Post Lockdown Wales Weekender

July 11 was going to be the date. The date Wales allowed self contained overnight stays again. I had picked the weekend of the July 11/12 to finally go out on my own again. Just me, a backpack and my tent. I had craved for this for so long and the weather looked brilliant. The original plan had been to head up all the way to the Howgill Fells. A four-hour drive but well worth it. A good amount of mountains and rather overlooked with the Lake District literally across the road (well the M5 to be precise).

But as Wales was once more accepting overnight stays I quickly changed my plans in favour of much less driving and finally ticking off my remaining four Welsh 2000s South of Machynlleth.

Cefn yr Ystrad – The Hidden Gem?

Headed over to Ponsticill North of Merthyr Tydfil at the Southern end of the Brecon Beacons. It was mid day on a sunny Saturday and once parked up and with a smaller daysack hoisted I started my first walk of the day in high spirits. I’d been to the Brecon Beacons many times, but not here and I love exploring new areas, connecting the ones I already know.

Crossing the dam on foot at the Ponsticill Reservoir I had brilliant views of the water South and North only to spot Pen y Fan and Corn Du sitting prominently in the distance. Oh, hello! Passed a very quiet outdoor centre and then walked gently up a rough but broad path through light woodland before emerging on the barren undulating grassy upland area that is so typical for Britain. So far I had only seen a couple of mountain bikers. This area wasn’t very popular with walkers at all. Brilliant.

Ponsticill reservoir

Time for a late lunch around 14:30 when I came upon a fantastic view over the valley of Dyffryn Crawnon on one side and the Talybont reservoir on the other. Mighty Pen y Fan and its siblings where basking in the sun to the North and my hill of the day Cefn yr Ystrad was waiting for me to the South. What a spot!

It would’ve been a bit better with a nice cappuccino to go with my lunch (especially the biscuits), but I had forgotten my lighter in the boot of my car when moving stuff from my overnight pack to my day sack. Boo.

The path now led gently up to an extensive quarry saw a family on mountain bikes and a group of lads on their trail bikes whizzing around, but I was the only one walking here. Along the fence around the quarry, then up to the summit of Cefn yr Ystrad and wow! What a view. I mean this unassuming little hill near a not very popular Welsh town really was hidden gem. Views far and wide across the Beacons from the Swansea valley to the Black Mountains.

On Cefn yr Ystrad with Pen y fan in the background

Said hello to the fell runner with dog who reached the summit seconds after me and then freelanced down the grassy slope to a path. Really easy up here, no heather, no bog to navigate. Crossed a little stream with steep sides and a very wet bit on the other side. The map surely wasn’t quite correct here. I found an obvious path a few minutes later and looking back to where it came from, it made a lot of sense when I saw it crossing the stream where the sides were a lot less steep. Ah, well.

Heading on, I found the next map error. I was supposed to go onto a field and then into a plantation. The gate was very obviously saying “Stay the f..k out” the way it was secured with lots of string and chain. And whilst sheep and cows looked at me curiously I made sure it wasn’t me that was wrong before deciding to just have a look further up trying to avoid an hour’s long detour going back across the stream and taking the path down.

Turned out there was a stile into the woodland further up. Yay! Map definitely wrong here. Short bit of a crouched half scramble down a steep rocky path/stream under low hanging branches before it turned into an absolutely delightful woodland path back to the car park.

Not done yet for the day

17:00 at the car. 14.5k, 3.5hrs walking. Not bad for a warm up. Repacked everything into my overnight backpack and headed over to Llanddeusant in the very West of the Beacons on lovely roads in brilliant weather. The last 10k on a single track road were a bit nerve racking, but I had to reverse only once luckily.

Set off around 18:30pm with my pack feeling heavy despite only weighing in at under 11kg including two litres of water and food etc. The broad gravel road was a bit hard work as it wound its way up to Llyn y Fan Fach as I slid ever so slightly back every few steps. My heels were unhappy, too. I’d somehow managed to get blisters on each although I’d taped early, but sweating in my socks, the tape had slid down and helped create more blisters. I’d cut them open, disinfected and put fresh plaster and tape on. I was not going to be deprived of my wild camp on a hill tonight.

From the Llyn I took a path straight up onto the broad and long ridge of Bannau Sir Gaer. It was sunny and warm and hardly any wind at all. Shorts and t-shirt. Unbelievable! Overtook a young couple with suspiciously big backpacks like mine and walked past another tent. Never seen it so “busy” up here.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s where I was going to camp

20:30 I reached the top of Picws Du and called it a day. Perfect flat spot right next to the cairn, no one around. There was probably still another hour of daylight at least, but all the day walkers were likely to chill somewhere with a drink by now so I pitched and started boiling water for my boil in the bag dinner… only to find I had forgotten my spork in the car. Argh!!! Drinking my tomato soup was easy. Eating my rice dish out of the bag with a razor sharp Sami knife was a bit more tricky. Somehow managed to not cut off my tongue.

It was a stunning spot in the evening light and after another 5k I had done almost 20k today. Not too bad.

