Lightening the load ...
My alarm went off at seven, prompting me out of bed and into the bathroom for ablutions. I began to notice little gadgets around my room that I hadn’t seen the night before. There was a trouser press and an electric wine bottle opener, neither of which I’d actually needed but it was a nice thought. The young host from yesterday (who had introduced himself as Lindon) was in the kitchen, talking to an Australian couple. I joined in with the chatter and as a result, the cooked breakfast my stomach was growling discontentedly for was late in arriving. I ate it in a lovely, sun-bathed conservatory that was rich with potted plants of all types and presented as rather charming. I watched TV as I ate and was mildly surprised to realise that it was F.A. Cup final day. The channel was full of the ins and outs of Arsenal and Hull City, although there was a news and weather interlude that told me I was in for a warm and sunny day’s walking. I hadn’t needed the heads-up; I was catching rays through the windows and was being basked in warmth as I sat. With breakfast finished and no reason to linger, I thanked Lindon for a lovely stay and asked him where the post office was. I had two maps and a disgraced camcorder to be rid of. Lindon gave me directions, but then said he’d take a walk into the village with me and show me personally. He was a really nice guy and The Lodge was a bonus find for me. I’d recommend the place to anyone.
Once outside, we discovered that it wasn’t just warm it was a hot and sunny one and I briefly matched this up with the knowledge that I had mountains to climb today. This wasn’t necessarily the best of combinations, but I gave an internal shrug as there was no point in fretting about things I had no control over. The streets were Saturday busy and so was the post office. I felt a bit invasive and cumbersome, with my backpack swinging about as I turned in its narrow confines. The other customers and the assistant were very friendly though and I noticed the difference, compared to the silent watchfulness reserved for me in the pub the night before. The weekend day populace were clearly a different breed from the Friday night drinkers. With the deed done and my backpack a little lighter as a result, I left the shop and was just in time to catch the approaching bus back to Crai. Lindon had waited at the bus stop while I was in the post office and I think he would have held the bus up for me, such was his nature. As I drew away, I had a last glimpse of him as he raised a hand in farewell. He was another likeable character in a walk that had already produced several. It is certainly true; most folk are just decent and want to get along with others. In which case, why is the world in such turmoil? At what point do we become the jingoistic, faceless mass capable of doing terrible things? It wasn’t a question for this walk to answer. Rather, it was a walk that was raising the question itself, as I was constantly meeting good, kind people. I asked an elderly, grizzled sort of gent to give me the nod when I should get off the bus in Crai. He did so, after asking me about my walk and if I was rough camping. He had seen the bedroll strapped to the outside of my rucksack. Once more, I found myself in Crai and outside of Annette and Walter’s house and on impulse I knocked on their door. Walter answered, freshly-shaven and shirt half done up. It was their Grandson’s wedding day, of course. I quickly got their address, as I wanted to send them a thank you card once I was back at home (a promise to myself that I managed to keep within a few weeks). I then stepped out onto the path that was going to take me west.
A brief infatuation ...
The usual small lane typical of this trip led me away from Crai and quickly through Felin-Crai, taking me over the Afon Crai as it did so. All was well with my world at first. It was a gorgeous day and I was strolling through attractive countryside, just peeling the miles away one by one. Or so I thought. Before long, I had reached a place called Aberhyddnant Farm and that’s where my troubles began. Don’t get me wrong, it was a striking place amidst rural beauty but I just got so lost and it was an hour before I was able to escape its domain. I faltered to a stop at a trio of what had become muddy tracks. It transpires that my plot-a-route website is very efficient at doing what I tell it to do and revealing valid paths to take me where I want to go. It just doesn’t inform me how faint some of the pathways are; little ways through the ferns, perhaps established by generations of Badgers. I had no clear idea where to go and my first choice was a very poor one. I chose a left-hand track that took me uphill and then into a wilderness of fields and fences. Resolutely, I went off over ploughed ground and through an avenue of trees and the landscape began to bear no resemblance to my map. I climbed fences and became thwarted by woods on two sides. The ground was hilly and I was wasting energy going in wide, misplaced circles as exasperation levels rocketed.
