Adventure & Worry

Or: How to do a long walk, which is quite a scary thing to do when you (over)think about it.

Or: How to do a really long walk, which is quite a scary thing to do when you (over)think about it

Anxiety is a fairly loaded word these days and I’m reluctant to use it here. If you’ve ever suffered with it, you’ll know that it’s pervasive; it’s the fear our ancestors would have had when they knew a predator could sneak up on them at any moment, but somehow your mind has convinced you that you need to feel the same way at 10am on a Tuesday morning when you’re just trying to get a spreadsheet done. This isn’t a post about anxiety, but it is a post about worry. Maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about.

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Brecon Beacons Waterfalls Walk

When you’re visiting a National Park renowned for it’s rugged and sweeping hills, barren moors and mountain scenery, it might not occur to you that some of the most impressive walks might be found in the valleys.

Waterfalls Walk

If you’re anything like me when it comes to planning your weekend walks and hikes, you’ll grab an OS Map and look for the high ground. When I was in the Brecon Beacons last week, the first walk I did fell into that category – I headed straight for Pen y Fan, the highest British peak south of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. For this walk, I headed for these low altitude gems.

When you’re visiting a National Park renowned for it’s rugged and sweeping hills, barren moors and mountain scenery, it might not occur to you that some of the most impressive walks might be found in the valleys.

Thankfully, after watching The Brecon Beacons with Iolo Williams, I became enamoured with an area of dramatic limestone scenery in the Beacons known justly as Waterfall Country. Found south of the upland plateau of Fforest Fawr, this area of deep, narrow gorges is sheltered by the most vibrant and otherworldly woodland, interspersed with gushing waterfalls.

Truth be told, you don’t need a map for this one. The Waterfall Centre, where you’ll park your car, has some of the most well-signposted routes that you’ll find in any National Park – testament to just how popular the area is with walkers and tourists alike. As always though, I’d urge you to prepare as you normally would: make sure you have any kit you’d typically take into the mountains, including your waterproofs and a map that you know how to read.

The Waterfall Centre at Porth yr ogof, near Ystradfellte

There are a number of free laybys in the area that will all add a mile or so to your walk, but for the sake of convenience, park here. You’ll exit the car park and follow the clearly-signposted route to the riverbank of the Mellte, keeping it to your right as you weave between trees and rocks covered in the most vibrant ferns and moss.

Waterfalls Walk

Sgŵd Clun-gwyn

The first waterfall you’ll come to a mile or so after leaving the car park (though you’ll hear it long before you see it) is Sgŵd Clun-gwyn, the ‘fall of the white meadow’. It is formed where a north-northwest to south-southeast fault brings hard sandstone up against softer mudstone.

Waterfalls Walk 2
A staircase made of tree roots.

From here, you can pretty much make your own route, but due to resurfacing work that was happening on the paths when I visited, I took the middle of three available routes down to the lowest of the falls and worked my way back up. Rather than describing how to get to each of these (because it’s so obvious and well-signposted once you’re there), I’ll just give you a taster of what you can looked forward to.

Sgŵd yr Eira

On the Afon Hepste, Sgŵd yr Eira is famous for being the fall you can walk behind as the ‘falls of snow’ plunge over a hard band of sandstone.

Sgwd yr Eira
Sgŵd yr Eira

Sgŵd yr Pannwr

The ‘fall of the fuller’ or ‘fall of the woollen washer’ is the lowermost of the three falls on the Mellte. It’s a spectacular fall and the noise is deafening.

Sgwd yr Pannwr
Sgŵd yr Pannwr

 

Sgŵd Isaf Clun-gwyn

The ‘lower fall of the white meadow’ is the middle of three falls and, for me, the most impressive. It’s also the least obvious to get to and I suspect that some people miss it altogether having walked down to Sgŵd yr Pannwr and not realising that you can follow a boarded walk around a corner and over some rugged-looking rocks. It’s worth the extra effort, though, the view and the sound is astounding.

Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn
Sgŵd Isaf Clun-gwyn
Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn with Rainbow
Sgŵd Isaf Clun-gwyn with a rainbow emerging from the lower fall.

Normally, this is about the place where I’d point you in the direction of OS Maps and ViewRanger routes, but I’d urge you to explore this area and forge your own path. Everything you need to know can be found on the AA Walks website.

