Welsh bikes, hills and stills, camp men, that beach in Torchwood and some sad losses of memory …

August 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Early July was a chance to get down to Wales and stay with friends in Cardiff and tackle some hills in the Brecon Beacons. As my 15-year old Citroen Xantia was once more showing signs of resistance to another 800-mile round trip, I bargained with my father to swap it for his uber-motorway devourer Skoda Octavia which was a good move as the front offside suspension strut on the Xantia had decided to relocate itself against the underside of the bonnet thanks to one of Glasgow’s notorious potholes. Gareth had pitched his caravan in Crickhowell the week before I arrived so we were able to use this as a base for walks in the area. I was also on the lookout for bikes and intended to drop in on Gillian MacDonald at Penderyn Distillery on the way home to see how things were progressing there. We set off on the Saturday morning from Cardiff and after a couple of minutes his in-car phone rang. It was his wife Jan, so it was serious. ‘Got everything there have you Gareth?’ ‘I think so,’ he replied but I could sense what was coming next. ‘You’ve left your rucksack behind.’ ‘Ah, OK we’re coming back.’ It transpired that that was not the only thing he forgot but as I need to create some suspense, we’ll leave that til a bit later suffice to say his memory loss resulted in a side-trip to Abergavenny and an encounter with a much-modified BSA A10.
Gareth had, however, managed to remember where he had left his caravan  and after arriving in Crickhowell, the first outing was to the Bridge End pub to sit in the beer garden and quaff two overpriced pints each before the off. That was after we had got the caravan set up (beers in fridge, malt whisky medicine cabinet transferred safely) as we were closely scrutinised by the surrounding campers who doubtless had started to wonder who, of the two of us, was the dominant male and who would be doing the washing up. It seems that two men sharing a caravan in this part of the world is still considered about as curious as an episode of Gavin and Stacey containing a conundrum. (Ieuan Evans will need to explain that one). I was expecting the beer after the day’s exertions but he does like his ale and being one of those lucky chaps who has retired at 55, he can do what he wants I suppose. The target we were aiming for was the large limestone escarpment that hangs in the distance to the south of the town at the end of a shallow valley that largely forms a nature reserve. The cliffs are a massive slab that lie on top of the coal seams stretching down into the South Wales valleys. It is a mecca for potholers as there are miles of caves within the limestone … more of this later. We crossed the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal  and passed through some sylvan meadows before finding the right access point to get up to the ridge.

No caption required!

This was to be my first walk since starting in the gym a few weeks before in an effort to get back to the levels of fitness I once had many moons ago so it was going to be interesting to see how I fared. Up we went by way of an old track beside the fields to meet the ridge above the valley with no ill effects. The views as we gained height were stunning with a vast panorama to the north of Crickhowell opening up.

The ancient track up to the ridge.

Once gained we headed along what was an old horse-drawn tramway track which had been used to take the limestone down to the canal. The extent of the workings on Craig y Cilau were evident from the amount of quarrying that had been done. This must have been a massive industrial undertaking once.

The Sugar Loaf (596m) dominates the view east towards Abergavenny.

Mr Simmonds ponders for a moment on the track. 'Shit, I'm sure I've forgotten something else!'

After that it was easy walking for the rest of the afternoon as we headed west towards the nature reserve at the end of the escarpment passing a couple of entrances to the caves from which cool but fetid air rose. One of them could have inspired the work of Georgia O’Keefe, to put it mildly.

Ooh err, Georgia ...

Eventually, after a mile or so,  we were heading down the woodland tracks into the nature reserve and the curious raised bog at its western end.

The nature reserve map

We retraced our steps down the riverside to the canal and took a walk along it to Llangattock and the old kilnworks which explains why all this industry once existed.

The lime kilns

Double click on this and you might be able to read it

From Llangattock we crossed the old bridge back to Crickhowell. Beneath us there was some sort of quasi-religious baptismal ceremony going on by the side of the river which I chose not to photograph as it felt slightly intrusive, suffice to say that some of those immersed did not look particularly keen to get wet. Then it was back to the beer garden where  we decided to tackle Pen y Fan the next day except that we didn’t and did a river walk down towards Abergavenny but I can’t remember why. We barbecued that evening before tackling the medicine cabinet. Out of that I managed to find a sample bottle of 42.8%abv 50-year-old Glenury Royal bottled in 2003. I think Gareth finally realised what truly great malt whisky can be like when sipped and savoured. No water required, just like a fine armagnac. Bliss. A bottle of this went for over £600 on ebay in July so I reckon our two drams would have been about £22 each if you could still find any of this stuff (you can’t!).

