You’d have thought a late Easter would have guaranteed some warm spring weather, but not so. The constantly changing weather forecasts and a chilly wind meant we put off our jaunt to the Brecon Beacons National Park until Easter Monday.
Determined to build up our stamina for the next backpacking trip, Harri chose a Blaenavon World Heritage Site walk described as ‘energetic’ for today’s challenge. We had last walked the route in February 2009 when there were deep snowdrifts on the hills and we walked the final mile back to the car under a full moon.
There’s free parking at Goytre Hall Wood so we set off along a level woodland track which led us directly to Goytre Wharf (where you do have to pay for parking). In my Torfaen council days, I produced a film about (unpaid) carers which BBC Wales personality Roy Noble kindly agreed to present. Roy’s scenes were filmed here at Goytre Wharf and before long a crowd had gathered. He’s a lovely, charismatic man and we laughed non-stop for hours. One little boy following us around was from Holland and he asked me quietly if Roy was very famous. When I said ‘yes’, he duly asked him for his autograph.
Harri describes this area as ‘a little known corner of the Brecon Beacons National Park’ – a narrow strip which runs southwards from Abergavenny with the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal forming the eastern boundary and the ridge we’d be climbing today the western boundary. We had parked outside the National Park, but crossed its border when we reached Goytre Wharf.
We walked at a brisk pace – we were wearing shorts and it was freezing – and Harri told me how the last wolf in Gwent was killed at Goytre Hall (more information here). After Goytre Wharf, the climbing started almost immediately and we were soon huffing and puffing our way up several steep fields to join a wonderful undulating footpath along the edge of woodland. It was very clear and the views towards the Skirrid and the Black Mountains.were wonderful but absolutely NOT panoramic (Harri was insistent that I should not mention non-existent panoramic views!).
Too soon the easy walking was over and we found ourselves climbing through woodland for what felt like an eternity. Here, we encountered our first mud of the day … and there was a lot of it. In an attempt to avoid sinking ankle deep in brown squelch, we clambered up the bank and tried to follow the path at a higher level. Alas, our alternative route was almost immediately blocked by fallen trees and undergrowth, leaving us with little choice but to drop back into the mud. We soon reached Holy Well, a local landmark which is believed to date back to pre-Roman times, but is not particularly interesting.
Harri had already warned me that we’d be doing most of the climbing this morning, but I’d forgotten quite how tough the terrain in these parts can be. There’s been so much tree felling on these slopes, it was often difficult to see the footpath at all, let alone scramble up it. Fortunately, Harri had plotted the entire walk on Viewranger so we managed to stay on track without too much trouble. Every now and then, I’d need a breather and would seize the opportunity to gaze down at the landscape far below. In little more than an hour, we’d gained tremendous height with incredible far-reaching views across the Bristol Channel.
Unfortunately, this beautiful, natural landscape is clearly a favourite with local car thieves. In the space of ten minutes, we passed no fewer than three cars which had been rolled down the slopes and had ground to a halt. The likelihood of recovery in such an inaccessible location is zilch, so the cars remain here forever – ugly, rusting blots on an otherwise stunning landscape.
Not a moment too soon, the ground levelled out and we found ourselves walking along a remarkably ‘unsunken’ sunken lane with more sweeping views to our right, including a bird’s eye view of Llandegfedd Reservoir, the location of last weekend’s walk. Eventually, our drystone wall-lined lane obliged and began to sink. The smooth, rounded surface of the rocks underfoot left us in little doubt that the surface wasn’t always as dry as we found it today.
We were now high in the mountains (over the course of the 16.24 mile walk we climbed 683 metres) and I was absolutely freezing in my summer hiking kit. Whatever had I been thinking of when I dressed in shorts and two thin layers? I normally dread hills but now I found myself looking forward to the next one, simply because it meant my body would warm up a little. When Harri suggested stopping for a drink at the Goose and Cuckoo I jumped at the chance to get inside, even though it meant waiting outside for five minutes until it opened at 12 noon.
All rural pubs should be modelled on the Goose and Cuckoo. First, it’s actually open during daytime hours when walkers are likely to be passing (believe me, this is not always the case in rural Wales). Secondly, the publican and customers are very friendly – we spent the whole time we were there chatting to a lovely lady from Blaenavon who was out walking the recuperating guide dog she was currently fostering. Thirdly, the place is brimming with history … the stone slab floor, old photographs, a framed, hundred-year-old newspaper article, etc. Best of all, there is no distracting widescreen television screen, loud music or fruit machine. That the pub has survived at all is undoubtedly down to its remote location. Local landowner Lady Llanover was a leading light of the temperance movement and she banned alcohol from her estate (existing pubs were converted to coffee houses). The Goose and Cuckoo (then called the New Inn) was in Llanover, but located just over the boundary of the Llanover Estate so it survived the cull. Phew!
After the warmth of the pub, it was tough venturing back out into the cold (I swear I had goose pimples on my legs within minutes!). It was nearly 1pm and we hadn’t had a mid-morning snack so we decided to wait until we found a sheltered spot out of the wind and combine elevenses with lunch. Up here, the sun had finally decided to put in an appearance, although I was a little concerned that it seemed to be raining down there in Abergavenny.
After more undulating walking along quiet lanes, we reached an amphitheatre-like valley surrounded by a high ridge. Harri guessed it was a glacial cirque like Craig Cerrig-gleisiad as these are not uncommon in the Brecon Beacons. We found a bottom-sized boulder to perch on just as the sun disappeared behind clouds. It was far too cold to linger so we were soon heading uphill again (then down, then up …).
Eventually, we descended another sunken lane to reach the Punchbowl, one of the prettiest spots in this part of the Brecon Beacons and another landscape formed by glacial action. It’s a place well-frequented by locals and though there are signs forbidding fishing here there was the usual group of anglers sitting at the water’s edge.
We left the mountain via a very steep wooded footpath which follows the route of the old Hill’s Tram Road, built by the Blaenavon Ironworks Company in 1818 to take advantage of cheap canal toll charges. The interpretation board at the bottom of the incline at Llanfoist Wharf explained how pig iron, wrought iron, limestone and coal were transported down the steep valley and loaded by hand or crane onto the waiting barges. There were three inclines, each operating as a funicular, with the loaded trams coming down one side and pulling up the empties on the other side.
After all the strenuous hill climbing I was looking forward to the final level stretch of canal towpath walking, but unfortunately the moment we reached Llanfoist Wharf the weather went downhill and it started raining heavily. Thankfully, it didn’t rain for long, but now I was wet as well as cold the last few miles along the canal felt endless, which was a shame as we’d enjoyed the rest of the route.
When Harri checked his iPad later that evening, he discovered we’d walked 16.24 miles and not the 14 ‘energetic’ miles stated in the leaflet. My verdict? Some superb mountain walking with great views and the best possible pub to visit … just don’t cast a clout until May is out!!