sometimes you need to speak up!)
We spent hours on flat stretches of river, view restricted to the sky, the banks and a few things tall enough and close enough to be visible over the edges. It’s hard to get lost going downstream, but it’s easy to be unsure where you are, especially if you don’t have much of a map and your phone’s tucked safely away. Added to that feeling of nowhereness, it sometimes seemed like we weren’t moving at all. If we looked at the water straight ahead of the canoe, we might as well have been motionless. The only way to check we were heading anywhere was to look sideways, at the trees and flowers and grass on the bank. I used to look out the car window as a kid and pretend I was in a stationary bubble while the world moved past. It was easy to play that game on the river.
In these elongated minutes, I tried accepting each moment as it arose: boredom, the tug of the current on the boat, the direction of the wind, the little itches and aches in my body, the sound of bees and the smell of Himalayan balsam, the sand martins darting in and out of their small round holes in the river bank, my wet feet, the scent of river mud, the electric shimmer of a kingfisher darting low over the water.
Don’t drink and paddle
There was a group of eight guys who we passed and who passed us at various points. Possibly it was a stag weekend. They certainly weren’t interested in paddling anywhere fast. They certainly were interested in imbibing various substances. Perhaps that’s one reason we found two of their party standing waist-deep in the river in the middle of our second day. Their canoe had capsized and their various belongings were floating off downstream - including a large quantity of beer. They rescued most of the beer (they told us when we crossed paths again), but one of them had a very wet sleeping bag.
Watertight barrels, life vests, paddles, canoe and pick-up at the end were all included in the hire cost with Wye Valley Canoes.
Rapids are fun
Who knew? OK, pretty much everyone. But I’m not a thrill-seeker and I was a bit worried before we left. Yeah, I know they’re small (Grade II maximum in the section we paddled) but as I’d never managed to come out of a rapid facing the right way, before . . .
I needn’t have worried. The river was deep enough that we weren’t likely to get stuck, shallow enough that (for the most part) we’d be able to stand up and walk out of danger if we capsized. Once we got the hang of things and stopped worrying, we actively looked forward to the riffle stretches: lining ourselves up for the most likely-looking spot, noticing the current grip us a little tighter and the canoe speed up, then feeling the distinct descent as we crested the first lump of water, enjoying the rocking motion through the wavelets, digging in the oars and maneuvering the canoe into the turn at the other end.
There was only one point, at Monnington Falls, that required any significant steering through the rapids. And it was so fun, I wished we could go back and do it again! Whee!
Just because I can’t do it now doesn’t mean I can’t do it
Followers of our outdoorsy exploits might be surprised to find out that I am not by nature a particularly physically confident person. I’m usually more at ease reading up on a new theory, trying out new musical instrument or even starting a new job than attempting a new physical activity. I feel clumsy, vulnerable, anxious, ashamed - and as a result I am less likely to practice and therefore unlikely to improve. But I’m also quite stubborn. So when I commit to (and pay for) three days of canoeing, I’m not going to bail out early!
It was good to begin something with very little experience, to go out without anyone to guide us or fall back on, to get frustrated at myself (and Dan - sorry, Dan!), but to gradually gain confidence and to noticeably improve over a relatively short period of time. Unsurprisingly, we were a much better canoeing duo when we hopped out opposite Hereford Cathedral than we had been when we set out from Glasbury.
Some people are back-of-the-canoe people
One way to improve is to play to your strengths. In a double canoe there are two quite distinct roles: the person at the front provides most of the paddle power, the person at the back provides most of the steering. My strength is steering - I find the physics of it pretty intuitive and I enjoy paying attention and being in control of our course. Dan brings zen to the situation - he’s OK with letting someone else do the steering (even if it seems like we’re heading towards an obstacle) and with powering on when necessary. You can read our weaknesses into that yourself!
But whichever role we took on, the most important thing was communication. It was something that we got better at as we progressed. It’s surprisingly difficult to give coherent directions whilst also focusing on paddling or steering, looking at the scenery, dodging a flotilla of hissing swans and/or bobbing down riffles. It’s harder to say, “There are rocks ahead,” or “Swap sides now,” or, “Turn right!” or “Let’s have a break,” than it is to say “Go, go, go, nooooo!” or “Do the, the, the thingie! No, the other thing!” or “Aaargh!”.
Even experienced paddlers have bad days
We met a couple who’d done quite a bit of kayaking and canoeing. They were spending a few days out on the Wye in their inflatable kayak and were having quite a good time - until an unfortunate encounter with a low-hanging branch knocked them out, capsizing their boat and sending a pair of brand new, £300 prescription glasses into the depths of the river. Whoops.
Glasses aren’t the only thing paving the river bed around here. The guy who picked us up at the end of the trip was surprised when we said we hadn’t fallen in. He reckons there’s probably a cottage industry in diving for GoPro cameras at the bottom of each rapid. Hearing how many people have lost their cameras in the river made me glad that we’d kept our things ziplocked or drybagged and stored in the barrels - even though this means we don’t have many photos - and none taken while on the water.
You can take the kitchen sink . . .
We’d just come from a long walk, where we’d kept our gear to the bare minimum. As self-powered travel goes, canoeing could hardly be more different. One person we met likened these big, open canoes to pack horses and said he’d known people to bring their duvets and pillows along.
Although we didn’t bring any luxuries, we did have our Aspect 2.5 tent (which isn’t huge, but weighs almost 3kg), all our sleeping kit, food and cooking gear. This all fit easily into two waterproof barrels - one large, one small. We could have taken more if we’d needed it. Not carrying all that kit on your back makes things a lot easier.
. . . But this campsite brings a cooked breakfast to your tent
Yes, really! We spent our first night at Whitney Bridge - a tiny campsite wedged between the road and the river. It’s more a picnic site, really, and I can’t believe that there are more than four patches flat enough to pitch a tent! Anyway, we set up close to the river, with a charming view of the old wooden bridge, which is still a toll bridge and which the campsite proprietors operate. In the evening, we made a fire (they had an enormous supply of firewood) and invited the only other campers, the inflatable kayaking couple, to join us for a chat and a stare into the flames.
In the drizzly morning, we opened the tent to find a tray with a huge flask of hot water, milk, various teas, coffee and hot chocolate all ready to go. In a plastic pocket, an order sheet offered breakfast rolls, omelettes and toast. We ticked the relevant boxes and popped it up to the house - a few minutes later, another tray was ferried over with our breakfast goodies and sauces to boot. If you have never had a hot, freshly cooked breakfast delivered to your tent, I highly recommend you try it. Luxury!
