Why on earth do we Brits look forward to summer every year … so we can enjoy one rainy weekend after another? Yet again, our Sunday hiking plans had been thwarted by unseasonably low temperatures and the forecast of more rain. It seemed pointless driving miles for a likely soaking, so we agreed to stay local again.
With Newport council’s Walk the Port event fast approaching, Harri thought it would be fun to ‘steal’ a section of the event’s longest 16-mile walk, setting off from Rhiwderin rather than Bettws. It meant we’d be missing the section from Newport Active Living Centre to Newport Golf Club on the outward route, and leaving out Rogerstone, Fourteen Locks and Ynysfro reservoirs on the return to Bettws. On the other hand, we’d be adding an extra mile to reach the golf course and then remaining on the Sirhowy Valley Walk all the way home. Harri calculated that our amended walk would be roughly 10.7 miles and we’d be back around 3pm. It sounded good to me!
As a keen hiker and runner, I like to think I know Newport reasonably well so the first surprise of the morning was Newport Golf Club. We’d crossed the canal on a stone bridge that is temporarily closed to traffic (long-term temporarily!) and immediately joined the club’s sweeping driveway. We were barely a mile from home and already we were walking somewhere unfamiliar to me. The course is set 300 feet above sea level in Llwyni Wood amidst ancient oak woodlands. The surroundings and the views are quite something; the good news is that you can enjoy a stroll through these rolling parklands without taking up golf – there are several footpaths running across the course – just be aware of those white balls!
We joined the Walk the Port route at the far side of the golf course and were almost immediately on Mountain Road, which is very familiar from my summer tempo runs with Lliswerry Runners. I was just lamenting how steep the single-track road gets when we veered off to the right to join a narrow stony track along the top of fields with Coed y Wenallt to our left. Harri included this ancient lane in our Newport Ultra route because the uninterrupted views across farmland to Newport, the Bristol Channel and beyond are simply unmissable.
Harri’s lovely gramp Bryn (now sadly deceased) farmed in Henllys Vale all his life and he remembered how tractors used to drive along this lane when he was a young man. In fact, in many places you can still see the remains of the stone track underneath the mud (nothing to grumble about). We couldn’t see the family’s old farm because it’s located in a dip but it was easy to spot nearby Henllys Church.
While our route continued on the level, the old stone road now swept downhill to our right to pass the church and Pant-yr-eos Farm, after which the nearby reservoir was named when it opened in 1878 (Pant-yr-eos meaning ‘hollow of the nightingale’). We could see the waters of the now privately-owned reservoir (it’s used for fly fishing) glittering between the trees; however, today’s route wouldn’t be taking us any closer than we were now.
Our track came to an abrupt end at a fence, when we had to climb over a stile to follow a footpath through an overgrown field, our first of the day and thankfully empty. Convinced we were no longer walking within Newport’s boundaries, I checked our whereabouts with Harri. He confirmed that we’d crossed into Caerphilly some time back and were just about to enter Torfaen.
From our vantage point, we could see Twmbarlwm, which worryingly looked a long way above us. In the fields below, and looking strangely out-of-place in the verdant landscape, were lines and lines of solar panels. I should add I’m not against solar energy – and as we got closer we saw hundreds of small trees had been planted to eventually screen the panels – but I guess it was a shock seeing how a landscape can be so completely transformed (almost) overnight by human actions.
We’d been hoping the weather would hold for us, but noting the huge grey cloud heading our way, I wasn’t confident. I was just puffing and panting my way uphill along a narrow stony footpath (which Harri remembers being used by vehicles) when it started to rain. Fortunately, the rain was short-lived and by the time we reached the car park it had stopped again. We rarely approach Newport’s local mountain from this direction so we were surprised to see a circular stone bench with a slate plaque proclaiming Twmbarlwm. I can’t find anything online to explain when it arrived here or how it came about, but we were certainly pleased to have somewhere dry to sit for our very late elevenses.
As we were now back in Caerphilly borough, I wondered (aloud as I’m apt to do) whether Walk the Port was a bit of a misnomer when so much of this the longest walk was not in Newport at all, but in neighbouring counties. And why was Newport council encouraging local people to admire the scenery outside the city rather than inside its boundaries? Harri disagreed, pointing out that while Twmbarlwm was arbitrarily located in Caerphilly, it had always been Newport’s local mountain, the tump being visible from so much of the city. Besides, from up here you could see the sprawl of Newport in the distance.
I could see his point. I’ve written before about my earliest ‘camping’ trip on this very mountain. When I was a teenager I took part in the Good Friday charity walk several times, in fact, there’s a photograph of me somewhere sitting on this very mountain in my denim skirt, long chunky cardigan and what looked like a Bay City Rollers tartan cap (regardless of what I was doing, I clearly had no intention of compromising my teenage fashion sense!).
