I haven’t written anything for a while. I’m not sure I remember how to.
There was never a conscious decision to stop writing at The Peaklander, it just stopped being fun. Writing posts takes a lot of time and you get very little in return. In a culture where we want to consume our media as efficiently and mind-numbingly as possible (swipe, swipe, double-tap), people don’t visit blogs unless they’re looking for something specific.
Think of the last time you went on Instagram and without going back to check, how many photos did you scroll past? How many photos did you double-tap to like? How many of those photos did you actually like? I’m noticing more frequently that if you were to ask me those questions within 5 minutes of me closing Instagram, I couldn’t answer some of them. The way you interact with it is so habitual that it makes any meaningful engagement unlikely a lot of the time. It’s like QVC for millennials. Background noise where you occasionally buy something you didn’t need.
I didn’t start The Peaklander with the idea that it might become popular (and it didn’t), but there was still something disheartening about spending an hour writing a post only for someone to tap the heart icon on Twitter without actually clicking through to the link to read the post.
So, for the last few months I’ve been away. I’m not sure I’m fully back yet, but I have a few ideas about how I might revive this thing I was once enthusiastic about. I didn’t start enjoying the outdoors for an audience and I certainly didn’t start walking the Peaks because it was cool – it wasn’t then and still isn’t, although companies like Ordnance Survey are trying their best to commercialise and market it to turn outdoors experiences into digital revenue.
What I loved about walking at the beginning and still love now is the experience. It’s the peace and quiet, the space to think, the connection with nature, the feeling that I have a place in the landscape and, consequently, in its history and future. These are the things I’m going to start writing about more. It might get a little existential once in a while, but that’s what I love about the outdoors – it gives you the space to pick away at the questions that matter.
This idea that technology is bad, that GPS is cheating, that outdoors aides make you less of an outdoorsy type – these ideas need to die. They’re steeped in the past, they’re unhelpful and they don’t encourage anybody to discover our beautiful outdoor spaces.
Ordnance Survey have a wonderful initiative called #GetOutside. There aren’t many hashtags I rally around on social media and I’m pretty picky about the causes I support, but #GetOutside is one that I love. I can’t sum it up any better than Ordnance Survey’s own Nick Giles:
“The GetOutside initiative is core to OS’s aims to help more people to GetOutside more often, it is about inspiring adventures, enabling experiences and helping make memories. It’s already encouraging people to re-engage with the outdoors and showing that it is enjoyable, accessible and safe for all ages and abilities.
We all know the statistics. The shocking levels of obesity and inactivity within Great Britain, even amongst children. A sedentary lifestyle is easy, and it’s winning, and we’re seeing the effects of that on people’s mental and physical health. We appreciate people have busy lives and responsibilities, and that finding the time is not always easy, but we can all incorporate getting outside into our daily routines.”
I read a post last night shared (and presumably endorsed, but I’m making an assumption that may be incorrect) by one of the #GetOutside Champions. That article kept me up last night. It royally pissed me off.
I’m not going to name who wrote the article other than to say it wasn’t the person who shared it, nor am I going to link to it. All too often on social media a difference of opinion becomes personal despite each person having good intentions and seeing merit in each other’s ideas, so I’m going to talk about why I disagree with the theme. Mine will become another blog post floating in the ether that likely garners less than 1% of the views of the article I disagree with. If I had any social savvy or cared about clicks and likes, I’d probably link to it, create a discussion and, in the midst of my burgeoning popularity, people would forget that it’s ideas that should be challenged and not the people who hold them.
That shared blog post loftily stated that if you don’t use paper maps and instead use technology, you’re not a real outdoorsy-type. It went on to say that GPS devices are for ‘children and amateurs’.
