I last walked a complete circuit of Llandegfedd Reservoir in July 1995 when I was heavily pregnant with my third daughter. We’d set off with some vague notion of following the shoreline all the way around the reservoir, which sounded great in theory but didn’t pan out quite so well on the ‘far side’ where the trees and dense vegetation ran down to the water’s edge. We kept going, but were scratched from head to toe and thoroughly exhausted when we finally arrived back at the car. Never again, I vowed.
But here I was two decades on, my daughter grown and flown the nest, and Harri was suggesting we tackle the route around Llandegfedd as a gentle reintroduction to my walking after a week’s illness. After almost a week indoors, there was no doubt I was suffering from cabin fever; however, my energy levels were seriously depleted and it was clear I wasn’t up to tackling our usual distances. Why not go for a short stroll, followed by a pub lunch, I suggested?
We’re so lucky living where we do in South East Wales. We’re within easy driving (and sometimes no driving at all) of so many varied and beautiful landscapes, including undulating countryside, mountains and the coast. Llandegfedd reservoir is about 13 miles from our home and lies on the border of Torfaen and Monmouthshire (the boundary runs through the reservoir). It’s extremely popular with local people who come here to take part in water sports, to fish or just enjoy family picnics and walks along the tranquil shores. The new visitor centre pulls in even more people, including those who just want to sit and gaze out on a beautiful landscape.
In Welsh reservoir terms, Llandegfedd is, in fact, very young, younger even than me. The go-ahead to create an ‘impounding’ reservoir on the Sor Brook was granted in 1958, but these things take time and the reservoir was not completed for another eight years. The new reservoir was needed to provide water for Newport’s population (remember this a period of rapid when the city’s big council estates were being built, most notably Bettws) and for the developing Spencer Works (Llanwern Steelworks).
A very interesting article throws light on what it was like for those living under the threat of the reservoir and how the proposed location was lower down the valley. This change of plan meant the reservoir waters submerged only homes in Glascoed rather than the original Llandegfedd; however, for whatever reason, the reservoir’s name was never changed. Interestingly, the article’s author, Pat Morris, echoes the same question Harri raised today about the location of this reservoir, i.e. why was this site chosen by Cardiff Corporation when there is no big river flowing through this valley, just the trickling Sor Brook. In fact, water in the reservoir is pumped via a pipeline from the River Usk.
We parked at the visitor centre after an enjoying a scenic – if somewhat meandering – drive which took us past the Sorbrook picnic site and straight up the legendary hill opposite (at least to those brave runners who compete in Griffithstown Harriers’ annual Sorbrook Slog). There were expansive views back towards Twm Barlwm and the ridge towards Pontypool. I couldn’t wait to get out there in the spring sunshine.
We crossed the dam and were immediately climbing up steep steps into the woodland. Our footpath ran parallel to the water’s edge and, with the trees mostly still bare, we were able to catch regular glimpses of the water shimmering below. In this first week of April, the bluebells were just starting to flower, although those incredible carpets of blue were still a week or two away.
Llandegfedd is an important site for wildfowl who stop here for the winter (the reservoir is actually closed from November 1 to March 1 to reflect their ‘overwintering’) and there are several bird hides dotted around the coast. As we neared one, we passed two men carrying serious photographic equipment with enormous lens.
We were now approaching the inlets which I remember giving me so much grief all those years ago, but rather than being faced with brambles and dense vegetation, there were now well-defined footpaths and lots of waymarked. What a difference two decades – and the recognition of walking as a mainstream recreational activity – make!
As we approached the extraordinarily picturesque entrance to a magnificent sunken lane, I marvelled at nature’s ability to create beauty in the least expected of places. I’d never heard of a sunken lane when I met Harri, but basically they exist when the road or track is significantly lower than the land on either side. The key thing is that sunken lanes have not been dug out as roads but have evolved naturally as the elements – most often water – erode the original path so that it sinks ever lower into the landscape. The sunken lane we were now approaching was one of the loveliest I’d seen in a long while; its moss-covered embankments were a tangle of inches-thin rock layers and knotted tree roots. As the sunshine filtered through the bare branches overhead, the way ahead looked magical and wonderfully reminiscent of the ancient woodland of Puzzlewood, from which Tolkien is said to have taken his inspiration for the forests of Middle Earth.
On the other side of ‘Middle Earth’ we walked alone a metalled lane for a while and Harri got very excited about a new feature on his beloved Viewranger. Even I had to admit that Skyline is very impressive. The idea is that you use the camera on your phone or tablet to ‘interact with the landscape’ so that you always know what you are looking at. Harri pointed his iPad towards the distant ridge and all three peaks were immediately labelled by the app. Apart from being great fun, this free app is going to make navigation much easier (and will no doubt help in many rescue situations where someone has become disorientated). If I go walking without Harri in the future and get lost – a frequent occurrence – I need only to aim my phone’s camera at the landscape to work out exactly where I am … or that’s the theory! The only downside of all this amazing technology, in Harri’s view, was the difficulty of reading the information in bright sunshine.
It didn’t need Skyline for Harri to spot another familiar landmark. There on an adjacent hill was Folly Tower, a place we’d stopped at on our very first walk together. From here the outskirts of New Inn, too, looked very close, reminding us that while the surrounding landscape felt very tranquil and rural, we were barely a stone’s throw from the large, former industrial centres of South East Wales.
We’d been walking along a forested footpath for a while when there was suddenly a gap in the trees and I realised, with dismay, just how far ‘inland’ we’d veered. In fact, there seemed to be at least one valley between where we were now walking and the distant, sparkling waters of the reservoir. This wouldn’t normally have bothered me, but after just six kilometres I was feeling extraordinarily weary and desperate to sit down.
We passed a gorgeous new-build with fantastic views before descending steeply through a field where we were ‘urged’ to keep to the footpath by a row of substantial wooden poles (with any fencing yet to be erected). Back at the water’s edge, I took advantage of another bird hide and had a short rest on one of the benches, taking pleasure watching several pairs of Canadian geese who were themselves splashing around in the water and enjoying the spring sunshine.
The remainder of the walking was relatively easy and level, apart from one undulating section along a wide track through woodland. By now it was early afternoon and there were lots of people strolling along the grassy banks and enjoying picnics.
When Harri checked his iPad it seemed we had only walked 9.6km (the trail distance is advertised as 10km). Had we inadvertently missed a section of the route? Well, there was no way I was retracing our steps to find out if/where we’d gone wrong. My tummy was rumbling and I’d been promised lunch at the nearby Carpenters Arms at Coed-y-paen (which was, incidentally, muito delicioso)
Llandegfedd Circular – 10 km (or thereabouts!)