Wild Welsh Weekend

May 2017

A week before I realised I had no plans for the upcoming May bank holiday weekend. The weather looked pretty decent (I laugh as I write this in hindsight) and my usual hiking friends were unavailable, so it seemed like a good time for my first solo wild camping trip. I looked up various train connections and settled on the Brecon Beacons, and forecast-watched for the rest of the week. The weekend of sun had turned to sun and showers, but that was fine enough by me.

I got the train to Cardiff, then a bus to Merthyr Tydfil (I googled how to pronounce this so I would be understood by the bus driver). I woke up at 4am to an incredible thunderstorm directly over the town. At least the hotel had a good view of the storm. There was constant thunder, torrential rain, and the sky flashed with lightning strikes every few seconds. Glad to be indoors tonight.

I’d planned to have a lie-in as I’d not been feeling great during the week, and the weather was set to improve in the afternoon. I ended up leaving the hotel around 11am, relieved to be out in the fresher air. I picked up the Taff Trail by the river, and followed the old railway line in the drizzle. I was in no rush, as I didn’t want to be setting up camp much before dusk, which was around 8pm. The Taff Trail was a nice winding route, and quite flat, though a lot of tarmac which made my feet a bit sore.

The cloud showed no signs of lifting as I stopped in a pub in Pontsticill for a late lunch. I lingered over a hot chocolate before venturing back out into the intermittent rain. The next section was an undulating gravel trail through a forest, which was kind of spooky in the mist and no one else around. As I turned off the Taff Trail the path started climbing into the cloud, rain, and wind. I paused under some trees to put on my waterproof trousers – it’d been light and warm enough so far that I preferred walking in my shorts.

Predicting poor conditions up on the tops, I double-checked the route on the map, then carried on climbing. I passed a few couples coming down off the hills, looking very bedraggled. I asked one what it was like up there – “Windy!”. I was soon to discover this myself. As I reached the saddle between Cribyn and Fan y Big the wind buffeted against me, driving the rain in waves. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Clearly the forecast had been wrong, and the weather wasn’t going to improve any time soon. I considered retreating back down to the valley where I’d passed a couple of tents, or heading straight over. I decided to carry on round to Pen y Fan with about 10m visibility.

The wind was gusting from the west, so I was banking that the little lake on the eastern side of the Corn Du ridge would be somewhat sheltered. If it wasn’t then I guess I’d carry on walking down the Cwm Llwch valley and find a wall to hind behind. I took it steady up Craig Cwm Sere, being careful with my footing so as not to be caught off balance by a sudden gust on my big backpack. I reached the top feeling very alive. Then a couple loomed out of the fog, wearing jeans and no waterproofs, lessening my feeling of wildness.

As I turned into the wind to skirt around Corn Du, the noise of the wind in my rain hood sounded like thunder and scared the bajeezus out of me. Still, I didn’t hang around. I made a right at the junction of tracks, continuing until I reached the ridge path and the memorial obelisk. As I descended to the lake the wind did indeed ease, and I was below the clouds. As the lake came into view I counted 5 tents already pitched around the edge by 7.30pm.

I’d wondered if others would have been put off by the weather, but clearly not. I tried picking out a suitable pitch site from above, and ended on one a bit to the south below the lip of the water, and out of sight from the rest of tents. And what a view down the valley.

The wind was still gusting pretty strong, which made for some tent-pitching theatrics. It also changed direction slightly in the evening, meaning the Scarp was getting hit side-on, but it remained upright, albeit noisily. The thought of other campers nearby reassured me on two fronts – a) what were the chances they were axe murderers if they were camping on a night light like this, and b) if an axe murderer came all the way up the valley to the Cwm, others nearby would hear me. Yes, I have an annoyingly active imagination when alone in a tent.

I woke up at about 4, stuck my head out the tent to watch a murky sunrise, then went back to sleep for a few more hours. I packed up and was walking by 7am, checking that there was no trace of where I had camped on the ground. I headed back up and over the ridge into the cloud. I cut across the grass until I intercepted the motorway-like track descending to the valley, with a lump over the side of Y Gyrn.

As I emerged from the clouds near the Storey Arms Centre at the bottom, I was surprised how many people were already starting walking up at about 7.30am on Sunday. A few seem perturbed that I had apparently already been to the top despite their early start.

I walked down the road a little (along the Taff Trail again) to a lay-by with food vans and public toilets. I cooked my porridge on a picnic bench and bought a mars bar for later. I started up the hill the other side of the valley on the Beacons Way, which was empty except for a wild pony and her foal, as everyone else was on Pen Y Fan. The cloud had lifted from all except the very top of Corn Du, and the sun was shining.

The crossing of the Rhos Dringarth plateau was boggy in places, but my feet remained largely dry. The traverse to Fan Llia had great views all around, and I stopped by the cairn for a coffee. There was barely any wind so I had no aversion to stopping on the hill top, and I dug out my stove to boil some water. The coffee, a ‘cappuccino’ sachet from a Berlin hotel from a recent work trip, wasn’t exactly gourmet, but things always taste better with a good view.

I ambled down the hillside following a vague path but mostly just headed on a bearing to the crossing in the valley. It was then back up the other side along a wide gravel track, back down to a river, and then up onto moorland. It was about a month since finishing my Coast to Coast walk, and I kept thinking how much the lambs had grown in a few weeks. They’d been so small in April.

After negotiating passage through a herd of cows grazing on the path, I crossed into the Dan Yr Ogof nature reserve. A welcoming sign said that I was allowed to walk anywhere but sticking to the path was recommended, as beneath me was the deepest cave system in Britain and there were some sinkholes. Sticking to the path it was then.

There was a forecast of thunderstorms overnight so I opted to stay at the National Showcase Centre for Wales campsite in the valley. Ominous clouds gathered about my arrival, and 10 minutes after I’d pitched my tent the rain started. I cooked dinner with the stove just outside the tent, reachable from the porch to stay dry – another tasty meal from Firepot (I used their microadventure bundle for meals for this weekend).

With the rain and low cloud set to continue all of the next day, I got the bus from outside the campsite in the morning to Neath, which is on a direct train line to London. It may have been a rather wet and windy introduction to wild camping, but I’m already planning for some more trips over the summer.

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