The Sirhowy Valley Walk
When I walked it there was no guide book but there is now an on-line guide; notice that it’s been renamed the Sirhowy Valley Ridgeway Walk (though not on the on-line guide!). I found the walk not too difficult to trace from 1:25000 maps apart from a forest section beyond Ynysddu station. For the most part it takes moorland on either side of the industrial Sirhowy valley – moorland punctuated by part-recovered spoil tips – with a central section around the town of Blackwood running closer to the river.
Stage 1, Tuesday 22 October 2002: Newport to Blackwood, 16 miles
The Sirhowy Valley Walk begins at one of Newport’s most historic buildings, the Grade 1-listed Restoration mansion of Tredegar House. It was a grey and drizzly day however, and there seemed little to hang around for. The Walk then does its best to take in Newport’s leafier parts, including a pretty park, before ducking under the M4 to join a canal at the fourteen locks of the Cefn Flight on the Monmouthshire Canal, raising the canal 160ft. Industry follows, but Mynydd Machen is a good first hill. The outdoor centre at Ynys Hywel, with its warm and comfy cafe, was an unexpected bonus after drizzle on the moor.
My day’s target was Blackwood, a town which still had a thriving Miners Welfare, though no thriving mines. This was Neil Kinnock country. Many may remember his “do not be old under a Tory government” speech from the Labour Club on learning of the party’s defeat from the jaws of victory in the 1987 general election.
Stage 2, Wednesday 23 October 2002: Blackwood to Bryn Serth, 10 miles
The river miles out of Blackwood are a beguiling mix of the rural and post-industrial, sometimes rising above the River Sirhowy, sometimes close beside it, including one stretch along a former rail line.
Former railway north of Blackwood
I had looked forward to a lunchtime pint at Manmoel but alas the pub was shut at lunchtimes – goodness knows whether it’s open at all now; but a first glimpse of the Brecon Beacons was something of a recompense. Some of the moorland here is a bit of a trudge in all honesty but views down to Ebbw Vale compensate. The finish, at the Nye Bevan memorial stones, is top notch; recall that in his heyday families trudged up to this barren spot to hear the great man orate of the socialist tomorrow – and he was one of the few who could claim to have delivered it, in the shape of the National Health Service. Alas I heard in 2013 of ‘continuous problems on this site, particularly in the nights when people congregate there’ – a telling comment on the state of the nation.
The Nye Bevan stones
Across the Beacons
Stage 3, Thursday 24 October 2002: Bryn Serth to Torpantau, 10 miles
Two great swathes of moorland, Merthyr Common and Mynydd Llangynidr, separate the Tredegar area from the Beacons proper. Neither sees many walkers as they are navigationally difficult, relatively flat with few paths. Proper walking then. My route took me along a former mineral railway to Trefil (another pub shut at lunchtimes; it’s now a restaurant, apparently) and over Merthyr Common (at 2025ft a Hewitt, the first of the walk). It’s not possible to see the summit from the valley, and there’s no obvious ridge to it, so when my compass bearing hit directly on the summit cairn I was dead chuffed.
From here I dropped down and around the western edge of the (disused) northern group of Trevil Quarries, then over Pant y Creigiau to the car park near what was once Torpantau station. My 1996 Harveys map showed the southern quarries as disused – in 2002, they most certainly were not – a rare lapse for this excellent mapmaker.
Stage 4, Friday 25 October 2002: Torpantau to Brecon, 12 miles
Day four brought the first out-and-out mountain walk. It was tipping down when I was dropped off, so I’m not sure Barbara was certain she would ever see me again! I went straight up to the Graig Fan Las escarpment, then cut across to Bwlch ar y Fan, picking up the top of Corn Du before Pen y Fan (2907ft) itself. I had planned Cribyn on the way, but the weather was foul enough not to bother. Descent was by Cefn Cwm Llwch, the most direct way to the lowland roads running in to Brecon itself.
Pen y Fan, with Corn Du behind
Honddu and Wye
Brecon’s Welsh name is Aberhonddu, meaning ‘mouth of the River Honddu’. Its valley heads more or less due north from the town, pretty much the direction I wanted to go. The trick was to find ways to avoid the (admittedly quiet) B4520 which follows the valley. Luckily they exist, particularly a wonderful drove road beyond the hamlet of Lower Chapel.
Stage 5, Thursday 9 October 2003: Brecon to Dollynwydd, 15 miles
The route sets off from Brecon along the Honddu’s pleasant wooded banks, soon crossing from its western to eastern side. I missed my footpath (051307) to Pytindu and found myself in Llanddew, where encouraged by locals I cut across pasture, but in retrospect the by-road to Pytindu from 049307 would have been much simpler. Rolling countryside to Lower Chapel was pleasant walking, with views back to the Beacons receding, followed by the drove road from Castle Madoc.
Looking back to the Beacons
I spent some time on the moor top with the local shepherd before continuing to the head of Cwm Owen. I knew from a work colleague before I passed it that the Griffin Inn, then still shown on most maps, had closed the year before; I might have stayed there otherwise, a welcome respite from the rain. The moorland stretch from here to the little lake of Pant y Llyn is confusing, with many paths, and I was quite chuffed to get across it correctly, before descending in gathering gloom to my B&B at Dollynwydd.