After elevenses, we clambered to the top of the ‘tump’. It’s pretty tough going for a while, though there are shallow steps leading up to the summit. It was grey, blustery and threatening to rain again; however, the 360-degree views made the strenuous ascent well worth it. In the distance, we could see the Red Arrows doing their aerobatics over the Bristol Channel, the red, blue and white plumes hanging over the sea long after the planes had soared again.
We turned around slowly, recognising familiar peaks and landmarks. Pen y Fan was engulfed in cloud but nearby Cribyn was clearly visible. There was Cwmbran and its iconic tower block, Wentwood, the Second Severn Crossing and Uskmouth Power Station’s single remaining chimney. Across the Bristol Channel, we could see Brean Down ( a fascinating place and well worth a visit), Flat Holm, Steep Holm, Cardiff and Lavernock Point. Mynydd Machen was easy to identify, but we weren’t sure if those distant mountains were the Carmarthen Fans or not. Towering above the England coastline was Exmoor, a National Park we have barely started to explore (I don’t know if one half-day walk along the coast really counts).
It was too cold to hang about for long (by now we were wearing our fleeces … you’d never think it was August!) so we headed past the trig point and downhill to Cwmcarn Forest. The popular forest drive has been closed to cars since 2014 when an outbreak of larch dieback prompted a massive tree-felling operation (the fungal disease can spread rapidly); however, hikers, mountain bikers and runners have generally been able to continue enjoying the area, albeit with care. Now, as we headed down the familiar track to Darren Road, the devastation of the forest hit home. Where once there had been a pretty, wooded track, now there was only mud and stones and the views across the valley were of more treeless slopes. The massive tree-felling is necessary, of course, and the landscape will recover in time. There is even talk of including native species like beech, rowan and oak when the forest is eventually replanted, which will improve diversity and provide more varied habitats for wildlife. That has to be a good thing, but in the meantime, the once tree-covered slopes of Cwmcarn Forest have become rather a depressing sight.
Back on the valley floor, we resisted a pint in a local pub and crossed over the River Ebbw and under the Risca bypass, before heading uphill and behind Dan y Graig cemetery. There’s a lovely little nature reserve up here, with a boardwalk running alongside the pond that was once used as the reservoir for a local copper works. A board informed us that a Roman lead mine lies beneath the reserve and there is also evidence of old lime kilns.
We were still following the Walk the Port route so we were a little perturbed when we left a very nice ancient track to walk through a field, got confused by some temporary electric fencing at the far side and ended up walking through someone’s private property. The woman who came out to ‘greet’ us looked far from friendly and informed us that the footpath was actually through an overgrown field below her house. When we were safely off her drive, Harri looked back to see where we’d gone wrong and he could see the stile we should have climbed over. Hopefully, Newport council will sort this section of the route out before September 9 or that lady is not going to be amused!
After a short but steep (and busy) road section near Ochrwyth, we were back on the Sirhowy Valley Walk. This was familiar territory for us both, as we regularly run in the woods and fields up here. After leaving one section of woods to cross a lane, we generally choose to run along a beautiful wooded downhill path. Walk the Port follows a slightly different route along a metalled lane which is pretty much impassable to traffic nowadays. When we moved to Rhiwderin a decade ago, you would still see the occasional car passing this way, but brambles, ferns and other vegetation have narrowed it considerably, while grass and weeds are rapidly destroying the surface. In ten years, there will be scant evidence that a road ever existed and outdoor writers like Harri will refer to it as an ‘ancient lane’.
With less than a mile to go, we encountered our first bullocks (or cows of any kind) of the day; fortunately, these guys were well-used to walkers and, after a quick inquisitive glance, took no further notice of us.
As we approached Rhiwderin, the official Walk the Port route veered off down a footpath on our left and we headed home for lunch.
So, what was our verdict on Walk the Port’s longest route? Well, we didn’t walk the entire 16 miles, but the section we did follow was very enjoyable and introduced me, a Newportonian, to several tracks and places I’d not visited before. The views throughout were extensive and (this is very important to me) the terrain wasn’t too muddy. At the outset, I did wonder why so much of the route was outside Newport’s boundaries; however, I guess the purpose is to take people to nearby rural places … and besides, you do get those great views of the city from Twmbarlwm.
Our advice is to do it … sign up and Walk the Port! There are shorter walks too if you don’t want anything too strenuous. You know, we may even join you … weather permitting!
Here is a link to the official 16-mile route.
Our route was considerably shorter at 10.7 miles but still very enjoyable.