Several years ago, we made the mistake of heading to the Brecon Beacons on a bank holiday weekend (at the time, Harri was writing his popular Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons and we were so keen to research another route for the book that we clean overlooked the fact the area was likely to be busy). After searching ages for a parking space close enough to Pen y Fan to enable us to even step foot on the mountain the same day, we decided enough was enough. Nowadays, we’re content to let others endure the predictable bank holiday traffic/parking chaos and instead we opt for a ‘trip’ that doesn’t involve driving.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we closed our garden gate and set off along Pentre Tai Lane. Despite much cajoling from me, Harri had remained tight-lipped about today’s route and now I discovered the reason. When we first moved to Rhiwderin, I used to joke that all walks led to Mynydd Machen, a local hill which stands at 362 metres (1,188 ft) and has superb views of the surrounding area. The summit is roughly three miles from our house and Harri managed to incorporate that steep ascent in almost every walk we did, including one which started in Cardiff. Slowly, it dawned on me that the reason for today’s secrecy must be Mynydd Machen. Harri knew I was likely to protest – it’s SO steep – so he’d characteristically kept schtum about his plans.
He had actually walked this same 15-mile route weeks ago while I was at parkrun, and had enjoyed it so much he was more than happy to do it again with me. For a while we walked alongside the River Ebbw, along a densely wooded path we often run along, the trees being perfect for keeping us dry on rainy days and cool in hot weather. On this glorious May morning, it was a delight to be strolling along the sun-dappled level path admiring the bluebells and listening to birdsong. On the downside, the invasive Japanese Knotweed is already growing furiously along the riverbank, making me wonder if the attempts to eradicate it will ultimately be futile. It’s crazy that an ornamental garden plant that was brought to Britain and later ‘escaped’ is now collectively costing landowners (and private house owners) millions of pounds each year to manage. Moreover, the problem is growing worse as Japanese Knotweed spreads; we regularly spot its distinctive ‘pea shooter’ stalks growing alongside rivers and railway embankments.
Nowadays, the riverside path runs through a modern housing estate called Afon Village; however, the adjacent land was once industrial. Rogerstone Power Station was commissioned in the 1950s to strengthen the 66kV network in the Newport area. It was decommissioned in 1984 and was demolished in the summer of 1991 (watch spectacular footage of the demolition here). Neither of us was living in the area back then, although I do remember Afon Village being built (and I came close to buying a new-build house there until an estate agent friend told me the land was so contaminated you couldn’t even keep a pet rabbit in the garden!).
I was enjoying our unhurried stroll along the sun-dappled riverbank but I knew this easy stretch of walking would be short-lived – every route to Mynydd Machen’s summit must, by definition, involve considerable climbing. We passed some pretty stone cottages at Cwm y Nant, one a former chapel, and climbed steadily along a metalled lane, pausing every now and then to admire the views across the valley towards Twmbarlwm. The extensive felling of larch forests by Natural Resources Wales is very apparent, with great swathes of the mountainside stripped of their greenery and looking bare. Over 160,000 trees affected with a fungal disease (larch disease) are being felled at Cwmcarn and more still on the lower slopes of Mynydd Machen. It’s sad to see so much wilful destruction in what were some of our favourite local walking areas; however, Natural Resources Wales have said their action will slow down the spread of larch disease and provide them with ‘an opportunity to replace them with native broad-leaf woodland trees as well as more marketable timer varieties’. Let’s hope so.
Harri is passionate about old maps and historic footpaths and one of his regrets is that so many of the latter are being allowed to disappear. Although local authorities are obliged to keep records of all public rights of way – footpaths, bridleways and byways – and they must, by law, be kept open, free from obstruction and usable, the reality is very different. Not all landowners are aware that there is a footpath on their property, while others – farmers in particular – will go to great lengths to deter walkers from what is their legal right, i.e. following a footpath. We’ve encountered all sorts of obstacles and deterrents over the years, including the deliberate blocking of stiles, barbed wire, electric fencing, bulls, vicious dogs and even properties built across footpaths.
When we were ‘walking the Port‘ last summer, one dour-faced property owner near here insisted the footpath we were trying to follow ran through the field below her large home, despite the fact we’d have to circumnavigate an electric fence to use it. When Harri rechecked our route afterwards, he found that she’d misinformed us (either deliberately or inadvertently) and the footpath did indeed run through her garden and driveway as he’d suspected.
Gosh it was hot today. Barely eleven o’clock and the perspiration was dripping from my forehead. Here and there were the remains of old buildings, long engulfed by the woods. We clambered over several large boulders to take a look at an abandoned section of quarry (the mountain is still being quarried but on the other side) where recent heavy rainfall had transformed a level grassy area into a shallow lake.
Not so many years ago, it was possible to access a car park halfway up Mynydd Machen so that you only had to walk the final, steepest section. The car park is still there but the surface of the access road is now so potholed that it’s really only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles.
