The second instalment of our walk across Wales, featuring mountains, hills, rivers, vegan jerky, porridge and a magical night sky.
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.
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.
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.
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