(Our other campsite at Preston-on-Wye was at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was a riverside field with the following facilities: a landing platform, portaloos and a tap with drinking water. It delightful in a totally different way and we had it all to ourselves - except for two curious sheep.)
All in all, this was a fantastic way to spend a few days. I hope to return to the Wye to walk or paddle another section - or to do both, because Symonds Yat is beautiful enough to visit by land and by water! Read more about our previous adventures in Wales here.
No self-respecting long distance walk write-up is complete without a kit list. That's a lie, but never mind: here's our kit list, route map and a video from our walk across Wales.
I walked 250km (150mi) of the South West Coast Path in September 2009 carrying a 14kg bag, plus water. We stayed at a B&B every night, so that didn’t even include any sleeping gear or a shelter. At the time, I though lightweight kit was the preserve of people who drilled holes in their spoon handles and cut the pockets out of their shirts to lighten their load. If I’m honest, I derived a kind of pleasure from how heavy my bag was: I felt like a Real Walker™.
These days, while I’m not rich enough to own ultralight everything and not dedicated enough to cut my toothbrush handle off to save weight, I’ve definitely come around to the pack less, pack lighter/less weight, more fun way of thinking. I know there were reasons back in 2009 for taking a pair of jeans and a third shirt (evenings and days off), a laptop (I was obsessively committed to keeping in touch), eight pairs of undies/socks (one a day and a spare for washing day) and a huge first aid kit (just in case), but in hindsight it seems ridiculous. We still use the same packs as we did in 2009, so for our walk across Wales I was interested to see if we could take everything we needed - now including sleeping gear, a shelter and a good amount of food - while staying under our 2009 pack weight.
The morning we set off from Aberystwyth, we weighed our bags on our Airbnb hosts’ bathroom scales. My pack was 9.8kg and Dan’s was 10.4kg (both before adding water). This is hardly ultralight, but it’s an improvement. As we replace gear over the years, our pack weights may decrease further. And you never know, maybe I will become a gram weenie.
“So, what was in your packs?” I hear up to three people ask with mild curiosity. Well, wonder no more, my friends. Here follows an exhaustive kit list. Things marked (J) were carried by me, things marked (D) were carried by Dan. We carried our own set of everything else.
Walk across Wales kit list
Thoughts on our gear
What didn’t we use? I didn’t wear my beanie and we didn’t use any first aid supplies apart from plasters/bandaids (which is what you want). That’s it. There were a couple of items I could have done without - such as my thermal t-shirt, which I wore a couple of times at the end of the walk simply because it was clean, and my thermal leggings, which would have been good to wear to bed on the coldest night (when I didn’t, typically) but were too warm to wear on other nights (when I did, of course). We used the head torch and knife only once.
What did we appreciate most? The tarp was great. Pitching using walking poles was fine and we were glad we hadn’t relied solely on bivvi bags as we (and our gear) would have got very, very wet on a couple of nights. It was really nice to have a flannel for washing - a very minor luxury that made a big difference to me! The squirty cordial concentrate was a welcome flavour addition to our long days. Although the maps were heavy and bulky, I enjoyed using them and they worked nicely as groundsheets on damp grass. My Piece of Material worked its magic as usual. The Piece of Material is a sarong or small tablecloth sized piece of patterned cotton I found in a charity shop years and years ago. It’s very versatile - I can use it as a towel, scarf, sarong, sheet, curtain, picnic blanket, pillowcase, washing bag or superhero cape - and I’m always glad when I bring it on trips.
What did we miss? We probably would have appreciated an extra pair of socks/undies each, though we did OK with what we had. I would have used insect bite soothing lotion if we'd had it. I got sick of instant noodles as our only hot, savoury meal. I even - and this is unheard of for me - considered buying couscous. We figured out on the way that I preferred noodles for breakfast and porridge for dinner, and since the walk I’ve decided that instant noodles are better if you only use half the flavour sachet.
What did we not take and not miss? Trousers, scarf and gloves (it didn’t get that cold), thermos/flask (we boiled water when we wanted tea), a full first aid kit (we took a sensible amount based on my knowledge and first aid training), my phone (we had Dan’s), reading book (I bought one to read on our semi-rest day), my inflatable pillow (replaced with other bits and pieces that worked well enough), waterproof trousers (it hardly rained on us while we were walking) and another water bottle (we usually walked within a few minutes of flowing water and we had treatment drops to take the stress out of drinking it).
All kit, all list
If you like kit lists, here are a few that might tickle your fancy: Emily Chappell’s kit for cycling around the world, an extensive list of things one might take on an Australian bushwalk from Matt Down Under, Anna McNuff’s lightweight gear list for running and adventures, Alastair Humphrey’s hypothetical kit for a mystery adventure anywhere on the planet, Sophie Radcliffe’s top ten outdoors/sports clothing items, ultralight DIY first aid kit on Section Hiker and “15 Veteran Cyclists Share Their Favourite Non-Essential Luxuries On Tour” by Tom Allen. It’s always interesting to see what people take on their adventures and notice what the differences are between countries, seasons and activities. Do you have a kit list? Feel free to link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it (really).
A hasty addition! A couple of people mentioned on Twitter that they'd like to see a map of the route we took. I don't have a GPX file of the exact walk, but here's an overview of our path, with the places we slept (approximately) marked by red dots. The route for the first two and a half days was self-designed, while the remainder of the walk stuck closely (but not exclusively) to the Wye Valley Walk long distance path.
And finally, a video
Congratulations! You made it to the end of the post. As a reward, here’s our short film of the walk. Instead of doing a video diary or filming every pretty view, we decided to take one long, static shot each day to give a snapshot of our time in Wales. I think the end result is enjoyable. It’s slow, but (partly because it’s slow) it’s quite relaxing. What do you think of this kind of film?
You can find my write up of our walk across Wales here: Part 1: The coast and River Rheidol, Part 2: Cambrian Mountains and craggy hills, Part 3: The Wye valley and the border.
The final section of our walk across Wales took us from a riverside field near Builth Wells to the border of England at Hay-on-Wye. This post features rain. (It had to happen, we were in Wales after all!)
Day 6: A field by the river to Builth Wells (6km)
By now, our rhythms were attuning to those of the world around us: we went to sleep at twilight, woke with the dawn, ate lunch when the sun was high and warm. I’d started to perfect my routines for setting up and striking camp, I knew where to find things in my pack and I was beginning to understand that no matter how many times I sniffed my socks and shoes they would always make me gag. Bleugh! We ate porridge for one meal (often dinner) and noodles for another (often breakfast), snacked on chocolate and usually had a sandwich for lunch. We’d drink tea once a day (or more if we found a kettle en route), cordial from one bottle and water the rest of the time. There was something liberating about having to make so few choices - only how many squirts of cordial concentrate to add to the bottle, or whether to re-tie my bootlace, or how to set up the tarp, or what flavour of noodles to cook.
