At the turn of the year…

A walk on Wednesday 27th December, 2017

2017 was more or less bookended by snow on The Long Mynd. The January fall was a light covering, short-lived and already receding by the time we descended; December’s looked to be made of sterner stuff…

The mix of blue skies – pale blue, admittedly – and freshly fallen snow meant that the climb away from the still relatively quiet Carding Mill Valley was full of promise of what conditions might be like higher up. Deeper snow, fewer footprints, extensive views; all of these crossed our minds. In the meantime we contented ourselves with regular pauses to take in the immediate surroundings; for all that these are our most frequently visited hills, it is rare to see them like this.

The combination of snow-covered rocks and swollen streams made for some interesting choices when it came to foot placement. On a warm summer’s day this clear running water can look inviting for a foot soak. Today it just looked to be best avoided. As we climbed the depth of the snow covering was progressively increasing and the sky intermittently darkened, threatening further falls which, apart from the odd flurry, never really materialised.

The path we were following leads to a short, steep, rocky ascent alongside Light Spout waterfall. It can be tricky in these conditions, when there is often a combination of ice and running water, but is generally more difficult to descend than it is to climb. We made our way gingerly up and over the top; I followed, so that if Jo slipped she would take me with her, and if I slipped I would put only myself at risk. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t seem entirely fair but she would have to come and retrieve me because I was the one carrying the food.

By the time we’d started the return leg, the sun was already dipping low over the hills of mid-Wales, casting long shadows across the snow. There was a consistent six to eight inches of fallen snow across most of the higher ground, with drifts and wind-blown cornices of double that and more (See the picture below). Any evidence of a slight thaw was quickly disappearing as the temperature began to drop, and the combination of surface water running over compacted ice and snow made underfoot conditions for the descent increasingly uncertain. Progress was slow and deliberate, with the treads of our boots becoming repeatedly packed with a mixture of snow and ice and needing to be either kicked or stamped clear to restore some traction.

As we descended, in fading light and falling temperatures, we were both a bit perturbed to be passed by a mixed group of adults and children who had seemingly barely started their walk. More so when one of the adults asked us if there was “anything at the top”. They were all wearing what would probably be described as ‘street clothes’ – no waterproofs; casual wear mostly; trainers and leisure shoes. None of them was carrying any kind of pack, so there was nothing to suggest they had spare hats, gloves, a map, or any food and drinks. It was clear from the question that they weren’t familiar with these particular hills.

We did try to persuade the one who appeared to be in charge that, with the light fading quickly and the temperature falling, coming back down would be much more tricky than the climb, as indeed already was the case, but he seemed worryingly blasé.

Now, okay, this is The Shropshire Hills in a moderate covering of snow, with temperatures dipping down to around -1º to -2º plus a bit of windchill; it’s not the highlands with 100mph gusts, snow past your thighs and sub-arctic conditions. But the path back down to Carding Mill Valley is easy to miss in fading light and there are any number of options for making the wrong choice; it could take someone who didn’t know the hills a long time to realise they’d made a navigational error and possibly longer still to correct it. In the end we had to tell them to note the path junctions and the way marker posts (quite a few of which are down at the moment) and remember landmarks as they passed them.

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A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

A return to mid Wales

This is mostly a photo post: it was the second visit of the year to the Rhayader/Elan Valley area and, coincidentally, the walking was mostly defined by the heavy rains which had preceded our few days there. ‘Coincidentally’ because this had been exactly the case back in May; sustained spells of heavy rain – not exactly a rarity in mid Wales – can turn some of the hills into a quagmire, and a misery to walk.

However, there are compensations to be had from arriving in the aftermath of a good deluge…

The overflowing dam at Penygarreg reservoir – viewed from Penbont

As above, but from a little closer. Or possibly zoomed

The rain was just about over by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of low cloud around and a heavy clinging dampness hanging in the air. This is Wales – come prepared!

