Rivers run through it….
My alarm summoned me from bed at seven-thirty. I immediately, though without an ounce of real hope, tested my camcorder and discovered that it really was a useless pile of crap. It was time to find a town or village big enough to contain a post office and send it back home. I did an inventory of myself as I got dressed. Lots of muscles were stiff and aching, but I knew from experience that I was able to walk this off within a few minutes of hitting the road. I also had a couple of blisters on my heels, although this was small fry compared to how my feet had suffered in the past. Considering how hilly the terrain had been since the start of the walk, I was pleased with the limited amount of wear and tear done to my body.
I went downstairs for breakfast and Rachel showed me through to the dining room, which for the moment I appeared to have to myself. She didn’t mention my uninvited foray into her kitchen the night before. Curiously, neither did I. Instead, I chose the full Welsh breakfast which didn’t seem to differ from the English variety in any way although was sourced from delicious, local Welsh ingredients; free range eggs, handmade sausages and thick back bacon. A young couple came into the room, breezed past me and went straight out to the conservatory and garden, which was being bathed in morning sunshine. It looked so inviting that I went out there too, as I waited for my breakfast to arrive. It was already warm and the sky was a fresh, navy blue. Some hills rolled across this skyline, I presume part of the Brecon Beacons. The young man disappeared somewhere, thereby requiring that his girlfriend and I carefully ignore each other. I picked up a pair of binoculars and went outside with them for a few minutes and then leafed through some books, as I benefited from the warmth of the sun coming through the windows of the conservatory.
Shortly, I saw my food arriving so went back inside and set to it. The young couple came in just after me and we three ate in silence for several minutes, until the guy suddenly asked me if I was on holiday. This opened up conversation over teapots and toast and I discovered more potential acolytes to postcode walks, as they loved the idea. I’ve a feeling I was preaching to the converted in this regard. Anybody who enjoys the outdoors; the walking, cycling and touring about would already be of like mind and would have their imaginations titivated by stepping out of their front doors, picking a direction and just going for it. The rest of the population would share the opinion of the few people I’d met in pubs or out walking their overweight dogs, people who’d looked at me with a species of compassion and asked me why I bothered. My table companions had set out on an impromptu drive-through tour of Wales. They had been to St. David’s as part of their trip; a city right near the end of my journey and probably only a few hours’ drive from where we were sat. They were going home today and would be passing my own home on their way to a stop-by in I briefly toyed with the idea of handing them my knackered camcorder and one of the completed maps, tipping them a wink and giving them my address with a cheery ‘if you wouldn’t mind’. However, I let the moment pass and we all said our goodbyes as we stood up and wiped brown sauce from our chins.
I checked out at ten o’clock, after Rachel had got wind of our walking blog-site and asked for details (she would have given up looking for her lodging’s inclusion in the journal after seven months, I’m sure). As I made my way back towards Llanfrynach, the initial promise of empty blue skies were muscled aside by the arrival of an altocumulus of cloud cover. However, it remained warm with just a whiff of cooling breeze and I sank into a satisfied series of daydreams as I went along the lane, spoiled only when I came upon a splash of scarlet on the tarmac and the corpse of a squirrel, with a terminally surprised look on its face. I wound my way through Llanfrynach without seeing more than one or two people. The inhabitants seemed bereft without their pub, even at half-ten in the morning. Once out from the village, I left the lane and took off along the course of the Nant Menasgin River in the company of my pal, the Three Rivers Ride. This wasn’t always easy walking, as the ground became uneven and stony in parts and it went on like this for a fair while, at one point taking me beneath the cover of a ribbon of woodland. At a dot of a place called Tynllwyn, the Three Rivers led me to another lane, which then took me to another and so I moved forward along country that was becoming increasingly hilly again. I grumbled something about the mountains now being behind me but it was half-hearted; I was walking in Wales and knew it wasn’t famous for its snooker-table levelness. I crossed over a couple of fields and must have generally gained some elevation, because it became windier and the sweat that had sprung out on me actually began to make me feel a little chilly. The fields led to another lane at Llwyncelyn and I was taken across a bridge over the river Nant Cynwyn, which is known for its waterfalls. I could certainly hear them as I passed through, but I didn’t see one and pretty soon I arrived at a fork in the lane. I reflected that rivers had certainly featured strongly during the morning’s walking.
