Above and beyond Elan Valley

The last Sunday in October and – clocks adjusted – we made our way to Rhayader for a few autumn days. The extent of the rain – which had persisted well into the previous night – was apparent from the volume of water overflowing the rim of Caban-Coch dam. Earlier in the day we had been forced into a minor diversion around Leintwardine: the confluence of the rivers Clun and Teme lies just outside the village and the accumulation of water was threatening to overwhelm the historic stone bridge. Flood levels in the low-lying fields suggested that the caution was justified.

A path skirts Caban-Coch on its southern side; spurs from the same path zig-zag their way around Cnwch Wood – fairly quiet at this time of year, but alive with nesting flycatchers and redstarts during the months of spring and early summer. They’ll be somewhere much warmer by now.

Anyway, back to the path. Running slightly west of south it follows the eastern bank of the reservoir, dropping in places almost to the water’s edge when the level is, like today, high enough to overflow the dam. Soon an inlet is reached; the route swings around to the south east and begins to climb steadily, taking you above the remnants of Nant-y-Gro dam, which played a part in the preparations for the WW2 Dambusters raid.

The narrow path skirting the edge of Caban-Coch reservoir

The Garreg-ddu dam and road bridge – much less prominent than is usually the case

The track now begins to bear east, then north east; finally levelling out adjacent to a small area of coniferous woodland. At around 420 metres, this is the highest part of the walk and the views are mostly of the bleak, high moorland so characteristic of this part of mid-Wales. Frequently trackless, invariably arduous, there was a time when this was one of my ‘go to’ places when solitude was needed.

Scanning around with binoculars I managed to pick up the outline of one of the twin summit cairns of Drygarn Fawr – the highest point in the locality, a place as lonely and remote as just about any in Wales, a favourite lunch spot in times past. A few yards further on, a change of angle, and both cairns were visible; they date back to the bronze age and had been restored and maintained in good condition last time I was up there. That was some years ago now and, as is inevitable with so much still to see, it’s possible that there may not be a next time.

The distant summit cairns of Drygarn Fawr: many a good day, many a soaking…

The moorland extending to Drygarn Fawr and beyond – sometimes known as the Abergwesyn Commons – is owned by the National Trust and shares boundaries with the Elan Valley Trust and the RSPB reserve at Carngaffalt. All of which gives cause for optimism for the ongoing stewardship of the area.

The path eventually gives way to a short section of tarmac walking: a farm road at first, followed by a brief stint on a quiet, minor road  – unclassified as far as I can tell – bordered on both sides by the mature woodlands of the RSPB reserve. A gentle downhill return via these woods leads back towards Elan Village, crossing one the many small watercourses which feed into the Afon Elan.

An August day on Bynack More

We’d arrived in Scotland on the back of disrupted preparations and less hill fit than for many a year. A sequence of illness and hospitalisations on both sides of the extended family had simply eaten up the weeks preceding the holiday – to the point where the whole trip had been in doubt right up to the final week. Among many others we have the NHS to thank for the fact that we managed to get away at all.

The break, when it did arrive, was welcome; notwithstanding that we had swapped rehearsal days in the Shropshire Hills for long afternoons and evenings in A&E and RESUS units and were as physically underprepared as we were mentally drained. Having got there, could we walk ourselves fit? Or at least fitter? By the midpoint of the holiday it was time to find out…

The bridge spanning the River Nethy

For anyone walking to Bynack More from the Glenmore Visitor Centre there must be a point somewhere along the route where the walk-in gives way to the climb; we could debate forever the precise location of that transition, but a reasonable suggestion would probably be the footbridge crossing the river Nethy. Routebuddy makes that about five and a half kilometres out from the start point; whether that qualifies as ‘a long walk in’ I have no idea, but in the context of Bynack More it’s just past half-way and once across the bridge there’s soon a sense that you’re now on the hill.

The hills above Strath Nethy, mostly in rolling cloud

The track is nicely engineered, not too wide (and thus not too obtrusive) and climbs steadily towards the shoulder. Blessed with a benign combination of pleasantly warm weather and a gentle breeze our progress was steady and relatively midge-free. The rim of Cairn Gorm’s eastern face – where it looms dark above Strath Nethy – was never free of rolling cloud, which from time to time spilled over the edge and cascaded down the shadowy, forbidding eastern wall of the mountain. The summit of Bynack More itself was intermittently in and out of wispy cloud – suggesting that the cloud base was somewhere below 4,000 feet, which corresponded with the MWIS prediction for the day. Looking back across the pass of Ryvoan, Meall a’ Bhuachaille was consistently free of cloud as we headed across the shoulder towards the short, steep climb towards the summit of Bynack More. We didn’t pass up this opportunity to take in – and photograph – the views to the south and east, which was fortunate – they were soon to become unavailable!

