A year ago, during a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Slimbridge, Andrew became fascinated by a distant hill,topped by a small copse of trees, which caused it to resemble a Mohawk hairstyle. We discovered that it was called May Hill.
A week later, as we drove north to Scotland, we spotted it again from the M50, just outside Ross-on-Wye. Subsequently, we have seen it from the Malvern Hills (which border Herefordshire and Worcestershire), the Lickey Hills of the Midlands, and also from different peaks in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons.
So, when we decided to meet our good friend Tim, at a place roughly equidistant from our homes, it seemed Fate had decreed that now was the time to uncover May Hill’s mysteries!
The Hill, with the exception of the copse, is owned by the National Trust. We met Tim…eventually…at a parking area/layby, where a wild mare and her young foal were eating their lunch, completely unperturbed by the arrival and departure of the occasional vehicle. A short walk from the car park brought us to some more horse families grazing on this protected common land.
The distinctinve copse of pine trees was planted to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and additional trees planted for the current queen’s Silver Jubilee. The summit itself (296 m / 971 ft) is marked by a trig point and within the trees are two commemorative plaques. The Corsican and Scots’ Pine are planted in a square and a bench is placed on the outer edge of each side, so that you can enjoy the views with a degree of comfort. The panoramas are impressive.
To the south, the River Severn, meanders towards the Bristol Channel, overlooked by the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean.
To the west we could clearly see the Welsh mountains of Sugar Loaf, Ysgyryd Fawr (Skirrid), Blorenge, Waun Fach and Hay Bluff.
To the north the Malvern Hills and also the hills of Shropshire were visible.
The eastern view is now partially obscured by the mature forestry. However, at various points, you can see the Cotswolds.
We continued our stroll (along a route downloaded from the National Trust site) and were delighted to encounter the plantation of beautiful redwood trees, amongst the fruiting beech and rowans. To Lynne’s delight we met another friendly pony ambling along the forestry track, just before returning to the parking area. To our delight (Tim and Andrew), Lynne didn't try to bring it to the Penny Farthing Inn!
Learned and Affirmed
Leaving home later than we had planned, we were very lucky to find a parking place opposite the Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre. It’s great that so many people are being active but accommodating so many cars is becoming a real issue on the weekends.
While the path to Pen y Fan looked like the route to a religious shrine, crammed with hundreds of pilgrims; the route to Fan Fawr was, well…empty…except for the two of us. Phew!
As we dropped down from the A470 to the ‘Taff Trail’ path, we followed the Taf Fawr to the point where it enters the Beacons Reservoir. You have to keep your wits about you if you want to avoid the numerous boggy patches through which the path runs. However, once we reached the far end of the reservoir (via moorland and forest tracks) we were glad to begin our ascent of Fan Fawr’s long, curving eastern ridge - Cefn Yr Henriw.
As we neared the summit, we spied the trig point off to the west. We decided to visit it although it wasn’t on our walk route. We were glad that we made the detour. Just as we got there, the sun emerged from the overcast sky and we had a great view of previously visited western peaks – Fan Nedd, Fan Gyhirych, Fan Frynych, Fan Hir and Fan Brycheiniog.
We then made our way to the ‘true summit’ (734 m/2048 ft), marked by a small cairn. Whilst we had a quick snack, we watched the continuous line of ‘pilgrims’ making their way up the Pen y Fan path, and a couple of paragliders frightening sheep on the other side of the valley.
As we made our post-lunch descent, we met another walker with her two dogs, one of whom took a great interest in Lynne! Like us, she was avoiding the crowds. We exchanged a few pleasantries and congratulations (she had just graduated!), then made our way back to the busy car park.
Learned and Affirmed
Just a couple of hours to spend this weekend...so, somewhere local...cue the sound of Andrew rustling a map...
Llantrisant is only 9 miles away. We have driven past it, through it and to it many times. However, neither of us had ever visited the strange tower-like structure on the highest point above the town.
Within a 100 m of the free car park, we crossed beyond the cattle grid and were greeted by a variety of free-roaming bovines, claiming their rightful place on the common land. As we walked along the common road, we saw the derelict Cwm Coke Works - a relic of the heavy industry that once dominated the area. There is a strange beauty about the tall brick chimneys and other angular structures. In contrast, the Royal Mint seems modern with sleek lines and low-lying buildings.