The Bovicidal maniac and the falling gate….
At this point, I suffered an attack of stupid. I could see from my map that I had to turn right at a wobbly kind of T-junction, after crossing another bridge over the Nant Sere River. I did this, but then completely ignored instructions to straight away turn left and instead went off north on a protracted tour of rural Brecon. As I steamed forward, the map began to tell a different story from what I was seeing but it wasn’t until I’d entered the yard of a farm that I conceded I’d gone wrong. A plaque told me that the farm was Tyle-brithos and my map told me that there was a way back on route, but it would mean relying on tracks inked in with tiny insignificance. By now, I’d gained enough experience to be suspicious of any path not marked in bold primary colours and with at least one superstore along its length, but at least it was heading in the right direction. I set off across fields.
The first few of these were fine, just a case of crossing the pasture and going through a series of gates. But then, I reached one full of cows and little versions of cows, guaranteed to bring out the most protective and mangling instinct in their mothers. It was with a great deal of reluctance that I slipped through another gate and started off towards them. I didn’t even have the safety net of the riding crop I’d started out with on the advice of that lady friend. By day two of the walk, I had become tired of it snagging on hedgerows or riding up into my armpit when I attached it to a strap on my rucksack. I’d left it hooked over a gate somewhere before Longtown.
Disrepair on the Daudraeth Illtyd Nature Reserve
I still wasn’t yet back on my walking route and I elected to turn further away from it for a brief period, trusting to the lane I was on that swung me through woodland and intercepted my trail further ahead, bringing me back onto the Three Rivers Ride at the same time. I was glad of this; it was a very good companion guide. The lane meandered and went by isolated properties, sometimes taking me around the ends of more dispersed woodland and then across the Nant Cwm Llwch River, via another stone bridge. Here, there were more minutes of confusion as to where I should go next. I sorted it without mishap but, for a while, I dithered about and got very frustrated. It was a steep up and down trek for a period and at a place called Gron-felen, the Taff Trail intercepted me and then shot off to the north. I left the lane and began to climb towards a farm. It was okay at first, as I crossed a tiny ford and aimed myself at the Modrydd farmhouse, but the track suddenly disappeared for a while. Either that or I wandered off-route and lost it. Whichever it was, I spent another painfully exposed couple of minutes crossing paddocks and climbing fences in full view of the kitchen window of this place, until I found the track again and knew for sure that I was no longer trespassing. Regardless of this, the house owner had chosen to tie the gate shut with blue string and there was no opening it. I double-checked my map. Yup – the track was due to lead onto a lane and straight to a place by the name of Libanus, which was part of my walk. It was another permissive route failure.
I cast an exasperated glance back at the farmhouse and began to climb over the gate, not bothering this time to remove my rucksack. I hadn’t taken note at how weathered the blue string had looked and the first I knew of its demise was when I heard a double twanging sound, as it gave up the ghost and also its grip on the gatepost. I still had hands and feet on the rungs of the thing and could do nothing when it dropped to the floor, taking me with it. It apparently had no attached hinges. Considering that it landed on grass, it made a God-awful clanging racket as it hit the ground. I lay sprawled on top of it with my face in the turf and my shins and forearms throbbing with their impact against the rungs of the gate. The noise seemed to echo around the farm buildings and I scrambled upright and cast a perturbed peep over my shoulder. There was no enraged figure ripping open the door with a levelled shotgun, so I hot-footed it out of there and didn’t stop running until I was someway along the lane. I ran a tongue over a swollen lip, but had managed to get away without having to explain why their gate had suddenly become a cattle grid, so I thought myself fortunate.