Stage 6, Friday 10 October 2003: Dollynwydd to Llanwrthwl, 15 miles
The next day was very straightforward; stay on the Wye Valley Walk apart from a few hundred yards at start and finish and a deviation to the Golden Lion Inn in Newbridge. But the Wye is a wide and strong river, with plenty of variation as it twists and turns, and there is the market town of Builth Wells to explore.
After Newbridge there is an occasional deviation away from the river and the promise of wilder land shown by Dol-y-Fan hill, rising across the river. There were wonderful autumn colours all around here. Just after the little village of Llanwrthwl, I said goodbye to the Wye Valley Walk and stayed at the nearby Dyffryn Farm.
The lakes of mid-Wales
Stage 7, Saturday 11 October 2003: Llanwrthwl to Ty’n-y-Cwm Farm, 15 miles
The next day took a deal of planning. Should I head towards Rhyader and take the old road across the moors? Stay on the Claerwen reservoir road? An overnight at Elan Village? Then, bit by bit, it became clear: paths south of the Elan Valley system to the Claerwen dam, stay in the untamed pre-waterworks system west, head up untracked onto the moors to pick up a sketchy path, and then head down after Llyn Gynon to the chapel at Strata Florida, which I remembered from a motorbike tour long ago as one of the most peaceful places in Wales.
It turned out to be a symphonic piece of route planning, falling nicely into four movements. First, a mysterious opening through inversion mist, with the sun burning through past the ruin of Ty’n-y-pant to the restored longhouse of Llanerch-y-Cawr. Then, a huntsman’s scherzo along the Afon Claerwen, meeting a working foxhunt – all walkie-talkies and Land Rovers, not a scarlet jacket in sight.
My adagio began from the mighty Claerwen dam. I took a long slow pull up by the heathered Afon Arban, trackless onto Esgair Garthen, with the resolution of finding the sketchy path west to the peaceful resting place of Llyn Gynon. This led to a return to the ghostly themes of the opening, down the depopulated Cwm Mwyro.
But all good symphonies end with a return to the home key, which for me meant the security of meeting the road for the last stretch to Strata Florida Abbey. One discordant note at the end; in some forest round about, some driver was practising rally turns, so not as quiet as I remembered. I had plenty of time to ponder this, awaiting the lift from that night’s B&B.
Stage 8, Sunday 12 October 2003: Ty’n-y-Cwm Farm to Devil’s Bridge, 13 miles
The last day of these four used Tony Drake’s Cambrian Way. It was very much a walk of two halves, wild and less wild, split at the village of Cwmystwyth. First past the Teifi Pools, passing the wonderful Claerddu bothy; maintained by the Elan Valley Trust, I popped my head inside and wondered, can anyone stay here? An unlocked building with bunks and tables, in good order, wind and weathertight, miles from anywhere? I did not realise at the time what an epiphany that was. But I moved on, tracked over to the two Llyns Fyddon and climbed the minor summit of Domen Milwyn.
It’s an easy drop down to Cwmystwyth from here, where the shorter, easier section of the day starts. It took me past the historically influential farm at Gelmast to the arch commemorating George III’s accession, followed by a simple track to the village of Devil’s Bridge.
Accommodation and logistics
It’s easy to travel to Newport, as the station is on the main line from London and the Midlands to south Wales. From there I had just one overnight, at the New Foresters in Blackwood, which I found to be an honest small town inn, until the family met me at Bryn Serth. We then stayed at the wonderful Penrhadw Farm in Pontsticill, just north of Merthyr Tydfil. This meant the luxury of lifts to and from starts and finishes all the way to Brecon; without them, Torpantau (and Brecon) having been public transport-free since the rail line closed in the 1960s, I would have had to have plotted a different line. (One improvement to the public transport infrastructure hereabouts is the reopening of the rail line to Ebbw Vale, just a mile to the east of the northern part of the Sirhowy Valley Walk, so that might have been of some use.)
There is at least a direct bus from Cardiff to Brecon, which I used the following year. From then it was three B&Bs all in a row. Dollynwydd was comfortable if horsey, and the apparently fierce landlady was kind enough to drive me to and from Builth Wells for my evening meal. Dyffryn Farm was very different, better class in some ways, full of culture in its books, though in Wales not of Wales – but it’s the only one of the three that seems still to be in business as of 2021.
The third was the specialist walker’s B&B of Hillscape, further down the Ystwyth valley, and alas now gone. I stayed there two nights; they collected me from Strata Florida, returned me to Tyncwm Farm, and collected me from Devil’s Bridge, so I had a day walking with daypack only. They even returned me to a bus stop for Aberystwyth the following morning! (The bus is gone too now, as it happens.) Staying in that type of B&B, if you can find one, is highly recommended, not least because it offers a chance to meet people with the same obsessions. And on this occasion, there was the added drama of a potential mountain rescue as an ‘elderly’ walker was overdue from his hill day! (He later turned up unaided. And he might have been 70 …)
Forward to Llanfairfechan