I woke up just after 5am. The dim light brightened into a pink morning and I spent a captivating ten minutes watching bats flit by, some only inches from my head. We’d set an alarm in order to decamp before any earlybird joggers or dog walkers made their way along the path. Nobody came, of course. We sat on a bench by the Wye, soaking up the sunrise and cooking breakfast. It was noodles.
The other reason we’d set an alarm was to try and beat the weather to Builth Wells. There wasn’t any rain in sight as we set off through quiet fields and still, leafy woods. The swans from the day before swam past, paddling back upstream. An hour later, the sky began to cloud over, but the drizzle held off as we made our way past anglers’ lodges and fishing spots, rapids and deep pools. In fact, it wasn’t until we reached the Afon Irfon on the outskirts of Builth Wells that we felt the first smattering of rain peck at our arms.
As we entered town, along an avenue beside the river, the clouds burst. By the time we’d found the high street, it was bucketing down. We ducked into Boots to get a few supplies, then spied a likely looking cafe, where we ordered morning tea and sheltered from the rain.
Some time later, thinking we should try to see something of Builth Wells, we made a quick dash to the castle (a scraggy lump of grass with a few wet sheep on it), the arts centre and cinema (not open until later) and the library (closed on Wednesdays). Pressed up against a doorway in a vain attempt to keep dry, we had a brilliant idea: buy a book from the charity shop and go back to The Cwtch for lunch. And that is the story of how we ended up spending four hours sitting in an extremely welcoming and hospitable tea room, eating, drinking, reading, charging our phone and tweeting. It was a complete change from our usual routine - a holiday from our holiday.
A mid-afternoon pause in the rain. We took our leave of the cafe and scampered off to the campsite, on a farm at the edge of town. Our pitch overlooked the river, with just a fence and a footpath in between. Knowing more rain was forecast and wanting a bit of privacy, we experimented with tarp configurations. I’m sure someone has a name for the pitch we invented/discovered. It worked so well for us that we used it again the following night. (NB: we didn’t have a groundsheet, but we found that a plastic coated OS map makes a decent alternative!)
I nipped out for a shower, then curled up in bed. And that was it. I concentrated on finishing Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (one of those books that’s always for sale in a charity shop), because I sure wasn’t going to lug it around in my backpack. I couldn’t be bothered cooking, so we crunched on instant noodles from the packet and listened to the rain pattering all around us. It was a delightful rest day.
Day 7: Builth Wells to Trericket Mill (18km)
Surprise! Another long distance walker had arrived at the campsite sometime after us and was getting ready to leave as we headed out. Perhaps I was a bit overenthusiastic in my greeting, but I was quite excited to speak to to another hiker. He was aiming to stop at Erwood for lunch, as were we, although he’d decided to take the valley road rather than following the Wye Valley Walk up into the hills, because he wanted to conserve energy for his long afternoon walk into Brecon.
I saw the sense in his plan as I toiled up a rough, rain-slick path, watching Dan draw ahead of me. We’d already climbed one hill out of Builth Wells, lost all our height dropping down the other side, then immediately come face to face with a slope that was five times the size. Why did the route do this? Wasn’t it meant to be a river walk? The Wye Valley Walk? I was feeling miserable. What if it was all like this and I hated these last two days of walking and it rained the whole time and it was awful? But also, why did it have to end? I didn’t want to stop walking and go back to normal life. And why was I suddenly walking so slowly? How come Dan was able to power uphill like that? Why didn’t he wait for me? Had I broken my rhythm with a single rest day? And what was the point of climbing this stupid track anyway - we knew the tops of the hills were blanketed in clouds, so it’s not like we even had any views to look forward to.
What I really wanted to do was stomp my foot and yell, “It’s not fair! I don’t wanna!” Realising that made me laugh - just a little bit. I called out to Dan. We had a rest and a chat, which I remember as me asking him nicely not to speed ahead because it made me feel like the kid always coming last in PE, but which might have come out as somewhat less articulate whingeing. At any rate, I cheered up and we finally reached the point at which the path stopped climbing and kept a fairly steady height tracing contour lines around the hills.
We wandered in and out of the clouds, noticing the very different world this weather created: misty views of valleys that wavered and disappeared, only to reappear from a minutely different angle a few steps later. During the morning, the cloud rose higher and a few shafts of sunlight broke through, illuminating patches of pasture, clusters of farm buildings and stands of trees down below. This is a scene I associate very strongly with Wales - the header of my blog is a photo taken from the slopes of Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.
Sparked by Bill Bryson’s book, we fell into a lively discussion about long distance walks around the world, the people who write about them and the people who read those books. It’s interesting to see how authors make sense of new scenery and evoke it for their audience - by comparing it to another country, or by describing the geology or flora, or by giving a personal account of how their bodies engage with it. We were so deep in conversation that we didn’t realise we’d missed our turnoff until it was a kilometre behind us.
Checking the map, we were pretty sure where we were. A postal van in the distance confirmed the existence of . . . yes, it must be that road, and if we keep to the track along here we’ll come to this road and we can follow it all the way into Erwood. It’s nice to be right when it comes to navigation, so we were pleased when our strategy worked exactly as we’d planned. The sky cleared, giving us views over the beautiful rolling countryside to blue hills hidden by clouds in the distance. “It’s starting to look more like the bits of Wales we know,” I said. And we soon realised that’s because it was the Wales we knew: those hills were the Black Mountains, which we’ve visited many times.
We headed down by Twmpath, rejoined the Wye Valley Walk, then crossed the highway and river to Erwood Station. We found our friend from the campsite rubbing Vaseline on his feet in preparation for his long afternoon walk. The line here was closed in the early 1960s - actually preceding the Beeching cuts - and the station was restored in the 1980s, with a craft centre opening on site. It’s now a gallery and cafe housed in the old buildings and some refurbished carriages. There’s a diesel engine on display and a signal box which was apparently rescued from a farm where it was being used as a chook pen. We looked at the art and craft, including some amazing kaleidoscopes, and had lunch outside. Cyclists scooted down the hill in pairs and threes and a DHL van in the carpark sprung into action providing them lunch. We couldn’t work out if it was a sponsored race, or some kind of workplace bonding thing for DHL (they were all middle aged-ish men in DHL branded clothes), or something else entirely.
From Erwood, our route took a quiet road through a nature reserve, following the line of the old railway. The Wye Valley Walk used to leave the road for a while to run beside the Wye, but for some reason that permissive path has been closed, so we didn’t see much of the river until we crossed it at Llanstephan Bridge. This is an early 20th century suspension bridge, which looks like a sturdy cycle bridge but which can take a car - though it’s not wide enough for a car and a walker to pass each other.