The fire in the distance looked more appealing the closer we got. It turned out to be forestry workers on clearing duties, rather than wild campers

By mid afternoon, the combination of clearing skies and steadily lowering sun had lent an altogether different feel to the water and surrounding hillsides…

Better had been promised for the next day, and was duly delivered…

Inevitably, in this part of Wales, there would be red kite…

Looking for feeding opportunities among the boulders

And taking advantage of thermals, conspicuously absent on the previous day

 

08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations… 

 

A belated in memoriam…

Just returned from a couple of weeks based in Kingussie: tired from the M6; body back in the English midlands, head still somewhere meandering one of the endless trails; intending to make a start on a series of posts about selected days and escapades. But, before any of that, an oversight needed to be rectified…

We travelled north on Friday August 4th and there was something about the date that nagged at me; a couple of days later I would remember what it was. A year ago to the day, the blogging community sadly lost one of its finest: he went by the online name of Oldmortality and his blog – witty, erudite, original, thought-provoking, never dull – can be found among the links to the right, under the name One Small Step; OM’s final post was dated 27th July, 2016 and among the comments is one from his daughter confirming that he had passed away. If you’re not already familiar with the blog then I’d urge you to read through the backlog of posts while they still remain available; I still do, and I know I’m not alone. They are unique reflections on a life well lived.

This was where I was when I remembered why August 4th was significant…

It’s the Cairngorm Club footbridge across the Am Beanaidh, which flows north from Loch Einich, and the reason it’s significant is because it’s the spot where Oldmortality once met up with fellow blogger Mike Knipe (whose also excellent blog can be found here: northern pies); their rendezvous is also remembered in the comments attaching to OM’s final blog entry.

Memory jogged, I took a contemplative moment and resolved to do the same every time I’m fortunate enough to pass this way in the future.

Oldmortality loved his music and would often sign off with a link to a tune of his choice. I’m not sure this would have been on his playlist, but it somehow seemed appropriate…

Yet another Long Mynd walk…

Followed by yet another Long Mynd blog post.

We return to The Mynd pretty frequently and I don’t think we’d ever tire of it: proper hill country; an easy drive (under an hour); like a piece of Wales accessed in half the time. And there’s enough variation in the complex system of tops and hollows to be sure that familiarity never equates to boredom.

Climbing away from Carding Mill Valley

Although it’s not obligatory to make Carding Mill Valley the starting off point, a lot of walkers do, simply for convenience. It doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind on those days when it gets a little busier; on a midweek day in winter there’ll be no need even to consider evasive action.

For a while Townbrook Hollow runs roughly parallel to Cardingmill Valley, although eventually their paths do diverge. It (Townbrook) is easily accessed at its lower end by skirting Burway Hill after crossing the minor road (Bur Way) which eventually leads to Pole Bank. The path gradually climbs clear of the valley floor and emerges onto a broad saddle which serves as the junction for a number of paths, offering a variety of possibilities for where to go next. In the context of these hills you’re already relatively high by this point, so from here there is an option to just enjoy some easy exploration.

The preposterously large cairn on top of Yearlet

There is another alternative: it involves sacrificing all of the height you’ve just gained, plus a bit more, and dropping down into the next valley – Ashes Hollow. There is a steep chute pretty much straight ahead as you emerge onto the saddle; it’s immediately to the west of a cairn-topped hill (Yearlet). A better option is to walk either around or over Yearlet and use the equally steep but more navigable gully on the eastern side of the hill; this adds a bit of distance and then a bit more again as it joins Ashes Hollow further down.

The descent is grassy, steep in places, and can be tricky when the surface is slick from rainfall; it’s one I find easier in trail shoes than in boots.

Ashes Hollow

Ashes Hollow is the longest and arguably trickiest of the routes up onto the high ground, but only to the extent that a little more care is needed now and then, and there are probably more places where it would be possible to turn an ankle if distracted. I would also say it’s the best in terms of interest and variety.

In time the path climbs out of the valley and meets the road which we crossed earlier in the walk – just at the point where its name changes from The Bur Way to The Port Way. The road passes just below the high point of The Long Mynd (Pole Bank) and continues on towards The Midland Gliding Club.

Toposcope – Pole Bank

The path back down to Carding Mill Valley can be accessed at its junction with The Shropshire Way, which leads down from the Pole Bank trig point and toposcope, but a more interesting option is to look for an earlier fork leading down to Lightspout Hollow and a rocky descent alongside the waterfall. That said, the Carding Mill path does offer some nice views across Church Stretton and some of the hills surrounding the town – Caer Caradoc; The Lawley; Hope Bowdler. The Wrekin stands isolated and a little further off.

Ashes Hollow: there is a path down there, somewhere…

Whinchat – a close relative of the more numerous stonechat

Some vertebrae and a skull. What with the kite, buzzards and ravens, there was never going to be much in the way of leftovers

A drifting buzzard quartering a hillside

Waterside foxgloves

If numbers are a barometer, 2017 seems to have been a good year for foals

 

 

 

Mid Wales

This has been a while in the writing; not that it’s been agonised over or “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again”, like that mythical version of America, eulogised in James Earl Jones’ famous Field of Dreams soliloquy. Nothing like that, I’ve just been battling with… well, with inertia to be frank.