Leaving the road, we followed a series of small roads, tracks and paths to the summit of our peak - Y Graig. As we ascended we saw the Ely Valley below occupied by Talbot Green and its shopping complex, Llantrisant golf course, and residential developments of different ages.
We quickly reached the summit tower known locally as 'Billy Wynt'. It is a folly built on the base of a former windmill (the Welsh for wind being 'gwynt'). Sadly this small cylinder is filled with litter. We walked up the few stone steps and sat on the rim. The view at only 174 m is still impressive. We saw Cardiff Bay with the Millennium Centre shining in the sunlight. We could see many familiar sights but with time pressing us, we took a few photographs, we walked back through the town and promised to return to explore its history a little more....especially that of the physician William Price, who was responsible for the acceptance of cremation as a death rite, amongst other achievements. We strolled past his statue in the Bull Ring and returned to the car park.
Learned and Affirmed
Our original intention was to 'bag' two Munros - Cruach Ardrain, Beinn Tuilaichean - and a Munro Top - Stob Garbh - with our good friend Maria acting as guide and mentor. Weather forecast was light cloud cover with sunny intervals - yeah, right!
We had a nice sunny start from the convenient Forestry Commission car park situated just off the main road. We crunched our way along the vehicle access roads past monster-machines and an occasional forestry worker.
After a short boggy trek along tree-break paths (forest 'rides'), we exited the plantation over a high stile and emerged onto the ‘bare’ mountainside. We headed up the ridge to the Grey Height (686 m) and took in some beautiful views to the north. However, an ominous bank of cloud created a ceiling above the vista. To the south, our destination was shrouded in a smoky, white mist.
We continued our ascent to our next stop, Meall Dhamh (814 m), passing some precariously balanced ‘erratics’ (boulders deposited by glaciers). Despite the body heat generated by our efforts, there was a noticeable temperature drop as we moved closer to the mist ceiling.
With no invitation, the mist descended. However, we pressed on for a while along the well-trodden path before feeling the need to add an extra layer in order to ward off the chill. Waterproofs were required for our final ascent to the summit, as the wind-driven mist was now depositing a significant layer of moisture upon us.
We passed the ‘false summit’ cairns and, with a degree of satisfaction, reached the cairn on the ‘true’ summit (1046m). Not only were our clothes and hair dampened by the mist but also, slightly, our sense of achievement. There was no view whatsoever. Visibility was 25 - 50m maximum. We were here…but where?!?
A quick lunch and time to move on…but which way? It was decided that, all things considered, Beinn Tulaichean would have to wait for another day. We would take the most direct route to Stob Garbh (the Munro Top). Our first challenge was to negotiate the ‘intimidating’ descent of the north-east face of Cruach Ardrain. In some blogs, the path has been described as a ‘goat track’ and a ‘hard scramble’… in good weather! Nevertheless, after some initial slow (but sure) progress - including some ‘crab’ impressions from Lynne - we reached the bealach between Cruach Ardrain and Stob Garbh.
We knew where we were. We checked the map and also checked Maria’s GPS locator. The problem we were now faced with was the lack of an obvious path and no visible landmarks except the occasional, amorphous, looming shadow in the mist. Thanks to Maria’s navigating skills - using a combination of altitude readings on her watch, GPS data and her trusty Silva compass - we climbed to a point where a path finally presented itself. We won't mention Lynne's imaginary path! Oops! Too late!
The short trek to Stob Garbh was eerie. It was like moving through a science fiction landscape, as weird shapes emerged from the swirling mists and suddenly disappeared. The summit (959 m) was graced with dark pools and a pavement of metamorphic rocks. A quick photo opportunity at the summit cairn and it was time to head off the mountain.
It was a fairly uneventful trek back along the ridge (apart from two sheep which, bizarrely, looked three times bigger through the mist). The path led through occasional boggy patches and rocky rises. Visibility was still limited, until we began our descent of Stob Coire Buidhe (857 m) and passed below the cloud roof. The finish line was not quite in sight but was definitely nearer.
We climbed over the deer fence on the edge of the forestry land, using a partially constructed (?) stile and prepared for the final descent to another forestry track. There was no obvious path and, in spite of checking and re-checking, we could not find the stream that our guidebook suggested we follow as the easiest route. The gradient was steep. The grass was thick and long. The spongy moss hid slippery rocks and deep holes. This was hard going on knees and ankles joints, thighs and back muscles. We reached the edge of the forestry but this was dense and impenetrable. Eventually a stream became apparent and we followed it down to the track with much trepidation..