Having made good time, we arrived early at Trericket Mill. We set up our tarp in the pretty little orchard, made use of the warm shower and sat under the grass-roofed shelter as the rain began. In addition to camping and a bunkhouse, Trericket Mill is a vegetarian B&B that does dinners for guests. We put on our cleanest clothes and headed over for a scrumptious meal. We could barely finish, because we were so used to eating single packets of instant noodles!
By this stage in our walk, people were usually impressed by how far we’d come. They were also impressed at our apparent hardiness, and slightly concerned about us sleeping out in the pouring rain. One couple we met at Trericket Mill came to stay with us in Battle just last week. “I felt rather guilty, thinking of you out there in the rain while we had a warm, cosy bed inside,” said one of them. But they needn’t have worried: we were dry and surprisingly warm and cosy ourselves under our trusty tarp. Our journal says we “didn’t wash away, not even a little bit.”
Day 8: Trericket Mill to Hay-on-Wye (19km)
We woke up, stretched out, watched raindrops race down the outside of the tarp, got dressed, packed up our sleeping gear, I sniffed my shoes (bleugh!), we took the tarp down (hanking the cord, cleaning the pegs, shaking rain off) . . . But we had a change to our routine that morning - we hung the tarp up undercover to drip dry while we dashed across the mill stream and into the main building for a cooked breakfast. Yum!
It was nice to chat to the other guests again and we ended up making a late, leisurely start at around 10am. We hoisted our packs, which seemed so much lighter now, and set off along the river. There hadn’t been many crops upstream, but many of the fields along the river flats on this last day were corn, wheat, broad beans or potatoes.
The weather flirted with the idea of rain, so we sheltered under trees or walked in the lee of hedges for a while. Naturally, once we’d decided the rain was heavy enough to stop and put our coats on, the sky cleared. The signs of autumn we’d first noticed near Rhayader were starting to multiply, but unfortunately the blackberries were still sour. Likewise, when we found a pear tree beside a ruin and a walnut tree by the path, the fruit of both were immature.
At Glasbury, I paddled in the chilly river and we shared a Snickers on the stony beach, watching a group of kayakers warm up and set off. Early last summer, we’d done the same thing, kayaking downstream from here to Hay-on-Wye. This was familiar territory.
Whereas the day before I’d longed for a flat path beside the river, I was now pleased to follow the footpath into the wooded hillsides above the valley. I felt nostalgic for the mountains and craggy hills we’d climbed when the Wye was a stream just a few paces across. We reflected on our walk as we pushed up an overgrown path and back down towards the small village of Llowes. What would we do differently next time? (Dan: Bring an extra pair of socks!) Had we noticed any physical changes in ourselves? (Jonathan: Calves of steel!) What were our favourite parts of the walk? (Too many to name!) At the church, we admired St Maelog’s Cross and sat on the steps to eat our last odds and ends for lunch.
The Wye Valley Walk splits at Llowes, and we chose the hilly option. We were rewarded with gorgeous vistas over the valley - Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob covered in cloud, rain screening the Beacons, sunlight turning the river into a silver ribbon twisting through the quilted landscape. I think this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. We noticed canoeists on the Wye and tractors at work in the fields - and we held on to the view for as long as we could, until we finally descended to the river for the final stretch.
There’s a picturesque bend in the River Wye just before Hay, where a red brick house on the outer bank looks over a band of small rapids to a wide beach. We stopped to watch some canoeists shoot the rapids. Or rather, to watch one pair shoot the rapids and the other pair get stuck. These unfortunates attracted an audience of very British gawkers (i.e. lots of people on the beach who made themselves busy pretending not to look) as they rocked and pushed and eventually managed to float off downstream.
Dulas Brook flows between grey houses on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye. One side of the stream is Wales, the other England. People nipping to the big supermarket to grab something for dinner are crossing into another country. Dulas Brook joins the River Wye a few hundred metres north of the bridge into town, at which point the river becomes the national border. A ten minute detour along Offa’s Dyke Path took us to a tiny, willow-lined beach on the Wye, where we took our shoes and socks off and wet our feet. From the sea at Aberystwyth to the river at Hay, we’d walked from border to border, all the way across Wales.
The end of a long walk can often be anticlimactic, because your achievement means more to you than to anyone else. But our lovely Airbnb host was almost as excited us about our walk. She wanted to know how far we’d travelled each day, what gear we’d taken and where we’d camped. She also had a drink with us to celebrate making it across the country. I think she might be planning a similar journey herself - good luck, Joanne!
(Side note: If you think you’d like to use Airbnb, please sign up using this link. You’ll get a discount on your first booking and we will get credit, too.)
We’d come by bus from Hay-on-Wye to Hereford, winding through hedge-lined lanes, over streams, past churches and farms. It would have felt like a slow journey a week and a half ago, but now things flashed by so quickly I barely had time to register their existence - glimpses and half-formed perceptions, then they were gone. It was a relief to return to walking pace and wander around the cool, lofty space of Hereford Cathedral.
We stood in front of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a 13th century interpretation of the physical and spiritual world. There’s a story about this Mappa Mundi, which I’d recently read in On the Map, by Simon Garfield. When the map came to public attention in the late 1980s (the cathedral was going to sell it), nobody was really sure where it had been produced. Some early testing of the ink showed that Hereford was written on the vellum at a later date than the rest of the map. Perhaps, researchers thought, it had been made elsewhere and Hereford had been added when it came to the cathedral.
But there is another theory. As the map hung on the wall of the cathedral, thousands of people saw it and did what everyone does when they see a map: find where they are and point to it. Years and years of fingertips brushing the map wore the ink away, until somebody had to re-draw Hereford. There’s supporting evidence for this theory in the Mappa Mundi exhibition. A touchable replica, translated to English, stands against a wall. If you look for Hereford, you will find that thousands of fingertips have started to wear the word away. “This is our place in the world,” the worn patch proclaims. In a pleasing paradox, the more it disappears, the more it seems to say, “Here we are.”
And that's what it's like to walk all the way across a (small) country. I hope you enjoyed hearing bout it! A couple of people have mentioned they'd like to see a kit list, so I'll post that along with our short video of the walk soon.
The second instalment of our walk across Wales, featuring mountains, hills, rivers, vegan jerky, porridge and a magical night sky.
Day 3: Llyn Llygad Rheidol to Llangurig (20km)
We woke to stillness and silence. The reservoir was a mirror, reflecting sky, slope and stone. Somehow, sleeping under the crags had made them more familiar, less intimidating. We packed quickly and ate a strip of vegan jerky (yes, really) while looking out at the hills.
