The Welsh Wilderness

It’s taken a couple of visits, but I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the Cambrian Mountains in Mid Wales are a great area for backpacking and wild camping. They aren’t the most dramatic hills in the United Kingdom, but these rolling boggy uplands extend for miles and although the valleys seem to be popular with cyclists, a shortage of established footpaths mean they attract few walkers. If on the other hand you’re partial to a spot of off piste walking like I am, there’s a real feeling of remoteness on their tops, where the sounds of the modern world are left far behind.

Sheep on Gwastedyn Hill above Rhayader
Sheep on Gwastedyn Hill above Rhayader

My walk began in Rhayader, a quiet little village-cum-town nestling beneath the fringes of the Cambrian Mountains, at a point where the rolling farmland of the Welsh borders is transformed into the wild grasslands which characterise the Cambrians. My guidebook called these eastern uplands the Cwmdeuddwr Hills, a name which sounds like it would be easier to pronounce when constipated. I decided – rightly or wrongly – to anglicise this to the Combe Duther Hills, but I’d be glad for any Welshman to correct me, if indeed there’s a way for an Englishman to pronounce it in comfort.

A short walk through a field beside the peaceful Wye Valley led to the foot of Gwastedyn Hill, and within a few minutes of leaving the town I was rising through moorland on a path that weaved its way through fields of bracken. And sheep. The right to roam, introduced by the last Labour government, is a great piece of legislation which has opened up millions of acres of open countryside just like this to walkers. These areas are marked in yellow on Ordnance Survey maps, but although it’s perfectly legal to walk across them it’s not always easy. The public footpath I was on skirted the back of the hill, and in order to reach the summit I had to leave it. This involved crossing a field of nervous sheep, one of which got its head stuck in a square of wire fence trying to run away from me. I know sheep aren’t the brightest of creatures but this one was particularly stupid. Not only did it think running into a mesh of six inch squares would be a means of escape, but it couldn’t work out that backing away was the only means of extricating itself. As I crossed the field it continued to charge forwards into the fence. It was panicking, and I realised I was going to have to cross the fence and approach the sheep from the other side in order to persuade it to reverse. I succeeded in this, but in doing so managed to split my trousers climbing over barbed wire. I was only an hour into my walk, and already it seemed to be turning into an episode of the Benny Hill Show.

Horses beneath Carn Gafallt
Horses beneath Carn Gafallt

I tried in vain to find a feature on the summit marked as Druid’s Circle. A celtic stone circle perhaps? But all I could find was a cairn surrounded by bracken. It was a glorious morning, however, and there was a marked contrast in the 360 degree view around me. To the east was rolling green farmland and isolated hills, while to the west were the heather clad plateaus of the Cwmdeuddwr Hills, with a real moorland feel to them.

After crossing another barbed wire fence marked as access land without getting any more rips in my trousers, I descended through pine forest to the Wye Valley. Crossing the river and passing through the quiet village of Llanwrthwl (whose name I won’t even begin to try and pronounce), I once again left civilisation behind as I ascended my second hill, Carn Gafallt, on a broad farm track. This one had a very different feel to Gwastedyn Hill. While the latter felt like carefully managed farmland, this felt much more like wilderness. I was entering the Cambrians proper, and in order to reach the summit I had to leave the track and wade for nearly half an hour through a sea of heather. My trousers were now becoming very threadbare as I tore another hole in the shin catching it on heather.

Perhaps if it were the Benny Hill Show, this would be the moment when a saxophone started playing as a group of semi-clad nurses appeared brandishing their fists in the air as they chased me across the heather. It may come as a surprise to learn these weren’t the thoughts passing through my head at that moment. I realised I was actually enjoying the difficult terrain underfoot. It was exhausting, but it was also deeply satisfying forging my own trail, and I knew I would see no one for as long as I remained off the path. Some people spend their lives avoiding solitude, and equate it with loneliness. I’m not one of them. I love it, and spending my working life jostling with millions in the crowded City of London makes me appreciate it all the more. It’s one way of eradicating stress completely, if only for a short while.