A bridge took me over yet another river (the Afon Tarell) near the Libanus Mill and I crossed the A470 to come to the edge of a housing estate, presumably that of Libanus itself. I only had eyes, however, for the pub I could see just up the road as it faced the onslaught of the A470. was open for business and I fancied a sit-down after recent events. I also fancied a drink, so went inside and bought myself the usual; a pint of lemonade and a pint of alcohol, in this case cider. It was still a warm day, despite the cloud cover at times, so I bared hot, stinging feet to the world and dried my socks off on a wall next to me, as I sat outside at a wooden bench and table. I surreptitiously ate my packed lunch (courtesy of Rachel) whilst drinking and taking a look about me. I suddenly saw, looming behind me, a horribly steep hill on which a road painfully crept up. I then looked at my map, already knowing what I’d find. It appeared to be a last convulsion of the Fan Frynych (Penyfan Mountain) and of course, it was the way I was going next; up the hill in the company of the Three Rivers and to a building that was labelled ‘Mountain Centre’ on the map. This is a National Park Visitor Centre (known locally as "the Mountain Centre") and is run by the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority. It is consistently the most popular visitor attraction in the National Park (arriving at Libanus meant that I was still in the county of Powys). The village used to have a primary school, which was also used as a town hall, but it has since been closed down due to lack of government funding and students to attend. It is a sad and familiar tale, unfortunately.
In the course of this map-reading, I glanced further west at the route ahead of me, notably the next day’s hiking. I had a bit of a shock. I’d been so pleased to make it through The Black Mountains unscathed, that I’d disregarded the Brecon Beacons part in my journey. From memory, I merely clipped the northern tip of that range and was then free of it. On closer re-examination, I now saw that what I ‘clipped’ (the summit of Fan Brycheiniog on The Black Mountain) topped out at 802 metres - just 8 metres shy of Waun Fach from a few days ago.
Roman road through the reserve
I set off again at two o’clock, bleakly tackling that hill and plodding to the top with as much huffing and gasping as I’d expected to do. I stopped to look back several times. I had to, oxygen depletion being the swine it is, but was given a brilliant view over the whole village. I’d gained height quickly and was swiftly taken through the grassy common of Mynydd Illtud and alongside the I never saw the best of it, to me it was just a building on a sloping car park and despite its popularity, I wasn’t tempted to explore. I wanted to get on and as I continued forwards four young Welsh lads in a car drew up alongside me, coming along the road from the opposite direction. I tensed, wondering if I’d inexplicably put my England cap on and was about to get a good shoeing for my Saxon cheek. This wasn’t likely as I had lost it the previous year, but all logic temporarily went out of the window. I needn’t have worried; one of the lads merely asked me in his rich dialect if I knew where The Centre was. I told them it was a little way back and they thanked me and drove off.
What the Romans did for me….
I entered the as the sun made a timely appearance. This was a brief but splendid part of the walk and probably one of the highlights of the trip, certainly the best of that day. For a start, it didn’t piss about. I had spent the past few days lumbering up and down numerous hills and ridges. I had been forced to twist and turn along paths that were at the whim of the geographical monoliths about them. The Daudraeth Illtyd Nature Reserve contained a Now we were cooking with gas. It was an absolute delight to walk along and I was immediately besotted. It was straight. It was long. And (oh joyous capering) it was almost level; certainly compared to what I had become used to. On top of all that, it cut through gorgeous countryside with the Brecon Range to my left, upland wetland all about me and the weather smiling as, I suspect, was I. Passing a building named Llanilltyd House, I saw an older man working on an exterior wall. He had streaks of white paint daubed along both forearms and regarded me with a faintly, ‘It’s alright for you – nothing better to do than take a walk’ expression on his face. But, like the sunny day, he was smiling.
“Want a job?” he offered.
I returned his grin. “I’ve got one. Besides – you’re doing a better job of it than I could.”
I moved on, walking by a strange outhouse of drystone, secured both by a wooden door and then another barrier of a barred gate. I don’t know what it was guarding but it was massively ineffective, as the building had no roof. I reached the ruler-straight section of the Roman track, which cut through the heart of the nature reserve and was something less than a mile in length, before it began to lose resolve and bend a little to the left and right. The tarmac strip stretched out ahead of me, banked in parts by lengths of Gorse which were frosted yellow with flower heads, but largely looked over by open sky. I walked by a small lake and over a cattle grid, nearing a property as the road bent to the south which contained a sagging, blighted wreck of an old caravan with its nose amongst the shrubbery. I stopped to take a long look back at one point, sucking from the tube of my water camel. The Black Mountains were visible, but fading now to a purple blur as I left them behind. Their kindred, The Brecon Beacons, had more substance around me and to the west. I reckoned I was probably sixty to sixty-five miles from home now.