A faint trail, barely more than a disturbance in the rough vegetation, straggled up the flank of the mountain. It seemed to meet a natural, wide shelf that could from a distance be taken as an overgrown road. We followed it, stopping frequently to admire the view (was that Cadair Idris in the distance?), knowing from the map that if we kept climbing we should hit a fence, which we could follow over the crest.
Success! We found the fence, then the marker stone, then crossed the watershed into the catchment area of the River Wye and a whole new vista. We’d climbed 200m in less than a kilometre, but there was more to do before we could stop for our second tiny breakfast. We forewent the detour to the summit of Pen Pumlumon Fawr and instead followed a gently dipping saddle to Pumlumon Arwystli.
Our second challenge was to find our way down through knee-high heather, grass, reeds and potential bog to find the permissive path that forms part of the waymarked Wye Valley Walk. With no tracks marked on the map and only sheep trails on the ground, our main concern was not to head downhill at the wrong place and be cut off by tributary streams (which would be a nuisance) or fall off a crag (which could be worse than a nuisance).
I was very thankful that the day was clear, making it easy to line the map up with landmarks on nearby hills: plantations, roads, wind farms. It still took us a good while to find the path, and when we did we celebrated with a Snickers and ritual cleaning out of shoes and socks. We’d pretty much climbed a mountain before breakfast! As we rested, we heard the loud reports of quarry blasts - or perhaps gunshots - in the distance, amplified by echoes in the valley below.
Down we went, past abandoned slate mines and along deserted roads (it was Sunday, we suddenly realised). We found a ford across the young River Wye and, despite the nearby rally car track, we thought this might be good spot to finally fill our bottles and treat some more water. A mile or two winding between the big, quiet, empty hills brought us abruptly to the A44. Cars sped along, maybe heading for Aberystwyth (was it really only two mornings ago we were there?) or Llangurig (our evening’s destination).
A quick word with a friendly couple in a motorhome confirmed that a pub marked on the OS map nearby had long since gone. The forest, while pretty, was playing host to a dirt bike event and the constant whine of motorcycles passing nearby at speed was not conducive to a peaceful lunch. But just as we were flagging, we found a perfect place beside the river to cook up a pot of instant noodles. I sat on a stepping stone, splashing my feet in the clear water and admiring the view.
The afternoon passed in a blur. I remember the route was difficult to follow in places (here overgrown with nettles, there missing a waymarker) and that the path twisted up and down from the riverside, across the flats and up into the lower reaches of the hills. I was happy to be walking, but the past few days were catching up with me: I had a sting on my heel that might herald a blister, a numb patch on my toe from kicking into steep slopes all morning, an ache in my shoulder from carrying the pack and sleeping on the ground. A couple of miles out from Llangurig we checked the map to see the Wye Valley Walk detouring over a steep hill before heading to the village. It was a bit too much, so we took the less scenic, less peaceful, but much flatter route along the side of the main road to the Bluebell Inn, a welcome shower, hot dinner and bed.
Day 4: Llangurig to a hill near Rhayader (16km)
It’s amazing how comfortable a bed (any bed!) and pillow (any pillow!) can feel after only a couple of nights camping. Showered and well-fed, we’d slept like champions. After breakfast at the pub, we headed out of town with a short detour to the church and the village shop for sandwiches, chocolate and plasters. (Side note: it turns out Llangurig is not at all like the frontier town described in Jasper Fforde’s The Eye of Zoltar!)
Almost immediately, the path took to the hills, past an interesting building at Clochfaen, up through green fields, down through green fields and up through more green fields into heathery moorland. As we strode out above the world, we met four hikers who’d been in the pub the night before. They were up from Llanelli, if I recall correctly, doing the Wye Valley Walk in day hikes, a week or two every summer. We all marvelled at how few walkers we’d seen, especially as it was a sunny spell during the school holidays. “Can I have your autograph?” one of them joked.
Down a steep track into the Dernol valley we went, past a man who’d got his chainsaw blade jammed in a tree and was trying to unstick it. We joined the asphalt road and slipped between the rough hillsides. On the road, a gate - and on the gate, a sign: PLEASE CLOSE GATE / TO STOP SHEEP MIXING / THANK YOU. We saw a lot of sheep on this walk. There were black sheep with white faces, white sheep with black faces, white sheep with black bellies, skinny-legged goatish sheep, sheep with woolly faces, sheep with big butts obviously bred for eating, curly-horned sheep, sheep with floppy ears, sheep with ridiculous pointy rabbit ears, sheep, sheep, sheep. Just after lunch beside the river, the road beside a farm was being used to pen sheep (possibly for shearing). We went quietly through and received a friendly wave from the farmers.
Along the valley, hills and bluffs rose up in succession. It’s hard to describe, or even capture on camera, the rich and subtle colours of those slopes: emerald green grass in the valley speckled with yellow flowers, the purple heather or dark green and brown bracken higher up, the grey and grey-blue outcrops jutting above, and brilliant patches of blue sky between the clouds. Twittering birds flitted beside us and we saw kestrels hovering in their distinctive style, looking for snacks.
We entered a delightful wood, which felt almost like an orchard with stretches of grassy ground beneath shady boughs. The Wye swept happily along beyond the trees and we dawdled happily along between them. As we rested on a handy bench, a couple walking their three tiny dogs stopped for a chat. They were from Porthmadog, but often visited this area in their motorhome. Soon, we crossed the Wye on a footbridge and snuck down to the water for a paddle and some chocolate. By now it was a proper sized river, running swiftly over rapids and around huge boulders scattered along the bed.
It’s a wrench to leave such picturesque spots, but fortunately a quick dash across the A470 took us into Gilfach Nature Reserve, which was equally pretty. Along the valley, plantations are being replaced with the kind of broadleaf forest that stood here in ancient times. We crossed the derelict railway and continued through the meadows. The River Marteg, with its little waterfalls, reminded me how quickly the Wye had grown. From a hide near the visitor centre, we spotted a dipper in the stream, preening and bobbing. Cute!
Suddenly we realised that it was almost 5 o’clock. We legged it up the drive to find the visitor centre closed. Or was it? On closer inspection, the doors to the Byre stood ajar. Inside, we found a wealth of information and interpretation boards, bird guides, history pamphlets, maps and (best of all) tea-making facilities and biscuits with an honesty box for donations! We had our own teabags and soy milk, but the idea of boiling water at the flick of a switch was too good to resist. We had a cup of tea, then another. We bought some biscuits and made more tea.
