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.
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.
Last month, we went to Norwich for a family wedding. After staying the weekend in a swish hotel (many thanks to my partner's parents!) we extended our holiday with a night of wild camping - from one extreme to the other! We set off towards Suffolk with our sleeping gear and new tarp in our backpacks . . .
This outing was part of Alastair Humphreys' Year of Microadventure challenge. You can read about our previous wild camping microadventures here: January, February, March, April, May and June. It's hard to say how much it cost us this time. We only spent a few pounds on food and petrol (though we were in the area anyway). Our new tarp cost £70, but now we have a tarp - great for keeping dry in the rain.
We'll also take the tarp on our Walk Across Wales this month. I'm having a few weeks off from blogging to go on this adventure from Aberystwyth to Hay-on-Wye via the Cambrian Mountains and the Wye Valley Walk. We'll probably tweet occasionally so check Twitter for updates!
July’s microadventure challenge was to spend time with trees. Here’s what people got up to!
Continuing the tree hugging theme on the other side of the world, Nikki says, “I took myself out for a run on a route that's probably one of my favourites, lots of shady pathways and my favourite tree for stretching (pictured in the photo where I look like I'm going to pass out! I'm actually hugging it and trying to express my gratefulness for it about 7.5km into an 8.8km run!).”
Kieran spent an evening in the woods watching Two Gentlemen of Verona by the Southend Shakespeare Company at Willow Cottage Garden Theatre in Essex. “People brought picnics (and wine), the show was entertaining, and it was dark before the end,” says Kieran. “Afterwards I lit torches for the path, and visitors looked around the cottage.”
Muddy Mum and the Mudlings
I love the photos Gillian has submitted of this gorgeous tree in winter and summer. Gillian says, “He's a gnarled old fellow with many a tale to tell. Whenever I meet him, I feel compelled to shake his politely proffered knob-knuckled hand. Now he is clothed in leafy raiment, under a green canopy of horse chestnut leaves. His limbs spiral round like huge barley sugar sticks. All in all he's one pretty cool tree. I don’t have any tree hugging pics, but I love this tree; he's like an old friend.”
Jane and Mimo
After returning to the Australian winter from a holiday in Europe, Jane and Mimo made a gingerbread house with gingerbread trees alongside. Jane says, “It was the first time we had ever done this, and I was quite keen that it be lovely, so took creative control of the house. Mimo decorated some gingerbread cookies and did really well at praising his mama's efforts when it was all done. The tableaux includes trees, so unless anything more adventurous and tree related comes up, then this may be it for me! It was very delicious. I was very happy that the family of Mimo's friend from daycare helped us to demolish and eat it all in one go.”
Dan and Jonathan
August’s microadventure theme: explore a border
August’s challenge, set by Dan, is to explore a border. He says, “As ever, make of this what you will. It could be the border or boundary of a country (we’ll be spending time on the Anglo-Welsh dividing line), a state or a county (we always make a ba-dump noise when we drive across a county border), properties, easements, suburbs, cities or the coast. You could beat the bounds. Enjoy!”
This challenge really appeals to me. I like the idea of exploring different kinds of borders - geographical, political, metaphorical - or even of simply trying to find them. Several years ago we spent a day here and there walking out of the city. Over the course of the walk, as we meandered through the sprawling eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I constantly reevaluated my thoughts about what the end of the city might look like. Was it the last point of access by city public transport services? The last place to get a decent coffee? The border between MFB and CFA territory? A particular road? The edge of this or that map? I enjoyed the slipperiness of that border. I wonder what you will discover this month.
(Other borders are obviously much easier to find and much more difficult to explore or cross. National borders are intertwined with bureaucracy, nationalism, economics, imprisonment, the policing of human movement and the restriction of certain human bodies and lives. I hope you don't find yourself turned away from or detained within a country you're trying to enter or leave - this month or ever.)
If you'd like to join in this month's microadventure, then sally forth to the borderlands. Leave a comment here, write a blog post, ping me on Twitter with a photo and a few words or email me and I'll collate the adventures at the end of the month.
One reason I find microadventures so appealing is that they encourage us to do everyday things in unusual places. I like the idea of taking habitual activities (walking, eating, sleeping) and framing them in new ways (walking the length of a river, eating foraged food, sleeping on top of a hill). By changing the context, these ordinary activities become rather more extraordinary.
After a busy week of travelling, hosting visitors, going to barbecues and organising more travel and social excitement for the rest of the school holidays, Sunday was going to be a day of down time. It helped that the forecast was for heavy rain: perfect weather for curling up with a good book and a bottomless supply of tea.
But technology had other ideas. There were emails to write, blog posts to draft, Twitter feeds to read, photos to edit, cute cat videos to watch . . . I still hadn’t opened my book by lunch time. Something had to be done. It was time for a microadventure!