We need to lose this rhetoric otherwise a new generation of ‘children and amateurs’ won’t be encouraged to find out what our National Parks are like because they’ll be too worried about running into some holier-than-thou rambler with a ‘pocketable’ laminated map the size of a tablecloth in their hands, and a rehearsed lecture ready to go whenever the audience arises. Please don’t turn outdoor communities into an echo chamber where only real outdoors types post photos of themselves in places inferior city-dwelling types mustn’t tread; where the enlightened few can raise a pint of filtered bog water to each other before they bed down in an outcrop of heather having woven a mosquito net out of nothing but wild grass and wishes.
Don’t wear your outdoors skills like a badge of honour that puts you on a pedestal. Unless, of course, you’re doing DofE or in the Scouts or something; they’re pretty big on badges. Use your skills to inspire the intrepid and curious people who want to learn more. Don’t tell them they’re doing it wrong when they’ve only just started.
I wrote a post challenging the idea that paper maps are essential in all circumstances – it was surprisingly popular and got a lot of support, but I’m reluctant to repeat myself. I want, instead, to look at the other side of things. This idea that technology is bad, that GPS is cheating, that outdoors aides make you less of an outdoorsy type – these ideas need to die. They’re steeped in the past, they’re unhelpful and they don’t encourage anybody to discover our beautiful outdoor spaces. You know who’s going to be wandering our National Parks in 50-100 years? It won’t be you and me, it’ll be the younger generations we encourage to love the parks and their children. Stop demeaning them and making them feel like they’re not doing it right. In my view, we need to show them why there’s so much to love in the outdoors and the skills and knowledge will come later once the enthusiasm and thirst for more takes its hold. Let’s not put unnecessary barriers in their way.
My friend, Rob, is a driving instructor. He’s one of the best driving instructors in the county and is exceptionally talented at providing courses for people with learning difficulties or special needs. I know a similar argument has been happening for decades with (especially older) drivers bemoaning the use of in-car tech such as sat navs. I wanted to get Rob’s opinion on this because there’s an undeniable parallel between navigational tech in the car and orienteering tech in the outdoors – we’re just a long way behind. His response was so perfect, I’m going to post it in full:
Tech can help to reduce cognitive overload allowing a better focus on the true task in hand. In the context of driving, true driving is about what happens outside the window (judgement, assessment, interaction…) not the physical aspect of body movements – reducing the physical load allows greater brain processing on the true skills of driving. We shouldn’t be clinging onto 19th century tech for the sake of nostalgia when we have a better way. Even pen and paper is a tech which allows us to reduce cognitive overload, storing information outside the brain – at the time of its invention this was frowned upon. Even weather forecasting was frowned upon initially, anything new is seen as cheating or heresy.
I asked him to weigh in on how this might translate into the paper maps/GPS debate:
[The idea that analogue is better than digital] is very narrow-minded and works on the basis that we all perceive information the same way. We are a diverse species and our brains all work very differently, some can process paper maps well and that’s fantastic for them. Others will struggle, so a different form of processing should be sought and this is where technology can be wonderful as it provides alternative means to make sense of the same information. A map/satnav or any tech is simply an interface between ‘reality’ and the brain – we should each find what works for us best. I imagine that a lot of individuals with dyslexia/dyspraxia/Irlens Syndrome would struggle with map reading due to the perception issues – it would be insulting and crude to imply that they are lesser because of this. Technology can provide different means to access the same information allowing for the sheer diversity of brain types existent in the human race. Use whatever is necessary to make sense and enjoyment from the world around you. Technology is fantastic for this and it’s insulting that those who benefit are mocked by those who use a different style despite the fact they are using their own crutch (a map).
I may as well stop writing here. Rob said everything I wanted to say and managed to say it in a more eloquent way than I could.
When I wrote Is there still a place in your backpack for paper maps?, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’! I pretty much always have a paper map and compass in my bag for backup. I don’t think the arguments for using paper maps exclusively over technology such as phones and GPS stand up to scrutiny anymore, but I think map-reading and orienteering skills are incredibly helpful skills to have. Useful, yes. Pre-requisites, no.
If you’re the kind of person that blindly follows your sat nav along roads that you’re not supposed to be on and have routinely had to swerve to miss things like lakes after following a line on a screen, you should probably stay inside. A paper map isn’t going to solve your problems and Mountain Rescue have it hard enough as it is.