After about another mile, I reached Cwmbrynich Farm and the gloss was quickly stripped away from my good spirits. I encountered a group of dogs and accepted the usual barrage of warnings and ‘who-go-there’s'. This didn’t dilute my happiness, as I could see doggy tails wagging and knew I wasn’t about to have my throat ripped out. The problem demonstrated itself straight away, when I took the wrong path and then had to return to the farm dogs, who greeted me with as much enthusiasm as a few minutes previously. The trouble was that I was suddenly faced with three tiny paths to take and couldn’t work out which was mine. Two of them seemed to head off in the wrong direction, but the one I had taken which looked as if it were heading vaguely west, had taken me to into woodland I knew I had to skirt. With doubt, I chose one of the other, less likely paths. It was a wasted hour I could have done without.
Suffice to say, there was a great deal of toiling up and down grassy slopes and being frustrated by scattered copses, fences and hedges; all of which I had to negotiate with backpack and sweat-stains. Eventually, I lost a certain amount of composure and began raggedly swearing at the sky, which had done nothing to elicit such an attack. There was a moment where I stumbled over a rare stile and encountered a B-road. I felt a cautious hope, as I knew that I did have to cross such a road and then almost immediately turn left onto another B-road. But in which direction was this junction? I turned right and walked for a good fifteen minutes, the conviction that I had turned the wrong way growing with every step as I swished through long, damp grass. This was true, I had. Instead of another innocuous B-road sweeping me over a river and along a shallow valley, I was confronted at a T-junction by the A4215 and traffic slamming by with indifferent and noisy haste. My shoulders slumped. I hate walking along A-roads and I shouldn’t have even been on this one, which meant I was lost. There was nothing for it but to consult the map. Doing so, I realised that my best bet was to walk along this road to the south-east and abandon it once I re-encountered the lane I’d taken from the nature reserve. In other words, go ahead and complete a large and unplanned clockwise loop in my expedition.
How much for the week?
It probably added an unnecessary couple of miles to my day and at the end of it, I was back at Cwmbrynich Farm and revisiting puzzled dogs that were nevertheless still willing to give me another hearty welcome. I still had the problem of which of the three paths I needed to take to get me out of this mess. It took for me to stand still and take a really good look around me to resolve the issue, revolving on the spot and taking my time. This resulted in me finding a fourth track, one accessed via a gate which timidly sloped away down a muddy track. It was insignificant, barely eighteen inches wide, but it was also the one my walk-plotting website had identified as a permissive line going west. It had been rendered invisible by the three slightly bigger paths around it, but it was the one I required. For a while after this I went with more care along my way but really, it is inevitable that such things will happen when you devise your own route. They are the dropped stitches of a personal journey.
In any case, the path broadened out considerably further along the way and joined a metalled road again. I was able to amble along and re-cross the B-road at the correct point, passing over the Afon Senni as planned. There were still the occasional hissing intakes of breath when I was guided to permissive short-cuts off the lanes and over rough country. I was rapidly losing faith in such diversions and warily descended into superficial troughs in the land; treading over rocky paths, wending through light woodland and skirting the mossy ruins of collapsed walls, as low branches attempted to filch the cap off the top of my head. The going was occasionally wet too, but I would then be taken back up onto rather hilly lanes and I was making steady progress. One such excursion off the lanes took me along a track towards Beiligwern Farm, where I received a fresh vocal assault from several more dogs. I was surrounded and severely barked at – all of them wearing ‘Gosh, I’m SO pleased to see you!’ expressions of delight. The noise drew the attention of a young-ish farmhand, who appeared from a large cow shed and wandered over to me. I explained my business and he looked surprised.
“Nobody’s used that track for a long time and the route’s been changed,” he told me.
However, he said that it was fine for me to go on ahead. Although I had originally planned to walk on to the Glasfynydd Forest to camp, I had been thinking for a while that I would be stopping for the night at a place called Crai and I knew I was closing in on it. The youngish guy confirmed that it was not too far ahead and then explained where to walk to get through the farm. This, of course, required me to take a steep, uphill track followed by a steep, uphill road. During the course of this climb, I crossed over several fields before joining the road to crossing the A4067 to do so.