 

 

Pen y Fan

The landscape of the Brecon Beacons is altogether different from the Peaks and, to my eyes, sits somewhere between the grandeur of the Lake District and the rolling hills I’m more familiar with back home.

Pen y Fan

As much as I love the Peak District, I find myself in the Brecon Beacons at least once or twice a year. The landscape is altogether different from the Peaks and, to my eyes, sits somewhere between the grandeur of the Lake District and the rolling hills I’m more familiar with back home.

It’s like the Peak District’s more rugged sibling. It doesn’t have quite the grandeur of the Lake District, but the terrain is often more imposing than the Peaks. As if the spectacular scenery wasn’t enough, you also get the most wonderful night skies in the Brecon Beacons thanks to it being an International Dark Sky Place.

Stars in Brecon Beacons

This walk takes us to Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales. At 886 metres (2,907ft) above sea-level, it is also the highest British peak south of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. The twin summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du at 873m (2,864ft) were formerly referred to as Cadair Arthur or ‘Arthur’s Seat’.

There are several ways to approach Pen y Fan. There’s a gentle walk from the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf, known locally as ‘the motorway’, which is manageable for the vast majority of people – even small children – given that it starts at an altitude of around 400m. For a more challenging approach from the Storey Arms, an 11-mile circuit will also take in neighbouring peaks, Corn Du and Cribyn. If you’re going to Pen y Fan, it would be a crime to not also summit Corn Du, which I think has the better views.

If the tourist route isn’t for you – and I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to walk up a hill surrounded by people complaining about the climb while attempting it in skinny jeans and Converse – a challenging 7.5-mile route from Cwm Gwdi car park (310m) starts just north of Pen y Fan, with stunning views east over the River Nant Sere and west over Llyn Cwm Llwch.

And then there’s the tough one; the epic 10-mile horseshoe walk. This is the route that I took and, as it turns out, it’s also one of the training routes that the British Army uses. Passing several groups of officers decked out in full camo gear on the way to the summit, it’s fun to imagine that your little hobby is what the British Army is doing for training.

As always, links to the route I took can be found at the end of this post.

Taf Fechan Forest and Upper Neuadd Reservoir

There are several free car parks to choose from in Taf Fechan Forest. If you take a look at the OS Map I’ve linked to at the end of this post, you’ll see the exact one where this route begins. From here, you’ll walk north along the lane to the Filter House and head west across the lower banks of the Upper Neuadd Reservoir.

Upper Neuadd Reservoir 1.jpg

This walk is impressive right from the start, with views across the reservoir and up the valley to Pen y Fan.

Upper Neuadd Reservoir.jpg
The view across Upper Neuadd Reservoir to Pen y Fan

Craig Fan Ddu

After leaving the reservoir, you’ll need your camera. Not because the views are particularly spectacular (though they are expansive and beautiful) as you climb to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge, but because the steep clamber will have you gasping for breath and looking for any excuse to pause and ‘take in the view’ while your heart rate returns to a slightly-less-than-alarming level.

Craig Fan Ddu
“Just stopping to look at the view…”

The wonderful glacial valley you see as you climb reminds me a lot of the Kinder Plateau, although the red sandstone provides a pleasing change to the gritstone of the Peaks. If you’re lucky, you might see red kites cruising overhead.

View from Craig Fan Ddu.jpg
Glacial valley.

Corn Du

Some miles later, you’ll arrive at the approach to the anvil-shaped Corn Du. It’s not quite as tall as its close neighbour, but the views are spectacular. I urge you, don’t be tempted to take the lower path and head straight for the big summit – take the time to walk over Corn Du and you won’t be disappointed.

While you won’t find any trig pillars at the top of these Welsh hills, you will find the summit marked by a Bronze Age cairn with a central burial cist, similar to the one you’ll see shortly on nearby Pen y Fan.

View from Corn Du

This was probably my favourite part of the whole walk as you get panoramic views down into Cwm Llwch and across the Usk valley to Brecon as well as east towards the Sugar Loaf, Monmouthshire above Abergavenny.

Pen y Fan

While crossing the saddle between Corn Du and Pen y Fan, there are spectacular views to the south, down the Neuadd Valley to the reservoirs that are above Merthyr Tydfil. Like Corn Du, the summit of Pen y Fan is marked by a Bronze Age burial chamber. When it was excavated in 1991 a bronze brooch and spearhead were found inside.