Next morning, after ensuring that the neighbours were kept on edge by traipsing off to the showers together, we did the river walk. But only after Gareth realised he had forgotten to bring any underpants. That meant an immediate council of kak-finding meeting over breakfast at which it was decided to head into Abergavenny to find said replacement kaks. Just to add some spice to the al fresco breakfasting of our neighbours I ensured that my comment ‘Forgotten your underpants, Gareth? Don’t worry, just borrow some of mine’ was delivered loudly enough for all to hear. Then we were off … after I had done the washing up, of course. In Abergavenny I came across bike culture in South Wales. Oh dear … masses of bikers all meeting up in the same place and doing the same stupid things. However, there were a few exceptions. In the car park I spotted this rather lovely take on a short-track special based on a BSA A10, my second bike (see the post on this model under the bikes category).

Mmmm ... tasty.

We discovered a kak-emporium open on a Sunday up the jaded, but clearly once beautiful High Street, and with six pairs duly purchased we realised that our day was foreshortened … ah, that’s why we didn’t do Pen y Fan … so we headed back to Crickhowell watching the bikers playing cat-and-mouse with the local police. I have never understood this aspect of biking, but it seems to engage thousands of them each summer. More moronic behaviour is difficult to understand. And so to the the walk. Well, not much to talk about here except the weather was staying scorchio and there was a nice pub half-way round where  we quaffed two pints of good cider each. I then found out that the stuff was 8%abv and the rest of the way back was a bit befuddling to say the least. Back in Crickhowell we bought some essentials and the ref decided on the way back that a pint was in order so we took the back lane down to the Bridge End where it appeared to be his round. But he couldn’t find his wallet. He’d forgotten it. ‘I think I’ve left it in the shop we were in.’ Well, we emptied his rucksack to no avail, so he legged it back up the lane and returned five minutes later none the richer. ‘Check your rucksack again,’ I suggested. Ah … there it was, in a pocket within a pocket. So he hadn’t forgotten his wallet, he had just forgotten his pocket within a pocket. And the effect of strong cider at lunchtime on a hot day …

Another barbecue that night and our neighbours decided we needed feeding up and offered us the remnants of their ‘spicy Chinese chicken curry … home made.’ Err, no thanks, that’s a barbecue over there with sausages and burgers on it and we’re not gay by the way or as Gareth said as soon as the invite had been extended, ‘The wife let me away for the weekend, you know. She knows where I am!’

The next day it was the big one, Pen Y Fan. ‘Where the hell is Pen Y fan?’ I asked. ‘Hang on,’ says Gareth, ‘it’s here somewhere on the map.’ ‘You haven’t forgotten where it is by chance have you Gareth?’ ‘No … here it is! Now, I’ve forgotten the way to get there … ‘ I offered to navigate and we were off into the west in search of this big lump of a hill. The clever bit about this approach is that when you park in the Taf Fechan forest you’re already at 400m and all that’s required is a brief climb up to a monstrous ridge that runs for a couple of miles from the south to the summit area. First Corn Du is reached (873m) where suddenly a mass of people coming up from the west arrive … busloads. Then to the east the paved path (yes … paved) leads up to Pen y Fan (886m). It looked like a motorway so if you are going to do these hills, attack them from the south, if only to preserve some sense of solitude for as long as possible.

The long ridge walk up to Pen y Fan.

Corn Du from Pen y Fan

and Pen y Fan from Corn Du

The best option from the summit is to descend by the steps on the east side and pick up the Beacons’ Way path towards Cribyn and on down the broad flank path which joins what the locals maintain is a Roman road until you are back at your starting point on the other side of the reservoirs. It’s a long drag and the highlight was spotting a common lizard at about 810m on the way down from the summit. Is this a record for the height of the typical habitat of this reptile? Presumably not in winter.

Is this Britain's highest lizard or just a wee Welsh dragon?

It was then home via a pub on the canal which shall remain nameless as the landlady clearly had some sort of nervous disorder whereby she constantly referred to me as ‘darling’ and concluded every transaction with the comment ‘Welcome to my world!’ The things you come across when you don’t have a gun. Safely back in the van, several wee lagers were consumed before we went to a pub over the bridge which was overpriced and served awful food with tons of vegetables that were beyond edible. It was packed.

We bid farewell to the happy campers the next morning, hitched up and headed back to Cardiff in order to tackle some coastal routes on the last two days. As these did not involve big hills, I will be brief. We did stroll along the beach at Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula and can confirm that the house that was trashed by dark forces in episode 1 of the new series of Torchwood is still very much in good nick and available for rent. Also, there are a lot of dead gannets on this beach. If you should ever come across an injured one, DO NOT APPROACH! If you do, this might happen to you.

It was time to head home on Friday via Penderyn Distillery and a meeting with Gillian MacDonald (she’s Welsh by the way) who showed me their plans for expansion. And expand they must as their exports are now really going places. Spain is now taking loads of their malt whisky and other markets are opening up so it looks like a new still will be on its way soon. A large part of the operation has been moved down the road into vacant premises on an industrial estate and the whole affair is moving in the right direction. Good on them.

Gillian in her 'new' warehouse

On the way home I got a text from Gareth. ‘You forgot your over-trousers!’ Oh dear …


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