Thus refreshed, the hill behind the farm didn’t look nearly so worrisome and indeed we powered up it with ease. Flinging our bags down, we sat on a grassy hummock amongst the low gorse and drank in the views, golden sunlight washing over us. The forecast was for a clear night, so we decided against pitching the tarp. As the sun set, a pair of ravens flew croaking across the valley. We wriggled into our bivvi bags. Cows and sheep called to each other, then politely settled down for the night. Dan spotted one star and I spotted another. A plane blinked through the dusk.
An hour or two later, I opened my eyes to the most astonishing vision. I let out an involuntary, “Wow!” and heard Dan chuckle. “It’s pretty incredible,” he agreed. There was no moon and not a wisp of cloud. Above us, the Milky Way stretched in a bright smudge behind the stars. The stars themselves were diamond clear and so abundant that it seemed as though someone had taken fistfuls and thrown them like confetti into the sky. Although I couldn’t name them, the patterns of constellations were obvious in a way I’ve not seen since moving to the Northern Hemisphere. Shooting stars flashed and died - the Perseid meteor shower - and satellites traced lines across the night. It was mesmerising and, along with the coldness, quite distracting. Every time I woke, I stared up into space and was newly amazed at how fortunate I was, despite my freezing feet, to be alive and present in this place, at this time, on this world, with this view.
Day 5: A hill near Rhayader to a field by the river (27km)
Dawn. Below us, the valleys were filled with cloud: golden and orange in the east, cool and silver where the sun had yet to reach. We pulled condensation-soggy sleeping bags out of our bivvies and wrung out our newly dew-wet washing, barely registering annoyance.
I felt that I was slipping in and out of a trance, blindsided by the beauty of the place, unable to take in the excess magic of it. We were the only people seeing this: all the houses were hidden below the clouds, all the roads, all the farms. It was just us, the birds, the sheep and the cows.
By the time we got to Rhayader, the sun had burnt the cloud away. It was quite a pleasant pre-breakfast stroll along country roads, apart from an aggressive farm dog that barked and snarled at us until we’d left its territory. Dogs like this are my least favourite part about walking in the UK - far scarier than cattle, in my opinion.
Rhayader is a pretty town and the livestock market meant there were lots of people around. We stopped at Ty Morgans for breakfast (good mushrooms!), then got some freshly made rolls from Wild Swan deli for lunch. Across the river, we took an unplanned detour into the church, dedicated to St Bride, or Bridget - quite a Celtic choice. But soon we found the route down past the quaint old Triangle Inn and out of town.
It was easy walking along lanes and bridleways in the warm sun, red kites circling above us, to the point where the River Elan joins the Wye. We crossed the Elan on a bouncy suspension bridge, then took a quiet road around the valley towards Llanwrthwl. As we left the confluence, a light breeze sent a smattering of yellow swirling down from the trees: our first autumn leaves of the year.
There was a PC marked on our map at Llanwrthwl. PC stands for public convenience, also known as a public toilet to those of us not living in the 1930s. Inevitably, the PC was boarded up and locked - not particularly public or convenient. There was, however a very welcoming church, advertising tea-making facilities for hikers on the Wye Valley Walk or the local pilgrimage route. As at Gilfach, this felt like unbridled luxury. We drank our fill of tea, signed the visitor book, made a donation, admired the pre-Christian stone outside the church door, then set off to find a not-too-public, convenient bush.
The sealed road surface petered out a mile or two later, giving way to an old coach road. National Cycle Network signs warned cyclists that this stretch could be rough and muddy, but we found it to be perfect walking, with shady trees along the gravel track and some gorgeous views across the valley. The miles disappeared beneath our boots, and we left the last craggy hills behind us. A new view was opening up ahead, of a gently swelling landscape and wide farming valley.
Just as we were getting hungry, the map showed one of those happy quirks - a bridleway that led down to the river, along the bank and then . . . nowhere. Perhaps it was once a fording place, but now the right of way was a dead end. We pushed through some trees to find a most idyllic lunch spot: a flat, grassy patch right beside the water, hidden from houses and roads. We spread our damp things on the grass in the hot afternoon sun. They were dry in minutes - as was I, after stripping off and jumping in the river for a brisk rub down. Even Dan went for a paddle. He was starting to come around to my shoes-off-socks-off-feet-in-the-water lunchtime rule.
It was tempting to stay all afternoon. We had no particular destination in mind and only a short walk to Builth Wells the following day. But both of us wanted to see more while the weather held, so we packed up and headed towards Newbridge-on-Wye. Two other walkers (a rare sight!) preceded us over the eponymous bridge into town.
We ate icecreams and debated our next move. We toyed with the idea of pushing on to Builth Wells, or finding somewhere on the way, or heading back to our lunch spot to camp. It was after 4pm, but we felt good and the sun was still warm, so we struck out. Somehow, we lost the route in the hills across the river. Taking the opportunity to rest by the Jubilee Stone (commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1887), we watched RAF planes do noisy laps around the vale. I shook my fist at them. “You kids get off my sky! And stop wasting my taxpayer money!”
Somewhere around here I’d thought we might find a spot to sleep, but in reality the hills were too steep and exposed at the top, too brackeny and out of reach at the bottom. Perhaps we really should make for Builth Wells and have a rest day tomorrow, we decided. But nobody was answering the phone at our next campsite and there was no 3G reception so we couldn’t check other accommodation options in town. The shadows lengthened. The path took us through a farmyard where two waggy-tailed sheep dogs greeted us warmly, then turned and proceeded to snap and nip the air beside my legs. Ugh, dogs. There was nowhere to camp.
The path rose and fell along the valley wall, through conifers coloured in uncharacteristically warm hues by the evening sun. It was a beautiful area, but I was getting tired. Eventually, we crossed a stream and found a field that, while not ideal, would be OK to camp in. But perhaps we should press on to town? A pair of serene, smug looking swans kept pace alongside us. At some point I realised I was too exhausted to make a decision about where to stop, so Dan called it: let’s set up in one of these fields. The worst that could happen? Someone might find us and tell us to leave. And the likelihood of that was remote, as we hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the road outside Newbridge. This stress was a stark contrast to our nights in the mountains and hills: in the last few days we’d walked from virtual isolation into a much more populous, more cultivated landscape.
Tucked away in a field corner, we cooked a comforting dinner of instant porridge. We left pitching the tarp until the last minute, then snuggled down into our warm, dry beds in the comfortable, soft grass. Despite the rustling of animals in the woods nearby and my worries about grumpy farmers and snarling dogs, I fell asleep almost instantly and didn’t wake until morning.
I hope you enjoyed this! You can also read Part 1: The coast and River Rheidol and Part 3: The Wye Valley and the border.