Pen y Fan Cairn.jpg

I read before I planned this walk that if you stand on Pen y Fan and look northwest, you can see all the way to Snowdonia. The view was indeed spectacular, but the visit to the summit was short-lived because I don’t enjoy sharing my well-earned summits with people who strolled up from the nearest car park in Nikes with their selfie sticks.

Cribyn

From Pen y Fan, you’ll continue along the escarpment edge to Cribyn. From the plateau of Pen y Fan, Cribyn looks like a mere hill, but I found the path up to it every bit as tiring as the first climb up to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge… I blame tired legs.

Cribyn
Cribyn from Pen y Fan

Once off Cribyn, a clear path heading south takes you the whole length of the opposite side of the horseshoe back to where you parked at Taf Fechan Forest.

If you do this walk, I’d love to know what you thought of it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. You can find the route I took on ViewRanger and OS Maps.

Alport Castles

I experienced almost every type of weather over the 10 miles of this route to the impressive Tower at Alport Castles in the Peak District.

Alport Castles.png

This was the first time I’d done the walk from Fairholmes in the Derwent Valley to the rocky pinnacles of Alport Castles.

Ladybower and Derwent Water will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the Peak District, but I’ve typically explored north, east and south of the waters without heading west.

OS Maps have this down as a leisurely walk, while AA Walks (via ViewRanger) has its difficulty as ‘hard’. As you might expect, it ended up somewhere in the middle, although I’d imagine that it could swing to either extreme depending on the conditions you do it in. I experienced almost every type of weather over the 10 miles of this route – mist in the valley at the start, turning to sleet and then hail, then a blizzard that froze my Camelbak feed along the ridge, sun at the midway point, and flurries of snow on the route back.

For a walk that commands impressive views, it’s remarkably difficult to do them justice through a lens. I blame the ice. There were so many times I knew I’d be able to get a great shot if only I could get over there, but getting ‘over there’ would have had even Shackleton flummoxed. Sheer cliff faces and a pervasive sheen of black ice is a recipe for Type III fun.

Despite the lack of impressive photos to write home about, the walk was wonderful and one I’d highly recommend. This is what you can look forward to on this route…

Derwent Valley

The walk begins at Fairholmes Visitor Centre at the south of the crumbling foundations of Fairholmes Farm, harking back to the days when this area used to be agricultural land. This valley was farmed for many years before it echoed with the sounds of labourers cutting, shaping and dressing stone for the dams which you see there now.

Lockerbrook Coppice

Almost immediately after leaving the car park, you’ll feel the ache in your legs as you climb through the woodlands of Lockerbrook Coppice. The path through the woods isn’t immediately obvious – there are obvious and clear paths, but they’re not the ones you’re going to take. Instead, you’ll ascend a well-trodden route that meanders through the trees, established only by the many boot marks that have blazed the trail before you.

Lockerbrook Coppice
Lockerbrook Coppice

After emerging from the coppice, the route takes you across Hagg Side spruce plantation before traversing Bellhag Tor and climbing toward the peaty ridge of Rowlee Pasture, where you’ll get your first view of the landslips that have defined the landscape here.

Rowlee Pasture.jpg
On one side of the wall, there’s sun. On the other side, a blizzard.

Alport Castles

A fairly long stroll across the ridge will reveal the largest landslip in England. It’s called Alport Castles and, as you look toward The Tower, you’ll understand where the name comes from. It’s impossible to do justice to The Tower in an image taken from the cliff edge, but it’s a huge gritstone tor that rises out of a chaotic jumble of boulders and grassy mounds that have become separated from the main ridge.

After the last Ice Age and over many, many years, shales that are sandwiched between tiers of gritstone in soft bands were eroded, leading to a half-mile long landslide that dropped 100ft below the main cliff.

I sat on the cliff edge as close as I dared due to the ice and took in the views of the snow-dusted expanses of Bleaklow. That’s another route I haven’t explored much and it’s one I need to get around to doing later this year.

The Tower.png
The Tower at Alport Castles

Heading Home

From Alport Castles, you first descend to Alport Farm before following the valley to its meeting point with the River Ashop, where you’ll take the old Roman road that linked the forts at Melandra (at Glossop) and Navio (near Bradwell). You’ll cross the lower grass slopes of Kinder Scout before your final climb rewards you with an expansive view of The Great Ridge, Castleton and Hope.