The Elan Valley and Caban-coch Dam from Carn Gafallt
The Elan Valley and Caban-coch Dam from Carn Gafallt

Surveying the surrounding geography from these high moorland plateaus can sometimes be confusing. To the east the terrain was clear enough. Gwastedyn Hill’s summit cairn rose up prominently above Rhayader, and the A44 main road into town stretched in a direct line from Carn Gafallt’s summit like a Roman road. To the west the Cambrians’ rolling hills stretched as far as the eye could see, pitted with deep valleys which I knew to contain a great many large man-made reservoirs. I couldn’t see down into any of them from this broad summit, however, and it took a careful study of the map to figure out which direction to continue.

Within a couple of minutes of leaving the summit I was looking down into a piece of Victorian history. The Elan Valley was flooded in the 19th century to fuel the burgeoning city of Birmingham during the industrial revolution. Far beneath me was the huge grey stone wall of the Caban-coch Dam, and a number of old Victorian buildings which gave the valley the feeling of an old mill town. In order to reach it I had a knee-jarring descent through steep heather slopes, and head-ducking weave through ancient oak woodland. It was hot and thirsty work, not made any easier by the midges that were coming out in force as the afternoon sun warmed the ground. I made a cock-up in the Rhinogs last month by forgetting to pack water purification tablets, and having to take my chance with the natural filters of a bogland stream when my water bottles ran out. Not so today, and while passing through the forest the echoing clash of rushing water on rock was music to my ears. I drained my water bottles and replenished them in a delicious icy stream. The taste of chlorine takes some getting used to, but when you’re as thirsty as this you don’t mind it one bit.

Mountain bikers on the Cwmdeuddwr Hills
Mountain bikers on the Cwmdeuddwr Hills

People, eeuurgh! There’s a visitor centre beside the Caban-coch dam, a large car park and a great many picnic areas. A road and a tarmacked cycle path run alongside the reservoir, and it’s popular with cyclists, who steamed past me as I lugged my pack through civilisation. The only walkers I passed were those who had dragged themselves no more than 50 metres from their cars, and they weren’t exactly fine pictures of fitness. In fact, although this is great walking country, I didn’t pass a single ‘proper’ walker all weekend.

After an hour or so of tarmac I crossed the arched stone bridge that divides the Caban-coch and Garreg-ddu Reservoirs, and took a wide path that climbed through pine forest. It was 2.30 in the afternoon and I found myself back in the wilderness very quickly. I passed through the forest into open grassland, and I was on top of the wild Cambrian bogland plateau once again. Two mountain bikers passed me as they were descending into the forest, but these were the last people I saw all day. To my left were the Abergwesyn Hills, with Drygarn Fawr, the highest point in the Cambrians, on the horizon. I crossed those hills three years ago in my first trip to this area, and now I had a chance to explore this wilderness a little more.

I left another farm track and crossed the rolling plateau of Craig Fawr, a wild hummock of grassland that wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but by now I was becoming accustomed to wading across tufted grasslands. Just like the heather on Carn Gafallt, I was finding the long grass hard work but deeply satisfying. I crossed over the summit and found myself staring down into the huge black Claerwen Reservoir. Unlike the busy Elan Valley reservoirs, this one is definitely wilderness. I stopped and rested against my rucksack in the long grass as I ate a couple of sandwiches and surveyed the miles of rolling hills in every direction.

Claerwen Reservoir from Craig Fawr
Claerwen Reservoir from Craig Fawr

Birds were chattering all around me. I’m not a good one for identifying birdsong, but even I could recognise the unmistakeable sound of a guerilla army of stonechats surrounding me in the long grass. Yet despite this clacking cacophony, what struck me most was the deafening silence. Living in London I get used to human noise all the time, whether voices, traffic or aircraft descending into Heathrow overhead. Even in the middle of the night there’s something making a noise somewhere, and I just learn to filter it out. But boy does it mean I notice those rare moments when I don’t hear a single tell tale sound of humans. They’re very rare, but this was definitely one of them, and it felt so relaxing. People often ask me whether I listen to an iPod when I go walking, but I would miss out on a huge part of the experience of being outdoors were I to do so, and it would seem like an aberration.

I treasured that moment in the long grass looking out across the Claerwen Reservoir, and was in no hurry to leave, but my overnight stop wasn’t far away, and a night of wild camping is something else I greatly enjoy. I descended steeply through the grass to a dirt track which skirted the lake. I walked in dread of a vehicle appearing on it, but it didn’t happen.  At the end of one of the Reservoir’s flailing arms I left the track and ascended a grassy gully watered by a narrow stream. A few minutes later the tufted grass flattened out at a confluence of streams, and a flattish area of short grass a short climb up the hillside looked like a peaceful place to camp.

