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Symonds Yat

16 September, 2009

Another active Summer outing with our friends, Rob and Simon (actually, looking back, I note that we never wrote a blog post about 2008’s active Summer outing, although the photos went up here).  Simon lives in the North and the rest of us live in the South, which presented the challenge of locating a mutually convenient venue.  The centre of England being rather short on wild mountainous terrain, we rapidly settled on the Brecon Beacons as a suitable target.  Adding to the convenience, Simon’s Mum lived just near the border at Symonds Yat, and we would be welcome to camp in her yard.  Actually, we were welcome to stay in her house, but just how much of an active outing would that be?

A succession of delays (the guy ahead of Oanh in the car rental office having had an accident, freak thunderstorms, sensibly slow driving down dark, narrow and windy country lanes, that sort of thing) led to us not arriving at Symonds Yat until well after 11pm, making it an easy decision to leave the tents packed and seek out beds in the rambling house.  Hardcore, we are.

The next morning, after a fantastic breakfast cooked by Simon’s Mum, we set off for the Beacons.  Although initially heading for the more remote western Black Mountain region, the fantastically clear weather induced us to change our minds and target the main ridge.  We had walked here earlier this year, but been clouded in at the top, hampering views.  I’d had a similar experience about 10 years ago, when I spent an entire day seeing nothing beyond about 10 feet around me.

The central region of the Brecon Beacons is shaped something like a hand laying flat (palm down) on a table.  The main ridge links a series of peaks (the knuckles) while a series of subsidiary ridges stretch off to the north (the fingers).  In between each of the fingers lie steep-sided valleys, carved out by glaciers many thousands of years ago.  Our plan was to climb up the index finger, cross two or three knuckles, and then descend along the middle or fourth fingers, as the mood took us, before making our way back to the car.

Clear blue skies, lush green grass, abundant sheep and good company made this a highly enjoyable walk.  I finally got to see the (stunning) views from the top of Pen y Fan (the highest peak) in good weather, as well as reaching Cribyn, the central peak, which I had never visited before.

Cribyn.

Cribyn.

Us on the summit of Pen y Fan, in the sun!

Us on the summit of Pen y Fan, in the sun!

Nic takes in the view from the summit of Fan y Big.

Nic takes in the view from the summit of Fan y Big.

The low point of the walk (quite literally) was the yomp along the roads back to the car at the end of the day.  One positive aspect of this particular section however, was that we noticed a sign advertising camping on one of the farms.  Still with ample daylight, but sensing that our chances of locating a pub dinner were steadily diminishing, we decided to drive back here, pitch up and hit the nearest village.

Pentwyn Farm was a beautiful camp site: a gently sloping field rolling down to a stream, with views out over the surrounding farms and hills.  Also pleasingly casual, we were the only guests and the farmer was happy to recommend the pubs in several of the nearby villages.  We opted for the closest, The White Swan, in Llanfrynach, which we were informed was “a bit smart” but came well recommended.  Pulling in to the car park, we were a bit concerned that “a bit smart” might not appreciate our rather dishevelled and muddy state, but were relived to find ourselves greeted warmly and led to a table with nary a glance at our boots.

A quick survey of the menu made us realise that we were not in the domain of “cheap pub grub” (words like jus, coulis, boudin and confit abounded).  Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers, so we decided to ignore the price column and enjoy our meal.  Fortunately, the quality of the food met and exceeded our expectations (and the price tag) and we all enjoyed marvellous dinners and desserts, along with several (well deserved) pints of Brains (a Welsh brewer).

Oanhs dessert of raspberry mascarpone.

Oanh's dessert of raspberry mascarpone.

The following morning we made a relatively early start, and after juggling two sets of crockery and cutlery between four of us over breakfast, packed up the tents and continued westwards towards the Black Mountain.  The weather had closed in a little and clouds were skimming along the tops of, and occasionally obscuring, the peaks.  Nonetheless, it remained dry (for now).  Our plan was to walk a loop out from Glyntawe, heading first along another ridge to a mountain called Fan Brycheiniog, before striking off the path to meet up with a bridleway running through what our OS map described as “an area of shakeholes”, which would lead us back to Glyntawe.

The initial ascent was remarkably steep for the first few kilometres, but we trudged steadily upwards, pausing only to argue about whether a collection of stone piles labelled on the OS map as a “stone age settlement” was in fact a stone age settlement, or rather, just a pile of stones over-interpreted by eager archaeologists.  To be fair, the ruins had clearly seen better days.

The reach of our views extended rapidly as we ascended, and we began to draw even with the peaks that had previously towered over us.  The speed of the wind increased as well, and we were relieved to find a low circular wall on the summit within which we could shelter (accompanied by two men and a dog) to eat lunch.

Having taken in the view, Rob, Simon and I depart the summit cairn; rather offending Oanh, who had just arrived (we didnt mean to, honest!)

Having taken in the view, Rob, Simon and I depart the summit cairn; rather offending Oanh, who had just arrived (we didn't mean to, honest!)

Llyn y Fan Fach (try saying that ten times quickly)

Llyn y Fan Fach (try saying that ten times quickly)

Continuing on, we saw the much more familiarly moody face of the Brecon Beacons, though the scenery remained spectacular.  As we descended from the ridge across pathless grassy slopes, the skies opened and a gentle rain began to fall.  The bridleway that we were aiming for was evidently little used and proved rather elusive, leading to much conferring over the map and compass and speculation about the identities of the various rocky protuberances that offered themselves as landmarks.

After several interesting river crossings, the path became much clearer and we were able to pay less attention to the map and more to our feet, on which the considerable ascents and descents were now beginning to take their toll.  We spent the last few kilometres convinced that the final descent back to our car lay just beyond the next hill, only to find yet more sodden, boggy, rocky terrain ahead of us.  While lacking the charm of our morning’s walking, our surroundings definitely possessed character: the sort of character that you migh associate with Mordor, in Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

At long last we made our final descent back into Glyntawe.  We staggered the last couple of hundred metres to the pub, peeled off our wet waterproofs and decided to settle in for dinner (a decision aided by the friendly hospitality of the landlord and open fire).  We were now back in the cheap and cheerful pub grub, but by no means went away unsatisfied (i.e., we were satisfied).

Saturday provided us with yet more doubtful weather, and we decided to explore Symonds Yat, guided by Simon, who grew up there.  Symonds Yat is divided into two villages by the River Wye, which curves a sinuous path along the English-Welsh border.  The wooded banks of the river slope steeply up to 150 metre hills, on top of one of which we were camped.  We descended from here to the river along a dripping forest path, expertly chosen by Simon to avoid the weekend crowds, stopping briefly to locate a geocache.  After pausing at a riverside teahouse for tea and cake, we crossed over a footbridge and I suggested a relaxed amble along the bank of the river, as opposed to charging straight up the side of the next hill.  People were persuaded, and we left the mist covered hills for another day, choosing instead the more relaxed challenge of deciding what type of sandwhich to order for lunch at The Saracen’s Head.

Our return journey back across the river was, rather excitingly, by hand ferry.  A large punt was attached to an overhead cable by rope and one of the barmen came out periodically to haul it and a load of passengers from one side of the river to the other.  A bit of a break from pulling pints I suppose.  The rain cleared away over the rest of the afternoon and we spent the evening drinking scrumpy around a campfire under the glow of millions of stars that don’t exist in the city.

See all the photos at our SmugMug gallery.

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