The village gives its name to the community of Cray, within which are the hamlet of Felin-Crai and a large number of dispersed farms around the valley of the Afon Crai. The river is dammed a couple of miles south-west of the village to form The name may derive from Welsh 'crai' meaning rough and referring originally to the nature of the river. The last stretch of the walk was very steep and I spied the sanctuary of a brick bus-stop as I reached the village. It was an ideal place for me to take a breather, but I was already deciding my next move and thought, from a quick scour of the map, that this would involve catching a bus into the larger village of here I could get some money. It was by now about six o’clock and nothing on the timetable told me that a bus was imminent. I strode into the midst of tiny Crai and stood about for some time, wondering what to do next.
“Can I help you?” said a voice.
Annette and Walter….
I turned to see a small woman, who was perhaps in her mid-sixties and standing at her garden gate, regarding me politely. From her lounge window, she had seen me standing alone and looking a bit lost and when I explained my intentions, she immediately invited me into her home. I want you to consider this for a moment, if you will. I was scruffy, dirty and unshaven and a complete stranger to her, as well as being a lot bigger and more powerful. She, as I discovered, was at that moment alone at home and yet she invited me in without any hesitation or apparent thoughts of her own vulnerability. It was a demonstration of immediate trust and kindness and although grateful, I was also a little embarrassed by the turn of events. Why, I don’t know. I suppose I felt that I didn’t deserve such a powerful token of faith from somebody who had never met me before. She introduced herself as Annette and made me a coffee and a sandwich, chatting to me about her Grandson’s wedding the next day as if I’d been given a personal invitation and would be going along. When Annie discovered that I needed to find a cash machine in Sennybridge, she flapped a hand.
“That’s no problem. My husband will be home soon and he’ll take you into Sennybridge in the car.”
Again, I was left feeling a little self-conscious and tried to swallow a large mouthful of cured ham sandwich, so that I could feebly protest. She insisted that it was nothing. “Walter won’t mind,” she assured me referring,
Permissive path short-cut before Beiligwern Farm
Before long it was time to take leave of this wonderful, caring couple and I gave Annette a kiss on her cheek and thanked her again, wishing them all the best for the wedding the next day. Walter and I continued to chat during the short drive to Sennybridge, where he took me to a hole in the wall. I withdrew some money, noticing that Walter had a pronounced limp when he walked; a legacy, he told me, of rheumatoid arthritis. Walter hadn’t finished with me yet and took me on a tour of the local B&B’s in the village. I got an expensive quote from a pub, but was then driven to another place called ‘The Lodge’, which was cheaper and had availability. I had found my home for the night and I stuck my head back out of the door to tell Walter, who had waited in his car. He gave me a thumb-up and a wave and was gone.
My host checked me into Room 1 and showed me around. He was an overweight, friendly young man and the place was really very nice, with four-poster beds, potted plants everywhere and a pool table in the dining room area (which sadly I never used). I was well satisfied with but less so with Sennybridge itself. I know this type of place and it didn’t take me long to suss it out, just a brief walk into the village to try a couple of its pubs. I walked in and straight out of the first inn, as it was mostly devoid of people and had the soul of an aircraft hangar. The second pub was called The Red Lion and as soon as I’d entered and started mixing with folk, I felt like I was back at home. By that, I mean back on the housing estate in Birmingham that I had grown up on. The place was on its heels and run-down. So were the drinkers within it. From old, grizzled men to young, hard-faced women with toddlers in tow I was met by blank-eyed expressions, holding more unreceptive apathy than warm friendliness. I drank my single pint quickly and returned to The Lodge by nine o’clock.
Here, the more welcoming open and pleasant smile of the Malaysian lady Ping on TV informed me that this was the final! I settled down comfortably and was delighted that Ping won it, as I’d formed a little TV bond with her at the end of each day’s walking, so her victory gave me an internal glow. I spent the remainder of the evening catching up on walking notes and it was a quarter to one in the morning before I settled down to sleep.
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