It’s rare to wake up to a perfect walking day; however, there was no question that today – a warm and sunny Tuesday in the middle of May – was one of them. Better still, having worked hard all weekend, Harri had decided to take the day off from his work as a self-employed editor. It was a weekday, the weather was glorious and we were going hiking!
Having enjoyed sea views from my kitchen, lounge and bedroom windows for five months in Albufeira, I’ve been desperately missing the coast since we got back. We’d probably have been to the seaside by now, but unfortunately, the roadworks at Junction 28 (M4) have been causing so much daily traffic chaos on that it’s putting us off heading west.
Thus, despite my heart crying out for sand and sea, I agreed with Harri’s suggestion that we stayed closer to home and instead followed a 14-mile circular starting in Ponthir. There was a bit of a theme developing here because our route would actually see us revisiting Llangybi Castle, which featured in our Castle Walks in Monmouthshire ebook (last week’s walk saw us returning to the ruined Meredydd Castle near Machen, a castle included in Castles Walks around Newport and Cardiff).
The plan was to follow another of the South Wales Long-Distance Walkers‘ routes, albeit one of the shorter ones (some of their routes are incredibly long and demanding). Their website is a wonderful resource for local hikers and, when Harri is pushed for time, he often lifts one – or just a section – of their many routes. Coincidentally, the LDW group was planning to walk this one again at the weekend, albeit with an additional loop around the glorious Llandegfedd Reservoir (believe me, those photographs on the website just don’t do it justice).
We parked at Ponthir village hall (free), from where it took just a few minutes to reach our first stile of the day. Despite the proximity of modern housing, the only sounds were of birdsong and the buzzing of a bee. Perfect!
Ponthir is in Torfaen, but it wasn’t long before we were crossing the Candwr brook which marks the county borough’s eastern boundary with neighbouring Monmouthshire. I’ve worked for both local authorities and I think it’s fair to say they are poles apart in terms of history, culture and politics.
For a while we strolled along blissfully traffic-free lanes where the lower-than-usual hedgerows meant I could actually see over them and enjoy spectacular distant views towards Twmbarlwm and the high ridge beyond. For a while, we followed the Sor Brook, a stream Harri insisted I should have been able to identify simply because there’s an annual 10k challenge race of the same name (it’s far too hilly for me!).
We passed the Lan-Sor footpath sign which was facing improbably into a stile-less field of cows. Many of these old metal signs are simply slotted over the top of a pole which means they can easily be displaced. Harri’s theory was that this one must have been knocked into the wrong position by a passing hedge cutter. Interestingly, many local footpaths are in kilometres and this is perfectly legal, even though it seems at odds with traffic signage (here’s an interesting article about the use of metric or otherwise in the UK).
Whether it’s the time of year or not, but there was a distinct lack of livestock in the many fields we walked through (keeping strictly to permitted footpaths, of course). While I was relieved we weren’t at risk of being chased by a herd of curious bullocks, it did mean fighting through thigh-high grass at times.
As I noted in a recent blog, there certainly seems to be an abundance of large dandelions this year … and they have been joined by a glut of dock leaves. When we were children and regularly visited my Grandad’s farming relatives ‘in the country’ (the countryside around Usk), I can remember being told that dock leaves were good for relieving the acute stinging of nettles. As my sister was always falling into nettles, my concerned Grannie, along with Aunts Min and Lil, would be forever gathering armfuls of dock leaves to alleviate her discomfort. Of course, it’s all nonsense: the sap from dock leaves is acidic just like the nettle. Hence, these days, instead of believing in old wives’ remedies, I heed Harri’s advice and no matter how much my legs and arms hurt in the immediate aftermath of being stung, I resist scratching them. I was dubious at first but his method does seem to work. After ten to fifteen minutes the pain subsides naturally.
We’d already agreed to stop for elevenses when we reached Llangybi Castle; however, some time before then, Harri and I got into a bit of a debate about what remained of the ruined castle. I was certain we’d walked through some kind of walled garden, but Harri had no recollection of it at all and thought I might be muddling up Llangybi with another Monmouthshire or Marches castle (after all, we did visit a lot of castles in a short space of time).
After following footpaths through a woodland full of wonderfully aromatic wild garlic, we eventually reached the castle ruins and I was vindicated. Unfortunately, what I remembered as a pretty grassy area suitable for picnicking had, over the past few years, become extremely overgrown.