Bynack More and Bynack Beag flirting with the cloud

As the ground began to steepen, one final look back in the direction of Meall a’ Bhuachaille revealed the ‘consistently free’ assessment to be in need of an update, its summit and those of the adjacent hills having been enveloped by a bank of cloud approaching with some speed from the northwest. How quickly things can change…

Fresh cloud rolling in from the north-west

A few seconds after this shot was taken we were – quite literally – in the thick of it

We found a level vantage point a few feet below the exposed summit – a secure spot from where we could assess the nature of the incoming. There wasn’t long to wait: almost immediately we were blanketed in thick cloud – like a clammy duvet and accompanied by that uncanny silence which often seems to be a characteristic of hill fog. Visibility dropped to a few yards and the first spots of rain followed within seconds; in unison we dived into packs for waterproofs, which were barely zipped when the first strong gust of wind brought a volley of stinging hailstones. We laughed, albeit not for long, at this being just another day in mid August, then quickly reminded ourselves that – August or not – this is The Cairngorms and we’re up above three and a half thousand feet in poor visibility. Time to start down…

Low cloud rolling around the rock formations just below the summit

Dropping towards the more level ground, the path was at first defined by a sequence of pools which had quickly formed in the undulations and hollows. Having reacquired the red/brown shale of the main track we were now also below the heavier cloud and able to relax a little. Within half an hour we were walking in warm sunshine and shedding layers as clouds of water vapour and midges began to rise from the heather.

 

 

The birds of The Long Mynd

I think I might be a bird-watcher; not that it matters but I think I might…

I did read sometime ago about the distinction (I nearly said pecking order and thought better of it) between bird-watchers, birders and twitchers. I’d forgotten where, so I took it up with Wiki, and apparently there is a system…

” Bird-watcher: A rather ambiguous term used to describe the person who watches birds for any reason at all, and should not be used to refer to the serious birder…” Okay, that sounds like me.

” Birder: The acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously pursues the hobby of birding…” Confirmation – the seriously bit rules me out.

Twitching: A British term used to mean “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird…” Well that’s not me either: my naturally pessimistic “it will be gone by the time I get there” mindset would just make it a non-starter.

Or possibly none of the above: maybe I’m just a walker who sometimes inadvertently spooks the wildlife into breaking cover. If so, I apologise for the lack of stealth and no harm is intended.

There are many things which repeatedly draw us back to the Shropshire Hills and the variety of the birds is certainly among them. As with anywhere it’s possible to cover many miles and see very little, as was indeed the case on a baking hot day a couple of weeks back, when the hills were alive with sweltering DofErs, groaning under the weight of their loads. A day when the Year 11s outnumbered the meadow pipits.

Fast forward a week and the skies are more cloudy, the temperature a few degrees lower, the long hollows (valleys) – Carding Mill aside –  all but deserted. And the birds are back: meadow pipits, skylarks, a male peregrine, followed by a juvenile, ravens (as always), linnets, stonechats perched on top of clumps of gorse. And their close relatives, whinchats – tiny birds who in their brief lives (2/3 years on average) routinely make the annual return journey from southern Africa for our brief northern spring and summer.

This one was pictured a couple of years back, alongside the track which winds up Ashes Hollow…

On our most recent visit, just before the path leading down from Callow hill arrives in Little Stretton, we came across a brood of young swallows, newly-fledged and still very much dependent for food. In the lower picture one of the chicks appears to be trying to eat its parent…

 

 

 

 

Gilfach Nature Reserve, Rhayader

Head out of Rhayader on the A 470 Aberystwyth road and in about 3 miles, at the apex of a long bend and immediately after crossing the Pont Marteg, there is a turn on the right for St Harmon, Pant-y-dwr and – reached before either of those places – Gilfach Nature Reserve. I could tell you about it…

I could tell you about the many trails: like the Wyloer Hill Walk, taking you up onto the high ground on the northern side – a couple of strenuous uphill sections, but unobtrusively way-marked and well worth the effort. Or the Marteg Valley Nature Trail, shadowing the fast-flowing river with its populations of wagtails, dippers, maybe otters, and – at the right times of year – Atlantic Salmon. Or the short Oakwood Walk, in the company of pied flycatchers, their more elusive spotted cousins, redstarts, siskin and many other varieties. Take a few moments to be still, become part of the wood, let the birds find you.

