Did you see the lunar eclipse last weekend? We were pretty tired but we set our alarm for 3am and went out to have a look. Very cool! The sky was clear, so we could see the Milky Way from our back yard. But that’s not really a sunset/sunrise (or dusk/dawn) adventure . . . so let’s see what everyone got up to for the September theme.
Allysse on the Thames
“When next I raised my eyes, the sun was disappearing behind the trees. Its flames were so bright I couldn’t stand to watch them for longer than a second, my vision turning into a white field. But it was difficult not too look. The orange glow was so compelling, its warmth drawing me in like a moth. I forced myself not to gaze directly at it, focusing my attention to the horizon behind the trees and the clouds above. Shades of orange and yellow had invaded the world. Everything was soft and mellow.”
Read Allysse’s full sunset microadventure post - and please watch her lovely video.
Gillian on Orkney
Gillian writes, “I visited Orkney for the first time this September. Sky filled with birds: flocks, clouds, skeins, murmurations: a chorus of calls on the wind. Fields populated with ancient mounds and circles of stones. Wonderfully welcoming and friendly people. My memory and my camera are filled with sunsets and standing stones!"
"Sunset over the Stones of Stenness on the evening of my 50th birthday: the perfect present. This may be the most ancient standing stone circle in the UK."
Dan and Jonathan in a cemetery
“Cemeteries are usually peaceful places and, as they’re often locked after dark, they’re probably quite safe. At least, that’s what I’d thought. But lying there swaddled in my bivvi bag, watching the very last wash of light fade through the trees, I heard a snatch of laughter. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder: what other sorts of people might want to sneak into a cemetery on a Saturday night?”
Read about our cemetery sleep out and listen to the dawn chorus.
Clare with the bats
"Microadventure challenge success!" writes Clare. She and her family snuck their microadventure in right on the line, going bat detecting on the last night of September. She adds, "I love the shot but the reality of it was up to my knees in nettles & horse manure. Oh how we suffer for our art!"
Read more about Clare's adventures on her blog.
Rhiarti on a plane
“At 40 years old, I’m almost embarrassed to admit I’ve never flown anywhere alone before,” writes Rhiarti. “Whatever comes next, it’ll be faced with the added confidence you gain in tackling a daunting task alone.”
Read Rhiarti’s full post and find another photo here.
Mags in Istanbul
"The microadventure for September was set! Capture or experience a sunrise and/or a sunset. There are moments when I am a morning person but more often than not I find myself sparing a few moments to take in the sunsets at the end of the day. I am going to let the pictures do the talking for this task. Enjoy!"
I've only included one of Mags' photos here, so click through to her post to see some more fantastic images.
Danni on a bike (well, train)
Danni went cycle touring in Victoria, Australia, with her friend Lian. "The tour is given in the book as 3 days: Ballarat to Clunes, Clunes to Daylesford and Daylesford to Ballarat. We wanted to be back in Melbourne for Saturday so we (stupidly) decided to do it in 2, one day of 80km and one of 50km." She caught the sunset on the train journey home.
Read more about their adventure on Danni's blog.
Dan going to work
Bonus entry from Dan. "The autumnal solstice has passed, and we are a month away from the clocks going back. The start of my commute coincides with sunrise. This is the view I get as I leave home in the morning and walk to the car."
Here's Dan's library blog.
October microadventure theme: explore the darkness
Thank you to Allysse, who chose the challenge for October: explore the darkness. It could be taking a walk at night, exploring a cave or tunnel, observing the night time wildlife, spending a night under the stars, trying to go all evening without a light source, attending a night time event, or even building a blanket fort.
It might be a bit hard to photograph this one, so why not take the chance to try a new way of documenting your adventures? Record night time sounds, do a painting, write a poem, draw a map of your walk or ride (no need to be geographically accurate!), create your own constellation diagrams . . . You're a creative bunch, so I'm sure you'll think of something!
