Black Mountains Backpacking Weekend
4th & 5th September 2010
Day One: 10.4 miles / 2237’ ascent / 862’ descent / 5 hrs 30 mins
Day Two: 10.2 miles / 1200’ ascent / 2362’ descent / 5 hrs 30 mins
This was a trip to introduce my friend Sue to the joys of wild camping so we set off from Hampshire after breakfast on Saturday morning and arrived in Llanthony in the Vale of Ewyas by lunchtime. It was surprisingly busy and we were lucky to find a space in the car park at Llanthony Priory (http://www.castlewales.com/llantho.html ), where we ate our lunch at the picnic tables provided. We also shared out the camping equipment – and were amazed to discover that our sacs weighed exactly the same – 12kgs each including food and water!
From Llanthony we climbed up the path to Bal Bach in hot and humid conditions along a narrow path lined with tall fronds of bracken, which threatened to trip us up, then we followed the ridge north over Bal Mawr, Chwarel y Fan, Twyn Talycefn and out to the trig point at Rhos Dirion. The weather was deteriorating and everywhere was shrouded in a silvery grey haze that leached the colour from the landscape and distorted perspective. What should have been a stunning view across to Hay-on-Wye and the Welsh Marches was absorbed and blotted out by the heavy grey light.
Undaunted we descended to the col below Lord Hereford’s Knob, turning down the bridleway towards Capel-y-Ffin, hoping to find a sheltered wild pitch. The valley was becoming deep and steep sided – I prefer more open sites – and then, less than half a mile from the col we looked into the cleft and saw two men preparing to camp! Thirty yards further down was a tent already erected and fifty yards beyond that was a couple searching for a site! When we raised our eyes we could see yet another couple carrying big packs on the fellside above us! I recalled that I had read about wild camping in this area in a recent Trail Magazine (http://www.livefortheoutdoors.com/Our-walking-and-climbing-magazines/Trail-Magazine/ ) and assumed that such exposure accounted for the crowds. It was time to re-think our plans.
Re-tracing our steps up the valley we returned to the col and took a contouring path that led back towards Twyn Talycefn with the intention of dropping down into the next valley in search of solitude. However, as we climbed it became clear that we were close to a tributary, Nant Uchaf, which looked promising in its upper reaches. We scrambled through tussocks of grass & heather to reach the tiny beck and discovered, to our delight, the perfect camping spot. It was a patch of level sheep cropped turf beside a tiny rill of fresh clear water, enclosed by gentle slopes and protected from the wind but open enough to not feel claustrophobic. It was also deserted!
By now it was close to 7pm so we quickly erected the tent – my new and increasingly trusty Terra Nova Solar 2.2 – before setting up the Pocket Rocket gas stove to boil water for our freeze dried dinners & lighting the Bush Buddy woodburner for much needed cups of tea & coffee. Before long we were leaning back on our sit mats, supping a brew & ladling carbohydrate into our mouths. The extra treats of a whisky aperitif & small glass of wine made this the perfect restaurant.
The season meant that darkness fell early and we were soon tucked up snugly in the tent. Later the skies cleared and we opened the doors for a view of the stars before falling asleep.
It rained intermittently during the night but was not cold. By morning it was dry so we rose just after 7am and packed the tent before breakfast. We had carried in milk so our porridge & muesli was pleasant and the tea & coffee more than acceptable. However, the idyll was not to continue; as we finished packing the rain began. It didn’t seem heavy to begin with and we expected it to be brief, so didn’t put on all our clothing. We climbed back up to the path from our secluded and protected campsite – into thick mist and strong wind driving the increasingly heavy rain into the sides of our faces. Immediately we added more layers and strode out towards what we hoped was Lord Hereford’s Knob.
The weather did not abate and our legs were blown sideways by the strength of the wind, and the rain hit our hoods so hard it felt like hail. Once over the Knob we descended to Gospel Pass with its narrow road and put on yet more clothing. I was wearing almost all I had with me by now and I wasn’t hot on the ascent to Hay Bluff.
Once at Hay Bluff we turned south along Offa’s Dyke, into the full force of the wind. Sue’s hood wouldn’t stay on and was whipped away over her shoulder every time she tried. The mist was thick and swirled over the ridge, parting briefly when it encountered us, and heading off down to Hay-on-Wye. It did make the walk exciting and the conditions were much more interesting than the greyness of the day before. Tussocks of rushes appeared like boulders or were mistaken for people in the murk, and the wind and rain carved sculptures of turf topped peat were eerie in the fog.
We met a couple of walkers who turned out to be two Dutch men walking the Offa’s Dyke Path (http://www.offasdyke.demon.co.uk/ ). They had set out from Chepstow a few days earlier and this was their first bad weather. Shortly afterwards we were caught by Jeremy, also walking Offa’s Dyke but in the opposite direction. This was also his first taste of bad weather and he had been on the trail for over a week, having set off from Prestatyn in August. He was very enthusiastic about the trail and thoroughly recommended it. This was his second attempt; thirty years earlier he had set out with a friend from Chepstow and abandoned on the second or third day. He was carrying the same Karrimor Rucksack in Racing Green canvas and with a steel tubing external frame that he had used on his original attempt. It was a real ‘blast from the past’ – I had once had a very similar rucksack – in dayglo orange nylon – bought for my first visit to the Lakes in 1978. Fortunately his boots and waterproofs were modern or he could have been quite uncomfortable. He had been camping and was deeply impressed by the generosity of the people he had met along the way.
We walked with Jeremy until the path junction above Llanthony, where we parted company to descend to the valley. He and the two Dutch men were the only other people we had seen until now but as we emerged from the clouds we met a number of people climbing up, all asking us about the visibility. It grew rapidly warmer as we descended and we were hot by the time we reached the valley floor. We had looked forward to lunch in the tiny cafe (http://www.llanthonyprioryhotel.co.uk/ ) housed in the undercroft of the ruined abbey, and we were not disappointed. The food was tasty and filling; a fitting end to an excellent weekend.