We made a thermos of tea, packed our new tarp, got wrapped up in our raincoats and headed off to Battle Great Wood. It was tipping down and the carpark was almost empty. Good. The last thing I wanted was a wet dog coming to shake itself off under our tarp! We found a clearing a few metres off one of the paths that wends its way through the wood and hitched the tarp to a pine tree. We weren’t worried about being seen - there are no rules against picnicking in the woods! In no time we had a flying-V set up, a walking pole propping up the middle to give us lots of headroom and the picnic rug spread out underneath to keep us clean and dry. I kicked off my boots and opened my book. Straight away, an inquisitive greyhound sniffed us out, but a whistle from its owners sent it pelting off through the trees. They were the only people we saw in the woods all afternoon.
The rain pecked loudly at the tarp and the wind whooshing in the trees made the weather seem a lot more ferocious than it really was. We, on the other hand, were warm and sheltered. It was exactly the kind of contrast that makes snuggling up by the fire on a squally winter evening so appealing. In fact, it was so distractingly wonderful to be both outside in the rain and perfectly dry that I found it hard to concentrate on my book!
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn is Nick Hunt’s account of a walking journey through Western Europe. Fermor began his walk from the Netherlands to Istanbul in December 1933; Hunt began his in 2011. I wasn’t far into the book - Hunt was in Germany and it was Christmas. As I read, I reached the point where Hunt sleeps out for the first time, in a small tunnel in a castle wall, hidden beneath a four-star hotel. “The effect was alchemical,” he says. “When I stuck out my head in the light of dawn, having not only survived the night but slept soundly in my hole . . . somehow I belonged in a way that I hadn’t before. Sleeping out produced a sense of enhanced connection with the land, a feeling almost akin to ownership.”
I can relate to that. Walking does this to some extent - and walking the paths of East Sussex over the last few years has both threaded the countryside together in my mind and helped me stitch myself into the landscape. But sleeping in fields and woods, on hills and beaches, seems to open a conduit between self and place so they blur and breathe into each other. Perhaps it is the liminal nature of the experience that creates the possibility of an exchange: slipping between sleep and wakefulness, unsure where dreams begin and end; seeing dusk extend into night, then watching night and dawn creep together across the sky; being cocooned but also startlingly, immediately open to the elements; staying still in a way that’s not quite camping but not quite just resting (so it’s not quite illegal, but it’s also not quite legal).
Under the tarp with our books and cups of tea, boots off, listening to the tapping of rain around us, watching the trees soak into deeper, richer shades of wetness, I felt a stirring of that connectedness. Akin to ownership, yes, but not ownership in the exclusive, proprietorial sense. Rather, it’s a sense of belonging-to-ness that feels like it works in both directions.
The rain did not let up. It was still pouring an hour later, when we got wetter and grottier packing everything away than we did setting it all up. But that’s OK. Actually, it was more than OK, it was fantastic. The whole experience transformed a rainy afternoon of books and tea into something unexpected - something rather more extraordinary.
We spent lots of time with trees in July, as per the challenge, but this outing felt the most adventurous!
History! That’s what June’s microadventure challenge was all about. Mags set the theme and we set about visiting places of historic interest.
I am looking forward to seeing trees from around the world! You don’t have to write a blog post to be included in the monthly round-up, by the way. You can send a picture and/or a few sentences - or just tweet!
You can read about people's previous adventures here: January (spend time on a hill), February (wildlife spotting), March (explore a waterway), April (matters relating to railways) and May (lunchtime adventures).
June’s microadventure challenge was to visit a place of historic interest. We are spoilt for choice here, which made it all the more difficult to settle on a destination!
I'll be posting the July microadventure round-up soon, but if you're a keen bean you can peek through my archives and read about other microadventures and other walks!
Read about our previous monthly challenges: January (spend time on a hill), February (wildlife spotting), March (explore a waterway) and April (matters relating to railways).
Our May entry for Alastair Humphreys' Year of Microadventure was our warmest night out so far this year!
One sunny evening, we went down to the bluebell wood.
We wandered along wide gravel paths, between tall trees, beneath new spring leaves . . .
. . . until we came to the other side.
We lay down among the bluebells, listening to owls and the chimes of a distant church.
We stared at the sky until the stars came out and we fell asleep.
The next morning, we woke to the dawn chorus.
Mist tumbled up over the fields, leaving a dew drop on each blade of grass . . .
. . . but it didn’t reach us, snug in our bivvies.
The sun rose . . .
. . . drenching the fields and woods in syrupy light.
The bluebells glowed magenta.
It was magical.
We broke camp . . .
. . . leaving no trace but a dimple in the fallen leaves . . .
. . . and found a bench overlooking the fields.
We watched the morning unfold as we made tea and breakfast.
What a beautiful view.
How lucky we are to be here.
Soon it was time to go back down through the woods, and home.
Read about our previous entries in the 2015 Year of Microadventure - January, February, March and April. This microadventure cost about £1.46 for two of us, including food, drink and petrol.
Better late than never! People who have signed up/been press-ganged to this challenge have already had an email about the microadventure theme for May, but it's about time it went up online, too. (If you want to get the early scoop on these things, get in touch and I can add your email to the list.)
This month’s challenge (chosen by me!) is to go on a lunchtime microadventure. A few suggestions:
"The Shard from Tower Bridge" (cc) Loco Steve ... What's the view like from the tallest building in your city?