The landscape of Gilfach is as much defined by its history as it is by geology: land worked as far back as the bronze age; a traditional working farm until around 30 years ago; remnants of the former Mid Wales railway line still evident in the form of stone bridges and uprights, and the route of the old track bed now forming part of the network of trails. The former farm buildings have been restored as a visitor centre, without in any way compromising their original character. There are facilities and local information and, as with the parking, honesty boxes for donations and contributions. The reserve is now owned and maintained by The Radnorshire Wildlife Trust.

I could tell you more still, but why listen to me when there are better options? You could be listening to somebody who really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to mid Wales, simply by clicking this link. *  It is indeed “a hidden gem…”

Or pay a visit to Gilfach: an hour or two if that’s all the time you have; better though to make more of a day of it; walk a few of the trails; combine them into a longer outing; choose a spot for a food stop and keep the binoculars close to hand.

* This video is also available to play inside The Byre at the visitor centre

Nuthatch chick – Gilfach

Red kite, low over hillside – Gilfach

Pied flycatcher (male) – Gilfach

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 3)

Two days compressed into a single short selection of pictures: more of the same, which reflects exactly how it was. And more of the same was never too much; not once.

So the random sequence is, in no particular order, of waves breaking on a rocky shoreline, the suck and hiss of the retreating water telling its own story of how unwise it would be to take reckless liberties on slippery rocks. Small boats passing larger ships; a haze blurring the demarcation between sea and sky; a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry seemingly suspended in a fog – hovering between air and water.

Great black-backed gulls; oystercatchers; Manx shearwaters; the ringed plover with eggs (or young) secreted somewhere among the weed and shingle of Kilmory; pink sea thrift somehow apparently growing from the bare bedrock of Ardnamurchan point.

And Kilmory itself, quiet, lonely, a place to tread carefully, a place to revisit…

Days 5 and 6

 

Music: The Gael (Dougie Maclean)

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 2)

A week doesn’t allow much time for settling in and there can be a temptation to simply cram in a sequence of ‘whistle-stop’ days; the kind of holiday that can leave you needing a holiday. Thankfully the unexpectedly hot weather helped to crystallise our thinking and there are certainly better things to be doing on a sunny day in Ardnamurchan than spending time in a slow-moving car.

Sanna Bay was enthusiastically endorsed by a number of comments in the visitors book and seemed to be an obvious place to check out as were headed in the direction of Ardnamurchan Point. It (Sanna Bay) is certainly a lovely spot, although we actually preferred Kilmory which we discovered a couple of days later; the ringed plovers nesting in the shingle may have helped to swing that verdict.

There is a lot of coastline footage in the Day 3 selection – little else in fact; an inevitable consequence of holidaying on a relatively small peninsula, with sea lochs and open ocean almost never out of view. For the repetition, I apologise; hopefully the scenery will offer some compensation…

Day 3 – Sanna Bay and Ardnamurchan Point

It took us a couple of days to realise that the deer fence adjacent to the cottage had an access gate for Laga woods, and that the track eventually worked its way up to Loch Laga and beyond. Anyone wanting to see cuckoos, rather than just hear them, could do worse than parking themselves on one of the many rocks which line this path and just waiting a while. The wooden uprights of the deer fence seem to be a favourite spot for them to sit and summon a mate; the noise of their calling gradually abated during the week as they paired up, mated (presumably), and no longer felt the need to attract attention. By Friday there was just a single one – sounding plaintive, and frankly rather desperate.

Having seen Ben Hiant from Glenborrodale, then checked its position on the map, we came to the conclusion that, once the shoulder was reached, views should extend in just about every direction. We weren’t disappointed – even able to pick out the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan point.

Day 4 – Loch Laga and Ben Hiant

 

Music: Field of Dreams (Title track); The ghost of Tom Joad (Bruce Springsteen)

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 1)

This was new ground for us; at least once we’d crossed Loch Linnhe it was. Ardnamurchan was a strange oversight, considering how many times in the past we’d driven that stretch of the A82 from Crianlarich to Fort William. We’d passed the slip road for the Corran ferry any number of times and never boarded; looked over the loch to the other side, wondered about it, but never crossed. I’m thinking this could almost be worked into a new verse for Caledonia.