It was at some point in this, I think as I was trying to return to the three tracks near the farm buildings, that I picked up a devotee. A female, Lurcher-type dog loped into view and immediately latched onto me. She was a lovely little soul and just wanted some fuss and company while she was out and about. I obliged; scratching her ears, rubbing her chest, patting her flanks and going through the old ‘good girl’ nonsense and as far as she was concerned we were paired forever. Together, we stumbled downhill over rough ground. I was forced to climb a couple of fences, thinking that would be that and she would be forced to turn back but she simply took a moment to gather herself
Breaking free of Glasfynydd Forest
Tramping forward, I suddenly saw the first piece of human habitation I had seen in a while and scurried toward it. It was a cottage, but getting to it wasn’t easy as a brook snaked out of nowhere and cut off my route to it. I had to find a spot narrow enough to jump across, making a clumsy job of it whilst wearing my rucksack. I got a scornful look from Mrs Lurcher, who then leapt lithely into the air and dashed off at the sound of something in the undergrowth. Not for long, though. She had done this several times but always hastened back to my side. There was a fenced garden around the cottage, but I finally found a driveway and a front door. I was lost and I knew it, so it was time for some local wisdom. An elderly gentleman answered my call, appearing in a cardigan that seemed to be held together by holes and implacability. But it was when he opened his mouth and spoke to me that I got the real surprise. Here, in the depths of rural Wales, came the plummy English tones of the public-school retiree. It turned out that I had wandered off onto another farm altogether, his property at Pentre-uchaf. He didn’t appear to mind the intrusion at all and set about directing me back to Aberhyddnant, elbows poking out of his disintegrating clothing as he gestured and waved an arm back over my shoulder. He was an eccentric old egg, but he had got me out of a tight spot and I was grateful. Once back at Aberhyddnant, I did as I had done the day before and scrutinised my environment carefully. This enabled me to spot a latched wooden gate near one of the cottages, beyond which a path turned away around the back of the property. I lifted the heavy latch. It was one of those u-shaped pieces of metal that hooked over the fence post to secure the gate in place and unfortunately I let it fall backwards once I had the gate open, where it trapped one of my fingers. There was a period of a few seconds where I danced about, shaking my hand and swearing fulsomely whilst the dog watched me with a quizzical air. I had squeezed the tip of one of my fingers and as I watched, the nail turned as blue as my language had been. It was a nuisance, as for the next few days it hurt every time I used my fingers to fasten loops or pull straps. I wasn’t sorry to bid adieu to Aberhyddnant Farm, despite its obvious idyllic setting.
The satisfaction of being back on route didn’t last long, as I had further trouble when trying to get into the My friend the Lurcher-cross (with what I couldn’t tell, something fairly muscular anyway) suddenly took off after a Grey Squirrel we had both spotted rustling about at the base of a tree. I took the opportunity to try and lose her by hurrying down into a ditch, up the other side and around a belt of trees.
On the shore of Llyn y Fan Fawr
Humbugged and hindered ...