Thigh muscles quivering, we plodded (yes, plodded) back to the car along the muddy track, which had been churned by the tyres of huge vehicles, until we heard the welcome crunch of compacted gravel. An unforgettable nine and a half hours! For us, an unparalleled achievement.
Learned and Affirmed:
Our initial intention was to complete an 8 mile circuit, with Fan y Big as the only summit involved. However, the sight of Cribyn, Pen y fan and Corn Du was just too much to resist. Looking at the map, we calculated it would probably add another 5 or 6 miles to our original plan, but if we left out Cribyn, it would seem more sensible!
Fan y Big, according to wikipedia, "is a subsidiary summit of Waun Rydd in the Brecon Beacons National Park, in southern Powys, Wales. It is 719 m (2,359 ft) high and is often hiked as part of the Horseshoe Walk, a traverse of the four main peaks in the Brecon Beacons."
Free parking at the Blaen y Glyn Forestry Car Park - always a welcome start. In the eventual 13 mile circuit, there were only two really strenuous sections. The first was at the beginning. After ascending a well made path along side some beautiful waterfalls, you encounter a long steep gradient to the top of Craig y Fan Ddu. Despite the fact it was a very overcast morning, it was a lot more humid than we had anticipated, so halfway up this climb we had to remove layers and take on water to avoid overheating.
Once we had reached the top, we continued on the long ridge walk around the head of three glacial valleys - Cwm Caerfanell, Cwm Cwareli and Cwm Oergwm. The impressive vistas changing every few hundred metres. It is worth remembering to look back every now and again so that you don't miss the spectacular views of where you have been! The scattered peat haggs creating a landscape from a science fiction movie.
While Fan y Big itself is a gentle incline, it affords an impressive aligned view of Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du. There is a small overhanging outcrop of sandstone (allegedly called 'The Diving Board') where, if you have a head for heights, there is a fantastic photo-opportunity.
After a quick lunch, we descended Fan y Big and skirted around Cribyn - which, in hindsight, was a wise decision. We made the now familiar ascent of Pen y Fan and Corn Du, then began our trek along the western ridges of the Taf Fechan valley. Different sections of the ridge have different names - Craig Gwaun Taf, Rhiw yr Ysgyfarnog and Graig Fan Ddu. In places, there are sheer drops near the edge of the path. However, if you are anxious about heights, there is lots of grass/heather alongside the well-worn path.
We paid a quick visit (due to swarms of flying ants) to the trig point on Twyn Mwyalchod before a tricky descent - the second strenuous section mentioned earlier. A steep, deep cut track with lots of loose stones and slippery surfaces, which, from a distance, looks like a red, bloody scar. Lots of care needed. This is when walking-poles are probably advantageous but as we don't yet possess them, we took our time and selected our route with care.
We finally reached the Neuadd Reservoir without injury and after a few photos of the abandoned buildings, we walked bag to the car along two miles of forestry road. We would have enjoyed the sudden appearance of the sun except for the now ubiquitous swarms of flying ants and crane flies. We would have taken some more photos of the waterfalls but at this point we had had our fill of insects and did not want to brave the clouds of midges that we could see around the waters edge...maybe we will return in the snow!
Learned and Affirmed:
Slowly, but surely, we are bagging local Marilyns but not quite as many as the man who climbed all 1,556 of them. Well...not yet!
Today, we were joined by our good friend, Tim. An experienced walker and great company! Fan Gyhirych and Fan Nedd are situated in the Brecon Beacons and seemingly far less popular with walkers and tourists when compared to Pen y fan and Corn Du. However, there were definitely more inquisitive cows around and some bravery on Lynne's part was required to walk past by them...twice.
Predicting that the overnight rain had increased the boggy conditions hinted at in our guide book, waterproof boots and gaiters seemed like a wise choice. Following the recommended route had several moments confusion whilst attempting to find landmarks that had disappeared or degenerated since publication. e.g. a wire fence now reduced to rotting posts, barely visible above the vegetation. It added to the fun.
We crossed the northern face of Fan Nedd with beautiful views of the Senni valley below us. However, glancing at the view while you are walking risks an ankle injury! The path is very stony/rocky and needs full attention. Ankles intact, we reached the col joining our two peaks to be greeted by forceful winds and light drizzle. Hoods up and heads bowed we pressed on and began our ascent of Fan Gyhirych's curved northern ridge. Due to the ferocity of the wind, we opted for the constructed path rather than the route along the cliff edge. On reaching the trig point, we had some great views of the Black Mountain escarpment and Llyn Y Fan Fawr in the west, with Pen y Fan and its neighbours in the east.