Thanks to everyone who rose to the challenge in September (and/or August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January). I look forward to hearing about people's October adventures. If you write a blog post, please link it in the comments here or tweet it to me so I can add it to the next round-up. But remember, you don't have to do a full write up! You could just tweet or email me a couple of pics and/or a few sentences. Enjoy the darkness . . .
Bam! Shocked light flooded the road. A sensor-activated security system. I told myself there was nothing to worry about. We were just two people out for a late evening stroll. Along a dead-end road. Carrying large backpacks. Nothing to see here.
The cemetery gates were open and we slipped through in the deepening dusk. There was a light on inside the chapel and a van by the door. We aimed our feet at the grass instead of the crunchy gravel - but halfway down the path, we froze. The chapel door opened and the beam of a torch swept through the trees. We were hidden behind a bank of shrubs, but had they heard us? I held my breath and listened with all my ears. Footsteps, probably between the door and the van. The bibip-bibip of an alarm being set and the rattle of keys. Silence. We stayed still. An animal scuffled in the trees. We waited. Surely they must have gone by now?
“Come on,” I whispered. We continued down the hill.
Vrr-rummm! The van revved to life, headlights making bright tunnels through the headstones above us. Wheels crunched along the path to the other end of the cemetery, then the headlights swung around and the van came back up. Probably a final check for sneaky people like us, I thought. And now they’ll lock the gates. No escape! We waited, but didn’t hear any other movement from above, so we padded through the night to find a spot to settle down.
I’d been thinking about wild camping in a churchyard or cemetery for a while. Cemeteries are usually peaceful places and, as they’re often locked after dark, they’re probably quite safe.
At least, that’s what I’d thought. But lying there swaddled in my bivvi bag, watching the very last wash of light fade through the trees, I heard a snatch of laughter. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder: what other sorts of people might want to sneak into a cemetery on a Saturday night? My heart kicked up a notch. What was that? Torches and muttering voices. But they passed by: just a couple of walkers on the footpath across the stream. I was all nerves. “We can always go home,” Dan whispered. I thought about my warm, comfortable, safe bed. But of course I didn’t really want to leave.
I didn’t think I could sleep, though. A barn owl shrieked in the distance. And, much closer, a strange, mellow, yipping sound came first from one direction, then moved towards the chapel. A fox cub? “Whatever it is, it wouldn’t be out if there were other people around,” Dan reassured me. I felt like a total wimp.
To distract myself, I listened to the cars passing on the main road and the aeroplanes curving overhead. Those noises, at least, did not belong to anyone who might come and kick us out, or tell us off, or make us take part in their secret cemetery ceremony. I concentrated, following the sounds of the motors as they grew and grew, then faded, faded, faded and were gone; grew and grew, faded, faded and were gone; grew, faded; grew, faded . . . I slept . . . ish.
Every hour or so I woke up with a cold nose and a crick in my neck. Wild camping is definitely easier when you’ve been walking all day, I decided. The trick is to exhaust yourself to the extent that you don’t care about the awkward lumps under your mat or the way the sleeping bag liner twists around your ankles. I thought about our next walking and camping adventure. Perhaps we could finish one of the long distance paths we’ve started over the years. What would work for the October half-term? The Grand Union Canal or the Thames Path? That walk from London to Norfolk (we hadn’t quite got to Cambridge)? The Ridgeway, the Southwest Coast Path, the Wye Valley Walk, something else completely? I fell asleep again.
It was half past five when I woke for good. My nerves immediately kicked in. Were we locked inside the cemetery? Would we have to climb the gates? How could we sneak out without anyone noticing that we’d snuck in? Was there some other way out of here? I clearly wasn’t going to get any more sleep. We packed our things away, then wandered back up the hill and into the dawn chorus. My spirits lifted with the birdsong and lifted again when we found the gates wide open. They hadn’t been locked after all.
