When I was about 10 or 11, my father dragged my sister, my mother and me to a mountain on the far side of Newport – we were about to embark on our first hiking trip.
In those days, we lived on Corporation Road on the eastern side of the River Usk so anywhere beyond the Handpost (where our town choir rehearsals were held) was foreign territory to me.
Our long journey involved two buses and walking along steep, narrow country lanes until we reached the open mountain, shrouded in mist. Dad carried a tent and provisions on his back, though this wasn’t to be an overnight camping trip, just an attempt to persuade my reluctant mother that camping could be fun. My resounding memory of that day is huddling inside the tent while Dad cooked our inedible lunch on the camping stove. Hours later, we were retracing our steps back to High Cross where we began our long bus journey home.
Dad’s strategy for selling camping to my mother clearly didn’t work because we never did spend a holiday in a tent.
That misty mountain was Twmbarlwm, the hill with the ‘pimple’ that looms over Risca and Cwmbran and can be seen from much of Newport. As Welsh mountains go, it’s quite small at just 419 metres; Snowdon is 1,085 m and Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales, stands at 886 m.
For many years, hundreds of school children trekked up Twmbarlwm every Good Friday to raise money for good causes; happily the tradition was resurrected in 2011 though I have no idea if today’s young people are as enthusiastic about the long trek up the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and onto the mountain trails as the fifteen-year-old me!
Over the years, I’ve grown much more familiar with our local green hill, though like all mountains, over-familiarity can be dangerous. On one infamous February walk long before everyone had mobile phones, my friend Alison and I parked on the Risca side of Twmbarlwm but got so disorientated in fog that we descended on the Upper Race (Pontypool) side. Not a major problem, you might think, but the two towns are around 12 miles apart by road and we both had children to collect from school bus stops. Fortunately, her partner worked at the nearby hospital so near disaster was averted by heading there and borrowing his car.
Happily, visibility wasn’t a problem on this week’s walk, though the cloud did seem determined to cling to the Welsh hills; we could only look longingly towards the English coast where the light was quite beautiful.
Our whole route was within the boundaries of Cwmcarn Forest, one of many amazing places right on our doorstep. There are some amazing photographs on the official website which have been sent in by visitors. In spring/summer we’d probably have walked there too but the days are too short now for long walks (plus we don’t get out early enough!).
Parking costs £3 for anything over two hours and, be warned, on the spring/summer weekends, the car parks start filling up well before 9am. This is a popular forest for mountain bikers, with its challenging mountain biking trails. I must say it all looks rather terrifying when you see the riders whizzing along the trails but Cwmcarn Forest seems to have established itself firmly on the mountain trail map.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to cycle up the mountain, though the steep climb was tough enough on foot. As we neared the summit we were surprised to be greeted with a short section of stone track on the approach from Pegwn y Bwlch. I’ve checked online and it seems it was installed sometime in the spring/summer of 2012 to prevent further erosion of the summit. I can’t believe we haven’t been up our local mountain for nearly 18 months… where does the time go?
When we were last up on the ridge, there were wild ponies everywhere, but the hill seemed unusually devoid of wildlife this week… we spotted just two or three sheep during the whole seven miles.
No matter how much I groan on the way up, what I love most about mountain walking is the views and Twm Barlwm must have some of the most varied in Wales. On a clear day you can see the high peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Ddu in the distance, then turn and look down towards Newport’s docklands and industrial coastline, with the Bristol Channel and the English coast beyond. Closer still, are Cwmbran with its instantly recognisable 1967 tower block and the dark wooded slopes of Wentwood. Turn inland, and the stunning mountain-lined hills of Cwmcarn Forest take your breath away.
On days like this, I know how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful part of the world. At one point during our walk, we stopped to talk to a mountain biker from Cwmbran. When we told him that we write walking books for a living and that on this most enjoyable of walks we were actually working, he told us, ‘You’re really living the dream, aren’t you?’
We laughed at the time, but later, as we sipped hot tea from our flask and feasted on Lidl chocolate (the best), we gazed at the beauty all around us and fell silent. We are on the verge of launching our own digital publishing company – camau – to produce the hiking books we want to write about the places we love to walk. We have two books finished and almost ready to publish, several others on the go and at least 30 others planned.
My ‘old’ life, the one where I worked nine to five for large public sector organisations, every day having to produce endless (and pointless) reports and strategies, and endure exhausting (and petty) office politics now seems a million years ago. I cannot imagine ever going back to such a soul-destroying way of life.
Living the dream? Perhaps, that mountain biker, enjoying a few days off work himself, really did hit the nail on the head.