I had lost an hour in wandering about and my finger was still throbbing sulkily, but I sensed that I had overcome a hurdle of some kind and that the way ahead would be simpler. Certainly, my path was a clear one as it turned right and left and took me deeper into Glasfynydd’s emerald depths. This just goes to show how wrong you can be, as it wasn’t long before I was lost again. The forest is coniferous and the ranks of trees grow pretty close together, meaning that leaving the path and venturing into the thickest parts were close to impossible. At any rate I didn’t have or want to leave my nice, open path. I was happy to stroll along, knowing that I would soon reach a crossroads which I had to go straight across to a T-junction of paths further ahead. Then, I was supposed to turn left. The problem was that when I reached what should have been the crossroads, there was no way to go straight ahead. I was faced by an impassive wall of tall conifers instead. There wasn’t even a hint of a track leading forward. I stopped, puzzled. I knew that I hadn’t already passed the crossroads, but I was left with a straight choice of left or right. Left was the direction I needed to go, but it was with a quiet sense of foreboding that I turned and strolled on. My guidey sense was on full alert again and looking at my map didn’t clear things up. According to it, the left I had now taken was at the crossroads not the T-junction. Yet, I hadn’t been given the option of going on ahead. I walked on, tracing on my map the path I now thought I was on and coming across a cleared circular area with logged trees, which wasn’t on my map at all and had no exit point. I had gotten successfully lost once more, though felt more than a little aggrieved and cheated by events. I had been humbugged at that false crossroads. I got out my compass and marked the way west
Fan Brycheiniog from Fan Foel
Bwlch Cerrig Duon was a long lane but it was also easy walking and here, at least, there was zero chance of me going astray. It took me along through the forest and then out and away from it and at some point along its length I finally left the county of Powys, after entering it on my third day at Partrishow, in the Black Mountains valley of the Grwyne Fawr. I had just finished crossing the largest county in Wales by land area and I now entered my fourth county of the walk, I took a peek at my watch and saw that it was twelve-twenty, as I crossed over a cattle grid and then walked by a series of tall rush-like grasses. I looked out past an extended arm of the forest towards some lesser hills of the Brecon’s, which lay shaped beneath a sky of spring splendour. Sheep were dotted along another of these low hills in front and to the right of me, so that for now it hid the looming presence of the mountain I was going to have to climb. Fan Brycheiniog is the highest peak in the Black Mountain region of the Brecon Beacons National Park (confusingly, there is the range of the Black Mountains I had already crossed and a Black Mountain area within the Brecon Beacons range I now walked). North-west of the main summit is a slight rise called Fan Foel which, at 781 metres above sea level, is the highest point in the county of Carmarthenshire. I was going to have to climb that one, too. At any rate, I could see my immediate road well enough as it rose and twisted off slightly to the left. I reached the top of this rise and was then presented with a spectacular scene. The road dipped down deeply from where I was and carried on single-mindedly towards Swansea. I saw a collection of parked cars, winking bright messages at me as the sun struck glass and chrome. From this ad hoc car park, a plain of unkempt pasture swept away to the right, towards a Goliath of a mass. Fan Brycheiniog. That spread of pasture was my pathway to it but, for now, I just stood and drank in the extraordinary and splendid prospect before me.
Fan Brycheiniog: Apparently, it’s child’s play ...
When I did set off, I descended on the tarmac road alongside the hill of Moel Feity and then cut across to the right once I’d reached the parked cars. The ground was immediately rough and uneven and I could see that progress wasn’t going to be an easy thing. I was now passing the southern side of Moel Feity and discovered several springs, which wound by and began to bar my way. It appeared that I had just been introduced to the source of the which flows in a mainly south-westerly direction. It journeys for about thirty miles, from below Moel Feity in the red sandstone hills of the western Brecon Beacons to the Bristol Channel at Swansea. I was forced to detour this way and that and find narrow parts in the deeply-set springs, climbing down grassy banks to jump over them and then labouring back up the other side. Inevitably, this forced me away from my true route and I soon had to admit to myself that I wasn’t sure just how far I had been pushed off course. As well as negotiating these springs and clumps of long grasses, the ground itself began to become an increasingly uphill project as I reached the outer edge of the swell of Fan Brycheiniog. Soon, the going became very steep indeed and the familiar feelings of burning muscles and oxygen depletion re-established themselves. You’d have thought that I would be feeling fitter and brushing aside this latest challenge, given my passage of the Black Mountains earlier in the week. I thought so, anyway, until I began to climb one of the Brecon giants. I panted my way up a subsidiary incline, leaving behind the source of the Tawe and reaching a plateau, beyond which was a further, smaller rise. Jadedly, I moved forward again, only to come to a stop when my feet suddenly squelched over saturated ground. I was still amongst wild grasses, but here they grew amidst a shallow, marshy pool that lay between me and my mountain. I couldn’t discern any edge to this because of the vegetation, so was forced to try and box around the area; making little forays forward now and then to see if I had circumnavigated it. It took long minutes to make my way across, because I dared not dash boldly forward in case I hit a deep pocket of water and disappeared completely from view, a stream of rising bubbles providing the only evidence I’d ever been there. I progressed as if I were walking across a minefield. I finally made the other side of this marsh and walked up the smaller incline ahead, to find myself on the eastern shore of (Welsh: 'lake of the big peak').