The early fourteenth-century Llangybi castle (also known as Tregrug castle) and its grounds are privately owned as the signage reminded us. It seems a shame that a landowner can allow an interesting historic landmark to fall into disrepair simply by virtue of acquiring (or most probably inheriting) the property. The Lord’s Tower and gatehouse look like they might be interesting under all that vegetation and the walled garden would lend itself to a lovely picnic area for visitors if it was cleared. In 2010, the Channel 4 series Time Team carried out some investigations here and concluded that Earl Gilbert de Clare’s early 14th century castle had survived in a habitable condition well into the 17th century and that the defences were re-used during the Civil War defences.
True, there’s no road access, but with some thorough clearing of the surrounding grounds and a few interpretation boards outlining the castle’s history, I’m sure it would attract plenty of visitors. Sadly, I read that the plan is to leave the castle ‘to decay naturally’. From what we saw today, it won’t be long before the surrounding vegetation engulfs it completely.
Somewhere around the nine-kilometre mark, we realised we had passed no people at all today, not even a farmer or a dog walker. This is probably the biggest difference between walking at weekends and during the week … there’s no-one around. By now, our stomachs were rumbling furiously but there was simply nowhere to plonk our bottoms in the vicinity of Llangybi Woods. All that uphill walking in the heat was proving exhausting and by the time we found a gorgeous, undulating meadow in which to stop for lunch I was flagging badly. Harri charged determinedly to the top of the field for the best views and I followed slowly, careful not to crush the wonderful bluebells that covered the slopes. It’s actually illegal to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy bluebells and if you do accidentally crush a bluebell’s leaves, they’ll die back. Hence, my extreme care in walking up that field!
After lunch, we scaled a steep field to join one of Monmouthshire’s Pathcare routes. These are a series of short, promoted routes which are maintained by local volunteers. In 2013, there were thirty of these Pathcare routes ranging from one mile to 7.6 miles in length. We’re pleased to report back that this one (Route 28, Llangybi) was very well-maintained.
Now we were gaining height, the landscape was opening out all around us. In the distance, the Bristol Channel was shrouded in low-lying sea mist with only the loftier points of Exmoor, Steep Holm and Brean Down visible. Inland, the clearer air meant we had superb views towards the Sugar Loaf and the Black Mountains beyond.
It was mid-afternoon and we were approaching the highest point of today’s undulating walk – an unmarked trig point standing 183 metres above sea level. We were intrigued by what looked to be an underground house on the lane ahead but agreed it was the perfect spot to enjoy extensive coastal and mountain views. A little internet research later revealed that the property was in fact the Decoy Bunker, an old wartime bunker which has been transformed into a rather unusual holiday let.
Decoy bunkers – seven are known to have been built in Wales – were part of a clever World War Two subterfuge introduced by the Ministry of Defence. Their purpose was to confuse German bomber pilots into bombing empty hillsides rather than important strategic locations and towns. On receiving word that the German planes were heading their way, the courageous men who manned the decoy bunker would light a string of fires to deceive the Luftwaffe into believing the field was their intended target, in this case it the real target was the Royal Ordnance factory at nearby Glascoed.
Right on cue, we heard a roar overhead and two low-flying aircraft were heading our way. In fact, they were flying so low I had to resist the urge to duck!
On the far side of the hill, we found ourselves walking in the blissful shade of The Forest, an apt if rather unimaginative name which Harri thinks was originally coined because there were no existing woodlands here when it was planted. At 15.5 kilometres, we finally encountered our first fellow walker of the day.
The final stages of our route would take us through the pretty village of Llandegfedd where there was a (slight) possibility we might be able to get a beer. The village is frequently confused with nearby Coed-y-Paen because the latter is actually closer to the very popular Llandegfedd Reservoir. Harri was right not to get too enthusiastic about the prospect of a pint. Commendably, and unlike many pubs in rural Wales, The Farmers Arms is generally open for business on weekday lunchtimes. There’s just one day when the pub remains closed all day … yep, you’ve guessed it… it’s a Tuesday.
Fortunately, there were no more big hills to climb; however, as the lanes rose and dipped relentlessly, we were starting to feel decidedly weary. There was a brief reprieve from the hot sun when our route took us through a wonderfully sunken lane. Here, the narrow, stony footpath plunged several metres below the surrounding land, giving us the sense that we’d entered a strange underworld. As the dappled light faded, we found ourselves gazing up at moss-covered banks and gnarled, exposed tree roots. The sound of a tractor passing in the field above belonged to a different world entirely.
A short bridge with decidedly wobbly rails carried us across the Candwr and back into Torfaen where we joined a level track between the railway line and the Afon Llwyd for the final stretch of our hike.