Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wales tales

Church Stretton. So says a sign on a railway platform midway between somewhere in the Midlands and somewhere in Wales. It has very little relevance to my whole trip apart from the fact that this railway line I have never before taken has stopped briefly in a town that looks so cosily cosseted in the Shropshire Hills that I want to remember it. And perhaps come back and stop and walk atop its hills and meander back through its vales to refresh with a pint of cider in a beer garden of an old stone pub with whitewashed walls and hanging baskets and the noise of contented sheep bleating nearby.

Cwmbran is the station sign at which I disembark, situated in the South Wales valleys and a landscape not without its own hilly charm and abundance of bleating sheep. It can also lay claim to having a supermarket on every roundabout, one of which – Morrisons – is swiftly visited for a few day’s provisions vital for picnic lunches and delicious home-cooked dinners. With me, Dad and Aunty Val, taxi driver and cook, pivotal cogs as ever in creating a fine few days.

Where there are valleys there are hills and it didn’t take long to get amongst them. A drive through a warren of lanes led Dad and I to a spot below a big hill with a Welsh name. This is where I refer to Dad’s Facebook pictures and check what on earth it was called. Twm Balwm, which means top of hill to catapult sheep at English. A short but steep walk confirmed its prominent position for attacking folk, with hazy views over the South Wales coastline, across the Bristol Channel to Somerset and Devon, and north and east back in the direction from which I had come.

Amongst this landscape much water runs and – in places – runs to dramatic effect. The next day, in a corner of the fabulous Brecon Beacons National Park, we followed the course of the Afon Mellte as it made its way from underground to plunge over several rock ledges, each as unpronounceable as the next. Anything billed as the Four Waterfalls Walk is bound to be of appeal, and the falls of (wait for it...) Sgwd Clun-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr, and Sgwd yr Eira provided a showcase of white water spectacle.

From our approach at Glyn Porth the cascades increased in drama, culminating in Sgwd yr Eira, a curtain of water that has carved an overhang through which walkers can walk behind water. Sure Jesus, it’s not quite walking on water but it’s the next best thing. The sound of roaring water over your head, spray peppering clothes and camera lenses, slightly dubious slippy-looking rocks, and small dogs reluctantly getting in the way all add that exciting touch of adventure. And hopefully this adrenaline can just about get you back up the hill for a tasty sandwich and the onward march back to the car.

Considerably less exciting is a stop in a fishing shop in Pontypridd, but it wasn’t too long and Dad got a few birthday goodies so all was still well with the world! Nearby though there was more drama of the Winterfell kind, courtesy of a couple of hours in Caerphilly and its castle. This had everything a good castle should with moats and ramparts and crenulations and spiral staircases up lofty towers and banquet halls and dungeons and catapults. Parts had been restored and renovated, others remained ramshackle, which meant you could really get a sense of what it was like back when Welsh people were catapulting sheep at the English and devious plots of intermarriage and murder were being concocted over a feast of wild boar and spicy cheese on toast. 

No such scheming over dinner, though the roast pork was a welcome substitute for wild boar. Extra potatoes could be justified by the walking earlier in the day, but I think so much was eaten that another walk was to be encouraged the following day. Especially after a tasty slice of cake and a passable coffee in Abergavenny in the morning, prior to a different kind of sugar high.

A walk up to the Sugar Loaf involved some notable uphill drags, cutting across unruly bracken and withering woods, and striking out for the top. Up here, the slight sunniness of the valley in which we started was no more, with a windy, cool bleakness emerging with every step. The clouds were scraping the tops of the Brecon Beacons to the north, and only occasional hollows of pasture glowed with the rays of the sun. But this is high summer, and several other people were still in shorts atop the loaf.

Of course, the views were far-reaching and rewarding, but it was quite nice to have gravity on your side for a while as others battled up. Down steeply at first but then a gentle descent along a ridge and through an ancient wood, emerging out into some kind of civilisation with farmhouses and tractors and manure. Unfortunately on this circular walk the car was still a fair way around the corner and it suffered (as did we) from that final, unrelenting drag.

Still, it was something of an accomplishment with which to finish this short sojourn in South Wales. Well, not quite finish, for there was a rather large trifle to try and finish back at Aunty Val’s that evening. Already it seemed that much had been achieved off my bucket list – roast, trifle, upland walking, history, trips to Morrisons – in just a couple of days. Indeed, Wales offered a well concocted taste and teaser for the crème de la crème, the emergence into a blue sky Devon. I’m sure the main will be just as good as the starter.   

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