We made it! We walked all the way across a country: eight days, 145km (90mi), two rivers, who knows how many packets of instant noodles and a whole lot of fun. Here's the first instalment.
We’d come by train almost all the way across two countries, from London in England’s east to Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales. The sky was clear, the sun hot, and from the top of Constitution Hill that afternoon we’d been able to trace landmarks right around Cardigan Bay: from the lump of Bardsey Island off Llŷn Peninsula in the north around to Pembrokshire in the south. Below us, the keen kids of the surf lifesaving club paddled out to sea in a training exercise. We’d also spotted Snowdon. We knew this because the information boards said we’d be able to see the mountain on a clear day, though in all honesty we weren’t sure which pointy peak it actually was.
After a stroll around the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle and dinner at veg*n cafe Crimson Rhino, we headed back to the promenade, watching the sun glint on the sea as it charted a course to the horizon directly in front of us. Earlier in the day we’d joined a small, happy crowd of people on the beach, paddling in the fresh, clear wavelets and feeling the coarse sand between our toes. Now we sat on the jetty, listening to the gentle slap of the swell on the piles beneath us. Before us, water stretched glittering out to the horizon: this truly was the edge of the country. The sunbathing, sand-fort making, paddling crowd had mostly given way to evening drinkers pressed up against the wall beneath the promenade. I hauled a kid out of the water onto the jetty - “It’s my last jump of the day!” - and was half tempted to join him.
We walked along the River Rheidol out of town as the sky turned fiery orange and gold. (Side note: our Airbnb hosts were very accommodating and even picked us up from the station when we arrived. If you want to try Airbnb, please sign up using this referral link and you and I will both get Airbnb credit!)
Since I’d organised most of the walk, Dan had the task of taking me on a mystery tour around Aberystwyth the next day. After getting slightly lost in a tiny strip of woods by the river, we headed up to the Wellington Monument - a tall plinth topped with nothing (apparently it was originally intended to hold a chap-on-a-horse sculpture) that sits on a round hill on the southern outskirts of Aberystwyth. We spread out our OS map in the wind and located various landmarks, the majority of them wind farms in the hills to the east. We watched someone wade across the River Ystwyth below us, then climbed down through stretches of burnt gorse and shady tunnels of green to look at the river close up.
Before going for lunch at the organic, veg*n friendly Treehouse, we popped in to have a look at Ceredigion Museum. Wow! The museum is housed in a restored Edwardian theatre, with different themed collections in the stalls and various adjoining rooms. There’s a huge number of objects and photographs, many of them of national interest, which gives it the feeling of being quite an important collection. Some of the displays - such as the dairy industry section near the main entrance - have a great sense of narrative, too. But this is no slick, contemporary museum. In fact, it feels like a tiny local museum with type-written case notes in some displays, an agricultural room featuring more bill hooks, sickles and scythes than you can shake a stick at and a couple of rather terrifying stone-age people mannequins in the geology room. The museum was also hosting an exhibition titled EuroVisions: Wales Through the Eyes of European Visitors, 1750–2010, which seemed apt.
In the afternoon, we scurried up yet another hill into a nature reserve where we enjoyed some trees and a wall and a well. I was finding all these hills a little tiring - and I wasn’t even wearing my pack yet! I had a little lie down on a bench before we eventually found our way out to the National Library of Wales. With Dan being a librarian, this was always on the cards for our trip to Aberystwyth and it didn’t disappoint. The building is reminiscent of the grand public buildings of the 19th century, although it was only begun in 1911. Inside, the feeling of grandeur continues with red carpets and beautiful high ceilings. We saw a number of exhibitions there, including Philip Jones Griffiths: A Welsh Focus on War and Peace. It was great to find the library acting as such a thriving cultural centre. We had a cup of tea in the cafe and failed dismally to use our beginners’ Welsh with the assistant at the library shop. Spoiler alert: this was to set the tone for the whole trip. I don’t think we spoke Welsh with another person even once.
The final mystery tour stop of the day was the Aberystwyth Arts Centre at the university, which we visited for a small photography exhibition To Build a Home - Amanda Jackson’s portraits of the community of Lammas Tir Y Gafel Eco Village in Pembrokeshire. Once there, we found they also had a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, so we took a turn around that, too. Phew, that was a lot of photography in one day. On the way back home, we found ourselves in the extremely steep Llanbadarn Cemetery. We escaped from the drizzle inside the church and considered coming back to watch the bell ringing later, but by then we were tucked up in bed.
Day 1: Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge (20km)
It was still drizzling when we said goodbye to our hosts and headed to the petrol station to buy ourselves a sandwich for lunch. On the bright side, wearing our coats meant not having to stuff them in our how-did-they-get-that-heavy packs. I’d already jettisoned my inflatable pillow, waterproof trousers and extra water bottle (it had sprung a leak), so what was weighing me down? (Don’t worry - I’ll save the kit list for a future post if anyone’s remotely interested!)
Crossing the river, we headed out of town through an industrial estate, following a National Cycle Network route along quiet country lanes. Although we’d planned to head up into the hills on footpaths, the low cloud hiding the tops would’ve stifled any views, so we stuck to the valley floor. Despite a few damp spells, it wasn’t cold. In the end the coats were making us wetter with perspiration than we would be with precipitation, so they came off.
We passed a smattering of houses and farms and watched red kites circling overhead. We even saw some of these magnificent birds perched on nearby fence posts - although of course they’d taken off by the time I got my camera out! Along with a couple of buzzards and the osprey I’d spotted from the train window near Machynlleth on the way over, I was pretty stoked with our birds of prey spotting thus far.
There was hardly anyone else about. Just a post office van, a couple of farm vehicles and a few horsey types at the riding school. At one point, alerted by the mournful hoots drawing near, we waited in a meadow to watch the Rheilffordd Cwm Rheidol tourist steam train chuff along below us. The view of the valley was on the other side, so none of the passengers noticed us.
Leaving the road, we skirted Cwm Rheidol Reservoir, crossing little streams and waterfalls, discovering some interesting relics of the mining industry along the way. After squelching through a particularly muddy field, we were eager to stop for lunch at a picnic table overlooking the Rheidol Falls. Although it’s not very high, the water gushes through the geometric slabs of rock with enormous power. I think it was at the Rheidol Falls that I finally realised that we were going to be following the Rheidol for the first two days of the walk, right up to its source. I’ve since learned that it’s the steepest river in Britain - which I can definitely believe!
The hills closed in around the river, flanked with plantations, steep sides disappearing into smudges of cloud. As we made our way over the lower reaches of the hills, we commented that the views seemed almost Swiss or Canadian (only, you know, several times smaller in scale).
