It’s been hard settling back into ‘normal’ life after our winter-evading three-month spell in the Algarve, not least because it’s so damp here.
While it’s wonderful to spend time with my family again – and catch up with friends – I make no excuse for missing those cloudless blue skies and dazzling sunsets, and my longing for the ever-present turquoise ocean (visible from our patio and lounge window). Spring arrives early in the Algarve and we’d been surrounded by vibrantly-coloured blooms since Christmas. The delicate white blossom of the almond trees lined the tiled pavements, clifftops were ablaze with pink cape daisies and the spectacularly pretty (but invasive) Bermuda buttercup carpeted orchards and gardens. High above the marina, in the Cerro Grande, the large, trumpet-shaped flowers of the brugmansia trees bloomed, withered and fell to the floor. I lived with this beauty for three months … the visual delights of Albufeira became my new norm.
Consequently, when we landed in Cardiff just over a week ago, the Welsh landscape looked grey, wintry and devoid of colour, and so it has remained. I spent an afternoon gardening in our terraced garden, pruning dead foliage and pulling out early weeds, my heart deep in my boots. There were few signs of spring, except for one brave little daffodil and a handful of forget-me-nots, but plenty of evidence of our soggy, slime-ridden climate.
Still, we were back in Wales and I had (rather recklessly I now feel) promised Harri that we would continue the weekend walking habit we’d re-established while away. For now, we’d stick to just one day’s walking a week, with a view to hiking weekends away when/if the weather warms up. My only insistence was ‘no mud’, which instantly ruled out footpaths through fields.
To kickstart our Welsh walking season, Harri had devised a 14-mile circular route which started (and finished) at our garden gate. This morning’s weather, though mild, wasn’t exactly promising; however, the light rain which was forecast was due to arrive later in the day so we might just be lucky and miss it.
We followed the riverside path along the Ebbw as far as Pontymister, then crossed the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff railway line to join the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. The present-day canal began life as two separate waterways – the Monmouthshire Canal from Newport to Pontymoile Basin (Pontypool) and the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal which runs from Pontymoile to Brecon (the only navigable sections of the canal are along this section). We were now walking the Crumlin Arm of the canal, which nowadays comes to an abrupt halt in Cwmcarn. Along this stretch, the canal towpath is popular with cyclists, dog walkers, runners and families; on this Sunday morning in March there were far more fast-moving vehicles (bikes and prams) than we ever encountered on Algarve tracks (or saw on the motorway!).
Harri never tires of reminding me that he has his own personal bridge across the canal. The Grade II listed Harry Roberts bridge was apparently named after a local boatman, who may or may not have also been a local landowner (which sounds more likely in the 1790s than naming a bridge after a humble boatman) and may or may not have been called Harry (recent minutes of the Canal Trust refer to the bridge as the Harry/Henry Roberts Bridge).
The final section of canal at Cwmcarn is currently being relined so we left the towpath and headed through terraced streets towards Cwmcarn Forest, the location of our running club’s Thursday night trail runs and the site of last August’s spectacular tumble which has left me with a decidedly dodgy right knee.
We’d barely reached the car park when I heard someone calling my name from a distance … it was my long-time friend Alison, a fellow hiker, climber and runner. Fortunately, she was heading to her car so Harri didn’t have reason to do his well-practised shuffle of impatience.
Two years ago, Natural Resources Wales discovered that the larch trees at Cwmcarn were being attacked by a particularly virulent disease known as Phytophthora ramorum. Unfortunately, the only way to stop the disease spreading, and ultimately kill the affected trees, was to fell up to 150,000 larch trees at Cwmcarn and replace them with native, broad-leaf woodland species and spruce.
It’s no mean task to fell so many trees while keeping the forest open to walkers, mountain bikers and local people but that’s exactly what has happened over the past two years. Only the popular Cwmcarn Forest Drive has been closed. The massive tree-felling operation does mean, however, that some of the tracks through the forest have been closed while trees on the slopes above are felled and removed from the site.
Harri had already warned me that the tree-felling might affect our planned route; we lost over a mile and a half in distance but gained a steep clamber up the hillside. This being a Sunday, we ignored a ‘no entry’ sign at a junction and continued along the deserted forestry track. Our reward? Fantastic distant views of neighbouring mountains and the valley below, plus the fascinating sight of row after row of felled larch trunks lining the track. I wonder what will happen to all that cut wood now?
We left the mountain via Darren Road (more of a narrow footpath than a road really) and before long joined Mountain Road, a familiar training route and part of Harri’s favourite Bog & Bryn Challenge Race. Then it was over Harry/Henry Roberts bridge and back along the River Ebbw to our home. We’d covered 12.17 miles in five hours, quite possibly because there were zero beer stops.
So how did South Wales hiking compare to the Algarve?
The biggest difference was the obvious lack of sunshine; even when it was cloudy in Portugal the sky seemed brighter. Then there was the lack of flowers … apart from daffodils. Today wasn’t exactly cold – and the hinted-at rain held off apart from a few raindrops – but the landscape still didn’t look very springlike. The only signs that winter was coming to an end was the presence of lambs in one of the lower-lying fields, the birdsong and the catkins hanging from otherwise bare branches.
Wales is a beautiful country, it really is. And I should know better than anyone, having walked its entire length and written a book about the experience. It’s just that I’m still missing the warmth and vibrant colours of the Algarve. I want to walk in my shorts and a tee-shirt, not long trousers and two long-sleeved layers. I want to stop for a cold beer, not carry a flask of tea and shiver while I drink a mugful (as today). I miss the people. I miss the landscape. I miss the sunsets.
Yes, despite loving my family deeply, I am missing Portugal like crazy. And I don’t think that’s going to change until spring arrives in Wales … properly arrives!