So, on an impulse, we decided to visit the Ardnamurchan peninsula, found some accommodation, booked and then spent a few weeks trying to plan for… well, for west of Scotland, so all eventualities. Having spent those weeks reiterating the possibility (likelihood!) of rain-bearing westerlies, potentially storm force, I did feel some responsibility for the fact that we’d gone overboard on the waterproofs and fleece and were correspondingly a bit under-equipped when it came to shorts and T-shirts. But pessimism is a lifelong affliction and my new mantra is that, yes we can go back, but we’ll never be that lucky again…

This is definitely one of those occasions where the pictures tell a better story than any words, so with that in mind I’ve tried to create a sequence of slideshows, which my cheapskate, bottom of the range, WordPress plan doesn’t exactly make easy. The slideshows were created firstly with iMovie then uploaded to Youtube and can be accessed by links; the transitions between frames are not the smoothest but I’m operating at the extremities of my technical knowledge here.

The first part of the journey begins not far from where it ends, insofar as I’ve omitted the M5/M6/M74/A74(M) sections and started somewhere around Ballaculish. The shots of Glencoe were mostly taken from a moving car (not by the driver!) and I’d forgotten just what a spectacular place it can be; which is pretty unforgivable really!

And we finally got to board the Corran ferry – in itself a short voyage of discovery.

Day 1 – Journey and crossing

Day 2 – Laga Bay and Glenborrodale

 

Music: Kicking Bird’s gift (from Dances with wolves); Comfortably numb (Pink Floyd)

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

 

Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm

Preamble:

This has taken an absolute age to write and I’m really not sure if I shouldn’t have just paid heed to that and abandoned it. For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the blog in a different direction, without ever really being clear about where that direction should be. Brilliant, eh? An outdoor blogger who can’t even navigate a way through his own thought processes. 

Thing is, there are only so many times it’s possible to write about the final approach to the summit of Worcestershire Beacon, or the tricky descent of Light Spout Hollow. Ironic really, considering there is probably no limit to the number of times I would happily descend Light Spout and never tire of doing so. And it can be tricky…

Anyway…

I’m not a great lover of Cairn Gorm; at least not on its northern side. Actually, that’s not an entirely fair resumé: it would be more precise to say that I’m not a great lover of what’s been done to that part of the mountain, not least the rebranding – and why? – of the mountain’s name, which somehow grates more than it should when I see it on facilities, information boards, or even one of the funicular vehicles and its completely innocent cargo of passengers.

I’ve touched on this before [here] and Chris Townsend recently posted about the rather slipshod manner in which redundant infrastructure was being removed – albeit only partially – from parts of Coire na Ciste. As someone who isn’t, and never has been, a downhill skier, I don’t feel qualified to argue the merits, or otherwise, of the pastime; hence this, from the earlier post…

“It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow…”

I did also – in the interests of intended balance – concede that “there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive…”

With all of that said, and nothing really resolved, I just think that the development – if it had to be done at all – it could have been carried out with a little more subtlety, a lot less intrusion, and with a view to a generally more sympathetic outcome. There’s an obvious question hanging here: if that’s how I feel, why go there? Well, it is a very accessible summit on those days when the weather looks like it might run through its entire repertoire in the space of an afternoon, and – the other side of that coin – a relatively straightforward place from which to retreat. And, once you begin to cross the summit plateau and the buildings and equipment, the tows and fencing, fall behind and dip out of sight, then it really becomes a different place.

I find my gaze is usually drawn first to the lochs Avon and Etchachan, rather than to the neighbouring summits; then, as I adjust my eyeline upwards, there’s often the compulsion to look back down again and confirm that I have secure footing, despite standing on a solid rocky base and a long way from any precipice; a feeling of exposure, where none actually exists – it’s almost become a mannerism. Then the details begin to reveal themselves: the high summits of neighbouring mountains; steep crags falling away into deep-cut valleys; watercourses threading their way down until they meet, combine, create bigger watercourses, spill into the lochs and, in some cases, feed rivers which will make their journey all the way to the coast, gathering power as they go.