On the way home, we spread our damp picnic rug over a wooden bench and waited for the sun to rise. The horizon turned from a dark smudge of apricot to pale green. Mist was rising from the valleys. The purple clouds were fringed with hot pink. Chattering jackdaws converged above us, coming in twos and threes and fives before heading south. A lone heron passed overhead, its loose, slow wingbeats hushing the field, the road, the houses. A rooster crowed. The sun was up. It was time to go to bed.
This sleep-out was part of Alastair Humphreys' Year of Microadventure. It also kind of fulfils our September microadventure challenge (the theme was sunset/sunrise). It cost us a whopping £0.00.
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.
Over the last month, our microadventurers have used the “explore a border” theme to get out and see some amazing sights and have some wonderful experiences. This is particularly true for those of us in the UK, where it was summer (or, gloomier people than me might say, where it was meant to be summer).
Dan and I also took up the national borders idea, though our walk across Wales was more about spanning the distance between borders than about crossing them. We started on the beach at Aberystwyth, the border of land and sea, walked up over the Cambrian Mountains, then followed the River Wye to the point where it becomes the border of Wales and England, near Hay-on-Wye. Here's a short film showing some of the trip.
As Gillian discovered, you don't have to travel far afield to enjoy the flora of different countries. A visit to Glasgow Botanic Gardens gave her the chance to venture into the glasshouses, where "geographical borders were blurred, continents bestrode", and where she "explored rainy August borders" outside. If you can't make it to Glasgow yourself, why not enjoy a virtual tour of the Kibble Palace greenhouse online?
One obvious border, especially to those who live on islands, is the sea. While the border between England and France might be an invisible line somewhere out in the Channel, for many people the border zone starts closer to the shore. It is always in flux. On a macro scale, sea levels change, shingle moves, cliffs crumble, the littoral zone alters. Tides move in and out, revealing more land that might be "ours", then taking it back, swelling higher and sinking lower at certain times of the year. And then on a micro level, each wave or ripple claims a strip of sand or handful of pebbles for the sea.
Allysse spent time at this liminal space and created a beautiful, meditative short film titled Moment of Zen. Allysse says, "The end of England, the border between land and sea. It wasn't quite a microadventure as there was no sleeping outside (but in a hotel room instead). I did quite a few walks along the coast, explord the antique shops in the area, ate good food, and generally lazed about on pebbles and sand dunes."
Mags notes in her post that she spent much of the month dealing with various international bureaucracies to obtain visas for international students to come to the UK, and it isn’t possible to talk about border crossing adventures and border exploration without being aware of the ways in which borders are only open in some places, to some people. Our explorers’ abilities to cross or bump up against borders without any negative consequences mark us out as people with particular privileges, who are relatively free to move around these particular borders.
Nikki writes, "Last month in Melbourne, the government announced an initiative called Border Force, an operation that would allow authorised officers to request the visa documents of "any individual we come across". Any person with a hint of decency could see this initiative would result in harassment of people of colour on the streets of Melbourne and a snap protest was arranged within an hour (mostly via Twitter) - I had the good fortune to be available so went along to show my support. The good news is the protest was a 100% success with first the press announcement being cancelled, and then the entire operation. It was pretty great to feel part of something that made a difference."
September microadventure theme: sunset/sunrise
The microadventure theme for September is sunset/sunrise (dusk/dawn), partly in honour of the equinox (spring in the southern hemisphere, autumn in the north). Perhaps you’d like to cycle along the coast and watch the sun set over the sea. Maybe you’ll get up early to watch the sunrise from a hill or a tall building, or to make breakfast on a camp stove in the woods. Perhaps you’ve been planning to go for an evening walk to spot bats or other nocturnal creatures. Or maybe you could record the dawn chorus where you live, to share with others around the world.
Thanks to everyone who took part in the challenge during August. For September, broad interpretations of the theme are welcome - and don't feel you have to stick to the theme if you've got a different adventure planned. Send your images, videos, texts, links or audio my way at the end of the month and I’ll collate another round-up post. Have fun!
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.
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!
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