If, like me, you’re in love with that intersection between technology and the outdoors, I have good news. The Ordnance Survey app is very good and they’ve recently released a series of OS GPS devices which I hear are also very good reasonable. I haven’t tried one of those, but if I ever do I’ll report back. It really does encourage me to see that Ordnance Survey’s #GetOutside initiative and their Champions are having such a positive effect and that the company is striving to instil passion for the outdoors in the next generation. I just wish all ramblers were as forward-thinking.
You can follow Ordnance Survey on Twitter here, on Instagram here, and find out more about their #GetOutside initiative here. If you want to follow a few of my favourite #GetOutside Champions, who all make the outdoors both accessible and enjoyable, you can’t do much better than these three:
I write this post with some degree of reticence. You see, there’s an unspoken code amongst walkers that you always take a map and compass even if you know where you’re going and you’ve done it a million times. In fact, it’s something even I recommend in my Beginner’s Guide to Hill Walking. I think it’s a good idea. It’s a sensible idea. It’s something I do… some of the time.
If I’m hiking in the Peak District, I have weatherproof OS Explorer Maps for the Dark and White Peak and I take my OS compass with me on every walk. It’s nothing fancy and it doesn’t add a ton of weight for day walks, but if the whole escapade went to hell, I could use them to find my way to somewhere useful.
Having said that, I was in the Brecon Beacons last week to walk Pen y Fan and the Waterfalls Walk and I didn’t take paper maps. Why? Because I didn’t own them and the Brecon Beacons is split across three maps, which starts to add a considerable cost and bulk to packing. Also, I have subscriptions to OS Maps through both the Ordnance Survey website and through ViewRanger. I’m not a massive fan of spending money when I’ve already paid for a thing in a different format.
I’m planning to walk the Pennine Way at some point this year or next and, honestly, I probably won’t be buying all of the maps for that either. Six weatherproof maps take up a lot of space and come in at over £100. Now, I could plan to have maps delivered to me at drop points along the route or I’m sure I could buy them as I go, but it’s impossible to avoid the fact that the bulk still adds up as quickly as the cost does.
The argument goes that paper maps and a compass will never fail you. This is entirely true, with one major caveat: that you know how to use them and visibility is good enough that you can actually see a couple of landmarks. However, while there’s always a Peak District map set in my backpack for weekend walks, I haven’t needed them in five or more years. Electronic mapping is my preferred choice to find my location and bearing, but ask anyone wearing tweed or decked out in Berghaus for the weekend and they’ll tell you that relying on electronic maps is a recipe for disaster. I have to say, I disagree.
If you don’t know how to use a paper map and compass, you’ll get lost if that’s all you have at your disposal. Similarly, if you don’t make sure you’re prepared to use electronic maps, you’re also going to come unstuck.
The main argument against using electronic mapping is that of battery life. If your battery dies, you’re screwed. Again, this is true, but battery packs that can recharge a device multiple times while it’s still in use are a dime a dozen. I have a couple of RavPower portable chargers – one that will charge an iPhone 8 Plus two or three times (it’s tiny) and a large one that will keep multiple iPhones and an Apple Watch charged for about a week. It’s a little heavy, but it’ll easily fit in your backpack while taking up less space than a single paper map.
Based on recent experience, however, I’ve found my perfect setup: it’s a combination of OS Maps on the web and ViewRanger on the Apple Watch. The latter does a very clever thing where it hands off a lot of the battery-sucking duties to the iPhone, which means that neither your Apple Watch or iPhone take a massive hit. What’s more, the Apple Watch is always accessible and exactly where you need it, and it’s waterproof. This means your iPhone can be safely stowed in a drysack and you never need to touch it. I’ve been trying to work out how far I think I could hike in a single journey using this setup and, based on massively unscientific observation, I reckon I could easily cover 20 miles on foot. On my last 10 mile route, my Apple Watch battery went from 100% down to 65% and my iPhone went from 100% down to 82%. I think 20 miles would be reasonable. Beyond that, you’re chancing it without the means to recharge.