This all took place over a few days – four to be precise – between Monday May 29th and Thursday June 1st. On an impulse, we decided to have a few days in mid Wales; having left it late the first hurdle to overcome was finding accommodation and sometimes, as on this occasion, the internet can genuinely justify its existence. We found a promising apartment in Rhayader which, in the event, proved to be considerably better than ‘promising’ and to where we will undoubtedly return, both in print and in person.

First though, a word about Rhayader: on occasion I have had to confess to instances of oversight, injustice, omission: Machynlleth was one such – a place we’d invariably hurried through on the way to or from elsewhere and only came to appreciate after a long day spent at an event in the town. Meall a’ Bhuachaille was another: a fine hill we’d neglected for no better reason than it being overshadowed by loftier neighbours; all it took was one diversion up and over the summit to establish that size really isn’t everything. Rhayader was, like Machynnleth, a portal; somewhere to be passed through on the final approach to Elan Valley, Claerwen and the wild, remote hills beyond – Drygarn Fawr; Drygarn Fach; Gorllwyn.

The River Wye from Bridge Street, Rhayader

Well, Rhayader is actually a very agreeable base: we hadn’t actually appreciated that it’s situated on the river Wye, although the Wye that passes beneath the town bridge here is a rather quieter river than further downstream at Hay or Symonds Yat. There was a time when I’d make an early start, drive from home to either Claerwen or Llanerch y Cawr, walk a round of the hills and then drive home; not far shy of four hours spent in the car for a day’s walking, and sometimes a day’s soaking. I’d regularly do a similar day in The Berwyns (my favourite Welsh hills), but somewhere along the line I lost either the energy or the desire for days where the walking is bookended by a long drive before and after. I don’t see either (the energy or the desire, that is) as likely to return, so finding a convenient and hospitable place for an overnight or two will be a prerequisite in future.

Pied flycatcher (female)

The hill walking around Elan/Claerwen can mostly be categorised as arduous, often trackless, invariably boggy. On this occasion, with much rain having fallen in the preceding few weeks, we gave the trickier terrain a miss and stuck to the better made paths around the string of reservoirs, including some sections of the Elan Valley Trail itself. As it happened, mileage covered wasn’t the primary objective, although we averaged around 9 or 10 miles daily; at least as important was the opportunity to see some of the resident wildlife – birds mostly – at what is a generally busy time of year. It probably goes without saying that there were red kite in abundance (Gigrin Farm being just on the edge of Rhayader), but there were also pairs of nesting peregrine and any number of smaller varieties – including redstart, redpoll, stonechat, and an abundance of pied flycatchers doing exactly what their name suggests they might.

An almost full Pen-y-garreg reservoir

The skies generally became more blue as the days progressed, although I was a bit previous with zipping the bottoms off my convertible trousers and triggered a downpour in retribution. Reattaching the dry bottoms to the wet upper part of the trousers was an exasperating exercise, so I gave it up. I could pretend that I’d persevered and mastered the knack, but I didn’t; I just thought “sod it” and stuffed the bottoms back in the rucksack. It was better than throwing them in the reservoir and looking petulant!

Pied flycatcher (male) with food supplies

Immediately east of the visitor centre, and accessed by means of the steel bridge which allows vehicles and foot traffic to cross the Afon Elan, there is a small managed reserve  – Cnwch Wood – with a nicely maintained network of paths and a high density of small woodland bird varieties. It would probably be difficult not to spot flycatchers here during the nesting season.

 

The dam restraining Caban-coch – the most easterly of the sequence of reservoirs

Walking beneath the crags immediately north of Caban-coch reservoir (the one beyond the dam which rises above the visitor centre) our attention was caught by the distinctive call of a peregrine and, within seconds, a pair passed directly overhead, barely higher than the treetops, separated and went their different ways. The female was a big specimen and it was noticeable that even the kite and ravens seemed to make themselves scarce for a time.

Pen-y garreg reservoir, framed by mixed woodland

Craig-goch reservoir

Road bridge crossing the point where the Garreg-ddu and Caban-coch reservoirs meet: the level is controlled by a submerged dam. The road eventually leads to Claerwen.

The inflow of Garreg-ddu at Penbont

Garreg-ddu showing the high water mark on the pump house

The Afon Elan, just west of the visitor centre

The Wye near Rhayader