I could see straight away that I had strayed too far north during my crossing of the rough ground. I began to stride south along this shore, looking over the lake’s placid surface and marvelling at how well it reflected the mass of Fan Brycheiniog behind and above it. A man and his dog watched me approach before moving on. I looked up to see more people taking advantage of the sunny day and exploring this absolutely splendid part of Wales. Rounding the lake, I saw a path scrambling and leaping its way up the face of the mountain. This was part of the trail and I was about to join it.
On high looking west
“Not far to go,” she promised.
“Thank God,” I replied.
The path continued to be very steep, but it was also well-defined and after twenty-five minutes of toiling, I finally made it to the top of Fan Brycheiniog at an altitude of 2,526 feet (770 metres). The view, of course, was vast and wonderful and I had chosen a good day to climb these peaks as visibility was far-reaching. I walked on until I reached the peak of and then sat down on a grassy bank that enabled me to see back over the lake and away; giving me an idea of what I had covered these past few days, as the miles unwound to the east. I got my lunch out and looked to the horizon as I munched on my sandwiches. There, on the edge of sight, was the contour of another range of mountains. I thought at the time that I was gazing back to Hatterrall Ridge, but this was not so. It was the prominence of Waun Fach that I could see. I’m fairly sure of this, since it is the highest ridge in the area of the Black Mountains. I’d come a long way since then, but reflected that I had a greater distance yet to go before this excursion was finished with. It was very breezy up on the top and I had soon become chilly as my sweat cooled, enough to warrant putting a shirt on over my t-shirt. As I sat and ate, two young foreign ladies walked by and stopped to admire the view. They were part of a small group and had lovely accents; speaking English with what sounded like a South American influence. They moved on and were replaced by a couple of blokes, who looked as if they were out walking for the day. They sat near me on the same bank and got out their own food and we all watched one of those yellow mountain rescue helicopters fly by. It was actually below us as it clattered along the valley, perhaps on a training exercise.
My second wind ...
It was about a quarter-past three when I gathered myself and walked on to the peak of the highest point of the Bannau Sir Gaer ridge, whose summit was marked by an ancient cairn of stones at a height of 2,457 feet (749m) above sea level. I’d hoped that it would be an uncomplicated descent from the mountains from here and perhaps it should have been, but I somehow contrived to make a hash of it by following the wrong sheep track. I wound myself around another lake, that of Llyn y Fan Fach, but that was the last accurate bit of marching I was to do for a while. As far as I could figure later, after a lot of backwards and forwards tramping and an undertow of real concern that I was lost in the mountains, I had strayed north north-east of my intended route and frolicked amongst the likes of Llethr y Llyn and Waun y Llyn, the north and west facing grassy sides of the western cliffs of the Bannau Sir Gaer ridge. It was another hour of fretful dithering but at the time, it felt a lot longer. In the end, I did what I tended to do in such circumstances and pulled out my compass to find the way west. Then I walked that way. As I progressed up and down hillocks of grassland I came to realise that I was on the wrong side of a gorge in the hillside. I could even see the path I was supposed to have been on, over the other side of a little valley. Another walker came into view as he toiled uphill towards me and this gave me the usual injection of hope. I wasn’t alone, therefore I couldn’t be that lost. We met and I asked him if he knew where we were. He looked at me with a little surprise, but then pointed at his map, “Well, I’m hoping that we’re here.” I thanked him and moved on, keeping to the right side of a weir as I descended into the valley.