“But what if your phone and Apple Watch break?” I hear you cry. Well, if that happens, we’re already having a Type III fun kind of day, aren’t we? My response to this is that if one of those devices fails, I have the other as backup. If both of them fail, the other three hikers I tend to go walking with will have their own phones with the route pre-loaded. If the five devices we have between us all fail… well, yeah, then we’re well and truly screwed. To people who think electronic mapping is the devil, my counter-challenge is this: what if your paper map blows away?
Of course, the other benefit of electronic mapping over good ol’ orienteering is that if visibility is appalling, you’ll still know exactly where you are and which way to point yourself. Finding your location on a paper map depends largely on a line of sight and reference to at least a couple of landmarks… if you’re on Kinder with its famous fog and visibility down to a few feet (as it can often be and, let’s face it, it’s pretty barren on a sunny day), electronic mapping is your surest and easiest bet. Even the satellites can see you through fog.
With all that said, I wanted to use this post to give a quick appraisal of the two apps I use: OS Maps and ViewRanger. They both excel and fall short in different ways, but happily, these failures and strengths complement each perfectly.
Let’s get this out of the way first of all, because there’s no debate to be had: Ordnance Survey maps are the standard and there’s nothing out there that comes close to beating them for clarity and information. All of my route planning starts on the OS Maps website without fail.
Using either the OS Leisure Maps or National Parkways maps, plotting a route on the OS Maps website is so simple and pleasingly accurate that it almost raises a smile on my wind-beaten face. The website plots the route between two waypoints, following every twist and turn in intricate detail. For anyone with OCD about the route matching the actual path (ahem, that’ll be me), it’s an absolute godsend. Honestly, it’s really satisfying. Even if you’re not going anywhere, just give it a go and feel good about your day.
Once you get to the end of the route and hit Save, that route becomes immediately available in the Ordnance Survey OS Maps apps for iOS and Android, where you can also download an offline map to ensure you have access when you’re in the remote hills without a signal. OS Maps also has an incredible number of pre-plotted routes from AA Walks, Trail Magazine and myriad other publishers, along with community-created routes – all included in your subscription for no extra cost.
Unfortunately, the place where we hand over to the mobile app is the place where OS Maps and I take leave of each other. As beautifully-designed and easy to use as the OS Maps app is, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to actually following your route.
This isn’t just a one-off, this is how it always goes for me: load up the OS Maps app in the hills, find the route you previously plotted and hit Follow Route. Simple. Now you start walking. Maybe my expectations are too high, but what I expect to happen next is that the little arrow (which tells me my location) keeps up with me. As I move, it moves. Except, this doesn’t happen. You can walk for one minute, two minutes or five minutes, and that little arrow belligerently stays where it is. Give the screen a poke, move the map a little and the arrow will snap to where you actually are. It’s almost as if it nods off when you’re not looking and then jolts itself awake, pretending that it was with you all along.
This isn’t device-specific either, I’ve experienced exactly the same behaviour on multiple iPhones. Perhaps Android fares better?
The other issue with using the OS Maps app for navigation is the lack of an Apple Watch app. This means I constantly have to have my phone to hand. In an urban environment that would be entirely reasonable, but not in the hills. You see, you can’t keep it in your pocket because it might meet its demise when it falls out as you’re scrambling. You can’t keep it in your larger thigh pocket because you might bash it on a rock. You can’t keep it in your backpack because it’s an almighty pain in the arse to have to take it off every time you want to check you’re on the route. If it’s raining, that means taking off the backpack cover, opening the backpack, soaking half your stuff which you’d previously secured in a drysack, and then exposing your very expensive iDevice to the elements. I know that you can get those bags to put your phone in that allow it to hang from your neck and survive the rain, but… no. Not when there are better solutions out there.
And so, I use the OS Maps website to plot my route, but then I export it as a GPX file and head over to ViewRanger.