The Great Ridge.png
The Great Ridge

You know how there’s always a little bit of a surprise uphill slog at the end of every walk? This walk has that in abundance. The last two miles* are a more-or-less constant ascent which, having already walked 8 miles, is the reason this walk can become moderate in difficulty or hard depending on the conditions. It’s definitely worth it, even if the photos that resulted from this snowy, sunny, hailing, blizzardy, foggy day don’t quite prove it.

*Author’s note: this might be a gross exaggeration, I haven’t looked at the elevation chart. It felt like gravity assaulted me for something like two miles.

Follow the Route

If you’d like to follow my route, you can find everything you need on OS Maps and ViewRanger.

Mark

How Much Fun Are You Having in the UK’s National Parks?

It’s a glorious day, you didn’t need your waterproofs, Yaktrax, walking poles, rucksack or water reservoir for this little day trip into your local National Park. You even know the route well. Everybody you’re with is cracking their best jokes and laughing. You never want this to end! Congratulations, you’re having some Type I fun!

Pretty much everything about our National Parks is great. There’s almost nothing to dislike about them. You’re taking in the fresh air, getting some exercise, you’re not in London, there’s very little concrete underfoot, people enquire about your day and anticipate jovial conversation, and there are wonderful views. So why the need for 3.5 types on fun? And what does that even mean?

Type I Fun

This is the kind of fun where everything is just magnificent from the moment you put on your boots, don your walking jacket and set off on your adventure. It’s a glorious day, you didn’t need your waterproofs, Yaktrax, walking poles, a rucksack or water reservoir for this little day trip into your local National Park. You even know the route well. Everybody you’re with is cracking their best jokes and laughing. You never want this to end! Congratulations, you’re having some Type I fun!

Type Iss Fun

Apparently, ss in Roman numerals means ‘one half’, so this is Type 1.5 fun. Having to find the Roman numeral equivalent of ‘one half’ while writing a blog post is an example of Type 1.5 fun – this is a fun post to write, but I’ve just had to Google what ‘one half’ is in Roman numerals and I’ve probably used it incorrectly. Honestly, that sucked a little bit.

Let’s imagine you’re having your perfect Type I fun adventure and then there’s that sodding great hill you have to climb up or a footpath that’s mostly ice that causes you to fall on your arse. It’s not going to ruin your day and everything else is just awesome, but let’s be honest here – sometimes parts of your otherwise excellent adventure can suck. You don’t want the uphill battle to last the whole time, but once you get to the view it was worth every aching muscle. You’ve just experienced Type 1.5 fun.

Type II Fun
This is Pete picking up some particularly volcanic dog mess. Harrowing at the time, but hilarious in hindsight. Type 1.5 fun, right there.

Type II Fun

Type II fun is rubbish most of the time you’re doing it, but it’s pretty great to brag about or learn from in retrospect. The walk we did to Kinder Downfall where we walked through a cloud for four hours, broke my phone, and my waterproofs proved woefully inadequate in the face of the task is a great example. My face hurt from the driving rain, my legs ached, and there was no view. Even if there had been a view, I couldn’t take any photos for fear of damaging my camera as well as my phone. Oh, and I couldn’t see the map properly.

And yet, I remember it as a really good day. That walk, in particular, taught me a lot about hill walking. I’m better prepared because of it and my cohorts and I look back on it fondly, often laughing about it because it was so ridiculous.

If you’re about to embark on an adventure that’s almost certainly going to suck most of the time, but you’ll look back on it with joy or will learn something useful from it, you can look forward to a Type II fun kind of day.

Type III Fun

Let’s imagine that Kinder walk again, but this time we’ll pretend that our navigational skills failed us, we got lost on a peaty moor with zero visibility, felt like we were in jeopardy the whole time, had to call out Mountain Rescue, and one of us fell off a cliff while simultaneously drenching a phone and a camera. That’s Type III fun. It was supposed to be fun, but it’s not. Ever.

Get Outside

If you fancy having some Type I fun on a hill, you can do a lot worse (and a lot better) than reading my Beginner’s Guide to Hill Walking.

If you’d like to avoid having some Type III fun on a hill, you should check out Mountain Rescue’s Stay Safe Out There guide.

Mark