It was still a hot afternoon and my recent, disoriented scampering back and forth across the mountainside had led to a bout of anxiety-drinking. I was getting low on water. After threading my way through gorse and boulders, I joined a path near a place called Gelli-onen and slowly angled in, converging with my intended route. At last, I could stop and take a look back at an objective reached and surpassed. I was just about to leave the Brecon range behind me and so I took in a last view of its impressive peaks. There would be no more mountain ranges for me on this journey. Walking on, I joined a lane and waved a hand in greeting at a gentleman, who was watching me as he tended to his garden. My feet had become sore and I needed water fairly desperately, so when I came across a woman in a large, floppy hat working in the grounds of a church just south of Llanddeusant, I stopped to ask her where I could fill up. She directed me towards the youth hostel at the Red Lion in Llanddeusant. As I walked through its doorway and into a combined kitchen and dining area, a radio was playing and I heard Hull City score against Arsenal barely four minutes into their F.A. Cup final. There was a raucous stir of excitement amongst a few male holiday-makers present. It appeared that all neutrals were actually Hull City fans for the day, including me. I filled up whilst chatting to one of the guys and his young son, who seemed fascinated by my water camel. I then went for a toilet break and returned to the dining area just in time for Hull City to score again. Buoyed by this bit of derring-do from an underdog, I marched on at ten-past five and soon found that I had discovered a second wind and was walking effortlessly, despite my trek up and over the mountains. With this in mind, I had a look at my map and decided to veer north off-route, so that I could camp near the village of Llangadog that evening. I had spotted the beer glass sign of a pub on my map and fancied a hot meal and a couple of drinks later. I continued along a metalled road and was covering the ground rapidly, when a lady and her young son drove towards me and she stopped to ask me where the youth hostel was. Good deed done, I yomped on along the same lane and seemed to cover a lot of distance with no apparent effort. Maybe I was finally finding some fitness, but this last hour or two of walking felt fine, despite the terrain still being a bit hilly. The River Sawdde imposed a decision upon me as it cut across my path. Did I cross it and join the A4069 early on a more direct route to Llangadog, or stay on the east side of the river for a while longer and continue to walk on a lane, with a bit of cross-country thrown in? As much as I had had my faith shaken in cross country routes lately, I disliked A-roads more, so I veered north-west at Pont ar llechau and followed a twisting route through a wood and up to a farm named Caeaubychain Mawr. I was worried about losing my way at one point, but in actual fact it was a pleasant bit of walking on sunny, descending ground and I passed through the farm and over rough country, before re-joining the river and the A-road at Bont Fawr. There was no putting it off any longer and I reluctantly stepped out onto the A4069 knowing that I had a fair way to travel along it. Actually, for once, it wasn’t too bad as the line of murderous traffic was thin on the ground. Perhaps everyone was watching the football. Whatever the reason, I was grateful to be able to speed along until I had the fortune to come upon a camp-site at a point halfway between the properties of Brynheulog and Glan Sawdde.
My luck was in as a quick enquiry revealed that I could camp in the field for the night for just a few pounds. Even better, I had the whole field to myself. I could see just where I wanted to pitch my tent. It was in front of a single oak tree and fenced off from a very energetic
Tent pitched near Llangadog
I walked home in darkness and sat in the utility room for a while, struggling to send tweets off to update my progress. This was only partly successful before the signal dropped out and I stumbled over the long grass of the field to my tent. I lay in my sleeping bag and listened to breezes whisper sibilantly as they passed through the leaves of the old Oak. To this hushed conversation, I drifted off to sleep.
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