April microadventure round-up
A big thank you to Steph for setting April's railway themed challenge and for collating the April microadventure round-up. Click through for tales of walking, cycling, geocaching, snorkelling and hot springs!
Have you got a great idea for a microadventure challenge? Let me know! We try to make them accessible and flexible so most people can manage them. You can read previous round-ups here: January, February and March.
A microadventure combining our April sleep out and our railway theme challenge with delightful results!
The March microadventure challenge was to explore a waterway. Here’s who got splishing and splashing!
If you’re interested in overnight and wild camping microadventures, Martin has been going to the trouble of collating people’s posts each month. Here's his March round-up!
We enjoyed a chilly spring sleep out last week! We'd planned to go microadventuring on the spring equinox, but we both felt a bit ill so we postponed it for a few days. In contrast to my photo-heavy post about exploring the River Cuckmere, I thought I'd try to evoke the feeling of this microadventure through words alone.
OK, I'll give you one nice picture to look at: "Easter Daisy" by Olivier Bacquet. We saw a few of these in the morning frost.
First microadventure of spring
We tiptoe past dark houses, creep through an unlit churchyard and slip into the woods. Night has fallen; we walk towards the moon, a hazy crescent hovering between bare tree branches. I clutch a torch in my fist, letting a few speckles of light fall between my fingers. The path leads us to a field and a dim view: lines of dark hills, mist settling in the valleys, lights sparkling in a distant town. Almost there. Back among the trees, we duck under branches and weave around patches of mud. A rhododendron deposits the afternoon’s rain down the back of our necks as we struggle to untangle ourselves from its clutches - quiet! I’m trying! it’s hooked on my bag! eee! shh! Pigeons burst noisily from the trees overhead, startling us as much as we’ve startled them.
Stepping out into a clearing, we see the first stars emerge from the mist. Our destination is a strange old building: a tall archway, open to the night, leading into a shallow three-sided shelter. I shine the torch into the high wooden ceiling to check we won’t be disturbing any birds or bats. All clear. We sweep twigs off the floor with our feet, lay out our foam mat (Dan) and picnic rug (me), inflate our sleeping mats, get out our bivvy bags and sleeping bags and sleeping bag liners and pillows and I joke that we must be the slowest setter-uppers in England. But soon enough, we’ve wiggled our way between all our layers. An owl calls from one direction, then another.
We watch the sky from our snug cocoons. A bright star slides over from the east. Aeroplanes bink overhead and I think of all the people up there: what adventures they’re having or returning from, how they’re getting along with the strangers sitting beside them, what they had for dinner, which movies they’re watching, who will be there to hug them when they land. I silently wish them a good night and a safe journey.
A few hours later, the star has moved like the light of a fishing trawler at sea, dragging a net full of constellations behind.
Later still, I wake up and I'm cold. I crawl out of my nest and stumble out into the bushes for a wee (I’ve heard that holding on makes you colder). Dan and I share a snack bar. Back in my bivvy, I’m glad I decided to use the sleeping bag liner even though I wasn’t sure I’d need it. It takes me a long time to get back to sleep and my dreams are broken and confused.
We’re camping in a shed at the end of someone’s garden, without their permission. It’s summer, so it gets light very early. Chooks are clucking nearby. I’m worried that the owner is going to catch us, but while we’re packing up I realise I’ve taken my trousers off during the night and I can’t find them. I can’t walk out of here without trousers. Someone rides past on a horse and I duck for cover before resuming the trouser hunt. Instead of helping, Dan makes a time-lapse video of me stomping around in my undies saying, “Where are my pants?” over and over again.
Suspended between dreams and consciousness, my brain latches onto a noise: is it the da-dmp, da-dmp of hoofbeats? the chock-chock-chock-chock of a pheasant? When I wake properly, all I hear is birds twittering in the trees around the clearing. We drink a less-than-lukewarm cup of tea from the thermos and regret leaving the stove at home. It’s chilly. Very chilly. The light bleeding into the landscape reveals fields crusted white with frost.
We pack quickly and quietly, then walk into the warm pink glow of the rising sun. There are fresh hoofprints in the frozen turf.
This microadventure cost about £6.60 for two. This includes Dan's new camping pillow, petrol, tea and snacks.
Read about our previous sleep outs: December (beach), January (hilltop) and February (barn verandah).
This month’s themed microadventure challenge was to explore a waterway. We spent a day travelling from the sea to (a) source of the River Cuckmere in East Sussex.
The River Cuckmere rises in the High Weald and tumbles down to the quiet farmland of the Low Weald before meandering through a wide gap in the South Downs and joining the English Channel near the famous Seven Sisters white cliffs.
This microadventure cost about £21.40 for the two of us, including petrol, langos, drinks and snacks.
I hope I've inspired you to get out this weekend and spend some time beside, in or on a waterway! I'd love to see your photos, videos or artwork, or read your stories or poems about your local creek, lake, river, beach, pond, waterfall or reservoir.
In which I
In which I do things and write about them
In which I tag
In which I archive