I unpacked my one-man backpacking tent, the ridiculously named Terra Nova Laser Competition, which sounds more like a boat than a tent. One of the things I love about backpacking is it’s very relaxing and there’s nothing competitive about it. And where the laser comes in, heaven only knows, unless it’s a corny piece of wordplay on the word ‘light’. I forgive my tent for its silly name because it weighs only 800 grams and is small enough to be pitched nearly anywhere, but just large enough to house all 5’11” of me comfortably, leaving room for all my kit in two small alcoves at each end, and ample cooking space in the surprisingly spacious porch.

View out of my tent after a night of camping wild
View out of my tent after a night of camping wild

I settled in, unpacked my stove and brewed up copious quantities of Earl Grey tea. I cooked myself a nice beef stew and dumplings before settling in to read my book, the  entertaining The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell, a historical novel tackling the very serious Indian Mutiny of 1857 in the hilarious style of Catch-22.

I always sleep soundly after a strenuous day of backpacking, and this time was no different. I woke at 6am and rolled over to light the stove and have a leisurely breakfast. It was a beautiful clear blue morning, but I had the dilemma of eating breakfast with the tent door open so that I could look across the stream bed to the hillside opposite, or zip up to protect myself from the midges that were already out in force. I know these little beasts have an important role in the food chain, without which I wouldn’t have been able to listen to the chitter of stonechats yesterday, but it’s tempting to believe they lead a pointless existence, emerging in June to annoy people in Britain’s western hills before buggering off again the end of August. I couldn’t resist opening the door and feeling the fresh breeze across my sleeping bag, but after about 10 minutes of it the scratching became too much and I zipped up again.

I packed away and left my secluded gully at 8.30 by following it upstream until the water vanished into grassland at the top of the plateau. All I could see for miles was grassy hillsides, with the odd white dot indicating sheep on the horizon. In foggy weather this would be very easy to get lost in, but today it was absolutely clear. After crossing the hillside for a few hundred metres, again by wading through long grass, I was soon able to identify the folds in the hillside that marked another stream down into the next valley.

Craig Goch Reservoir
Craig Goch Reservoir

Another reservoir appeared in the distance, this one surrounded by bare hillsides. I made my way down a gully, reaching it at another dam which divided it from a much more wooded reservoir, the Penygarreg, a few metres lower in altitude. A scenic road passed around the edge of both lakes, but I crossed them at the dam and took another track up onto the next plateau. I saw some cyclists appear behind me, and thought my solitude was going to be invaded again, but they soon gave up and turned around as the wide track steepened and merged into the moors above.

For a change I was able to cross this plateau on something that resembled a path. It meant I made much quicker progress this morning, but still I didn’t see another walker. I stopped for a sandwich as the path began descending into the Wye Valley. I watched cars cross a mountain road on an adjacent hillside, and some cyclists having fun free-wheeling down it at a rate of knots. I crossed the road and had another short climb up one last hill, Esgair Dderw, which had a standing stone on the top. Before long I was descending beside another pine forest, with Rhayader in the lowlands ahead of me. I was looking into the green fields of the Wye Valley again, and my walk was at its end.

When I first came to the Cambrian Mountains three years ago, I thought they made a nice change, but I found the miles of rolling bogland a bit dull, and the absence of footpaths hard work. Now I’m coming to appreciate these things. I’ve spoken before about the benefits of off piste walking, and the toughness and remoteness mean that you rarely see another soul on the hill tops. There aren’t many hillwalking areas in the UK where you can do this, and it means that now I’m growing to like these mountains I know that I’ll be coming back again and again.

All I need is a new pair of trousers and a way of sneaking past sheep without scaring the shit out of them. You can see the rest of my photos from the trip here.

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2 thoughts on “The Welsh Wilderness

  • July 7, 2011 at 11:51 am
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    Just come across your blog via the travel blog feed and loved reading this post. We used to go trekking a lot when we lived in the UK, mainly in the Lake District. We try to go walking here in the winter months but it’s difficult because there are no maps (property of the military) so we have to do a lot of the same routes.
    Julia

  • July 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm
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    Hi Julia

    Thanks for the comment, glad you liked it. Ordnance Survey Explorer maps now cover the whole of the UK. I used OS 200 for this particular walk.

    Regards
    Mark.

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