ViewRanger suffers from the exact opposite problems to OS Maps – the website is the clunky part, but the route tracking on mobile is unparalleled. Now, you can plot a route in ViewRanger on the website. You can even purchase a separate OS Maps subscription through their app and plot your routes using OS Maps inside ViewRanger. While this sounds like the ultimate solution, ViewRanger’s snap-to-route function is nowehere near as detailed or intricate as it is on OS Maps, and the route line that’s generated isn’t as satisfyingly smooth. It’s more like an approximation of the route; you don’t get every twist and turn, but you get a line that more-or-less overlays the National Parkways paths. This might be fine for some, but I’m not a fan. I like my routes to show me exactly where I’m going, even if it’s blatantly obvious. To solve that, I just use ViewRanger’s helpful Create Route from GPX feature and import the route I previously made in OS Maps. It creates about a billion waypoints, but I’m fine with that as you only see the ones you add detail to when you’re using it in the field.
In the same way that OS Maps provides routes from publishers like AA Walks, so too does ViewRanger. The difference is that, while the publisher routes are included in your OS Maps subscription, they often cost some money in ViewRanger. So get them from OS Maps if you have that as well.
Now, over to the ViewRanger app. I’ll start by saying this: it’s not intuitive. There are buttons everywhere, they all do things you don’t expect, some of them are in places they shouldn’t be, and syncing isn’t automatic. Once you’ve found the sync button (which only uploads and downloads data, it doesn’t sync destructive edits like deletes performed in the app), your route is available. You can now download an offline version of the map (I always grab Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps), sync the route across to your Apple Watch and head to the hills.
Once you’re at the start of your walk, you just hit Start on the Apple Watch and ViewRanger takes care of all the clever stuff in the background. You don’t need to think about it anymore. It’s frugal with the battery, it shows you a map you can zoom in and out of, tells you how much further you have to go, and – as if that weren’t enough – the little arrow updates to your precise location every time you look at it. It even shows you where you’ve been as well as where you’re going, which is incredibly helpful.
ViewRanger is second-to-none for following routes. It really is excellent. As you approach a waypoint you get notified of your next instruction and if you veer off the route by more than a reasonable amount, it’ll notify you to tell you to sort yourself out. I genuinely can’t fault the experience here.
Although it doesn’t directly relate to the experience of using ViewRanger in the wild, whenever I’ve had to contact them for technical support or subscription queries, the staff have always been exceptional. The speed, quality and clarity of interactions with them says a lot about the company they’re building.
Neither OS Maps or ViewRanger is perfect, but their strengths complement each other well. OS Maps is great on the web, but I wouldn’t depend on the mobile experience to get me where I’m going, which is kind of the point. ViewRanger, on the other hand, is incredible once you’re in the hills and ready to start following your route, but everything up to that point is a bit of a chore.
Between them, however, I have the perfect setup. Sure, I have to pay for OS subscriptions on both, but that gets me full UK mapping for £40 a year and the best experience wherever I am. The people who are wedded to their paper maps strike me as being the kind of people who still think using in-car sat navs is cheating. You know the kind – they pull out their AA route planner every few miles so that they can have an argument. For me, anything that makes walking easier, safer and removes distractions so you can enjoy the great outdoors around you is good in my book.
A couple of things to note about this article:
All of the images in this post come from either the Ordnance Survey or ViewRanger websites. I didn’t ask their permission to use them, so if someone gets a bit shouty and this post looks incredibly boring all of a sudden, it was my fault.
I wasn’t paid to write this review, nor was I asked to. This should go without saying; I’m nowhere near popular enough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This walk is impressive right from the start, with views across the reservoir and up the valley 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If quaint villages and picturesque hamlets aren’t your thing, then maybe you’d like to take a stroll along The Roaches. It’s a place where wallabies roamed, where a Knight of the Round Table challenged a strange figure to a duel, and where a maleficent mermaid wants nothing more than to drag you to the depths of a bottomless pool.