And then I realise that I actually love it up here…

I might have liked it more in former, wilder days; I might have liked it more in the future, when the wolves have returned and land management lower down has been reclaimed by lynx and beaver. But for now, and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to climb past the ugly bits and enjoy the views from the top. To some extent, traversing the summit plateau from north to south is like crossing a watershed, a frontier where national park status is broadly observed to the south, and has been selectively set aside to the north.

(Context: it has been more than nine weeks since I last wandered past the summit cairn to take in the views to the south)

Ski tow equipment – Coire Cas

 

Just walking clear of the last of the development

Not pretty, maybe, but natural and as its intended to be

No comment needed (other than that this is taken inside a national park)

 

 

Carn Ban Mor and Sgòr Gaoith: 10/08/17

About this time last year I was ruminating, in that way that curmudgeonly old gits do, about the vagaries of Scottish hill classifications. It was to do with Carn Ban Mor (3,451 feet) not being a munro, on account of having, in close proximity, a parent hill, Sgòr Gaoith (3,668 feet).

Being neither a committed bagger nor cairn-toucher I didn’t much care, and still don’t. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t end there: turns out – if Wikipedia is to be believed – that Sgòr Gaoith itself also has a parent peak (Braeriach – 4,252 feet). Well, seeing as it’s Braeriach, we’ll say no more about it; you wouldn’t want to get into a dispute with Braeriach,

We followed the path – well walked and well engineered, winding up out of Glen Feshie from near the croft at Achlean. The first part is through woodland, always climbing but never too severe, until eventually the trees begin to thin out.

Encouragingly, well beyond the end of the established tree line, there are signs of regeneration and a gradual recolonising of the slopes by native pines. This could well be a consequence of Glenfeshie Estate’s policy of controlling deer numbers; if so it’s a welcome one, although personally I’d rather see implementation of the programme handed over to a few lynx.

Gaining height across the open hillside is, in the main, progressive rather than strenuous, and the views back towards Glen Feshie and beyond begin to open out. The path does steepen a little as it climbs to its high point, which is just about where you need to look for a small cairn marking the junction for the final short, easy stroll up to the summit cairn/shelter of Carn Ban Mor. It’s worth paying a bit of attention to directions and landmarks at this point because, by the time you reach the top of Carn Ban Mor and look back, this way-marker cairn will just have dipped out of sight.

Summit cairn/shelter – Carn Ban Mor

On a previous outing we’d decided against pushing on to Sgòr Gaoith; this was partly down to a later start, but also because a couple of trip reports I’d read had suggested that the walk across was deceptive in terms of both distance and re-ascent from the hollow between the two summits. In the event it proved somewhat easier than we’d expected, although the wind was beginning to pick up and the temperature was dropping as we climbed towards the distinctive outline of number 5 buttress (visible from the platform of Kingussie Station if conditions allow). The drifting clouds also meant that the top was disappearing and reappearing every couple of minutes.

The wind was sufficiently strong to keep us away from the very edge of the precipice, but we did venture close enough to get some shots looking down into Glen Einich and across to Braeriach. Loch Einich was a much more attractive colour than it had been when viewed from the shoreline a few days previously…

Braeriach – not quite prepared to reveal everything

This one – not one of mine, by the way – made it onto the Visit Scotland site

The edge of Sgòr Gaoith dissolving into the low cloud

With the wind coming hard from the west, the only viable shelter would have been one of the grassy hollows just above the 2,000 foot drop down into Glen Einich; maybe worth bearing in mind for a calmer day, or one where the wind is blowing away from the edge. We chose a more cautious option and walked back to the shelter on Carn Ban Mor , which had the dual advantages of being perfectly aligned for the wind direction, and a long way from the precipice. It was an easy decision, and a unanimous one.

Having said above that I’m not particularly fussed about touching summit cairns (or trig points), I do have a fondness for sitting inside them when they double up as a shelter. The one on Carn Ban Mor is particularly helpful, as it’s an exposed top, whichever direction the wind is from, and there isn’t much in the way of natural cover. We took an extended food stop while Braerich, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul played a game of cat and mouse with us – the object being to get a picture with all three summits clear of cloud. Inevitably the mountains outlasted us; they are better equipped for a long game.

Just a final word about Braeriach: what a staggering piece of mountain architecture that is! From a distance, or close proximity, it just seems to keep revealing one more new facet, then another… We haven’t yet viewed it from the Cairn Toul approach, so there’s still more to discover. The Highlands – there’s always a reason to go back.