Woke up the next morning after a good night’s sleep around 5am. There was still hardly any wind at all. Quick cappuccino for breakfast and I wasn’t going to try eating my porridge with the Sami knife so rather unpitched and set off at 6am. Walked along the ridge counting at least a dozen tents dotted around Llyn y Fan Fawr. That’s definitely crowded.

Ticked off Fan Hir, that’s the Welsh 2000s in the Brecon Beacons done! Then walked back to the car park along the foot of the massive ridge in the early morning sunshine Clocking another 8-9k or so.

So what’s the thing with wild camping then?

I had read through some posts in one of the wild camping Facebook groups last night and it seemed that after all it wasn’t “allowed” again, since camping in tents wasn’t, but that had more to do with tents on campsites using shared facilities. I was confused.

Now here’s the thing. Wild camping isn’t allowed in Wales and England anyway lockdown or not. But it is generally tolerated if you stick to the few unwritten rules. Things like leave no trace, pitch late, leave early, no large groups, stay away from paths etc.

So I wasn’t sure if wild camping was again tolerated along with the other “self contained overnight stays”. It doesn’t get more self contained than that really. Still, I didn’t want any trouble and changed plans. Instead of hiking up Pen y Garn near Aberystwyth and then camping in Elan valley, I headed straight over towards Herefordshire for Bache Hill and would afterwards drive home from there.

The one I’d left behind

Well, the “other one” really. Along with Pen y Garn and in fact Fan Hir that morning, Bache Hill was a Welsh 2000 I had been awfully close to before, but for one reason or another not climbed. Fan Hir because I wasn’t ticking off Welsh 2000s when I walked straight past it, Pen y Garn because I couldn’t be bothered after a long day the day before and Bache Hill because I couldn’t find a decent path when approaching from the West on a trail run and didn’t fancy heather bashing in running shorts.

Well, here I was again in New Radnor Forest. A very overlooked small area of hills. The drive over in bright blue skies in the early morning had been fantastic. I’d put my Audi into race mode and gunned it (safely of course) around the many corners on those lovely A roads. Almost as much fun as on a motorbike. Speaking of… eight out of ten vehicles were motorbikes this morning!

Stopped in a lay-by just outside of Builth Wells to cook up some breakfast. Cappuccino and porridge with some dried mangoes. Chilled there in the sun watching the bikes go past.

Drove over to Kinnerton a couple of miles from New Radnor. I still had not be able to manage my blisters, the tape had kept slipping no matter what and created more blisters. I had treated them again this morning, but it just wasn’t any good. Isn’t it weird… I’d had these boots and socks for a couple of years now. Super comfy. And all of a sudden I’m getting blisters.

Walked up a steep tarmac road from the village in brilliant weather, but with heels in pain. I wasn’t giving up again, Bache Hill was mine today! The weather certainly helped and I was actually in a pretty good mood, just making my way up slowly.

A short cut to avoid some of the tarmac walking. They do tend to look like that.

Reached the woodland of Ednol Hill only to realise there was a car park and one of those tourist signs for an area of nice walking. Who knew?! I could’ve just driven up here. Never mind. The walk through the woods was lush and I hobbled onwards with a grin on my face trailing a swarm of flies. Like a zombie, haha. Tried a sprint once to see if I could outrun them, but no good.

They followed me all the way through the wood until I hit the open hill side and wow what a view! Countless fields in shades of green and yellow down below, the whole of the Brecon Beacons to the South, the Mendip Hills and Porlock Hill in Devon!

Walked the grassy path up to Bache Hill and what a gem I had found once more. An almost 360 view added the Shropshire Hills to the East and Plynlimon to the North West. I thought I even spotted Cadair Idris. If you look at the map… the view spread over hundreds of miles.

Made my way back down into the woods, where my swarm of flies greeted me and accompanied me until I was back at the road. Back at the car just after mid day. Still a brilliant day out and it was a shame to call it and drive home, but with those blisters it would’ve been a struggle any way. I’ll be back for you Pen y Garn!

Headed home only stopping for a quick snooze just before Hereford. Found out I can sleep indeed in the boot of my car, back seats folded. Good to know. the twenty minutes or so did me a world of good and I indeed enjoyed the rest of the drive home cruising along the Welsh roads.

A plan rarely ever comes together

Even though it had been cut short, I’d had a great weekend. When planning to walk new routes it rarely ever turns out the way it’s been planned. And that makes it even more exiting. I love making plans and I love dealing with unforeseen obstacles or circumstances. Especially, when you’re on your own. Sometimes it’s daunting and I wish I had someone to discuss options with or challenge my decisions. But it’s certainly more rewarding when you have to deal with it yourself.

I’m sure there will be more weekends like this especially whilst international travel is restricted in one way or another. We’re not going to make any plans for trips abroad until this pandemic is sorted. And we’re not too sad about it. It was time to focus on the British outdoors again and go out looking for those amazing hidden gems. Or even better… not go looking for them, but rather find them when you least expect it.

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