Eventually the path skyrocketed, taking us from near water’s edge right up out of the valley in one long, steep climb. We passed through a pine forest, admiring the vertical stripes and purple and orange tinge of the tree trunks. As we emerged from the tops of the trees, the steam train chuffed by above us. This time we were on the viewing side and enjoyed a few seconds of fame, waving to the passengers. Later we stopped at the station cafe (called Two Hoots - oh so punny), where we chatted to a couple who had seen us from the train.
There’s no point going to Devil’s Bridge and not checking out the main attraction, so we paid our £1 each to do the short walk - a few flights of stairs down to view the bridge(s) and the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. The nice man at the ticket office even looked after our backpacks so we didn’t have to schlep them up and down the path. The bridges are pretty cool: three structures stacked one on top of the other, the lowest and oldest built sometime between 1075 and 1200, the middle built in 1753 and the most recent at the top built in 1901. The River Mynach flows beneath them at the bottom of a dizzyingly deep and narrow slit in the rock: the Devil’s Punchbowl. Over the ages, the water has moulded the rocks into weird sculptural shapes, which curve and recurve under dripping ferns at the bottom of the gorge, almost far enough down to escape daylight.
We’d booked a pitch at nearby Woodlands for the night. This is a well-appointed, friendly camping and caravanning site, with separate areas for each type of accommodation. It feels smaller and quieter than it is because it’s thoughtfully laid out. We pitched our tarp near the far corner of the camping field and amused ourselves comparing our accommodation to the huge, multi-roomed tents nearby. That evening, after dining on the first of many packs of instant noodles, we fell asleep to the gentle trickle of a small stream a few feet away and the soft patter of drizzle on our tarp. The sound of water - waterfalls, streams, trickles, rivers, rapids and (sometimes) rain - provided a constant background to our walk, becoming so familiar by the end that it was only really noticeable in its absence.
Day 2: Devil’s Bridge to Llyn Llygad Rheidol under Plynlimon (19km)
By the time we woke, the rain had blown over. We even had a few moments of sunshine as we cooked and ate our instant porridge on a picnic table by the washing up kitchen.
A shortish walk along the busy road took us past feral raspberries and alongside some distinctive hill profiles to an unmarked footpath. This in turn lead through a field, across a stream (the footbridge was fine but getting to it required some detective work and a detour around a bog) and back to the River Rheidol. Disconcertingly, what appeared to be the valley floor was in fact riven by a narrow, wooded gorge - so what we thought might be an easy walk to the hills opposite actually required a steep descent to Parsons Bridge (a footbridge) and an even steeper ascent back out the other side. It certainly got the blood pumping!
Once out and up on the heathery hillside, we were rewarded with beautiful views and a glut of tiny blueberry-looking fruit. Vaguely recalling a photo of bilberries (possibly in Alys Fowler’s The Thrifty Forager?), I decided these small fruits must be them. A cautious taste confirmed their blueberry-ness and I proceeded to throw caution to the wind, stuffing handfuls of sweet, tart fruit into my mouth and staining my fingers purple. I later found out they were indeed bilberries, known locally as wimberries. Their season is only a few weeks a year, and we happened to be there at just the right time.
My foraging, combined with paths that wandered off into sheep tracks and some rather approximate waymarking (it took us a while to realise that the precise directional marking we’re used to in East Sussex doesn’t feature very heavily on the mid-Wales rights of way network) meant that we rocked up in Ponterwyd closer to lunch time than planned. We grabbed a couple of sandwiches from the petrol station and ate one on the old bridge in the village before heading out on the quiet road towards Nant-y-Moch Reservoir.
It was easy walking in the brisk breeze and the midday sun. The incline was barely noticeable, spreading 150m ascent over 6km (3.75mi), with views slowly revealing themselves. It was quite meditative. We passed a few farms, were passed by half a dozen cars, met some hairy coos and of saw birds of prey soar across the valley.
We spotted a house by the river which didn’t seem to have any driveway - we had to consult the map to find out how it was accessed (it’s marked as Aber-Peithnant on the OS map if you’re interested). A conical hill appeared at the end of the valley, and the striking dam wall came into sight.
Dan was feeling tired and achy after the long road slog, so we made the detour down to the dam wall for a rest. We perched up at the foot of a monument (commemorating Owain Glyndŵr’s victory at Hyddgen in 1401) to eat second lunch - sandwich, Snickers and a brew - and spread a few damp things out to dry in the sun.
Boiling water for a cup of tea (on one of our drink can stoves) and trying to dry off our socks, towels and undies in the sun.
After lunch, we followed the sealed road around the east side of Nant-y-Moch and met our first walkers of the trip. They’d been out for the day on a 10 mile hike of “the Lumons” (there’s Pumlumon Fach, Pen Pumlumon Fawr, Pen Pumlumon Arwystli and Plynlimon/Pumlumon Fawr) and they looked exhausted. “There are no paths, and it’s all boggy,” said one. This didn’t bode well for our plans tomorrow morning - to climb the apparently pathless mountainside out of our campsite and cross the watershed to find the source of the River Wye. But when we mentioned where we hoped to stay the night, the news was more positive. “Perfect spot. There’s even a bit of wood there for a fire if you want.” (We didn't want, but that's beside the point.)
It took us the better part of an hour to follow the track around the north-western spur of what is essentially an elongated horseshoe of a valley, with the small reservoir of Llyn Llygad Rheidol nestled tarn-ishly at the end. We found a nice flat place to pitch our tarp just metres from the water and agreed that it was an idyllic spot. I admit I had a minor hissy fit when our pegs kept hitting rock, forcing us to re-pitch the tarp in the wind quite a few times! But then we were set up, our camp cradled in the slightly intimidating, craggy arms of the Cambrian Mountains. We found ourselves talking in whispers, despite our isolation. There’s something about these big, almost architectural spaces that creates a sense of reverence.
But not too much reverence. I scampered off stark naked for a quick wash, ignoring the big yellow warning sign. Dan, being more sensible, read the sign and passed on the news that there was blue green algae in the reservoir. Well. We had water treatment drops with us, but we decided not to tempt fate. Luckily we’d filled up from a mountain stream on the way to camp, so we had a spare bottle of water to get us up the hill the next morning, but it did mean there'd be no tea or porridge for breakfast. Uh oh.
In the night, the wind, which had been threatening to flatten our tarp from behind, turned around and began to blow straight into our shelter. I woke several times to the bright stars and sound of the tarp snapping like the sails of a boat. I dreamt I was anchored off Aberystwyth, on a ship in a storm.
Are you enjoying the virtual tour of our walk so far? I hope so! You can find the second instalment here.
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