On finding some shelter, we ate a quick lunch as the sun struggled to make an appearance. Refuelled, we retraced our steps back to the col (and the cows) and ascended the well-worn path up Fan Nedd. We reached the cairn and, once again, it was increasingly challenging to remain upright as the wind seemed to blast us from several directions. After a brief photo-opportunity at the trig point we spent a few minutes behind a thoughtfully constructed dry-stone wind-break before descending the eastern (wind-sheltered!) face back to the car.
Learned and Affirmed:
This is a walk we’ve wanted to do for a while and we were waiting for a fine day. Aware that hordes of people walk Pen y Fan on the weekend, we set off early to make sure we had a parking place. We needn’t have worried. Unlike the Storey Arms, the Cwm Gwdi National Trust car park is well off the main route, down a few miles of single-track road. WARNING: The car park is no longer free unless you are a National Trust member. You will need £3 for the new Pay and Display machine.
The Cwm Gwdi valley is extremely picturesque but as we emerged from a small wood at the foot of Allt Ddu we hit our first snag…and we had only been walking for 15 minutes. There was no clear path due to the prolific growth of the fern. We circled back to see if we had missed something but ultimately decided to trust the route map and our map reading skills. We had to push through chest high fern in some places but eventually arrived at our exact destination. Phew! As we rounded the base of Allt Ddu the view was superb. The Black Mountain escarpment to our left, while ahead of us was the Cwm Sere valley and the peaks of Cribyn and Pen y Fan.
It was an easy and pleasant stroll up the Cwm Sere valley. We received a few noisy complaints as our presence disturbed some newly-shorn sheep and a couple of stonechats but otherwise we marvelled at the spectacular view as the clouds caused the colours to shift on the faces of the two mountains. No other walkers except some tiny figures on the ridges above us.
As recommended in our guidebook, we crossed the river above the series of small waterfalls. Once we had hopped across there was no visible path. It was the most strenuous climb of the day. The slippery, spongy tussocks of moss and grass took a heavy toll on thighs and ankles. It was a relief to reach the red, stony path at the top of the ridge.
We made the steep ascent to the summit of Cribyn (795 m/2608 ft) - still easier than the grassy slope - to be met with fantastic views of the neighbouring Beacons and their valleys. Llangorse Lake reflected the occasional sunbeams and Brecon town itself. We stayed a few minutes to catch our breath then continued along the well-maintained path up towards Pen y Fan, stopping frequently to take photographs of the ever-changing vistas (and oxygenate muscles!).
As we reached the summit, we had been expecting to see plenty of walkers but were somewhat bemused to see the long, orderly queue that had formed for photo-opportunities at the trig point. Very British!?
After a well-earned lunch, we made the trek across to Corn Du, then continued down past the Tommy Jones Memorial into the Cwm Llwch valley. It was a fairly relaxing stroll back to the car park although the final incline felt like it was mocking our tired legs. We valued the company of a pair of Grey Wagtails as we made our way along the river path, and tip-toed around a herd of horses shading their foals near a camping area.
Learned and Affirmed:
An amazing experience. It is hard to describe the sense of awe and wonder we felt all day. Magical moments when puffins decide to land unexpectedly beside you with a mouthful of sand eels. Bullets. Fast. Comical. And, a surprise trig point in the centre of the island.
A special 'hello' to the two families that we met on the day (if you do manage to find this blog). So much excitement and learning going on - shared by adults and children alike. In answer to the question (by one of the children) about Risso's Dolphins, the white markings are due to social interactions, not damage by netting. We looked it up when we returned home.
After looking at our photo, we were assured by one of the wardens that we had been watching porpoises. Just as exciting as the porpoises was the aerodynamic beauty of the gannets as they dived for fish.
Top tip: If you watch where the gannets are circling and diving, the likelihood is there porpoises/dolphins nearby. We followed the advice and were not disappointed!
Learned and Affirmed:
Another Marilyn this week. The Sugar Loaf is situated near Abergavenny and is part of the Black Mountains range in the Brecon Beacons. A 7.5 mile walk with an elevation of 596 m (1,955 ft).
Learned or Affirmed:
We are Lynne and Andrew from Single Steps Learning. Our love of learning and exploring has inspired us to take up 'hill-walking'. We hope to progress from novice to expert! This is our journey.