Unfortunately, the lack of road access does nothing to deter the off-road motor bikers who delight in reeking havoc on the mountain by whizzing up and down the footpaths in convoy. If our experience is anything to go by, it seems you can’t walk in the South Wales mountains now without having to dodge these illegal vehicles (none of them are licensed, presumably so their riders can’t be identified). Their puerile antics are rapidly destroying the footpaths, natural habitats and tranquillity of our lovely Welsh hills and no-one seems willing to stop them. On Mynydd Machen, the ‘footpaths’ leading to the summit from various directions are now several metres wide and deeply rutted as a result of continually being used as racing tracks.
Given the glorious weather – and the fact it was a bank holiday weekend – we were surprised to have the summit to ourselves (but then, everyone else was probably on Pen y Fan). Sadly, the heat haze meant the distant views weren’t great so we decided to wait until we reached Lower Machen for elevenses.
Harri was keen to show off a new route he’d discovered which skirted around the top of Machen Quarry and would take us from the lower slopes of the mountain into Lower Machen. After a little while, I started to recognise my surroundings and Harri confirmed that we had indeed joined a route from our ebook Castle walks around Newport and Cardiff. We were now in the Rhymney Valley and passing the sparse remains of Castell Meredydd, sometimes known as Castell Machen. The structure is the only native Welsh castle to have been built in Gwent, and is believed to have been raised by Morgan ap Hywel, lord of Gwynllŵg, after losing Caerleon to William Marshal in 1217. Sadly, there’s very little remaining of the original stonework, but the sweeping, adjacent field is absolutely delightful.
We stopped for elevenses on a bench in the churchyard at St Michael and All Angels. This was the local church of the Morgans of Machen, part of the great landowning Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House (the location of Newport’s first – and best – parkrun). Just down the road is Plas Machen, built in 1490 and the original family seat of the Morgans in Machen (Tredegar House was not built until around 1664 by Sir William Morgan after which the family worshipped at St Basil’s in Bassaleg).
Nearby Ruperra Castle (one of the first mock castles to be built in Wales) was for many years home to the heir of the Morgan estate, who would take up residency on becoming an adult. With the castle located on the other side of the Rhymney River, an iron bridge was built in 1826 and a carriageway linked Ruperra Castle with the family church.
Fourteen members of the Morgan family are buried inside this church; however, with our usual impeccable timing the vicar was just locking up the church as we rolled up. If you’re interested in seeing these tombs, the church opens its doors every Sunday afternoon from 2pm-5pm between April 27 to September 28 (inclusive). Maybe we’ll pop along ourselves one rainy Sunday, who knows?
It was such a lovely afternoon that we decided to stop for a pre-lunch drink at The Hollybush Inn in Draethen. Not surprisingly, it was bustling and the only bench we could find was in the shade. Undeterred, we perched on the sunniest side sipping our wonderful Addlestone’s cloud cider and admiring the lovely old properties here. Before long, we were joined by some members of a local Ramblers group who were also walking in the area.
It’s always hard to get going after a beer/cider stop and even more difficult when you’re required to head straight up a steep field. At the top, we entered Coed Ruperra, another local favourite woodland of ours and, on this May afternoon, teeming with bluebells and with the delicious aroma of wild garlic in the air. If I’d been hoping for some shade, I was disappointed. There’s been some felling in this vicinity too, and as the remaining trees aren’t yet in full leaf the hot sun was shining onto the woodland paths.
It’s impossible to visit Coed Ruperra and not follow the winding path to the Motte, an eighteenth century enclosure where there was once a summerhouse. Now, all that remains is the restored wall; however, the 360 degree views from this spot are well worth the short detour.
Despite the sunshine, it was a little bit exposed on the motte so we came down again and settled ourselves on a nearby bench for lunch. Afterwards, we meandered off the main footpath and followed quiet winding footpaths past coppices of bluebells interspersed with dandelions. Is it just me, or are the dandelions enormous this year?
Soon we were crossing the Rhymney again and walking around the perimeter of a field filled with bright yellow rape. At some point, we joined the Graig Diamond Jubilee Walk (which for some strange reason remains one of my most popular blogs ever) and eventually disappeared into Parkwood, one of Harri’s favourite running haunts.
I realised we must be getting close to home; however, once we start crisscrossing rivers and changing direction I tend to get a bit disorientated. Of course, Harri thought it was hilarious when he quizzed me about our current location and I ventured that we might be about to emerge from behind Bassaleg School (itself just a few hundred yards from St Basil’s Church). Moments later, I spotted some residential housing and realised we were much nearer Rhiwderin than that. In fact, within a few minutes of the conversation we were approaching a huge Rhiwderin signpost on the Newport-Caerphilly road. There really is no hope for me.
To follow our 21.45 km route, click here.
One last thing. Harri’s latest book has just been published. Day Walks on the Pembrokeshire Coast is available from Vertebrate for £11.96. There’s no denying that Pembrokeshire is one of the loveliest parts of Wales and we thoroughly enjoyed researching and walking the twenty routes that made the final book. Go on, treat yourself or why not treat someone you know who loves walking?